Kevin Kawamoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Photo of lions that were originally housed at the Wakamiya Inari Shrine on South King Street
Photo of lions that were originally housed at the Wakamiya Inari Shrine on South King Street

The multicultural identity of a community is often reflected in its publicly visible art and architecture, and few objects are more distinctively East Asian than the guardian lions positioned at the entrance to buildings or passages. These imposing beasts usually come in pairs — one on the left and one on the right — and are rich in symbolism and cultural significance. You may have passed by them without giving much thought to the details of their physical structure. But these details contain important “messages” about what these lions represent, beyond their more obvious roles as statues and adornments.

Photo of a traditional shisa lion-dog
These traditional shïsä lion-dogs, made from clay, were presented to the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa by the University of the Ryukyus in 2008 to commemorate the establishment of UHM’s Center for Okinawan Studies. They guard the walkway near Hamilton Library.

In their 2015 book, “Creatures Real and Imaginary in Chinese and Japanese Art,” authors Walther G. von Krenner and Ken Jeremiah discuss the symbolism of these lions, commonly referred to in China as shi-tse. Calling the lion a “universal symbol of bravery and strength,” the authors trace the stylized Chinese lion (also called fo-dog or foo-lion) symbolism to Buddhist folklore.

“Most Buddhist temples in China have two shi-tse,” they write, “one with its mouth wide open, exhaling, and the other with its mouth closed, inhaling. The open-mouthed one symbolizes yang, or positive energy, while the closed-mouth one represents yin, or negative power.”

A broad review of writings from different sources about the guardian lion statues — which are found throughout East Asia, including China, Korea, Okinawa and mainland Japan — reveals a wide spectrum of opinions and interpretations about the symbolism of the details, and not everyone agrees with each other about what the symbols mean. One must also be careful not to take the interpretations too literally, since many of them are based on ancient beliefs and philosophies, and Eastern concepts don’t always translate perfectly to Western sensibilities.

Informed observers generally agree that the lions are meant to symbolize protection at some cosmic level, with one version of this idea suggesting that the lion with the open mouth is keeping evil or negative energy from entering a dwelling, while the lion with the closed mouth is keeping positive energy from escaping. There are variations of this theory. Some believe that the lion with its mouth open is forming the beginning of the sacred chant sound “aum,” while the lion with the closed mouth is ending the sound, together representing the beginning and the end of the Cosmos. The space between the two lion statues represents everything in between the beginning and the end. Isn’t it interesting that even the empty space between the lions is symbolic!

Photo of lion at the East West Center, a gift from the Republic of China
The Republic of China gifted these two lions to the East-West Center in 1971. Note the ball-shaped object under each lion’s paw. (Photos by Kevin Kawamoto)

On the University of Hawai‘i’s Mänoa campus, there are three pairs of guardian lion or lion-dog statues that rest in walking distance of each other — each pair with its own unique story of how it got there. One pair faces East-West Road in front of the Hawai‘i Imin International Conference Center at Jefferson Hall. These lions were presented to the East-West Center by the Republic of China (Taiwan) on Oct. 31, 1971, at the request of the Chinese students, according to the plaque on the statues’ foundation. Situated at opposite ends of the conference center, these lions appear to be mirror images of each other, permanently staring in each other’s direction. Each of the East-West Center lions is resting one of its paws on a ball-shaped object. The statues are about the size of a real lion, but the facial features are stylized to resemble a mythical lion-like animal more than an actual lion.

Oftentimes, when a pair of lion statues appears together, one lion represents male energy and the other female energy, as illustrated by slight differences in their appearances. With the East-West Center lions, however, it appears that the most important symbol is friendship. As mentioned, each lion has a ball under its paw. In some interpretations, this ball represents an embroidered ball that a child would play with, thus symbolizing friendship and positive energy.

The above-mentioned authors, von Krenner and Jeremiah, discuss the symbolism of the ball in their book, referring to it as the “jewel of wisdom.” Sometimes it is also found inside of the lion’s mouth rather than under its paw. The Japanese refer to this ball as tama.

“Popular belief holds that the tama is a pearl or jewel that averts fire, floods, dust storms, and other disturbances within a city,” they write. In this interpretation, the jewel symbolizes protection from danger and calamity. The authors also dispel the western notion that the ball represents the world. They say the ancient Chinese did not think of the world as being a spherical shape, but rather more of a square, so this is probably not what the ball represents.

Often, you will see only one lion with the “jewel of wisdom” either under its paw or in its mouth. At the East-West Center, however, both lions have one of their paws on a ball. Whether the ball in this case represents friendship, wisdom or protection, any or all three meanings would seem appropriate for an institution whose mission is to advance cross-cultural understanding and good international relations.

