Welcome to our third episode of the Mythsterhood of the Travelling Tales in our journey Around The World in 80 Dragons (or so)! This week we’ll be exploring the dragons of Japanese mythology and the various influences of other Asian cultures on them. Grab your MythsterMap and markers and follow along! Don’t have a MythsterMap? You can grab yours by signing up to our newsletter.
Welcome to Mythsterhood of the Travelling Tales. Join us as we roar the heavens and swim the seas in search of the spectacular and magical. Like the Hydra of Greek lore, our teeth can raise the dead, bringing lost skeletons back to life for an episode or two. But unlike our three-headed friend, we’re not guarding the door to the underworld. No. We’re blasting it wide open, and asking you to come explore with us.
Anike: Hello hello, mythsters, and welcome to episode 3.
Jaz: It’s time for fifteen minutes worth of rabbit-hole-diving. Where are we headed today?
Anike: I’ve been looking forward to this one. I’ll give you three hints. Remember we’re travelling East to West, right?
Anike: So it’s a group of islands. West of Australia, where we left off, East of all the rest. And they have the largest number of vending machines in the world.
Jaz: What kind of tips are those? According to the Mythstermap, there’s a bunch of water to the West of Australia.
Anike: Jaz, come on. I didn’t mean directly to the west. But if you compare them in terms of longitude, this one is more to the west.
Jaz: Oh, well why didn’t you say so? Let’s see. Is it… Japan?
Jaz: I wonder what they need so many vending machines for?
Anike: Well, they’re not selling dragons in them, so let’s not get distracted before the episode’s even begun. We’ve got a lot to get through so let’s get cracking. If Japanese dragons had a Facebook status, it would be “it’s complicated”. On top of the dragon myths that are native to Japan, the culture also has a rich history of cross-pollination, carrying dragon myths from all over the place to the islands and assimilating them.
Jaz: Mythology’s version of The Borg.
Anike: Something like that. Before we begin, as always a couple of things to remember. Any dates will be referred to with western AD or BC annotation. In our source material, the traditional Japanese method of historical dating was used, in which they start counting from zero every time a new emperor ascends to the throne. However, we found it hard to place these events along the timeline of world history with this counting method and assume the same holds true for all of you, Mythsters.
Jaz: Further, we apologise in advance for any linguistic trauma inflicted by our attempts at pronunciation, and welcome any and all who know better.
Anike: Now speaking of language, that in itself is a testament to the varied background of Japanese dragons. Modern Japanese has numerous words for dragon. You’ve got the indigenous tatsu, from the Old Japanese ta-tu; Sino-Japanese ryū or ryō, from the Chinese lóng. Nāga, which comes from Sanskrit. And doragon, derived from the English word dragon, and used almost exclusively to refer to the European dragon type.
Jaz: Wow. And how many episodes will we be spending on all that?
Anike: Just the one, so let’s make it count.
Jaz: Roger that. References to dragons go back as far as 680AD–with the Kojiki–and 720AD with the Nihongi. In these texts, they’re mostly mentioned as water gods, shaped either like serpents or dragons. And even within this group, we found a good bit of diversity. There was Yamato no Orochi, a.k.a eight-branched giant snake. A serpent with eight heads and eight tails. This dragon met its match in Susanoo, the god of wind and sea. After slaying the dragon, Susanoo found the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi–a legendary sword of the Imperial regalia of Japan–in its tail.
Anike: And then there was Watatsumi–Sea God–or Ryūjin–dragon god, the ruler of the oceans. Apparently, he was able to change into human form.
Jaz: Ooh, so Japan had shapeshifters too! How awesome is this?
Anike: Very. He lived in an undersea palace where he controls the tides with the use of two jewels, the Kanju and Manju. And his daughter, Toyotama-hime–or Luminous Pearl Princess–was believed to be the ancestor of Emperor Jimmu, the legendary first emperor of Japan.
Jaz: The family tree gets even more convoluted, with more dragons in the mix, but if we get into that, we’ll fill the whole episode with just this tiny sliver of Japan’s broad palate of dragons. Let’s move inland. Mizuchi were river dragons and water deities. References to these creatures were recorded in the Nihongi. For example, in 379AD, a great water serpent or dragon had its den in a fork of the Kawashima River. It would breathe or spew a lethal venom at passersby.
