Japanese Tattoo Imagery-Mythological Creatures

Japanese tattooing contains more than a few mythical and supernatural creatures. This month I wanted to look at some of my favourites and explore some of the less well know creatures alongsdie the dragon and phoenix.




It would be remise to not start with surely one of the most popular tattoo motifs, both in Japan and outside of it. Dragons are composed of nine animals: a camel's head, a rabbit's eyes, a cow's ears, a deer's horns, a snake's neck, a frog's belly, a carp's scales, a tiger's paws, and a hawk's claws. Dragons are not a native creation of Japan, rther they are imported from China/Korea. The Japanese dragon has three claws (Chiense has five, Korean has four). I was once told the Japanese explain the difference by reasoning that as dargon are actually born/created in Japan, the furtehr they travel from their homeland they need more claws to be able to get a better grip of the land to return home. i ahev no idea if this is the case (researching the fact is tricky for me) I do howvevr liek the explanation.


The appearance of the Kirin is somewhat similar to the unicorn. Most mythical creatures, characters or gods inhabit a morally grey area in Japan. Much like humans they can represent both ends of the spectrum. The Kirin is the exception and is entirely a force of good, they are beilieved to be more powerful than both dragons and the phoenix, but much less aggressive. They are peaceful creatures, but when angered they roar witht he sound of thunder, spitting fire. They are fierce protectors of the innocnet and will not harm another living creature unnecessarily.The Kirin is a very good omen and are told to only appear in lands ruled by a vituous and just leader. 

In appearance they have the head of a dragon, the body of a deer (often covered in scales of a dragon) the legs of a horse and the tail of a bull. They normally have antlers or in some cases a singluar horn in the center of their forehead.


'The kappa is typically depicted as roughly humanoid in form and about the size of a child. Its scaly reptilian skin ranges in color from green to yellow or blue. Kappa supposedly inhabit the ponds and rivers of Japan, and have various features to aid them in this environment, such as webbed hands and feet. They are sometimes said to smell like fish and they can swim like them. The expression kappa no kawa nagare ("a kappa drowning in a river") conveys the idea that even experts make mistakes. Although their appearance varies from region to region, the most consistent features are a carapace, a beak for a mouth, and a plate (sara), a flat hairless region on the top of the head that is always wet, and is regarded as the source of the kappa's power. This cavity must be full whenever a kappa is away from the water; if it ever dries out, the kappa loses its power and may even die.

'Kappa are usually seen as mischievous troublemakers or trickster figures. Their pranks range from the relatively innocent, such as loudly passing gas or looking up women's kimonos, to the malevolent, such as drowning people and animals, kidnapping children, and raping women.' Passages are taken for the wiki page.


According to legend (mostly from China), the Hō-ō appears very rarely, and only to mark the beginning of a new era -- the birth of a virtuous ruler, for example. In other traditions, the Hō-ō appears only in peaceful and prosperous times (nesting, it is said, in paulownia trees), and hides itself when there is trouble. As the herald of a new age, the Hō-ō decends from heaven to earth to do good deeds, and then it returns to its celestial abode to await a new era. It is both a symbol of peace (when the bird appears) and a symbol of disharmony (when the bird disappears). In China, early artifacts show the Phoenix (female) as intimately associated with the Dragon (male) -- the two are portrayed either as mortal enemies or as blissful lovers. When shown together, the two symbolize both conflict and wedded bliss, and are a common design motif even today in many parts of Asia (taken from onmarkproductions)

The phoenixs plumage is the mystical colours of black, white, red, green and yellow. If you want to know more about the colours and their menaing the wiki page is a interesting read.


The Baku will come to the aid of those suffering from bad dreams to devour the evil spirits or creatures causing the images. In appearance they have the head and tusks of an elephant, the body of a lion, and the tail of an ox. In the Edo era it was common for the kanji or a simple image of a baku to be placed on pillows to ward of evil dreams. Whilst not the deepest of mythological creatures in it's meaing it's one of my favourite. I've only actually tattoed one once and I would be very happy to do another on in the future.


About the author

Ade Stacey

Ade began tattooing in 2001 and is currently involved in a continued study of Japanese tattooing, realist tattoos and digital painting.

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