by Greg Mayer
“Guardian lions” are widespread in East Asia, where each country has its own particular folklore and practice associated with the common tradition. They are especially common on Okinawa, which has its own version, called shisa. While on mainland Japan guardian lions are associated usually with shrines, on Okinawa they are everywhere, with homes, offices, and apartment buildings all sporting a pair of guardian shisa.
The two members of a shisa pair each have a distinct role and iconography, differentiated by their mouths. The “a”, or open-mouthed shisa, are usually said to be males. The open mouth, with its teeth bared, warns off any evil from entering the house.
The “un”, or close-mouthed shisa, are usually said to be female. The closed mouth keeps good in the house. As you can see in the following photo, an “un” can be pretty toothy, with canines extending beyond its lips, so just seeing a lot of teeth does not make a shisa an “un”.
The posture of the shisa also varies, though each member of a pair usually has the same posture. In the first two photos we saw the sitting, half-turned, posture; in this posture there is a definite right and left shisa. There is also a more formal sitting, face forward, posture (this reminds me of the Chinese style); and a crouching, hindquarters-up, posture.
The crouching shisa is a typically Okinawan design– a little less formal, colorful, and made of ceramics (which works for small ones, at least). The pair below is from Yomitan Village, a center of traditional Okinawan ceramics.
In Okinawa, it is common to have a shisa on the roof, as well as a pair at the gate or door. I did not see these elsewhere in Japan, and it reflects the greater abundance and visibility of shisa in Okinawa. Here’s a roof shisa at Ryukyu Mura, a reconstructed traditional village. Most of the buildings are 100 or more years old, disassembled at their original sites, then transported to, and reconstructed, at the park.
In addition to dwellings or other buildings, shisa may also stand guard at parks, such as this pair guarding a small park near the Sunabe seawall in Chatan Town.
The popularity of shisa in Okinawa, including among visitors, has led to a large variety of “novelty” shisa, such as this pair that accompanies drinks purchased at Sam’s by the Sea on Valentine’s Day. (The drinks are mixed inside the shisa’s mouth.)
The pair of novelty shisa below serves as a reminder of many aspects of Okinawan culture: awamori (rice liquor), chopsticks resting on goya (a sort of squash), sanshin (habu skin guitar), and Okinawa soba noodles (Okinawan soba noodles are a distinct style from those of mainland Japan).
On mainland Japan, guardian lions are much less common, and usually associated with Shinto shrines. There, they are called komainu, which means “Korea dog” (inu means ‘dog’). Some of the earliest komainu are from a part of Japan associated with Korea, and though today komainu are typical at Shinto shrines, the original connection was probably with Buddhism, which came to Japan from Korea, which may explain the name. Here is a fine example from Kashuga Shrine, in the ancient capital city of Nara on Honshu.
There is some confusion, reflected in both English and Japanese names, regarding the inspiration for shisa. Though I’ve referred to them as guardian lions, they are sometimes called lion-dogs. There are no lions in East Asia, so sculptors relied on models (and perhaps occasional actual animals) derived from India, and the character and appearance of the guardians has become somewhat mongrelized with the features of dogs. At one apartment building in Chatan Town, however, the lion-derivation was very clear.