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The Dragon

III. The Dragon

The Dragon in Japan

In Japan, the dragon (and snake) is associated with water and rivers. This association is so close that it is still preserved in everyday speech, in which a waterspout or tornado is tatsumaki (竜巻, "dragon-coils") and a water faucet (from which water issues) is jaguchi (蛇口, "snake-mouth").

M. W. DeVisser, in The Dragon in China and Japan, writes: "Their dragons [the dragons of the ancient Japanese] were kami, gods, who lived in rivers and seas, valleys and mountains (in rivulets, lakes and ponds), bestowing rain on their worshipers. That those river gods could also cause wind we learn from the above quoted passage of the Nihongi, where the god of the Northern river is said to have made a whirlwind arise in order to submerge the calabashes. So the three kinds of dragons, to be found in Japan, original Japanese, Chinese, and Indian, all have one feature in common, i.e., the faculty of causing rain; while the winds belong to the domain of the former two." (Dragon in China and Japan, pg. 154).

The Dragon in the Enoshima Engi

At the time of most of the events related in the Enoshima Engi (the Kofun era, roughly 300-710 AD), the inhabitants of the area around Enoshima lived mainly on the sides of low hills, as indicated by the two maps below.

KofunSiteMap.jpg KofunRemainsFujisawa.gif
Distribution of Kofun-era sites in the Kamakura-Fujisawa area from History of Kamakura City: Archeology ( 鎌倉市史 考古編, pg. 52)
Distribution of Kofun-era sites in Fujisawa from History of Fujisawa City, Volume 4 (archeology) (藤沢市史、第4巻, pg. 29)

From the crests of most of these hills, an observer could see the winding course of the Kashio River below. It is a meandering river, snaking its way through the drowned valley of what previously was the Ofuna estuary (大船入江), shown in this map of prehistoric Jomon times. As a matter of fact, the Japanese term dako (蛇行, winding snake-like, i.e., meandering) is used to describe the river in geography textbooks.

Below is a detail from a set of illustrations of the Tokaido Road that was completed in 1806 (東海道分間延絵図, from 柏尾川物語, pg. 30). The detail shows the upper reaches of the Kashio River around present-day Totsuka. Note the broad flood-plain and the way the river snakes through it (1).


The point is that to ancient observers on the hills, the Kashio River would have looked like a snake or dragon lying below (1b). Another instance of a dragon-shaped waterway in Japan being regarded as the home of a dragon is here at Inbanuma.

In the Enoshima Engi, the lake is described as the abode of a five-headed dragon:

The lake was the lair of a fierce, evil dragon, a dragon-king with five heads on one body (see translation).

From their vantage point on the hills, these same ancient observers would have seen the main tributaries of the Kashio River. At present, the river has four main tributaries from present-day Ofuna southward: they are the Sunaoshi (砂押川), Kobukuroya (小袋谷川),  Shin (新川), and Otsuka (大塚川) rivers (see this page on Kamakura's rivers, for example). One major characteristic of the Kashio River is that all of its main tributaries are on the east or southeast side of the river. To observers on the hills, these four tributaries would have looked like heads on the body of a sinuous dragon, especially if the tributaries had their sources in a lake or pond, with the head formed by Sagami Bay, which reached as far as present-day Fujisawa in earlier times. Now we can surmise why Kokei described the destructive dragon, whose lair was in the lake, as having five heads.

Below is a diagram of my conception of the dragon-like shape that the ancient observer may have seen from a location between Kawana, which is approximately where the Kashio River entered Sagami Bay at the time covered in the Enoshima Engi, and present-day Ofuna during the late Jomon and Yayoi eras. In this view, the mouth of the dragon corresponds to the mouth of the Kashio River. The diagram is based on the page referenced above with my addition of a portion of Sagami Bay corresponding to the main head of the dragon (2). Note that all of the tributaries, which correspond to the subsidiary heads of the dragon, are on one side. Nowadays, of course, the area has been changed so much by engineering works that some of the tributaries no longer are recognizable from the hills.


Depictions of Snakes/Dragons on Pottery

Judging from depictions on pottery, the snake appears to have gained a prominent role in the middle Jomon era. Professor Hiroshi Arakawa (荒川紘), author of 龍の起原 (The Origin of the Dragon), states that around 1000 BC, pottery underwent a substantial change, with the quantity of pottery increasing sharply, especially in Japan's Chubu, Kanto, and Hokuriku regions. Decorations tended to be abstract and seem to have had a magic-related significance. Snake motifs predominated in the cateogy of non-abstract decorations (龍の起原, pgs. 134-5); for example, this figurine with a snake attached to its head (from 龍の起原, pg. 135).

