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Dragons in Japanese mythology (history & symbolism)

The Japanese Dragon is considered a legendary creature in the Land of the Rising Sun. The meanings and symbols of the Japanese dragon are very similar to those of the Chinese dragons. Today, we will look at the dragon in Japanese mythology, as well as what it represents in Japanese culture. ?

The mythical beasts are impressive. And guess what? One of the best known is the legendary dragon! ? They play a huge role in Japanese mythology, their stories and legends go back thousands of years. If you like Japanese artwork like anime, manga and video games, you’ve probably already come across a dragon. By the way, if you like their jewelry, our Dragon Rings are worth a look. ?

Japanese Dragon: Meaning and Symbols

Japanese dragon symbols are evidence of myths that have formed a complex belief system in Japanese culture. Dragon representations are used throughout Japanese tradition as symbols of strength, courage, wisdom and magic. ?

Unlike the dragons of Western mythology, Japanese dragons have no wings, but most can fly. The Japanese dragon’s ability to fly is still quite mysterious, it is one of its physical abilities which is said to be based on magic. Some Japanese dragons can also live underwater and are believed to reside in large areas of water, such as lakes and oceans.

japanese dragon meaning symbols

Cultural influences came to Japan from the south via Indonesia centuries before the advent of Buddhism. This naturally emphasized the serpentine shape of the dragon and its connection to the ocean. The river gods were true four-legged dragons. The four main “Dragon Kings” are recognized in Japan and China, their meanings and symbols are :

Sui Riu: rain dragon, when it suffers, causes a red rain, colored by its blood.

Han Riu: striped dragon of nine different colors, it is 12 meters long. He could never reach the sky.

Ka Riu: Small dragon, only 2.13 meters long. It is fiery red and its body would be inflamed.

Ri Riu: dragon with a fantastic view, he can see more than 160 kilometers away.

The Japanese dragon is everywhere, it is present on the engravings of tombs, temples, houses and stores. It even appears on government documents, banknotes. It is on new coins, in pictures and books, on musical instruments, in high relief on bronze and stone sculptures.

Japanese Dragon Characteristics

For some authors, Japanese dragons have the appearance of huge fish that have grown disproportionately, giving birth to extraordinary creatures. However, Japanese dragons are described in different ways, here is a list of its physical features :

  • The body of a snake ?
  • The scales of a lizard ?
  • The leather of a deer ?
  • The head of a crocodile ?
  • The eyes of a cat ?
  • The nose of a salamander ?
  • The claws of an eagle ?
  • The mane of a lion ?
  • The whiskers of a catfish ?
Japanese Dragon Characteristics

Their main habitat is the oceans, rivers and lakes. Their claws are large, the Japanese dragon would have three claws reminiscent of those of an eagle, its breath is considered to have the ability to create clouds of rain and fire. The body of the Japanese dragon can expand and contract at will, and some Japanese dragons are attributed with the ability to transform into another being or become invisible.

Buddhist temple Dragons and Shinto Shrines Dragon

Japanese dragons, or at least serpentine creatures with supernatural powers, are descended from Shintoism. Their serpentine form is related to the sinuous shape of rivers. You will find many dragon symbols in Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, especially those near bodies of water.

Buddhist Shinto shrine dragon

It is very common for the names of temples and shrines to contain the word “dragon”. Patterns and paintings of dragons adorn temples and shrines. Many ceilings are decorated with murals depicting various dragons. Japanese dragon heads often adorn bells and other decorative objects. ?

Japanese Dragon Tattoos Meaning

Japanese dragons are also used in a wide variety of stylistic representations found in historical and modern tattoos. If you are considering getting a dragon tattoo, you will want to take the time to study different designs that represent the strengths and characteristics of the dragon you possess or want to have drawn on your skin. There are many color combinations for these detailed drawings.

Japanese Dragon Tattoos Meaning

The Japanese believed that a dragon tattoo would infuse them with power and magic. The recommended place for a dragon tattoo varies according to its size, shape and meaning. The back, arm and forearm are the places on the body most used for dragon tattoos.

Gods in Japanese Mythology

Japanese mythology is based on Buddhist, Shinto and traditional myths to describe the history of its creation and the legends that succeeded it. At the foundation of the universe, it is believed that different deities appeared and were collectively called kotoamatsukami. Once the sky and the earth were constituted, seven generations of gods (named kami) emerged. They are considered to be “Kamiyonanayo” (Age of Seven Generations of Gods).

