Japanese Animals and Symbolism

June 04, 2021 8 min read

japanese animals

As subjects of legends, Japanese animals are endowed with a strong symbolism in the Land of the Rising Sun. Whether they are sacred, legendary or emblematic for the nation, they occupy a certain place in Japanese mythology.

Biodiversity of the fauna in Japan is quite exceptional as many animals live in the vast uninhabited lands of the archipelago. Among them, some became real stars of Japanese folklore. The Crane, the Koi Fish, the Dragon, the Phoenix, the Tanuki... Learn more about the symbolism of animals in Japan, whether they are legendary or real.

The emblematic animals of Japan

Through Japanese legends, there are several animals that particularly stand out from the others, becoming symbols of the Land of the Rising Sun.

🐟 The Koi: a courageous fish

koi fish

The Japanese have been breeding Koi fish with passion for centuries now. This ornamental fish is particularly appreciated for its bright colors and its symbolism. In Japanese legends, the Koi fish is known to brave the currents and represents courage and perseverance. This fish is also widely used in art and in tattooing. During the Kodomo no hi festival that celebrates children's day, the koi can be found in the form of decorative pennants to spread the good example.
Discover the meaning of this Japanese fish in this article.

🐈 The cat: the beloved feline of Japan

japanese cat

Among the animals that have the good life in Japan, we can name the cat, without any doubt. This mysterious and elegant animal is one of the most respected in the Land of the Rising Sun. So much so that it was forbidden to domesticate it in the past. As a star of the Japanese folklore, the cat is considered as a lucky animal in Japanese culture in the image of the Maneki Neko... you know, that small figurine that greets you at the entrance of stores? This little cat is inspired by the Japanese bobtail, a breed of feline with a short and curled tail. The antagonist of the Maneki-Neko is the Bakeneko, a monstrous creature capable of devouring its master. Moreover, the cat occupies an important place in arts where it is said to be the favorite subject of some famous painters. Learn more about the symbolism of the cat in Japan in this article (coming soon).

🕊 The Japanese crane: a bird of peace

japanese crane

In Japan, the crane is a sacred animal that evokes longevity and loyalty. This lucky bird is often represented on fabrics and papers. It is also found on the 1000 yen banknotes.

The Japanese crane is a very beautiful one with a white body with black tips and a head covered with red feathers. Unfortunately, this species is becoming increasingly rare. Did you know that these migratory birds live with their partners until death do them part? For this reason, the crane is considered a symbol of love and fidelity in Japanese culture.

There is also a legend that says that 1000 folded paper cranes will help you to live a long time or to grant a wish.

Since the Hiroshima tragedy in 1945, the animal has become a symbol of peace and millions of origami cranes populate the Peace Memorial Park.

🦋 The butterfly: a reflection of the soul in Japan

butterfly in Japan

The butterfly has a very special meaning in Japan. It represents the incarnation of the soul of the deceased. In the Land of the Rising Sun, a belief tells that the spirit of the dead takes the form of a butterfly to fly away to eternal life. These majestic flying insects also symbolize the blossoming of femininity among young girls.

🐸 The frog: a symbol of good fortune

frog symbol japan

In Japan, frogs and toads are called "kaeru" which is Japanese for "return". These small amphibians are said to bring good luck to travelers. That is why adventurers sometimes carry frog amulets to return home safely. The Japanese also like to slip a frog into their wallets to ensure that money returns.

🦉 The owl: a protective raptor

owl in japan

In Japan, the owl is a symbol of protection and luck that represents knowledge and benevolence. This bird of prey is used as a talisman. However, some species are considered demonic. Such is the case of the barn owl. Most recently, owl cafes have opened their doors in the Land of the Rising Sun... Find out some of them in this article!

🐇 The rabbit: a sacred animal of the archipelago

rabbit island

If the rabbit is very present in the Japanese folklore and culture, it is not only for its adorable face and its kawaii side. The rabbit also is a character well anchored in the Japanese mythology. You can find the rabbit in manga and souvenir stores, but you can also worship them at the Hakuto-jinja shinto shrine which is dedicated to the legend of the white hare of Inaba. As a symbol of love and healing, many couples visit the white rabbit to bless their union or cure skin diseases.

There exists a very small island in Japan, populated by wild rabbits. Okunoshima Island, also known as Rabbit Island, is a real paradise on Earth for our long-eared friends, who aren't as shy as they seem.

🐢 The turtle: symbol of longevity in Japan

the turtle in japan

The turtle is, besides being a symbol of longevity and good omen in Japan, also associated with our good old Earth. This animal is the subject of many legends, the most famous of which dates back to the Nihon-Shoki, a very old work on the origins of Japan and the dynasty. The legend of Urashima Taro is about a man who saves a baby turtle. To thank him, the mother of the rescued baby invites him to her Water Kingdom.

🐕 The Akita Inu: the most revered dog in Japan

akita inu

A true pride of the Japanese, this breed of dog originating from the Akita region was known for hunting bears in the past. Its courage and loyalty make it the most appreciated dog in Japan. Moreover, many statues and events are dedicated to him. It is a breed that resembles the Spitz but larger, with a thick coat. This Japanese dog is particularly loyal, as can be seen from the story of Hachiko, a famous Akita who waited for his late master for 10 years at Shibuya station.

🙉 The Japanese macaque: a figure of wisdom

japanese macaque

This primate, called snow monkey, represents wisdom in Japanese culture. We can recognize it by its crimson face and buttocks. Its coat is well furnished and the animal does not have a tail as a result of its climatic adaptation to avoid frostbite. The Japanese macaque is often represented in theaters or during the O-bon festival. It is also an excellent swimmer. If you happen to visit a hot spring or onsen in Japan, you may encounter one.

