Three Symbols in Japan

The major religions of Japan are Buddhism and Shintoism. Buddhism came from India via either Korea or China. Each country has similar symbols. Shinto came from a very old shamanistic religion of Japan and was influenced by Buddhism. There are other religions in Japan but these two are the major ones. 


Wherever we went we saw the same three symbols--torii, which are gates, and statues of lions, actually lion-dogs and what I thought were dogs but are foxes. All three were everywhere, not just in the large shrines and temples but also in the little private shrines near houses. I was not observant enough to see the subtle differences of one fox to the other or one lion-dog to the other, or for differences in torii. And what are those scarves tied around the necks of the foxes and other little figures positioned here and there in gardens and on the grounds of parks? I've done a little digging and here's a short explanation of these symbols. 


Lion-dogs or komainu (Korean dogs) are often in pairs at the entrance to shrines. Sometimes they will be inside the shrine. They guard against evil spirits. Some private houses have them at entrances. It's thought they originated in India and came, with Buddhism to Japan. Often one komainu will have it's mouth open (some say the male), one will have it closed (female). The open mouth is sounding 'a' and closed mouth 'um', the beginning and end of the Sanskrit alphabet representing the beginning and end of all things.  The 'um' becomes 'om', the vibration of the universe in Buddhism. In Greek the letters would be alpha and omega.

They can be seen at Buddhist and Shinto temples.


These are gateways leading into Shinto shrines. Torii is derived from the Indian word 'torana'. The Indian term denotes a gateway but the Japanese characters can be translated as 'bird perch'.They are quite symbolic of Japan. We did see them everywhere. There are two main catagories. The shinmei have straight parts and the myojin have both straight and curved parts. The simplest is the shime torii consisting of two posts with a sacred rope called shimenawa tied between them. There are at least six different types of torii with style names. They can be made out of wood or some are concrete. The first picture has a cement torii behind the lion. It was quite ornate. The second picture of the torii is leading to a small shrine. The third picture is of the gates at the Inari Shrine near Kyoto. The symbols on the upright posts are names of businesses or groups that are financially helping to support the shrine.


Foxes, or kitsune in Japanese, are protectors at the entrance to Inari shrines. There are over 32,000 individual Shinto Shrines in Japan. Inari shrines are dedicated to Inari, the god of rice, fertility, tea, sake, agriculture and industry. Foxes are regarded as the messenger of Inari. They are the guardians and replace komainu (Lion-dogs) of other shrines. Foxes protect the kami or spirits. Kitsune are mythical creatures and have magical powers. They can be male, female, both or neither. The white ones are supposedly good foxes and the black ones are tricksters. The fox above holds a key to the rice granary. The last one has a jewel on it's tail and the first one hold a golden rope. The crimson bib, also seen on many other creatures, could be a symbol connected to the red of the torii gates.