There are dragons of all different shapes and sizes. There’s the big, European dragons with their hulking bodies, expansive wing span, and fire breath, and then there are the Asian style dragons which are a good bit different.

And then we have the Japanese dragon, a unique dragon that many would recognize as being an Asian dragon, but what really makes them Japanese? The dragon has significant meaning in Japanese culture, but I feel as though many outside of Japan aren’t very familiar with them other than what they look like.

Physical Appearance

Speaking of what they look like, what makes a Japanese dragon a Japanese dragon? When most westerners picture a dragon, they’ll think of the above mentioned European style dragons with their big wings and fire breath. Japanese dragons are quite different. Japanese dragons, and Asian dragons in general, are much more serpentine than their European counterparts. Japanese dragons also only have three claws on each foot, and don’t fly as often as they lack wings.

The Japanese believe that Asian dragons originated in Japan and as they spread to other areas of Asia, gained more toes through evolution or something. China and Korea hold just the opposite to be true. They believe that Asian dragons originated in their country, then lost toes as they moved themselves over to Japan.

Japanese dragons combine native legends with dragon stories from China, Korea, and India. Like these other Asian dragons, most Japanese dragons are associated with rainfall and bodies of water. They are regarded as water deities and are not associated with fire in the way their European cousins are.

Dragon Shrines and Temples

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Dragon lore is associated with both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. There are many legends of famous dragon deities inhabiting ponds, lakes, and rivers near these shrines and temples.

Temple names also frequently have something to do with dragons. For example, there is the Rinzai sect’s Tenryuji (Heavenly Dragon Temple), Ryutakuji (Dragon Swamp Temple), and Ryoanji (Dragon Peace Temple).

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The Kinryu no Mai (Golden Dragon Dance) is an annual dragon dance performed at the Buddhist temple Sensoji in Asakusa. The dance weaves in and out of the temple grounds and outside onto the streets.

According to the legends, Sensoji was founded in 628 after two fishermen found a golden figurine of Kannon in the Sumida River and golden dragons ascended into heaven for some reason. The Golden Dragon Dance celebrates the temple founding and provides good fortune and prosperity for all.

I’ve never been to a Golden Dragon Dance myself, but they look pretty nifty. Lots of music and dragon showmanship abound from the looks of it. It sure seems like a worthwhile thing to view.

There’s even a form of dragon worship in Japan. Ryūjin shinkō (dragon god faith) is a form of Shinto religious belief that worships dragons as water gods. It has connections with agricultural rituals, rain prayers, and the general success of fisherman which makes sense, as Japan is an island nation.

Dragons in Popular Culture

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Dragons are a familiar motif in Japanese art, architecture, literature, and popular culture. Japan has the Chunichi Dragons baseball team, lots of dragon kaiju monsters, and even Dragon Ball. There’s also lots of video games having to do with dragons such as the Dragon Quest and Breath of Fire series.

The dragon is one of the four divine beasts from Japanese mythology (the other three being the phoenix, turtle, and kirin). It is frequently the emblem of emperors and heroes, which makes sense, as dragons are pretty awesome and stuff.

And then of course there’s the frill shark, which is basically a real live dragon.

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Perhaps the frill shark was responsible for some of the lore associated with Japanese dragons. It lives in the sea, and is serpentine in form. I wouldn’t be surprised if back in the day some Japanese person saw one of these washed up on the beach somewhere and thought it must be a dragon.

Dragons in the Japanese Zodiac

The dragon is one of the twelve zodiac signs used in Japan. The birth years for the dragon are 2000, 1988, 1976, 1964, 1952, 1940, 1928, and 1916. People born in the year of the dragon are healthy, energetic, excitable, short-tempered, and stubborn. However, they are also honest, sensitive, brave, and can inspire trust in most anyone. They are the most peculiar of the 12 signs of the Zodiac cycle.

I was born in the year of the tiger which is said to “require patience” with those of the dragon sign, but I won’t hold it against you dragonborn folk. I don’t really subscribe to the whole astrology horoscope deal, but it is pretty interesting to read about sometimes, much like the way Japan links personality traits and horoscopes with blood types.

Dragon Tattoos

Since dragons are so important to the Japanese people, it only makes sense that they’re such a popular design for tattoos both inside and out of the Yakuza. As a tattoo, the Japanese dragon represents guardianship and protection. It can also mean strength, power, and wisdom.

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Even people outside of Japan get Japanese dragon tattoos because they’re so cool, like the American firefighter in the video above.

Dragons really have a large presence in Japan when you get right down to it. You can find them adorning shrines and temples, participating in parades, in video games, TV shows, at the bottom of the ocean, and even on people’s bodies. Pretty cool, huh?

So tell me, who would win in a fight between a European dragon and a Japanese dragon? Were you born in the year of the dragon? Would you ever consider getting a dragon as a tattoo? Already have one? Share your story in the comments below!

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  • Josh

    I guess it would be largely a fight of water against fire, so of otherwise equally matched dragons, it would seem the Japanese dragon would have the advantage, although flight might come into play.


    Do you know if Japanese Dragons share the claw detail that Chinese Dragons do? Meaning Dragons outside of Imperial structures were the only one that could have 4 claws, whereas everyone else could have three clawed Dragons.

