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Shishi and Komainu. What´s the difference?

Recently I was asked, "What´s the different between Shishi and Komainu?"

First thing came up to my mind was, Shishi (獅子) is a lion and Komainu (狛犬) is a dog. And then? I had no idea. So I´ve investigated a little.

“The origin of Shishi"

The origin of Shishi is lion from the Middle East. Lion was the symbol of power in the ancient civilization and stone figures were often used for the temples or the thrones. Lion was also the protector of the King. The Sphinx in Egypt is a good example.

This idea of sacred beast spread to India and later, lion figures were placed on the sides of the Buddha. As well as the Buddhism, the lion worship was introduced to China through the Silk Road. However China already had another traditional idea of sacred beast and the lion was merged together 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. 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).

The characteristic of Chinese lion is a ornament band around its neck. Japanese Komainu doesn´t have it and could be a way to distinguish the difference. In some shrines in Japan, you can see Kara Shishi.

When Buddhism was introduced to Japan, Shishi was introduced as a guardian and placed at the entrance of the temples or the cemeteries, on the 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). If you have visited, you may have a photo of them.

Do you realise one of the Shishi has a horn? I will come back to you about this later.

In Buddhism lion was 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 face shishi comes to the neighbourhood and while it dances, the lion tries to eat kids´ head. I haven´t seen a real one in Tokyo but I could imagine how scary it´d be for a child. But what the lion wants to do is not biting the child´s head off but to eat the bad spirits which hide inside them.

Also shish´s curly hair is believed to have a strong spiritual power and on many shishi, you will see strong curly hair whereas komainu has rather wavy hair.

“The origin of Komainu"

As we saw avobe, original Shishi was placed in pair and both of them opened the mouth. 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 it´s shown in the photo above. Shishi and komainu are completely different animals.

At the beginning komainu had a long horn but as the time passed, the horn was getting shorter. This is the oldest komainu in Ota ward in Tokyo which is made in 1685. You can see the remain of the horn on top of its head. Comparing to shishi, it looks like a pug rather than a lion, doesn´t it?

Gradually, the difference between shishi and komainu was becoming less noticeable. At the beginning people distinguished by its mouth; mouth open = komainu, mouth close = shishi. But later even that difference had disappeared and now both of them are called komainu.

But their place is always the same, komainu (open mouth) is on your right and shishi (close mouth) is on your left facing to the shrine. This comes from Japanese people´s concept of beauty towards asymmetrical, which you can see it in Japanese gardens. Perhaps placing two Shishi wasn´t enough for the ancient Japanese and they had created another imaginative animal, komainu to balance.

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