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Ghosts, demons and spirits are the most popular creatures often associated with Japanese mythology, but they are far from being the only creatures present.
A slightly less well known entity is the Japanese dragon, which usually lives in water and transforms into a man or even a beautiful woman.
Although dragons can also be iconic mythical creatures, few people are aware of their role in the classical legends of Japan.
It is often thought that dragons are the same all over Asia. This may be true to some extent, but each country essentially has its own type of dragons.
So, what are the legends and the specifics of Japanese Dragons? 🐲
1. The Mythology of Japanese Dragons
Japanese mythology is influenced by Shintoism, Buddhism and folklore, particularly with regard to its creation myth.
The Kojiki (古事記) is a collection of myths about the origin of the islands that make up Japan. According to the Kojiki story, at the time when the sky (Takamanohara) and the earth (Ashihara-no-Nakatsukuni) began, three asexual deities (Kami) were formed in the plain of the high skies. Thus
- Ame no Minaka-Nushi no Mikoto,
- Takami-Musubi no Mikoto,
- and Kami-Musubi no Mikoto
were born by themselves from the original chaos. These first deities bear the generic name of Kotoamatsukami. There were thus seven generations of gods. Izanagi and Izanami formed the last couple.
From these deities, many other gods and goddesses were born, as well as various creatures that served as guardians, messengers, warriors and enemies. The Japanese dragons were unique in that they served as water gods who ruled over the oceans. They fought with other gods, transformed themselves into human beings, or vice versa. In Japan, dragons symbolize wisdom, success and strength.
Dragon boat race, Tomari Port, Naha, Japan
2. Dragons in Japan: the legends and their meanings
Some of the first appearances of dragons in Japanese mythology took place in the Kojiki (AD 680) and Nihongi (AD 720).
The Kojiki, also known as the Chronicle of Ancient Facts or Furukoto Fumi, groups together various myths related to the four islands of Japan.
The Nihongi, also known as Nihon Shoki or The Chronicles of Japan, is a more detailed and elaborate historical document than the Kojiki.
In both of these documents, water deities in the form of Asian snakes or dragons are mentioned repeatedly and in many ways. These creatures are considered to be the native dragons of Japan. Among them, the best known are:
- Yamata no Orochi
We will now take a closer look at these dragons and the legends associated with them.
A. Yamata no Orochi: the eight-tailed, eight-headed dragon
Yamata no Orochi (八岐大蛇), or simply Orochi, was a dragon with eight tails and eight heads. Every year, he devoured one of the daughters of the Kunitsukami, a couple of earthly gods. According to this legend, Susanoo, the Shinto god of the sea and storms, was expelled from the sky because of her deception of Amaterasu, her sister and the sun goddess.
Near the Hi River (簸川) in Izumo province, Susanoo met the Kunitsukami, who were crying because they had to abandon a girl every year for seven years to please Orochi. Moreover, they would soon have to sacrifice their last daughter, Kushi-Nada-Hime.
When Orochi appeared, Susanoo noticed that he had blood-red eyes, eight heads and eight tails, with cedars and cypresses growing on his back. The dragon stretched across eight valleys and eight hills as it crawled towards the homeland of the Kunitsukami.
Susanoo offered her help to save Kushi-nada-Hime in exchange for her hand in marriage. The Kunitsukami accepted and Susanoo turned their daughter into a comb before their eyes. Then he slipped it into her hair and asked the Kunitsukami to prepare an eight times refined sake and fill eight tubs with it.
As he approached the tubs, Orochi drank all the sake, got drunk and finally fell asleep. Susanoo took the opportunity to kill the dragon by cutting it into small pieces with her sword. As Susanoo opened the dragon's tail, he found a sword inside that would later be called Ama no Murakumo no Tsurugi. It is the same sword that Susanoo will finally give to Amaterasu as a reconciliation.
This sword, along with a mirror (Yata no Kagami) and a jewel (Yasakani no Magatama), are considered the imperial royal insignia of Japan. 👑
If you are fascinated with the multi-headed creatures, don't miss our article about the three-headed dragons!
