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Ink Dragons

7 roles of dragons in Japanese painted art of the Edo period

Dragon emerging from clouds Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754-99), Japanese ink on fan paper
Dragon emerging from clouds Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754-99), ink on fan paper, 25.5x52 cm., The Brooklyn Museum

Originally from India and China, dragon images were mentioned in early kami worship folklore of Japan. Although not quite seen by the naked eye, dragons were popular in folklore and tradition, associated with powerful forces. Protectors of the universe and the dwellings of man, in service to Chinese emperors and Taoist Immortals, rulers of wind and rain, lords of precious stones and representatives of the creative yang force in Tao. After being incorporated into Buddhism, dragons humbly assumed the position of protectors of divinities, guardians of temples, and bringers of rain. And yet one has to take into account the possible religious manipulation of dragon images and roles to fit with the indoctrination of new religions upon older ones; and look for what actually is rooted in true appreciation of the world of phenomena.

In a culture so inclined to visual images, Japanese art serves as a major source for historical appreciating of the forces at play in the belief and configuration of its culture. The Edo period (1600-1868), particularly the 18th century, was a time of revival and development of the arts, expansion of thought, visual dimension and language. In tandem with its official art schools, scholarly and religious art, there evolved a growing movement of individual artistic expression, and the development of paintings and prints of the floating world (Ukioy-e). During this period visual language provided richness and variety of thought and style compounded, in a relatively short time, to meet the creative needs of a changing culture.

Taking into account the rich experimental atmosphere of Japanese art during the Edo period, this writing will highlight usage of dragons as part of the visual language in the arts of Japan.  Also will be included a consideration of the dragon’s role as a motif for political, religious, folkloric and decorative contexts. It is part of an extensive explorative essay on the subject, that can be found in full with bibliography and notes on ArtBrush Online library HERE.

dragon and waterfall Japanese ink painting on silk
Dragon and waterfall (c1780-90) Kanō Eisen Michinobu (1730-90), hanging-scroll, ink on silk, British Museum

Unseen dragons

River and lakes, waterfall and streams, clouds and rain, storms and typhoons, are climatic powers, created by the constant movement of the permeating elements of water and air with different intensities and combinations. They have repeated patterns of curves, swirls, ellipses and spirals, with no sharp lines. Dragon images were visualised from the pattern of these natural forces.

When painted as part of the elements dragons are mostly up to two-thirds seen while the rest of their shape blends with the elements. Kanō Michinobu ink painting, who was heading the Shogunate’s official painting school at the time, shows a dragon and a waterfall that merge to the point where it is one entity. In accordance with the Japanese local belief that every waterfall has its guardian deity, Michinobu depicts an image that follows the patterns, shapes and boundaries that the waterfall presents.

Ascending and descending at will, moving freely through the elements, dragons were held accountable for natural phenomena, causers of changes. The dragon’s characteristic of transformation was considered to be the very spirit of change, a time when good luck and success were indeed needed.

Time dragons

Dragon symbols were used often as measures of the twelve-year cycles. They were also used to measure the hours in a twenty-four-hour cycle divided by two to form a unit for each of the twelve animals of the Asian Zodiac. The dragon represents the hours between 7-9 am. Early in the morning, which for some working people is the brightest time of the day, yet for others, like the working girls of the Yoshiwara quarters is time to rest. In Kitagawa Utamaro print, part of a series of twelve compositions showing scenes from day and night life of Yoshiwara courtesans, Utamaro depicts two girls under the same futon waking up, but not quite. Time is depicted in a clocklike structure on the top right part of the print.

Hour of the dragon (tatsu no koko) Kitagawa Utamaro, Colour Japanese woodblock print
Hour of the dragon (tatsu no koko), 1795 Kitagawa Utamaro, part of a series of the 12 hours in Yoshiwara (seirō jūni toki tsuzuki), Colour woodblock print, British Museum

The Portuguese introduced clocks to Japan in the late 16th century. By the 1780s, pocket watches became common amongst the merchant class and standing clocks appeared in wealthy homes and established shops. Although the structure of the clock in the print keeps the general form of it, it does not attempt to represent a real clock (the Japanese kept to their own time count), it represented social status.

