Japanese Dragon

In a world where Japanese mythology can be even more fascinating than a history book, we are going to take a look at Japanese mythology and the Japanese dragon; source of inspiration for many tales but also a great influence in the art, music, clothes of the land of the rising sun.

Today, we are going to make you discover the infinite universe of stories and tales of this ancient creature that has rocked the childhood of many.

Lifting the Myths about Japanese Dragons

dragon japonais

Unlike the dragons we are used to seeing on TV, fairy tales and other supernatural stories, Japanese dragons have very specific characteristics. Although greatly inspired by Chinese dragons, we are far from the creatures with big wings dominating flying and fire-breathing reptiles.

In Japanese mythology they are rather creatures with the morphology of a snake with a long body stretched over several meters, accompanied by some scales or sometimes even feathers. It is the image of those that can be seen in many Japanese animation films of the style Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Just goes to show that Anime can be much more real than we think!

But one dragon surpasses all others in Japan, and is an integral part of the history and culture: Ryujin, the master of the oceans. He alone could be the subject of an almost endless blog post! Of course, we will discuss him from all angles, but he will also be accompanied by other popular dragons and their place in the culture, each one more fascinating than the other.

Origins of the Dragon God Ryujin
dragon ryujin

Victim of his success in Japanese stories, Ryujin has a lot of different origins, depending on the culture, the history, the country or the religion. In order to clarify all this, we'll focus on 3 of them.

A. Kuzuryuu, the Japanese Origin: Nine-headed Dragon

An imposing dragon that is the most famous in the land of the rising sun, especially with its varied and unique history. Regardless of its origin and history, the end result is the same: it has been exorcised by a hero, changing from a "bad dragon" to a "good dragon".

  • Dokuryuu is a dragon with sharp fangs made to poison its victim. It is one of the myths that belong to the legend of Hakone, a city south of Tokyo.
  • In Nagano, in the center of Japan, the nine-headed demon frequented a shrine (cultural and religious place) of the city, before being exorcised.
  • In Chiba Prefecture, a small province east of Tokyo, there was a local belief that a great prince named Yamato Takeru had defeated the dragon by himself.

    B. Indian origin of the Dragon: Hachidairyuo

    If we read the "Kanji" of the latter, that is, the character that represents it, it means "the 8 dragon kings". In ancient times in India, they thought that there were many dragons, all in a precise hierarchy according to their strength. These dragons were at the top of the hierarchy because they created the "gentle rain", a rain invoked to bless Buddha at his birth. Fascinating!

    By the way, we recommend a tree of life necklace which will be perfect to remind you of Buddhism and all the philosophy of life around it.

    C. Zennyoryuou, the Good Lady

    A dragon who is the daughter of one of the 8 Dragon Kings mentioned above. A dragon very beneficial for the people because it would have caused the rains to fall during bad periods for the harvest of crops throughout Japan. Today, she is said to live in the Shinsenen Lake in Kyoto, the ancient traditional capital of the country.

    Ryujin, the Appearance of a Legend

    dragon légende

    As we have seen above, Japanese dragons are mostly snakes. Ryujin, one of the most famous dragon gods of the country of the rising sun is of course part of it.

    To understand why they are inspired by this reptile and not another, we must already see together the meaning of the snake in Japanese culture, and how it was transformed into Japanese Dragon thereafter.

    Nothing better to represent this mystical creature than to have a dragon bracelet. It will be constantly with you to bring you strength and power!

    A. God of Fertility 

    There is a popular belief in Japan that if you put a snake shell in your wallet, you will earn more money. It may sound strange, but if you dig a little, you can find a lot of information about this belief with the moult of the snake.

    It is constantly renewing itself, to be stronger, more solid, more imposing, and therefore, gain in robustness over time. If we associate this thought with money, the snake will apply these properties to your bank account, and duplicate it directly in your wallet.

    It is in this vision that fertility is expressed in Japan, and it is true that for us, European, it is a totally different meaning than ours. After all, that's why we love Japanese culture, right?

