Japanese dragons are diverse legendary creatures in Japanese mythology and folklore. Japanese
dragon myths blend native legends with imported stories about dragons from China, Korea and India.
Like these other Asian dragons, most Japanese ones are water deities associated with rainfall and
bodies of water. They are typically depicted as large, wingless, serpentine creatures with clawed feet. The modern
Japanese language has numerous "dragon" words, including indigenous tatsu from Old Japanese ta-tu, Sino-Japanese
ryū or ryō from Chinese lóng, nāga from Sanskrit nāga, and doragon from English dragon
The Kojiki (dating back to about 620 AD) and the Nihongi (dating back to about 720 AD)
mytho-histories have the first Japanese textual references to dragons. "In the oldest annals the dragons are
mentioned in various ways," explains de Visser (1913:135), "but mostly as water-gods, serpent- or dragon-shaped."
The Kojiki and Nihongi mention several ancient dragons:
Yamata-no-Orochi "8-branched giant snake" was an 8-headed and 8-tailed dragon slain by the god of
wind and sea Susanoo. It was said he discovered the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (legendary sword of the Imperial Regalia of
Japan) in one of its tails.
Watatsumi "sea god" or Ryūjin "dragon god" was the ruler of seas and oceans, and described as a
dragon capable of changing into human form. He lived in the undersea Ryūgū-jō "dragon palace castle", where he kept
the magical tide jewels.
Toyotama-hime "Luminous Pearl Princess" was Ryūjin's daughter. She purportedly was an ancestress of
Emperor Jimmu, Japan's legendary first emperor.
Wani was a sea monster that is translated as both "shark" and "crocodile". Kuma-wani "bear (i.e.,
giant or strong) shark/crocodile" are mentioned in two ancient legends. One says the sea god
Kotoshiro-nushi-no-kami transformed into an "8-fathom kuma-wani" and fathered Toyotama-hime. The other says a
kuma-wani piloted the ships of Emperor Chūai and his Empress Jingū.
Mizuchi was a river dragon and water deity. The Nihongi records legendary Emperor Nintoku offering
human sacrifices to mizuchi angered by his river engineering projects. These myths about Emperor Jimmu descending
from Toyatama-hime evidence the folklore that Japanese Emperors are descendants of dragons. Compare the ancient
Chinese tradition of dragons symbolizing the Emperor of China.
Dragons in later Japanese folklore were influenced by Chinese and Indian myths.
Kiyohime "Purity Princess" was a teahouse waitress who fell in love with a young Buddhist priest.
After he spurned her, she studied magic, transformed into a dragon, and killed him.
Nure-onna "Wet Woman" was a dragon with a snake's body and a woman's head. She was typically seen
while washing her hair on a riverbank and would sometimes kill humans when angered.
Zennyo Ryūō "goodness-like dragon king" was a rain-god depicted either as a dragon with a snake on its head or as a
human with a snake's tail.
In My Lord Bag of Rice, the Ryūō "dragon king" of Lake Biwa asks the hero Tawara Tōda to kill a
Urashima Tarō rescued a turtle which took him to Ryūgū-jō and turned into the attractive daughter
of the ocean god Ryūjin.
Inari, the god of fertility and agriculture, was sometimes depicted as a dragon or snake instead of
Chinese dragon mythology is central to Japanese dragons. Japanese words for "dragon" are written
with kanji "Chinese characters", either simplified shinjitai or traditional kyūjitai from Chinese. These kanji can
be read tatsu in native Japanese kun'yomi and ryū or ryō in Sino-Japanese on'yomi.
Many Japanese dragon names are words loaned from the Chinese. For instance, the Japanese
counterparts of the astrological Four Symbols are:
Seiryū < Qinglong "Azure Dragon"
Suzaku < Zhuque "Vermilion Bird"
Byakko < Baihu "White Tiger"
Genbu < Xuanwu "Black Tortoise"
Japanese Shiryū "4 dragon [kings]" are the legendary Chinese Longwang "Dragon Kings" who rule the
Gōkō < Aoguang "Dragon King of the East Sea"
Gōkin < Aoqin "Dragon King of the South Sea"
Gōjun < Aorun "Dragon King of the West Sea"
Gōjun < Aoshun "Dragon King of the North Sea"
Some authors differentiate Japanese ryū and Chinese long dragons by the number of claws on their
feet. "In Japan," writes Gould "it is invariably figured as possessing three claws, whereas in China it has either
four or five claws accordingly as it is an ordinary or an imperial emblem."
