One of the first things you’ll see as you step through the torii gate at many Japanese shrines is a pair of statues that look kind of like lions and kind of like dogs. They’re called Koma Inu (often actually referred to as Lion Dogs in guide books) and they are traditional Shinto (and Buddhist) guardians.
In addition to Shrines, Koma Inu can be found at temples, businesses, and homes in Japan. They can be placed facing each other or facing forward together. They are meant to be set in front of the most important asset, whether physical or spiritual, of the site in which they are located.
Photo: Sean Fujiyoshi on Flickr
Koma Inu came to Japan via ancient trading circles that lead from India through China to Korea and finally to Ryukyu (modern day Okinawa). In fact, the name Koma Inu can actually be translated as Korean Dog as Koma refers to Goguryeo, an ancient Korean kingdom. This also explains Koma Inu’s many cousins, like the Chinese Shishi and the Okinawan Shisa.
Over the centuries, as their popularity waxed and waned, and as different cultural values asserted themselves, the appearances of the Koma Inu changed. Originally tied to ideals like strength, loyalty, and guardianship, many early Koma Inu look firece and predatory.
In fact, these early statues often depicted two different animals in a given pair: lion with dog, dog with dragon, or sometimes a lion or dragon with a deer. No matter the animals depicted, both the physical and metaphysical were represented. (Sometimes elements from other animals, like a unicorn’s horn, were added to the more mystical of the statues.) However, as times changed and Koma Inu rose in popularity, artisans found that they could make the pair resemble each other more closely and save time and money during production, and so the lion-dog hybrid look came to be.
However, one aspect of the Koma Inu’s appearance that has not changed: Koma Inu are often depicted with one mouth open and one mouth closed. The open-mouthed lion-dog is thought to be saying “ah”, while the close-mouthed guardian says “uhn” or “uhm”. Together, they make a variation on the traditonal sanskrit holy word, “ohm”, which can be thought of as similar to “alpha and omega”.
Photo: ogajud on Flickr
Photo: ogajud on Flickr
Koma Inu Today
Modern Koma Inu found at shrines, temples, and other religious sites still tend to reflect those core values, along with related ideals like courage and dedication. But there are also lots of not-so-fierce Koma Inu to be found in Japan today. Restaurants and shops might opt to have a pair of less off-putting guardians to sit alongside their Maneki Neko (lucky cats) and Kaeru (frogs that urge one to get home safely) and thus, cute, friendly Koma Inu have achieved a level of popularity to rival their fiercer counterparts. These variations can include bright colors, big grins with flat teeth, and friendly, dog-like tails.
Photo: Chris Gladis on Flickr
Like with so many things in Japan, regional variation is seen as a point of pride. Thus, while it is common for one or both of the Koma Inu to be holding an offering like a coin or a ball, guardians in different areas of Japan might be wearing bibs or offering fortunes.
Photo: Shunichi kouroki on Flickr
Fierce and protective, or cute and loyal, wood or stone or plastic, Koma Inu are everywhere in Japan. Should you find yourself wanting a pair, you won’t have to look any further than the nearest gift shop to get a set of your “ohn.”