Shisa: Tales of Stone Dog Guardians

Shisa, Shiisa or Shizi are an ordinary feature when one visit the island of Okinawa and southern prefecture of Japan. The creature looks like hybrid of pekingese dog, lion and cat.

Introduction and Origin

There are many stories which surround the origin of the introduction of Buddhism having been introduced to Japan from Korea in 552 CE. It was during Nara period (710-794), lion guardians was popularized in the country and are found in temples and shrines. These might have come from China and Korea.

Some of the original guard dogs are made of wood and originally placed indoor. It was only between 14th and 15th century that stone dogs are created for outdoor and the horn was gradually replace with the current version.

There are a variation of the guardian lions found in many other parts of Asia, including mainland Japan and Korea where they are called Komainu. Which are mostly found in Buddhist temples and shrines.

As more pottery kiln rose the popularity of shisa within the region. It was also the time that shisa sitting on a red tile roof of buildings or as guard dogs in entrance of one’s abode. Some buildings like schools, hospitals, enterprises, airports and even malls have shisa guarding their entrances.

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Shisha guardian dogs made from ceramic ( circa 1980’s)

Folktales and Legends

There are several folk tales which may have started from the Tomimori Village in the late 16th century near Kochinda Town in southern part of Okinawa.

Villagers of that area sought out Saiouzui, a Feng Shui master, to ask him why there were so many fires around the area. He believed they were because of the power of the nearby Mt. Yaese. Hence Shisa dogs were places facing the mountain to ward of the negative elements and fire.

Since placing shisa at the entrance to the village, there hasn’t been a single fire in the village.

Another popular tale originates in the 17th century surrounding the village of Madanbashi south of Naha the capital city.

A visiting Chinese envoy at the Shuri court gave the king of Ryukyu (now Okinawa) a necklace decorated with a figurine of a shisa-dog (locally called Iri-nu). The king found it as nice present and wore it underneath his clothes. This serves as a good luck charm and amulet.

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Shisha dogs with bell

According to this legend, Madanbashi village were regularly attacked by a giant fire dragon.

A local priestesses (noro) recalled a dream. She inform the visiting king to stand on the beach with the Shisa figure held high towards the dragon. She gave this information to a young local boy, Chiga, who delivered the message to the king.

She gave this information to a young boy, Chiga, who delivered the message to the king. From there the king went to face the dragon and performed the actions as told by Chiga.

As the dragon was ready to attack, the priestess told the king to hold up the necklace to the monster. There rose a thundering roar and the Shisa came to life, three large boulders fell from the sky pinning the monster and crushing its tail.

Unable to move around, the creature eventually died and was later overgrown with foliage, trees and vegetation. It is later known as Gana-Mui forest near Naha- Ohashi bridge. People have erected large stone shisa to protect the place from evil spirits.

Since then, the inhabitants of Madanbashi continue to gather every year, on August 15th lunar calendar to offer prayers and offerings (mainly fruits , steam buns and foods) to protect the people of the village.

During the closing months of the second world war, Some shisa dogs found in the island were used by some local as shield against gunfire by the allied forces.

The guardian dogs as a talisman against evil spirits and good luck. These are an indispensable element in the lives of Okinawans.

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pair of shisa in different posture

Male and Female

There are many beliefs on the gender of these guardian dogs, Some believe that male shisa had a wide an open mouth to wards off evil spirits, and the one with a closed mouth, a female, keeps good spirits in.

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a pair of shisa dog -one close mouth and one with open mouth

Depending on who you ask, which one is which might differ. Some believe that the one with an open mouth is male and he is scaring the evil away, but others say that he has the mouth closed to keep evil out of the home. The female with an open mouth is sharing good luck with others, while the one with closed mouth keeps the luck inside the house.

Popular Culture

The popularity of these arouse after the end of the second world war, Shisa were popular souvenir items which range from small figurines, t-shirts, toys, clock, paper weights, bells, sharpener, terracotta pots among others.

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shisa figurine is a popular souvenir item from Okinawa

Shisa Collection

She started collecting the items 5 years ago, when her immediate relative gave her a pair of shisa figurine upon visit to the island. She then fell in love with these items and started buying them in Japanese thrift stores within Fairview or Lagro area.

The collector had over 3 dozen Shisa figurines in different sizes. Sometimes, shisa figurine would not come in pair and some items would have missing tails or broken head.

References:

Adopted from Legends of Okinawa by Chizue Sesoko

Arroyo, Kelly : Shisa dogs of Okinawa

Mariko Uehara Roland, Kijimuna and Shisa ( Bilingual ), October 21, 2011

Personal interview with a shisa collector

Okinawa Prefectural Government. Archived from the original on 2009-10-08. Retrieved 2010-08-09.

Shisa : Mythical creature of Okinawa

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