Museum Dictionary


Have you ever seen a lion-dog sculpture? Lion-dogs are the guardians that can be seen outside the gates of many Japanese shrines. Such lion-dogs are generally made of stone, but the sculptures we are going to talk about today are made of wood. Why do you think this might be?

The truth is that back in Japan's Heian and Kamakura periods (from the late 8th through 14th Centuries), the lion dogs were placed, not outside, as they are today, but inside, under the roofs of the gate or the shrine buildings. In those days, almost all the buildings and Buddhist or Shinto sculptures were made of wood, so naturally the lion-dogs were too! Later, when the lion-dogs were placed outside, they began to be made of stone, in order to better withstand the elements.

  • Lion Dog (Toji Temple)
    Lion Dog (Toji Temple)
  • Lion (Toji Temple)
    Lion (Toji Temple)

Take a look at the lion dogs above. For dogs, don't you think they look strange, with their scary-looking faces and manes? They look more like wild beasts than the dogs we keep as pets. In the old days too, people thought these lion-dogs were kind of strange, so they thought up many explanations for why they might look like this. Some people said that this was the way dogs looked in Korea (the Japanese name for "lion-dog" is actually "Korean dog"). Others said that in ancient times, this is the way people from southern Kyushu Island ("Hayato") looked when they dressed up and barked like dogs in order to guard the emperor. In actuality, however, the strange appearance of the lion-dogs comes from the influence of their predecessors, the lions that guard the gates of Buddhist temples!

Buddhism started in India, then moved along the Silk Road into China, onto the Korean peninsula, then finally across the sea into Japan in the 6th Century. At that time, bringing Buddhism into Japan meant bringing Buddhist sculptures into Japan. And along with the sculptures of Buddhas themselves came the sculptures of the two lions that stand guard before them. This is how the Japanese began the tradition of placing two lions in front of Buddhas. At this time, however, there were only lions and no lion-dogs.

Now, look again at the photos of lion-dogs above. The one on the left is different than the one on the right, isn't it? One has its mouth open and the other has its mouth closed. The one with its mouth closed has a horn on its forehead. This is a very important point. Actually, the open-mouthed lion-dog is not a lion-dog, but a lion! Only the close-mouthed lion-dog is really a lion dog!

The practice of pairing one lion-dog and one lion started in the Heian Period (794-1185). Before that, in the Nara Period, the pairs had always consisted of two lions. This means that the two lions, which were the predecessors to the lion-dogs of today, go back over 1200 years! The following photos are of a very rare pair of two lions! Do you remember which part is missing that proves that they are lions?

  • Lion (Taiho Shrine)
    Lion (Taiho Shrine)
  • Lion (Taiho Shrine)
    Lion (Taiho Shrine)

Text by Shiro Ito, Department of Museum Research
English translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives

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