Japanese Dragon Symbols, Myths and Meanings

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Updated March 14, 2022
Dragon Hanami

Japanese dragons have a complex mythology with both benevolent and malevolent personas. In Japanese dragon mythology, there are positive lessons to be learned from even the fiercest of dragons. The helpful dragons are often viewed as guardians of natural elements and regulators of weather and conditions that cause harm. Because Japan has unique geographical conditions due to their exposure to and reliance on the ocean, the mythology of dragons is woven into the vulnerability of natural elements. The myths surrounding the evil Japanese dragons are also most-often based on natural elements, like rivers, mountains, and weather conditions.

Japanese Dragon Meaning

Japanese dragons are believed to control rain, fire, and the earth. They rule from the sky and bodies of water.

Japanese Water Dragon

One type of dragon is a deity found in bodies of water or rain. The Japanese word for water dragon is Mizuchi. The influence of Mizuchi appears to come from a Chinese dragon, and it is a wingless serpent that has clawed feet.

Handwash water dragon at Hachiman shrine

Japanese Sky Dragon

The Japanese Sky dragon is found in the sky or clouds. Though some Japanese dragons are believed to possess flying power, they are not depicted with wings and do not fly often.

Japanese Dragon vs. Chinese Dragon

There are similarities and differences between Japanese and Chinese dragons. One of the main differences between the two is the number of toes each has. Mythology and meanings are similar, most likely because some believe the two share similar origins in ancient Chinese civilization. The Japanese mythology behind the evolution of dragons, though, describes Japan as the origin of all dragons who appeared with just three toes. On their long journey to China, they gained two additional toes, leading to the 5-toed Chinese dragon.

Japanese Dragon Symbolism

Depictions of dragons are used throughout the Japanese culture as symbols of strength, courage, and magic. Unlike the dragons found in Western mythology, Asian dragons don't have wings, but some can fly. It's believed that Asian dragons can fly due to a knot on top of its head called Chi'ih muh, which magically enables it to fly.

The traditional Japanese dragons, as with most Asian dragons, are slender and long like a snake and are a composite of nine different animals with chin whiskers.

  • Deer - Horns
  • Camel - Head
  • Rabbit - Eyes
  • Snake - Neck
  • Cockle - Abdomen
  • Carp - Scales
  • Eagle - Claws
  • Tiger - Paws
  • Ox - Ears

Japanese Dragon Art

Inspired by Japanese dragon mythology, depictions of the dragon are found in artwork, statues, and religious artifacts. The rich stories told of dragons in Japanese culture inspire artists to create dragon gods, shape-shifters, and stories in their work. Japanese dragon art can be found in architecture, shrine and temple rooftops, and as fountain adornments. Drawings of Japanese dragons are often inspiration for tattoos and textile design.

Meanings of Japanese Dragons in Tattoos

Japanese dragons are used in a wide variety of stylistic depictions found in historic and modern tattoos. If you're thinking about getting a dragon tattoo, take the time to study the designs that represent the dragonlike strengths and traits you possess or wish to draw to you. There are many color combinations available for these detailed designs. The Japanese believed that if they had a dragon tattoo, it would imbue them with its power and magic.

Blue Japanese Dragon Tattoo on Arm

Dragons in Buddhist Temples and Shinto Shrines

You'll find Japanese dragon symbolism in Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, especially those located near bodies of water. It's very common for temple and shrine names to contain the word dragon in them. Dragon motifs and paintings adorn temples and shrines. Many of the ceilings have painted murals depicting various dragons. Dragon heads often adorn bells and other objects.

Bronze dragon, sculpture in the city of Kyoto Japan

Japanese Words for Dragon

In the Japanese language there are two main words for dragon: Ryu and tatsu. The latter is taken from an old Japanese dialect which translates in English to mean "sign of the dragon." Kanji is modern Japanese for dragon. There are several Japanese dragon names that are attached to mythological tales and beliefs.

Mythology of Japanese Dragons and Gods

Japanese dragons are tied directly to deities. Many of the Japanese gods shape-shifted into dragons. Japanese mythology has an abundance of stories about gods and dragons.

Japanese Blue Dragon

The Blue Japanese dragon, also called the Azure Dragon, is believed to be the guardian spirit of cities and protector of the zodiac.

Shisa dragon figurines

O Goncho White Dragon

O Goncho is a white dragon that symbolizes lack. It appears every 50 years, transforming into the shape of a golden bird. If O Goncho cries out, the world will endure a famine.

Watatsumi

This sea god is also known as the dragon god Ryujin. It has the ability to shape-shift into human form.

Benten

Benten is a former sea goddess that became the goddess of love. She rode a dragon. Two myths surround this goddess. Both state she married a dragon king to stop him from terrorizing the people on an island. Her love transformed her dragon king husband, which is why she became the goddess of love. Later, her favors were bestowed upon artists and musicians. The union of Benten and the dragon king symbolizes the balancing power of yin and yang.

Kiyo or Kiyohime

Kiyo symbolizes vengeful power and the consequences of giving into desire. A priest fell in love with a young woman and soon tired of her. Abandoned, the woman studied magic at a temple and transformed into a dragon. She attacked the priest, who attempted to find refuge underneath the monastery bell. Kiyo breathed fire and melted the bell, killing the priest.

Ryujin

Ryujin, the dragon king, symbolizes the power of the sea. He wanted to eat a monkey's liver to cure a rash and sent the jellyfish to fetch a monkey, but the monkey tricked the jellyfish. When the jellyfish returned empty-handed, the outraged dragon king beat the jellyfish until all of its bones were crushed. This is why the jellyfish has no bones.

Toyo-tama

Toyo-tama is a sea dragon that symbolizes true love. She married a mortal man, bore his son, and then returned to her undersea world. The son married Toyo-tama's sister and bore the first emperor of Japan, descendent of the dragons.

Evil Japanese Dragons

Unlike Chinese dragons, which are regarded as helpful figures, Japanese dragons aren't always benevolent. There are many myths about the dragons that are malevolent like western mythological creatures. And while the majority of Japanese dragons don't have wings, there are still several ancient stories of winged dragons.

Traditional dragon theater in Yoyogi Park

Uwibami

This dragon symbolizes looking all ways before taking action.

Yamata-no-orochi

This dragon symbolizes the concept you're never finished until the last task or detail is completed. Yamata-no-orichi is mythologized as being a massive dragon with eight tails and eight heads. Much of the lore surrounding this dragon centers on the number 8.

Yofune-nahsi

This dragon symbolizes hidden truths and the freedom gained by discovering the truth.

Japanese Dragons in Pop Culture

The continued importance of Japanese dragon symbols is evidence that these myths have formed a lasting belief system within the Japanese culture. Dragon symbolism is still vibrant and visible today. From the earliest days of anime, dragons have played a big role in many stories as either a trusted helper or a formidable foe. Helpful and vengeful dragons are common characters in popular video games, graphic novels, and even mainstream animated films. The enduring presence of Japanese dragons in pop culture keeps the ancient stories alive.

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Japanese Dragon Symbols, Myths and Meanings