In the land of the rising sun, the figure of the dragon is intimately linked to history and popular culture. Politics, religion, daily life : the Japanese dragon is present in all aspects of Japanese society. Let's retrace together its appearance in Japanese mythology and identify its impact on daily life.
The origins of Japanese dragons
A myth inspired by dinosaurs ?
This (admittedly controversial) hypothesis is not exclusive to Japanese culture. Some archaeologists and historians agree that the discovery of dinosaur bones by the first civilizations inspired the myth of dragons. It is interesting to note that this fact is also valid for China since, as we will see later, Chinese dragons have directly influenced Japanese dragons. One example in particular attests to the assimilation of dinosaur bones to the remains of a dragon by the Chinese people : it is the testimony of the historian Chang Qu who asserts, around 300 B.C., that bones found in Sichuan (a province of the People's Republic of China) are indeed the remains of a dragon.
Another hypothesis proposes that the universal symbol of the dragon was born in Africa in prehistoric times and then spread to all continents over the millennia. This hypothesis is based, among other things, on the similarities found among dragons throughout the world (including in Japanese culture) : a partly serpentine appearance, a presence at watering holes, the ability to fly, etc. It should be noted that, unlike their European cousins, many Asian dragons are not fire-breathing. Also, they are a bit more exotic since in the East we find red, blue, green and even multicolored dragons !
A Chinese heritage
The history of Japanese dragons is inseparable from that of Chinese dragons. It would be in the 8th century that Japanese people who went to study in China would have introduced, on their return, the mythology of the dragon in Japan. In fact, it is striking to see how much the Japanese style dragon resembles its Chinese counterpart. Except for the number of claws (three in Japan, five in China), one can even say that the two mythological animals are almost similar. They have in common: a camel's head, a serpentine body covered with carp scales, deer antlers and tiger legs ending in eagle talons. The Japanese name, on the other hand, is unique: dragons are called Ryu or Tatsu throughout the archipelago.
Some famous dragons from Japanese mythology
The meaning of the Japanese dragon, although the styles of the latter are varied, always revolves around the same elements : it symbolizes in turn the forces of nature, water, wisdom, power, abundance... Let's see some examples among the most outstanding legendary creatures of the Japanese mythology.
Yamata no Orichi
Generally, Japanese dragons are rather benevolent towards humans. But not Yamata ! This demon with eight heads and eight tails, as long as eight valleys, regularly devoured young women. It was Susanoo, the god of the storm, who put an end to his cruel actions. He used trickery to make the dragon drink eight barrels of sake. Once the monster was asleep, he cut off the eight heads one by one.
The Wani dragons
They have the usual characteristics of dragons found in Japanese folklore, except that they are underwater creatures. Their empire, organized in a real society, is located under the sea. Among their magical powers is the ability to transform into a human.
Also called the dragon king, he is closely associated with rain. He has the power to decide whether to make it rain or to cause drought.
Dragons and daily life in Japan
Whether in Buddhism or Shintoism (two very important religions in the Japanese archipelago), the figure of the dragon has been used many times. For example, statues and paintings of dragons can be found on the facade and inside many temples (for example, Zen Buddhist dojos have the custom of painting dragons on the ceiling of their main room). Statues of this mythical animal can also be found in temple gardens.
In these religions, the dragon is often associated with a protective role. It protects the spirit and faith of the followers and at the same time keeps away demons and negative emotions. In the religious field, as in other fields, the figure of the dragon is also synonymous with wisdom and benevolence.
As in any religious cult, the dragon also has its festivals. We can quote among others the kinryu no mai which is a ceremony which is held every spring in Tokyo. This Buddhist festival consists of a parade during which a golden dragon of about twenty meters goes through the city.
The popular beliefs
Many Japanese people, beyond the simple symbolic aspect, address directly to the dragon deities to obtain their favors. In the past, and even today, peasants used to ask these mythological animals to intercede for abundant rain for good harvests. Even in contemporary cities, some city dwellers still pray to dragons for protection or good luck in their finances.
Dragons : An omnipresence in all areas of Japanese society
When you walk through the streets of Japan, whether in the countryside or in the big cities, you will notice that the dragon figure is absolutely everywhere. It can be found as a painting or sculpture in parks and gardens, in stores, in temples, in bars and restaurants, on the front of buildings, and even in official places !
If there is another place where this mythical animal is recurrent, it is the one of popular culture, namely mangas and anime. Who hasn't heard of the manga Dragon Ball and its famous dragon Sheron who appears once the seven crystal balls are gathered ? We could also mention Chihiro's Journey, a major work of Japanese cinema, in which appears Haku, a white dragon whose power consists in transforming into a human.
The dragon in Japan : A marker of social belonging
A symbol of the established order
Whether in politics or religion, the dragon symbol serves to cement the foundations of society. As we have seen, it is an essential figure in Shintoism and Buddhism. The religious dragons present everywhere in the country remind us that these two religions dominate the Japanese archipelago.
As far as politics is concerned, successive emperors have been considered until recently as living gods. They derived this legitimacy to receive a divine treatment from the fact that the first emperor of Japan would have been a descendant... of a dragon.
A mythical animal tattooed in the world of organized crime
But if it is at the service of the power and order that govern Japanese society, the figure of the dragon is also paradoxically a means of recognition for a very particular category of marginal people : the Yakuzas, the Japanese "mafia". To understand how the dragon entered the confidential culture of these night lords, it is necessary to understand the status of tattooing in Japan.
Even today, and although it may be incomprehensible to a westerner, getting a tattoo is very much frowned upon in Japan. Only people who challenge the power in place or who practice illegal activities get their skin inked. The Yakuzas are part of it and many movies have already featured their fabulous tattoos that cover absolutely their whole body, except for their face and hands. In this graphic counterculture, the dragon has naturally found its place. A symbol of power and luck, it quickly became one of the favorite motifs that members of organized crime get tattooed. On the skin, the fantastic creature finds its place alongside the Koi carp, the snake and the skull.