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Lion Foo Dogs

  • At most Japanese shrines there is a pair of dog-like lions at the entrance. In Okinawa they are just about at all places. Some variation on these creatures can be seen in Tibet, Myanmar, Korea, China and other East Asian countries, or even at Chinese restaurants in the West. In English they are known as lions, Foo dogs, Fu dogs, lion dogs or dogs. They are called koma-inu in Japan and shisa in Okinawa. In fact these animals are lions.
  • India is the starting point of the lion statues’ route to Japan, because it appears to have moved together with the Buddhist faith. Ancient lion statues are also in Middle Eastern countries.
  • Lions appeared in Indian temple art and showed up in Chinese Buddhist art. The lion was an emblematic defender of the dharma. Over time, lions also became defenders of imperial gates.
  • Lion protectors had come to Japan by the Nara period (710-794). Early on, they were generally made from wood and used only indoors. In the 9th century, a change took place, and the pair began to consist of one open-mouthed lion (shishi) and one horn-bearing, close-mouthed, dog-like koma-inu. Koma-inu means Korean dog. The horn disappeared by the fourteenth century and the pair came to be known as koma-inu. Simultaneously, people began making them from stone and using them outdoors. Lion guardians might have primarily been linked with Buddhist temples due to lions’ Buddhist links in China, as well as the early Korean impacts on Japanese lions.
  • Before the 19th century they could be found throughout Mesopotamia, Palestine, Persia, and much of India. In China, caged lions were also known. There is no way to confirm or deny the existence of caged lions in Japan. However, unusual animals were sometimes presented as part of carnivals during the Tokugawa periods. Before the modern age, the vast majority of Japanese had never seen a real lion.
  • When seen in pairs, both in Okinawa as well as Japan, one lion typically has its mouth shut while the other’s is open. It is not a coincidence, but instead a Buddhist symbolism. It is also sometimes said that the close-mouthed animal is female, while the other is male.
Popular Protector
  • Lion sculptures are a feature on shrine grounds in Japan. In Okinawa lion sculptures are ubiquitous. In Okinawa lion sculptures are called shisa, meaning lion. They are made from a range of materials. They are not just at areas of exceptional spiritual importance, but at the entrances or on the roofs of businesses and homes. Lion sculptures are available at souvenir shops.
Living Legend
  • There are 2 legends of shisa heroism:
  • A Chinese representative brought a necklace embellished with a statue of a shisa for the king as a gift. In the meantime, at Naha bay, the community of Madanbashi was being terrified by a sea monster which ate the residents and demolished their belongings. One day, when the king was on a visit to the village, the monster attacked suddenly. All the people hid and ran. In a dream the local woman priest had been told to tell the king when he visited to stand up on the coast and lift his statue towards the monster; she sent a boy to communicate him. The king confronted the monster with the statue held high, and instantly a huge thunder sounded all over the village, a thunder so powerful and deep that it even shook the monster. Then and there a huge stone dropped from heaven and compressed the monster’s tail. He could not move, and ultimately died.
  • In the remote southern region of Okinawa, there were several fires. The people of the area asked a Feng Shui master, reason for so many fires. He thought they were due to the influence of the neighbouring Mt. Yaese, and advised the inhabitants to construct a stone shisa in front of the mountain. They did so, and have secured their village from fire since then.