Cats in Japan: Shisa

by Greg Mayer

Guardian lions” are widespread in East Asia, where each country has its own particular folklore and practice associated with the common tradition. They are especially common on Okinawa, which has its own version, called shisa.  While on mainland Japan guardian lions are associated usually with shrines, on Okinawa they are everywhere, with homes, offices, and apartment buildings all sporting a pair of guardian shisa.

Shisa guarding an office on Okinawa.

The two members of a shisa pair each have a distinct role and iconography, differentiated by their mouths. The “a”, or open-mouthed shisa, are usually said to be males. The open mouth, with its teeth bared, warns off any evil from entering the house.

An “a”, or open-mouthed shisa, usually said to be male. The open mouth, teeth-bared, warns off any evil from the house.

The “un”, or close-mouthed shisa, are usually said to be female. The closed mouth keeps good in the house. As you can see in the following photo, an “un” can be pretty toothy, with canines extending beyond its lips, so just seeing a lot of teeth does not make a shisa an “un”.

An “un”, or close-mouthed shisa, usually said to be female. The closed mouth keeps good in the house.

The posture of the shisa also varies, though each member of a pair usually has the same posture. In the first two photos we saw the sitting, half-turned, posture; in this posture there is a definite right and left shisa. There is also a more formal sitting, face forward, posture (this reminds me of the Chinese style); and a crouching, hindquarters-up, posture.

Varieties of shisa: sitting, formal; and crouching, from Yomitan Village.

The crouching shisa is a typically Okinawan design– a little less formal, colorful, and made of ceramics (which works for small ones, at least). The pair below is from Yomitan Village, a center of traditional Okinawan ceramics.

Crouching shisa from Yomitan Village, a center of traditional Okinawan ceramics. (Note the nanoblock Shinto shrine to the right.)

In Okinawa, it is common to have a shisa on the roof, as well as a pair at the gate or door. I did not see these elsewhere in Japan, and it reflects the greater abundance and visibility of shisa in Okinawa. Here’s a roof shisa at Ryukyu Mura, a reconstructed traditional village. Most of the buildings are 100 or more years old, disassembled at their original sites, then transported to, and reconstructed, at the park.

Roof shisa at Ryukyu Mura, Okinawa.

In addition to dwellings or other buildings, shisa may also stand guard at parks, such as this pair guarding a small park near the Sunabe seawall in Chatan Town.

A pair of shisa guarding a small park near the Sunabe seawall in Chatan Town, Okinawa.

The popularity of shisa in Okinawa, including among visitors, has led to a large variety of “novelty” shisa, such as this pair that accompanies drinks purchased at Sam’s by the Sea on Valentine’s Day. (The drinks are mixed inside the shisa’s mouth.)

Valentine’s Day shisa from Sam’s, Okinawa.

The pair of novelty shisa below serves as a reminder of many aspects of Okinawan culture:  awamori (rice liquor), chopsticks resting on goya (a sort of squash), sanshin (habu skin guitar), and Okinawa soba noodles (Okinawan soba noodles are a distinct style from those of mainland Japan).

Novelty shisa, with bottle of awamori (rice liquor), chopsticks resting on goya (a type of squash), sanshin (habu skin guitar), and a plate of food with presumably Okinawa soba noodles included (Okinawan soba noodles are a distinct style from those of mainland Japan).

On mainland Japan, guardian lions are much less common, and usually associated with Shinto shrines. There, they are called komainu, which means “Korea dog” (inu means ‘dog’). Some of the earliest komainu are from a part of Japan associated with Korea, and though today komainu are typical at Shinto shrines, the original connection was probably with Buddhism, which came to Japan from Korea, which may explain the name. Here is a fine example from Kashuga Shrine, in the ancient capital city of Nara on Honshu.

A large ‘a’ komainu at Kasuga Taisha in Nara, Japan.

There is some confusion, reflected in both English and Japanese names, regarding the inspiration for shisa. Though I’ve referred to them as guardian lions, they are sometimes called lion-dogs. There are no lions in East Asia, so sculptors relied on models (and perhaps occasional actual animals) derived from India, and the character and appearance of the guardians has become somewhat mongrelized with the features of dogs. At one apartment building in Chatan Town, however, the lion-derivation was very clear.

A shisa done as a semi-realistic male lion at an apartment complex, Chatan Town, Okinawa; its partner was also male.

 

7 Comments

  1. busterggi
    Posted July 5, 2017 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    I’m confused (more than usual) – aren’t these also known as foo-dogs???

    • Posted July 6, 2017 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      I’ve heard both the terms “foo dog” and “foo lion”, but don’t know what to make of that.

  2. bric
    Posted July 5, 2017 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    In China they are called lion dogs (shishi), they really aren’t cats
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_guardian_lions

    This fine example is at the National Palace Museum Taipei
    Forecourt lion

  3. Heather Hastie
    Posted July 5, 2017 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting. I’m enjoying your posts on your trip to Japan!

  4. Michael Fisher
    Posted July 5, 2017 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    The Chatan Town shisha [last pic] has a 2nd cat-like head, but without a mane, between the paws – seemingly without a body. What does that signify Greg?

  5. Posted July 6, 2017 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    A recently recruited guardian lion: http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1162739-cats

  6. Alex Kleine
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 3:19 am | Permalink

    Fun fact: Those “lions” were the actual basis for King Caesar, a kaiju (giant Japanese monster) that appeared in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) and last appeared in Godzilla Final Wars (2004).


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