Those aware of Japanese culture are aware of the significance of having statues of things they regard as sacred, good luck, or protectors. Such is the case with Shisa, or Chinese Lions.
These lions are often placed around homes in Okinawa, due to their belief in the ability to guard their homes against anything evil or ill-intentioned.
Why Are Shisa So Important To The Okinawan People?
Okinawa is the name used most often to refer to a chain of volcanic islands, also once known as the Ryukyu Islands or the Nansei Islands. Okinawa tends to be what they are most well-known as today, due to the main island making up the largest portion of the unofficial Okinawa Prefecture.
People that live in Okinawa or within these volcanic islands are known to hold the shisa in high regard, as this is where the symbolic and mythical creature is said to exist in a spiritual form.
On top of the shisa’s symbolism for being a guardian against evil, they are also said to symbolize good fortune and prosperity. Therefore, many Okinawans can feel safe when they have a shisa statue guarding or protecting their home.
What Is The Shisa?
The shisa is an important mythological creature to the Japanese people in Okinawa. They are sometimes compared to gargoyles in western culture but are often called lions due to their appearance.
In China, the shisa are known as the shishi, and they hold the same type of significance and belief to the Chinese.
The shisa is typically known as a lion, but it does also somewhat resemble a dog. An apt description would be a mixture of a lion and a dog.
Shisa statues tend to sit side by side in pairs around the entrances of Japanese homes. Their abilities include being able to keep bad spirits away from homes by frightning them away.
Sometimes, there are shisa statues that will have one hand holding onto a golden sphere. These particular shisa stand guard, but also bring good fortune to those in the establishment where they are guarding or being displayed.
Pairs Of Shisa
When you see a couple of shisas sitting together, it wouldn’t be incorrect to assume they are meant to symbolize an actual couple. Often, they are set up in Japan to be a couple, consisting of a male and female shisa.
You can distinguish which shisa is which gender based on whether or not their mouth is opened. If the shisa’s mouth is closed, it is female, and the shisa with an opened mouth is male.
This belief is not shared by all in Japan, however. Shisa are primarily an artifact found in the Okinawan islands and is rarely seen on the mainland unless an Okinawan person has immigrated to the main island of Japan.
In this first set of beliefs, it is said that the male’s open mouth is scaring away evil, while the female’s closed mouth is to keep goodness sealed within the home.
When the belief is flipped, it is believed that the male’s mouth is closed to keep evil from entering the home, while the female open mouth is supposed to share a good message.
That being said, shisa do not necessarily have to be displayed in pairs in order for them to work their power. Therefore, if you are visiting Okinawa and see a singular shisa, know that it is still standing guard for the Okinawan home or business.
Common Characteristics Of A Shisa
A shisa is hard to miss due to their striking appearance. They typically have very large mouths, and when they are open, they have visible fangs.
Their faces resemble a cross between a gargoyle and a lion, and their ears are similar to dog ears. They usually have tufts of fur designed around their necks, similar to a lion’s mane.
Their bodies can be considered a cross between a lion and a dog. They can be colorful and are made from a variety of materials. While some might find the shisa scary, it is said that they are friendly by nature towards people, as well as those with good spirits.
The Story Of The Shisa And The Sea Dragon
The legend goes that there once was a destructive sea dragon that enjoyed wreaking havoc on the small village of Madanbashi on Naha Port Bay. This caused the villagers to live in continual fear.
One day as the story is told, a Chinese emissary gave a necklace to one of the kings of Shuri Castle. This necklace was decorated with a shisa figure.
The king ended up visiting Madanbashi while wearing the necklace, and at the same time, the sea dragon decided to attack the village once again.
While the villagers ran away to find shelter, a young boy came to the king, and advised him to head to the beach and hold the shisa necklace as high as he could, facing the dragon.
The boy was told to do this by a local priestess, who had a dream that advised her that the king needed to hold the necklace up to the sea dragon.
The king did as he was advised, and shortly after an extraordinarily loud roar was heard throughout the land. Suddenly, a boulder fell on the dragon’s tail, trapping him in place until he eventually died.
Shuri Castle Okinawa Official Website
Surrounding the dragon and the boulder, trees, and plants emerged from the area to erase the memory of the dragon and all its destruction.
This area that engulfed the dragon is now known as the Gana-Mui Forest. In thanks to the shisa saving the village from certain peril, they built a shrine of the shisa in order to help protect them from future evils.
While the legend has seen some slight changes over the years, the overall premise remains the same.
The Shisa Statue In Tomori
There is a little village south of Naha (Okinawa’s capital city) called Tomori. They once experienced terrible fires frequently in their village. Not knowing what to do, they sought out some advice from a spiritual master named Saionzui.
Saionzui told the villagers that Mt. Yaese was responsible for their misfortune.
Tomori’s Stone Shisa Via Stars And Stripes Website
The master then told them that they should build a large shisa statue and place it facing towards the mountain.
He said that the shisa will protect them from the mountain’s destruction. The villagers followed the master’s instructions, and they have not experienced any fires in their village since.
The Komainu is known as the guardian lion that influenced the shisa in Japan. The guardian lion originated in Korea. While China has a similar guardian lion, the Okinawan variation was most likely inspired by Korea’s lion.
The difference between the komainu and the shisa is that the shisa is only seen in Okinawa. This is because, until the late 1800s, Okinawa was not considered a part of Japan.
You can see statues of komainu around other areas of Japan standing guard, serving a similar purpose to the shisa.
The komainu also tends to guard particular places, including the homes of nobles, as well as Buddhist and Shinto temples or shrines. The shisa, however, can guard anywhere as the statues are smaller in stature.
Shisa Statues Guarding Homes
Many people on the Okinawan islands will have statues of the shisa guarding their homes. These statues are commonly found in shops. These statues will vary in size, and are usually found either perched on the roofs of homes, or guarding the gates in front of their homes.
As previously mentioned, shisa statues will also guard numerous other places around the Okinawan islands. Some of these places include hospitals, corporate offices, and even vending machines.
Shisa Influences In Modern Media
The power of the shisa has influenced numerous characters and variations in all sorts of modern media. For example, there is a character called Shiisa in the popular video game series Shin Megami Tensei that strongly resembles the shisa in both appearance and ability.
In the Pokemon world, the pokemon Growlithe or Arcanine both resemble a shisa, though there is no confirmation that the pokemon’s design was inspired by the mythical guardian.
In Digimon, another popular franchise, there is a character named Seasarmon. Seasarmon was created using a computer programmer in Okinawa and resembles the shisa in multiple ways.
Visiting The Ryukyu Islands
Tourists are able to see shisa guarding all kinds of places in the Ryukyu Islands, also referred to today as Okinawa.
Many people will adorn their homes, especially on the outside entrances, as well as their businesses with a shisa in order to keep bad energy and evil away.
Furthermore, many tourist attractions on the Ryukyu Islands have more substantial shisa that you are able to see. Such places include various temples sprinkled throughout the islands, as well as the Shuri Castle.