If the snake had great significance in middle Jomon culture, an individual would not need much imagination to stand on a hill overlooking the Ofuna Estuary (precursor of the Kashio River) and liken the course of the water to the body of a snake, its mouth to the mouth of the snake, and its tributaries to multiple heads on the snake.

According to Professor Arakawa, the snake motif disappears with the advent of the rice-farming-based Yayoi culture, which appears to have its origin in China, south of the Yangtse River (龍の起原, pgs. 141-3). Japan's first depictions of dragons appear on late Yayoi pottery (roughly 100-300 AD) (龍の起原, pg. 143). These examples are from western Japan. Associated Chinese ideas, such as amagoi, or praying to the dragon-deity for rain (雨乞い), probably accompanied the dragon concept. Such ideas, which probably played important roles in a rice-farming-based culture like the Yayoi, assume that the water-associated dragon-deity has control over natural phenomena such as rain, the lack of rain, hail, and so on.

To sum up the above section, there is no evidence (apart from the Enoshima Engi) that the inhabitants of the vicinity in the middle Jomon and late Yayoi periods identified the Kashio River as a snake or dragon. However, it would have been entirely natural for them to have done so (3).

Destruction Caused by the Dragon

The dragon's destructive activities may be summarized as follows:

For a roughly seven-hundred-year period from 660 BC to around 70 AD (4),

"the evil dragon, accompanied by the spirit of the wind, demons, mountain spirits, and other spirits, wreaked calamities throughout the land. Hills crumbled, releasing floods and causing damage resulting in plagues and revolts" (see translation).

For a sixty-year span around the turn of the first century AD, the evil dragon constantly made fire (or heavy rains, the text is not clear here) and rain descend on the region, forcing the inhabitants to seek shelter in caverns.

At the beginning of the sixth century, the dragon invaded villages in the locality, swallowing children and forcing the villagers to move to a safer place.The people even offered a human sacrifice to the dragon-god, but the offering was in vain.

The dragon's physical appearance is described as follows.

The dragon's "eyes emitted piercing rays like the sun at daybreak, and its torso was surrounded by black clouds" (see translation).

It is obvious that much of the physical appearance of the dragon (the black cloud surrounding its torso and the lightning-like rays emitted by its eyes) and most of the destruction caused by it (the storms and floods it caused) are related to water in the broadest sense.

Textual Evidence

Now let us return to the texts. The Chinese version of the Enoshima Engi states:

The evil dragon then spread out through the villages, swallowing and devouring children. Terrified, the villagers forsook their homes to move elsewhere. The people of that time named the new location Koshigoe (translation). (2b)

The corresponding passage in the Japanese version reads 龍邑里にみちて(満ちて)人をのむ事やまず (literally, "the dragon filled the villages, constantly swallowing people."

Obviously, a dragon can not fill a village. The term みちて has a semantic range much like "filled" in English, and the passage is not comprehensible, unless the dragon was amorphous (i.e., like flood waters).

The Chinese version of the Enoshima Engi contains a story about a village elder whose 16 children were swallowed by the dragon. A slightly different version of the story about the elder from an Edo-era work composed in 1754 entitled Enoshima Ozoshi (江島大草紙), quoted in 江島考, pg. 43, reads:

時ニ長者アリ十六人ノ子ヲ育フ、皆悪龍ノ為ニ呑レヌ。長者愁ニ咽テ宅ヲ西ノ里ニ移シ彼 屍ヲ茲ニ埋ム、是ヲ長者ガ塚ト云。

At the time, there was a village elder with 16 children, all of whom were swallowed by the dragon. Choked with grief, the elder moved his household to a settlement in the west where he interred their corpses. It then was called "Elder's Mound."

If the dragon had eaten the children, there would be no bodies left to bury. Obviously, they were victims of something else, i.e., flood waters, in this case.

The Dragon = Water

By now it should be clear that the dragon can be viewed as a deification of water, which was the environmental factor that was the biggest threat and benefit to the lives and livelihoods of the inhabitants of the locality.

To make this point clear to western readers, I suggest the following experiment: read the translation again, substituting the phrase "Old Man River" every time the "dragon" directly impacts the lives of the villagers. A passage such as:

The evil dragon then turned up everywhere in the villages, swallowing children

then becomes:

Old Man River then turned up everywhere in the villages, swallowing children

It is likely that the villagers were threatened by raging flood waters of some sort (refer also to this note and footnote 5 below).

