Sometimes emoji mean different things in different cultures. For example, in Japan, the two bunny ladies (👯) represents female servers at a hostess bar, but some American women use it to signify a “ladies night out.” Similarly, most Americans probably think nothing of the red-faced, phallic-nosed goblin mask emoji (👺), but Japanese people know the mask represents tengu, a folkloric type of goblin whose iconic masks have been used as sex toys in ancient and modern-day porn.
Some Twitter users have been recently fascinated by this fact, so we thought we’d explore its history a bit.
A quick history of tengu throughout Japanese culture
Although the Chinese characters for tengu (天狗) literally translate into “heavenly dog” (a reference to the Chinese literature from which they derive), Japanese tengu are actually disruptive demons or the ghosts of arrogant people. They’ve existed in Japanese literature since 720 A.D., though most of what we know about them comes from 11th to 18th century texts.
Japanese tengu take the form of human-bird hybrids with wings, long beaks (or noses) and talons. Sometimes they disguise themselves as Buddhist priests meant to lead believers astray; other times they beguile emperors of the royal family or just protect mountains, forests or temples.
The bigger tengu (daitengu) can actually control the wind using a magical fan, and they swordfight with remarkable skill, sometimes causing natural disasters or wars, true to their disruptive nature. Smaller tengu (kotengu) kidnap kids, lure people with images of the Buddha, occasionally start fires and eat people.
In contemporary Japanese pop culture, they pop up in anime, manga and games, often as fallen supernatural creatures endowed with transferrable magic powers. Japan even has a few festivals dedicated to protective tengu.
The mask and its presence in Japanese porn
While Japanese people are familiar, fewer people realize that the mask has popped up in Japanese pornographic art as early as the Edo period (above).
The long-nosed mask also popped up in the very queer 2010 Japanese film Kazoku Konpurîto (The Family Complete), a bizarre low-budget production about a predominantly male family whose grandfather, father and sons all look like young adults.
At one point the grandfather gets raped by the family cat (played by a man in a black cat costume), and at another point a female family member sodomizes the grandfather using a tengu mask as a strap-on dildo. The film played at the 2011 Outfest Film Festival in Los Angeles as a “twisted look at family dynamics and sexual obsession.”
Even now if you Google “tengu sex mask” you’re sure to find porn that includes Japanese men penetrating their female partner with the nose of the mask, revealing that it has much more of a sexual connotation than many — including those who decide on the latest batch of emoji, apparently — might’ve imagined.