Dragons in Japanese Culture: A Brief Understanding of Japanese Mythology and Japanese Dragons

Demons, spirits, and ghosts are some of the most popular creatures that are quite often associated with Japanese mythology but they are far from being the only being present.

An entity that is lesser known is the Japanese dragon known to live in water and shapeshifts into a man, if not a beautiful woman.

While dragons may be iconic mythical creatures, a lot of people are not aware of the dragons in Japanese culture.

A common misconception when it comes to dragons is that almost all of them are basically the same all across Asia.

There may be some truth to this statement, but there are differences in the dragons from each country, and we will particularly discuss the ones from Japan.

Are There Dragons in Japanese Culture?

Yes, there are dragons in Japanese culture. Japanese mythology makes use of Buddhist, Shinto, and folklore beliefs for its creation story and the succeeding legends.

When the universe was created, it was believed that many deities also came into existence and they were referred to as kotoamatsukami collectively.

After Earth and heaven were formed, seven generations of Gods who were individually known as kami emerged.

They were regarded as kamiyonanayo or the Age of the Gods’ Seven Generation.

According to the Japanese creation myth, this consisted of 12 Gods of which two served as individual and initial kamis known as hitorigami.

The other 10 emerged as male-female pairs, either married couples or siblings.

From all these deities several other Gods and Goddesses also came into being along with various creatures.

These creatures served as messengers, guardians, warriors, and enemies.

Japanese dragons were known to be unique in a sense since they served as water Gods ruling the oceans, shapeshifted into humans, and fought with other Gods.

Dragons were believed to signify success, strength, and wisdom as well.

Origins of the Japanese Dragon

The Japanese dragon does not originate from Japan alone itself; in fact, there are influences from other Asian countries.

The Chinese Influence

Most of the depictions and legends of dragons in Japan are influenced heavily by the Chinese ideas of the dragon.

China is also considered to be the origin of the name Ryu, the Japanese dragon which is synonymous today with tatsu.

The lineage of the emperor was both in Japan and China and was associated with dragons too.

There aren’t too many differences between the Chinese and Japanese dragons other than just a handful.

The Indian Influence

The dragon myths in Japan bear some sort of resemblance to the Hindu myths of the naga and the Nagaraja.

Nagas are basically giant serpent deities that are associated with rainfall.

On the other hand, Nagaraja is basically two words wherein naga means serpent and raja means king.

The naga finds its origins in Hinduism but it is associated with Buddhism as well.

Since several legends talk about the eight great Nagarajas that gathered to listen to Gautama Buddha teach about the Lotus sutra.

These legends of the naga in Buddhism further traveled through China and then like all the other dragon legends in China, found their way into Japan.

One such legend is the legend of the dragon pearl. It is said that the naga has a pearl that can grant any wish.

This pearl is quite similar in concept to the Japanese legend of the Dragon Jewels which are the two jewels capable of controlling the tides in the sea.

Dragons in Japanese Culture: A Brief Understanding of Japanese Mythology and Japanese Dragons

Dragons in Japanese Culture: A Brief Understanding of Japanese Mythology and Japanese Dragons

Japanese Dragons vs Chinese Dragons

People always tend to assume dragons play more as a part of Chinese mythology than Japanese mythology.

This is understandable considering quite a bit of Japan’s cultural traditions and practices are influenced by Chinese beliefs in one way or another.

However, there are a couple of differences between Chinese and Japanese dragons.

Appearance

In terms of the dragon's appearance and body, Japanese dragons are commonly described to have three toes on each foot.

On the other hand, Chinese dragons are described to have four or five toes on each.

Additionally, Japanese dragons are known to be more serpent-like and carry a slender physique.

Portrayal

When it comes to how the dragons are portrayed in legends, Japanese dragons are typically considered malevolent beasts whereas Chinese dragons are typically given benevolent roles.

Chinese mythology puts a lot of emphasis on the dragon’s association with water bodies and often considers them as the bringer of rain for agriculture.

On the other hand, Japanese mythology often makes use of dragons to make scenarios that put more focus on heroic deities.

