Much of Japanese dragon mythology is an amalgamation of native legends with those from China, Korea and India. The style of dragon was heavily influenced by the Chinese dragon. Japanese dragon, known as ryu or tatsu, is similar to Chinese dragon in that it is depicted as a large serpent-like being, without wings and with horned or antlered mammalian head, but with three toes instead of four or five. Like Chinese dragon (and other Asian dragons), it is connected to water, rain and the seasons. However, Japanese dragons were described as fickle, snake-like water gods long before any outside influence. Most dragons are considered kami (gods) or yokai (supernatural creatures) and worshipped as such, even if they are not name deities.
Dragons (tatsu or ryuu) in Japan were often benign or vicious on a whim. They were worshipped and prayed for the rain when it was dry or less rain when it was wet, but were also the cause of these droughts and downpours. These dragons would hold out on restoring regular weather patterns until they have received sufficient worship or sacrifice. Dragons were also prone to terrorizing nearby villages on a whim, even killing people. In order to calm their tempers, they received sacrifices of livestock and even humans. But even so not all dragons were easily sated, which led to stories of heroes tricking crazed monsters into submission or death.
Mizuchi or water fathers are gods or spirits that dwell in rivers throughout Japan. They usually do not have individual names, and their appearance may be serpentine (like Indian dragons) or bulkier (like Chinese ones). There are several sotires about the mizuchi who harass, posion and kill people with their poisonous breaths. Mizuchi were defeated by a man named Agatamori, who tracked them for years in the Kawashima river until he killed every one of them. Wani are a type of water-dwelling dragon that live in the depths of oceans and lakes. They are known to live in elaborate villages or palaces beneath the water and can transform into humans. They are of Ryujin’s court and often hold noble titles.
The dragon is significant in ancient mythology. It is believed that the first emperor of Japan was born from a union between a hunter named Hoori and the daughter of a dragon king, Ryujin or Watatsumi. Toyotama-hime, one of Ryjujin’s (dragon god’s) beautiful daughters, married hunter prince Hoori after he rescued her from a gang that tried to kidnap her. They lived in Ryujin’s underwater palace for several years but Hoori eventually missed the earth and they decided to move to his native village. She became pregnant, and on the day she was due, she asked Hoori to let her deliver her baby in privacy. His curiosity got better of him however, and he saw Toyotama-hime transform into a dragon during labor. When she realized Hori had spied on her, she abandoned him and the baby, returning to her underwater palace. She sent her younger sister Tamayori to raise her son on the surface. Tamayori and Toyotama-hime’s son eventually married and their child, Jimmu, became the first emperor of Japan.
In another legend involving the dragon king and his daughter, Otohime, a fisherman named Urashima caught a tortoise from the ocean – an animal sacred to the Japanese. Sparing the tortoise, Urashima discovered that the creature was actually Otohime, who as a sign of gratitude allowed Urashima to visit her father’s underwater palace. There, fisherman fell in love with Otohime and was married, but he eventually asked to return to Japan in order to see his family. Otohime presented him with a box to carry but never open, neglecting to warn him that if he left, he could never return to the palace. Upon arriving home, Urashima discovered that over 300 years have passed, and he did not know how to return to his wife. In despair, he opened the box, causing him to rapidly age and die.
In a story The Tale of Tawara Toda (“Tawara Toda monogatari”), Fijuwara no Hidesato confronted the large serpent which lay on Seta Bridge in Omi province, disrupting travelers. Undaunted, he stepped onto the 200-foot snake, crossing the bridge. That night he was visited by a young woman proclaiming herself to be the transformation of the serpent. She told him that near Lake Biwa where she lived, a large centipede took up residence on Mount Mikami, and was devouring beasts, fish and even its own kindred. Hidesato accepted her plea to eradicate the creature, and went to Seta, killing the creature. The dragon woman was elated, and gave him gifts: undiminishing bolts of silk, inexhaustible rice bag, and a crimson copper pan of plenty. On account of the rice bag (tawara), he received name Tawara Toda. She then took him to the palace of the dragon king, where he was given armor, sword and a crimson copper bell.
Kiyohime is a vengeful woman who was turned into a dragon. She was the daughter of a wealthy man who held an inn for travelers on the Hidaka river. A monk named Anchin fell in love with her, but the romance was short-lived as he soon regretted breaking his wov of chastity, and left to continue his journey. Hearbroken Kiyohime decided to chase him, and caught up as the monk was about to cross the river. The monk refused that she joined him and sailed away. Kiyohime jumped into river, and turned into dragon out of rage. She proceeded to chase the monk, who fled to the nearby temple of Dojo-ji, hiding under the temple’s massive bell. Kiyohime found him and melted down the bell with her fiery breath, killing the monk in her rage.
Nure-onna (“wet woman”) is a creature with the head of a woman and body of a giant snake. It is usually seen on river shores, washing her long hair. In some stories, she carries a small child which she uses to attract potential victims. When a well-meaning person tries to rescue him, the child attaches to the victim making it almost impossible to escape, leaving the victim to drown in the river. In some stories, Nure-onna uses her long and powerful tongue to suck all of the victim’s blood out.