Gods in Japanese Mythology

According to Japanese creation mythology, the Kamiyonanayo was made up of twelve gods. Among them, three kami had managed to exist on their own, they are called “Hitorigami”. The most emblematic being Izanagi and Izanami. The nine others were manifested as man-woman pairs, either brothers and sisters or married couples.

Izanagi Izanami dragon

From these entities, many gods and goddesses were born, as well as various creatures that served them as guardians, messengers, warriors, and enemies. The Japanese dragons were unique, these gods of water reigned over the oceans, fought other gods, and turned into humans. They are attributed with symbols of wisdom, success and strength.

Dragons in Japanese Mythology

Some of the first appearances of dragons in Japanese mythology took place in the Kojiki (680 AD) and the Nihongi (720 AD). The Kojiki, commonly known as Furukotofumi, is a diverse set of myths related to the four islands of Japan. The Nihongi, also called Nihon Shoki or Chronicles of Japan, is a more complete and detailed historical work than the Kojiki. In these two texts, aquatic deities in the form of snakes or dragons are evoked many times and in many ways. These creatures are considered to be the traditional Japanese dragons. Below is the history of these Japanese dragons.

Dragons in Japanese Mythology

Yamata No Orochi (八岐大蛇): The Giant Eight-Headed Snake

Yamata no Orochi, or just Orochi, was a dragon with eight heads and eight tails that each year devoured one of the daughters of the kunitsukami, two earthly gods. The legend begins by describing how Susanoo, the Shinto god of the sea and storms, was banished from the heavens because of her wiles towards Amaterasu, her sister and the sun goddess. Near the Hi River (now called Hii River) in Izumo Province, Susanoo met the kunitsukami, who lamented that they had to sacrifice a girl every year for seven years to please Orochi and that they would soon have to sacrifice their last daughter, Kushi-nada-hime.

Yamata No Orochi

Susanoo offered her help to save Kushi-nada-hime in return for her hand in marriage. The kunitsukami agreed and Susanoo turned their daughter into a comb before their eyes. Then he slipped it in her hair and told the kunitsu kami to make her an eight-fold sake and build her eight closets, each with a barrel full of alcohol. When Orochi arrived, Susanoo saw that he had red eyes, a tail and one to eight forks. Cypresses and growing firs on his back. The size of the dragon spread over eight valleys and eight hills as it crawled towards the homeland of the Kunitsukami. ?

When Orochi arrived at the thermal baths, he drank all the sake, got drunk and fell asleep. Susanoo took the opportunity to slay the dragon using her ten-toothed sword to slice it into small pieces. Opening the dragon’s tail, Susanoo found a sword inside, which would later be called the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, the same sword that Susanoo would later give to Amaterasu as a sign of reconciliation. The sword, along with a mirror and a jewel called Yata no Kagami and Yasakani no Magatama respectively, are considered the imperial symbols of Japan.

Ryūjin (海神) : The God of the Sea 

Ryūjin or Watatsumi, was a legendary water god and a Japanese dragon in the universe of Japanese mythology. Another nickname for the dragon is Ōwatatsumi no kami, which means “the great god of the sea”. According to Japanese mythology, Ryūjin occupied a palace known as Ryūgū-jō under the sea. It is believed that he was the guardian of the Shinto religion and that he received humans into his kingdom if they fell into the sea. He and his countless daughters made multiple appearances in various legends.


A story in the Kojiki tells how a man named Hoori misplaced his brother’s hook in the sea. While searching for him, he met Otohime, a Watatsumi ‘s daughter. Hoori and the dragon goddess soon married and established their residence at Ryūgū-jō. After three years, Hoori felt homesick and wanted to live on land again, but he was afraid to face his brother without his hook. Watatsumi confronted Hoori about what was troubling him and understanding his concerns, the god of water summoned all the fish in the sea to ask if any of them had seen the hook. Miraculously, one of them had gotten it stuck in its throat. It was retrieved, washed, and given to Hoori.

dragon Ryūjin

Watatsumi ordered Hoori to bring Otohime back to earth with him using a wani, another mythical dragon, described as a sea monster. In the Nihongi, Watatsumi also makes an appearance through the tales of Emperor Keiko and Emperor Jimmu. According to the writings, Emperor Keiko’s army crossed difficult waters crossing the land between the Sagami and Kazusa provinces. This calamity was associated with Watatsumi, to whom human sacrifices had to be made in order to be blessed. Watatsumi is mentioned in the story of Emperor Jimmu because he claims to be a descendant of Toyotama-hime, the daughter of Otohime and Hoori.

