Japan Culture Lab

I explain questions of Japanese culture easily.

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What is komainu (lion-dog)? What is the word origin “A n (un) no kokyuu (Well-synchronized motion or behavior like breathing together)”?

      2017/12/19

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There are many people who saw komainu (lion- dog, 狛犬) at the entrance of Shinto Shrine in Japan. Do you know what it is?

Also, there is a Japanese idiom, “A n (un) no kokyuu (阿吽の呼吸)”. This idiom describes well-synchronized motion or behavior between two like they are breathing together. What does this expression mean?

Let’s look into the origin and meanings of komainu and “A n (un) no kokyuu”.

 

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What is komainu?

Komainu is like a lion and dog shape animal and is dedicated to the Shinto shrine which is also believed to be an imaginary creature.

The komainu statue is placed in pair at the Shinto shrine or temple entrance, near main shrine or main hall. Frequently, its mouth shows the shape of “A n (un) shape (when pronouncing two Japanese sounds)”. It is believed that they are for eliminating all evils.

Originally, a lion that does not have horns and opens its mouth is called “A gyo (a-shaped mouth, “a” is the first vowel in Japanese.)” and a komainu that has horns and closes its mouth is called “N gyo (n-shaped mouth, n is the last Japanese sound)” or “Un gyo (un-shaped mouth)”.

But, statue’s style was simplified around Kamakura Period (A.D. 1185-1333). The ones built after Showa Period (A.D. 1926-1989) are becoming more toward hornless.

 

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People say that the origin of komainu is from Ancient India. It is said that people started to place the lion statues at the both sides of the Buddha to guard him.

Also, we know that Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian placed lion statues to guard sanctuary. The ancient orient countries used and considered the lions as a guardian deity for God and thorn.

The concept of the komainu came down from India to China. It is said that the concept came to Japan in Asuka Period (A.D. 592-710).

Back then, they had no difference between both sides statues. A pair of the lion and komainu-dog statue was started to be placed during Heian Period (A.D. 794-1192).

Originally, people called each as “Shishi (another name for lion)” and “komainu”, but just call “komainu” for both nowadays.

 

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Is komainu male or female?

Komainus are a pair of “A-shape” and “N-shape”. So, some says one is male and the other is female or they are a mate.

One says, “ ‘A-shape’ is a male and ‘N-shape’ is a female” and vise versa, or “Both are male” or “Neither male nor female”, etc.

Originally when it came down to Japan, both of them were lions, so male lions have manes.

But, people started to build komainu in all over Japan over Edo Period (1603-1867) with each interpretation, which made komaunu either make or female distinctively for a glance. Even though, there is no rule that komainu is male or female.

 

What is the word origin of “A u (un) no kokyuu”?

The “A u (un)” pronunciation in the word of “A n (un) no kokyuu” is the first and last letters of Sanskrit (Old Indian language). From there, people think that the term means “From the beginning to the end”.

This belief turns into a thought, “From the birth to death of life”. In Buddhism interpretation, “A n (un) means that a person was born, seeks enlightenment, and reaches the ‘nehan’ (Nirvana, the ultimate state of peace and relish eliminating all desire for worldly things and adhesion)”.

Also, A sound is pronounced with mouth open and N sound mouth closed. From there, the word means inhale and exhale: it turns out to be “A n (un) no kokyuu” means totally synchronized or harmonious timing or integration of emotion and action when two or more do the same thing like they are breathing together.

There are Nio statues (guardians in the larger temple) in Japan, such as Kongorikishi-zo (great muscular guardian statue). They are paired with “A-shape (mouth opened)” and “N shape (mouth closed). They have the same meaning as komainu.

 

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Now we know the reason why komainu is in Shinto shine the one we were just looking at unintentionally.

Sometimes not only lions and komainu but fox or tiger are placed at temples and Shinto shrines, aren’t they?

The statues vary depending on God dedicated to the shrine: fox for Inari (God of harvest), snake for Benzaiten (Buddhist goddess), tiger for Bisyamonten (heavenly king), and deer for Kasuganokami (God of Shinto), these are distinctive.

And else, cat, rabbit or kappa (humanoid imaginary demon found near river) are placed in some shrines. People well-take care of them because each area has their folklore or legend associate with these figures.

Anyways, it is surprising the first and last letter of Sanskrit are “A n (un)”, these are similar to Japanese sounds.

There might be a relationship between Japanese and Sanskrit.

 

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