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Jinmenken: The Human-Faced Dogs of Japan

Posted by: mystery_man on March 18th, 2011

Jinmenken- The human-faced dogs of Japan.

By Brent Swancer

Japan is home to a great many strange folkloric creatures as well as cryptids, and it is often difficult to ascertain just where myth ends and a possible real creature begins. The folklore of Japan brims with fantastical creatures wielding magical powers, and known species are not exempt from this.

Like in many societies with rich folkloric traditions, even known Japanese animals have long been attributed as having magical powers and abilities, further smudging the line between what is real and what is pure myth. After all, there are many known animals such as the wolf, the fox, the badger, and the crow, which are so bestowed with supernatural abilities by the folklore surrounding them that one might take them to be mythical if one didn’t know they actually existed.

In some cases, we can have a creature which on the face of it may seem to be obviously a purely mythical construct, yet still remain persistently sighted to the point that it seems worthy of investigating further. The human-faced dogs of Japan are one such case.

Human-faced dogs, known to the Japanese as Jinmenken, have been persistent in the local folklore of Japan since at least the Edo era (1603 to 1868). They are described as looking like a somewhat mangy mutt from afar, however revealing a strikingly human like face upon closer inspection. The Jinmenken are said to have the ability to speak, and if approached will often implore with a willowy voice “Leave me alone.” The human-faced dogs were usually thought of as being a bad omen of things to come, and were often blamed for accidents and disasters.

Throughout the Edo era, these human-faced dogs were often seen by locals, almost always at night, to the point that they were occasionally featured in news publications of the time. There is even mention of at least one being captured.

In the 19th century, historian Ishizuka Hokaishi wrote a book called Gaidan Bunbun Shuyo, in which is mentioned a case of a captured Jinmenken. The story goes that one of these human-faced dogs was born in old Edo (modern day Tokyo) in 1810. A carnival owner heard news of this birth and quickly acquired the bizarre creature for exhibition in his carnival sideshow, where it became a very popular attraction. Such sideshows, known as misemono, were all the rage at the time and were often used to showcase the strange and bizarre.


Jinmenken on display

Stories of dogs with human faces and heads all seem as though they must surely be pure myth, however sightings of Jinmenken continue right into the present day. The late 1980s and early 1990s in particular saw a spike in the amount of sightings reports. In most reports, the witnesses describe how they thought the animal to be a dog at first, only to be startled upon noticing the human head or face. Many sightings are made while taking out the trash while the creatures are rooting through the garbage, and all have occurred at night.

While most of these reports are confined to suburban or rural areas, this is not always the case. There have been sightings in urban areas and near high rise apartment complexes as well as in the trash bins behind restaurants in well populated areas. One famous Jinmenken which was purportedly sighted on a regular basis in the 1980s resided in the dark alleyways of Tokyo’s Shibuya district, one of the most crowded and bustling areas in the city.

In addition to these reports are the stories of Jinmenken chasing cars. Eyewitness accounts tell of human-faced dogs pacing or outright chasing cars on darkened highways. The creatures are said to be fast, capable of reaching speeds of up to 100 kilometers per hour (60mph), and are often reported as making screeching or screaming noises.

What do we make of these reports? As detached from reality as the notion of human-faced dogs may seem, theories abound as to what could be behind the sightings and stories. These theories run the gamut from somewhat plausible to the downright absurd.

Among the more far out ideas are that the Jinmenken are the spirits of traffic accident victims or dogs possessed by evil spirits. Others say that they are the result of secret biological experiments performed in labs. It has even been suggested that these human-faced dogs are the Chupacabras in Japan.

While these ideas are entertaining to consider, what of the more plausible possibilities? Could the Jinmenken have a real world, zoological explanation?

A good candidate for the stories of human-faced dogs in Japan may be found in Japanese macaques. These primates are found all over Japan and in many ways they could resemble a dog under less than favorable sighting conditions, such as at night when most sightings occur. They have faces that could be seen as human-like, and make a wide range of vocalizations which may be misconstrued as speech.

