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Views Insider’s Guide to Shintō Shrines
“Komainu”: The Shrine’s Guardian Figures

Toya Manabu [Profile]


Stone statues called komainu depicting shishi, "lion-dogs," stand at either side of the entrance to the shrine or the haiden worship hall. These fierce guardians are meant to protect the shrine from evil.

A pair of stone lion-dogs (shishi) often flank the sandō near the entrance to the shrine or the haiden (worship hall). These komainu, as the statues are known, are guardian figures believed to protect the space around the kami from evil.

The ultimate origins of these lionlike figures probably extend back to ancient India or even Egypt, but the more immediate source would appear to be Chinese. Guardian lions and other divine beasts were probably imported from Tang China, along with Buddhism, via the Korean Peninsula, accounting for their alternate name, kōrai-inu, or Korean dogs. (No extant prototypes have been found in Korea.)

Most komainu closely resemble the so-called Chinese lion-dog (kara-jishi). Typically, one of the creatures is depicted with its mouth open and the other with its mouth closed. This tradition has no relationship to Shintō per se but derives from Buddhist iconography, where it is used to represent the sacred utterance Aum (with coming from the open mouth and um from closed lips).

Many shrines eschew the lion-dog figure for an animal associated with the kami worshipped there. At Mitsumine Shrine (Saitama Prefecture), dedicated to the wolf deity Ōguchi-no-magami, two wolves stand guard. Inari shrines have fox statues, Tenmangū shrines have oxen, and Hie Sannō Shrine in Tokyo has monkeys.

The komainu to the left of the entrance to Kashii-gū Shrine, Fukuoka, Fukuoka Prefecture.

Kashii-gū Shrine’s right-hand guardian.

Nogi Shrine, Minato, Tokyo.

Nitta Shrine, Satsumasendai, Kagoshima Prefecture.

(Banner photo: A komainu at Kashii-gū Shrine, Fukuoka, Fukuoka Prefecture.)

▼Further reading
Your Virtual Guide to the Shintō Shrine (Series Top) Foreign Tourists Flock to the Gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine A Year in the Life of Ise Shrine (Photos)
Japan’s Religious Ambivalence: The Shaping and Dismantling of a National Polity The Japanese World View: Three Keys to Understanding “Kami”: The Evolution of Japan’s Native Gods
  • [2016.07.25]

Writer and Shintō priest. Born in Saitama Prefecture. Graduated from the Department of Shintō Studies at Kokugakuin University. Author of Shintō nyūmon (Introduction to Shintō), Fuji-san, 2200-nen no himitsu (Mount Fuji’s 2,200-year Secrets), and other works.

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Other articles in this report
  • Shintō’s Sacred Forests and Japanese EnvironmentalismToya Manabu explores the historical and spiritual connections between Shintō shrines, the sacred forests that surround them, and environmentalism in Japan.
  • Nature Worship in Old ShintōBefore Shintō came to be practiced in constructed shrines, it was centered on the direct worship of nature itself. Toya Manabu surveys the various objects of worship that formed the original focus of Shintō belief.
  • “Shōzoku”: The Shintō VestmentsThe clothing worn by priests and priestesses at Shintō shrines is unlike anything you will see elsewhere in Japan. Here we describe the styles of traditional vestments that are part of the Shintō experience.
  • “Shamusho”: The Shrine OfficeWhen not engaging in religious rites, priests and shrine personnel may rest in the shamusho, or shrine office. Here visitors can also obtain talismans to protect their homes and selves with the blessing of the shrine’s kami.
  • “Shintai, Shinboku”: The Divine Object or TreeAt the heart of the shrine, never viewed by visitors, is the shintai, the “divine body” of the kami. At some shrines this is an object, like a jewel or sword; at others, it is a natural feature like a mountain or shinboku, a divine tree.

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