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Inugami: The Terribly Tortured Japanese Dog Spirit

Shintoism and Japanese culture as a whole are abundant with fascinating gods (kami), spirits (yokai), ghosts (yūrei), and other mythical beings. One of the more famous, confusing, and outright terrifying of them is the inugami – the tortured yet faithful dog-like creature.

What is an Inugami?

Inugami from the Hyakkai Zukan by Sawaki Suushi. PD.

Inugami is easy to mistake for a traditional Shinto type of yokai spirit. Unlike the yokai who are generally natural beings found in the wild, the inugami is rather mysterious and near-demonic man-made creations.

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These beings look like regular dogs with fancy clothes and robes wrapped all around their “bodies” but the reality is much more disturbing – the inugami is the severed and artificially preserved undead heads of dogs, with their spirits holding their robes together. In other words, they’re live dog heads that have no bodies. If all this sounds horrific, wait until we tell you how this spirit is created.

Despite their ghastly appearance and creation, the inugami is actually benevolent house spirits. Like ordinary dogs, they are faithful to their owner or family and they do everything that’s asked of them. Or, at least most of the time – there are exceptions.

The Horrible Way Inugami Were Created

Unfortunately, the inugami isn’t just deceased dogs that continue to serve their families after death. While they are dead dogs, that’s not all they are. Instead, the inugami is the spirit of dogs murdered in a rather gruesome manner. Here’s what some Japanese families supposedly did to create the inugami.

First, they starved a dog to death. They didn’t do that by just depriving a canine of food. Instead, they chained the dog in front of a bowl of food. Alternatively, the dog was also sometimes buried neck-deep with just the head sticking out of the dirt, right next to a bowl of food. Either way, the purpose was to not just starve the dog but bring it to the point of complete desperation and absolute rage.

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Once the dog was mad with hunger and rage, the people performing the ritual would decapitate it. The body of the dog was then disposed of, as it wasn’t of any use – it’s the head that mattered.

The severed head was to be buried immediately in a specific location, like an active road or crossroads. This was important as the more active the road was and the more people stepped over the decapitated head, the angrier the dog’s spirit would become. After a certain amount of time (generally undetermined, it depended on the legend) the head was to be dug out. It should also be mentioned that in some myths, when the decapitated heads weren’t buried deep enough, they would sometimes crawl out of the dirt and start flying around, tormenting people. In such cases, these creatures weren’t inugami, as the ritual hadn’t been complete.

Once the head was dug out, it was to be preserved with a mummification ritual. The dog’s head was either baked or dried and was then enshrined in a bowl.

And that’s about it.

The exact performance of the ritual required a masterful sorcerer, so very few families in Japan were able to get an inugami out of a dog. Usually, these were either the wealthy or aristocratic families, who were called inugami-mochi. When an inugami-mochi family was able to get one inugami, they were usually able to acquire more, often enough for every person in the family to have their own inugami familiar.

How Old Is the Inugami Myth?

While all the above is the rough origin of each individual inugami, the origin of the myth as a whole is quite old. By most estimates, the inugami myth reached the height of its popularity in the Heian period of Japan, around the 10-11th century AD. By that time inugami spirits were officially prohibited by law, despite not being actually real. Therefore, it’s assumed that the myth predates even the Heian period but it’s unknown exactly how old it is.

The existence of Inugami falls into the realm of mythology and folklore, and there’s no scientific or empirical evidence that Inugami existed in the way they’re described in these tales. But the belief in Inugami and similar spirits has had real-world consequences. For instance, during the Edo period, people accused of being Inugami-mochi (those who were said to control Inugami) were persecuted similarly to supposed witches in Europe (more on this later).

Were the Inugami Good or Evil?

inugami by azany
A modern depiction of an Inugami. Source.

Despite their horrendous creation process, the inugami familiars were usually benevolent and worked very hard to please their owners and to serve them as best as possible, much like the elves in Harry Potter. Presumably, it’s the pre-mortem torture that literally broke the dogs’ spirits and made them obedient servants.

Most of the time, inugami-mochi families tasked their inugami familiars with mundane everyday tasks that a human servant would do. They also usually treated their inugami like members of the family, as you would a normal dog. The only major difference was that inugami-mochi families had to keep their servants a secret from society as they were considered illegal and immoral.