It is interesting to note that the boundaries between what makes a dragon Chinese or Japanese aren’t fixed particularly.

There are few stories wherein Chinese dragons have been described to appear as Japanese dragons.

Also, the dragon’s roles in these stories aren’t limited to the said stereotype for the mythology of each country.

What Does a Dragon Mean In Japanese Culture?

The dragon corresponds to the spring season, the element wood, the color blue or green, and the virtue of propriety; maintains and supports the country by controlling rain, which is the symbol of the Emperor’s power.

The dragon is often paired with the Phoenix since the two represent both wedded bliss and conflict.

In Japan as well as China, the phoenix and dragon symbolism are often associated with the imperial family closely.

The emperor is often referred to as the dragon whereas the empress is often referred to as the phoenix.

The dragon is also a representation of the yang principle which is often portrayed surrounded by clouds and water.

In both Japanese and Chinese mythology, the dragon is associated closely with the watery realm and the dragon kings are said to rule over the seas.

Japanese Dragons and Art

When it comes to Japanese or Japanese-inspired art, it is quite common to see the use of dragons.

Over hundreds of years and numerous legends that have transpired, Japanese dragons have now become an emblem for a number of different concepts which include wisdom, strength, luck, prosperity, and longevity.

How the dragon is depicted in art like in a tattoo design, painting, drawing, or even symbol can greatly contribute to the overall concept.

What Are Japanese Dragons Called?

There are a number of different dragons in Japanese mythology but there are some that are extremely well-known. Some of them include:

Ryu Jin or Ryu Wo

This dragon is known to originate from Shinto, Japan’s traditional religion.

It's considered to be a dragon king of a kingdom of serpent people residing under the sea.

It is believed that this dragon ruled a spectacular palace of coral and crystal and has a human body with a serpent entwined in his crown.

Ryu Jin is particularly known for its wisdom and nobility and as a guardian of the Shinto faith.

It is believed that people who have fallen into the sea have continued to live their lives in the kingdom of Ryu Wo.

Ryu Jin's submarine palace is often referred to as Ryugo-Ju. Its messenger is named Riuja, a small white serpent who has the face of an ancient man.

Blue-Green Dragon

This dragon is considered as the guardian of the Eastern signs of the Japanese Zodiac.

The Chinese characters that make up the name of this dragon can be read separately as ging.

That means either young or green and long meaning dragon.

In Japanese, the characters that make up the name of this dragon can be read as aoi for blue-green and ryu for the dragon.

Other Main Dragons

While the above two are the commonly known and popular dragons in Japanese mythology, there are more which include:

  • Sui Riu: A rain dragon and when in pain can cause red-colored rain which signifies its blood.
  • Han Riu: This is a striped dragon with nine different colors. Even though this dragon is known to be 40 feet long, it is said that it can never reach heaven.
  • Ka Riu: This is a small seven feet long dragon and is said that this dragon is scarlet, fiery red. Some even claim that its entire body is in flames.
  • Ri Riu: This dragon is known for its phenomenal sight as it can see more than 100 miles away.
  • Fuku Riu: This is a Japanese dragon known to give good luck. It is always depicted as an ascending creature since an ascending dragon is considered a sign of good luck in Eastern culture.
  • Benten: This is a Japanese Goddess who rides on a nameless dragon. She is known to descend to Earth frequently to put a stop to evil doings caused by other dragons.
  • Kiyo: According to legend, Kiyo was originally a beautiful waitress. She turns into a dragon to seek revenge on the priest that lost his passion for her.
  • Uwibami: This is a huge fearsome flying beast that snatches and devours men right off the back of the horse.
  • Kinryu: This is a golden dragon.
  • Yamata-no-Orochi: This is an eight-headed dragon.
  • O Goncho: This is a white dragon that typically indicates a famine.

Dragons in Japanese Culture: The Conclusion

While there could be some of you who may be skeptical about Japanese dragons, we believe that its symbolism is more than enough to inspire all of us in our lives and to learn from them.

In a way, these creatures are doing what the legend claims them to do and that is to impart wisdom to those who believe in them.

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