Upon entering a Japanese Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine, you might notice two intimidating characters sitting silently just outside the doors. Known in the West as stone lions, Japanese shishi guard the entrance to the temple or shrine. Shishi are fierce looking creatures, with flowing manes and barrel chests and they adopt a powerful stance as they await approaching visitors. The mythology surrounding the creature underscores their strong, steadfast nature. It is believed that “shishi throw each cub over a cliff to test its vitality and toughness” (Ashkenazi 119). Should these cubs survive, they prove their robust resilience and strength. What more could you ask for in a guardian? Shishi are representations of lions, and yet it seems curious that an animal not indigenous to Japan would be chosen as the guardian of Japanese religious sites. However, shishi were imported to Japan from China, via Korea. This explains the various names by which the mythical creature is known. Shishi are also known as kara-shishi or “Chinese Lion” and koma-inu or “Korean dog” (Schumacher).
Throughout different historical periods, the guardian tradition varies slightly: sometimes two lions are placed together, but sometimes a lion is paired with a lion dog. The lion dog is almost identical to the lion but can be identified by the horn on its head. Tradition shows that a male lion is always paired with a female lion. In addition, one of the lions (usually male) has an open mouth while the other (usually female) has a closed mouth. The open and closed mouth relates to the ‘A’ and ‘Un’ sounds which begin and finish the Japanese alphabet and thus “the combination of the two symbolically encompasses the universe” (Kyoto National Museum). This harks back to the phenomenon of miniaturization and the effects of microcosm on macrocosm. The cosmos is symbolically located within the two guardian lions. Together, they represent the entire universe; they complement one another and signify balance. Another possible explanation for the open/closed mouth is that the open-mouthed lion scares away evil spirits and the closed-mouthed lion invites and shelters good spirits (Schumacher). It is interesting to note that the male lion is associated with activity and the female lion is associated with passivity and warmth as a sanctuary for good spirits. The female lion is also often accompanied by her cubs (Ashkenazi 207).Although incredibly intimidating, these lions or lion dogs are entrusted with the responsibility of protecting temples, shrines and tombs. The image of the shishi has even been tattooed on pregnant women in order to help with childbirth (Schumacher). Evidently, shishi are charged with the duty of protecting borders; they appear in places where borders are being transgressed. It is especially interesting that these lion-like figures should appear at every encounter with the world of the dead. Temples, tombs and childbirth all present a situation of interaction between this world and another. Their very presence is indicative of the importance of maintaining borders. Shishi invoke a sense of security; they create a safe space, a balance and the general feeling that everything is in its place.