Anike: Eugh. Imagine going for a nice walk along the river and finding that on your path. Luckily, a man named Agatomori exterminated the creature. He tossed three calabashes into the water. When they floated to the surface, he challenged the dragon to make the gourds sink. If it failed, he’d kill it.
Jaz: Where’s the logic in that?
Anike: Those were different times, Jaz. The beast turned itself into a deer in an attempt to sink them but the attempt failed and Agatomori slew the monster. As if that wasn’t enough, he sought out the dragon’s tribe–who lived in a cave at the bottom of the river–and killed all of them. The water turned to blood and was named The Pool of Agatamori.
Jaz: In 323AD, another river god–regarded as a mizuchi by some, though this was not mentioned in the original source–caused similar problems. The dikes built along the Yodo River repeatedly broke. Emperor Nintoku ordered two men to be found and sacrificed to appease the river god. One of them resisted and tried the calabash trick. If the dragon managed to sink it, the man would accept the sacrifice as divine will. The monster caused a whirlwind, but the gourd floated away unharmed.
Anike: And so did the sacrifice.
Jaz: According to a turn-of the twentieth-century devil-do-all scientist called Minakata–he was an author, biologist, naturalist, and ethnologist–mizuchi evolved in some parts of the country, into creatures called kappa, or river-children. These are amphibious yōkai demons, usually depicted as green, humanoid creatures with webbed hands and feet and a shell on their backs.
Anike: This is the first myth we’ve encountered that significantly evolves over time. Fascinating stuff, really. But this particular rabbit-hole will take us way too long to delve into right now, especially since kappa seem to be more imp or demon than dragon. However, a guest post on the subject of kappa is available to all of our patrons as we speak.
Jaz: Yes, let’s stay on track here.
Anike: How about another shapeshifter? But instead of a dragon taking human form, it’s the other way around this time.
Anike: Yeah. Kiyohime, or Purity Princess, was a teahouse waitress who fell for a Buddhist priest named Anchin, and had a hard time taking no for an answer when it turned out that Anchin wasn’t interested. She began to study magic, transformed herself into a dragon, and killed him in revenge.
Jaz: Hell hath no fury…
Anike: This is a story with many variations, and we see Kiyohime returning in many different forms. A Noh play was written about her and Anchin, as well as a Kabuki drama. And later, she appeared in a fair number of video games, as well as an anime series.
Jaz: Oh my goddess. Another rabbit hole. I hate to say it, honey, but we’ve got to get moving if we want to even begin to cover the dragons carried over from other cultures.
Anike: Wait, wait, wait. One more. We can’t not mention her. Check this out. Nure-onna, or wet woman, was a dragon with a woman’s head and a snake’s body.
Jaz: Like Hatuibwari from the Solomon Islands!
Anike: Exactly! Except she wasn’t so much the nurturing type. One could typically spot her on a riverbank, washing her hair. Get on her bad side and you wouldn’t live to tell the tale.
Jaz: Oh. Oops. Well, you were right. We did have to mention this one. But let’s move on shall we?
Anike: Good point. So, Chinese dragon mythology is central to the dragons we encounter in Japan. Again, we can look to the language for clues. Japanese words for dragon are written with kanji–Chinese characters. Many of the Japanese dragon names are loanwords from Chinese.
Jaz: Now, according to some authors, you can tell a Japanese ryū from a Chinese lóng by the number of claws. According to Gould (1896:248) a dragon will be depicted as having three claws in Japan, whereas in China it has four or five, depending on whether it’s an ordinary dragon or an Imperial emblem.
Anike: But despite Japanese dragons having clearly distinguished themselves from Chinese through the number of talons, Japanese military forces still named many armaments after the Chinese dragons.
Jaz: Honoring their roots, perhaps? Japan has been influenced by China in many ways throughout its history.
Anike: I wouldn’t be the least surprised. But as we already mentioned, China is not the only culture to influence Japan’s dragons. Monks from all over Asia carried their beliefs to Japan, including Buddhist and Hindu dragon and serpent legends.
Jaz: Right. The one that springs to mind is the nāga. These are rain deities and protectors of Buddhism. Now, there’s something strange about this dragon. While the myths originated in India, Japanese nāgas often have Chinese features. Now that does make sense, when you think about it. See, it was through China that the stories reached Japan.
