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Japanese dragon: origin and symbolism

Japanese Dragon meaning

Everything you need to know about the Japanese dragon

The land of the rising sun has its share of myths and legends. The Japanese Dragon is one of them! Today, we will teach you everything about the origin of this mythical creature.

The Japanese folklore abounds in many stories of ghosts, monsters or curses. Relatively little is said about the Japanese Dragon, which nevertheless has a huge role in popular culture and tradition.

In fact, there are seven different ones with specific powers and characteristics. Also called “nature spirits,” they are often associated with vital elements such as water or fire. You will learn all about this fascinating Japanese creature!

japanese dragon hoodie black

The Japanese dragon origin

Japanese mythology is a mixture of Buddhism, Nippon folklore and various legends accumulated over time. We will first focus on the origin of the creation of the Japanese Dragon as it is conceived today.

Legend has it that after paradise and hell were formed, seven generations of gods called “Kami” emerged.

However, it is believed that all the characteristics of the Japanese dragon come directly from Chinese culture. For this reason, the two creatures are often confused as they are physically very close.

japanese dragon origin

Originally, there are said to have been four legendary creatures responsible for maintaining the balance between cosmic directions:

  • The Phoenix for the south
  • The Turtle for the North
  • The Tiger for the West
  • The Dragon for the East

These four figures can be found on Chinese, Japanese or Korean burials to ward off evil spirits. However, the most famous Japanese dragon, the Ryujin is found in many myths.

The first one, called “The Tale of Tawara Tōda” tells the myth of a Ryujin who offered a bell as a reward for killing a gigantic centipede that threatened to destroy his palace.

japanese water dragon

Indeed, Tawara would have become following this episode a national hero, recognized as the best archer of his time. It is possible to visit the Miidera Temple in Japan, which has the famous bell.

The second myth is that of Urashima Tarō. It tells the story of a fisherman who defended a turtle being bothered by a child on the beach.

To thank him, the sea creature offered him a trip to the underwater palace of a Ryujin.

Upon his arrival, the fisherman was invited to a large feast. When he left, he was given a jewelry box that he could open only when he returned.

Unfortunately, his village had changed and he was unable to find his home. Lost, he met an old woman who told him about a childhood memory: that of a fisherman who had disappeared from the village overnight.

He then opened the famous box, which gave him his true appearance: that of an old man. He then pulled out a feather from underneath the object, which transformed it into energy: that’s how he reached the dragon’s palace.

It should be known that these two very famous tales in Japan are not the only source of inspiration for the Japanese dragon: it also comes from Chinese and even Indian history.

Atlantis japanese dragon

A) Chinese influence

The legend of the Japanese dragons is largely drawn from Chinese culture. This can be explained by the symbols used by their leaders: both the Chinese and Japanese emperors adopted the dragon as a symbol of honor, power, and courage.

Terribly effective during times of war! One side argues that the two dragons are similar in every detail, another that there are differences.

Well, yes, many people equate the two legendary creatures with the eastern dragon, and that’s understandable since their similarity is more obvious than their difference.

dragon chinese emperor

There are, however, some distinctions, such as the fact that the Chinese dragon would have only three claws, while the Japanese dragon would have four.

This difference also exists at the behavioral level, since the latter might have a tendency to behave in a malicious manner.

B) Indian influence

The legend of the Japanese Dragon is also taken from the Indian myth of the Nāga dragon, a mythical creature half dragon, half snake, little known to the Western world.

If you’ve ever been to India, you can’t possibly have missed a temple that displays this iconic figure of the country.

The Nāga is believed to have many virtues and powers, such as guardian of treasures, master of water and mediator between heaven and earth.

The Nāga legend has been transcribed through Buddhism and has impacted China, which in turn has impacted Japan.

We often find the association between the dragon and the pearl: know that it comes directly from the Nāga dragon!

Precisely, it is also common to see the Japanese dragon with two different pearls that control the tides. So we can imagine that there was indeed an influence!

