It’s late and I know some of you have been waiting all day for this, so finally here it is! Of all the yokai I’ve painted, the largest number of them come from Kyushu and West Japan. Up to now, I’ve only done one yokai native to Okinawa — the Kijimunaa — and so I thought it was time to give a little more love to Ryukyu and the southern islands.
Shiisaa are very close relatives to komainu, which we looked at on Monday. In fact, they both share the same ancestor: the Chinese imperial guardian lions. However, while komainu arrived in mainland Japan via Korea, shiisaa were imported to Okinawa directly from China, before Okinawa was part of Japan. In fact, the name shiisaa is actually the Ryukyuan pronunciation of Chinese name shishi (which is sometimes also used for komainu in Japanese).
While shiisaa are very similar to komainu, there are a few noticeable differences. They are native to Okinawa, and are thus only found on the Ryukyu and other southern islands of Japan. Shiisaa are usually depicted smaller and more dog-like than their Japanese ( medium sized dog-lion hybrids) and Chinese (large and very lion-like) cousins. While all three species are commonly used as guardian deities, komainu and shishi are nearly always found in pairs, yet it is common to find solitary shiisaa perched on the roofs of houses that they guard. Chinese shishi are usually used as imperial guardians; Japanese komainu are usually used as shrine guardians; and Ryukyuan (Okinawan) shiisaa are usually used as house or village guardians, perched on rooftops, village gates, castles, or gravesites. Shiisaa can also be used as shrine guardians like komainu, with male/female pairs representing the “a” and “un” sounds. However, this behavior was likely imported from Japan after the islands were conquered. In these depictions, the right, open-mouthed shiisaa is the female, beckoning good luck and fortune, while the left, close-mouthed shiisaa is the male, protecting the village from natural disasters and evil spirits.
Interested in yokai? Check out my book, The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons, on Amazon.com and learn the story behind over one hundred of these bizarre monsters!