Japanese Language Blog

Japanese Dragons Posted by on Sep 30, 2011 in Culture

Dragons are a familiar staple of Japanese fables. Take for example the water dragon deity Mizuchi (). In one story Mizuchi came to Emperor Nintoku (仁徳天皇) in a dream. Mizuchi offered to prevent the flooding of a river in exchange for a human sacrifice. One of the men chosen as a sacrifice saved his own life by waging a bet with Mizuchi. If Mizuchi could sink a calabash into the water, then the man would willingly take his own life. Since the calabashes floated to the top of the water, the man won. This story about Mizuchi may have been a metaphor for the mysterious benevolence and malevolence of rivers. On the one hand Mizuchi/rivers are life sustaining by providing water for irrigation and other uses but on the other hand Mizuchi/rivers are unpredictable and can take unwilling victims through floods and other disasters.

Ryūjin (龍神) is the name of another water-dragon deity in Japanese mythology. Ryūjin was the father of the beautiful princess Otohime (乙姫),who was the grandmother of Emperor Jimmu (神武天皇). Emperor Jimmu was the first emperor of Japan and it is from this lineage that the royal families of Japan have claimed to be descended from divine entities like the water dragon Ryūjin. Dragons are considered powerful creatures so it’s only natural that the royal families of Japan would want their ancestry to be associated with a deity like Ryūjin. In one story Ryūjin sent a jellyfish out for an errand. When the jellyfish returned without completing the errand, the water dragon deity beat the jellyfish until all its bones were broken. This was a story used to explain why the jelly fish now has no bones. Like with Mizuchi and Ryūjin, dragons were used to give meaning to unexplainable phenomena.

Kuzuryū (九頭龍) is a nine-headed dragon that is worshipped in many parts of Japan. In the town Hakone (箱根町) there is a famous fountain of Kuzuryū. The local legend states that Kuzuryū settled on Lake Hakone and demanded the townspeople a human maiden as a sacrifice. A priest named Mankan (万巻上人) decided to prevent future victims by chaining the powerful dragon to an underwater rock. A shrine was built near the area where the ferorious dragon was chained. From that day onward, the townspeople have worshiped a shrine that is dedicated to the dragon and instead of offering human sacrifice they set aside offerings of steamed rice with red beans.

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