    B. God of Water

    He is also a water god for many reasons. Snakes are not creatures that live in water but they swim freely in it, so they find a first great connection.

    The Japanese snake prefers wet places with thick vegetation rather than dry and rocky ground, it is the world around it that gave it this meaning: at the time, the Japanese were not necessarily aware that snakes in desert environments at the other end of the world were present.

    To put it simply, they were often found in the fields and swamps of the Japanese countryside, so in Japan, the snake was considered a creature related to water. Water being a necessary element for human life, it has a direct impact on the crop harvest, especially that of rice, which was a real currency in ancient times.

    If not go back even further in history, Japan considered the snake as a god of water with the influence of the great lord of Mount Miwa, a god with the shape of this elongated reptile. And this is not the only dragon that takes on a human appearance! This said, we will talk about it later in the article.

    C. From a Snake to a Mythological Creature 

    The beliefs about the transition from the appearance of a snake to the Japanese Dragon are very varied and sometimes controversial. In order not to get too confused, we will talk about the most common one:

    After 500 years of life, a snake can become a "Mizuchi", a mythical long reptile living in water with 4 legs that poisons humans. This is a small link with the Dokuryuu of the Hakone legend seen above.

    But he is still not considered a real Dragon: it is only 500 years later, 1000 years after his birth, that he will become one. After that, whether he is a good or a bad one is another story...

    Meaning of the Japanese Dragon
    signification dragon japonais

    Ryujin, as we could see, just by its origin or appearance, is the Japanese Dragon that we can draw the most inspiration to talk about the Japanese culture. Although its meaning is very positive just with what we say about the snake, there is much more to know with its color.

    Closely related to what can be found on Japanese products in general, the colors of a Japanese Dragon will still have a slightly different meaning than what we usually think of. Just like a good Japanese sake, it evolves with time, and that's what we like!

    A. White Dragon

    With its white color, the Japanese Dragon will represent many things, especially those related to prosperity and fertility.

    It is said that this type of Dragon is the Guardian of the whole eastern part of the world, and for this, it will bring luck for all the expenses of the people. Through money, his blessing will help to increase their wealth, but not only! As said before, rice was a real currency in the land of the rising sun, and having many crops meant great wealth.

    Its real power was to duplicate them, offering the chance to store them in large quantities and thus resell. For the small detail it also brought its blessing for the marriage!

    B. Black Dragon

    This Japanese Dragon was the guardian of the north of our planet. For this, it may seem strange, but it is a real help for everything concerning hygiene: whether it is the bathroom or the toilet!

    With this, it brings love in a couple, in a marriage, and the joy of living with his or her beloved. All this, to encompass some major points: health, fresh air and well-being.

    C. Blue Dragon

    To each his own cardinal point, the Blue Japanese Dragon represents the West. But you can imagine that this is not all: it will bring you all the talents related to eloquence. Whether it is in music, the ability to speak with a perfect voice, or a voice that will bring you happiness and wealth, it will make you a legendary speaker.

    It will also bring a plus for gardening and all the energy used for it. Trees, plants, and fruits are its unique strength.

    D. Red Dragon

    There are few details about what it brings, but why not deduce that it will fill you with happiness through work and professional future. That said, it will protect a complementary land to the other 3: the south and its warmth.

    E. Golden Dragon

    To make up for it all, the latter will be the guardian of the center of the earth. Proud of his appearance, he will give his people an uncommon intelligence that will guarantee success in trade with the Japanese inhabitants.

    All this, leads to wealth in terms of land, good luck and especially a home that prospers by its beauty and size.

    Between a Western Dragon and an Eastern Dragon...

    dragon oriental

    We could finally understand what Ryujin really was in Japan. Each country has its own idea of how this Japanese dragon was, but its snake form and the stories around it bring us to the same point: it is a dragon beneficial for the people, very linked to water and oceans, but above all an element of the culture that has so many origins that we cannot find the right one!

