Symbolic Animals in Japanese Culture

Japan’s traditional religion is Shinto. It focuses on ritual practices that links modern Japan to its ancient past. Shinto practices can be traced back to the written historical records of the Kojiki (oldest extant chronicle in Japan) and the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan, the second-oldest book of classical Japanese history) in the 8th century. Shinto in modern times is the religion of public shrines devoted to the worship of a multitude of “spirits” or kami that are suited for many purposes.

The Japanese cultural belief in animals for purposes such as good luck and good fortune stems from the ancient religious traditions of Shintoism that has rich animist beliefs. The most significant animals are honored in many ways such as in shrines, artwork, sculpture and folk lore for many centuries up until today.

Here are just some of the significant animals in Japanese culture:

Cats –  Cats are revered by Japanese, and different types of good luck charms and temples are devoted to cats.

Cat. | William Chan

The Maneki Neko “good fortune” cat, depicted as a sitting cat waving one paw, is seen in most Japanese business establishments because it is believed to draw in good business. Japan’s history indicates that cats have played an important role in Japanese culture and society, hence the number of shrines and temples dedicated to cats in the country.

Crane – Japanese mythical beliefs say that cranes can live as long as a thousand years. Cranes aptly symbolize longevity in Japan.

Senbazuru. | Is abel

The elegant long-limbed bird is used to decorate many things  such as bridal kimonos, and even used in brands and even the popular origami crane, senbazuru. Senbazuru (千羽鶴), or the thousand origami cranes, are commonly seen at temples in Japan. Senbazuru, when grouped and held together by a string, are called orizuru. According to some stories, the thousand origami cranes must be made within the span of one year and only by one person, and anyone who completes this daunting task shall be rewarded with a wish.

Red fox – Red fox or  kitsune is often depicted as a paranormal trickster who can take on human form and can consume spirits. Other myths depict them to be guardians, friends and even lovers.  Fox statues guard a number of Inari temples in Japan.

Fox. | Taro Sako

Inari is the name of the Shinto god of crops,  and the fox is considered to be a form of his spirit.  There is also the Zao Fox Village, a preserve with small houses and structures to house foxes. There is a shrine with statues and a torii.  The animals roam freely, there is a petting zoo, and visitors are rewarded with the beautiful Miyagi Zao mountain scenery. The Fox Village is close to the town of Shiroishi that can be conveniently reached by a bullet train to Shiroishi Station. From there, it’s a quick 20-30 minute drive to the picturesque mountain preserve.