From time to time, however, an inugami could turn against their family and start causing trouble. More often than not, this was due to the family mistreating their inugami even after its torturous creation. The inugami were very obedient and – just like real dogs – could forgive and forget a certain amount of abuse but would eventually rebel and turn against their aggressive inugami-mochi family

Inugami-tsuki Possession

One of the main supernatural abilities of inugami spirits was inugami-tsuki or possession. Like many other yokai spirits such as the kitsune foxes, the inugami could enter a person’s body and possess them for a time, sometimes indefinitely. The inugami would do that by entering through the victim’s ears and residing in their internal organs.

Usually, the inugami would do that in accordance with its master’s orders. They could possess a neighbor or anyone else the family needed them to possess. Sometimes, however, when an inugami rebelled against a master that mistreated it, it could possess the abuser in an act of revenge.

This myth was often used to explain episodes of temporary, permanent, or even lifelong mental conditions and disorders. People around were often quick to speculate that the person must have had a secret inugami spirit and that they likely tormented it to the point of it rebelling and possessing a family member, especially if they were to happen to a wealthy and aristocratic family,

The Crime of Creating an Inugami

To make matters worse, a family suspected to be inugami-mochi or owners of an inugami familiar were usually punished with banishment from society. All this made having a family member with a mental disorder quite risky for the entire family, but it was also risky to just be suspected of having an inugami.

Rich people were often said to have hidden their inugami spirits in their locked closets or under the floorboards. There were cases of angry mobs storming a family’s house on the suspicion of them owning an inugami and trashing the place in search of a severed dog’s head.

In many cases, it wasn’t even necessary for an actual inugami to be found – convenient, given that they don’t really exist. Instead, simple circumstantial evidence such as a dead dog in the backyard or a conveniently planted dog’s head was enough for an entire family to be banished from their town or village.

To make matters worse, the banishment of an inugami-mochi family also extended to their descendants, meaning that even their children and grandchildren couldn’t return to society. This was somewhat justified by the belief that the art of raising an inugami was passed on as a secret art within the family.

Inugami vs. Kitsune

Japanese fox Kitsune fox Fire fox
A Japanese Kitsune. Source.

The inugami familiars are also an interesting counter-point to the kitsune yokai spirits. While the former are artificially created demon-like familiars, the latter are natural yokai spirits, roaming the wild and usually serving the revered Inari kami. While the inugami were undead dog spirits, the kitsune were centuries-old and multi-tailed living fox spirits.

The two are closely linked by the fact that inugami spirits acted as a deterrent against kitsune yokai. For better or for worse, areas with inugami familiars would be devoid of any kitsune yokai. This was sometimes welcomed by the people as the kitsune could be quite mischievous but it was also often feared as the inugami were unnatural and unlawful.

Realistically, the basis of this mythic showdown was likely the fact that big and wealthy cities with lots of dogs were simply avoided by foxes. Over time, however, this banal reality was supplemented by the exciting myth of unnatural undead dogs chasing away supernatural fox spirits.

Symbolism of Inugami

The inugami familiars were beings with very mixed symbolism and meaning. On the one hand, they were creations of pure, selfish evil. Their masters had to torture and mercilessly murder dogs to create these twisted beings. And the end result was very powerful beings who could fly around, possess people, and force them to do their master’s bidding. They could even sometimes rebel against their families and cause a great deal of havoc.

So, it could be said that the inugami symbolizes the evil of humans messing with nature and causing trouble by dabbling in dark magic.

On the other hand, the inugami were also faithful and caring servants to their families. They were often loved, cherished, and cared for like ordinary dogs, and they could stay with their families for decades and even more. This implies a much more heart-warming symbolism, one of loyalty, love, and care.

Importance of Inugami in Modern Culture

Nura Rise of the Yokai Clan book
Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan. Source.

The inugami myth is alive and well in Japan to this day, although most people don’t take it seriously. It’s been prominent enough to make it into modern Japanese culture, including several manga and anime series such as Megami Tensei, Yo-kai Watch, Inuyasha, Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan, Gin Tama, Engaged to the Unidentified, and others. A sort of inugami also appears in the American TV fantasy police drama Grimm.

Wrapping Up

The Inugami are among the most fearful, pathetic, and terrible of mythical Japanese beings, they symbolize the lengths humans will go to achieve their selfish and greedy ends. The horrible ways in which they were created are the stuff of nightmares, and they remain embedded in Japanese culture as material for frightening tales.

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Yordan Zhelyazkov
Yordan Zhelyazkov

Yordan Zhelyazkov is a published fantasy author and an experienced copywriter. While he has degrees in both Creative Writing and Marketing, much of his research and work are focused on history and mythology. He’s been working in the field for years and has amassed a great deal of knowledge on Norse, Greek, Egyptian, Mesoamerican, Japanese mythology, and others.