    But in itself, what differentiates the Asian Dragon from a Western Dragon, how we have at home? As we could see, it is still very far from the idea we have of this mythological creature, this Ryujin...

    We have an idea of him through what we have seen during our childhood with Shrek for example, or in movies like Harry Potter: We have finally been able to understand what Ryujin really was in Japan. Each country has its own idea of how this Japanese dragon was, but his snake form and the stories around him bring us to the same point: it is a beneficial dragon for the people, very linked to water and oceans, but especially an element of the culture which has so many origins that we can't find the right one!

    But in itself, what differentiates the Asian Dragon from a Western Dragon, how we have at home? As we could see, it is still very far from the idea we have of this mythological creature, this Ryujin...

    We have an idea of him through what we have seen during our childhood with Shrek for example, or in movies like Harry Potter:
    • Very often linked to negative things, it is very close to an evil monster, who wants evil, and sometimes even Satan.
    • It lives on top of a mountain, guards a dungeon, or is locked in an underground cellar.
    • Its appearance is marked by large wings, spits fire and can stand on its two imposing legs.

      And that, again, is very typical of the Dragon we know. His appearance is much more frightening, and is very much related to terror, and that's something that you're not going to find in the Chinese Dragon or Japanese Dragon:

      • He is seen as a god, a spirit who will come to protect the people and who only seeks the good of the latter.
      • He often lives in water, which is seen as something very beneficial for Asia. That said, he can still fly, it is still a dragon!
      • And its appearance, although very close to the snake, is often imagined as a fusion of several animals, whether mythical or known to the general public.

        Like what, many things will differentiate the Japanese Dragon from the image that we have at home, in France. One thing we can be sure of, and that marks the biggest difference: one brings good and happiness, the other fear and terror!

        Nipponese Culture of the Gods

        dragon culture nippone

        In Japan, the Dragon will have even more significance than in other Asian countries. During your next trip to Japan, you will often see, in summer, dragons on display and clothes like Kimono, Yukata or Haori proudly displaying drawings of it during Matsuri (Japanese traditional festivals).

        But before looking more precisely at what makes him a real Nipponese God, let's see together some small details about his Chinese and Indian competitors.

        A. India, Buddhism and China

        In China, it is mainly used as a means of attack, defense and movement for the God in question: it is a servant of the latter. Very often, it is represented in a certain way where the god in question will be on his back to move by flying.

        For India and the culture of Buddhism, the dragon is once again a servant, but of a very particular god: Buddha! Indeed, if you have read well above, the legend says that he blessed the water ("fresh water") that came to rest on him during a sacred rain.

        But what about Japan? Relax, we're getting there! Just give us time to read more authentic stories, directly from our Japanese colleagues. They do everything to give you the most information possible, as close as possible to Japan, that is to say, directly from the bookshops of Tokyo. These are real reporters!

        B. Japanese Dragon

        The Japanese Dragon is not going to be the slave or the servant of a God, no, it is a god by itself, and this is the difference with those mentioned above.

        For this, we have to refer to the concept of god in itself among the Japanese: the culture is very close to animalism, which says that a god can have his spirit in any living being, be it a cow, a fish, an insect or even a vegetable being.

        Many of these references can be found in Shintoism, the Buddhism practiced mostly in Japan, which has great connotations with reincarnation into another living being.

        The reason why there are so many origins for Ryujin is that his birth can be traced back to literally every animal you can imagine. We can say that in Kyoto his origin will be a horse, in Osaka a snake, in Tokyo a bird, for example.

        Each small city or prefecture often has its own idea of the Japanese Dragon, about his appearance, his ideas and the benefits he brings to the people. A lot of different stories and anecdotes are at hand depending on the place you are in.

        Some Draconic Culture

        dragon feu 

        As you may already know, Kanji, writing characters (greatly inspired by the Chinese, really!), have a lot of different meanings depending on the context. And they are used a lot to refer to the Japanese Dragon in everyday language.

