Komainu, the guardians of the temples 狛犬

The komainu, the guardians of the shrines

The komainu, the guardians of the shrines


Two lion-dogs to protect Buddha

Who has heard of the Komainu? Located at the entrance to places of worship, these lion-dog statues are emblematic of the Japanese landscape. They are found not only in Buddhist temples but also in some Shinto shrines to protect the deity that welcomes them. Their mission? Drive back evil spirits and thus preserve the tranquility of the place they are protecting! An important function, which the Komainu actually inherited from the Shishi, their ancestors from China...


The emperor was conquered by the force of the Persian feline, the latter indeed decided to make stone replicas of them to be placed in front of the Buddhist temples and the houses of the nobles for protection. The statues were then installed in pairs: the female on the left of the entrance holding a lion cub under her paw to symbolize education, and the male on the right with a globe to represent political power, two notions on which the Middle Kingdom-based omnipotence at the time.

Shishi pairs thus flourished in China for decades before reaching Japanese shores. And it was only during the 5th century that the lion statues arrived in the land of the rising sun. They will then be re-adapted to the taste of the Japanese to give birth to the Komainu, these half-dog half-lion guardians.



Le Shishi, l'ancêtre du Komainu

The Shishi, the ancestor of the Komainu



This cult of difference, Japanese statues will continue to cultivate over time. And in the 14th century, Japanese statues are still evolving to completely emancipate themselves from the Shishi model.

They are now carved in stone, which allows them to return to their original position at the entrance to places of worship, and they become more harmonious by displaying a unique design: that of the Komainu.

The only difference that will remain between the two goalkeepers? Their mouth!


The Komainu became the privileged guardian of shrines from the 14th century

The Komainu became the privileged guardian of shrines from the 14th century

Flick/ mossygajud

Une paire de Komainu

A pair of Komainu



Towards ever more original designs?

From the Edo period (1603-1868), some Shinto shrines also adopted Komainu.

This is particularly the case with Inari shrines, where foxes have completely replaced lion-dogs.

Equipped respectively with a ball and a sutra to symbolize the world and education, like their ancestors the Shishi, the Inari guardians indeed take the form of the deity they protect. A clever way to pay homage to the divinity of the harvest, which also allows them to stand out from the statues of Buddhist temples.

Indeed, most Shinto shrines equipped with guardians have been original! And from tigers to horses, to wild boars, you can find a whole bunch of unusual statues at the entrance to the torii. Like the Hie-jinja sanctuary in Tokyo (Nagatacho), for example, which opted for an unusual animal for a guardian: the monkey!





Inari et un de ses emblèmes: la faucille

Inari and one of its emblems: the sickle

By Kazutaka NAKANO on Flickr, CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode), https://www.flickr.com/photos/nknkztk/3374659964/

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