Baku (獏, Baku) are Japanese supernatural beings that devour dreams and nightmares. They have a long history in Japanese folklore and art, and more recently have appeared in Japanese anime and manga (see examples cited below).
The Japanese term baku has two current meanings, referring to both the traditional dream-devouring creature and to the zoological tapir (e.g., the Malayan Tapir). In recent years, there have been changes in how the baku is depicted.
Baku is also a Japanese name.
The baku is a strange holy beast that has the body of a bear, the head of an elephant, the eyes of a rhinoceros, the tail of an ox, and the legs of a tiger. Despite their monstrous appearance, baku are revered as powerful forces of good, and as one of the holy protectors of mankind.
Baku watch over humans and act as a guardian spirits. They feed on the dreams of humans – specifically bad dreams. Evil spirits and yokai fear baku and flee from them, avoiding areas inhabited by them. Therefore, health and good luck follow a baku wherever it goes.
The baku’s written name and image have been used as symbols of good luck in talismans and charms throughout Japanese history. In the old days it was even common to embroider the kanji for baku onto pillows in order to keep bad dreams, sickness, and evil spirits away. Fearsome baku images are commonly carved into the pillars above temple doors and on the columns supporting temple roofs. It is one of only a handful of holy creatures frequently honored in this manner.
The traditional Japanese nightmare-devouring baku originates in Chinese folklore and was familiar in Japan as early as the Muromachi period (14th-15th century). Hori Tadao has described the dream-eating abilities attributed to the traditional baku and relates them to other preventatives against nightmare such as amulets. Kaii-Yōkai Denshō Database, citing a 1957 paper, and Mizuki also describe the dream-devouring capacities of the traditional baku.
An early 17th-century Japanese manuscript, the Sankai Ibutsu (山海異物), describes the baku as a shy, Chinese mythical chimera with an elephant’s trunk, rhinoceros eyes, an ox tail, and tiger paws, which protected against pestilence and evil, although eating nightmares was not included among its abilities. However, in a 1791 Japanese wood-block illustration, a specifically dream-destroying baku is depicted with an elephant’s head, tusks, and trunk, with horns and tiger’s claws. The elephant’s head, trunk, and tusks are characteristic of baku portrayed in classical era (pre-Meiji) Japanese wood-block prints (see illustration) and in shrine, temple, and netsuke carvings. Writing in the Meiji era, Lafcadio Hearn (1902) described a baku with very similar attributes that was also able to devour nightmares.
Legend has it that when the world was new and the gods were making the animals, the baku was put together from the leftover bits and pieces at the end of creation. That is why it has such a bizarre appearance, and why it is considered a favorite of the gods.
Today, the Japanese word baku also refers to the tapir. The animal was named after its uncanny resemblance to this holy chimerical beast.