Archeologists say that Japan's tigers died out eons before recorded history. But what if I told you that's not quite true? . I am a storyteller by trade. Scientific articles are not the norm for me. But I will do my best to stick to the facts and not meander into extraneous tales.
Truth Beyond Contradicting Science ReportsIf you do an internet search for tigers in Japan, you'll find conflicting information. Some sources say Japan never had tigers, likely because the islands split from the Asian continent before the animals existed. Thus, any art and tales about tigers are from ones that were imported from China or Korea. Others suggest pelts from the continent and house cats were used as models.1&2 Other sources say there are fossils of a smaller breed "due to the environmental amount of space they had and the types of prey they had to consume during those time periods".3&4 But dear reader, one only need dig into the legends and the art itself, and (if you are fortunate) find the right contact to discover the truth.
AppearanceAs with its continental cousins, the tora is a large, muscular cat, usually orange with black stripes and white facial and under body areas. Though, like their ancestor Byakko (see sidebar), white tigers appear in rare instances. Tiger families consider themselves blessed when this happens. They are smaller than other tigers, but they may change size or shapeshift if the occasion demands. In tora, there is no noticeable size difference between the sexes. Tora also have a flatter face than mortal tigers. While I have often found much truth in folklore, the idea that male tora have stripes and females have spots isn't true. Those cats are a different species, which I can cover in another issue.
Peculiar Eyes and Clearing Up MisconceptionsTora have slit shaped pupils, often more so than their mortal cousins. The slit contracts as needed to allow more or less light into the eye and express the tiger's emotions. Critics point to the slitted pupils in many Japanese paintings, saying that house cats were the models instead of actual tigers because house cats have slitted eyes and tigers don't. But, a regular tiger's pupils can be slitted. Note the images below, cropped down to focus on the eye. (Click on the links below the pictures to visit the source images with full tiger faces) Also, remember we are talking about a yokai tiger species. So there will be differences between the mortal tigers the human world is used to seeing and the immortal ones. Do all kitsune look exactly like their mortal fox kin? No, most have multiple tails—a warning to humankind that they are dealing with a powerful spirit.
Extinction?Not quite. It was difficult for humans to differentiate between yokai and mortal tigers, especially when the tora went to save their mainland cousins. Every warlord wanted a tiger pelt rug to show off his hunting prowess. So humans killed both the tora and mortal tigers for their beautiful coats. The only real way to tell the difference between tiger types is by looking at the eyes or to witness the tora performing magic. (All yokai are ki users.) Either way, for a human to tell the difference they have to be entirely too close for the tora's comfort (and likely the human's). Those that remain have sheltered in the spirit realm, hidden away from the humans that hunted them nearly to extinction. They do not emerge into the human realm any more. How do I know this? I accidentally wandered into the spirit realm while visiting Hokkaido and encountered one. But she did not give permission to share her name or any other personal details.
Excerpt from Proceedings of the Nonogawa River Valley Historic SocietyWritten by Shitani Daisuke from issue 171, focusing on connections to the Island of Hokkaido.
History and Myth IntertwinedJapan's history is deeply connected with folklore and myth. For example, the display of the national treasure "Oni Kiri" sword housed at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. If you are fortunate enough to see it on the rare day it's put out for public display, you'll see mentions of the oni Ibaraki Douji.
Panthera tigris japonica, sometimes called Panthera tigris acutidens2