Off the shores of Kyushu (the third largest island of Japan), there are a number of volcanic islands flowing south-west towards Taiwan. These are named the Ryukyu Islands, also known as the Nansei Islands, but many people simply call them Okinawa because two thirds of them form the Okinawa prefecture of Japan.
In the center of this volcanic island chain is where the actual Okinawa, the biggest of the Ryukyu Islands, can be located, and on it is Naha, the prefectural capital. This is also home to a variation of an iconic creature from East Asian mythology, the shisa.
Found everywhere you look in Okinawan society, the shisa (or shiisaa (シーサー) if you are using the Okinawan pronunciation), is a curly-maned cross between a dog and a lion. Regardless of this mix, they are most often referred to as lions. The shisa are often found sat in pairs guarding an area’s entrance and are used to ward off evil spirits. Sounds familiar? It would be surprising if it doesn’t, as this type of gargoyle can be seen throughout East Asia.
Collectively these statues are known as ‘foo lions’ in the West, and are commonly associated with China under the name ‘shishi’, where they guard imperial palaces and other places of high importance.
Similar to how these statues are perceived in China, guardian lions in Japan are usually seen as a male and female couple. How you can tell the gender of each guardian depends not only on the mythology, but also whether or not the mouth is open or closed.
Most countries generally believe one is ultimately male whilst the other is undoubtedly female, yet in Okinawa there are differences in belief. Some think the open-mouth shisa is the male who scares evil spirits away, whilst the one with the closed mouth is the female who keeps the surrounding goodness in.
Others believe that the male has his mouth closed to keep evil out of the home, whilst the open-mouthed female does so to share goodness with others. Regardless of what is believed, it seems there are strong connotations of physical protection from the male, whereas the female represents a protection involving preservation and sharing of positivity.
It was the influence and export of the Chinese shishi statues that brought about the shisa in Okinawa. The name derives from the regional dialect pronunciation of shishi. Mainland Japan also gradually acquired this guardian lion influence; however, the Japanese variation was imported from Korea as opposed to China, and after a while it became known as ‘komainu’.
Both used in order to protect against evil spirits, what are the exact differences between these two Japanese guardians, the shisa and the komainu? Well, the shisa is native only to Okinawa, adding to its rich mythology, and as such are not found on the Japanese mainland. They originated during a time before 1879, when Okinawa was not associated with Japan and it was an independent kingdom, and is a more traditional Ryukyuan decoration as opposed to the komainu.
What’s more, whilst both creatures offer protection, they are used in completely different areas. The komainu are mainly found protecting Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples and even the homes of nobility. The shisa, however, can come in much smaller packages and as such can also guard more everyday places.
Ranging in size, they can be seen on rooftops, guarding gate entrances to residential homes, or even next to vending machines! They’re usually seen as partners but can be placed individually, too.
As with most Japanese creatures, there are many tales and folklore surrounding the shisa. One such legendary tale is that of a monstrous sea dragon terrorizing the tranquility of Madanbashi, a village at Naha Port Bay.
It all began with a necklace decorated with a shisa figure that was given as a gift to a king at Shuri Castle by a Chinese emissary. After some time, this same king visited Madanbashi, and suddenly the sea dragon began another infamous attack. Terrified, all the villagers ran away to hide.
It was then that the local noro (a priestess) recalled a dream she recently had. She was to inform the visiting king to stand on the beach with the shisa figure held high towards the dragon. She gave this information to a young boy, Chiga, who delivered the message to the king. From there the king went to face the dragon and performed the actions as instructed by Chiga, the messenger boy.
Once the shisa figure was held before the monster a mighty roar sounded throughout the village, a roar said to be so powerful that it shook the dragon itself. From that roar a gigantic boulder fell from the heavens and crashed the dragon’s tail, and the dragon eventually died. In time, the boulder, and the dragon’s body, became overgrown with trees and plant life, and can still be seen to this day as the Gana-mui Woods.
Like most tales, this story has many variations and differences, one involving the sea dragon arrogantly mocking the shisa’s power due to its size. This greatly angered the shisa enough to roar so loudly that it lead to aforementioned events regarding the boulder.
Overall, no matter what the variation, the core premise stays the same. The townspeople eventually built a large stone shisa in order to protect them from any other evil threats.
Shisa are not just known to eliminate evil spirits and monsters. They are also known as guardians against fire as told in this tale of the southern settlement called Tomori Village. Plagued with numerous fires, the village people searched for Saionzui, a master of Feng Shui, to ask him why such disaster befalls their town.
He stated it was due to the power of the nearby Mt. Yaese, and suggested they all build a giant stone shisa statue to face the mountain. Following his advise the villagers did just that and ever since they have been free and protected from fire.
— ASUNAROSYA (@GOTOCHIKITTY_) January 17, 2017
The legend and might that is the shisa is not just bound to Okinawa or ancient folktales; they can be found in various forms of modern media, from classic television to video games. Take the demon Shiisaa from the Shin Megami Tensei games – this demon is based exactly on the shisa, from appearance to the elemental attributes it possesses.
The evolutionary line of Growlithe/Arcanine, from the extremely popular Pokémon franchise, also possess very strong shisa elements. These fire-breathing pocket monsters seem to be based around the guardian lion creature in general, though the relation to fire may or may not be associated with the Giant Stone Shisa tale mentioned earlier. Even the likes of Hello Kitty has had a shisa makeover!
Much like how Arcanine was inspired by guardian lions, the same can also be said about Seasarmon, a creature from the digital monster series, Digimon. This canine digimon’s name, appearance and disposition against evil, all correlate back to the shisa, especially as the Seasarmon seen in the Digimon movie, Battle of Adventurers, originates from a computer in Okinawa itself.
Staying in the realm of television there is also King Caesar from the Godzilla franchise, appearing for the first time in 1974 in the Toho movie, Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla. The reason why the name of this loyal guardian of mankind is King Caesar, and not King Shisa, arose from a misinterpretation that shisa was the Japanese pronunciation of saying Caesar.
Though the name may be slightly askew this Japanese monster is extremely related to the first Okinawan folktale mentioned in this article. In Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla, King Caesar plays a supporting role, symbolized and designed around a shisa, against the titular antagonist, Mechagodzilla, who symbolizes the sea dragon.
There are plenty of other inclusions of shisa throughout the world, be it in legends, myths or popular media. In the cacophony of yokai (the Japanese term for ghosts and/or monsters) in Japanese mythology, the shisa are one that truly highlights the wonder and mystery of Okinawa.
Should you find yourself in the tropical islands of Ryukyu then make sure to keep an eye out for these not-so-elusive guardians, and all the shisa-related places spoken of in legend. Of course you can find them in the biggest tourist spots like Shuri castle, Shikinaen Garden, temples and so on, but also in front of restaurants and even on private houses!