Japanese Dragon Tattoos
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Japanese dragons are not simply beautiful design choices for tattoos, they are ancient symbols full of meaning. Understanding the different types of dragons, and what qualities they represent, can help you select a design that will best suit your personality.
Historically, Japanese dragons evolved from Chinese dragons. Like the Chinese dragon, the anatomy of a Japanese dragon is a combination of parts from a number of animals, with each part symbolizing a quality from the animal it represents.
This is how a traditional Japanese dragon usually looks, although its features are not set in stone:
- Unlike Western dragons, the Japanese dragon has no wings.
- The neck of a snake, giving it the resemblance of a serpent.
- The head of a camel (other sources say the head of a horse or ox).
- The horns of a stag.
- The eyes of a demon.
- The dragon has a clam's belly.
- Covered in scales like those of a carp.
- The claws of an eagle on the forelimbs.
- The claws of a tiger on his hind legs.
- The ears are those of a cow.
- Usually bearded
Many depictions also feature a jewel under the dragon's chin. Often this is a pearl, which is associated with good luck and prosperity.
So, what's the difference between a Chinese and a Japanese dragon? The only real difference is that Japanese dragons have only three digits on each extremity, while Chinese dragons have four or (usually) five.
There are many types of Japanese dragons, including:
- Sui-Riu: the king dragon who controls the rain.
- Han-Riu: the biggest dragon, has stripes on his body
- Ka-Riu: a smaller red dragon
- Fuku-Riu: the dragon of luck
The Japanese Character for Dragon
In Japanese myth, the dragon Ryujin held sway over the power of the ocean, regulating the tides with magical jewels from his undersea palace of coral. It is said that Emperor Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan, was descended from Ryujin.
This is why in Japan, dragons have long been associated with water, which helps to explain the reptilian, serpentine appearance of Japanese dragons. The association with the imperial family provides insight to the nature of guardianship that Japanese dragons can symbolize.
Other symbolism and associations are:
- Guardians: Japanese dragons are akin to the angels of Western culture, possessing superhuman strength, a fearless spirit, and divine wisdom.
- Symbol of immortality: their ability both to create and to destroy represents the eternal cycle of life and death, as witnessed in nature. As such, Japanese dragons serve as tokens for rebirth and longevity.
The colors of a dragon are also significant:
- Black, white, blue and red colored dragons are described as corresponding with the four elements (wind, earth, water and fire), as well as with the four directions (north, south, east and west).
- Yellow dragons are considered a rare occurrence, with a reputation for staying aloof from humanity, only appearing at opportune moments.
- Green dragons are connected to the earth.
So, in short, a Japanese dragon tattoo represents:
- Protection (of family and home)
No wonder the dragon tattoo is a popular Yakuza (Japanese mafia) design.
The Japanese Dragon as a Tattoo Design
The full back is the most popular choice for a Japanese dragon tattoo. Inking a design on the upper arm, with the dragon wrapping around the arm, then extending onto the chest or back, is another popular option. Full arm or leg Japanese dragon designs are not uncommon. While inking the entire dragon is the most popular choice, tattoos featuring just the head of a Japanese dragon are another option.
Japanese dragon tattoos are often combined with other design elements like koi fish, cherry blossom, clouds, Japanese characters, a tiger, flames, a pearl, water, the yin yang symbol, a fairy, ... The design in this picture is an interesting combination of a black and white dragon head with a koi body (an Ed Hardy design):
Koi Dragon Tattoo