Japanese dragons (日本の龍/竜) or dragon (龍/竜 ryū) are various legendary creatures in Japanese mythology and folklore. Japanese dragon myths amalgamate native legends with imported stories about dragons from China, Korea, and Vietnam.
The style of the dragon was heavily influenced by the Chinese dragon. Like these other East Asian dragons, most Japanese dragons are water deities associated with rain and bodies of water, and are generally depicted as large, wingless, serpentine creatures with clawed feet.
The modern Japanese language has numerous "dragon" words, including Tatsu indigenous to ancient 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" (the latter being used almost exclusively to refer to the European dragon and derived fictional creatures).
The C. 680 AD Kojiki and c. 720 AD Nihongi mythical stories have the earliest Japanese textual references to dragons. "In the earliest channels, dragons are mentioned in various ways," explains De Visser, "but mainly as water gods, in the form of a serpent or dragon." The Kojiki and Nihongi mention several ancient dragons:
Myths about Emperor Jimmu descending from Toyatama-hime evidence the folklore that Japanese emperors are descended from 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.
Chinese dragon mythology is central to Japanese dragons. Japanese words for "dragon" are written with kanji ("Chinese characters"), either shinjitai 竜 simplified or kyūjitai 龍 from Long Chinese 龍. These kanji can be read tatsu in native Japanese kun'yomi and ryū or ryō in Chinese-Japanese on'yomi.
Many Japanese dragon names are borrowings from Chinese. For example, the Japanese counterparts of the Four Astrological Symbols are:
The Japanese Shiryū 四竜 "4 dragons [kings]" are the legendary Chinese Longwang 龍王 "Dragon Kings" who rule the four seas.
Some authors differentiate Japanese ryū and Chinese long dragons by the number of claws on their feet. "In Japan," writes Gould (1896: 248), "it is invariably believed to possess three claws, while in China it has four or five, as it is an ordinary or imperial emblem."
During World War II, the Japanese military named many 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 kamikaze rocket plane.
One division of the Imperial Japanese Army, the 56th Division, was codenamed the Dragon Division. Coincidentally, the Dragon Division was annihilated in the Chinese city of Longling (龍陵), whose name means "Dragon Tomb".
When Buddhist monks from other parts of Asia brought their faith to Japan, they passed down legends of dragons and snakes from Buddhist 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; serpent king; the dragon king." de Visser (1913: 179) notes that many Japanese nāga legends have Chinese characteristics."
This is quite clear, since it was through China that all Indian tales came to Japan. Moreover, many originally Japanese dragons, to which Chinese legends were applied, were later identified with nāga, so the result was a combination of ideas.
"For example, the underwater palace where the nāga kings supposedly live is called the Japanese dragon palace ryūgū 龍宮" "from the Chinese longgong 龍宮. Compare ryūgū-jō 龍宮城 "castle of the dragon palace," which was the underwater residence of the sea god Ryūjin.
Japanese legends about the tidal jewels of the sea god, which controlled the ebb and flow of the tides, have parallels in Indian Legends of the nyoi-ju 如意珠 "cintamani of the nāga; wish-fulfilling jewels".
Some additional examples of Japanese Buddhist dragons are:
Dragon lore is traditionally associated with Buddhist temples. Myths about dragons living in ponds and lakes near temples are widespread. De Visser lists accounts from Shitennō-ji in Osaka, the 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.
Today, the Lake Saiko Dragon Shrine in Fujiyoshida, Yamanashi, has an annual festival and fireworks display.
Temple names, like Japanese place names, often involve dragons. For example, the Rinzai sect has Tenryū-ji 天龍寺 "Temple of the Heavenly Dragon", Ryūtaku-ji 龍沢寺 "Temple of the Dragon Swamp", Ryōan-ji 竜安寺 "Temple of Dragon Peace".
According to legend, when the Buddhist temple Hōkō-ji 法興寺 or Asuka-dera 飛鳥 Buddhist temple was dedicated in Nara in 596, "a purple cloud descended from the sky and covered the pagoda and the Buddha hall; then the cloud turned five colors and assumed the shape of a dragon or a 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 twirl and gyrate inside the temple grounds and outside in the streets.
According to legend, the Sensō Temple was founded in 628 after two fishermen found a golden statuette of Kannon in the Sumida River, at which time golden dragons supposedly ascended to heaven. The Golden Dragon Dance was produced to celebrate the reconstruction of the temple's Main Hall in 1958 and is performed twice a year.
Susanoo killing Yamata-no-Orochi, by Kuniteru
Buddha riding a sea dragon, by Kunisada.
Dragon Teapot, Walters Art Museum
Japanese dragons are associated with Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.
Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima or Itsukushima Island in the Inland Sea of Japan is believed to be the abode of the daughter of the sea god Ryūjin.
According to the Gukanshō and The Tale of Heike (Heinrich 1997: 74-75), the sea dragon authorized Emperor Antoku to ascend to the throne because his father Taira no Kiyomori offered prayers at Itsukushima and declared it his ancestral shrine.
When Antoku drowned after being defeated at the 1185 Battle of Dan-no-ura, he lost the imperial sword Kusanagi (which legendarily came from the tail of the dragon Yamata no Orochi) back to 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 the vengeful spirits of Heike, specifically Antoku's dragon powers.
Ryūjin shinkō 竜神信仰 "the faith of the dragon god" 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 fishermen.
Modern Japanese popular culture often refers to dragons, attributing to them magical powers such as healing, flying or assuming human form at will.