TALES FROM HISTORY

How the Wild Boar Became Divine

The story behind unusual Shinto shrine guardians

Diane Neill Tincher
5 min readApr 6, 2021

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Visitors to shrines in Japan are usually greeted by a pair of fierce statues, koma-inu, on either side of the entrance. Koma-inu, lion-dogs, have been guarding shrines and temples in Japan since the 6th century, when they came along with Buddhism to Japan from China as shishi, or guardian lions. Over the years they developed into the distinctively Japanese lion-dog statues we see today.

Koma-inu, Hachiman Shrine, Narai, Nagano Prefecture.

Koma-inu come in pairs: one with an open mouth, a-gyo, and one with a closed mouth, un-gyo. A and un are the first and last letters of both the Sanskrit and the Japanese alphabets, representing the beginning and ending of all things, not unlike the Alpha and the Omega in Western tradition.

Fox guardian, Asahigaoka-Fushimi Inari shrine, Nakatsugawa, Gifu Prefecture.

If you visit one of the over 30,000 Inari Shrines in Japan, you will see fox guardians. There are a small number of shrines guarded by tigers, and even fewer guarded by wild boars, koma-shishi. Not to be confused with the Chinese shishi, or lions, this word shishi is from the Japanese inoshishi, or wild boar.

Why boars?

In the 8th century, the powerful monk Dōkyō cured the illness of the retired Empress Kōken. In gratitude, she granted him political and religious authority. The ambitious Dōkyō then connived to receive a message from an oracle at Usa, an important shrine in Ōita Prefecture, which stated that he was destined to become the next emperor.

In order to confirm Dōkyō’s message, the devout Buddhist and influential aristocrat, Wake no Kiyomaro, was sent to Usa Shrine. He received a contradictory message from an oracle declaring that the direct imperial line of the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, should not be broken. Dōkyō could not become emperor.

This news enraged the monk, who used his influence with the empress to have Kiyomaro beaten, to have his hamstrings severed, and to banish him to Ōsumi, in what is now Kagoshima Prefecture. On his way south into banishment, the faithful Kiyomaro wanted to again visit Usa, to thank the oracle for the…

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Diane Neill Tincher

Top writer in Travel. I’ve lived in Japan since 1987 & love learning, history, & the beauty of nature. Pls use my link to join Medium: https://bit.ly/3yqwppZ