Wolf Kami – Oguchi-no-Makami (大口真神)
mist rising even
from the gray wolf’s
-Koboyashi Issa, 1823
Before I go any further here I want to take the time to clear something up. The Goddess (Kami) Amaterasu-O-Mikami (天照大神) is not and has not ever been associated with wolves. This was purely an ingenious play on words by Capcom. The kanji for Goddess (大神) can be read as Mikami or O-Kami both meaning ‘great deity’ (though Mikami usually refers to female deities) and the Japanese word for wolf (狼) just happens to sound very similar. It is read as Ookami. So, designers of the game decided to use this to create a clever connection that otherwise does not exist outside of the video game.
The Kami of the Wolves
Oguchi-no-Makami Sama (大口真神) is the Japanese Kami of wolves. His name literally translates as “Great Mouth (Open mouth) True God” and by looking at the grinning visages carved in stone you can see why he was called this. Today, he is worshiped in only a few places across Japan. The steady decline in his worship is most likely due to the extinction of the Japanese wolf and the steady loss of agrarian culture. The wolf was declared extinct in Japan sometime between 1900-1904. Before the arrival of Dutch missionaries in Dejima and the westernization of Japan that began in the late Edo period, the wolf was considered to be a friend of man and a messenger of the Yama-no-Kami (山の神). The Yama-no-Kami were, in actuality, several Kami grouped together and their worship revolved around the sacred and liminal space of the mountains and a reverence for nature and the natural order of things.
This being said, many people believe that the wolf is still alive and has simply gone into hiding as they are much smaller than other wolves weighing only around 15lbs fully grown. People claim to see wolves in the mountains or to hear them howling though no one has been able to catch one to prove their existence. Over time the Japanese wolf has become a cryptid with cryptozoologist traveling around Japan in search of this elusive creature.
There are three major shrines dedicated solely to Oguchi-Sama. There are probably others but, as this Kami is no longer widely worshipped in modern Japan, I could not find enough information on these shrines available online. The most famous shrines known of today would be Mistumine Jinja located in Saitama, Yamatsumi Jinja located in Fukushima, and Musashi-mitake Jinja located in Tokyo. All of these shrines are located in prime wolf territory – the mountains.
Cultural Note: If you look closely at the central torii of Shinto shrines you will notice a small gate in the center of the main arch. You will find this little gate at all major shrines. This isn’t to keep people out or to keep crowds from bustling through. It is actually used to keep people from walking directly through the middle of the gate as this is considered the path that the Kami take when visiting their shrines. Because of this, it is considered extremely rude to cross the Kami’s path and so the gate is put up to help prevent this.
Mistumine Jina is a lavishly decorated shrine. It is covered in bright paintings, hundreds of carved protective effigies and, of course, there are wolf statues that guard its grounds. This shrine is dedicated and protected by its wolf statues, as helpers of man they were thought to protect you from theft and fire. You would never find your home set on fire by foxes (specifically Kistune and their fox-fire) when a wolf was nearby as the fox was thought to be the natural enemy of the wolf. People still come here daily to pray for protection. They also come to see the shrine of Yamato Takeru, famous for being the owner of the treasure sword Kusanagi no Tsurugi, the grass-cutting sword. It was said to be so sharp and agile in its use that it could cut a single blade of grass.
In the village of Iitate in Fukushima, there is a little shrine dedicated to Oguchi-Sama. It was originally built during the height of the Heian Period (794-1185), a period known for its political intrigues, its romances, its woes, its internal struggles and denial of the world outside of their elaborate palaces. Much of what we know about the secretive Heian Period aristocrats is attributed to the Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, a Heian court lady.
Despite being located within the contamination zone of the Fukushima reactor disaster of 2011, it remained open to the public. However, in 2013 it burnt to the ground and 242 wooden paintings of wolves, many that were hundreds of years old, were completely destroyed. All that was left were photo images taken by tourists and worshipers. Then, in 2015 the shrine was rebuilt and its images carefully recreated from photographs by art students who volunteered their time and skills to do so. Even though this area of Fukushima is still considered taboo, they hope that these works of art will encourage people to return and take joy there once more as the Kami of wolves is also a bringer of prosperity and happiness.
