Deities, Kami, Mythology, Shinto

Protecting the Gates: Shrine Guardians

Today I am going to talk about many of the guardian animals associated with Shinto. When visiting a Shinto shrine, one of the first things one sees are a pair of foxes, lion-dogs or other creatures.

Lion Dogs (Komainu)

Komainu at shrine gates. Image Credit

Komainu translates to ‘Korean dog’ or ‘Foreign dog’. It is believed that they came from the Ancient Korean Kingdom, Koma. though other sources suggest they came from China.

Some of the earliest examples of komainu are found at a shrine in Izumo. This region had a very strong connection with Korea, so it seems likely that this is their original source – something which is downplayed by Japan for many reasons.

Komainu and Chinese guardian lions have much in common. The original source of China’s lions is believed to be India or even Egypt.

Standing Komainu statue seen with a jewel under its paw. Image credit.

Larger shrines have larger and grander komainu but smaller rural shrines will have more unique creatures. This is largely because local stonemasons will create the local komainu, while large shrines have more experienced stonemasons who create a grander version.

Komainu come in pairs – usually one male and one female. It is however not unusual to have two males. Most of the time one komainu will have an open mouth and the other closed. The open mouth is called ‘a-gyo’ and the closed mouth is called ‘un-gyo’, a and un being the first and last characters of sanskrit and therefore representing the alpha and omega. Often, one komainu will also have a horn.

Small pair of Kominu. Image credit.

Like the fox statues in Inari shrines, many komainu will also have bibs around there necks – a sign of respect and worship.

Foxes (Kitsune)

Fox statues at Toyokawa-kaku, a Buddhist shrine. Image Credit

It is not truly known why foxes came to be associated with Inari, but it is believed that the presence of them in rice fields created this. Being the kami of rice and agriculture it makes sense that the foxes, who were warding off vermin, would become the guardians of Inari shrines.

The fox is the messenger of Inari, as well as the shrine guardian. Many people also believe the statues to be a form of Inari, and are therefore incredibly sacred.

Kitsune statues are perhaps different from Komainu in their shear quantity. It is not unusual to see hundred, if not thousands of kitsune statues around an Inari shrine. Many of these statues are purchased and then donated to the shrine by devotees and visitors.

Kitsune with key in its mouth, Fushimi Inari.

It is very much believed that kitsune spirits live within the statues and so many people make offerings to the statues as well as Inari themselves. Kitsune are often adored with the symbolic red bibs and sometimes even costumes.

Being a cute animal and associated to one of the most popular kami, foxes are a huge symbol of Japan. Merchendise is sold at shrines which includes ‘chibi’ versions of Inari’s messengers.

Like komainu, there are many different designs of fox statue – from angry and intimidating to a mother and cub. Also like komainu, they always come in pairs.

Some small fox statues for sale. Image Credit. 

The statues usually hold an item in their mouth or under a paw – usually a scroll, sheaf of rice or a key. They are highly stylistic and often painted or coloured white with red highlights. This is to show that these are ‘Inari’s foxes’ and not regular red foxes.

Other Guardians

Some shrines have different guardians that have come to be associated with that particular kami or location. These include dragons, monkeys, horses, rabbits, rats, dogs and even toads.

Okazaki Jinja, Kyoto
Rabbit Guardian at Okazaku Jinja, Kyoto. Photo Credit.
King Dog
Statue from a Inu jinja, Nagoya of Inu no ou – ‘king of the dogs’ Photo credit.
Rat guardian at an Okuninushi Shrine. Image Credit.



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