These observations lead to the conclusion below.

Conclusion regarding the Dragon

The correlations between the characteristics of the dragon, a god of rivers, and the flooding and other environmental conditions related to the violent rivers of the locality are clear. This website argues that the dragon described in the Enoshima Engi was an embodiment of the waters of the Kashio and Sakai Rivers, which were the greatest threat to the lives and livelihoods of the people in the locality. Flooding in these rivers caused widespread devastation in the past, including damage from floodwaters and landslides, as well as disease in the wake of floods. The dragon-god of the river waters also governed rain (too much of which also causes landslides), lack of rain (drought), hail, and other things that fell from the heavens.

In other words, the destructive dragon in the Enoshima Engi was the embodiment in the popular mind of the overwhelming threat posed by water to the lives and livelihoods of the people in the locality. In their minds, water (and the lack of water) was governed by the capricious and destructive dragon-god, who ruled over river waters, rain, and other things that fell from the skies.

Now that we have determined the basic nature of the dragon, we can return to identifying more locations and the prevailing conditions in the area.

Go to IV. Conditions Prior to the Sixth Century

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(1) At present the Kashio River and the lower reaches of the Sakai (Katase) River no longer snake; their banks were encased in concrete during the postwar period. Nonetheless, the Kashio River is still violent. From 1999 to 2004, I lived on a bank of the Kashio-Sakai River, within walking distance of the events described in the Enoshima Engi, and I can testify to the power the river still commands. Whenever there is heavy rain into the river's catchment basin, as when a typhoon passes in the vicinity, which occurs several times annually, the river rises drastically within a few hours, and often there is flooding somewhere along its course.

(1b) Note that both the Puyang River of China and the ancient Sarasvati River of India showed the same winding, snaking course in their lower reaches. Part of the lower reaches of the Sarasvati were known as "Nara," which comes from "Naga" (snake). See The Relationship between the Puyang River in China and the Kashio River. New (This paragraph added in April 2006.)

(2) If the extent of Sagami Bay (in ancient times) is regarded as corresponding to the mouth of a dragon, then Enoshima Island would correspond to the jewel that dragons are often pictured as trying to catch. For this observation, I am indebted to Mr. Kurobe (personal message).

(2b) (See A Possible Relationship between the Puyang River in China and the Kashio RiverNew (as of February 2006). This section points out similarities between the Kashio River and the Puyang River south of Hangzhou, China. The Puyang River frequently experienced heavy rains in its hilly catchment area, swelling the river. The heavy volume of water rushing down its channel would rush up against the incoming tide, causing serious flooding. A similar situation may have existed around the Kashio River.

(3) Note that in Asia it is not uncommon for dragon to be a metaphor for river. The Mekong in its delta, which has nine channels, is known for example as the "Nine Dragons River."

(4) The dates here are traditional, unconfirmed dates according to the time-scheme used by Kokei, which was based in part on the reign-eras of legendary emperors.

(5) Here is part of a newspaper article from July 2007 reporting what may be a similar phenomenon, in which a fishing village is threatened by "rising waves that had been creeping into the beach, destroying houses, properties, unearthing coconuts trees and gobbling nearby land in the process."

Following are the pertinent parts of the article:

Tidal Waves Pound India's Kanyakumari Coastline (July 06, 2007)

THIRUVANTHAPURAM, July 6 (Bernama) -- Violent tidal waves have been battering the coastlines of Kanyakumari district lately, killing four people and destroying more than 50 fishing boats, menacing coastal communities in the southern tip of India.

Along the 64 km coastline of Kanyakumari or known as Cape of Comorin -- gushing sea waves continued to pound about 24 villages decked along the coast.

In the aftermath of the Indian Ocean-triggered Tsunami in December 2004, villagers, mostly fishermen, had been living in fear of the rising waves that had been creeping into the beach, destroying houses, properties, unearthing coconuts trees and gobbling nearby land in the process.

"We live in fear every day because the waves continue to push itself inland and we don't know why this is happening. [My emphasis]

"Fishermen in my village have not gone fishing for months because of the rough seas and our livelihood have been affected these days," A. Jerome, a traditional fisherman told Bernama during a visit to the damaged site along the Kanyakumari coastal areas....

Panic-stricken villagers are baffled about the unusual rising tidal waves while marine scientists have yet to establish the reason for this rare phenomenon in this coastal area....

This does not mean that these "rising waves" are precisely the same phenomenon and are due to the same causes that were present at Enoshima when the dragon (i.e., floodwaters) moved inland. However, there is at least a superficial similarity. New (as of July 2007)