Koma-inu: Lion-Dog Protecting Temples and Shrines

“Korean dogs.” The Koma-inu, similar to amulets that protect the wearer against demons, guard most shrines and many temple entrances from the evil. One male and one female sit on either side of the entrance. Most are made of stone, although examples can also be found made of bronze, iron, wood, or ceramics and some portray one with horns.

They originate from similar lion figures in China, and probably have even earlier antecedents in India or Egypt, but the ones transmitted to Japan originated in China’s Tang dynasty. In their protective function they serve for Shinto shrines a similar function to that of the Ni-o guardians at the entrance to Buddhist temples.

The Chinese originals were fanciful renditions of Indian traditions of an animal that did not exist in China. The Japanese copies of these, with even less
familiarity with the zoological original, were even more fanciful and subsequently labeled “dogs.”

Because the idea was transmitted from China via Korea, they became Korean dogs. The word “Koma” is an ancient term for the Korean peninsula, but since the images were merely transmitted through the Korean peninsula, it may be that the term Koma inu was merely used to indicate the “foreign” nature of the figures.

In most cases, the pair, representing a male (his mouth is open, and he emits the primal first sound, yo [Sanskrit. om]) and a female (her mouth is closed, and she emits the final sound, in [Sanskrit hum]) the so-called a-un posture symbolizing the “alpha” and “omega” of the Sanskrit alphabet. They also represent Chinese ideas of the complementarity and opposition between yang (male) and yin (female) universal principles. In some pairs, however, both are depicted with open mouths.

The female is often accompanied by her cubs. These two guardians, with their semicomical pop-eyed expressions, are often confused with Kara-shishi, the lion of the lion dance and a favorite image of later (Edo-period) art. The koma inu, like the shishi, are reputed to be fierce in protecting their young with absolute devotion, and are thus appropriate guardians for shrines.

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