What is the history of the Tiger in Japan? How is seen the Tiger in Japanese culture and folklore? Where do Tigers live?
The tiger is a ferocious and appreciated animal that reminds the Chinese culture much more than the Japanese one. In Japan, although we could not find any, the tora (Japanese translation for "tiger") has a long history. How is this possible?
When we designed our clothes, we were interested in specific points of the culture of the land of the rising sun, and we were particularly passionate about Tigers in Japan. That's why we go with you to see all the interesting information about the Japanese tiger. Are you ready? Alright, but let's firstly set the scene:
Japan is a fantastic host land where many animals live in peace. It hasn't always been the case! However, it turns out that the most majestic of them never evolved there! Indeed, the Tiger has never existed in the wild on the Japanese territory, without the Japanese even knowing it. Although it is not on these lands, it nevertheless occupies an important place in Japanese culture.
If the populations of Japan are not even aware of the absence of the Tiger in their own country, it is because this subject is still very unknown to the general public. This is why Kanji Streetwear will give you all the information and anecdotes to know about the Japanese Tiger. Even if the beast exists only in the collective imagination, this does not in any way take away the mysterious aura that hovers around it!
The History of the Japanese Tiger
The Tiger in Japan
Although it has never lived in the wild in the Japanese archipelago, the citizens have long known the Tiger. The latter is revered as well as feared all over the island thanks to images, stories, but especially thanks to the skins brought by traders and soldiers. It is important to know that the Japanese word for Tiger "tora" is a derivative of the word "taira" from southern China.
The first appearance of the Tiger in Japanese texts can be found in the Nihon Shoki in the year 720. It tells the story of Kashiwade no Omihasui, who, during the 6th year of the reign of Emperor Kinmei in 545 A.D., was sent to the kingdom of Kudara on the Korean peninsula. His role was to represent Japan as ambassador, so he took his wife and child with him. When they arrived on the shores of the peninsula, the sun had set and in the darkness the child disappeared, swept away by a Tiger. The Japanese ambassador pursued the animal, and finally killed it with his sword. He then brought the feline's skin back with him to Japan.
The Tiger also appears in Japan's oldest collection of poems, the Manyoshu (8th century), where a poet describes him as the almighty Korean God. This shows the feeling of deep respect, admiration, but also great fear towards the Tiger. These thoughts surrounding the big cat were transported from the continent to Japan.
Thus, although it is totally absent from the Japanese fauna, the Tiger has become a creature to be feared and feared by the Japanese. This animal occupies a central place in many old Japanese children's stories. One of them, still commonly told today, introduced the famous sentence: "A feverish roof is more dangerous than a Tiger or a Wolf, and shows that Tigers are only one of many frightening creatures! ».
The reasons for the tiger's popularity in Japan
The first recorded trace of a live and captive Tiger brought to Japan dates back to the 840s AD, during the reign of Emperor Uta. This large tiger was painted by the artist Kose no Kaneoka. Unfortunately for the animal, it did not live long and was slaughtered for reasons unspecified in ancient writings.
It was at the same time that medicine made from Tiger bones, imported straight from China, would have cured the emperor of a serious infection. This event is still commemorated every year in November in Osaka during the Shinno festival, during which papier-mâché Tigers are distributed free of charge in the hope of repelling the disease. Unfortunately, this belief in the medicinal properties of Tiger body parts still exists in some circles. This continues to fuel poaching, as well as the trade around this protected species, which further threatens the Tiger with total extinction from the earth.
During the period of civil wars in Japan (mid 15th to early 17th century), there was an abundance of Tiger skins imported from China. When Japanese armies invaded the Korean peninsula in 1592, in addition to all the atrocities committed against the local people, a lot of time and energy was devoted to the capture and mass slaughter of Tigers. The army general brought a live Tiger back to Japan to expose it to the emperor and other generals.
According to the writings, this Tiger was kept in captivity in Osaka Castle and fed with live dogs. The striped tiger needed so many dogs that they were provided directly by the villagers to the local chiefs. The end of the Tiger is more tragic because he died of a disease after killing one of the dogs. In investigating the incident, the generals discovered that the dog had been deliberately poisoned by a villager in order to kill the Tiger. The villager wanted to protect his dog because the Tiger was decimating the domestic animal populations of all Osaka residents.
The story of the Tiger in Osaka Castle and the festival celebrating the feline's medicinal virtues are two of the reasons why the Osaka baseball team is called the Tigers! These 2 events have, at the same time, contributed enormously to the growing popularity of the Tiger in Japan.
The current reputation of the Tiger in Japan
During the Edo period (1600-1868), stuffed Tigers were commonly displayed in the public square. But as citizens became more and more familiar with the Tigers' grandiose appearance, the sense of awe and wonder that had been so long associated with the animal became less and less present. For the Japanese, the Tiger had simply become something "cool" that had lost its splendor. However, it continued to represent a symbol of bravery and Tiger statues were supposed to bring good fortune.
Since the Tiger was considered particularly protective of its young, Tiger good-luck charms were used to ensure the health and safety of children. It is also said that the tiger can travel up to 4000 km before returning home. This is why it became an important symbol for soldiers going to war. The image of the Tiger is also used in Japan to ward off evil and bad energies. At the Kurama Temple in Kyoto, Tigers and Lions are in charge of protecting the sacred place!
Today, the Tiger has a reputation far removed from its image of several centuries ago. This big cat has become a true bearer of honor in the spirit of the Japanese. For them, he is the ultimate protector of the nation, the one who will give in and stop at nothing!
