1763 Soga Shōhaku (曾我蕭白: 1730-81) screen – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
I just started this post on March 16, 2016. As per my new style, I will be adding images first and will return to fill in the text later. So, if it is good enough for me – to return, that is – then it should be good enough for you, too. So… please, please, please – I am not begging mind you – come back soon and come back often to see what I have added, uncovered and misquoted! Thanks!
Early dragons mentioned in the Nihongi –
The creator gods, a brother and sister, Izanagi and Izanami, engaged in the act of procreation after watching the behavior of the wagtail bird. After the birth of the leech-child, who was still unable to stand on his own after three years, they gave birth to Sosa no wo no Mikoto, “This God was of a wicked nature, and was always fond of wailing and wrath. Many people of the land died, and the green mountains withered.” As a result of this he was sent to rule the underworld. Their next child was the boat of Heaven, in which they placed the leech-child and set it adrift. After that was born Kagu Tsuchi, the God of Fire. Kagu Tsuchi was not an easy birth and it meant the end of its mother, but before she died other gods were created from her: the Earth-Goddess and the Water-Goddess and the gourd of Heaven. Fire married Water and from them was born a child that had in its crown both the silkworm and the mulberry tree and in her navel the Five Essential Grains.
It is also said that just before Izanami gave birth to Fire she was feverish and ill. She vomited and that became a God. Her urine became a goddess and so did her excrement. Not since the birth of Athena, who popped out the side of the head of Zeus when he had a bitch of a headache, had there been such a painful birth. At least, Zeus survived.
In some of the later accounts Izanagi was so distraught that he took his “ten-span sword” and cuts his son, the Fire God, into three parts, each of which became another god. Some say it became three dragons – the dragon of the rains and snows, the dragon of the valleys and the dragon of the mountains.
Susano-o observed by a dragon – Aoigaoka Keisei (active 1818-1844) – this is the left-hand panel of a surimono diptych
Harvard Art Museums
Two prints with elements of the Zodiac: one by Hokusai and the other by Toyokuni II
Hokusai print from 1820 showing an inset of a dragon – Lyon Collection
Toyokuni II – Lyon Collection
Dragons and the flaming pearl motif –
Dragons are often seen chasing or grasping large pearls, flaming or otherwise. This is the cintāmaṇi (in Sanskrit – literally ‘the magic gem’) or nyoi-hōshi (如意宝珠 in Japanese). If there are nine maṇi or jewels they are borrowed from ancient Bramhanism. If there are seven of them they are probably Tibetan or Chinese. Sometimes there are six. When there are three in Japanese imagery they represent a holy trinity of the Buddha, the law and the community. But in most cases they represents dragons chasing after the flaming pearls of wisdom. Alice Getty in The Gods of Northern Buddhism points out that the single flaming pearl was supposedly given by the Dragon King of the Sea to Miao Shan, the great beauty that was actually an incarnation of the bodhisattva Kannon, the goddess of mercy and a lot of other things.
A casual glance at the images I have posted on this page and I can count three of these precious jewels for sure. They certainly don’t appear with all of the dragons on this page, but there are definitely three or them so far. See if you can spot them. It helps train the eye.
Tsuba of a caparisoned elephant carrying a flaming pearl by Tsuchiya Yasuchika (土屋安親: 1670–1744)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Great Woven Cap –
Detail from The Great Woven Cap – gift of the Mary Briggs Burke collection – Metropolitan Museum of Art – 17th century
The curatorial files read:
Fujiwara no Kamatari, the founder of the powerful Fujiwara clan, was given the illustrious title of Great Woven Cap (Taishokan) by the Emperor Tenchi. Emperor Taizong of China sent an imperial envoy to Japan to seek the hand of Kamatari’s daughter Kōhakunyo, who was known for her great beauty. Kamatari accepted the proposal and sent his daughter to China accompanied by a flotilla of magnificent ships.
