When it comes to myths, folklore, and legends, Japan is a country with a lot to offer. From stories based on local traditions up to those derived from foreign influence through cultural assimilation, the country has developed a rich collection of tales that are mirrored in today’s pop culture.
Belief in sacred beasts and spirits is one of the most popular themes. They are portrayed to exhibit heavenly powers. Arguably the most popular among these legendary creatures are the Four Beasts guarding Japan’s North, East, South, and West.
It is said that the origins of the Four Mythical Guardians come from Chinese beliefs and were adopted by Japanese folklore. Each of the beasts guards a cardinal direction and is said to embody specific elements that signify its major power.
This beast is symbolized by a huge tortoise surrounded by a serpent that is sometimes seen as its snake tail. It primarily controls the water element and is associated with the winter season. Its mythical color is black but some game adaptations tie it in with the royal color, violet.
Genbu is enshrined at the northern part of Kyoto’s Imperial Palace and is known as a symbol of purity, long life, versatility, and intelligence.
Taking up the symbol of a blue dragon, Seiryu visually embodies strength and power. Its element is wood and it controls the rain. It is believed to guide the eastern part of Japan, especially Kyoto. In fact, the city’s Kiyomizu-dera Temple has a statue of the dragon at its entrance and holds an annual festival that honors the sacred beast. Legend has it that Seiryu once drank from the temple’s waterfall. It is also the symbol for the spring season.
Seiryu is associated with the colors blue and green. He is a popular symbol of authority, luxury, unrivaled strength, creativity, and ferocity. In some storylines, Seiryu is considered as the leader of the guardian beasts.
Some claim that Suzaku is the most beautiful among the sacred beasts. With its fiery appearance associating the immortal phoenix, it’s easy to see why he stands out among his counterparts. The color associated with this guardian is red, fitting its element which is fire. He is also associated with the summer season.
Ancient capitals like Fujiwara, Heijo, and Heian each featured southern gates guarded by Suzaku’s symbol. These gates, however, are no longer visible today.
Suzaku is considered as a symbol of fidelity, will, kindness, and nobility.
Byakko takes up the image of a white tiger and controls the wind. He is associated with the autumn season as well as the metal element. In myths, the white tiger primarily served as a protector and a preserver. Ancient burials of notable people like kings and army generals incorporate the placement of metal on top of the grave as well as a ceremonial rite associated with the worship of the tiger god.
Ancient burial sites in Nara has revealed paintings of Byakko on its tomb walls. Byakko is a known symbol of righteousness and bravery.
As time passed by, different adaptations, especially Japanese animation and games, added twists and engaging storylines to these sacred beasts.
Mentions and references to these guardians appeared in anime like Fushigi Yugi and Yu Yu Hakusho. They were also featured in games like Final Fantasy XI.
While these guardian beasts remain a legend, there are religions that treat them with reverence. They have been a great source of stories that add to Japan’s already rich cultural heritage.