Thursday, 09. February 2006
Nature of the Beast

Dragon Kings

This leaf from an album depicts a scene from a popular legend, Taishokan, in which a female diver steals a precious crystal ball from the Dragon King. On the boat, a group of court nobles look on with concern. In the legend, the Kaishokan, the highest ranking official under Japan's Emperor, was sent a special gift from his daughter, who had married the Emperor of China. The gift, a crystal ball containing an image of the Buddha, was seized on its way to Japan by the Dragon King. Determined to win back the crystal ball, the Kaishokan sent a woman diver after it. She succeeded in recapturing the ball from the dragon, but was killed in the attempt.



Divine Steeds

The Japanese imported more than their artistic styles from China — they also adapted Taoist and Buddhist teachings, which they blended with their native Shinto beliefs.

One Taoist figure incorporated into Japanese artwork was Kinko, a holy hermit. In Japanese art, he is often depicted mounted on the enormous carp that carried him to the Undersea Kingdom. There, sea creatures taught him that all life is sacred.

To the Japanese, the carp (koi) is a symbol of persistence, longevity, and fertility.

Land-locked farmers kept carp in ponds to provide food, and then bred them for their beautiful colors. Families fly colorful cloth carp from their homes on Children’s Day.

Shi-Shi Antics

Japanese artists love to paint supernatural, occult, and just plain eerie animals and beings. They draw on rich folk traditions as well as Shinto and Buddhist lore that includes monsters, demons, ghosts, and animals that are not what they seem.

This scene by the brilliant artist Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858) depicts two mythical animals, called shi-shi or “lion dogs.” The great beasts play on an impossibly vertical cliff, looking more like action heroes than real lions.

But then, shi-shi lions are not “real” lions. These mythical beasts repel evil spirits and usually sit sedately at the gates of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples and are similar to the foo dogs that guard Chinese temples.


Shi-shi lions guard temples in pairs. One usually has its mouth open to scare away demons, while the other’s mouth is closed to keep in the good spirits. These two shi-shi have broken away from their shrine and chase around a cliff, possibly suggesting the shi-shi lion dance that ushers in the New Year and celebrates other seasonal milestones. Dancers wearing fearsome lion masks snap and prance to the terror and delight of their audiences.

Nature of the Beast - An educational and interactive exploration of the way artists of Edo-period Japan depicted animals and the natural world by the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, California. (English)
Take the Flash-Version with Timeline, Games and the Random Monster Generator. Have fun and explore!

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