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