        • For example, a tornado will say "Tatsumaki", and the character to write it can also be read as "circulating dragon". Because of its strength when it takes off, it blows so much wind that it creates real typhoons!
        • The expression "Gyukurin ni fureru" which means "to exasperate a person superior to oneself". It can be translated, according to its writing, by "touching the scales in the opposite direction", those that the dragon can have under its chin, and thus irritate it.
        • For the small detail, the Western Dragon will be written differently from the Eastern Dragon, because the two have a very different meaning. The pronunciation remains the same, however, and can only be discerned through the written word or the context.

          Dragon and Daily Life
          dragon eau

          And to gently but surely close this article on the Japanese Dragon, we will of course see together what it is today. Does it still have a presence in the culture? In art? In music? In clothes? Or even the cinema?

          A. Japanese Tattoo Art

          The traditional Japanese tattoo is going to represent a big part of the Japanese culture, and you can imagine that the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia, is going to play a big role in this. There are a lot of Japanese dragons in these, which are tattooed by hand (often with bamboo mats) and not by machine.

          The colors will play a big role on the meaning of the tattoo, as we have seen before, white for prosperity and fertility, black for everything that encompasses hygiene, blue for having an outstanding eloquence, a little red for the professional future and business, as well as gold for success in its entirety.

          B. Japanese Clothing 

          Of course, there is a whole streetwear and sportswear part that will often represent this mythical creature on its prints and designs. After all, it's a kind of Japanese trademark, and we can't blame them: it's beautiful and stylish!

          As the Japanese Dragon also represents strength and influence, it's what we often find in street culture and hip hop, and that, the country of the rising sun has understood it very well.

          On many sweatshirts, hoodies, T-Shirts and even Haori, we will often find a dragon surrounded by other elements well known to all as the flowers of sakura, the Maneki Neko or the buildings of the city.

          C. Japanese Anime

          Japanese animation movies are details of the culture that we find a lot in Europe, who didn't have a childhood rocked by One Piece, Naruto, Death Note or Dragon Ball?

          Speaking of the latter, Dragon Ball, it surely tells you something about the 7 balls to summon Shenron, the legendary dragon who will grant you the wish of your choice, even for a little panty?

          If we remember well the appearance of the latter, it is a dragon, in the shape of a snake, which flies in the sky, and which is beneficial to the people by bringing its blessing... Just like our friend Ryujin, the main protagonist in the mythological history of our favorite country.

          But that's not all, Haku in Chihiro's Journey is also an excellent reference, especially much more oriented towards water and the good things that it brings to the people.

           

          D. In Video Games

          One license dominates all the others for video games when you go to discover Japan: Dragon Quest, a role-playing game created by Yuji Horii. The people represented in it are both western and eastern, but like that, it inspires even the greatest creators.

          We can also see the license that sticks closely to them, namely, Monster Hunter. Coming from the English Dragon Hunter, we will meet all types of beasts: those seen above, but also the Wyvern, Dragonnet, African Dragons, and so on.

          E. Japanese Pop Culture

          And to close the whole, the art of the contemporary world will also find the many elements of the mythical beast. Walking in the streets of popular districts of Japan like Harajuku, in Tokyo, the dragon is still present.

          In graffiti that will be very close to Japanese tattoos, it will often be present with an image of a feathered or scaled snake. Of course, the colors he has will have a meaning very close to those we saw above for Ryujin.

          But also in art and decoration, many paintings are still painted with the traditional elements of culture, including this key point of Japanese history. Contemporary artists will often display their paintings with great pride, as much as a Dragon God would to express his strength and power.

          Japanese Dragon, by Kappa Japan

          A long article that is coming to an end. For all the documentation, we have already mentioned it above, but everything has been done from Japan directly, in the bookstores that collect the best stories about Japanese dragons.

          Our mission is to always bring you information as close to Japan as possible, and once again, we can say that it is a successful mission.

          If you want to know more about the long history of Japanese dragons, please let us know in the comments. And for the most impatient or impatient among you, just subscribe to our newsletter, and a preview will be there, especially for you.

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