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January 1, 2012

Japanese Customs: The Year of the Dragon

2012 is the Year of the Dragon. The dragon is the symbol of renewal and in Japan it is omni-present.

"In Japan and China, the dragon is not the gruesome monster of the Western, medieval imagination, but a genius of strength and goodness. He is the spirit of change. Hidden in the caverns of inaccessible mountains, or coiled in the unfathomable depth of the sea, he awaits the time when he slowly rouses himself into activity. He unfolds himself in the storm clouds; he washes his mane in the blackness of the seething whirlpools, His claws are in the fork of the lightning, his scales begin to glisten in the bark of rain-swept pine trees. His voice is heard in the hurricane, which scattering the withered leaves of the forest, quickens a new spring." (Okakura Tenshin, The Awakening of Japan)

The dragon is the symbol of the productive force of nature, of renewal. It is also the emblem of vigilance and safeguard. In its claws it carries the "night-shining pearl," a gem of omnipotence. The Chinese imperial coat from the Han to Qing dynasties consisted of a pair of dragons fighting for such a pearl. It was the emblem of imperial power and of the throne (called "dragon throne").

In Japanese myth, the deity Susano-o fights Yamato-Orochi, an Eight-headed dragon. After slaying him, he finds the sword Kusunagi in the tail of the beast. This is now one of the Imperial regalia. The Sea God is also called Dragon God and lives in a Dragon palace below the waves. This visited by Hikohohodemi, who marries Toyotamahime, the Dragon King's daughter - and after she joins her husband on the land, she becomes the ancestor of Ninigi-no-mikoto, the mythical progenitor of the imperial house. Also the Utsukushima Shrine on Miyajima was believed to be the abode of the Dragon King's daughter. On a different note, in a folktale, Urashima visits the Dragon Palace on the back of a trutle and also marries the dragon kings daughter, but when he leaves the underwater world, he has return alone.

Dragons figure in the names of Zen temples, as Ryoanji ("Dragon Peace Temple") and Tenryuji ("Heavenly Dragon temple") in Kyoto. When the Kannon statue that is the object of veneration in the Asakusa temple (Sensoji) appeared from the sea in the nets of two fishermen in 628, golden dragons ascended to heaven - for that reason the temple celebrates an annual Golden Dragon Dance. And in popular culture dragons can be found from  Dragon Ball and Dragon Quest to the Chunichi Dragons, and not to forget, King Ghidorah, the three-headed golden dragon who appears in several Godzilla films.

Have a good Dragon Year!