During World War II, the Japanese military named armaments after Chinese dragons. The Kōryū "flood
dragon" was a midget submarine and the Shinryū "spirit dragon" was a rocket kamikaze aircraft.
When Buddhist monks from other parts of Asia brought their faith to Japan they transmitted dragon
and snake legends from Buddhist and Hindu mythology. The most notable examples are the nāga or "Nāga; rain deity;
protector of Buddhism" and the nāgarāja or ”Nāgaraja; snake king; dragon king".
De Visser, in his journals, notes that many Japanese nāga legends have Chinese features. "This is
quite clear, for it was via China that all the Indian tales came to Japan.
Moreover, many originally Japanese dragons, to which Chinese legends were applied, were afterwards
identified with nāga, so that a blending of ideas was the result." For instance, the undersea palace where naga
kings supposedly live is called Japanese ryūgū "dragon palace" from the Chinese longgong. Compare ryūgū-jō "dragon
palace castle", which was the sea-god Ryūjin's undersea residence. Japanese legends about the sea-god's tide
jewels, which controlled the ebb and flow of tides, have parallels in Indian legends about the nāga's nyoi-ju
"cintamani; wish-fulfilling jewels".
Some additional examples of Buddhistic Japanese dragons are:
Hachidai ryūō "8 great naga kings" assembled to hear the Buddha expound on the Lotus Sutra, and are a
common artistic motif.
Mucharinda "Mucalinda" was the Nāga king who protected the Buddha when he achieved bodhi, and is
frequently represented as a giant cobra.
Benzaiten is the Japanese name of the goddess Saraswati, who killed a 3-headed Vritra serpent or dragon
in the Rigveda. According to the Enoshima Engi, Benzaiten created Enoshima Island in 552 CE in order to
thwart a 5-headed dragon that had been harassing people.
Kuzuryū "9-headed dragon", deriving from the multi-headed Naga king or "Shesha", is worshipped at
Togakushi Shrine in Nagano Prefecture.
Dragon lore is traditionally associated with Buddhist temples. Myths about dragons living in ponds
and lakes near temples are widespread. De Visser lists accounts for Shitennō-ji in Osaka, Gogen Temple in Hakone,
Kanagawa, and the shrine on Mount Haku where the Genpei Jōsuiki records that a Zen priest saw a 9-headed dragon
transform into the goddess Kannon. In the present day, the Lake Saiko Dragon Shrine at Fujiyoshida, Yamanashi has
an annual festival and fireworks show.
Temple names, like Japanese toponyms, frequently involve dragons. For instance, the Rinzai sect has
Tenryū-ji "Heavenly Dragon Temple", Ryūtaku-ji "Dragon Swamp Temple", Ryōan-ji "Dragon Peace Temple". According to
legend (de Visser 1913:180), when the Hōkō-ji or Asuka-dera Buddhist temple was dedicated at Nara in 596, "a purple
cloud descended from the sky and covered the pagoda as well as the Buddha hall; then the cloud became five-coloured
and assumed the shape of a dragon or phoenix".
The Kinryū-no-Mai "Golden Dragon Dance" is an annual Japanese dragon dance performed at Sensō-ji, a
Buddhist temple in Asakusa. The dragon dancers twist and turn within the temple grounds and outside on the streets.
According to legend, the Sensō Temple was founded in 628 after two fishermen found a gold statuette of Kannon in
the Sumida River, at which time golden dragons purportedly ascended into heaven. The Golden Dragon Dance celebrates
the temple founding and allegedly provides good fortune and prosperity.
Japanese dragons are associated with Shinto shrines as well as Buddhist temples.
Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima or Itsukushima Island in Japan's Inland Sea was believed to be the
abode of the sea-god Ryūjin's daughter. According to the Gukanshō and The Tale of Heike (Heinrich 1997:74-75), the
sea-dragon empowered Emperor Antoku to ascend the throne because his father Taira no Kiyomori offered prayers at
Itsukushima and declared it his ancestral shrine. When Antoku drowned himself after being defeated in the 1185
Battle of Dan-no-ura, he lost the imperial Kusanagi sword (which legendarily came from the tail of the Yamata no
Orochi] dragon) back into the sea. In another version, divers found the sword, and it is said to be preserved at
Atsuta Shrine. The great earthquake of 1185 was attributed to vengeful Heike spirits, specifically the dragon
powers of Antoku.
Ryūjin shinkō "dragon god faith" is a form of Shinto religious belief that worships dragons as
water kami. It is connected with agricultural rituals, rain prayers, and the success of fisherman.
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