Dragon lore is traditionally associated with Buddhist temples, and myths about dragons living in ponds and lakes near temples are widespread. Genpei Jōsuiki records that a Zen priest saw a 9-headed dragon transform into the goddess Kannon. Temple names, as well as Japanese toponyms, often invoke dragons (“Heavenly Dragon Temple”, “Dragon Swamp Temple”, etc.). At a Buddhist temple in Asakusa, Senso-ji, there is an annual dragon dance – Kinryu-no-Mai, “Golden Dance”. According to legend, the Sensō Temple was founded in 628 after two fishermen found a gold statuette of Kannon in the Sumida River, at which time golden dragons purportedly ascended into heaven. This event is celebrated by the dance.
Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima or Itsukushima Island on Japanese Inland Sea was believed to house sea-god Ryujin’s daughter. The sea-dragon empowered Emperor Antoku to ascend the throne because his father Taira no Kiyomori offered prayers at Itsukushima and declared it his ancestral shrine. When Antoku drowned after being defeated in the 1185, he lost the imperial Kusanagi sword back into the sea. The great earthquake of 1185 was attributed to vengeful Heike spirits, or rather the dragon powers of Antoku.
Yamata no Orochi (“Eight-branched giant snake”) was an eight-headed dragon the size of eight hills and eight valleys, with moss and other plants growing on his back. Each of its heads represented one element: fire, water, earth, wind, poison, thunder, light and darkness. Storm god Susano-o encounters a family of earth dieties who had had seven of their eight daughters eaten by the serpent. He offers to slay the creature in exchange for the final daughter’s hand in marriage, which dieties eagerly accept (in another variant, it was a king instead of dieties). Susano-o then proceeds to have each of the eight heads drink from liquor that was distilled eight times so it falls asleep, and then cut Orochi into pieces. Alternatively, he erected a palisade around the village and left eight openings in front of which he put barrels of sake. Orochi approached and made seven of his heads drink while the last remaining head watched. Susanoo then started to cut the heads off with his sword. Orochi tried to retaliate and kill Susanoo, but was drunk and so had trouble fighting back. The god eventually managed to cut all the heads of the dragon, defeating Orochi. Susanoo found, in the dragon’s tail, the sword “Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi” (The Sword of the Sky), one of Japan’s three sacred treasures. Susanoo then married Kushinada and they founded the Izumo dynasty.
When it comes to dragon gods, there are two versions of Japanese dragon myth. These are called Kojiki and Nihon-Shoki. As a result, it is difficult to pinpoint which gods are dragons and the chronological order in which they came into being. Nihon-Shoki states that:
The Goddess of Creation and Death, Izanami no mikoto (伊弉冉尊 or 伊邪那美命; “she who invites”) is giving birth to the God of Fire, Kagutsuchi (軻遇突智; “Flame Elder”), in the heavens. During the birth, Kagutsuchi burns his mother and causes her to fall to earth, where she, in her death throes, creates several new deities, including the Earth Spirit Haniyasubime (波邇夜須毘売神; “Lady Kneading Clay”) from her feces and Water Spirit Mizuhanome (彌都波能売神; “Water Gushing Woman”) from her urine, both of which are potentially snakes or dragon deities.
Izanami dies shortly after, and her husband, Izanagi no mikoto (伊弉諾; “he who invites”), the God of Creation, kills their new son (Kagutsuchi) in his grief. From the dripping blood on Izanagi’s sword, several new deities are made, which includes Watatsumi or Ōwatatsumi no kami (大綿津見神; “Great Deity of the Sea”), Dragon God of the Sea; Kuraokami (闇龗; “Dark Water Serpent”) the Dragon God of Rain and Snow; Kurayamatsumi (闇山津見神; “Mountain Gorge Majesty”), God of Mountains; and the Goddess of Ravines, Kuramitsuha (闇御津羽神; “Ravine Water Rushing”).
Japanese dragon gods are as follows:
- Kurayamatsumi, a minor deity of mountains, ravines and gorges. He is part of Yama-no-kami, a group of earth gods and spirits. Alternate reading of his name is Takaokami, or “high-rain dragon”.
- Kuramitsuha is Kurayamatsumi’s sister. Because of the conflicting order of events between the Nihon-Shoki and Kojiki, she is sometimes considered the same deity as Mizuhanome (or Mitsuhanome). As that name can also be read as “Dark Water Snake” or “Valley Water Snake” it leaves the possibility that she was also a dragon deity.
- Owatatsumi is a guardian water diety who rules over the sea, but he has two alter-egos. His most popular name is Ryujin, which may be an alternative identity representing one of the eight dragon kings imported from the Lotus Sutra of the Indian mythology. Ryujin lives at the bottom of the ocean in the Ryugu-jo, a huge palace made of rushes and corals. From this place he controls the tides with jewels. But he is also considered one of Watatsumi Sanjin (Three Watatsumi Gods), three evil dragon gods who rule the upper, middle and lower levels of the sea. They were created by Izanagi when he washed himself after leaving Yomi, the underworld, to try and save Izanami from death.
- Kuraokami is the Dragon God of Rain and Snow, and is worshipped all across Japan in temples alongside Suijin. He is often a go-to deity when there are droughts or too much rain, but he is also prayed to for more snow. In some versions of the myths surrounding Kuraokami, Watatsumi, and Mizuhanome, Izanami created them to tame Kagutsuchi’s fire if he ever got out of control.
Japanese also have counterparts to Chinese four astrological symbols, actually taken from Chinese culture. Seiryu is quinglong, Azure Dragon. Suzaku is zhuque, Vermillion Bird. Byakko is baihu, White Tiger. Genbu is xuanwu, Black Tortoise. The Azure Dragon is one of mythical protectors of the city of Kyoto, said to protect the east of the city.