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A pair of komainu, the "a" on the right, the "um" on the left

Komainu (狛犬) are creatures that look like lions and are often called lion-dogs in English. Pairs are found guarding shinto shrines. Sometimes they are at the entrance and other times they are inside the shrine. The first type is called sandō komainu (参道狛犬, lit.'entrance-road Komainu') which was made during the Edo period. This type is usually placed at the entrance. The second type is called jinnai komainu (陣内狛犬, lit.'komainu inside the shrine') which is much older and is placed inside the shrine. Komainu can also be found at Buddhist temples, nobility residences or even private homes.[1]

Symbolic meaning[change | change source]

An un-gyō komainu

Komainu statues are made to keep away bad spirits. Usually one lion has an open mouth (a) and the other has a closed mouth (un). But this is not always true.[2] Together, they are known as a-un.[3]

A-un is the Japanese pronounciation of aum and together they represent this Buddhist idea.[4]

History[change | change source]

A statue of a guardian lion looking over Mount Emei, China

Komainu statues strongly resemble Chinese guardian lions and were originally from the Tang dynasty in China.[5] Chinese guardian lions are thought to have been inspired by pelts of Asiatic lions and depictions of lions that were brought through trade from the Middle East or India. The lion was a symbol of strength in those countries.[6] As the symbol traveled along the Silkroad, it changed and took on a unique appearance[source?]. The first lion statue in India was made around the 3rd century BC and was placed on top of a column by King Ashoka.[6] Later, this tradition arrived in China where it developed into the guardian lion that was later exported to Korea, Japan, and Okinawa.

In the Nara period (710–794), which was similar to the rest of Asia, the pair always had two lions.[7] They were made mostly of wood and were used only indoors until the 14th century. During the Heian period (794–1185), pairs made of wood or metal were used as weights and door-stops. In the Imperial Palace, they were used to support screens or folding screens.

In the early Heian period (ninth century), the tradition of the statue pairs changed, and they started to look different and have different names. One of the statues had an open mouth and was called shishi (獅子, which means 'lion') because it resembled a lion like before. The other statue had a closed mouth, looked more like a dog, and was called komainu or "Goguryeo dog". Sometimes, it even had a single horn on its head. Gradually, the animals returned to being identical except for their mouths and were called komainu.[8]

Komainu have been used outdoors only since the 14th century, despite being ubiquitous at shrines now. In Asia, people believed that lions had the power to repel evil, and for this reason, they were commonly used to guard gates and doors. In Japan, they were installed at the entrance of shrines and temples next to the lion-dog.[9] To protect against Japan's rainy weather, komainu started being carved in stone.

The shīsā (シーサー) are stone animals that guard the gates or roofs of houses in Okinawa. They are close relatives of the shishi and the komainu, and they share the same origin, function, and symbolic meaning.[10] The name "shīsā" is a regional variant of "shishi-san" (獅子さん, lit. 'Mr. Lion') that has been used for centuries.[3]

Foxes at Inari shrines[change | change source]

A pair of foxes at an Inari shrine

Foxes are the most common type of statue that guards Inari shrines in Japan. There are around 30,000 Inari shrines in Japan and each one has two fox statues guarding the entrance.[11] The fox statues often have a sūtra roll, key or jewel in their mouth. The fact that sūtras are Buddhist texts shows that the Inari cult has Buddhist origins.[11][12] The statues do not represent the foxes' bad behavior but rather their magical powers. Sometimes the fox statues are painted white, as white foxes are thought to be messengers of the kami. Kami is sometimes shown as a fox too. Even though it's uncommon to see, the left fox statue is believed to be male and the right one is believed to be female.[13]

The fox statues at Inari shrines sometimes wear red votive bibs. The bibs are similar to bibs worn by Jizo but the meaning is unknown.

Gallery[change | change source]

Other pages[change | change source]

  • Chinese guardian lions
  • Chinthe
  • Kitsune
  • Nio
  • Xiezhi

Media related to Inari fox statues at Wikimedia Commons

Notes[change | change source]

  1. Kotera, pages 1 and 2
  2. Shogakukan Encyclopedia, Komainu
  3. 3.0 3.1 Iwanami Kōjien (広辞苑) Japanese dictionary, 6th Edition (2008), DVD version
  4. JAANUS, A un, accessed on July 10, 2010
  5. Encyclopedia of Shinto, Komainu
  6. 6.0 6.1 Shisa Travelogue, Culture of the lion around the world; roots of the shisa Archived October 9, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  7. Kyoto National Museum Dictionary
  8. JAANUS, Komainu, accessed on July 16, 2010
  9. Shogakukan Encyclopedia, Shishi
  10. Shisa Travelogue, The Chinese lion-Guardian dogs Archived October 8, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  11. 11.0 11.1 Scheid, Inari Fuchswächter
  12. On the fusion of Shintō and Buddhism, see the article Shinbutsu shūgō
  13. Smyers (1999:229)

References[change | change source]

  • "JAANUS". on-line Dictionary of Japanese Architectural and Art Historical Terminology.
  • "Lion-dogs". Kyoto National Museum Dictionary. Archived from the original on 3 December 2009. Retrieved 16 July 2010.
  • Mihashi, Ken. "Komainu". Shogakukan Encyclopedia online (in Japanese). Yahoo. Archived from the original on 18 February 2013. Retrieved 16 July 2010.
  • Kanechiku, Nobuyuki. "Shishi" (in Japanese). Shogakukan Encyclopedia online. Archived from the original on 18 February 2013. Retrieved 16 July 2010.
  • Kotera, Yoshiaki. "Komainu" (PDF) (in Japanese). Japanese Religions. Archived from the original (PDF) on 19 July 2011. Retrieved 31 July 2010.
  • Nakayama, Kaoru. "Komainu". Encyclopedia of Shinto. Kokugakuin University. Retrieved 27 December 2010.
  • Scheid, Bernhard. "Inari Fuchswächter" (in German). University of Vienna. Retrieved 30 July 2010.
  • "Shisa Travelogue". Okinawa Prefectural Government. Retrieved 18 July 2010.
  • Smyers, Karen Ann (1999). The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-2102-5. OCLC 231775156.