Japanese dragons include diverse legendary creatures in Japanese mythology and folklore.
The Japanese language has numerous "dragon" words, including indigenous tatsu from Old Japanese ta-tu, Sino-Japanese ryū or ryō 竜 from Chinese lóng 龍, nāga ナーガ from Sanskrit nāga, and doragon ドラゴン from English dragon.
Like these other Oriental dragons, Japanese ones are usually water deities associated with rainfall and bodies of water, and typically depicted as large, wingless, serpentine creatures with clawed feet and reptilian heads.
Japanese dragon myths amalgamate native legends with imported stories about Chinese dragons, Korean dragons, and, through the introduction of Buddhism, Indian dragons.
Indigenous Japanese dragons
The ca. 680 CE Kojiki and the ca. 720 CE Nihongi mytho-histories have the first Japanese 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 八岐大蛇 "8-branched giant snake", an 8-headed and 8-tailed dragon that was slain by the sea-god Susanoo. He discovered the legendary sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (part of the Imperial Regalia of Japan) in one of its tails.
- Ryūjin 龍神 "dragon god", the ruler of seas and oceans, was a dragon capable of changing into human form, and who lived in Ryūgū-jō 竜宮城 "dragon palace".
- Toyotama-hime 豊玉姫 "Luminous Pearl Princess" was Ryūjin's daughter. She supposedly was the ancestress of Emperor Jimmu , Japan's legendary first emperor.
- Wani 鰐, a sea monster that is translated as "crocodile" and "shark". The dragon Ya-hiro no kuma-wani 八尋熊鰐 "8 fathom bear wani" fathered a human daughter who married Emperor Jimmu.
- Mizuchi 蛟 or 虯, a river dragon and water deity. The Nihongi records legendary 4th-century Emperor Nintoku offering human sacrifices to mizuchi angered by his river engineering projects.
These two myths about Emperor Jimmu support the tradition that the Japanese Emperors are descendants of dragons. Dragons symbolized the Emperor of China along with those of Japan.
Dragons in later Japanese folklore were influenced from Chinese and Indian myths.
- Kiyohime 清姫 "Purity Princess" was a teahouse waitress who fell in love with a young Buddhist priest. After he spurned her, she studied magic, transformed herself into a dragon, and killed him.
- Nure-onna 濡女 "wet woman" was a dragon with a snake's body and a woman's head. She typically washes her hair on a riverbank and will kill humans when angered.
- Zennyo Ryūō 善女竜王 "good woman dragon king" is a rain-dragon with human's body and a snake's tail.
- In My Lord Bag of Rice, the Ryūō "dragon king" of Lake Biwa asks the hero Tawara Tōda 田原藤太 to kill a giant centipede.
- In Urashima Tarō, the title character rescues a turtle which turns out to be the daughter of the ocean god Ryūjin.
- Inari, the god of fertility and agriculture, is sometimes depicted as a dragon or snake instead of a fox.
Chinese dragon mythology is central to Japanese dragons. The Japanese word for "dragon" is written with kanji "Chinese characters", either simplified shinjitai 竜 or traditional kyūjitai 龍 from Chinese long 龍. 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 loanwords from Chinese. For instance, the Japanese counterparts of the astrological Four Symbols are:
- Seiryū < qinglong 青龍 "Azure Dragon"
- Suzaku < zhuque 朱雀 "Vermilion Bird"
- Byakko < baihu 白虎 "White Tiger"
- Genbu < xuanwu 玄武 "Black Tortoise"
The number of claws is one distinction between Japanese ryū and Chinese long dragons. "In Japan," writes Gould (1896:248), "it is invariably figured as possessing three claws, whereas in China it has four or five, according as it is an ordinary or an imperial emblem."
During World War II, the Japanese military named armaments after Chinese dragons. The Kōryū 蛟竜 < jiaolong 蛟龍 "flood dragon" was a midget submarine and the Shinryū 神竜 < shenlong 神龍 "spirit dragon" was a rocket kamikaze aircraft.
