Dragons exist in every corner of ancient and modern civilisation. From moral tales passed down through oral storytelling, to incredible CGI fleets of winged beasts on TV and in film, dragons have fascinated human imaginations for thousands of years. No more so than in Japanese culture, where dragons symbolise strength and power, and the stories and myths in which they exist tell tales of wisdom, perseverance, good fortune, and wealth.
Most Japanese dragons are water-dwelling, associated with rainfall. During times of drought in ancient Japan, Buddhist monks held ceremonies to persuade the dragon king to bring rain, perhaps the reason why dragons are also associated with wealth and good fortune, as their power to bring rain guarantees a bountiful harvest.
In the book Japanese Mythology by Juro Oyama, Oyama cites that “Japan is a land of myths, folk tales, legends, and folklore”, and “like many other myths, Japanese mythology is set against a backdrop of historical events.”
Many of the dragons mentioned in Japanese mythology are inspired by the real-life events of the nation's history or served to teach a lesson against the backdrop of a specific cultural or economic climate.
Japanese dragons were first mentioned in the Kojiki (680 AD) and the Nihongi (720 AD), ancient books containing legends about the origin of Japan. The best-known stories are the legends of Yamata No Orochi, Watatsumi, and Mizuchi.
Mizuchi (also known as the Hornless Dragon or The Four-Legged Dragon) was a water dragon who resided in the Kawashima River and met a terrible end after slaughtering nearby travellers. Mizuchi would spit venom at passers-by until challenged by Agatamori, a great warrior.
Agatamori threw three calabashes (gourds) into the river, which floated on the surface. He then challenged Mizuchi to sink them—or be slain.
Mizuchi was a shapeshifter and transformed into a deer in an attempt to submerge the calabashes but failed. When Agatamori slayed the dragon, the legend tells of the river turning red. The river was then renamed ‘The Pool of Agatamori’.
The story of Mizuchi may represent the human sacrifices made to rivers to appease their gods in ancient Japan during floods.
Water Dragon (Mizuchi) by Keisai Eisen (c. 1830-1848)
Yamata No Orochi
Yamata no Orochi was an eight-tailed, eight-headed beast of a dragon, who lived near the Hi River in Izumo City. Each head symbolised an element—water, earth, wind, fire, lightning, light, darkness, and venom. In addition to his terrifying number of appendages, his body was long enough to stretch over eight hills and eight mountains!
Legend has it that Yamata no Orochi devoured one young girl a year in order to be placated, and the people of the Koshi province were petrified by his cruelty.
The King of Izumo was about to offer his eighth and last daughter to Yamata no Orochi as sacrifice, when Susanoo, the god of storms, proposed a deal—he would slay the dragon in exchange for Princess Kushinada’s hand in marriage. The King agreed, and Susanoo turned the princess into a comb and fixed her into his hair (we assume for safekeeping).
Trickery was needed to vanquish the beast, and Susanoo ordered a hedge to be built around a large field, with eight gates built into it. Eight barrels of strong sake were then placed on a stand underneath each of the eight gates. Susanoo waited, sheltered from view, for Yamata no Orochi to take the bait.
A storm brewed. Blinding lightning was seen and great thunderclaps were heard, as huge tremors shook the ground. Yamata no Orochi had arrived. Lured by the smell of the sake, the dragon began to drink each vat until he fell to the ground, drunk and incapacitated.
Susanoo cautiously approached the dragon, making sure he was in a deep sleep. Then, he began to cut off each head with his sword. To finish Yamata no Orochi off for good, he sliced through the tails until his sword snapped. Within the dragon’s flesh was a longsword known as The Heavenly Cloud Sword, which Susanoo took as a souvenir of his victory.
Yamata no Orochi was slain, and Susanoo married the princess and settled in Izumo.
This story symbolises the human sacrifices made to appease the anger of enemy tribes in ancient Japan. The incredible sword found in the dragon's body may represent the acquisition of a fearsome weapon to defeat opposition.
A Japanese dragon as depicted in an illustration by Katsushika Hokusai (c. 1836-1850)
Watatsumi was the dragon god of the sea, governor of all aquatic kingdoms, and master of the tides. His great underwater palace known as Ryugo-jo was a haven for shipwrecked people, and his generosity was well-known.
A story in the Kojiki tells of a man named Hoori, who while scouring the sea looking for his brother’s lost hook, met one of Watatsumi’s daughters and fell in love. Otohime and Hoori married and stayed in Ryugo-jo. That is until, years later, Hoori became bored and homesick but knew he couldn’t return to land without his brother’s fish hook. Watatsumi, caring for the man, summoned the servants of his kingdom to search for the hook. Fortunately, a fish had recently swallowed the hook, and it was retrieved and given to Hoori. Hoori then returned to the land with his wife, the dragon goddess, and lived happily ever after!
The myth states that Hoori and Otohime’s grandson became the first Emperor of Japan. Thanks to this tale, it is believed that all Emperors are descendants of kamis (gods).
Watatsumi’s story served as proof that all Japanese Emperors were deities in the eyes of the people, due to their relation to the dragon god.