Hengeyokai (pron. Hane-Gay-Yo-Ky, alt pron. Hane-Gay-Yo-Ka-Ee) is a recently invented term by TSR for the Oriental Adventures suppliment to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in 1985 (and later by White Wolf Publishing, Inc). Based on the Japanese word "henge" (or, alternately, said to be based off of the word "henkei"), it is a blanket-term to generalize Eastern animal shapeshifters. Specifically it refers to beings based on a particular type of animal, who can assume other forms, human often being one of those forms.

While "common knowledge" of this term is indeed based upon books from Dungeons and Dragons and The World of Darkness, I would like to focus more on the Oriental folklore behind the term, and leave the game specifics to another writer.

To fully understand the significance of these particular shapeshifters, one must also be familiar with the cultural and religious mindset at the time these legends came about. Kami, or, Gods in Japanese, are not nearly as invulnerable as western theology, and were not nearly so distanced from the natural order. They were also considerably more numerous. Nearly every aspect of nature had its own representative deity, and host of supernatural creatures. Though there were some Kami whom lived on another plane of existence, such as Amaterasu (the Goddess of the Sun and ancestor of the imperial line) and the Yama Kings, most dwelled in forests, rivers, lakes, caves, and other places of nature. Kami generally had a particular task (guard this tree, guard this shrine, kill anyone who travels down this road), and were able to be slain if the attacker/defender were skilled or clever enough to survive. This was not a culture where God was some all-powerful, all-knowing, yet unknowable force living in another realm. It was a culture where Gods hunted Men, and vice versa. This is, perhaps, one of the many reasons Japan was able to bounce back from World War II and become the industrial superpower it is today. After all, if one could best the Kami with enough dedication, wit, and skill, then how hard could it be to become equal with mortal men?

This is not to say the Kami were pushovers, or that they were anything less than Gods. The distinction is similar to that of the Greek and Roman mythology, where there is a definite hierarchy, as well as Big Gods, and Small Gods. Rather, Eastern religion dealt with Gods on a far more local scale.

This brings us to the hengeyokai, or shapeshifters of Eastern Asia. Nearly all Kami had the shapeshifting powers of the hengeyokai, though there were a few that did not have the power to transform, such as Moro no Kimi (goddess of dogs). Generally gods that could not transform were the King or Queen of their species, the title of which grants them their godhood.

However, just as not all Kami are Hengeyokai, not all Hengeyokai are Kami. Such is the case with kitsune, who are Japanese fox-spirits and the messengers of Inari (not gods), whose motives were secret to man and kami alike, and their mischief infamous to both. Hengeyokai, therefore, does not so much refer to a race or species of creature or god as it does the ability to transform shapes, but not neccesarily auras (another important trait of spiritual encounters in Japanese folklore).

Though European culture had its shapeshifters as well (most notably the werewolf), being a hengeyokai not considered some sort of disease or curse inflicted upon the victim, like lycanthropy. A true human who had the ability to transform into an animal would not be considered a hengeyokai, they would be considered extremely advanced in their studies. Hengeyokai were generally limited to members of the normally non-sentient animal kingdom. It was a natural ability, and though a frightening prospect to your average forest-wandering-unarmed-peasant, it was also accepted as the natural order of things. This is also not to say that it was a theological belief that touted harmony with nature, everyone had their own beliefs on that, but rather that they did not assume that such beings were un-natural.

Though there are far too many hengeyokai to write about, here are a few links to some of the more notable species:
  • Kitsune - Japanese Fox-Spirits. Spies and tricksters.
  • Ryu - Dragons. Usually imparts wisdom, or guards special pearls in lakes.
  • Tanuki - Canine animals that look similar to raccoons. Practical jokers.
  • Tengu - Forest and Mountain Goblins with many powers. Usually targets monks.