Kagamijishi – possession of spirit masks, the lion dance spirit and lion guardians

News photo

Denchu Hirakushi’s study for “The Kabuki Dance ‘Kagamijishi,’ ” (1939) IBARA MUNICIPAL DENCHU MUSEUM [An exhibit at the Mie Prefectural Art Museum]

This kagamijishi is based on traditional  Kagami Jishi ningyo dolls which in turn are based on the folktale and kabuki tradition of “Shunkyo Kagami Jishi” in which an Edo period young lady-in-waiting named Yayoi residing in the Edo palace, was picked to perform a Lion Dance for the shogun at the New Years’ Day Parade. The Lion Dance is a tradition originating from China which is believed to drive away evil spirits with the strength of a lion, but in the tale, the lion spirit that resides inside the mask, possesses the timid character of the palace maid Yayoi when she begins to dance with the wooden shishi (lion) mask.


The Nagauta-based dance “Shunkyô Kagami Jishi” premiered in March 1893 at the Kabukiza.

“Kagami Jishi” is a fantasy whose story is related through the movements of the dancers. Yayoi, a young lady in waiting in the shogun’s palace at Edo, was chosen to perform the lion dance at the New Year celebrations, a ceremonial performance originally designed to exorcize evil spirits. The dancer held a wooden lion head with moveable jaws which was decorated with a flowing silk streamer. Yayoi was shy and hesitant, so she was locked into a room with the mask and told to practice. At first she was overwhelmed by her surroundings and danced rather timidly. As she became more engrossed in the task her steps quickened. Fascinated against her will, she took up the lion head and danced a tentative movement. Gradually the spirit of the lion entered into her and took complete charge of her limbs. Two butterflies appeared and the lion head pursued them. Finally the dancing maiden disappeared altogether, leaving only the rampaging spirit of a lion, who then rushed into his lair and back again to sport among the peonies, where he finally fell asleep. Two butterflies appeared to tease him, and he tried angrily to catch them. Finally he worked himself into a mighty rage and stood shaking his great mane around in a fury of movement.– Source: “The Kabuki Theatre of Japan” by A. C. Scott Pub. Allen & Unwin 1955

Ichikawa Danjûrô IX (middle) and his two daughters Fukiko (left) and Sayako (right) playing the role of the spirit of the shishi and the two butterflies in the dance “Shunkyô Kagami Jishi”, which was staged in March 1893 at the Kabukiza (print made by Toyohara Kunichika) This Nagauta Buyo was first performed by Ichikawa Danjuro 9th in the Meiji period.

In Kagamijishi – ‘The Lion Dance’ – Tamasaburo Bando displays his extraordinary versatility in this most demanding of roles; first as a shy maiden and then as a fierce lion.

In Kagamijishi the court lady Yayoi is dancing at New Year celebrations when a lion head mask lying nearby begins to distract her. Completely captivated, Yayoi moves to pick up the lion mask. Once in her hand this lion mask takes possession of her soul and her dance suddenly becomes erratic. The spirit of the mask overpowers her and drags her off-stage. Moments later, Yayoi rushes back down stage, now fully transformed as a huge lion. Two butterflies irritate the lion into a frenzy; he dances, swirling his great mane in wild circles, evoking the fearsome rage of a lion.

Sagi Musume: Kabuki Dance

The most interesting point of this dance is how to act the two different personalities of Yayoi-a young lady, and the witch of Rion…a technique requiring the skilled role of the onnagata (John Fiorillo),  The Mask completely possesses Yayoi, who is transformed into the personality of the witch of Rion (Masako), and so she dance boldly, without any hesitation. After the dance performance, Rion is satiatied and releases Yayoi.

Sources: Kagamjishi: Kabuki Dance

See Kabuki Bibliography

Although in the Kagami jishi stories, the spirit residing in the mask is supposed to be an evil one, lions were originally guardian spirits,  and the role of lion dancing a protective one, its function was to repel evil spirits. This change in idea of where evil resided may reflect the historical opposition and tussle over time in evolving religious traditions of Taoist-magic/spiritism derived ideas and Buddhist ones.


The origin of the lion icon and lion dance is much older than the Edo or Meiji kabuki. See A-Z Photo Dictionary Buddhist Statuary’s article “SHISHI LIONS: SHRINE & TEMPLE GUARDIANS WITH MAGICAL POWERS TO REPEL EVIL” and explanation of the Kara-shishi:

This mythical beast was probably introduced to Japan from China via Korea in the 7th or 8th century AD, during the same period as Buddhism’s transmission to Japan, for the Japanese shishi combines elements of both the Korean “Koma-inu” (Korean dog) and Chinese “Kara-shishi” (Chinese lion). One prominent theory holds that the shishi derives from the Chinese Foo Dog (see LEARN MORE below for more). Lions, by the way, are not indigenous to Japan, China or Korea, and supposedly entered those nations in the form of imported art and sculpture, with the earliest traces of the animal appearing in China’s Han Dynasty (about 208 BC to 221 AD)….

It is a symbol of power and success, and of royality and strength. Images of it were embroidered on court robes. In Korea, the skin on Koma-inu’s head was believed to be stronger than a helmet. In Japan, the shishi is a noble beast who protects the entrace to the temple/shrine, and in some cases, the tomb. Shishi nearly always come in mated pairs (male and female). Helena Burton at Oxford University says the shishi is sometimes tattooed on a woman’s belly to protect her during childbirth. Occasionally, Buddhist deities are depicted mounted on the beast, in particular Monju Bosatsu…

…the shishi-mai or lion dance is often seen at shrine festivals and at New Year’s, when performers visit each home in the neighborhood to cast charms against evil spirits and diseases while receiving offerings. A shishi-gashira, or lion’s head, is the headdress worn by the performers. The shishi-gashira, moreover, is traditionally placed near a newborn baby boy because the lion’s magic is believed to protect the boy from evil spirits and misfortune. Today there are still many skilled craftsmen making shishi-gashira.