Across East-West Road, inside the Hamilton Library lobby, are two more lion statues — smaller than the ones at the East-West Center, but with an interesting provenance that you would not know if you were not privy to the “back story.” These lions were originally on the grounds of the Wakamiya Inari Shrine on South King Street in Mö‘ili‘ili (where McCully Bicycle and Sporting Goods now stands). According to a Hamilton Library website that identifies and describes artwork in the building, these “protective ‘lion-dog’ figures,” made of stone, were brought from Japan in 1924 for the “Shinto Inari Shrine on King St.” and were given to the University of Hawai‘i in 1942.

As of this writing, the exact circumstances surrounding the donation of the lions to the university in 1942 are unclear. The Wakamiya Inari Shrine remained at the South King Street location until the late 1970s, when it was relocated to Waipahu and eventually became part of the Hawaii’s Plantation Village exhibit, so you would think the shrine would have wanted to keep the statues until then. Given the year of the donation — 1942 — however, it is possible the transfer was related to developments following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, when Shinto shrines were closed or wanted to diminish their identification with Japan. (A more complete story about the 1942 donation may be told in a future article.)

Although these Inari Shrine lions look similar to each other, they are not mirror images. A close study of their physical features shows distinct differences. The one on the left (as you face the lions) has its mouth open with a round softball-sized object contained in its mouth (the “jewel of wisdom,” as mentioned above). The one on the right has its mouth closed. These lions are typical of lion-statue pairs and have some of the yin-yang symbols discussed earlier. They look fiercer than the East-West Center lions, but not as fierce as the lions from Okinawa sitting on either side of a pedestrian walkway leading from Maile Way (near Hamilton Library) to the inner campus.

Although ancient-looking, the bronze-molded Okinawan lion-dogs — shïsä in Okinawan language — are the most recent of the lions to arrive on campus. A plaque on one of the lion-dog’s base explains their origins: “Gift from the University of the Ryukyus to the University of Hawai‘i to commemorate the establishment of the Center for Okinawan Studies at UHM in July 2008.” The statues were designed by Sadao Nishimura, professor-emeritus of the University of the Ryukyus, with calligraphy by Professor Hajime Oshiro, current president of the University of the Ryukyus, and were dedicated on June 29, 2012. The Japanese characters written at the base of the statues read, Chi no Shinryo, or “Bridge of Knowledge.”

The shïsä looks like a cross between a lion and a dog, and the pair on the UH Mänoa campus look nothing like the lions from China in front of the Imin International Conference Center or the ones inside of Hamilton Library that originally came from Japan. Like the lions inside of Hamilton Library, the Okinawan shïsä are not mirror images of each other. The one on the left has its mouth closed, and the one on the right has its mouth open. They have muscular, almost pitbull-like bodies, as well as large, erect ears and gargoyle-ish faces. A University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa Library website says of the lions: “They will stand guard over the UHM campus and will attract good spirits and ward off bad spirits.” In Okinawa, shïsä are said to be popular figurines found in pairs on rooftops or guarding entrances.

These are only three examples of guardian lion or lion-dog statues found in Hawai‘i. They can be found elsewhere, such as at the Chinese Cultural Plaza in downtown Honolulu (these have a ball both under a paw and in the mouth) and the two massive lion statues on either side of Hotel Street as you head toward Chinatown in the ‘Ewa-bound direction from the Diamond Head side. These shiny, dark grey marble figures were donated by Honolulu’s sister city, Kaohsiung, Taiwan, to commemorate the arrival of Chinese settlers in Hawai‘i.

Another pair of Okinawan shïsä can be found at the entrance to the Albert T. and Wallace T. Teruya Pavilion at the Hawaii Okinawa Center in Gentry Waipi‘o. They, along with the shïsä on the kawara clay tile rooftops of the Teruya Pavilion and the adjacent Higa Building, were gifted to the HOC by Okinawa in 1990 in celebration of the opening of the Hawaii Okinawa Center.

So the next time you see a pair of lions in Hawai‘i, or anywhere else in the world, remember that they are not just statues but also powerful symbols of bravery and protection whose inspiration can be traced back in Asia for hundreds of years. Some sources say the lion imagery was originally inspired by Persian emissaries to ancient China who brought lions as gift to Chinese rulers. The lion and lion-dog statues may look fierce and ferocious, but their intentions are good. Take a closer look at them to see some of the details mentioned in this story. Now you’ll know what they might mean: Ancient messages for our contemporary world.

Kevin Kawamoto is a longtime contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald.


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