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Culture

Animal Symbolism of Shrines and Temples in Japan

Learn why a cat is lucky, why pregnant women want to have a dog's day and why you should never mess with crabs.

By 4 min read

Anyone who spent enough time in the country knows that Japan loves animals. From animal cafes (which are not exactly nice) to Nara Prefecture’s pushy deer taking over the sidewalk, the nation’s love of animals is everywhere—especially at shrines and temples.

Our furry friends play a big part in Japan’s religion and myths. There are thousands of temples and shrines dedicated to our favorite animals and temples dedicated to cats, dogs, rabbits—even frogs and crabs!

The lucky cats of Gotokuji

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That’s a little too lucky.

Take, for example, the internet’s favorite animal: the neko (cat). As any owner will tell you, cats love jumping and catching things with their paws—a trait emphasized at Gotokuji Temple in Tokyo.

The temple popularized the famous maneki neko, a porcelain cat statue with a raised paw to catch any passing luck in its furry grasp. Today, the “good-luck cat” statute is a familiar image associated with Japan.

The temple’s story says, once upon a time, during a storm, a cat raised its paw and beckoned passing samurai to shelter inside the temple to escape the downpour of rain. The samurai were impressed by the temple’s beauty and decided to support it financially.

These days, it is rare to see a shop in Japan that doesn’t have a lucky-cay figure in its window, ready to catch any passing fortune.

Fertility and fortune

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Dog ema (wooden prayer plaques) at Kiyomizu-Dera Temple in Kyoto.

Of course, we can’t forget cats’ rivals for our collective hearts: inu (dogs). Several shrines and temples celebrate dogs, like Musashi-Mitake Shrine in Tokyo, which offers prayers expressly for pooches. Toshunji Temple in Yamaguchi even has a dog as its chief priest.

In Japan, dogs are believed to bestow a blessing of fertility on visitors to shrines because of their uncomplicated pregnancies compared to other animals. Traditionally, the dog is in the 12th place of the zodiac, thus, the 12th day of the month is Inu no Hi, literally, “Day of the Dog.” On this day, women all across Japan visit shrines to pray for a quick and comfortable delivery.

Nagoya Prefecture’s Inu Jinja (lit. dog shrine), a fertility shrine, enshrines the king of the dogs. Couples visit the shrine to pick up dog-shaped charms and pray for a large litter, ahem, family.

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Special delivery, please.

Of course, if the dogs can’t help you have the family you want, you might want to turn to another animal known for having lots of babies, the usagi (rabbit). Bunny lovers should bounce to the Higashi Tenno Okazaki Shrine in Kyoto.

The shrine is full of cute bunny-shaped charms and statues. There are even maneki usagi, the bunny version of the maneki neko statues. In Japan, rabbits represent fortune, moving forward and cleverness, but they are also messengers for the kami (gods).

They are also known for, you know, breeding like rabbits. So, appropriately, Higashi Tenno Okazaki Shrine is associated with fertility and childbirth, and the rabbits are messengers enshrined deities Susano-no-mikoto and Kushinadahime-no-mikoto. Newly-weds and couples expecting a child will come to the shrine to pray and pet the bunny statue’s head for good luck.

Monkeying around with frogs

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He said what?!

Like many Western languages, Japanese loves to use animal puns to talk about animals. For example, we often associate monkeys with being playful in English, such as “monkeying around.” However, in Japan, the word for monkey, saru, is similar to the suffix zaru, an old-timey word for “not.”

Therefore, monkeys were associated with the wisdom of not doing bad things. The most common of these well-behaved monkeys are the three little mythical simians that embrace the wisdom of not speaking, seeing and hearing evil.

The legend has become so ubiquitous that it is hard to remember that it actually started in Japan at Nikko Toshogu Shrine, where the three wise monkeys are carved into the wood of the temple’s sacred stables.

Frogs are perhaps one of the most underrated animals. The word kaeru has many meanings in Japan. For example, it can mean “to return” or “frog.” Interestingly, both meanings are active in Mie Prefecture where Futami Okitama Shrine, the frog shrine, is used to return lost things in both a physical and metaphysical sense.

Crabs save the day

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Are you a bad enough crab to save the president’s daughter?

Suppose these temples haven’t given you enough animal action, Kanimaji—literally, the temple full of crabs—will. This temple celebrates the story of a little girl who saves a crab from becoming particularly fresh sushi by trading her food for the crustacean’s life.

Later, when the girl is destined to be married to a snake king, the crabs fight the snake king when the father understandably balks about giving his daughter away to her slithery suitor. Finally, as a thank you to his daughter’s crustacean champions, a crab temple was built covered with an abundance of crab imagery, from crab carvings to crab tapestries.

One of the interesting things about the little animal carvings and artwork at temples and shrines is that they can reveal fascinating tales you’d otherwise overlook. Even a tiny crab can be a hero in the bigger picture.

What’s your favorite animal shrine? Are there any that we missed? Let us know in the comments!

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