Shishi-mai, or “Lion Dance,” is performed while wearing the headdress or various masks. Shishi masks take on many forms, some with horns, others looking like a dog, a deer, or a lion. This dance was probably introduced to Japan by or before the 8th century owing to frequent Japanese missions to China’s Tang Court during the 7th-8th centuries AD. Shishi-mai dances became widespread in Japan thereafter as both a form of festival entertainment and as a means to ward off evil spirits, to pray for peace, bountiful harvests, and good health. The Wharton (Tokyo) web site reports that over 9,000 different Shishi-mai dance forms are still performed throughout Japan.”

The earliest Korean connections can be seen perhaps most clearly in the komainu found in Tozan shrine, Saga prefecture – where the lineage of Korean ceramists is particularly strong.  The shrine venerates Emperor Ōjin, Nabeshima Naoshige, and Yi Sam-pyeong … figures with ties to Korea. The shrine belies elements of continental trade from its location in the Karatsu domain which was an ancient port stopover for East China and Korea since the Kofun era. The Komainu in the photo below is ceramic rather than stone, of the tradition of the Korean-influenced local pottery which are called “Karatsu Yaki” since they refer to Japanese ceramic wares of Korean origin. The actual date of production of the ‘Karatsu Yaki’ is however, believed to have begun being produced rather late sometime “during the first half of the 16th century in the late Muromachi period.”

Komainu of the Tozan shrine, Saga Photo: Wikipedia

JAANUS archives elaborates on the origin of Komainu, the lion-like “Korean dog” shrine or temple stone guardian figurines:

Lit. ‘Korean dog’. A pair of lion-like guardian figures placed at each side of a shrine or temple entrance; believed to ward off evil spirits. Thought to have been brought to Japan from China via Korea, their name is derived from Koma 高麗, the Japanese term for the Korean kingdom of Koguryo 高句麗. In the early Heian period (9c) the two statues were clearly distinguished: the figure on the left, called shishi 獅子 (lion), resembled a lion with its mouth open *agyou 阿形; the figure on the right, called komainu 狛犬 (Korean dog), resembled a dog with its mouth closed ungyou 吽形, and sometimes had a horn on its head. Gradually the term komainu came to be used for both statues, and their shapes became indistinguishable except for the open and closed mouths *a-un 阿吽. In the Heian period (9-12c) komainu were used as weights or door-stops for curtains and screens in the Seiryouden 清涼殿, Kyoto Gosho 京都御所. Other famous examples include a pair of painted wooden komainu (10-11c) at Yakushiji 薬師寺, Nara; 14 painted and lacquered wooden figures at Itsukushima Jinja 厳島神社,(12-14c) Hiroshima prefecture, and the stone figures inside the south gate of Toudaiji 東大寺, Nara, made by the 12c Chinese sculptor Chinnakei 陳和卿.

From Wikipedia:

The first type, born during the Edo period, is called sandō komainu (参道狛犬 visiting road Korean dogs?), the second and much older type jinnai komainu (陣内狛犬 shrine inside komainu?).[1] They can sometimes be found also at Buddhist temples, nobility residences or even private homes. …Meant to ward off evil spirits, modern komainu statues are almost identical, but one has the mouth open, the other closed. This is a very common characteristic in religious statue pairs at both temples and shrines. This pattern is however Buddhist in origin (see the article about the Niō, human-form guardians of Buddhist temples) and has a symbolic meaning. The open mouth is pronouncing the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, which is pronounced “a”, while the closed one is uttering the last letter, which is pronounced “um”, to represent the beginning and the end of all things.[2] Together they form the sound Aum, a syllable sacred in several religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

According to”Guardian Lions” by the Kyoto National Museum, the Buddhist a and un form of komainu were introduced later :

At the end of the 12th century, the Japanese style lion dogs were abandoned and lions and of an entirely new style were produced. This is a pair of the “A” and “Un” types, the former with its mouth open and the latter with it mouth closed. (“A” is the first letter in the Japanese syllabary and “Un” is the last. The combination of the two symbolically encompasses the universe.) Neither of these bears a horn on its head, as did lions of the Nara Period. In fact, horned lions (lion-dogs) were rare in the Kamakura Period”

The thicker shaggier lion manes of the kabuki era type also seem to date from this period. See below: 13th century Kamakura period guardian lions from Taiho shrine, Shiga prefecture


The earliest type of komainu may be seen at the Ujigami jinja honden.  Ujigami Shrine was found via digital dendrochronology to be the oldest original Shinto shrine in Japan. The Nara Research Institute for Cultural Properties determined that the shrine was built in approximately 1060, which closely matches the written account of the founding of the shrine. The Ujigami Shrine is dedicated to the Emperor Ōjin and his sons, the imperial princes Uji no Wakiiratsuko and Emperor Nintoku. According to shrine tradition, Uji no Wakiiratsuko committed suicide to solve a dispute over the imperial succession, and the shrine was built in his honor, as well as to function as a guardian shrine for the nearby Byodo-in Temple, and is adjacent to the Uji Shrine

Komainu guarding the Ujigami jinja honden which dates to the late Heian period (794 – 1185). Source: Ujigami Shrine, Wikipedia; see also Ujigami-jinja, UNESCO

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s