Komainu (狛犬), which are often called lion dogs, are statues often in pairs resembling lions that guard the entrance to various Japanese Shinto shrines. In other cases these statues may be located inside the shrine out of public view. Initially, the first type appeared was during the Edo period, which was called sandō komainu (参道狛犬, visit Komainu road), the second oldest jinnai komainu (陣内狛犬, shrine inside komainu).
These statues are at once, cute or comical, fierce and terrifying, short and stocky, tall and thin. Made of stone, bronze, wood or even ceramics, they have never been studied in depth like other Japanese religious statues, however a large number of tourists are fascinated by these statues. The choice of this animal would have been made in relation to the symbols of the extremely powerful lion. It is possible to find them in Buddhist temples, noble residences or private houses.
1) the Appearance of Japanese Lion Dogs
The size of these statues can range from a small dog to the size of a lion, the striking resemblance to these two creatures makes them often called “lion dogs“. The tail and mane of these sculptures are thick and curly, their bodies are powerful and muscular, and they have sharp claws.
In some cases, Komainu statues have large unicorn-like horns, but most do not.
2) Symbolic Meaning of Komainu
These statues are intended to repel evil spirits, the contemporary statues are almost identical, however one has an open mouth, and the other closed. (There are some exceptions). This characteristic is common in religious statues in the heart of temples and shrines. This style of Buddhist origin has a symbolic meaning.
The open mouth of this statue reveals the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, pronounced “a”, while the closed mouth reveals the last letter, pronounced “um”, to describe the beginning and end of all things. When these two pronunciations are merged together, we get the sound “Aum”, which is a sacred syllable in various religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
3) the History of Komainu
Komainu can be confusing because they resemble Chinese guardian lions, which originated in China in connection with the Tang Dynasty. It is possible that the Chinese guardian lions were inspired by lion skins and representations of lions brought by trade from the Middle East and India, where the lion physically existed and was a symbol of power. During its journey along the Silk Road, the symbol evolved, giving it a distinctive appearance. In India, the very first lion statue arrived around the 3rd century BC at the top of a column erected by King Ashoka. Later on, this tradition reached China until it became the guardian lion which was exported to Korea, Japan and Okinawa.
During the Nara period (710 to 794), these statues always went together as in the whole of Asia. Until the 14th century they were used exclusively indoors and made from wood. During the Heian period (794 to 1185), the different pairs made of wood or metal were used as weights and doorstops, while in the Imperial Palace they were used to support screens.
At the beginning of the Heian period (9th century), the tradition was changed and the two statues began to look different and have different names. One had an open mouth and was named shishi (獅子, lion) because it looked like this animal just like before. While the other had a closed mouth and looked more like a dog, it was called komainu or “Goguryeo dog”, sometimes with a horn on its head. Over the years these statues came back identical, except for their mouths, and ended up being called both komainu.
As we saw earlier, these Komainu have only been placed outside since the 14th century. Within Asia, the lion is said to have the power to repel evil, which is why it was frequently used to protect doors and gates. Finally, in Japan these statues were established at the entrance of shrines and temples alongside the lion dog. In order to cope with the rainy weather conditions of Japan, the komainu began to be carved in stone.
The shisa (シーサー), the stone animals that in Okinawa guard the doors or roofs of houses, are close relatives of the shishi and komainu. They have in common their origins, function as well as symbolic meaning. Moreover, their name is a secular regional divergence of shishi-san (獅子さん, M. Lion).
During the Edo period (1603-1868), various animals were employed in place of lions or dogs, be it boars, tigers, dragons or foxes.
4) Foxes in the Inari Shrines
There is a common variation of the Komainu theme which is the Kitsune (狐, fox), this is the guardian of shrines dedicated to the Inari kami. To date, there are about 30,000 Inari shrines in Japan, and the entrance to each of them is protected by a pair of fox statues. It is quite common to see one, if not both, of the two foxes with a scroll sūtra, a key, or a piece of jewelry in their mouths (sūtras are Buddhist scriptures, a fact that validates the Buddhist origins of the Inari cult). These statues are not intended to reflect the malice of the foxes, but the supernatural powers they are said to possess.
In some cases the guardians are painted, when this is the case they are always white. The white foxes are the messengers of the kami, who is sometimes considered a fox. Even if the genitals are rarely visible, the fox on the left would be a male and the one on the right a female.
Most of the time, foxes wear red votive bibs similar to those of other divine statues such as the Buddhist god Jizō, with which favor is hoped for in return. However, the bibs are believed to be a rite whose exact origins are unknown.