The culture of Japan is made up of several aspects. It is comprised of different things like their food, their festivities, their norms, their spiritual beliefs, and much more. This fact is what makes Japan such an addictive culture to learn about because, in a way, everything is fueled by meaning and belief. This can evidently be seen with how they give respect to the creatures and spirits that they believe guide them in their every day until this very day. An example of such a creature is the one they know as the "Komainu".
The History of the Japanese Komainu
Before getting into the details of the komainu's history, you should first know what it is and what it symbolizes. This creature is a mix of two animals which are namely a lion and a dog. This is the reason why it is called komainu because komainu translated means "lion dog". Lions have always been a symbol of power by many cultures and this is further dignified by how a lion is known to be the king of the jungle. Dogs, on the other hand, have always been seen as a protective creature. Considering how both animals are seen, mixing them together gives you an idea of the essence of the komainu as a powerful protector.
As a symbol of protection, the komainu statues are believed to ward off evil spirits from sacred shrines and temples as well as private households. They come in pairs with one having its mouth open while the other having its mouth closed. All religions follow this pattern but this particular detail is believed to be Buddhist in origin because of how the komainu with the other mouth looks like it is pronouncing "a" and how the other komainu looks like it is pronouncing "um". In Buddhism, "a" is the representation of the beginning of all things and "um" is the representation of the end of all things. This detail also gives these statues more meaning because, coincidentally, the sound "Aum" is also a sacred syllable for other religions like Hinduism and Jainism.
Despite all the beliefs and meanings linked to it, the statutes themselves did not originate from Japan. Its origin can be traced as far as the first lion statue built in India in the 3rd century by King Ashoka. This is related to the komainu because the tradition of establishing of lion statues as a sign of power later reached the lands of China which eventually led to the tradition reaching the Asian countries of Korea, Japan, and Okinawa. You might be wondering how the pure lion statues became a mix of a lion and a dog. To clear this up, when the tradition reached China, they slowly changed the design of the statues to give it a more distinctive look and by the time it reached Korea, Japan, and Okinawa, it was already a mix of the lion and the dog.
The design for these statues was not the only thing the changed throughout the many years of its use. During the Nara period, the komainu used were referred to as jinnai komainu. These jinnai komainu were only placed indoors and were usually made from wood. It was only during the Heian period that the materials used for the creation of these statues diversified with the use of materials like metal. They started using metal to prolong the life of a statue and also because it started to be used as weights and door-stops for some establishments.
It was also during the Heian period that these statues started to differ from one another. The statue with its mouth open started to be called shishi, which means lion, because of the new designs that made it look more like a lion again. As for the statue with the closed mouth, it remained to be known as komainu but a horn was added to its design. These changes did not last though because eventually, they started to be built identically once again and they were both referred to as komainu as well.
In the 14th century, the practice of keeping these statues indoors changed and this change gave birth to the "Sando Komainu" which simply means pertains to the komainu statues you can see on the sando or entrance roads to shrines and temples. Being that these creatures symbolized protection from evil spirits, it made more sense to place them at the entrance of these establishments to ward off these evil spirits earlier. Because it was placed outside, the materials used for these statues once again changed from wood and metal to stone to avoid the early deterioration of these statues due to the rain of Japan.
Although the komainu statues are still believed in and given respect by people in present times, in the Edo period, other animals like tigers, dragons, and foxes started to be used in replacement for these komainu guardians. This period in time gave birth to the likes of the Inari fox statues found at the entrances of the Inari shrines of Japan.
Japanese Tattoos Like the Komainu and How Their Meanings Change Depending on Certain Details
It might not be common knowledge but tattoos are a big part of Japanese culture. This is so because the art and designs used for their tattoos are usually based on historical events as well as their beliefs. Although there are some that get Japanese tattoo designs like Japanese characters or religious symbols, the most common Japanese tattoo designs people ink on their bodies are the mythical creatures that the people believe in.
Some of these creatures are even able to give off multiple meanings depending on the details of the tattoo. A perfect example for this would be tattoos of a koi fish. Generally, a koi fish symbolizes determination and courage but when used as a tattoo, you need to account for details like positioning and color to know exactly what the tattoo is supposed to mean for the bearer of it. A koi fish tattoo wherein the fish is swimming upwards signifies that the bearer of the tattoo is or was going through a tough time when he got the tattoo. If the koi fish was swimming downstream, that would signify that he or she has overcome a great obstacle in his or her life and got that tattoo as a reminder of the success.
Color also plays a huge role with these koi fish tattoos because the color would dictate or give you a hint of what aspect of life he or she had a problem with. A red koi fish refers to love and romance. A black koi fish refers to a new direction in life. A blue koi fish refers to masculinity and reproduction while a while koi fish signifies the career and family life of a person. You will find many other color choices for the koi fish tattoo and for every color, there is a unique meaning attached to it.
This pattern of using details to differentiate the meanings of the tattoos can also be seen in tattoos of creatures like dragons but there are some that do not complicate their meanings as much as these koi fish and dragons do. A fitting example for these simple tattoos are tattoos of the komainu. As said earlier, the komainu is a known protector of sacred things and somehow, it is also linked to the beginning and end of all things. With this notion of the komainu as a protector, a tattoo with the komainu as the main subject is usually chosen by people because they believe that it is a symbol that will protect them from evil at all times.
The Unique Variation of the Komainu Found in Japan
From China to Korea to Japan, the meaning, and symbolism the komainu had stayed practically identical. This, however, was not the case when it reached the lands of Okinawa because there is a variant of the komainu found there that is known for very different things compared to the komainu you have read and heard about in other lands. This komainu variant is known as the "Shisa".
These shisa statues are also used to ward off evil spirits at the entrances of certain establishments but there is so much more to them than just that. In other areas of Japan, you will not hear any legends or stories about the komainu but in Okinawa, it is a different case. The shisa here, from legends and stories, have saved the people multiple times from different harms. An example of such a story is the origin of the Gana-mui Woods near the Naha Ohashi Bridge.
This story narrates how a king used a figurine of a shisa to ward off a sea dragon that has been terrorizing a village for decades. By simply holding the figurine up high in front of the dragon, the dragon roared as if in fear and the sky opened up to drop a huge boulder of the tail of the dragon. This obviously trapped the dragon and it eventually died and became covered up in plants and trees. The dragon's body that was covered up in nature is what is now known as the Gana-mui Woods.
Considering all the information about the komainu and its variants, it is clear that the komainu is a force of good in the Japanese culture. There may be other stories about the komainu that you cannot find on the internet so if the details found here tingled your curiosity about the subject, when you get to visit Japan, make sure to pass by the temples and shrines that honor these sacred creatures so that you may learn and gain more information about these ancient protectors.