Komainu are lion statues found at most shrines and many temples, though some shrines will have a different animal, such as shrines to Inari which have a stone fox as their guardian. These statues are placed in pairs at the entrance of temples or shrines, often beside torii or at the top of stairs. They are generally made of stone, though they can be made of other materials such as bronze, wood, iron, or ceramics.
The pairs of statues are male and female, with the male presented with an open mouth and the female with a closed mouth (Ashkenazi, 207), which is common in the depiction of a variety of mystical animals (Joly, 9) – this is said to be because they are speaking the Sanskrit primordial sound “a-um” (Prideaux), a combination of sounds which were said to be the first sound which began the universe (“a”) and the last sound which will conclude it (“m”). This combination was later written “A-U-M” which is a syllable with many layers of meaning (symbolizing various triads and trinities) and a syllable at the core of many Hindu mantras. The duality of male and female, as well as “a” and “m,” also indicate “Chinese ideas of complementarity and opposition between yang (male) and yin (female) universal principles”(Ashkenazi, 209).
Lions are a powerful creature in Japanese religious iconography: they are often presented with bodhisattvas, particularly with Monju Bosatsu, the bodhisattva of wisdom (who is often identified with Tenjin the kami of scholarship). He is “Often pictured as a young infant carrying in his left hand a scroll and in his right an upright naked sword, with which one can defeat the passions that interfere with studies. He rides a shishi lion, a symbol of majesty and rule and the icon of protectiveness toward the young. The shishi, like Monju, loves and protects its young but also tests them severely” (Ashkenazi, 217). Lions are said to be kind but powerful protectors, particularly of the young, and their fierce protectiveness is thought to be the reason for their presence as temple protectors (Ashkenazi 209).
There are no lions native to Japan, China, or Korea, which is taken to explain both the strange naming of the koma-inu (lit. “Korean dog”) and their depiction, which often more resembles a dog than a lion (Ashkenazi, 209). The depiction of lions actually originates in India, and were imported by the Chinese where their portrayal seems to have been influenced by the dogs which were the pride of the Chinese Imperial family (Joly, 161). The subsequent Japanese interpretation was even less familiar with the original and eventually called “dogs” – “Korean dogs” because of their transmission through Korea (Ashkenazi, 209).
Komainu can be confused with “karashishi” or “karajishi” (“Chinese lion”). The statues in front of temples are most consistently referred to as “komainu” (Moran, 140). Lion figures are thought to have been brought into Japan from China, most likely in two distinct migrations: the komainu from China’s Tang dynasty (7th to 10th century) and those properly referred to as kara jishi from Song China during the Kamakura period (Encyclopaedia of Shinto).
The lions are significant parts of the temple grounds ; there is an incident recorded in the records of the Asuka Shrine in 1628 of someone being executed for stealing a koma-inu (Earhart, 1966).
~guest blogger, Maïda Vandendorpe