There are many legends of dragons around the world. However, Japanese dragons are very different from their western counterparts. The Japanese yokai dragon, like many other East Asian depictions, is wingless, with a long serpentine body and short legs.
Japanese dragons are closely linked with water, as they were originally considered water gods. Due to their appearance and affinity to water, I find the Japanese dragons to be more similar to western sea serpents than western dragons.
Can they be considered yokai? In some cases, dragons could be called kami or gods rather than yokai, however, not all dragons are gods, for example, the evil eight headed serpent Yamata-no-Orochi is also considered a dragon. In the sense that they are also the origin of fantastic and mysterious phenomena, I think Japanese dragons can also be considered a kind of yokai.
1. The Names of the Japanese Dragon
In Japan, dragons go by many names. The original name for dragons was tatsu (from the old Japanese ta-tu). Later, they also became known as ryuu, 竜 (from the Chinese lóng 龍) and nāga ナーガ (from the Indian naga serpent legends).
2. The Origins of the Yokai Dragon:
The Japanese Dragon’s beginning as a Water Kami
Japanese dragons, or at least serpentine creatures with supernatural powers, originated in shintoism. Tatsu, the original name for Japanese dragons, referred to water gods, associated with rivers, oceans and rainfall. Their serpentine form is related to the serpentine form of rivers. Watatsumi was the name of the god of the sea, with the mi portion of its name possibly referring to the “mi” of serpent. Likewise, Kuraokami was a Japanese rain god, also believed to have the form of a snake, or dragon.
Their Chinese influence
Most of the legends and depictions of dragons in Japan were heavily influenced by the Chinese ideas of the dragon. China is also the origin of the name “ryuu” for the dragon, which today is synonymous with “tatsu”. As I will discuss later, the Emperor’s lineage in both China and Japan was associated with dragons as well. There are very few differences between Japanese and Chinese dragons, although one scholar states that Chinese dragons have three claws while Japanese dragons have four.
Their Indian influence
The dragon myths in Japan also bear some resemblance to the Hindu myths of the nāga and the nāgarāja. Nāga are giant serpent deities associated with rainfall, and the nāgarāja is a serpent king. The naga originated in Hinduism, however, they became associated with Buddhism as well, since there are legends about the “eight great naga kings” who gathered to listen to the Buddah teach about the Lotus sutra. The naga legends in Buddhism then traveled through China, and subsequently, like other dragon legends in China, found their way to Japan.
One such legend is that of the dragon pearl. The naga has a pearl which can grant any wish. This pearl is similar in concept to the Japanese legend of the Dragon Jewels, two jewels which can control the tides. he naga traveled through China to arrive in Japan.
3. Legends of the Japanese Dragon
The Legend of the Lost Fishhook
The human prince Yamasachi loses his brother’s fish hook, and must visit the Palace of Ryuujin, also known as Watatsumi, the Dragon King to find it. While there, he falls in love with the Princess of the Sea, Toyotama-hime.
Here is a translation of the full story, from Japanese Fairy Tales by Grace James.
Another (shorter) version is in Japanese Fairy Tales by Yei Theodora Ozaki, here.
The Legend of the Tide Jewels
A sequel to The Legend of the Fish Hook.
After recovering his brother’s fish hook, Prince Yamasachi returned to land, along with Toyotama-hime. Toyotama-hime became pregnant, giving birth to a son, Ugayafukiaezu . Unfortunately, although she asked her husband not to watch her while she was giving birth, out of curiosity he peeked into the house. There, he saw a giant dragon holding his son, the true form of Toyotama-hime. Ashamed that Prince Yamasachi broke his promise and saw her true form, she left her son and husband, fleeing back to the sea. Later, that child’s descendant becomes the Emperor of Japan.
There is a version of this legend, along with the Legend of the Fish Hook in Japanese Fairy Tales by Grace James, here.
The Legend of the Dragon and the Centipede
In which the samurai Fujiwara Hidesato helps a tatsu living in Lake Biwa defeat a giant centipede.
Here is a translation of the full story from Japanese Fairy Tales by Yei Theodora Ozaki.
The Legend of the Eight-Headed Dragon
An example of a malicious yokai dragon is Yamata-no-Orochi. He was a dragon with eight heads and eight tails who devoured young girls. Yamata-no-Orochi was tricked and killed by the storm god Susanoo after his expulsion from heaven.
Other Japanese Dragon Legends
There are many locations in Japan which are associated with yokai dragons, in particular bodies of water, such as rivers, lakes and waterfalls. For example, the Ryujin-no-Taki, or Waterfall of the Dragon God, in Gifu Prefecture (which I had the chance to visit). The legend goes that a long time ago the local villagers witnessed a white dragon rising from the falls into the heavens. Thus, they named the falls after the Dragon God.
4. The Japanese Dragon in Japanese Culture
Dragons in Art
Dragons are a common motif in many works of traditional Japanese art, including ukiyo-e (woodblock prints), sculptures and paintings. In particular, the dragon motif adorns many temples and shrines, which brings us to our next section:
Japanese Dragons in Religion
Although Naga kings originated in Hinduism, the naga became associated with Buddhism as well, due to Indian legends describing the naga listening to the Buddha’s teachings. Thus, throughout Southeast Asia, multi-headed serpents decorate Buddhist temples. In Japan, the dragon continues to be linked with Buddhism as well. There are many temples with artistic depictions of dragons, like Tenryu-ji in Kyoto, with its famous Cloud Dragon Painting.
In Shintoism, since Japanese dragons are closely connected to water and rivers they are often considered water gods. Shrines dedicated to, or built on locations related to dragons can be found all across Japan.
Itsukushima Shrine, famous for it’s beautiful floating toriii gate, is one such shrine. It was supposedly the home of the sea-god Ryuujin’s daughter. This belief has its origins in a story from both the Tale of Heike and the Gukansho. The story states that when Taira no Kiyomori prayed at Itsukushima and made it his ancestral shrine, the sea god gave Taira no Kiyomori’s son, Antoku, the power to become the Emperor.
The hot spring town Hakone has another example of a dragon related shrine. On the shores of lake Ashi lies the Kuzuryu shrine. The monk Mangan supposedly defeated a nine-headed dragon (a kuzuryu) on the shores of lake Ashi, at the current location of the shrine.
Ryūjin shinkō 竜神信仰 “dragon god faith” is a form of shintoism which worships dragons as water gods (kami). These water kami are the bringers of rain, and the harbingers of good fortune in fishing and agriculture.
5. The Yokai Dragon in Modern Media
The dragon in Spirited Away, via GIPHY
Dragons remain a popular motif in Japanese media today, both as yokai and as kami. There are too many instances to count them all, so here are a few prominent examples:
- In Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, one of the protagonists is a river spirit in the form of a dragon.
- The kaiju film monster Manda is a yokai dragon which appears in the studio Toho’s films
- The Dragon Ball franchise, as the wise god which provides the eponymous balls
Thank you Marie, it was nice! But you’ve forgotten the most wide spread dragon in Japanese culture/ It is in Japanese gardens.There are so many well knownthat I would hardly choose the most popular to make an example.