the online database of Japanese folklore

Koma inu


Translation: Goryeo (an ancient Korean dynasty) dog
Alternate names: shishi (“stone lion”); refers only to the open-mouthed koma inu
Habitat: shrines, temples, and holy areas
Diet: carnivorous

Appearance: Koma inu are noble, holy animals, usually employed as guardians of sacred sites. 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, while the male guards the structure itself.

Interactions: Koma inu are a ubiquitous symbol at holy sites 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: one with mouth open in a roaring position, and one with mouth closed. Symbolically, these creatures represent yin and yang, or death and life. The open-mouthed koma inu represents the sound “a,” while the closed-mouthed koma inu represents the sound “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 philosophies of Indian religions. In China these dogs are called shishi, which means “stone lion.” This name is often used in Japan as well, though it only refers to the one with its mouth open. The other one, and the two of them collectively, are always referred to as koma inu.

Alphabetical list of yōkai