When we talk about dragons, we naturally think of fire-eaters like Smaug found in Tolkien's The Hobbit . However, not all dragons are the same from culture to culture. Although in the majority of cases they consist of a camel's head, deer's horns, hare's eyes, fish scales, tiger's paws and eagle's claws. We will see that Japanese dragons have their own characteristics and magical powers that seem unlike any other in the world.
Origin of Japanese dragons
The notion and the creature of the dragon emerged under the impetus of the Buddhist religion (imported from China in the 6th century) as well as under the Shinto religion.
According to the Shinto religion, during the creation of the universe several gods appeared. They are collectively named kotoamatsukami and are said to have been born in Takama-ga-hara , the sky world. Seven generations of kami deities then succeeded the kotoamatsukami, the kamiyonanayo . From these kamiyonanayo, many mythological and folkloric creatures emerged to fulfill a variety of functions as guardian or messenger. Among these new creatures, dragons. This is how they were born in Japanese culture more than a millennium ago.
They were then considered the gods of the oceans and therefore had to protect them. Most of them also had the ability to change into humans. Ultimately, they were a symbol of strength, wisdom and success, which explains their popularity with yakuza tattoos .
Dragons in Japanese culture
Unlike our fire-breathing dragons, Japanese dragons are creatures associated with the sea, but also with clouds to a lesser extent. They have a body that resembles that of a snake and have three claws per leg, unlike Korean dragons which have four and Chinese dragons which have five.
Almost all of the stories about dragons in Japan were imported from China, Vietnam and Korea, but this country gradually evolved its own local mythology and developed its own dragons which we will see in detail in the chapter following.
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Why do Japanese dragons have three legs?
To return to the number of claws per leg of dragons. One of the Japanese legends offers the following explanation. When dragons first appeared in Japan they had three claws. However, they were led to migrate further and further across the oceans they were responsible for protecting and the longer their journey, the more their number of claws increased. Arriving in Korea, they then had four claws and once in China they could count five on their paws. This is why their journey had to stop here because if they had had the impetus to venture further they would have ended up having too many claws which would have hindered them from moving, and consequently they would not have unable to return to Japan.
The guardians of the four cosmic directions
There are an astronomical number of stories mentioning dragons in Japan and it would be impossible to make an exhaustive list of them all. Especially since, as mentioned previously, Japan gradually appropriated these creatures into its own mythology and the dragons thus saw themselves diversified in their nature, their function and their powers. It should therefore come as no surprise that not all dragons are protectors of the oceans that appeared to protect the kamiyonanayo. But among these many stories, one is particularly popular in Japan and is worth the detour. It is also very popular in Chinese culture since that is where it was imported from.
Dragons would therefore be one of the four creatures responsible for protecting the four cosmic directions, also called the four celestial emblems, with the turtle, the kirin (an animal crossed between a unicorn and a tiger according to legends) and the phoenix. The dragon being the god of the seas, he is often compared to nature in general as well as to the wood of the forest. He therefore opposes the fire phoenix which reduces the forest to ashes. These are therefore two creatures that have long been placed in opposition, seen as yin and yang.
However, some Japanese depictions display a dragon alongside a phoenix as a partner. Thus in Japanese mythology, the phoenix/dragon association is rather seen as follows: the dragon is the masculine counterpart of the feminine phoenix and once united they form the conflict of marital bliss.
References to dragons on objects can be found in many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, especially when the latter are found near a lake or body of water.
Some temples still have a name relating to dragons today such as the Rinzai sect has Tenryū-ji nicknamed the "Temple of the Heavenly Dragon", Ryūtaku-ji alias the "Temple of the Dragon Marshes" and finally Ryōan-ji the “Dragon Peace Temple”. Furthermore, in many buildings in Japan we also find prints or traditional works depicting dragons as well as all kinds of references to these creatures on bells or roofs.
The dragon dance
If you are lucky enough to go to Japan in spring you will be able to attend the golden dragon dance, also called Kinryu-no-Mai which is located in Asakusa at the Sensoji temple. The dragon is wandered around for a short time in the surrounding lands then in the city and spectators usually touch the dragon because according to tradition it brings good luck.
The 6 most popular dragons in Japanese mythology
Mizuchi is a water dragon said to live in the Kawashima River. He was known to kill sailors who had the audacity to get too close to him with his venom. One day, Agatamori, an ancestor of the Kasa no omi clan, personally went to the river and proposed a challenge to the dragon Mizuchi. If he managed to make the three gourds he had just thrown into the water sink, he would leave it free in his river. But if he failed, he would kill him and the other dragons at the bottom of the river. Mizuchi failed, and so Agatamori killed Mizuchi. Legend even says that the river became red with blood because Agatamori killed so many dragons and that this river has since been named Agatamori Pond in memory of his heroic act.
