the online database of Japanese folklore



Translation: dragon
Alternate names: ryū, ryō, wani; known by many specific individual names
Habitat: rivers, waterfalls, mountains, lakes, seas, and palaces deep in the ocean
Diet: capable of eating anything

Appearance: Tatsu, Japanese dragons, are similar in appearance to the dragons of China and the rest of the world. They have long, scaled bodies, serpentine tails, sharp teeth and claws, and often have horns, antlers, spines, and beards. Some tatsu have multiple limbs or heads. Many disguise themselves as humans and are never seen in their natural forms.

Behavior: Tatsu are strongly connected to water—be it rain, rivers, seas, or oceans—and are considered to be water gods. They live in splendid palaces at the bottom of deep seas, or in other secluded places. They usually live far from human-inhabited areas, but occasionally make their homes near Buddhist temples. Like Western dragons, they hoard vast amounts of treasure and keep powerful magical artifacts in their homes. Many are great villains, tormenting mankind out of spite, while others are pure and kind, offering their wisdom and power to those seeking it. Some tatsu even allow worthy heroes to visit them, and lend their magical items to noble warriors.

Interactions: Tatsu rarely concern themselves with human affairs unless it affects them directly. They accept worship and sacrifices from humans; many temples maintain the holy grounds of local dragons, and countless Japanese make pilgrimages to holy mountains inhabited by tatsu. Tatsu receive prayers for rain or for protection from floods, and other water-related requests. Fireworks festivals, ritual dragon dances, and other local celebrations honor these dragon gods all over the Japanese islands.

Origin: Tatsu are one of the oldest supernatural creatures known in Japan. The first recorded stories go back to the earliest written accounts of Japanese history and mythology, the Kojiki and the Nihongi. Over the centuries, tales of the Chinese long and Indian naga were incorporated into Japanese mythology. Today’s Japanese dragons are an amalgamation of these imported myths merged with the indigenous water deities of prehistoric Japan.

Legends: The Japanese imperial family, the oldest hereditary monarchy in the world, is supposedly descended from dragons (as well as other gods). The monarchy is said to have been founded in 660 BCE by Emperor Jimmu, the legendary first ruler of Japan. His father was the son of Toyotama hime, who in turn was the daughter of Ryūjin, the dragon god of the sea. So by tradition the emperor of Japan is the direct descendant of a dragon.

Alphabetical list of yōkai