It is important to know that there are different types of Japanese dragons, all coming from myths of popular culture.

dragon sacred pearl

Get ready to discover their powers and their stories!

2) the different Japanese dragons

A) Orochi: the eight-headed dragon

Famous very frightening monsters from Japanese mythology, this dragon has no less than eight heads. What is interesting is that each of them represents an element:

Fire, water, earth, lightning, wind, poison, light or darkness. He is, without a moment’s hesitation, one of the most terrifying creatures in all mythology.

Ryujin dragon

Myths about him describe him as a monster the size of eight mountains, with blood-red eyes. His body is constantly on fire, so anyone touching him would instantly combust.

A sinister sound was played when he arrived in ancient times: that of a bell. It is also said that rivers and streams turn red when he approaches, a sign of bad omen.

Yet considered invincible, the monster was defeated by Susanoo, a deity in human form who came down from the sky to put an end to its massacre.

Susanoo vs Orochi

He erected a palisade around the village and left eight openings in front of which he left eight barrels of sake. Curious, Orochi approached and let his seven heads drink while the last one watched the surroundings.

With his mighty blade, the god cut off the heads of the dragon, which entered into a dark anger. But the dragon was impotent because he was completely drunk with sake, which he had just drunk in large quantities.

This is how the warrior managed to put an end to the terror he was provoking.️ We can therefore without hesitation call it an evil dragon, which contrasts with the Chinese dragon.

B) Ryujin: the God of the sea

dragon Ryujin god of the sea

Also called “Watatsumi,” the Ryujin is a true icon in Japan. It is both feared and respected since it is the one who can provide food to the inhabitants, make the boats arrive safely or on the contrary make them sink to the bottom of the ocean causing tides or even tsunamis.

He has a large palace under water, similar to Atlantis, in which he brings in very rare occasions humans.

C) Kiyohime: the woman who turned into a dragon

This story is about a woman, Kiyohime, daughter of a rich man who ran an inn for weary travelers at the Hidaka River.

One day, a monk returning from a long journey decided to stop for a night at the inn. Immediately, he met the innkeeper’s wife with whom he immediately fell in love.

KIYOHIME woman dragon

Unfortunately, this story was short-lived since the monk, wishing to continue his vow of chastity, decided to leave the inn and leave her.

Sometimes, love turns into disappointment, then anger … and this is exactly what happened when Kiyohime went in search of the man of faith and offered him one last time to accompany him on his journey.

He refused, and resumed his journey in his boat, walking away from the broken-hearted woman. The result was irrevocable: her anger turned her into a dragon.

She relentlessly chased the monk to a temple. Terrified, the monk hid under the enormous bell of the building, but it was a lost cause: Kiyohime sealed his revenge by melting the bell under his breath of fire, which instantly killed the man.

Moral of the story: Never break a woman’s heart. 💔👹

D) Mizuchi: poison dragons

We start again on very evil dragons. The Mizuchi are malicious creatures that live near rivers. They possess a poisonous breath that will kill anyone who gets too close to them.

Mizuchi dragon

There are quite a few legends about these monsters unlike the sea god for example, but they might look like what you can see just above.

We notice a rather notorious resemblance with the European dragon: very scaly body, frightening appearance, big sharp claws. Legend has it that a Japanese warrior set himself the goal of exterminating them all one by one.

After several years, he finally succeeded and threw the bodies of his monstrous opponents into a body of water that filled with their blood, then called the Agatamori pool. ?

E) Seiryu, the Azure dragon

Seiryu dragon

This dragon is very famous and many temples with its effigy have been built. There is a specific reason for this: he is nicknamed the “protector of Kyoto.”

The ancient capital of Japan with 1.5 million inhabitants has paid tribute to him in the most memorable way: by representing him through stone.

It is also important to know that this dragon exists in Chinese mythology and history, to the point that it is still found today on vases or traditional clothing.