Japanese macaques are also not confined to wilderness areas. In many locales, these monkeys are extremely bold in venturing into suburban areas where they roam about and raid garbage bins, one hallmark of many Jinmenken sightings. Could someone not familiar with seeing macaques mistake one for a human-faced dog under the right conditions?


Japanese macaque

If Jinmenken sightings are not of macaques, then perhaps they may be of another primate species. During the Edo period in particular, the misemono sideshow craze was in full swing. These shows were more often than not a sort of cabinet of curiosities, often displaying rare and bizarre animal specimens from far-away lands. All manners of animals, both dead and alive, were exhibited for the morbid curiosity of paying customers who had never seen such creatures. Among these animals on display were various types of primates, from baboons to marmosets. One report of a gibbon displayed at such a show is described thus:

“In the winter of the sixth year of the Bunko era (1809), a gibbon was shown in Osaka, in the Dōtombori ward. Although we have heard the word “gibbon” since olden times, and seen pictures of him, we never had seen a live specimen, and therefore a large crowd assembled to see this gibbon. Generally he resembled a large macaque, and figure and fur are very similar. The face is black, the fur grey with a touch of brown. The Hollander “Captain” Hendrik Doeff who was then staying here said that this gibbon occurs on the island of Java where it is called “wau-wau”. Truly an extraordinary sight!”

It seems “Wau-wau” refers in Indonesia to the species Hylobates Moloch; and the specimen was most likely brought to Japan on a Dutch ship. At the time, the Dutch had strong ties with Japan and were responsible for the importation of the most exotic species.

With so many exotic animals on display at these sideshows, it seems that at least a few are bound to have escaped and may be behind sightings of Jinmenken.

Such exotic primates are described in other sources as well. 19th century Japanese physician and biologist Kensuke Itō was well known for his exhaustive works on the animals of Japan, which were accompanied by extremely detailed illustrations. Mixed in with the known Japanese animals were often illustrations of exotic or downright bizarre creatures, and there can be found in these works pictures of primates not found naturally in the wilds of Japan.

In the case of Jinmenken, perhaps it is not Japanese macaques, but rather some other exotic species of primate behind the stories. Considering that the Edo era marked the beginning of widespread belief in human-faced dogs and was incidentally the heyday of misemono sideshows, this does not seem like a completely far-fetched possibility as an explanation for the origins of the Jinmenken stories.

The tendency of Japanese to prize human features in animals may also have helped to popularize the idea of human-faced dogs. There are many instances of this in Japan and one need only look at the real efforts to breed carp with human faces or the prevalence of human faced animals in Japanese folklore to see this trend. There is also the Heike crab, a type of crab prized and revered for a pattern that appears to be the face of a samurai on the shell. Carl Sagan once mused that these crabs were the product of artificial selection, with fishermen throwing back the ones with the most human-like faces out of respect.


Human-faced carp


Heike crab

The importance placed on human like characteristics in animals in Japan seems like it very well could have played a role in perpetuating stories of human-faced dogs.

Whatever the Jinmenken are or were, it seems worth investigating the possibilities when considering the often blurry borders between reality and myth. Perhaps there is an honest answer to be found to these enigmas somewhere in that shadowland between fantasy and reality; between what we know and what we think we know.

About mystery_man


2 Responses to “Jinmenken: The Human-Faced Dogs of Japan”

  1. dogu4 responds:

    Some remarkable stories, and so many parallels to stories here in the US, in particular the notions of escaped exotics.

    The subject brings to mind a number of pieces of Japanese art work both in painting and in carving that portray robed human figures, carrying walking staffs and lanterns, with the faces of foxes peering from beneath the robe’s hood.

    Thanks for these.

  2. PhotoExpert responds:

    A very informative post and a pleasure to read!



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