Toyotama Hime (豊玉姫) : The Dragon Goddess

Toyotama-hime, as mentioned before, is a descendant of Ryūjin. She is also known as a princess “with luxurious jewels” and is mentioned in the legend “The luck of the sea and the luck of the mountains”. In this tale, Toyotama-hime is not introduced as the daughter of Otohime and Hoori, instead, she assumes the role of Otohime herself. Moreover, Ryūjin recognizes that she is the heir of another god and immediately organizes a banquet for him.

Toyotama hime

The same events, that the two got married, lived at Ryūgū-jō for three years and returned to the land, remain true. Their earthly life is then traced in detail. At the announcement of their pregnancy, Hoori builds a hut for Toyotama-hime where she will be able to give birth to their child. The goddess asked her husband not to attempt the birth of their son, Ugayafukiaezu, but Hoori’s curiosity led him to spy on his wife.

Curiously, instead of seeing Toyotama-hime, Hoori saw a wani similar to a crocodile rocking his son. Obviously, for Toyotama-hime to give birth to her son, she had to turn into a wani and she didn’t want her husband there to judge her like that. Toyotama-hime caught Hoori watching her. Betrayed, she could not forgive him, she chose to leave him and their son by going back to Ryūgū-jō. She sent her sister, Tamayori, to Hoori to help her raise Ugayafukiaezu. Tamayori and Ugayafukiaezu eventually married and gave birth to a son, Jimmu. ?

Mizuchi (蛟 or 虯): The Hornless Dragon

Mizuchi was a water dragon that occupied the Kawashima River and slayed travelers by spitting venom at them. Agatamori, ancestor of the Kasa no Omi clan, went to the river and challenged the dragon. Agatamori threw three gourds (gourd-shaped fruit) into the river which remained on the surface of the water. He asked Mizuchi to make the gourds sink, otherwise he might have to kill him.

Mizuchi dragon

The dragon turned into a deer to try to drown the gourds, but never succeeded in the challenge. As a result, Agatamori killed the dragon as well as the other water dragons at the bottom of the river. Legend has it that the river turned red because of all these slain dragons. Since then, the river has been called Agatamori’s Pond.

Kiyohime (清姫): The Princess Kiyo

It was believed that Kiyohime, or simply Kiyo, was the daughter of a lord or village chief named Shoji. Their family was relatively wealthy and devoted themselves to receiving and housing the priests on pilgrimage. The legend of Kiyohime tells us that a charming priest by the name of Anchin fell in love with the attractive young girl, but that he eventually overcame his impulses and preferred to refrain from meeting her again. This sudden turnaround was not well received by Kiyohime, who attacked the priest with passion. Meeting again on the Hidaka River, Anchin asked for the help of a boatman to cross the river. He told the boatman not to let Kiyohime board a boat so that he could escape.

Understanding Anchin’s plan, Kiyohime dived into the Hidaka River and began to swim his boat. As he swam, his great rage turned him into a great dragon. Anchin took refuge in a temple known as Dojo-ji and sought assistance and protection. The priests of the temple hid him under a bell, but Kiyohime was able to locate him by his scent. She wrapped herself around the bell and banged on it noisily using her tail several times. Then she spat out a large amount of fire, which eventually melted the bell and killed Anchin. ?

Wani (わに): The Sea Dragon

The appearance of the Wani is that of a monster or sea dragon living in deep water. They have a long and serpentine body, fins and can breathe air and water. Wani are capable of transforming into humans, and there are even stories of Wani and humans falling in love. Notably, one of the most famous legends of the Wani is the story of Toyotama-hime, the daughter of Ryūjin.

wani dragon

Behavior : The Wani are the rulers of the oceans and the gods of the sea. They live in splendid coral palaces at the bottom of the ocean. The Wani have a complex political hierarchy that mirrors that of the surface world. There are kings and queens, princes and princesses, courtesans, servants. Ōwatatsumi, also known as Ryūjin, is the largest of them. He rules the sea from his palace Ryūgū-jō. He controls the ebb and flow of the ocean with the tidal jewels kanju and manju.

