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TRANSLATION: the Ryukyuan pronunciation of shishi, another name for komainu
HABITAT: shrines, castles, graveyards, villages; found on rooftops in particular
DIET: carnivorous

APPEARANCE: Shīsā are small, dog-like yokai which are found throughout Okinawa, in close proximity to humans. While they are very similar to Japanese komainu, there are a few notable differences. Shīsā are native to Okinawa, and are thus only found on the Ryukyu archipelago and the southernmost islands of Japan. Shīsā are smaller and more dog-like than their Japanese (medium sized dog-lion hybrids) and Chinese (large and very lion-like) cousins.

INTERACTIONS: Lion-dogs are commonly depicted in East Asian sculpture as guardian deities. Komainu and shishi are nearly always found in pairs, yet it is common to find solitary shīsā perched on the roofs of houses that they guard. Chinese shishi are usually used as imperial guardians, Japanese komainu are usually used as shrine guardians, and Ryukyuan shīsā are usually used as house or village guardians, perched on rooftops, village gates, castles, or gravesites.

Shīsā are also depicted as shrine guardians, with male/female pairs representing the “a” and “un” sounds. This behavior was likely imported from Japan after the Ryukyu islands were conquered. In Okinawan depictions, the right, open-mouthed shīsā is the female, beckoning good luck and fortune, while the left, close-mouthed shīsā is the male, protecting the village from natural disasters and evil spirits.

ORIGIN: Shīsā are very close relatives to komainu, and share the same ancestor: China’s imperial guardian lions. However, while komainu arrived in mainland Japan via Korea, shīsā were imported to the Ryukyu islands directly from China, before Okinawa was part of Japan. In fact, the name shīsā is actually the Ryukyuan pronunciation of their Chinese name, shishi, which is also sometimes used for komainu in Japanese.

Koma inu


TRANSLATION: Goryeo (an ancient Korean dynasty) dog
ALTERNATE NAMES: shishi (stone lion); refers only to the left-hand koma inu
HABITAT: shrines, temples, and holy areas
DIET: carnivorous

APPEARANCE: Koma inu are noble holy animals which are usually employed as guardians of holy areas. They can range in size from a small dog to the size of a lion, and due to their resemblance to both creatures, are often called lion dogs in English. They have thick, curly manes and tails, powerful, muscular bodies, and sharp teeth and claws. Some koma inu have large horns like a unicorn on their heads, however many are hornless.

BEHAVIOR: Koma inu are fierce and noble beasts. They act like watchdogs, guarding gates and doorways and preventing the wicked from entering. They live together in male-female pairs, and are always found together. In their pairs, the female usually guards those living inside of the place they guard, while the male guards the structure or place itself.

INTERACTIONS: Koma inu are a ubiquitous symbol at holy places in Japan. Stone koma inu statues are almost always found at the entrance to Shinto shrines, often with more inside the shrine guarding the important buildings. The pairs are usually carved in two poses: with mouth open, in a roaring position, and with mouth closed. Symbolically, these creatures represent yin and yang, or death and life. The open-mouthed koma inu represents “a,” while the closed-mouthed koma inu represents “un.” These sounds are the Japanese transliteration of the Sanskrit “Om,” a mystical syllable which symbolizes the beginning, middle, and end of all things. A western analogy would be alpha and omega.

ORIGIN: Koma inu were brought to Japan via Korea, which in turn received them from China, which in turn received them from India. China is where they first began to symbolize the dharmic philosophics of Indian religions. In China, these dogs are called shishi, which means “stone lion.” This name is often used in Japan, too, though it only refers to the left one (the one with its mouth open). The right one and the two of them collectively are always referred to as koma inu.