Dragons in Japan, just like in China, have always been symbols of power, good fortune and wealth. They are the water gods connected with rain and bodies of water. They don't have wings, like Western dragons have. Also, they can be shape shifters who can turn into humans and mate with people.
|Dragon painted by Hokusai|
Imperial dragons in China and Korea have five claws on each foot. Indonesian dragons have four, and Japanese dragons have three. Oh, and non-imperial dragons in China have four claws. Except sometimes they have three. But only the emperor can use a dragon with five toes. Anybody else who uses this image will be sentenced to death.
Here's a folk tale from Japan that is pretty interesting, I think. There was once a beautiful woman named Kiyohime, and one day a handsome priest named Anchin came to lodge for a while in her village. The two of them fell in love, but Anchin wasn't supposed to be interested in women, since he was a priest. So he managed to overcome his feelings for Kiyohime, and he refused to meet with her anymore. This made her really, really mad, so when Anchin saw this, he left town in a hurry. But Kiyo was hot on his trail.
When Anchin got to the shore of the Hidaka River, he asked a boatman to take him across, but told the boatman not to let Kiyo get in his boat. As soon as Kiyohime saw that Anchin was getting away, she jumped in the river and started to swim after him. She was so angry that she turned into a huge serpent as she swam.
|Kiyohime turning into a serpent,|
by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka
As soon as he got to shore, Anchin ran into a temple, and the priests there hid him under the bell. But Kiyo, the serpent, smelled him hiding there. She began to coil around the bell, and she beat it several times with her tail. After that, she belched out a bunch of fire which melted the bell and killed the priest.
Okay, so that was not a very cheery story, but I liked it because it was different from all those happy fairy tales that American kids hear, such as the one about the witch who was always luring children to her house so she could eat them.
Another folk story was about nure-onna, which means "wet woman" in Japanese. A nure-onna was a strange, not-real type of creature, like a ghost or a phantom. When people saw her, they said she had the head of a woman and the body of a snake. Her claws and fangs were very long. Usually, she was seen on a shore someplace, washing her long, beautiful hair.
No one knows exactly what nure-onna was up to or what she wanted. In some stories, she was evil, and she could crush trees with her tail, and she liked to eat humans. She used to carry around a bundle that looked like a baby, and if someone offered to help her, she would let them hold the bundle. Then when the person tried to put the bundle down, they found out it wasn't a baby at all. Instead it was really, really heavy. In fact, it was so heavy that the person couldn't run away from the nure-onna, who used her snake tongue to suck out all the person's blood.
But in other tales about nure-onna, she was just wanting everyone to leave her alone so she could wash her hair in peace. And if people bothered her, that's when she got nasty with them.
|Ceiling painting in Tenryu-ji Temple, Kyoto|
So those are a couple of ancient Japanese stories about creatures that were sort of dragon-like, or at least snake-like. In these stories, the dragons (or snakes) do not seem to be bringing people all those nice things like power, wealth, and good luck that Asian dragons are supposed to be the symbols of. I find this confusing, but I am just a little basenji dog, so maybe I am not meant to understand these things. Anyway, I'm going to stop writing now because I don't want to have bad dreams about being melted alive inside a bell by a dragon's breath!