What is the role of Komainu (guardian dog)?

What is the role of Komainu (guardian dog)?

Have you ever realized animal statues made of stone when you visit a shrine? There are basically two kinds of animal statues, which are dog and fox, located at the entrance of a shrine. In this article, it explains about Komainu, a statue of a dog.

The purpose of Komainu

Originally, Komainu is a guardian beast protecting from bad things coming into the territory. It’s an imaginary beast dedicated and installed at the entrance. Agyo with the mouth open is installed on the right side, and Ungyo with the mouth close is installed on the left side. Actually, it’s believed that Agyo is a lion, and Ungyo is a Komainu, an imaginary creature, so those are different animals. However, at the present time, those two are collectively called Komainu as a whole.

From ancient time, Komainu is considered as a sacred beast to fulfill the role of preventing evil spirits from entering the sanctuary. People used to utilize the power of Komainu. If they had a pain in their body, they donated some money and stroked the body of Komainu linked with one’s body’s pain. For example, if one had a pain in his/her leg, they stroked a leg of the statue to get rid of the pain as quickly as possible.

Where Komainu came from

Actually, the exact time when Komainu arrived in Japan is unknown, but it’s said that Komainu came to Japan when Buddhism arrived during the Nara period. Komainu is initially from overseas. This imaginary lion creature was widely used in India from the old-time, and it was delivered to China during the Northern and Southern dynasties. After coming to Japan, local people changed the position of Komainu as the lion on the right and Komainu on the left.


The root of the Komainu is said to be the ancient Orient. At that time, the king kept a lion as a pet to show his power and authority. This custom has continued to the modern era. Sphinx, the statue guarding the tombs in Egypt, having the lion body, is related to the same belief. This idea was brought to Europe, India, and China and customized with different religions. So it’s surprising that the concept of Komainu at shrines in Japan has a relationship with Sphinx in Egypt.

How to see the difference between two Komainu statues

As explained above, there are two kinds of Komainu, and how do you distinguish which one is the lion? The way to figure out which one is the lion is whether the one has the horns or not. The statue located on the left, Komainu, has the horns, and the other one on the right side doesn’t have it. But nowadays, the horns are made shorter compared with the old ones, so it’s getting harder to distinguish. Not only the horns but also the mouths are the way to know which one is the lion. The one on the left called Agyo has an open mouth, and another one on the right called Ungyo has a closed mouth.
These are similar to the statues standing at the gate of temples.



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