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Mystical Protectors: Understanding Japan’s Komainu

The Komainu are a pair of Japanese statues carved in the shape of a dog or lion, and typically placed in front of Japanese Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, as a symbol of protection. The Komainu are kept in shrines, homes, and shops, to protect the area from evil spirits and negative energy. In English, they’re known as lion-dogs. Let’s take a closer look at the Komainu and its role in Japanese culture.

Origins of the Komainu

The Komainu can be traced back to ancient Indian art and sculptures, where lions were used as a symbol of power and strength. The Indian King Ashoka placed a statue of a lion in his palace, for greater safety and protection. This symbolic meaning associated with Indian lions, was transported across the Silk Road and into China, where it was adopted by the Tang dynasty. The Chinese began using the lion as a symbol of defence and protection. Through conquest and trade, the lion was transported into Korea and Japan as well.

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Komainu outside the gate of Saikouji in Toyohashi
Komainu outside the gate of Saikouji in Toyohashi, By Sehremis – CC BY-SA 4.0

As the lion was adapted into new cultures and traditions, its appearance, characteristics, and mannerisms changed.

The Komainu in Japanese Traditions

The Japanese Komainu has undergone several transformations and changes over the centuries. During the Japanese Nara period (710–794), the Komainu was made of wood, and kept indoors, to serve as protection for an inner sanctuary or dwelling place.

In the early Heian period, both metal and wooden lions were used as decorative paper weights, door stops, and screen supports. It was also during the Heian period that lions began to assume a distinct and unique identity. One of the lion pairs was depicted with an open mouth and called Shishi or lion. The other was represented with a closed mouth and called Komainu or dog. After a period of time, both animals began to look identical, and came to be collectively referred to as Komainu.

In more recent times, the Komainu was shifted outside the shrine, and carved out of stone, in order to withstand various weather conditions. In Okinawa, a Japanese Island, a pair of animals called the shīsā, that were similar in appearance to the Komainu, guarded gates and porches.

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What is the Komainu

From the Edo period onwards, lions and dogs were replaced by other animals such as wild boars, tigers, dragons and foxes. Fox pairs were commonly found across Japan, and their sole duty was to guard the Kami Inari shrines.

Role of Komainu in Japanese Culture  

The Komainu are placed in a particular region or area for greater defence and protection. Some are designed in such a way so that one statue resembles a lion, and the other, a dog.  While the lion’s a symbol of strength, the dog represents security and protection. Together, they provide greater safety to the surrounding lands and dwelling places.

The earlier Komainu, called the sandō komainu or the visiting road Komainu, were kept in the courtyard to safeguard gates of shrines. As time passed, the later version, called the jinnai komainu or the shrine inside komainu, could be found  within the inner sanctuary of Buddhist temples and homes.  It’s believed that a female Komainu guarded the inside of the shrines, while the male protected the outside.

Characteristics of the Komainu

The appearance and features of a Komainu largely depends on the region in which it resides. Those within larger shrines are usually made of bronze and are carved with an intricate pattern. On the other hand, smaller shrines have their Komainu carved out of stone, and the design may not be as intricate.

But there are certain common features for all Koimanu, such as a thick mane, strong and muscular bodies, and sharp teeth. Some Komainu are depicted with a horn, and others carry a spherical ball under their paw. In rare instances, the Komainu are seen as protecting a small cub or pup.

Most of the Komainu have a fierce expression on their faces, but sometimes they can also look cute or comical. They are depicted with coins in their paws and mouths.  In some sculptures, they are also depicted as wearing bibs.

Regional differences account for variation in the style and design of a Koimanu. In the Izumo style, the Komainu looks like it’s ready to pounce or spring forward. In the modern Okazaki style, it appears alert, attentive and fierce. The Okazaki style has gained such popularity that smaller variations have gradually disappeared.  

Symbolic Meanings of the Komainu

Komainu origins

In Japanese culture and traditions, the Komainu is predominantly seen as a symbol of guardianship and protection. Let’s take a closer look at the symbolic meaning and significance of the Komainu.

1. Symbol of Protection

The Komainu is used to protect Japanese shrines, shops and homes. It’s believed that the Komainu guards’ human beings from various evil spirits and negative energy. In earlier Japanese culture, the Komainu were also used as a symbol of protection, to preserve the teachings and philosophies of Buddha.

2. Symbol of Beginnings and Ends

The Komainu consists of a pair of lions, where one of them has an open mouth, and the other, a closed mouth. It’s believed that the one with the open mouth pronounces the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, A, and the other, utters the syllable Um.  These sounds together spell, Aum, a sacred mantra of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, that marks the beginning and end of all sacred rituals. As fervent followers of Buddhist principles, it’s no surprise that the Japanese Koimanu’s made to utter one of the most holy mantras of Buddhism.

Komainu in Japanese Folklore  

A sub-species of the Koimanu, known as the Shisa, appears frequently in Japanese folklore and mythology.

1. Shisa and the Necklace

In one tale, a Chinese representative gifted a necklace etched with an image of a Shisa to the Japanese king. The king took the necklace on his journey to a village called Madabashi. This village was a dangerous place to live in, as the people were constantly eaten and threatened by a cruel sea dragon. As the king was visiting, the sea dragon began its attack, and all the villagers went undercover.

The village priestess had foreseen this attack requested the king to hold up his necklace in front of the attacking dragon. When the king did this, a thunderous noise came from the heavens and a boulder fell onto the dragons’ tail. The dragon was killed, and the people could henceforth live happily, without any threat of danger. The Shisa protected the king and the villagers from the negative spirit of the dragon.

2. Shisa and the Mysterious Fire

In a small village insouthern Okinawa, there were a lot of mysterious fires, that abruptly sprung up without any origin or cause. No one in the village could discover why or where they erupted from. The villagers consulted an old and wise man, who reasoned that the fires could be caused by an energy source in the nearby mountain. To prevent these fires, the old man suggested that the villagers place a stone Shisa that faced the mountain. The villagers listened to his advice and placed a statue that looked towards the mountain. After the Shisa was placed the villagers were protected from the mysterious fire, and they no longer had the fear of their crops or cattle being destroyed. 

Komainu in Tattoos

Many Japanese tattoos represent religious characters, symbols, or mythological creatures. As a mythological being, the Komainu’s a popular choice for a tattoo, and it’s worn to give greater protection and strength to the wearer. The Komainu also connects the wearer to the holy and sacred syllable Aum, which marks the beginning and end of all things.

Komainu in Popular Culture

The Komainu has featured in several movies, most notably in the Godzilla franchise. In the film Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, the character of King Caesar is based on the Japanese Shisa. He’s depicted as a kind being, and a protector and guardian of humanity. King Caesar aids Godzilla in his defeat of the evil villain.

In the film, Godzilla Final Wars, King Caesar controlled by aliens, who make him fight against Godzilla. He’s depicted as a strong character who has remarkable agility, skills and strength.

Wrapping Up

Komainu has an important role in Japanese mythology, as one of the most prominent symbols of defense and protection.  The versatile designs of the statue make it one of the most unique and distinct features in Japanese temples and shrines.

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Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.