A hodgepodge of guardians outside a private residence in Roppongi. Tokyo, Japan. © Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.
“It seems ancient people crafted their own cosmos, whereas modern people are trying to travel to it.” – Kyong-hee Lee, Chief Editor of Koreana

Komainu and Shīsā

As I learnt from a friend from Okinawa, the blue, lion-like guardian is called Komainu (狛犬), while the smaller, black one is called Shīsā (シーサー) and derived from Okinawan mythology. In his entertaining article, “Komainu: The Birth and ‘Habitat Distribution’ of Shrine Guardian Lions,” Prof. Kotera Yoshiaki of the Faculty of Letters at Ryūkoku University, Kyoto, explains:

“[K]omainu (shrine lions) [are mostly placed] at the entrance of approach ways (sandō) to Shintō shrines, but are found also in Buddhist temples. [T]here are various komainu types according to different areas; they are called here ‘komainu cultural spheres.’ Their styles show a variety of sculptural expressions, and the inscriptions provide interesting information about the donors and the changing times of dedication. Since the end of the Meiji period, the Ministry of Education fostered nationwide the distribution of a certain uniform type which now threatens to destroy the rich local pluriformity of the komainu cultural spheres. … Statues similar to komainu are the shīsā in Okinawa which are figures of lions (shishi).”

Komainu Cultural Spheres in the Edo Period; Source Yoshiaki, Kotera. The Birth and “Habitat Distribution” of Shrine Guardian Lions. Japanese Religions 34.1 pp. 7-23.

Shīsā Legend

According to the Okinawa Prefectural Government, “[t]he original form of the lion-dog figure [shīsā] was the lion, known as the king of beasts, with the home of the lion-dog believed to have been in either the ancient Middle East or in India. In a commonly accepted theory the lion-dog, born in one of those two areas, was brought to Okinawa via China after its form had been changed in various ways while traveling along the Silk Road.”

“When a Chinese emissary returned from a voyage to the court at Shuri Castle, he brought a gift for the king, a necklace decorated with a figurine of a shisa. The king found it charming and wore it underneath his clothes. At the Naha Port bay, the village of Madanbashi was often terrorized by a sea dragon who ate the villagers and destroyed their property. One day, the king was visiting the village, and one of these attacks happened; all the people ran and hid. The local noro had been told in a dream to instruct the king when he visited to stand on the beach and lift up his figurine towards the dragon; she sent the boy, Chiga, to tell him the message. He faced the monster with the figurine held high, and immediately a giant roar sounded all through the village, a roar so deep and powerful that it even shook the dragon. A massive boulder then fell from heaven and crushed the dragon’s tail, so that he couldn’t move, and eventually died. This boulder and the dragon’s body became covered with plants and surrounded by trees, and can still be seen today as the ‘Gana-mui Woods’ near Naha Ohashi bridge. The townspeople then built a large stone shisa to protect it from the dragon’s spirit and other threats.” [Adopted from Legends of Okinawa by Chizue Sesoko; Source: Wikipedia]

One can find pairs of Shīsā at the entrance of nearly every Okinawan residence, and they are also found at schools, hospitals, shops and even shopping malls. In addition, one can buy all kinds of Shīsā-themed souvenirs, and Shīsā are frequently used as logos and mascots to promote tourism. The more scholarly-minded might enjoy an article by Prof. William Cannon Hunter, currently a faculty member at Kyunghee University, Seoul, titled “The good souvenir: representations of Okinawa and Kinmen islands in Asia.”

What guardians exist in your culture? Let me know in the comments!

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