What are those things? Dogs? Lions?

Good morning everyone,

It's definitely feeling cooler in the mornings and evenings now. I suppose it won't be long till I have to dig out my winter gear for the bike rides to and from work. But for now, I'm loving this weather-highs all week will be between 23C and 25C and overnight lows will be in the mid teens with mostly sunny weather expected.

"What´s the different between Shishi and Komainu?"
The first thing that comes to mind is, Shishi (獅子) is a lion and Komainu (狛犬) is a dog. And? I had no idea. So I thought I'd look into it...
 
“The origin of Shishi"
 
The origin of Shishi is actually from the Middle East. Lions were a symbol of power in ancient civilizations and stone figures of shishi were often used in temples or thrones. Lions were also symbols of the protectors of the King. The Sphinx in Egypt is a good example. 
 
This idea of a lion as a sacred beast spread to India and later, lion figures were placed on the sides of the Buddha. Not only through Buddhism but lion worship was also introduced to China through the merchants who travelled along the Silk Road. However, China already had their own traditional idea of a sacred beast and the lion was merged with it and became Karajishi (唐獅子/ Chinese lion), which looks like a mix of a dragon and a dog. And this is the lion brought to Japan by the monks and the students who came back from China about 500 years ago. This is one of the most famous Shishi paintings of Karino Eitoku (狩野永徳) in Aduchi Momoyama period (安土桃山時代, 1568-1600). 
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One defining characteristic of a Chinese lion is an ornamental band around its neck. Japanese Komainu doesn´t have it and it could be a way to distinguish the difference. In some shrines in Japan, you can see Kara Shishi.
koma_yahiko
 
When Buddhism was introduced to Japan, Shishi was introduced as a guardian and placed at the entrance of temples and cemeteries, on both side as a pair. As if they were statues of A (阿) and Un (吽). One opens its mouth (A) and the other closes it (Un). This is the pair from Nikko Toshogu (日光東照宮). Did you notice that one of the Shishi has a horn? I will come back to this later.
6420621a
 
In Buddhism lions are believed to have a spiritual power and eat bad sprits. This belief still remains in Japan as Shishi-mai (獅子舞). During the New Year, a red-faced shishi comes to the neighbourhood and while it dances, tries to eat kids´ heads. But what the lion wants to do is eat the bad spirits which hide inside the child, not the child itself.
 
“The origin of Komainu"
 
As we saw above, originally Shishi were placed in pairs and both of them had opened mouths. The ancestor of komainu is thought to be an imaginary animal, Ji (じ), which  was a grayish black cow-like animal and had a horn. This “Ji” was mentioned in a document written in the mid Heian period (平安時代, 794-1192) as an animal which brings good luck. This animal is believed to be the ancestor of komainu and this is why komainu has a horn as shown in the photo above.

So, Shishi and komainu are completely different animals.
 
At the beginning komainu had a long horn but as the time passed, the horn got shorter and shorter and gradually the difference between shishi and komainu became less noticeable. We can usually distinguish them by the mouth; mouth open = komainu, mouth closed = shishi. But even that difference has disappeared and now both of them can be called komainu.  
2010-05-06akibajinja-komainu
 
But their place is always the same, komainu (open mouth) is on your right and shishi (closed mouth) is on your left when you are facing the shrine. This comes from Japanese people´s concept of beauty towards asymmetrical, which you can often see in Japanese gardens. Perhaps placing two Shishi wasn´t enough for the ancient Japanese and they had created another imaginative animal, komainu to make it more asymmetrical and therefore more beautiful...

And now you know that the two guardians of the shrine are not the same creature-I've heard many theories from Japanese people, one is male and one is female, one represents calmness and the other anger and some others that I've forgotten, but now I know...one is actually a lion and the other a dog (sort of). Does that seem clearer to you? For me...not so much...ha ha!

Have a great day!  
 

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