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.
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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!