It was not the working of the machine that mattered as much as displaying wealth, success and order. New adaptation of Western technology in Japanese artistic representations of time reflects sophistication of style and class. The name of the hour (that of the dragon) is written on the bell at the top, the bottom is the name of the series title; the middle part depicts various flowers of the seasons.

Temple dragons

One of the first painters reputed to depict dragons was a third century Chinese artist, Ts’ao Pu-hsing. It was said that he learned to paint the dragon from an actual red dragon that resided in a lake, and the painting, even two centuries later, had the power to bring rain by causing clouds to gather when held over water. Ts’ao Pu-hsing was considered the first to use dragons on walls and ceilings of Buddhist temples.

Roaring temple dragon Nampu Katayama (1887- ), Honji-do, Nikko
Roaring temple dragon Nampu Katayama (1887- ), Honji-do, Nikko

As if descending from above, dragons on temple ceilings were designed to fit in an egg shape circle around the ceiling. Adopted by Buddhism as guardians of the faith and as bringers of rain and protection from draught. The dragon in Honji-do , the biggest temple in Nikko, the compound mausoleum of the Shogun Tokugawa Ieasu (rin-no-ji), is an enormous image painted on the ceiling. Made in black and white, the dragon covers most of the main hall (21x14 meters). It serves as a prime example of an ‘official dragon’, in service to the Shogun. It is powerful, authoritative and serious in its guardianship. Still a widely practiced custom today, when a person enters a temple where a dragon is painted, they clap hands under its head. The echo of its roar, when heard, confirms their success and grants their wishes.

While official dragons were fierce and dramatic, yet showing submission and duty, a whole body of expressive, personal, highly sophisticated and eccentric work was intensively developing in the studios of individual artists, mainly around Kyoto, but also in Edo and Osaka. Their dragon images exhibited a similar excitement, humour, mystery and lively expression. Exaggerated and overdramatic at times, they reflected above all the growing artistic freedom and originality of the era.

Official dragons


 “His horns resemble those of a stag, his head that of a camel, his eyes those of a demon, his neck that of a snake, his belly that of a clam, his scales those of a carp, his claws those of an eagle, his soles those of a tiger, his ears those of a cow. Upon his head he has a think like a broad eminence (a big lamp) called ch’in muh. If a dragon has no chi’n muh, he cannot ascend to the sky.”

        Wang Fu (Han dynasty 206BC-221AD)


Of humble origins, when Liu Bang seized the Chinese throne during the Han dynasty (206BC-220AD) he could not compare himself with kings and princes of the Six States period before him. To consolidate the authority of his rulership, a tale was invented about his mother being conceived by a roaring dragon. Incorporating the symbol used by Taoism for geomancy and divination practices, dragons became, from then on, directly linked with the emperor. When Buddhism was introduced to China, it adopted the dragon to promote its superiority over Taoism.

The embracing of the dragon’s image as part of the Shogun’s official school of painting, also adopted the ideas associated with the dragon by Taoism and Buddhist belief. It appears as a powerful authority, beyond human reach, reflecting the character of its patrons. While Buddhism influenced the themes of freedom from suffering and the quest for enlightenment in medieval Japan, the Tokugawa discourse was concerned with the achievement of a stable society. The adoption of Neo-Confucianism as a state philosophy was an attempt to promote social order, ethical life and a hierarchical system based on adherence to authority, the Shogunate attempted to control and rule the growing population and massive urbanization of the Edo period.

Dragon of the storm  Kanō Sanraku six-fold screens Japanese ink and color on paper
Dragon of the storm Kanō Sanraku (1559-1635), part of two six-fold screens, 178x357cm., ink and colour on paper, Myōshinji, Kyoto  

Kanō Sanraku was an established figure, the head of the Kyoto branch of the Kanō school and a student of the famous Kanō Eitoku. The dragon’s image is powerful and fierce, confronting a pair of tigers on an opposite screen. The composition is heavy, and although it attempts to depict the vicious whirls of strong wind, the gold background makes it quite heavy and arresting.

