Meaning in Asian culture and Japanese Tattoo
By Josh Carter
The dragon is arguably one of the most prominent images when it comes to asian culture. For many people the mere mention of China or Japan conjures mental images of these spiky beasts, but where do they originate from and what exactly do they represent?
In order to answer this question let’s start with China, its hard to say where the dragon exactly originates from but I think its safe to say that no other culture shows an earlier widespread use of dragons in artwork and architecture. In stark contrast to the European dragon which is usually depicted as a malevolent creature; asian dragons symbolize potent and auspicious powers, particularly control over water, rainfall, hurricanes, and floods. The Asian dragon is a symbol of power, strength, and good luck. The Chinese imperial court used the image of the dragon as a symbol of its own unbridled power.
The asian dragon is actually made up of several different animals, a creature commonly referred to as a chimera; usually depicted as having: the tail of a fish, the scales of a carp, the neck of a snake, the belly of a clam, the head of a camel, the claws of an eagle, the paws of a tiger, the ears of a cow, the eyes of a rabbit, the beard of a goat and the antlers of a deer.
Depending on the dynasty that was ruling, the “official” Chinese dragon color varied. Chinese dragons are usually one of the “five auspicious colors” blue, yellow, black, white or red
Under the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.), for instance, the Chinese dragon symbolizing the Emperor, who was viewed as a god at that time, was turquoise. This turquoise Chinese dragon also symbolized the fifth element in the Chinese five elements, the sun, the East and the West.
Han dynasty aside, it was mostly the yellow Chinese dragon that was chosen by the Emperors as their symbol. This was particularly the case during the Qing dynasty (from 1644 to 1912 AD). The Qing’s Emperor Yan, in fact, was said to be the offspring of his mother’s telepathic communications with a mystical Chinese dragon, and it was claimed that the most powerful Chinese dragon was yellow
Over time the dragon spread throughout Asia, as it did its physical characteristics changed just a bit. One of main ways to tell where a dragon is from is to count the number of toes it has. Chinese dragons will usually be depicted as having 5 toes whereas the further away it travels from china it will lose a toe, dragons in Korea and surrounding areas have four toes and Japanese dragons will always have three.
Im going to skip over Korea and other surrounding regions and jump straight to Japan since thats where my main area of focus is and where I draw the majority my inspiration from
In terms of how they are portrayed in legends, Chinese dragons are usually given benevolent roles, while a lot of Japanese dragons or Ryu (Japanese for dragon) are not necessarily considered to be malevolent beasts; however they are brutal and powerful forces of nature that transcend good or evil. As a side note, the very concept of good and evil is completely different from the way we view it in western culture. In order to better understand this as westerners we have to step outside our Judeo-Christian perspective and remember that Japanese culture is spawned out of a mix of confucianism, shinto, and buddhism with nature taking center stage. Nature isn’t good or evil, it just is what it is, sometimes fruitful and comfortable and sometime harsh and unforgiving, but you cant blame nature for being nature. We could delve into this more but thats a whole other subject.
Some of the first appearances of dragons in Japanese mythology were in the Kojiki (680 AD) and Nihongi (720 AD).The Kojiki, also known as the Records of Ancient Matters or Furukotofumi, is a collection of various myths related to Japan’s four home islands. The Nihongi, which is also referred to as Nihon Shoki or The Chronicles of Japan, serves as a more detailed and elaborate historical record than the Kojiki.
In both documents, water deities in the shape of serpents or dragons are repeatedly mentioned in numerous ways. These creatures are considered to be Japan’s indigenous dragons, the most popular stories being:
Yamata no Orochi – The Eight-Branched Giant Snake
Watatsumi – The Sea God or King of the Sea
Toyotama-hime – The Luminous Pearl Princess
Mizuchi – The Four-Legged Dragon or The Hornless Dragon
Kiyohime – The Purity Princess
As tattooing in Japan began to flourish around the early 1800’s bigger and more complex tattoo designs began to emerge. It was only a matter of time before dragons started making their appearance in horimono (Japanese body suit tattooing). Since the dragon is most commonly associated with water, the ryu motif become popular among Edo’s firefighters and worn as a talisman to protect against being burned.
One of the biggest contributions to the popularity of tattooing in early Japan was a novel known as the Suikoden. Countless Numbers of young men were getting the same tattoos as some the characters in the Suikoden in an attempt to emulate the brave anti-heroes depicted in the story. One major character in the Suikoden goes by the name Kumonryu Shishin (or 9 dragon Shishin) and is described as having a body suit tattoo consisting of, you guessed it, 9 dragons.
Dragons in Japanese culture are not a mythical creature but a representation or a symbol, they are the anthropomorphic manifestation of a terrible and powerful heavenly force, conversely the tiger is the most powerful earthly force, they are counterparts, yin and yang.
To this day the dragon continues to be one the most widely used and powerful images in tattooing, after 20 years of tattooing it still remains one of my favorite images to draw and or tattoo.