Posted by: Loren Coleman on October 30th, 2008
Today’s guest blogger Brent Swancer, now living in Japan, shares with us his insights into the cryptid snake Tsuchinoko.
When people think of Japan, they often envision bustling cities and neon lights, industrialization and modernization, a place where every square inch is stuffed with skyscrapers and bullet trains. What many do not realize is that Japan is an intensely mountainous country, with most development occurring in the heavily populated coastal plains. There are vast swaths of remote terrain that is undeveloped and around 90 percent of the population occupies only around 10 percent of the land area. Could there be new species awaiting discovery deep in the mountain forests of this island nation?
One of the most well known of the Japanese cryptids is a type of snake known as the tsuchinoko, also known by a plethora of other regional names such as nozuchi or bachi-hebi (in Northern Honshu), tsuchi-hebi (in Osaka), and many others.
The cryptid Tsuchinoko is said to inhabit the deep, remote mountains of Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu islands as well as the Korean peninsula. The Tsuchinoko is reported to be around 2 to 3 feet in length, most commonly reported as being a mottled black or rust color, and with a bright orange belly in many cases. The scales are said to be large and prominent, the mouth resembles a grin, and horns or ears above the eyes are often mentioned.
Perhaps the most unique characteristic of the Tsuchinoko is its appearance, specifically the shape of the body, which is somewhat flat, bulging and rounded in the middle, and tapering off to a short tail. Some reports describe the body as being triangular in the middle rather than round. It is highly poisonous, with the ability to spit venom a considerable distance, yet is peaceful and more likely to flee than attack. Another odd trait worth mentioning is that they are reported to have a particular odor like that of chestnut tree flowers.
The Tsuchinoko has some peculiar ways of getting around. It is reported to move ahead in a straight line, spine undulating up and down as it goes rather than the side to side undulations seen in most other snakes.
The snake is also famous for making spectacular leaps of up to a few meters, often leaping along in one hop after another. Even more bizarre than this are some of the stories that describe the tsuchinoko putting its tail in it mouth and rolling along like a wheel, or even tumbling along end over end (see illustrations). They are also supposed to be good swimmers and very fond of water.
This snake supposedly has an incredibly wide range of vocalizations. It has been said to make chirps, snores, grunts, groans, moans, squeaks, and to even mimic human voices. Old legends claim it could actually converse with people. In fact, the tsuchinoko was mostly portrayed in folklore as being harmless to humans (despite its poisonous nature) except for its great propensity for telling lies and trying to befuddle travelers. The only true way to keep them quiet was to ply them with alcohol, which legends say they have a great fondness for.
The Tsuchinoko has been present in Japanese folklore throughout reported history on the islands. Their likenesses have been found on pottery dating back to the very earliest civilization on the islands, and they are mentioned in the Kojiki (or Hurukotohumi), which dates from 712 and is the oldest known book in existence on ancient Japanese history. In modern days, the Tsuchinoko is a major fixture in pop culture, appearing in commercials, video games, and on a large range of merchandise ranging from Tsuchinoko-shaped candies to hot water bottles. Interestingly they are not presented as evil or scary as Westerners might portray a type of snake. On the contrary, they are almost always made out to be cute, cuddly, and friendly creatures.
So do they really exist or are they just folklore? Some seem to think so.
The Tsuchinoko has been sighted by a wide range of people right up to the present day, usually deep in the mountains far from civilization. In response to the persistent sightings, many areas in Japan have offered huge rewards for the capture of one. The town of Yoshii in Okayama famously offered 20 million yen for one. A place called Mikata, which has the highest concentration of sightings in all of Japan, holds an annual event to look for the snake in the surrounding wilderness but these expeditions have proved fruitless so far. In fact to date, there is a complete lack of any physical evidence at all.
There have been several cases of remains being brought forth but none of them turned out to be anything special. A Tsuchinoko specimen brought in by a mountain villager turned out to be a rat snake and another turned in by a group of loggers was found to be a common grass snake. Yet another case involves a tsuchinoko that was caught by a man who ended up deciding to eat it. Bizarrely, he reported that the snake had a double backbone. Several known hoaxes have been uncovered in recent years as well. Some think that the exorbitant rewards offered in some cases are nothing more than a publicity stunt since people come from all over Japan to participate.
Even so, the sightings continue. What could these eyewitnesses be seeing?
One very common argument is that the sightings are of known species of snakes that have just recently fed. This would give the snake that trademark bulging middle and I can see this as a rational explanation for the Tsuchinoko’s odd appearance. One problem I find with this is that the Tsuchinoko is reputedly able to leap several meters, which would be a very unlikely thing for a snake to be able do in the first place, let alone a gorged snake. In my opinion, none of the types of movement described are very realistic for a snake. The only way I could see the kind of jumping described as being possible is if we are dealing with some sort of gliding snake.
Another explanation often heard is that the reports are misidentifications of the blue tongued skink of the genus Tiliqua. These skinks are easy to keep as pets and are kept by some people in Japan, so it is argued that escaped specimens could be the culprits. This is an interesting hypothesis considering I’ve heard of a version of the Tsuchinoko reported in New Guinea of all places, which is also home to a distinct species of skink that is from the same genus as the blue tongued skink. That seems very intriguing, and the color is certainly right for the Tsuchinoko. The only problems I find with this idea is that the skinks tend to be smaller than the Tsuchinoko reports say and the skinks have legs.
Then there are the sounds the Tsuchinoko is said to make. Snakes aren’t exactly known for their vocalizations, least of all mimicking human voices. While it is true that snakes such as the gopher snake show an ability to produce a wide range of creative hisses, this is a far cry from what the Tsuchinoko is reportedly able to do. I tend to think that the sounds could be from other insect, birds, or other wildlife, and mistakenly attributed to the snake. It’s possible I suppose that under the right conditions a snake might evolve to have a certain capacity to make some of these sounds, I just find it very hard to believe that one would develop the kind of range supposedly displayed here.
If the Tsuchinoko is real, then it definitely seems possible that some of its traditional characteristics such as mimicking human voices and hoop rolling might be colored by folklore or exaggerated a bit. However, to me that still doesn’t rule out the possibility for new species of snake existing in Japan. A lot of known animals in Japan are shrouded in folklore and superstition so maybe a real animal lies at the heart of the stories of Tsuchinoko as well. If we are talking about a new species of snake, then I would say that based on some of the descriptions the most likely candidate is a new species of Viperdae (true vipers), or Crotalidae (pit vipers), specifically the Agkistrodon genus which includes cottonmouths and copperheads.