A to Z: Shiisaa

Published April 21, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

Somewhat ironically, my return to Japanese mythology is again visiting non-standard Japan.  Specifically, we’re looking at an Okinawan mythical being again.

Image copyright Atlus, but provided by the MegaTen Wiki. Click for link.

Though he didn’t show up in the earlier MegaTen games, Shiisaa has been a standard since the PS2 era.  (Though his earliest appearances were before that, he didn’t become standard until the Playstation 2.)  So I’ve got a couple of versions of compendium text on him for you.  First, from the two Devil Survivor games:

A holy beast said to protect houses from evil and grant them fortune.

It is known to have the power to keep evil away.  Ceramic statues in its image are placed on the roofs of houses, in similar fashion to gargoyles.  In Okinawa, souls of the deceased become balls of fire and will burn houses, but Shiisaa keeps such spirits out.

And from the Shin Megami Tensei IV games:

A holy beast said to protect houses from evil and grant them fortune.  It looks similar to Shinto guardian dogs, but is actually modeled after a lion.  There are many stories about it in Ryukyu lore.

Persona Q‘s text is almost identical to that; there’s just a couple of words deleted for it.

And, because the wiki made it available, here’s his text from Shin Megami Tensei IMAGINE (which is, I believe, a PC MMO, and one that’s not being supported anymore at that):

A legendary creature said to repel disasters and misfortune and bring good luck to villages. Shiisa resemble a cross between a lion and a dog. They are revered as guardian deities in Okinawa. Their form is thought to be derived from the lions of the ancient Orient.

Shiisa are holy beasts that possess the power to repel demons and exorcise evil spirits that cause fires. Shiisa statues can be found in a variety of places, such as on the roofs of houses and outside temples. The statues are placed so that they face northeast (toward the Demon gate), south (to guard against fire), or the direction of a gate or cross-street.

Okay, so that’s a lot of game text (admittedly, much of it is repetitive), so it’s high time to move on to the real thing, eh?

They’re typically found in pairs, one with an open mouth to scare away evil spirits, and one with a closed mouth to keep good spirits from escaping.  Generally, people seem to believe that one of them is male and the other female, but there’s no agreement as to which is which.  They’re placed on the ends of rooftops, or on opposing gateposts.  Here’s an open-mouthed rooftop one:

By rbnature (マイカメラ) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

There are a couple of interesting myths about the shiisaa (in its function as a guardian icon) that I’d like to share.  I think I can put the second one in my own words, but the first one I’m just going to quote from Wikipedia:

When a Chinese emissary returned from a voyage to the court at Shuri Castle, he brought a gift for the king, a necklace decorated with a figurine of a shisa. The king found it charming and wore it underneath his clothes. At the Naha Port bay, the village of Madanbashi was often terrorized by a sea dragon who ate the villagers and destroyed their property. One day, the king was visiting the village, and one of these attacks happened; all the people ran and hid. The local noro had been told in a dream to instruct the king when he visited to stand on the beach and lift up his figurine towards the dragon; she sent the boy, Chiga, to tell him the message. He faced the monster with the figurine held high, and immediately a giant roar sounded all through the village, a roar so deep and powerful that it even shook the dragon. A massive boulder then fell from heaven and crushed the dragon’s tail, so that he couldn’t move, and eventually died. This boulder and the dragon’s body became covered with plants and surrounded by trees, and can still be seen today as the “Gana-mui Woods” near Naha Ohashi bridge. The townspeople then built a large stone shisa to protect it from the dragon’s spirit and other threats.

As far as I can tell, shiisaa (and shishi or komainu, as their equivalent in the rest of Japan are called) absolutely were first imported from China (though probably not directly) and then adapted into their Japanese form over time.

Sea serpents probably did not play a role in that, however.

The second story I wanted to share was the origin of the Great Stone Shisa in Tomimori Village.  The village was plagued by house fires, and when they asked for help, the villagers were told that Yaese Mountain, a site of great power very near to the village, was causing the fires.  They were advised to build an open-mouthed shisa facing the mountain to drive back the fires.  They did so, and the fires stopped.