🐻 The Japanese black bear: totem animal of Ainu people

japanese black bear

The Asian black bear has a white band surrounding its neck that resembles a necklace. This sacred animal has an important place in the Ainu culture, aboriginal people living in the North of Japan. This powerful mammal protector of the forest and the Earth is a deity particularly venerated by the Ainu. Originally a totem, this animal is honored during the Waking the Bear Ceremony and was the object of cruel rituals that have been abandoned today.

Legendary creatures from Japan

Japan is full of mythological creatures that are very present in the local folklore as well as in children's stories. These legendary animals have been an inspiration to artists for centuries. Discover some of the most famous among them:

🐉 The dragon: a legendary power

japanese dragon

The Japanese dragon fascinates humans since ages. This majestic serpentine creature, guardian of the kami, is renowned for its strength and unpredictable nature. The dragon is celebrated during the Kinryu no mai festival.
The dragon is frequently represented in Japanese culture as well as in the world of tattooing. Symbol of wisdom and immortality, it is also the master of metamorphosis. Among the legends of dragons, Yamata no Orochi is probably the oldest one.
Discover more about the myths of this fantastic snake-like creature.

🦁 Komainu: the protective lion-dog

komainu

Inspired by the Egyptian sphinxes and the Indian and Chinese lions, komainu are creatures between the dog and the lion that can be seen at the entrance of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. These statues are supposed to ward off evil spirits and protect deities. With their thick manes, muscular bodies and sharp claws, komainu are a symbol of strength and power. The guardians of sacred places in Japan. However, they are also found in front of the houses of nobles or administrative buildings.

🦚 Phoenix: the bird that rises from its ashes

japanese phoenix

This fantasy bird is the guest of honor at the Kanda Matsuri festival. In Japan, it is known as Houou. The Japanese phoenix looks like a peacock with a tail made up of long colorful feathers. This fiery animal embodies the cycle of life, rebirth, immortality and triumph. The phoenix associated with the dragon represents the imperial couple. This legendary animal is often present in Japanese art, just like its counterpart, the peacock, which is a real animal.

🦅 Yatagarasu: the sacred Japanese crow

yatagarasu

This bird has 3 legs: the first one represents the sky, the second one the Earth and the third one the Humans. In Japan, the crow is the allegory of the sun. Nowadays, it is a respected animal, but also considered as a nuisance. In mythology, the yatagarasu is sent by the gods in order to help humans. Some say that it guided the emperor Jinmu to Yamato. Notice that the Japanese soccer has taken over the emblem of the crow.

🐍 The white snake: messenger of the goddess Benzaiten

white snake

Another auspicious animal in Japan. The white snake is the messenger of Benzaiten, a particularly revered goddess in Japan. Meeting a white snake is considered a sign of good omen in the Japanese culture, as this reptile would bring wealth to the one who meets it. As for the frog, it is quite common to see white snakes in the wallet of Japanese people.

🦄 Kirin: the Japanese unicorn

kirin

With its horse (or deer) body, its hooves and its horn, this fantasy animal is reminiscent of the Western unicorns. The kirin is the Japanese version of the Chinese qilin. This chimeric creature which also has an ox tail, scales and the head of a dragon, has the power of breathing fire. It is a benevolent animal that descends to Earth to announce the birth or death of an exceptional being. In the Asian culture, the kirin is the embodiment of harmony.

This legendary animal can be found on the famous Japanese Kirin beers.

The yokai, creatures of Japanese mythology

In Japanese beliefs, there are many creatures with extraordinary powers. These are the spirits that populate Japan, called yokai. Japanese folklore counts an impressive number of them. Some have the appearance of animals and others look more like demons or everyday objects. Fascinating and sometimes terrifying, here are 3 major yokai of Japanese mythology.

🦊 Kitsune: the fox spirit

kitsune

The kitsune is a multi-tailed fox with supernatural powers. It is the messenger of Inari, goddess of rice, in the Shinto religion. In Japanese mythology, this creature masters the art of metamorphosis and can take on the appearance of a beautiful young woman that bewitches men. Moreover, the fox spirit is frighteningly intelligent. It can read minds and manipulate humans at will.
Let's focus on this magical fox, revered in Japan.

🦡 Tanuki: the sacred raccoon dog

tanuki

The tanuki is both a physical animal and a yokai. It is a species of canid that lives in the forests of Japan. With its small head, pointed ears and thick hair, the tanuki looks more like a raccoon than a dog. Sadly, the raccoon dog is also hunted for its prized fur.

The tanuki brings good luck, which is why it is often found in front of Japanese stores. Don't be shocked by its prominent testicles - they represent luck and prosperity. In legends, it is associated with a funny character with magical powers.

😺 Bakeneko: the cat monster of Japan

bakeneko

This mythological animal is not the friendliest one. Actually, behind this ordinary-looking cat, hides a demon ready to do anything to take possession of your home. He can transform himself into a human or even wake up the dead. This is why the bakeneko is considered as a very frightening creature by the Japanese. Fortunately, there are some ways to recognize them. 

 

As you may have noticed, animals are very much appreciated and sometimes even venerated in Japan. Signs of good luck in mythology, they often bring chance or fortune, but can also be demonic. So, the next time you encounter a cat or a turtle, remember this article! So, which Japanese animals fascinate you?

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