I’ve been exposed to Japanese culture a great deal throughout my life; a byproduct of studying Okinawan karate for 33 years. And yes, I can easily say that there are important differences between Japanese and Okinawan, but for the sake of this post, we’ll lump them in together. After all, all Okinawans are Japanese but not all Japanese are Okinawans. Moving on… During my youth, I had the opportunity to be exposed to, and study, some of the Okinawan culture long before I actually travelled there. And one of the first things I was exposed to was Shisa dogs.
The year was 1996 and I was about to graduate from high school. It was as tumultuous time for me, since I had no idea what direction my life was taking and no clue as to what I wanted to do with myself. I was starting college in the fall at the insistence of my parents, even though I was being thrust into a program I didn’t want (computer programming). All I knew at the time was that I was at the peak of my martial arts skills and I wanted to continue to study THAT. This is something that would be made difficult by the fact that I would be living an hour away for school. But Sensei and I worked it out and we agreed on a training schedule that would accommodate my needs.
I stopped by his house on graduation night, since his son Guillaume was my best friend and would be graduating as well. While I was waiting for Guillaume to come down the stairs, Sensei approached me with a small bundle and handed it to me. “For you,” was all he said. In his usual custom of keeping things simple, he handed me a small, black trash bag that was knotted at the top. I could tell there were moving parts inside, but little else. I asked him if I cold open it immediately, to which he replied I should. I tore open the bag to find two small porcelain Shisa dogs inside.
I’ve had them ever since, and it allowed me to study their origins and purpose. Bear in mind that dial-up internet was barely a thing at that point, so my research had to be genuine and hands-on. But I managed. I learned some interesting things along the way. For example, some refer to them as lions and some refer to them as dogs. Sensei always called them dogs and by virtue of that, I’ve always referred to them as dogs, as well.
The pair fo dogs Sensei gave me for graduation are simple porcelain and semi hollow. I keep those at my office, since they’re smaller 9about the size of tennis balls) and fit on my office’s windowsill. The ones pictured above are the ones I purchased myself in Okinawa and are about the size of candle-pin bowling balls (the ones without the finger holes). The ones above are made of soap-stone and are quite heavy. I foolishly purchased them in a shop in Naha on Okinawa. Sensei nearly lost his mind when he saw them, considering my suitcase was quite full.
These dogs originate from China and actually have Buddhist origins. They usually come in pairs and stand guard on rooftops or at doorways/gateways. They be standing forward or off to the side (as pictured above) but the mouths are always facing outward. The thought is that the open-mouth dog (on the right) is roaring to ward off evil spirits while the closed-mouth dog is inviting the friendly spirits. What’s nice with the ones pictured above, is that there’s no mistaking which dog goes on which side.
Since these dogs were brought in from China before Okinawa became part of mainland Japan, their introduction was separate in the two places. The Okinawans use Shisa dogs in their day-to-day culture and you’ll see them in front of most buildings, including temples, homes and businesses. They’re basically the equivalent of gargoyles. Just an interesting part of the culture I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy during my martial arts journey. ☯️