Komainu lion dogs explained

Why does one koma-inu lion-dog statue guarding the entrance to a shrine have its mouth open and the other its mouth closed?

According to Will Ferguson in Hokkaido Highway Blues pg 26 and most other places I have looked, the opened mouthed lion-dog is saying あ (a- the first letter in Japanese) and the closed mouth lion-dog is saying ん (n- the last letter), symbolizing alpha and omega, or infinity

Why are the koma-inu statues that guard shrines half dog and half lion?

According to Will Ferguson in Hokkaido Highway Blues pg 26, again backed up by other sources, they started off as one lion and one dog in the Heian period but over the years the sculptors simplified their work by making them almost the same

Why are the lion-dogs outside shrines called “Korean dogs” (koma-inu, with an archaic name for Korea)?

Two theories are that it was because they had been transmitted through Korea from China or that koma (Korean) was used as a catch all word for foreign in the same way as the Thai word falang for foreigners/ Westerners comes from the name for “French”

If Shinto is the native religion of Japan, why are the shrines guarded by Chinese lion-dogs?

I guess it doesn’t fit in with Buddhism and they had to go somewhere???

If komainu means “Korean dog”, why is the first kanji (狛) one for an animal?

“their name is derived from Koma 高麗, the Japanese term for the Korean kingdom of Koguryo 高句麗.” and then I’m guessing somewhere along the way it changed, like karate changing from “Chinese hand” to “empty hand”, maybe also to hide its foreign roots??


  1. October 2, 2013 at 8:00 pm

    hi there, i was considering naming my dog “komainu”, but a japanese friend of mine had a very strong negative reaction to this idea. do you know why that would be? thank you!!

  2. alexcase said,

    October 3, 2013 at 12:13 am

    Perhaps because they aren’t actually dogs or because they have religious significance? Why don’t you ask them directly??

  3. crella said,

    October 8, 2013 at 8:46 am

    It’s not a normal dog name, like Bob, Potchi or Spot, but the name of a thing. ‘Here, temple dog!’ ‘Sit, temple dog!’ Kind of like naming a dog ‘crucifix’.

  4. October 21, 2013 at 6:31 pm

    makes sense. i was sort of wondering if that was why. thanks!

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