The Byakko isn’t just any tiger, it’s the Celestial Tiger of the West, King of the Beasts, and a supernatural being dwelling in the heavens.
The Meaning Behind the Name
Kanji: 白虎, meaning White Tiger. Japanese pronunciation: びゃっこ, or Byakko. Chinese pronunciation: Bái Hǔ.
Also known as 西方白虎, The White Tiger of the West (pronounced as Seihō Byakko in Japanese and Xī Fāng Bái Hǔ in Chinese).
The Appearance of the Byakko
The Byakko is a white tiger with the character 王 (meaning king) on its forehead, which represents its identity as the king of the beasts. However, its appearance is based on those rare Bengal tigers with white fur (caused by a lack of the pigment pheomelanin).
The Byakko is also a part of the Chinese constellation system. As such, the White Tiger is a celestial being, a series of stellar constellations, which take up the western quarter of the sky. In terms of the Greek constellation system, the tiger’s rear is located in Andromeda and Pisces, its middle is in Ares and Taurus and its front is in Orion.
The Origins of the Byakko
Similar to the kitsune, a normal fox which becomes a yokai, an ordinary tiger becomes a Byakko after living for 500 years. Once it reaches this great age, its tail turns white and it becomes a yokai. As a yokai it has the ability to control wind and reign over the other beasts. However, in Chinese legend, the Byakko only appears when the ruling emperor is exceptionally virtuous or the world is at peace.
Legends of the White Tiger
The Byakko is one of the Four Symbols from Chinese mysticism — the four mythological creatures that make up the four cardinal directions (The White Tiger of the West, The Azure Dragon of the East, The Vermillion Bird of the South and The Black Tortoise of the North).
The Four Symbols are connected with various forms of Chinese mysticism, including astrology, Taoism, feng shui and Wu Xing (the Theory of the Five Elements). Thus, the Four Symbols (called Shijin in Japan) are associated with specific concepts. In this case, the White Tiger represents the colour white, the element of metal, the season autumn, the planet Venus and the virtue of righteousness.
The idea of the Shijin came to Japan from China in the 7th Century CE, along with other ideas from Chinese mysticism. The earliest recording of the Byakko in Japan is in the Takamatsuzuka Tomb (高松塚古墳). This circular tomb in Asuka village (Nara Prefecture) dates back to between the 7th and 8th Centuries CE. On its walls are murals of all four shijin. You can see the one of the Byakko in the image below:
According to Taoism, the White Tiger, like the other four beasts, also has a human identity. The White Tiger’s human name is Jian Bing (監兵).
A later legend attributes the onmyoji Abe no Seimei with having twelve shikigami, or servant yokai. He had one shikigami for each branch of the Chinese zodiac, including a White Tiger, the Byakko. You can read more about Abe no Seimei here.
The Byakko Today
The Shijin were once involved in the layout of cities, castles and religious buildings. The cities had four quadrants, one for each cardinal direction, and thus each Shijin. Even today you can see traces of the past influence of the Shijin. For example, in Mita, Tokyo, the area of Toranomon (which translates to “Tiger’s Gate”) is named for the Byakko. Although the western facing gate itself is now nonexistent, the name remains. A statue of the Byakko also stands in of Koto city, in Tokyo. Koto city has statues of all four Shijin, each one at their respective cardinal position.
The architectural historian Itō Chūta incorporated the Four Symbols into the design of the relatively recent Heian Shrine, in Kyoto. The western tower on the end of the main hall bears the name Byakkorō, or “White Tiger Tower”. Statues of Byakko adorn the shrine’s gardens. Furthermore, the lanterns in the eaves of the shrine have small figures of the Four Symbols carved into them.
- In Gosei Sentai Dairanger, the Byakko inspired Kibaranger’s character.
- The Byakko appears in the film Kung Fu Panda: The Paws of Destiny, as one of the Four Constellations.
- Digimon‘s Baihumon is based on the White Tiger.
- The B-daman Kreis Raydra from B-Daman Fireblast, has the White Tiger of the West as its B-Animal.
- The Byakko appears as a bitbeast in the Beyblade series.
- The story Fushigi Yûgi Byakko Senki is about Suzuno Osugi’s path to becoming the Priestess of Byakko.
- In Yu Yu Hakusho, Byakko is portrayed as a member of the Underworld group, The Four Beasts.
- The Byakko is a Boss in the video game Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood.
- Byakko is a goddess Friend from the original Kemono Friends mobile game.
- For Overwatch’s Chinese New Year 2018 event (Year of the Dog), Genji has a Byakko inspired skin.
- It appears in Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds.
- The White Tiger is a demon in Megami Tensei.
- In Dungeon Fighter Online, the Exorcist subclass of the Male Priest has skills featuring the Four Symbols.
- All of the Four Symbols appear in the game Puzzle & Dragons. Specifically, The White Tiger appears as the little girl Haku.
- In the novel Tales of the Tang Dynasty (隋唐演義), General Luo Cheng is the reincarnation of the White Tiger’s star.
- The Byakko is a character in the Xuan Wu series by Kylie Chan.
To learn about another one of the Four Symbols, the dragon, check out my article here!
- About the Chinese Constellation System: https://web.archive.org/web/20151104154237/http://idp.bl.uk/education/astronomy/sky.html
- For more on Chinese Constellations: Selin, Helaine. Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Springer Reference, 2016.
- About all four mythical Shijin: https://jpninfo.com/105654
- Official website of Toranomon: https://www.city.minato.tokyo.jp/kouhou/kuse/gaiyo/chimerekishi/39.html
- 『礼記』礼運 : The White Tiger is mentioned in the ancient Chinese book, Records of the Grand Historian or Shiji.
- 『史記』天官書: The White Tiger is also mentioned in this passage of the Chinese Book of Rites.
- About the meaning of the Kanji for Byakko: https://jisho.org/word/%E7%99%BD%E8%99%8E