Inugami of Japan

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Man's best friend.

At least, that's a phrase used to describe them, a phrase that goes back to at least Prussia in the mid-1700s with Frederick the Great. Every culture around the world has its unique perspective on domesticated animals, and nearly everyone is likely to have encountered a dog at some point in their lives. Dogs live on every continent except Antarctica, and recent estimates put their total population at around 1 billion.

Why am I spouting off seemingly random facts about dogs? You should know the facts about their numbers and spread because some of them you've encountered (or will in the future) may be more than they first appear—possibly a Japanese "inugami"—and you'll never know because they are intentionally trying to blend in as "normal" dogs.

Did You Know?

A dog barking is often written in English as "woof"—in fact, that's the most common spelling for it, especially for large dogs. There are other onomatopoeia spellings, and these likely conjure images of different types of dogs: arf! ruff! Bow-wow! Yap! Yip!

But in Japan, dogs speak Japanese (obviously) and don't say "woof." The sound of Japanese dogs is "wan-wan" (🇯🇵 spelled as ワンワン in 日本語). It makes you wonder, though, if a Japanese dog is in England or America, does it bark with a "woof" or a "wan-wan" sound? 🤔

Listen to native English and Japanese speakers and compare for yourself: woof vs. wan-wan.

Inugami Spelling, Pronunciation, & Meaning

As always, with language, it's essential to know how to pronounce a word because it makes it a hell of a lot easier to remember. Just think of all those books with character names like Gratmogthurggrim or C'thalcf'ar'lyglui or Rianthalmothresva. I bet you already don't remember any of those names, and you won't remember even one of those three I just threw at you as soon as you can no longer see them.

Go ahead, give it a try. Take a second look at C'hunkikh'an'lingdeo, then look away from the screen and try to write that name on a piece of paper without looking back. (If you actually managed that, please record yourself pronouncing these names so I can put it up for everyone to hear.)

The same theory applies here to the word "inugami." It's much easier to burn into your brain if you know how to say it.

First, listen to a native Japanese speaker say the word 犬神. That recording only exists because someone in Japan filled my request at Forvo for this specific word. Thanks, dzdzbymmc7! (You'll have to record yourself saying your username for me...)

For anyone who doesn't want to or can't listen to that, here's a non-IPA rough approximation: e (as in she) + nu (as in noodle) + ga + me (as in me, myself, and I). Altogether: e+nu+ga+me. By the way, I speak Japanese, so if you do too, then just keep in mind that I'm only trying to provide a rough approximation without getting into the finer points of syllable length, intonation, or diphthongs.

For those interested in Japanese alphabets:

い = i

ぬ = nu

が = ga

み = mi

Written as 犬神 in kanji. The first character 犬「いぬ」means dog, and the second character 神「かみ」means spirit/god.

And now you know a Japanese word. 🐶 やった!

What Is an Inugami?

Based on the kanji 犬神, you might have already guessed that inugami are something like dog spirits, and you'd be right. Kanji is awesome like that most of the time.

1737 illustration of inugami showing a dog wrapped in a robe.
"Inugami" from the Hyakkai Zukan by Sawaki Suushi from 1737.
The More You Know🌈🌠
Combining kanji to make totally meaningful words!

電話機 electricity talk machine = telephone
針鼠 needle mouse = hedgehog
地下鉄 earth below iron = subway
鼻歌 nose song = humming
縞馬 stripe horse = zebra

And, of course...
素敵 naked enemy = wonderful

Inugami are similar to the Western concept of a familiar spirit, and they look exactly like ordinary dogs, so they can blend in without anyone noticing. However, their true form is that of a desiccated dog's head that's kept hidden in a secret shrine in the owner's house.

The inugami, much like normal dogs, are loyal to and serve their masters. Sometimes they serve a single master, and sometimes an entire family. They can perform tasks for their masters and are passed down along the family generations, similar to a family heirloom. The inugami remain loyal forever unless they're mistreated. Inugami are said to bring wealth and prosperity into a family.

That's not horrible at all. So, why am I writing about it?

They can possess humans like you by entering through your ear and settling into your internal organs. If you're possessed by an inugami, your symptoms may include pain in the extremities, chest pain, feelings of jealousy, intense hunger that cannot be satiated, claw and bite marks all over your body, spontaneous barking, and death.

Around 1,000 years ago, during the Heian period in Japan, the creation of inugami was outlawed. Before digging deeper into the inugami, let's pause here for a...

🛑 Content Warning: Animal abuse. Do not continue unless you are comfortable reading about animal abuse.

A pug dog holding up a warning sign and a stop sign.
You have been warned.

Digging Deeper Into the Inugami

Inugami don't pop into existence from nowhere, and they don't procreate. They are made by humans. It's a brutal ritual involving live dogs—which is one of the primary reasons the practice was banned over 1,000 years ago. The practice of this type of dark sorcery was and still is frowned upon, but it still doesn't stop some people.

Some of the details are a bit fuzzy, and the origin of how the practice got started is unclear, but the method of creating an inugami goes like this: chain a dog up just out of reach of food or bury it up to its neck with food nearby until it goes berserk from hunger. At the height of its desperation for food, cut its head off. Take the severed head and bury it at a busy crossroads so that the thousands of people trampling on it cause added stress to the animal's spirit, which transforms it into an onryō (Japanese: 怨霊)—a vengeful spirit capable of affecting the world of the living. Now, dig up the head, bake or dry it and place it in a bowl. A skilled (and evil) sorcerer could then command the spirit and force it to become loyal to its new master forever.

Another variation on creating an inugami involves dog fights to the death, followed by tricking the winning dog into thinking you're going to give it fish to eat—and then you cut its head off before it can eat.

It should be apparent why the practice was outlawed. If you have a furry friend, be sure to give it extra head scratches and food, as I'm sure you're both thankful that these types of rituals are now illegal.

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