Origin: The Wani appear in the first written traces of Japanese myths, the Kojiki and the Nihon shoki. Their stories almost certainly date back to an even more distant era, in the mists of prehistory. Specialists disagree on whether the first legends of the wani originated in Japan or were imported from other cultures, citing the similarities between the wani and the long Chinese or Indian naga. The wani play an important role in Japanese mythology, especially in the mythological foundation of Japan.

Nure-Onna (濡女): The Soaked Woman

Appearance: The Nure-onna is a vampiric sea snake that haunts shores and rivers in search of humans to devour. They are most often found on the shores of the island of Kyūshū. There are stories of nure-onna encounters from Niigata Prefecture to Fukushima Prefecture. There are two variants of this yōkai :

  • One without arms, looking like a huge sea snake with a woman’s head.
  • One with arms, humanoid type.
Nure onna

Apart from this difference, both look and act exactly the same. Their faces are hideous and reveal snake-like characteristics like a forked tongue. They have long black hair that sticks to their dripping body. Their name comes from the fact that they always look wet.
Interactions : Although physically much stronger than a human, the nure-onna prefer not to use brute force and use cunning to catch their prey. They most often appear near water, on a coast or by a river. Nure-onna magically disguises herself as a distressed woman carrying a wrapped baby in her arms. They cry out for help to fishermen, sailors or anyone passing by.

Nure onna 1

When the prey approaches, the nure-onna pleads with her victim to hold her baby for a moment so she can rest. If he accepts and takes the bundle, the “baby” becomes as heavy as a rock. Making the person immobile. The nure-onna is then free to attack her helpless victim, draining and feeding on her blood with her long serpentine tongue. Nure-onna often appear together and cooperate with ushi oni as they live in the same environments and share the same diet.

Zennyo Ryūō (善女竜王): The Sovereign Dragon

Zennyo Ryūō is a dragon from Japanese mythology. Other spellings and variations of the name include Zennyo Ryuo, Zen-nyo-ryu-o, Zentatsu and Zen-tatsu. A common description of Zennyo Ryūō in Shinsen’en stories is that it is a small dragon (about two meters long) with a small golden snake on its head. He is also capable of appearing in human form. However, its dragon tail remains visible.

zennyo ryuo

Most stories agree that Zennyo Ryūō preferred to live in ponds and lakes. He often received prayers and offerings to produce rain. Zennyo Ryūō was originally described as living in a pond on Mount Muro. A shrine was built for this dragon king some time after 781-783 A.D. This shrine was used to make offerings to Zennyo Ryūō in exchange for rain. Twin dragon models made of materials such as straw and reeds are one such offering. Other sources claim that Zennyo Ryūō was originally one of the dragon (or naga) kings of the Anavatapta Pond, the place in the Himalayas where many rivers originate.

Zennyo Ryūō 2

Originally, Shinsen’en (or Shinzen’en) was a garden used by the rich for entertainment. In times of drought, water from the pond was given to farmers to irrigate their land, meaning that the pond was already connected to the water supply. The Zennyo gesture Ryūō was attributed to the Shingon Buddhist monks, who performed rituals invoking the appearance of the dragon. The monks became responsible for the rain rituals necessary to persuade or compel Zennyo Ryūō to provide rain. The observations of these monks showed that Zennyo Ryūō was a golden dragon with a snake on its head.

Differences between Chinese and Japanese Dragon

In China as in Japan, the dragon is one of the most significant symbols of culture and religion. The study of each culture’s perception of this ancient mythological creature is essential to understanding Japanese and Chinese political history, science, and many other aspects. Japanese dragon mythology derives mainly from Chinese traditions, which makes the difference between the Chinese and Japanese dragon very difficult to notice.

Differences between Chinese and Japanese Dragon

Unlike Western dragons, Japanese and Chinese dragons usually appear as snake-like creatures. Japanese dragons have a slender body with a large head, while Chinese dragons have a larger body but a smaller head. Both types of dragons have no wings. Chinese dragons always have five fingers or claws (except the Imperial dragon which has four), while Japanese dragons have only three.

That’s the end of the article on the Japanese dragon, I hope it will get you more, don’t hesitate to comment and to appropriate one of these superb dragon incense-holders. It breathes soothing and stress-relieving aromas into your home.

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