Celestial battle against the monster Yamata No Orochi
B. Watatsumi: The God of the Sea or King of the Sea
Watatsumi, or Ryujin, was a legendary sea god and a Japanese dragon. Another name for this dragon is Owatatsumi no Kami, which means "the great god of the sea".
According to Japanese mythology, Watatsumi lived in a palace known as Ryugo-Jo under the sea. It is believed that he served as a guardian of the Shinto religion and would welcome humans into his kingdom if they fell into the sea. He and his many daughters appear in various legends.
A story from the Kojiki tells how a man named Hoori lost his brother's hook in the sea and, while searching for it, met Otohime, a Watatsumi girl. Hoori and the dragon goddess got married and lived in Ryugo-Jo.
After three years, Hoori became homesick and wanted to live on land again, but was afraid to face her brother without his hook. Watatsumi confronted Hoori about what was bothering him. Hearing his concerns, the god of water summoned all the fish in the sea to ask if any of them had seen the hook.
Fortunately, one of the fish fell on the hook and stuck it in his throat. It was washed and given to Hoori.
Watatsumi then asked Hoori to take Otohime back to the land with him using a Wani, another mythical dragon, which can be described as a sea monster.
In the Nihongi, Watatsumi also appears in the stories of Emperor Keiko and Emperor Jimmu. According to the texts, Emperor Keiko's army crossed difficult waters crossing the lands between the Sagami and Kazusa provinces. This calamity was associated with Watatsumi, to whom human sacrifices had to be offered to calm down.
Watatsumi is mentioned in the story of Emperor Jimmu because of his claim to be a descendant of Toyotama-Hime, daughter of Otohime and Hoori.
The magnificent Watatsumi shrine
C. Toyotama-Hime: The Princess of Bright Beads
As mentioned earlier, Toyotama-Hime was a descendant of Watatsumi. She is also known as the Luxuriant Princess and appears in legend as the Luck of the Sea and the Mountain. In this story, Toyotama-Hime is not presented as the daughter of Otohime and Hoori, but rather assumes the role of Otohime herself.
Furthermore, Watatsumi recognizes Hoori as the descendant of another god and quickly organizes a banquet for him. The same events of the two people getting married, living in Ryugo-Jo for three years and moving back to the land remain true. Their life on earth is then told in detail.
When their pregnancy was announced, Hoori built a hut where she could give birth. The goddess asked her husband not to attend the birth of their son, Ugayafukiaezu. But Hoori's curiosity led him to spy on his wife.
Surprisingly, instead of seeing Toyotama-Hime, Hoori saw a Wani looking like a crocodile cradling his son. Apparently, it was necessary for Toyotama-Hime to give birth in order to change its shape. She didn't want her husband to see her in that condition.
Toyotama-Hime caught Hoori spying on her and felt betrayed. Unable to forgive her husband, she decided to leave him and their son and return to Ryugo-Jo. She then sent her sister, Tamayori, to Hoori to help raise Ugayafukiaezu.
Tamayori and Ugayafukiaezu eventually married and gave birth to a son, Jimmu.
Toyotama-hime, the Princess of the glowing pearls, meets Hoori
D. Mizuchi: The Four-Legged Dragon
Mizuchi was a water dragon that lived in the Kawashima River and killed passing travelers by spitting venom. Agatamori, an ancestor of the Kasa no Omi clan, went to the river and offered a challenge to the dragon.
Agatamori threw three gourds at the river's edge that remained on the surface of the water. He told Mizuchi to make the gourds sink or he would have to kill him.
The dragon turned into a deer to try to sink the gourds, but eventually failed. Agatamori then killed the dragon, along with the other water dragons at the bottom of the river.
According to the legend, the river turned red because of this massacre. The river was later referred to as the Agatamori Basin.
E. Kiyohime: The Princess of Purity
Kiyohime, or simply Kiyo was the daughter of a village owner or chief known as Shoji. Their family was quite wealthy. She was in charge of receiving and housing the itinerant priests.
Kiyohime's tale tells how a handsome priest named Anchin fell in love with this beautiful girl. But one day, he decided not to see her again. This sudden change was not well received by Kiyohime, who attacked the priest in anger.