At just over 1200 years old this shrine is magnificent to see. It is on the top of Mount Mitake, one of the main pilgrimages for Shugendō practitioners, and has a beautiful vista. It is not an easy journey. I have personally traversed Mitake-san as a Shugenja. It was a four-day journey on foot with only water to drink. We fasted during the entire trip and spent our nights in supplication and ascetic practice. Many of the rituals I learned to perform where learned on this pilgrimage. Musashi-mitake Jinga has several wolf statues on its grounds as well as a large central statue. This story involves the aforementioned Yamato Takeru. According to what I was told by our pilgrimage leader:
The famous Prince Yamato, Takeru was on one of his many journeys. He found himself in lands that he had never explored before and quickly became lost. He was cold and hungry and set about hunting for food. As he stumbled through the underbrush, the snow-covered trees singing above him, their branches laden with icicles, he began to grow desperate and yelled out in anguish, “Am I to die? Here? Alone and starved?!” As he angrily kicked and stomped at stone and rock and tree; a stag suddenly appeared. Prince Yamato quickly set his arrow to its bow and aimed to take the stag down, thinking this a gift from the Gods. But the arrow did not meet its mark. He tried again as the stag simply stood and stared at him, certainly it was destined to die by his bow. He missed again. In anger, he crashed after the stag and it led him further and further up the mountain until a thick fog of clouds blinded him. He stumbled around, desperate to find the stag as he was stubborn. When he almost lost hope again the stag appeared but now he could see that it was no normal stag, it was a yokai that had tricked him and as it transformed before his eyes a white wolf suddenly launched itself at the monster! Much blood was shed and many curses were said but finally, the wolf had won! Prince Yamato watched with wide-eyed wonder as the wolf approached him with gentle eyes that beseeched him to follow it. He followed the wolf back down the other side of the mountain, through the fog and snow. Many a moment he thought he had lost sight of his savior but the wolf would always turn back and wait patiently for Prince Yamato to catch up. When they finally made it down the mountain he found himself at a cottage. He turned around to thank his savior but the white wolf had gone; it left no tracks! He knocked on the cottage door and inside he found shelter and food with a local farmer and his wife. He regaled them with his tale and the two farmers looked at each other and smiled, for many a lost traveler had found their way to this cottage by the same white wolf. After hearing this, Prince Yamato declared the white wolf a Kami in disguise and vowed to build a shrine in its honor. And so, he did. After this, the new wolf kami traveled with Prince Yamato in spirit. It guided him towards great deeds.
Jaws of the Wolf
There is not much known about Oguchi himself other than that he was worshiped as the spiritual embodiment of the wolf. So rather than being a single ruler of wolves he was more likely viewed as being a representation of all wolves. By praying to Oguchi you were praying to all wolves in Japan, maybe even the world as the Japanese did not differentiate species or location. Oguchis’ gender is also in question as in some stories Oguchi is a female wolf and in others, Oguchi is a male. Either way, to the Japanese, a wolf is a wolf. This type of worship was especially important to the Japanese farmers and mountain folk whose livelihood relied on the outcomes of the harvest. Since wolves ate the deer, and especially the large aggressive boar, they were considered to be helpful animals. Unlike many other cultures, the wolf was viewed as a friend of man. A large group of boars could wipe out small village crops very easily, practically overnight, which made the cold wet winters hard to survive. Therefore, with this in mind, the wolf was invoked as the friend of man to come and take care of the boar. Where there were wolves the boar would quickly disappear. The Ainu (indigenous peoples of the Japanese islands) worshiped wolves as well and were known to take in wolf-cubs to raise as companions long before the domestic dog was introduced.
Women often came to give praise at the shrines of Oguchi as wolves were seen as the prime example of how to maintain a good family. They noticed early on that wolf mated for life, that they raised their pups together, and that they cared for them and protected them quite literally by tooth and claw. Single women would come and pray to meet a good husband and to have many healthy children with him.
Travelers would pray for guidance through the mountains and protection from the very real threats of bears, boars, and even the wolves themselves because they recognized that even though they were worthy of worship as messengers of the Kami; they were still wolves.
On top of protection peoples from thieves and fires, another ability attributed to wolves is the ability to see through disguises. If a yokai is masquerading as a human or other animals the wolf will easily call it out as its eyes can see through all fallacy, it was this ability that saved Prince Yamato. The same goes true for a human that is in disguise, or is a thief, or trying to pretend he or she is something they are not; the wolf will work to reveal their true forms and their true hearts.
White wolves were said to be especially sacred. They were said to be great protectors who would appear in times of need to guide people to safety and slay demons who would threaten to harm the innocent. The Musashi-mitake Jinja was said to be protected by such a creature thanks to the proclamation of Prince Yamato and a wooden panel painted with its image is installed in the shrine. It was painted in 1909. The Shirōkami are also said to have been judges of humans (much like the role the white wolf Moro played in the film Mononoke Hime), a quote directly from the shrine’s origin story goes like this:
Suddenly a white wolf appeared,
and led the army of God to the northwest.
He told me that I should exterminate all demons.
The Book of Yokai – Michael Foster and Shinonome Kijin
Japanese Folk Tales – Yanagita, Kunio