Anike: What’s even more striking is how the stories began to merge and evolve. Many original Japanese dragons were later identified with nāga, resulting in a complex mix of beliefs. For example: nāga kings supposedly lived in an undersea palace. Sound familiar?
Jaz: It does! This palace was called Ryūgū. And the underwater palace we mentioned at the beginning of the episode? Belonging to the god Ryūjin? That was called Ryūgū-jō. Uncanny resemblances all around.
Anike: Absolutely. Remember the jewels he controlled the tide with? Well, according to Indian legends, nāgas have magical jewels as well. And there’s more. Hachidai ryūō is a recurring artistic motif showing 8 nāga kings listening to the Buddha. The goddess Saraswati got a new name in Japan: Benzaiten. She supposedly created Enoshima Island in order to protect the people from a five-headed dragon. Oh, and Kuzuryū–or nine-headed dragon–stems from the multiheaded nāga king Shesha. He’s worshipped at the shrine in the Nagano Prefecture. And–
Jaz: I’m so sorry, Mythsters, but we’ve got to move on yet again. We will go more in depth on nāgas in our India episode, so be sure to catch that one. Another significant aspect of the importance of dragons to Japanese culture, is their strong connection to Buddhist temples. Temple names often involve dragons, and there’s lots of stories about dragons inhabiting ponds or lakes near temples.
Japanese Dragon Tales
Anike: For example, on Mount Hako is a shrine where a Zen priest saw a nine-headed dragon transform into a goddess called Kannon. And to this day, at Fujiyoshida, Yamanashi, a festival is held each year at the Lake Saido Dragon Shrine. And at Sensō-ji, a Buddhist temple in Asakusa, dragon dancers perform every year. Their Kinryū-no-Ma or Golden Dragon Dance is a hypnotic, graceful choreography winding through the temple and the streets outside.
Jaz: Curious souls can find a link to a video of the Kinryū-no-Ma on the blog post for this episode. But Buddhism isn’t the only religion woven through with dragons. Shintoism has a very strong affinity with dragons as well. Ryūjin shinkō or Dragon God Faith is a form of Shintoism in which dragons are worshipped as water kami. It incorporates agricultural rituals and prayers to make it rain.
Anike: The dragon is a recurring feature in Shinto shrines, and some shrines were believed to be the den of a dragon, like the Shrine on Itsukushima Island. People thought it was the home of the daughter of Ryūjin–the sea God.
Jaz: So that would have been Toyotama-hime, who we discussed in the beginning?
Modern Japanese Culture
Anike: I think so. Anyway, with a culture so steeped in dragon lore and symbolism, it’s no small miracle that dragons are also firmly embedded in modern Japanese culture. In WWII, aircraft received names such as toryu or dragon slayer, hiryu or flying dragon, and donryu or storm dragon.
Jaz: Yep. And the airforce was not alone. The Japanese navy named and still name some of their craft after dragons. Like the modern submarines of the Sōryū class, diesel-electric attack submarines constructed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Shipbuilding. Sōryū means blue dragon.
Anike: But the dragon is also a popular figure in Yakuza art, manga and anime… You name it.
Jaz: Wow, so another culture that still carries its dragons close to its heart. I’m seriously amazed at the rich diversity in dragons we’ve found here.
Anike: Yeah, me too. So where are we headed next, Jaz?
Jaz: We’ll be heading to mainland Asia, stopping first in the Koreas.
Anike: Don’t want to wait for our next episode? We’ve got you covered. Patrons receive early access to all our episodes, as well as other Mythsterhood awesomeness. Like cross stitch and crochet patterns, colour by numbers printables, etc. Visit patreon.com/mythsterhood for more details.
Jaz: But even if financial support isn’t an option, there are many ways to support the Mythsterhood. Please consider giving us a rating and review on the platform of your choice. It shows you appreciate our work and helps new listeners to discover us.
Anike: If you enjoyed an episode, blog, tweet, or talk about it. Any form of signal-boosting is huge to an initiative like ours.
Jaz: Now, until next time: See you later, Mythsters!
Anike: Until then, bye!
Want to find out more about the dragons of Japanese mythology? Keep an eye out for our blog post next week!
All About Dragons – Japanese Dragon
Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697, by William George Aston
Yabai – The Japanese Dragon – Myths, Legends, and Symbolisms
Encyclopedia of Shinto
Music: Wanderer by Alexander Nakarada (www.serpentsoundstudios.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons BY Attribution 4.0 License