Sweet Dreams and Life Imitates Art

Hi blog.

This winter had been warmer than usual – ski resorts were having to resort to snow machines, ice smelt fishing areas remained closed due to lakes not freezing over, and golf courses unexpectedly found themselves open for business.

Then the cold came, bringing frost on the ground and on leaves, and freezing up my bike’s gear shifter.  Believe me, riding to work stuck in bottom gear is NOT fun.

My brain was equally stuck for ideas for new posts when inspiration struck.  Why not write about animals whose names were inspired by myth?

The two mythical creatures I want to look at both have their origins in China.

The first is the kirin (麒麟), which is the Japanese reading of the Chinese qilin.  Legends concerning this creature go back to antiquity – one was said to have appeared before the mother of Confucius –  and descriptions have changed over time.  They have been said to resemble deer but with a dragon-like head, horse-like hooves and a golden mane.  They have been depicted as either being hornless or having one, two or three horns (more like deer antlers than actual horns), with the single- and double-horned  versions being best-known in Japan.  Other attributes include not treading on living grass or eating anything that lives.

Kirin, from the Wakansansaizue.


Qilin/Kirin are sometimes known as Chinese unicorn, but there are very few similarities between the two animals.

In Japan, images of the kirin tend to be limited to Buddhist art or as carvings on shrine buildings.  In a previous post I mentioned kirin as guardians of the Yasaka Shrine.  

What appears to be a horned kirin at the Yasaka Shrine.

However, the best-known image is commercial – the logo of the Kirin Brewery Company on its fine, fine products.

The official Kirin beer logo kirin.

As a piece of trivia, the name Kirin appears as three katakana symbols hidden within the kirin logo (with the キ and リ in the mane and the ン in the tail) on the beer labels.

Where to find the hidden “kirin” on the label. This is great for showing off at drinking parties.

Before this turns into a beer commercial, let’s look at the real-life animal that takes its name from the mythological one.

In 1419, one Zheng He returned to the Ming court from a voyage to eastern Africa.  and presented the emperor with gifts of live animals including leopards, lions, zebras and giraffes.  The emperor particularly liked the giraffes, which were declared to be qilin.

A Ming attendant with the gift giraffe. This may or may not be the original 15th century artwork. Taken from Wikipedia.

The name filtered through China’s sphere of influence, including the Korean peninsula and Japan, although most modern Japanese use the katakana script when referring to the giraffe.

Curiously, the modern Chinese name for giraffe no longer reflects any connection to the mythological beast.


“Devour, O Baku ! devour the dream !”

Lafcadio Hearn

The second mythological creature also originates in China, but has made firm footing in the Japanese imagination.

Known as baku (獏)  in Japanese (very different from the Chinese “mo”), it has undergone a few transformations.

The animal was described as having the trunk of an elephant, the eyes of a rhinoceros, the body of a bear, the tail of an ox and the legs of a tiger.

Baku from the Wakansansaizue

In China the mo was said to prevent illness, and that a pillow made from the creature’s fur would prevent nightmares.  Following its transition into Japan, the baku became an animal that ate nightmares.  (Some are of the opinion that the baku was confused with a nightmare-devouring Chinese god read as “bakuki” in Japanese).

Baku by Hokusai.

There have been customs since then of placing a picture of a baku under one’s pillow to ensure pleasant dreams, or of having a baku-shaped pillow or having a picture of a baku on one’s pillow.  The treasure boat of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune sometimes has the character for baku written on the sail.

Baku makura, pillows depicting baku. From the Tokyo National Museum.

Carvings of baku can be seen at temples and shrines.  They could be mistaken for elephants with short trunks, except for their clawed feet.  Look for them on the corners of large shrines.

Look at the carving at the top right – notice the trunk and tusks? That is the baku.  At the Mitsumine Shrine.

Now, as for the real animal… it is the tapir!

Many modern Japanese are unaware that there is actually a difference between the mythological baku and the real tapir, and depict the former as the latter.

A bronze statue based on Shigeru Mizuki’s cartoon art. Taken from Wikipedia.

There are theories that Malayan tapirs may have existed in China in early times, along with elephants and Indian rhinoceroses.  One professor claims that a bronze statue of a Malayan tapir has been dug up at a Chinese archaeological site.  

Maybe the real animal is named after a mythological animal which was modelled on the real animal…


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2 Responses to Sweet Dreams and Life Imitates Art

  1. Olga Petko says:

    One can actually see the tapir in the first scroll illustration. And the malayan tapir babies are spotted too. The horned lion statue is komainu (狛犬) not a kirin though.

    • wildinjapan says:

      Thanks for the shout, Olga.
      There is little doubt in my mind that the tapir was the inspiration for the baku, even if the baku is sometimes depicted with claws.
      And as for the horned guardians at the Yasaka Shrine, well, I’m not sure exactly what they are.

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