Yamata no Orochi
Yamata no Orochi, aka Orochi, is a dragon with eight heads and eight tails. As cruel as he was, every year he asked the kunitsukami (earthly gods) to deliver one of their daughters to him to devour. But by the seventh year, the kunitsukami had only one daughter left and the Shinto god of the sea Susanoo decided to intervene.
He met the kunitsukami and offered to save their last daughter in exchange for his hand. Not wanting to lose their last daughter, they accepted the deal. Susanoo then changed the girl into a comb and then put it in her own hair. He then asked the kunitsukami to prepare sake and put a bin full of alcohol in eight separate cabinets. Susanoo then began to put his plan into action to put an end to Orochi's crimes. He subtly attracted the latter who then appeared in his most monstrous form with his eight heads, his eight tails as well as fir trees and cypresses which grew on his back. Legend even says that its size extended over eight valleys and eight hills because it was so gigantic.
However, it is well known that strength without wisdom is nothing. Orochi therefore rushed to drink all the alcohol and all the sake and while he fell asleep from drunkenness, Susanoo took the opportunity to kill him while he was sleeping using a ten-pronged sword. He even found in one of the dragon's tails a sword called Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi which is today one of the three imperial treasures of Japan. He later gave this sword to his sister Amaterasu and was able to return to heaven from where he had previously been denied.
Watastumi, also called Ryujin, is the "Great God of the Sea" in Japanese mythology. According to legend, this dragon lived in an underwater palace called Ryugo-jo where he welcomed lost humans with his daughters into the palace. He would also control turtles, jellyfish and fish using his magical gems. He is also considered an ancestor of the Japanese imperial dynasty.
One day, while a man named Hoori was fishing with his brother on a small boat, he tried to catch a hook in the sea that his brother had dropped. He fell into the water and chanced upon one of Ryujin's daughters, he later decided to marry her. However, three years later he grew tired of Ryugo-jo's palace and wanted to return to the surface. Unfortunately, he was afraid of having to face his brother without even having managed to retrieve the hook all this time. The father of Otohime, Hoori's wife, then ordered all the fish to look for this hook in the sea. One of them ended up finding it and Hoori therefore left to live on dry land with his wife Otohime in order to find his brother there and give him back the hook. Legend even says that they used a wani to return to the surface, one of the many species of aquatic dragons in Japanese mythology.
We could debate the very nature of Nure-onna given its serpent shape and its woman's head. But Japanese mythology treats it as a dragon and that is why we decided to integrate it here. What is certain is that it is also considered a yōkai (set of Japanese folk monsters).
According to legend, Nure-onna appears mainly in the Iwami region where she emerges from the water to give a baby to be hugged to someone nearby. Once the baby is seized by this same person, the baby would then turn to stone and it would be impossible to part with it. An Ushi-oni (a youkai with an ox's head, a spider's body and three claws on each side) would then appear and kill the person unable to free themselves from the stone baby, before eating them whole.
Wani is the sea dragon that we mentioned during Watatsumi's story which brought Hoori and Otohime to the surface. Like many Japanese dragons, it is an aquatic dragon but nevertheless its origins come from China. It is also sometimes compared to a shark or a crocodile due to its etymology.
There are several references to wani in Japanese mythology but in all of them wani plays a rather secondary role and is left in the background, unlike dragons like Watatsumi or Orochi.
Zennyo Ryūō is a rain dragon who is often considered a “dragon king” represented in half-dragon, half-human form. It would indeed, like many other Japanese dragons, have the ability to transform into a human. Its etymology is rather surprising since it literally means “virtuous woman, dragon king”.
According to Buddhist tradition, Zennyo Ryūō appeared in 824 AD under the call of the priest Kūkai, a very great Buddhist monk, at the imperial palace in Kyoto during a rainmaking competition.
Japanese dragon vs Chinese dragon
When we talk about dragons in Asia, it is indeed more instinctive to think of Chinese dragons. For good reason, the latter are the most popular and they have had a strong influence on Japanese dragons for centuries.
However, there are many differences between the dragons of these two countries and it is not just a question of claws on legs. Japanese dragons tend to be much more slender than Chinese dragons, almost resembling giant aquatic serpents. While Chinese dragons have a benevolent role, Japanese dragons are often seen as hostile creatures (see examples in the previous chapter). Which is rather paradoxical and antagonistic given their primary nature as “god and protector of the oceans”. Chinese culture also associates dragons more as benefactors of rain where no such thing is specified in Japanese dragons. This is due to the more arid climate in China, which has experienced more drought-related problems than Japan.
However, the mix of cultures, histories and mythologies between these two countries make it quite difficult to make a very clear distinction between what is a Japanese dragon and what is a Chinese dragon.