When foreign monks introduced Buddhism in Japan they transmitted dragon and snake legends from Buddhist mythology and Hindu mythology. The most notable examples are the nāga ナーガ or 龍 "Nāga; rain deity; protector of Buddhism" and the nāgarāja ナーガラージャ or 龍王 ”Nāgaraja; snake king; dragon king". De Visser (1913:179) 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 Nāgas, so that a blending of ideas was the result." For instance, the undersea palace where Naga kings supposedly live is called Japanese ryūgū 龍宮 "dragon palace" from Chinese longgong 龍宮. Compare Ryūgū-jō 龍宮城 "dragon palace castle", which was the sea-god Ryūjin 龍神"'s undersea palace.
Some other examples of Buddhistic Japanese dragons are:
- Hachidai ryūō 八大龍王 "8 great naga kings" assembled to hear the Buddha expound on the Lotus Sutra, and are a common artistic motif.
- Mucharinda ムチャリンダ "Mucalinda" was the naga king who protected the Buddha when he achieved Bodhi, is frequently represented as a giant cobra.
- Benzaiten 弁才天 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.
- Kuzuryu 九頭龍 "9-headed dragon", deriving from the multi-headed Naga king シェーシャ or 舍沙 "Shesha", is worshipped at Togakushi Shrine in Nagano Prefecture.
Dragon shrines and temples
Japanese dragons are associated with both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, particularly those located near bodies of water where dragons supposedly reside.
Dragon lore is traditionally associated with Buddhist temples, and many of their Great Hall ceilings have dragon paintings. Like Japanese toponyms, temple names frequently involve dragons, for instance, the Rinzai sect has Tenryū-ji 天龍寺 "Heavenly Dragon Temple", Ryūtaku-ji 龍沢寺 "Dragon Swamp Temple", Ryōan-ji 竜安寺 "Dragon Peace Temple". According to legend (de Visser 1913:180), when the Hōkō-ji 法興寺 or Asuka-dera 飛鳥寺 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".
Myths about dragons living in ponds and lakes near Buddhist temples are widespread. De Visser (1913:181-184) 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.
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, which is currently housed at Atsuta Shrine. The great earthquake of 1185 was attributed to vengeful Heike spirits, specifically the dragon powers of Antoku.
The Kinryū-no-Mai 金龍の舞 "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 in 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. The Kinryū-no-Mai 金龍の舞 "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 in 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. The Lake Saiko Dragon Shrine at Fujiyoshida, Yamanashi has an annual festival and fireworks show.
Ryūjin shinkō 竜神信仰 "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.
Dragons are a familiar motif in Japanese art and architecture, literature, and popular culture. Some examples include:
- King Ghidorah, a three headed golden dragon that has taken many forms in the kaiju films, specificaly the Godzilla series
- Dragon: the Old Potter's Tale, a short story by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
- Dragon Ball is a manga and anime metaseries
- Dragon Warrior is a video game in the Dragon Quest series
- Kamen Rider Ryuki (English Kamen Rider Dragon Knight) is an episode in the Kamen Rider Series
- Manda is a dragon in kaiju movies
- Nāsu ナース is a dragon robot in the Ultraman series
- Haku from the Studio Ghibli movie Spirited Away's true form is a asian-style dragon.
- Aston, William George, tr. 1896. Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697. 2 vols. Kegan Paul. 1972
- Chamberlain, Basil H., tr. 1919. The Kojiki, Records of Ancient Matters.
- Gould, Charles. 1896. Mythical Monsters". W. H. Allen & Co.
- Heinrich, Amy Vladeck. 1997. Currents in Japanese Culture: Translations and Transformations. Columbia University Press.
- Ingersoll, Ernest. 1928. "Chapter Nine: The Dragon in Japanese Art", in Dragons and Dragon Lore, Payson & Clarke.
- Smith, G. Elliot. 1919. The Evolution of the Dragon. Longmans, Green & Company.
- Visser, Marinus Willern de. 1913. The Dragon in China and Japan. J. Müller.
- Dragons, Dragon Art, and Dragon Lore in Japan, A to Z Photo Dictionary of Japanese Buddhism
- Dragons of Fame: Japan, The Circle of the Dragon
- The Japanese Dragon, Dragonorama
- Ryūjin shinkō, Encyclopedia of Shinto
- The Azure Dragon of the East, Steve Renshaw and Saori Ihara
- Ryuu 龍, Japanese Architecture & Art Net User System
- Lucky Motifs on a Dragon Robe, Kyoto National Museum