The Lion Guardians of Okinawa

Early last year I looked up the Japanese wolf, due in part to my curiosity about the mechanical wolves depicted in the various animated Zoids series. The information this author discovered remains available here, as does her open hope to find out more about the Japanese interest in lions. Not only did Zoids include mechs based on lions, but series such as Voltron and Power Rangers have mechanical suits that morph into feline forms. Clearly, there was a cultural respect for the lion which needed to be explored.

Thanks to friend of the site David Breitenbeck, this author finally learned why there are so many lion mechs in Japanese anime. They are based on the Shiisaa of Okinawa, stone lions that guard buildings of importance from evil spirits. The Japanese call them komainu, but those look more like dogs than the Shiisaa do.

These guardian lions are, it appears, the basis for Ligers and other lion-type mechs so popular in Japanese anime. They also inspired King Caesar, a beast from the Godzilla franchise, and at least one line of Pokemon creatures. So the Shiisaa have had a powerful influence throughout Japanese culture. And who can blame them? These are some very impressive gargoyles!

Check out the article below to learn more:

East Asian Mythology: SHISA of Okinawa-the Stone Guardians of Japan

Nov 16, 2018

By James Hurst

Off the shores of Kyushu (the third largest island of Japan), there are a number of volcanic islands flowing south-west towards Taiwan. These are named the Ryukyu Islands, also known as the Nansei Islands.

In the center of this volcanic island chain is where Okinawa, the biggest of the Ryukyu Islands, can be located. It is in this subtropical location that plays home to a variation of an iconic creature from East Asian mythology, the shisa.

Found everywhere you look in Okinawan society, the shisa (or shiisaa if you are using the Okinawan pronunciation), is a curly-maned cross between a dog and a lion. They are often found sat in pairs guarding an area’s entrance and are used to ward off evil spirits; sound familiar? It would be surprising if it doesn’t, as this type of gargoyle can be seen throughout East Asia.

Collectively these statues are known as ‘foo lions’ in the West, and are commonly associated with China under the name ‘shishi’, where they guard imperial palaces and other places of high importance.

Shisa Gender Differences

Similar to how these statues are perceived in China, guardian lions in Japan are usually seen as a male and female couple. How you can tell which gender each guardian represents depends not only on the mythology you are looking at but also whether or not the mouth is open or closed.

Most countries generally believe one is ultimately male whilst the other is undoubtedly female, yet in Okinawa there are differences in belief. Some think the open-mouth shisa is the male who scares evil spirits away, whilst the one with the closed mouth is the female who keeps the surrounding goodness in.

Others believe that the male has his mouth closed to keep evil out of the home, whilst the open-mouthed female does so to share goodness with others. Regardless of what is believed, it seems there are strong connotations of physical protection from the male, whereas the female represents a protection involving preservation and sharing of positivity.

Read more…

One thought on “The Lion Guardians of Okinawa

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s