The Dragon as a Motif in Japanese Art

Posted on | September 6, 2010 | No Comments

The dragon or ryu is probably the most famous of mythical creatures.  It represents the Yang of the universe.  The dragon motif came from western Asia, its origins derived from a snake cult.  Ironically, though represented as a fiery being, the dragon is actually a rain deity associated with water and possesses the power to send rains for a good harvest or to create devastating storms and floods.

In China, the dragon is considered to be one of the four divine guardians of the cardinal points (shishin).  It represents spring, east, wood, and the colors blue and green. Dragons are also said to be shape-shifters and may even assume human form.  Although powerful, they are rarely depicted as malevolent; instead, they are considered benevolent and bring wealth and good fortune.

In Japan, the symbolism of the four divine guardians was supplanted by the Shitenno (Four Heavenly Kings) of Buddhism.  The dragon became identified with Ryujin, the king of the sea, who appears wearing a dragon headdress or with a dragon coiled around him.  Because a dragon can live in both air and water, it is believed to offer protection from fire.  Edo-era firemen often tattooed themselves with dragons or wore padded jackets with dragons embroidered in the linings next to their skin for protection.

In Japanese art, the dragon is never totally visible.  It is partly hidden by swirling clouds or storm waves because its form is so terrifying that “no mortal may look upon its entire body and live.”  The dragon is also closely associated with cosmic forces.  At the spring equinox, it rises into the heavens among the clouds, thunder, and lightning; at the autumn equinox, it descends into the sea with the “tide-ruling jewels” of ebb and flood.  Dragons may be seen in pursuit of this jewel, fighting for its possession, or grasping it with their claws.  This mystical jewel or tama was adopted by the Buddhist religion and came to symbolize omnipotence through asceticism.  It is also attributed to have the power to grant all wishes.  The jewel, which at first is flaming, liquefies and then crystallizes into a beautiful luminous sphere, symbol of the origin of our planet, Earth.

A dragon swirling through the clouds in the sky (unryu) is one of many auspicious designs that symbolize the authority of the Emperor.  Interestingly enough, the imperial dragon, representing the Chinese Emperor, is depicted with five claws or talons while in Japanese art the dragon has only four.

Dragon with Tama for sale on Etsy

Imperial Dragon for sale on Etsy

Dragon and Lightning on sale at Etsy


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