The two met on the Hidaka River, where Anchin asked for the help of a boatman to cross the river. He also told the boatman not to allow Kiyohime to board a boat to escape.
After making Anchin's plan, Kiyohime jumped into the Hidaka River and started swimming towards his boat. As she swam, her great rage turned her into a great dragon.
Anchin ran to a temple called Dojo-Ji. He asked for help and protection. The temple priests hid him under a bell, but Kiyohime was able to find him by his scent.
She wrapped herself around the bell and hit it hard using her tail several times. Then she threw a large amount of fire, which finally melted the bell and killed Anchin.
3. Japanese Dragons in Art
As far as Japanese art is concerned, or at least Japanese inspired art, the use of dragons is quite common. Over many years and countless legends, Japanese dragons have become the emblem of many concepts such as strength, wisdom, prosperity, longevity and luck.
The way a dragon is depicted in a drawing, painting or symbol contributes greatly to the overall meaning and concept.
Miyamoto Musashi Slaying a Dragon
A. Origin of dragons in Japanese art and mythology
The Japanese dragon is a mythological animal of Chinese origin, a member of the NAGA (Sanskrit) family of snakes that protect Buddhism. The traditional dragon of Japan actually comes mainly from China. Images of the reptilian dragon can be found throughout Asia. The best known pictorial form today was already widespread in Chinese ink paintings of the Tang period (9th century AD).
In China, however, the dragon tradition existed independently for centuries before the introduction of Buddhism. Bronze and jade pieces from the Shang and Zhou dynasties (16th-9th centuries BC) depict dragon-like creatures. At least in the 2nd century BC, images of dragons were frequently painted on the walls of tombs to dispel evil. Buddhism was introduced to China in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. By the 9th century AD, the Chinese had incorporated the dragon into Buddhist thought and iconography as a protector of the various Buddhas and of Buddhist law.
If you want to know more on the topic, then check out our article about the Dragons in China.
These traditions were adopted by the Japanese (Buddhism did not arrive in Japan until the middle of the 6th century AD). In both China and Japan, the figure of the dragon is often used in temple names, and dragon sculptures decorate many temple structures. In addition, most Japanese Zen temples have a dragon painted on the ceiling of their meeting rooms.
Dragon on ceiling, Tenryu-Ji temple, Kyoto (18 meters wide)
B. Representation of the dragon
The Japanese dragon has the head of a camel, the horns of a deer, the eyes of a hare, the scales of a carp, the legs of a tiger and claws resembling those of an eagle. In addition, he has whiskers, a shiny jewel under his chin and a scale on the top of his head that allows him to ascend to heaven at will.
This is a general description that does not apply to all dragons, some of which have such extraordinary heads that they cannot be compared to anything in the animal kingdom. The Dragon's breath turns into clouds from which either rain or fire comes. It is able to expand or contract its body, and it also has the power of transformation and invisibility.
According to most sources, the Chinese and Japanese dragons are similar, except that the Japanese dragon has only three claws, while the Chinese dragon has five. Chinese legend says that dragons are native to China, so the farther a dragon is from China, the fewer toes it has. Dragons can only exist in China, Korea, Indonesia and Japan, because if they traveled further, they would have no toes to continue. Japanese legend tells the opposite story, that dragons are native to Japan, and that the farther they travel, the more toes they have. Therefore, if they go too far, they will have too many toes to continue walking properly! 😄
The dragon is such an important part of Asian culture, many events and festivities are dedicated to it, like the famous Dragon Dance.
Dragon at Ryūtaku-Ji Temple 龍沢寺 (Shizuoka)
C. Types of dragons
In both Chinese and Japanese mythology, the dragon is closely associated with the aquatic world, and in works of art it is often surrounded by water or clouds. These are the four types of Dragons that exists in the legends of Japan:
- Celestial dragons guarding the homes of the gods,
- Spiritual dragons that rule the wind and rain, but can also cause floods,
- Dragons of the Earth that purify rivers and deepen oceans,
- Treasure-protecting dragons that protect precious metals and gemstones.
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