Japanese Dragon

Japanese Dragon

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).

Indigenous Japanese dragons

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:

  • Yamata-no-Orochi 八岐大蛇 "8-branched giant snake" was an 8-headed, 8-tailed dragon slain by the wind and sea god Susanoo, who discovered the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (legendary sword of the Imperial Regalia of Japan) in one of its tails.
  • Watatsumi 海神 "sea god" or Ryūjin 龍神 "Dragon God" was the ruler of seas and oceans, and is described as a dragon capable of changing into human form. He lived in the submarine Ryūgū-jō 龍宮 城 "dragon palace castle", where he kept the magic tide jewels.
  • Toyotama-hime 豊玉姫 "luminous pearl princess" was the daughter of Ryūjin. She was supposedly an ancestor of Emperor Jimmu, the legendary first emperor of Japan.
  • Wani 鰐 was a sea monster which translates as "shark" and "crocodile". Kuma-wani 熊鰐 "bear (i.e., giant or strong) shark/crocodile" are mentioned in two ancient legends. One says that the sea god Kotoshiro-nushi-no-kami transformed into an "8-fathom kuma-wani" and fathered Toyotama-hime, the other says that a kuma-wani piloted the ships of Emperor Chūai and his Empress Jingū.
  • Mizuchi 蛟 or 虯 was a river dragon and water deity. The Nihongi records the legendary Emperor Nintoku offering human sacrifices to the Mizuchi angered by his river engineering projects.

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.

  • Kiyohime 清姫 "Princess of Purity" was a teahouse waitress who fell in love with a young Buddhist priest. After he rejected her, she studied magic, transformed into a dragon and killed him.
  • Nure-onna 濡女 "Wet Woman" was a dragon with the head of a woman and the body of a snake. She was usually seen while washing her hair on the riverbank and sometimes killed humans when she was angry.
  • Zennyo Ryūō 善如龍王 "dragon king like kindness" was a rain god depicted as a dragon with a snake on its head or as a human with a snake tail.
  • In the fairy tale "My Lord Rice Bag", the Ryūō "dragon king" of Lake Biwa asks the hero Tawara Tōda 田原藤太 to kill a giant centipede.
  • Urashima Tarō rescued a turtle that took him to Ryūgū-jō and became the attractive daughter of the ocean god Ryūjin.
  • Inari, the god of fertility and agriculture, was sometimes depicted as a dragon or snake rather than a fox.

Chinese-Japanese Dragons

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:

  • Seiryū < Qinglong 青龍 "Seiryū"
  • Suzaku < Zhuque 朱雀 "Suzaku"
  • Byakko < Baihu 白虎 "Byakko"
  • Genbu < Xuanwu 玄武 "Genbu"

The Japanese Shiryū 四竜 "4 dragons [kings]" are the legendary Chinese Longwang 龍王 "Dragon Kings" who rule the four seas.

  • Gōkō < Aoguang 敖廣 "Dragon King of the Eastern Sea."
  • Gōkin < Aoqin 敖欽 "Dragon King of the South Sea."
  • Gōjun < Aorun 敖閏 "Dragon King of the Western Sea."
  • Gōjun < Aoshun 敖順 "Dragon King of the North Sea."

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".

Indo-Japanese Dragons

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:

  • Hachidai ryūō 八大龍王 "8 great naga kings" gathered to hear the Buddha expound on the Lotus Sutra, and are a common artistic motif.
  • Mucharinda ムチャリンダ "Muchilinda" was the Nāga king who protected the Buddha when he attained bodhi, and is often depicted as a giant cobra.
  • Benzaiten 弁才天 is the Japanese name for the goddess Sarasvati, who killed a 3-headed snake or dragon Vritrá in the Rigveda. According to the Enoshima Engi, Benzaiten created Enoshima Island in 552 CE to thwart a 5-headed dragon that had been harassing the people.
  • Kuzuryū 九頭龍 "9-headed dragon", derived from the multi-headed Naga king シェーシャ or 舍沙 "Shesha", is worshipped at Togakushi Shrine in Nagano Prefecture.

Dragon Temples

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.

Japanese Dragon's Images 

Susanoo killing Yamata-no-Orochi, by Kuniteru


Buddha riding a sea dragon, by Kunisada.


Dragon Teapot, Walters Art Museum

Japanese Dragon Shrines

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.

Japanese Dragon In popular culture

Modern Japanese popular culture often refers to dragons, attributing to them magical powers such as healing, flying or assuming human form at will.