  • deitgeb

    Humans: find a living fossil, capture it and kill it -.-

  • orangedude

    I think it’d all come down to the location of the fight. If they’re on land, I’d have to give it to the European Dragon; since it has fire and is more likely to fly. If they’re near or in/above deep water I’d give it to the Japanese Dragon, with it’s connection to the ocean it’s not likely it’d be able to drown (which probably isn’t the case with the European Dragon).

  • FoxiBiri

    This may come as a surprise but… 2012 is the year of the Dragon ^^

  • kelseyroo

    Did you know there’s also a girl with a dragon tattoo?


    Hell yeah…my year!

  • Helio Perroni Filho

    An acquaintance of mine once said, “if you’re a dragon you tattoo an idiot to your arm, and vice versa.” I don’t really subscribe to this opinion, but I get his point: as with most other symbols, so many people tattoo dragons for no other reason than the “coolness” factor, that whatever meaning their image was supposed to have is lost in the noise.

    On a totally unrelated note, in the Fantasy / Cyberpunk table-top RPG Shadowrun, both “Western” and “Eastern” dragons feature as powerful Non-Player Characters (NPC’s). A couple year back there was even an event where a dragon was elected president of (Shadowrun’s rather dilapidated version of) the US! How’s that for increasing popular interest in elections?

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Do we… get a reward for following these instructions?

  • HatsuHazama

    And there I was thinking everyone was using the Mayan calendar this year…

  • HatsuHazama

    Me and a friend were mystified by some art student’s work at my school, a chinese dragon with 4 claws, yet a paragraph of Japanese in the corner. Still confused.
    Very nice pictures in the article.

  • John

    I feel I probably should have mentioned this in the article, lol – thanks.

  • John

    From what I understand, they normally live really deep under the sea and the one in the video had something wrong with it which was why it was in the shallows where it wouldn’t normally be. So I think it was probably already on its way out of this world when they found it.

  • Reptic

    As cool as the Japanese dragon is, I think the European dragon would probably win in a fight. It just seems so much more vicious. In the old tales Europeans were always trying to slay their dragons because they were almost always up to no good, whereas the Japanese dragons seem a bit friendlier and less aggressive.

    I guess the only real way to decide though is a Pokemon battle:
    lvl 100 Charzard vs lvl 100 Rayquaza. May the best dragon inspired fictional monster win.

  • orangedude

    I think it’d be interesting to get Tofugu’s take on the entire Japanese Zodiac (not just the blood types).

  • kaminix

    softypapa who’s author of the first video is a very cool YouTube channel by the way. He makes a lot of slow pace videos walking in Japanese forests and commenting on what he sees. Knows a lot about ancient Japanese culture and can sometimes tell a long and good story about some seemingly insignificant piece of rust he runs across.

  • Hinoema

    No mention of the Kohaku River dragon? Aww!

  • ZXNova

    People seem to often mistaken niceness for weakness… Which is not the case at all. And Lvl 100 Rayquaza wins. Cause Rayquaza is a Dragon/Flying making itself resistant to Fire, and has a higher base total then Charizard. [680 Rayquaza, 504 Charizard] There’s a lot more, but Rayquaza destroys Charizard.

  • Reptic

    I’m not talking about niceness, though. I’m talking about viciousness. If two guys get into a fight, usually they will throw punches or grab each other — but a particularly vicious guy might go straight for the balls and then try to bite the other guy’s face off. It’s that killer instinct that gives the advantage. The Japanese dragon could be super powerful, but it seems more reserved and not as savage as the Euro dragon, that’s why i still believe the Euro dragon would win.

    Also, Rayquaza is a legendary Pokemon, so yea, statistically I set Charizard up for failure. But if this was Ash’s Charizard from the early seasons of the anime, it might just be able to overcome its statistical limitations if Ash’s life was in danger… but now I think this is too deep of an analysis for a simple joke.

  • Koichi

    Did you know you can download my decks free if you just search in Anki? Save yourself some money!

  • Kayla Crager

    Heyy This reminds me, it would be awesome if Tofugu did an article on Tebori, traditional tattooing with needles, like Hiroyoshi the IIIrd’s work !

  • Heyo

    To my knowledge, the four divine beasts are the white tiger, the azure dragon, the vermillion bird and the black tortoise. There is no kirin or pheonix or turtle, though suzaku (the bird) is often confused with the asian pheonix (ho-ou)

  • Heyo

    sorry, hou-ou.

  • japanese dragon rules

    japanese dragons curbstomps the European dragon, if it try to fly away the Japanese dragon would use weather control in blast it with lightning lets see it dodge lightning, or it could use water power to boil it alive by taking control of the water in it’s body, or by removing all the water in it’s body simple.

  • Ignatius

    I think its wrong to say Japan has 3 claws dragons while China has 5 claws, in China only the emperor’s dragon has 5 claws, high ranking officials has 4, while low ranking and commoners has 3. It is death penalty for anyone other than the emperor to wear clothing sewed with 5 claws dragon.

  • Mikaela Ströder

    Korean dragons have 4 claws