Or so the legend goes.  Whatever the reason, they really built it, back in the 16th century, and it’s still there today (despite catching crossfire in WWII!).

Image from Japanese tourism site Taiken Japan (Explore Japan). Click for link. Also for more shisas.

Anyway, you’ll have noticed that the Shin Megami Tensei IV/IV Apocalypse compendium entry mentioned “Shinto guardian dogs” and that earlier I mentioned shishi/komainu.  Those are all the same thing, firstly.  Well, sort of:  “shishi” means “lion” and only applies to the open-mouthed ones, while “komainu” means “Goguryeo dog” and applies to the closed-mouth ones, which looked more like dogs.  (Goguryeo was one of the three kingdoms of Korea, and its shortened name, Goryeo, is of course the origin of the name Korea.  I’m not sure why the early closed-mouth ones were felt to look like Korean dogs, specifically…unless it was just because they came to Japan via Korea, and they didn’t realize, at first, that they had originated in China.)  Outside of Okinawa, these guardians typically stand guard at Shinto shrines, and their presence in other locations, while not unheard of, is less common.  Unlike in Okinawa, where they’re apparently pretty much ubiquitous.

Shishi/Komainu pair at a modern temple. By Cherry-Blossoms-Dankazura-Kamakura.jpg: Tarourashimaderivative work: Urashimataro (Cherry-Blossoms-Dankazura-Kamakura.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Though functionally identical, they definitely have a very different visual character from the Okinawan shiisaa.  In fact, they look much more like this guy:

I had to use this picture because it’s so freakin’ awesome.  This stone guardian lion stands at Mount Emei…which is evidently one of the most gorgeous places on the face of the Earth.  Wow…

*ahem*  So, let’s talk about these Chinese originals for a moment or two before I cut this ramble short.  In Japan, the pair is one open-mouthed and one close-mouthed, and they don’t seem able to agree if the male has his mouth shut to keep out the bad, while the female has hers open to share goodness, or if the female has her mouth shut to keep the good in, while the male has his open to scare away badness.  (Though the latter does seem to be the more popular version.  Probably because it’s more macho to be scary than to close up in fear.)  In China, the female lion might have her mouth closed and the male have his mouth open, or they might both be open; what really distinguishes the two of them is what they have under their raised paw.  The male has an orb to represent power over the world (particularly in an imperial context), and the female has a cub.  For some reason that detail wasn’t retained in the Japanese version.

But you might be wondering why so many countries that don’t have lions have lion statues?

Well, it’s partly for the same reason that lionless Greece has so many myths that involve lions:  there used to be lions there, but they’ve since been hunted to extinction.  (The Asiatic lion, as a species, still exists, but only in India, but it’s very endangered.  However, it used to exist from the Middle East all the way to China.  Probably wasn’t ever in Japan, though…)  But it’s also because of international trade:  the Wikipedia page on the Chinese guardian lion statues cites a 1st century document recording a Parthian envoy who brought a lion and even an ostrich with him!  (It’s no different from all those lions in the Circus at Rome, except that those lions didn’t have to travel quite so far…and the one taken to China probably wasn’t slaughtered to amuse a paying audience.)

Oh!  I almost forgot!  (Like, to the extent that I had already hit the “Schedule” button…)  I wanted to talk about another famous pop culture use of the shisa!

In 1974’s kaiju picture Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, humanity sought out protection against the evil that was Mechagodzilla.  (OMG, I so want to make a movie reference here, but…I shouldn’t spoil it…just in case someone who hasn’t seen it yet sees this…)  They ended up summoning this guy, in accordance with an Okinawan prophecy:

Copyright Toho. (But downloaded from Wikipedia.)

When the time came to dub the movie into English in 1977, they either assumed that the audience wouldn’t understand or they themselves didn’t understand.  One way or another, instead of his proper name of King Shisa, he became renamed King Caesar.  *sigh*

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