I recently received a tweet from some students who queried my claim that I was a dragonologist. So I’ve decided to write occasional dragon blogs, to prove my credentials. This is the first one on Japanese dragons which didn’t make it into by dragon encyclopedia Dragon Companion.
At first glance, Japanese dragons look very similar to Chinese dragons. They are four-legged, wingless and have a close connection to water, but careful inspection reveals unique features.
The Chinese dragon has branched horns but the Japanese dragon’s are long and straight. Where the Chinese dragon has four or five toes on each paw, the Japanese has only three. The typical Japanese dragon has a short, spiky beard and moustache as well as eyebrows, but it has no mane. In paintings, Japanese dragons are often shown in the sea, where as Chinese dragons are usually flying through the air.
The chief difference between Chinese and Japanese dragons, however, is not in their appearance but in their disposition. Where dragons from China are generally benevolent and never harm humans, Japanese dragons are aggressive and at times deadly.
Susanowo Slays the Eight-Tailed Dragon
Though the look of the Japanese dragon has been derived from the image of a Chinese dragon, there are unique Japanese stories that belong to the Shinto tradition. It is recorded in the Kojiki, a collection of Japanese myths which was written in 680 CE.
One of my favourites is the story of Susanowo, the storm god (who, incidentally, was born from the nose of his father Izanagi). Susanowo was a bit of a bad boy and was expelled from Heaven to the earthly realm. While he was down here, he showed his good side. He came across an old couple weeping by the side of the Pi River. He asked them why they were so distressed and they told him that an eight- tailed dragon, Yamata-no-orochi, had each year been demanding the sacrifice of their daughters. Once they had had eight daughters, now there was only one left, Kusi-nada-hime, and on that very day the dragon was coming to take her. Susanowo said he would save the girl.
This particular dragon, as well as having eight tails, also had eight heads. Susanowo arranged eight barrels of sake on the riverbank. As Susanowo expected, the dragon came and immediately dipped his eight heads into the eight barrels. He got very drunk and lay down to sleep. Susanowo drew his sword and cut off the dragon’s eight heads, and for good measure he cut off the tails as well. (Inside one of the tails he found another sword which has its own story.) The old couple were delighted, and, no surprise, Susanowo married their daughter.
His eyes are like red ground cherries;
His one body has eight heads and eight tails.
On his body grow moss and cypress and cryptomeria trees.
His length is that he spans eight valleys and eight mountain peaks.
Kojiki, 680 CE
Dragonspotting in Japan
Dragonspotting in Japan can be a rewarding exercise. Many temples and shrines have gorgeous dragons in the form of carvings, paintings and water fountains called tsukubai which are for hand washing before entering.
If you’re not going to Japan, tour some of the best Japanese temple dragons online:
Kojiki, 1968, trans. Donald L Philippi, University of Tokyo Press