Kamatari built a Golden Hall at Kōfukuji Temple, in Nara. Kōhakunyo, now empress, wished to send her father a jewel to place in the Buddha’s whorl of white hair, so as to illuminate the universe that emanated from his being. Led by the general Wanhu, Chinese soldiers sailed to Japan with the jewel, but the Eight Great Dragon Kings were lying in wait, plotting to steal it. The dragons sent Asura fighters to attack the soldiers, who bravely persevered through several fierce sea battles. Determined to steal the jewel, the kings sent the Dragon Princess Koisainyō to seduce Wanhu. Her boat approached the soldiers’ ship near Sanuki, in Shikoku. The Chinese general was distracted by Koisainyō’s beauty, and she cunningly escaped with the jewel, taking it with her into the depths of the sea to hide in the Dragon Palace.
Returning Sails of Akashi: Koimurasaki of the Tamaya, from the series Eight Views of Genji
by Kikukawa Eizan (菊川英山: 1787–1867) – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Kuniyoshi – Ogata no senzo Hananomoto:Bungo Province – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Eizan – Jewel of Yamashiro Province – Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Eizan – courtesan of the Yoshiwara at cherry blossom time – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Horses/dragons and people who ride them through the skies – There is an ancient belief in China that horse and dragons are similar. Hence the horse-dragon. There are any number of stories of humans and/or immortals riding them. For example, in the Nihongi it says: “On the first day of the fifth month of the first year of the Empress Saimei’s reign (655) there appeared in the sky a man riding on a dragon. In shape he resembled a Chinese, and he wore a blue (broad-rimmed bamboo) hat (covered with) oiled silk. Galloping from Katsuragi peak he disappeared into the Ikoma mountains; at noon he galloped away from the top of Sumi no e’s Pine-tree Peak in a western direction.”
Shōshi, the flute player –
“The famous Chinese flute-player Shōshi (Chin. Hsiao Shih, 6th cent. B.C.) married the princess Rōgyoku (Chin. Lung-yü, daughter of Duke Mu of Ch’in)
and taught her to play the shō, his favourite instrument. One day, as she was playing a pretty tune, a Hō [a phoenix, a fantastic bird] descended from
heaven and sat down beside her. Shortly afterwards she went to heaven on Hō-back, Shōshi following on a dragon.”
Kanamono by Unno Moritoshi (海野盛寿: 1834–1896) showing Shōshi playing his pipes while riding on a dragon – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Anonymous 19th century Japanese print of a woman about to climb onto the back of a waiting dragon –
this is a detail of a larger work in the collection of the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College
An 1888 Unno Moritoshi tsuba of Shōshi riding a dragon – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Where there is a battle raging, you might just find a dragon nearby – or, engaged in the fight!
Lyon Collection – detail of middle panel
Kuniyoshi triptych – “On the Sea at Mizumata in Hogo Province, Tametomo is Shipwrecked in a Storm” – ca. 1836
1857 Yoshitsuya of the Battle of Takadachi in Ōshū Province in 1187, a White Dragon Ascends to Heaven from the Koromo River
Did some of the early emperors, like Ōjin (応神: 270-310) or Jimmu (神武: 660-585 B.C.), have dragon tails? Some say they did, because they were descended from a dragon princess. They hid their tales under their robes. Also, another interesting side point: Ōjin was deified in 712 as Hachiman.
Mid to late 19th century kabuki kimono – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Yakuhime, Matsunaga Daizen, a waterfall, a magic sword and the golden dragon – This is NOT a true story. It is fiction. And this is only one version. Let me iterate… no… let me reiterate: this is just a story.
Princess Yuki is based on an event related in the 16th century ‘Chronicle of Oda Nobunaga’, the Shinchōki. She was the daughter of the famous artist Kanō Sesson and the wife of Kanō Naonobu. Yuki and her husband were asked by Matsunaga Daizen, the usurper of Ashikaga shogun Yoshiteru, to paint a dragon on the ceiling of his mansion, the Golden Pavilion, Kinkakuji. They refuse the commission, so Daizen imprisons Naonobu and threatens to kill him. To save his life Yuki agrees to paint the dragon, but says that she has never seen one. Daizen takes her out into his garden and unsheathes a magical sword which has the power to summon dragons from waterfalls. Yuki recognizes the sword as one stolen from her father when he was murdered. “Blinded by anger, Yuki attacks Daizen but she is easily overpowered and tied to a cherry tree…” Her husband is brought forward for his execution. In the meantime, Yuki has used her foot to arrange a group of fallen cherry petals into the shape of a rat, which miraculously comes to life and eats through the ropes that bind her.