  • In the manga and anime Saint Seiya, Shiryū is the Bronze Dragon Knight or Saint.
  • In Kannazuki no Miko, the Enemies of the Priestesses Chikane and Himeko.
  • In Dragon Ball, the initial plot is based on the search for magical spheres called Dragon Balls (created by Kamisama in unconscious evocation of the Dragon Balls of his home planet, Namek) that when gathered make it possible to summon the dragon god Shenlong, who grants one wish (as the story progresses the wishes he grants become three).
  • In the Digimon anime saga, dragon-shaped digimon are seen throughout the seasons, most are even specified with the suffix "dramon", indicating their type.
  • In Mega Man 2 (ROCKMAN 2), in Dr. Wily Castle Stage 1, the stage boss is a Robot-Dragon, called a Mecha Dragon. A Robot-Dragon also appears in the video game Mega Man 9 (ROCKMAN 9) in the Magma Man stage as a mini-boss.
  • In the video game Sonic Adventure, the "God of Destruction", or Perfect Chaos reaches its perfect form by obtaining the 7 Emeralds, and that perfect form is that of a Water Dragon similar to the one in Mayan mythology. In the sequel to this game, Sonic Adventure 2, the final enemy is the Biolizard, another giant reptile, but bionic.
  • In the Pokémon series, dragons (such as Dragonite, Salamence, Dialga, Palkia, Zekrom and Reshiram) are various types of dragons, and Zekrom and Reshiram represent Yin and Yang respectively.
  • In Spirited Away, one of the characters is a white dragon from a river.
  • In Legend of the Millennium Dragon, Yamata-no-Orochi is one of the main characters.
  • In the Dragon Quest series, there are many dragons ranging from European dragons to Asian dragons.
  • In the Final Fantasy series, players can summon many dragons such as Tiamant, Leviathan and Bahamut. The latter also plays a role in the story.
  • In Inuyasha, a particular demon/youkai of great power, Ryuukossei is a dragon.
  • In CAPCOM's fighting game Street Fighter, one of the main characters is named Ryu.
  • In Shaman King, a character with extravagant hair is nicknamed Ryu (his full name is Ryunosuke). On top of that, one of his possessions takes the form of an eight-headed white dragon.
  • In Yu Yu Hakusho, one of the enemies is named Seiryu. Also, one of Hiei's techniques takes the form of a black fire dragon.
  • In the Full Metal Alchemist movie, Envy takes the form of a dragon in the world that was on the other side of the gate, but in that world he is called as "The Great Snake".
  • In Naruto, there is a character named Orochimaru, coming from "The Legend of Orochi".
  • In the manga and anime series Bleach the zanpakutō release of 10th squadron captain Tōshirō Hitsugaya takes the form of a large ice dragon; also the commanding captain in his sword release which is called ryujin jakka.
  • Several aircraft carriers of the Imperial Japanese Navy were named after dragons, such as the Hiryu, the Soryu or the Ryujo. Much later, the name Soryu was used to designate a class of submarines of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, in fact, Neon Genesis Evangelion takes one of the names of this aircraft carrier for one of the surnames of one of the pilots of the eva's: Asuka Langley Soryu.
  • In the Godzilla saga, a three-headed dragon named King Ghidorah appears, a space being capable of launching gravity beams and responsible for causing the extinction of several alien civilizations, and came to earth to cause terror and destruction.
  • In the card game Yu-gi-oh! one type of monster is dragons.
  • In Zero no Tsukaima, many dragons are summoned as relatives of the nobles, who will be their relatives forever.
  • In the manga and anime Fairy Tail, the main character Natsu Dragneel is a Fire Dragon Slayer, raised by the Fire Dragon King Igneel. Like him, Gajeel Redfox and Wendy Marvel, Dragon Slayer of Iron and Sky respectively, also appear.
  • In the manga series "One Piece", a number of Dragon species have appeared, a Dragon in the one-shot "MONSTERS", other (European) dragons in the "Punk Hazard" story arc, and Momonosuke and Kaidō's transformations into Oriental dragons thanks to their Devil Fruits (Kaidō's dragon form is that of a Seiryū). More other species are filler in the anime and are therefore not canon.
  • In the Breath of Fire video game series, the main character has the ability to transform into one or more dragons.
  • In the video game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the main character must stop Alduin The Devourer of Worlds, which is the firstborn of Akatosh the Dragon God of Time and Leader of the Nine Divines.
  • In the video game The Legend Of Zelda Ocarina Of Time, a fire dragon named Volvagia appears and Link must defeat him.
  • in the anime and manga Yuragisō no Yūna-san the antagonist character, Genshiro Ryuuga, is a Dragon God, more specifically the Black Dragon God (Also called Dark, Dark or Jet Dragon God) has water-related powers, such as drying water from his body at will, controlling water, and after his training in the super dragon cave, he acquires the ability to turn his body into water and gas, as well as turn his body into water swords or claws. Her older sister Oboro Shintou, who at first turns out to be an antagonist but later becomes part of the protagonist's harem, is also a descendant of the former Black Dragon God, but she did not inherit the powers of a Dragon God, so she became her younger brother's assistant, however like her brother, she can turn parts of her body into swords or other cutting instruments, as well as having a teleportation technique and incredible speed.