The Big Cat in Japanese Art
Almost all artists have a saying: "Draw what you see". However, many budding creators have decided to follow an opposite philosophy by drawing what they don't see. This is the case of the illustrious Albrecht Dürer, who was not only a draftsman but also a genius sculptor of the early Renaissance. His most famous work is a sketch of a large, extremely realistic Rhinoceros. The artist depicts the African beast and its pleated armor with astonishing precision, knowing that he relied solely on stories and testimonies to represent the Rhinoceros.
Rhinos are not native to Europe, just as Tigers are not native to Japan. The closest big cats roam in the Russian Siberian forests, northeast China and Korea. But curiously, these large carnivores have been sneaking into traditional Japanese paintings and silk scrolls for centuries.
Most painters and draftsmen seem to have relied on imported skins to depict these fearsome predators. Many artists also drew leopards in the mistaken belief that they were female tigers. They believed that the leopard spots were unique to the Tigress, whereas they believed that the tiger stripes were only found in males.
On closer inspection, it is not unlikely that some artists used domestic cats as a model. This would explain why many old Japanese depictions show the Tiger with a vertical slit pupil. While this characteristic is not present in the Tiger, it is present and easily observable in the cat.
To best represent the Great Tiger, the designers were inspired by Taoism, a mystical philosophy derived from the study of nature. In free Taoism, the philosophers saw the universe as a whole balancing between Yin and Yang: the yang, active and masculine, takes the form of a mythological Dragon; the yin, passive and feminine, is associated with the quiet strength of the Tiger. A Buddha statuette can allow you to quickly find this balance.
Japanese Zen Buddhism shares certain beliefs with Chinese Taoism. In Japan, artists have depicted Dragons and Twin Tigers on the doors of Buddhist temples. In this way, for Buddhists the Tiger became the companion of wise men. A Tiger grooms himself with the discipline of the monks, his nap is an intense mediation that raises him spiritually.
The myths and legends of the Tiger in Japan
Byakko: the oldest Tiger
The Byakko is not just any animal, it is the Celestial Tiger of the West, a supernatural being that dwells in the heavens. Its name means White Tiger in Japanese and it bears on its forehead the character 王 (which means king), testifying to its status as the King of wild beasts. His appearance is similar to that of the rare Bengal Tigers with white fur.
The Byakko is also part of the Chinese constellation system. As such, the White Tiger is a celestial being, it is the guardian of a series of stellar constellations that occupy the western quarter of the sky. Its role is to ensure balance within the natural forces with its own wisdom and purity.
The Origins of the Royal Tiger
Like the kitsune, a normal fox that becomes a yokai, an ordinary Tiger becomes a Byakko after living for 500 years. Once it reaches this age, its tail becomes white and it becomes a yokai, that is, a supernatural spirit. As a yokai, it has the ability to control the wind and rule over other animals. However, in Japanese mythology the Byakko only appears when the emperor in power is exceptionally virtuous or the world is at peace.
The Byakko is one of the 4 symbols of Chinese mysticism, the 4 mythological creatures that make up the four cardinal directions (the White Tiger of the West, the Azure Dragon of the East, the Red Bird of the South and the Black Turtle of the North).
These 4 mythical animals are also widely represented through Tiger Tattoos with original motifs. Like the famous Tiger and Dragon tattoo so present in the West nowadays.
The first recording of the Byakko in Japan is in Takamatsuzuka's tomb. This circular tomb located in the village of Asuka dates from between the 7th and 8th century A.D. On the walls of this tomb are wall paintings of the four yokai. According to Taoism, the White Tiger, like the other four beasts, also has a human identity. The human name of the White Tiger is Jian Bing.
The White Tiger represents the color white, metal, autumn, but also Asian royalty. In the land of the rising sun, he would have the ability and strength to ward off evil spirits. However, his power would be effective only when statuettes are in the heart of the house.
The remaining symbols of this white feline
The Yokai were once represented to decorate cities, castles and religious buildings with traditional Japanese style. The cities had four quadrants, one for each cardinal direction, and thus one for each of the four legendary animals. Even today, you can still see traces of their past influences.
For example, in Tokyo, the district of Toranomon (which translates as "Tiger Gate") is named after the Byakko. Although the west facing gate no longer exists, its name is still very much present, a statue of this White Tiger is also a few meters away.
The architect Itō Chūta integrated these four symbols into the design of the relatively new Heian Shrine in Kyoto. The western tower at the end of the main hall is named Byakkorō, or "White Tiger Tower". Statues of the legendary White Tiger inhabit the gardens of the famous shrine. In addition, the lanterns at the eaves of the building are decorated with small representations of the four mystical symbols.
The Japanese Tiger, in a nutshell
In the land of the rising sun and cherry trees, the striped tiger occupies an important place in the esteem of the citizens, that's why the Japanese Tiger is so popular. Artists also love the animal for its physique and its impressive gait. The meanings surrounding this carnivorous animal vary according to the times. Symbol of punishment and fear in ancient times, today it is associated with calm and meditative virtue.
Many people do not hesitate to get a tattoo of a Tiger or to get a jewel in its image so that its serenity flows over them. It is still important to specify that even if the Tiger has never resided in Japan, it remains a fragile species. Beliefs in traditional medicine mean that it is hunted to be used as a remedy for superstitious people.
Thus, it is not uncommon to see some people paying a high price to obtain even one tiger's paw. This behavior is extremely harmful to the stability of the species because it stimulates illegal trade and leads to animal slaughter. It is therefore important to remember that the Tiger remains an over-powerful wild animal that we must respect.
Let's respect it in the best possible way, that is to say without causing it direct or indirect harm. This is the only way to protect the Tiger's subspecies from an extinction that has been hovering over them for more than 30 years.
"The protection of the animal is basically the same fight as the protection of Man. » - Marguerite Yourcenar
Congratulations, now you know everything about the Japanese Tiger. You can discuss it in the comments and give your opinion, or you can take a look at our Tiger Canvas right here: