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History of Japanese Dragons

Chinese | > Japanese | Korean | Vietnamese

> history | famous dragons

"Ryu", and the Sea
Dragon Sculptures & Temples
Dragon Dance
Shrines & Altars
Ancient Japan

Japanese dragons are similar to those of China, but are more serpentine in shape, have only three claws on each foot, and fly less frequently. The reason why they have three toes/claws is because the Japanese believe Eastern dragons originated in their native homeland. Their belief was that when the dragons began to leave Japan, they gained toes. The further the dragons went, the more toes they gained. Which explains why the Chinese and Korean dragons have more toes.

Japanese dragon

artist: Lei Li

"Ryu", and the Sea

The most familiar type of Japanese dragon is the Tatsu or Ryu, which is a descendant of a primitive three-toed variety of Chinese dragon. Japanese dragons are traditionally associated more with the sea than rain. This is because Japan is less vulnerable to drought-related disasters as compared to China. Therefore they didn't feel the same need to pray to rain-releasing dragons.

The Ryu originated from Buddhist religion and is one of the four divine beasts from Japanese mythology (the other three being the phoenix, turtle and kirin. Kirin is the Japanese unicorn). It is frequently the emblem of the Emperor or the hero.

The Ryu rules water. There is a story of how Ryu (or Ryu-jin, the most well-known dragon in Japanese legend) summons a storm by howls, and then transforms into a tornado. The tornado is called "Tatsu-maki" in Japanese. Tatsu is the kanji (Japanese calligraphy) meaning "dragon". Maki means "roll".

Dragon Sculptures & Temples

Kiyomizu dragon

Kiyomizu Temple: Kyoto, Japan
©Shawna Scherbarth 2001-05. All rights reserved.

Dragon sculptures were often used to decorate the exterior of temples for Buddhists and Taoists of China and Japan. They represented the obstacles humans face throughout life that must first be overcome before enlightenment could be attained.

The dragon is chief among the ideal creatures of Japan. It is seen carved upon tombs, on temples, dwellings, and shops.

Dragon Dance

The Kinryu-no-Mai (Golden Dragon Dance) is held at the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa every Spring. The dragon is taken through the grounds of the Sensoji in a parade and then into the temple itself. People throw money into a grate and touch the dragon for luck. After this the dragon is taken outside and there is a performance where the dragon twists and turns in front of the watching crowd.

Golden dragon dance

The Kinryu-no-Mai is held at the
Sensoji Temple in Asakusa every Spring.
© SteveGoesTravelling

The festival commemorates the discovery in 628 of the temple's gold Kannon, which is an image of the Goddess of Mercy, by two brothers who were fishing in the Sumida River. Legend says the discovery caused golden dragons to fly up to heaven. The dance is performed to celebrate this and bring good fortune and prosperity.

Shrines & Altars

Dragon shrines and altars can still be seen in many parts of the Far East. They are usually along seashores and riverbanks, because most Eastern Dragons live in water.

Dragon at Hakone Shrine

Water Dragon: Hakone Shrine | Lake Ashiko, Japan.
© in-communicado

The Isle of the Temple, in Japan's Inland Sea, has become a famous stopover for pilgrims who meditate and pray to dragons. Descendants of the dragon became great rulers.

Ancient Japan

The Japanese Emperor Hirohito traced his ancestry back 125 generations to Princess Fruitful Jewel, daughter of a Dragon King of the Sea.

For hundreds of years, Japanese emperors sat concealed behind bamboo curtains whenever visitors came. Anyone who dared to peek was condemned to Death.

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