I am not quite clear on what happens at this point, but I will tell you that all ends well. Daizen is thwarted, Naonobu is spared and Yuki is as happy as one princess can be under these circumstances.
Kunikazu – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Sadanobu – Ritsumeikan University
This is a detail of the lower two thirds of a print by Kuniyoshi.
Notice that Yukihime is clutching the magical dragon-producing sword.
1862 Yoshitora – Waseda University
This is the center panel of a triptych. There is a dragon climbing the falls on the left-hand panel, but the most dramatic dragon in this piece is the one on Daizen’s robe.
Another golden dragon –
Kunisada – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
What do we know about Japanese dragons (definitively)?
According to the Engishiki (延喜式 – compiled in ca. 927): “He has five colours and walks (or flies) about; he can make himself invisible or visible, small or big.”
The appearance of a good dragon was generally considered a good celestial omen.
Droughts were caused by angry gods. Prayers and sacrifices to them and to dragons helped bring on the rains and to stop them if they were too much. Prior to the beginning of the 10th century, when the crunch was on, when push came to shove, the Japanese always returned to their Shintō gods to end droughts. But slowly but surely the Buddhists got the upper hand. I don’t know why, but somehow this reminds of competing high school football teams in Texas that both kneel down on opposite sides of the field, lower their heads and pray to God to bring them a victory. By the end, He has shined his light on one team and not the other. Buddhists vs. Shintōists: one team was bound to win eventually.
By 875 the Imperial Court was turning more and more to Buddhist priests to read their sūtras and say their prayers, because prolonged efforts, days and days, seemed to bring the much wished for results. In 877 Buddhists were called in again to recite the “Sūtra of the golden-winged bird-king (no doubt the Garuḑa, to frighten the dragon and make him ascend.” It didn’t work that time, but, as they say: If at first… Eventually something will happen. So, then they drained the pond in Sacred Spring Park. An old man had suggested that since a special dragon lived in that pond, that by depriving him of his element, water, he would soared up to the heavens and bring down rain again. Logic told them, also, that this was a native Japanese dragon and not one of those foreign imports from India or China. In previous days, like the 7th century, the Emperor would go to a sacred dragon-river-snake to pray for rain. This was the Chinese model. It worked for them. No matter. Whatever it took, it rained. Of course, later they had to pray to make it stop, but that worked too. You can’t argue with success – at least not in the 9th century.
As it turns out the Buddhists turned to the Rain-praying-sūtra in 972, 982, 985 and 1018. Of course, it often took up to nine days of recitations to bring success, but success it did bring. Voila!
Kamisaka Sekka – Sky Dragon from the series Miscellany of the Hundred Ages (Momoyo-gusa)
Philadelphia Museum of Art – 1909
Roger Keyes wrote in Ehon: The Artist and the Book in Japan:
Kamisaka Sekka was a genius; effortlessly, prodigiously, boundlessly imaginative; tirelessly inventive, spontaneous, and free…. There is nothing academic about his approach…. In Flowers of a Hundred Worlds he looked at the entire universe through the lens of a single style, the decorative Rimpa manner that the Kyoto painter Ogata Kōrin (1658-1716) perfected.
In the New York Public Library collection the print shown above is called the Golden Eyed Monster. It comes from Momoyogusa or ‘Flowers of a Hundred Generations’. Also, they date it as 1910. I am telling you this, because this is an example of the difficulties in finding out all of the ‘right’ information on any particular work of art. Titles vary, dates vary, sometimes even the artist’s names vary. It’s a crap-shoot.
1861 print by Toyokuni III as the actor Shikan IV in the role of the wrestler Tomigorō –
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
19th century fireman’s helmet neck guard (hikeshi-shikoro) – signed: Chiku Koku hitsu – the eyes are glass
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Can you believe this piece? Its beauty? Its impracticality? The curatorial notes may go a long way toward explaining this somewhat: “All members of a samurai family had their respective fire fighting wardrobe. This neck protector possibly belonged to the wife of a daimyō.”
Articulation has two different meanings – One can either speak clearly and fluently or one can be divided into separate joints. Basically, both are the the same thing.
19th century, Japanese, articulated dragon made of ivory – Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College