The benevolent creature is even represented on the Chinese national flag during the period of the Qing Dynasty, from 1889 to 1912.

Nure Ona dragon woman head

F) Nune-Onna: the woman-headed dragon

A cross between a human, a snake and a dragon, this creature has all the makings of a nightmare. It is often described as having a long and imposing scaly snake’s body, with the head of a Japanese woman who is cold in the back.

We often see him near rivers, washing his long black hair. In some tales, she is seen carrying a baby and giving herself a frightened look to attract people to her. She is said to use her tongue to drink the blood of her victims.

G) Toyotama-Hime: the daughter of Ryujin

Toyotama Hime dragon

This last story tells us that of a daughter of the dragon Ryujin, god of the sea. Very pretty, she married a prince named Hoori after he saved her from a terrible attack.

They lived in Ryujin’s underwater palace for years until Hoori wanted to return to his native village.

His wife became pregnant, and asked her husband not to attend the birth of the baby and leave her in privacy.

Too curious and desperate to witness the birth of her child, he followed her against her will. Surprised, he discovered the truth: Toyotama’s true shape was that of a dragon.

Mad with rage, she abandoned her husband and child and returned to the palace forever. Now, you will see that the representations of the Japanese Dragon in religion: it occupies a central place in it.

dragons in Japanese religion

3) the Japanese dragon in religion

A) Buddhism

Religion has 623 million believers in the world. It is the leading religion in Japan, so it has an enormous influence on the population and the national culture.

Indeed, there are no less than 13 schools of Buddhism in the country, each one conforming to its own current of thought.

Although the Nāga dragon is more widely used to adorn the temples since it is said to be the omnipotent creature who transmitted Buddha’s teachings to man, it is not uncommon to find Japanese dragons in the country’s temples at sunrise.

 japanese dragon temple

B) Shintoism

Literally translated as “the way of the gods,” Shintoism has very close links with Japanese mythology and draws many of its principles from it. Another notorious fact: it is the oldest religion in Japan.

In this current of thought, water and rivers are clearly connected to the Japanese dragon, which is considered a god in this matter. As a result, there are many statues representing him spitting water in order to purify it, all over Japan.

Like the priest who has the power to bless water in the Christian religion, the Shintoists lend this power to the god of water.

Kuzuryu Shine dragon

This same place would be the former home of Toyotama, Ryujin’s daughter.

Religion is closely related to art: it is not uncommon to find sculptures or paintings depicting sacred scenes. The Japanese Dragon is no exception to the rule!

4) the Japanese Dragon in the Culture

1) in the Art

Let’s start with this video which illustrates Keisuke Teshima, a Japanese artist who can paint Japanese dragons with disconcerting ease.

He performs a special technique using his brush to draw the body of the Japanese dragon, which is as thick as an anaconda’s body, and above all very long.

This artist has perfectly captured the mystical and very colorful aspect of the dragon.

More generally, this creature is often found in pottery, paintings or decorations in general.

2) in the Anime

The last part of our article on the Oriental Dragon concerns its appearance in Japanese animation. The creature remains very popular in modern works since it conveys strong values such as nobility, wisdom or courage.

Haku Chihiro

You may have seen the animated film Chihiro’s Journey. It illustrates the adventure of a little girl lost in a world dominated by all kinds of creatures.

Among them is Haku, a Japanese dragon capable of transforming himself into a human and who will accompany Chihiro throughout his journey.

Besides, some people say that Shenlong from Dragon Ball Z is a Japanese dragon: it’s not true! This creature comes directly from Chinese mythology.

That’s it, our article is finished. We are sure that you have been able to learn more about Japanese mythology and its history! You had no idea that the Chinese dragon and its Japanese counterpart were so close, didn’t you?

If you want to bring the myth directly to your home, don’t hesitate to check our magnificent of the Japanese Dragon paintings to install in your home: mystical and Zen atmosphere guaranteed!