Kanō school decorative styles and themes, offered confirmation of the ruler’s authority and legitimacy. The dragon, of course, was very useful, seen as powerful protector of the nation, provider of rain guaranteeing good harvest. Its image in backdrop screens for the Shogunate presents its powerful obedience to the ruler. It implies the greatness of the leadership, by being reflective of the ruler’s knowledge and education in relation to history, the natural world, Chinese literature and religious ideas. In contrast to dragon motifs in the latter part of this essay, which are personalized, full of emotion and heartfelt spirit, the ‘official’ dragons occupy a moral behaviour and intellectual philosophy.

Fireman’s jacket with dragon and tiger  design
Fireman’s jacket with dragon and tiger design Paste resists dye on plain-weave cotton, quilted with wool and woven gold metallic thread, outlined with gold metallic thread, 90x126cm., Tokyo National Museum

Tokugawa rulers were afraid of fires, not only because of its destructive force, but also because of its social upheaval and disorder that it caused. The great fire of Edo in 1657 destroyed daimyo estates, parts of Edo castle, and left more than 100,000 dead. Following this disaster, the Shogunate authorities ordered the establishment of permanent firefighting units (jō-bikeshi). This was the beginning of a new organized system of fire brigades.

A fireman’s costume was first designed with a dragon and tiger design. Not indigenous to Japan and depicted as big cats; tiger images were imported from China. Strongest of the beasts, and quick as the wind, tigers were used in the feng-shui (‘patterns of wind and water’) system of reading and regulating nature’s influence, as representing powers of the wind itself. Coupled with the dragon, they symbolized the forces of wind and water and their interplay in nature. Their images painted on the Shogun’s fire brigade uniform, were considered protective powers of the elements of water and wind. They represented control over fire where the wind could shifts the direction of a fire, and the water could divert and extinguish it. Furthermore, by combining religious and folk belief in the dragon images, its depiction implied the enforcement of law and order that the Shogunate was aiming at.

Decorative dragons

Courtesan and Kamuro  with dragon decoration Japanese ink colour and gold on silk
Courtesan and Kamuro Utagawa Kuniaki (fl.1844-68), hanging scroll, ink, color and gold on silk, 120x56.2, British Museum.

Decorations included in prints and books offered an insight into popular images of the period, the mood on the streets of the big cities, the dreams and hopes of people as well as their humour, general knowledge and major attraction. Dragon images were used, for example, as decoration on the costumes of high-ranking courtesans , and kabuki actors , incorporated in the visual language of the entertainment districts as well as in general education and folklore.  Prints and book illustrations reveal the public taste and more so, what people believed in and how they presented their beliefs.

While dragon images used on costumes by Edo fire brigades were considered to hold protective powers against the city many fires, the courtesan’s fashion of late Edo was flourishing with extravagant colors and incorporation of rich folk symbols, not always with the obvious meaning. Dragon images painted with black ink on silk, contrasted by the very colourful overlays of printed patterned kimono became very popular.

Kuniaki, a pupil of Kunisada who produced actor and genre prints as well as paintings of Edo beauties, painted an overly dressed courtesan with flamboyant hairstyle, trying to walk on very high heels with her attendant (kamuro). The dragons on both figure’s kimono, are almost the only appropriate theme to match the overly decorated costume. The big dragon on the courtesan’s costume coils around her body, with its tail peeking out on her left side. He is staring at a smaller dragon, which is coiling itself around the younger attendant’s kimono. Her sleeve, hiding her hand, reveals a painted claw. The intersection of glances creates tension and humour. As the courtesan and attendant exchange looks, so the dragons stare at each other. Who is looking at whom? The dragons, no longer formal and fierce, are comic and amusing.

Laughing dragons

The need for new intellectual ideas and artistic updates in a growing, changing society caused renewed interest in Chinese legends and literature. Copies of Chinese paintings served as inspiration for eccentric artists like Shōhaku in their discovering of new boundaries of artistic expression. Taoist Immortals were known in Taoism as beings that began their lives as humans, underwent physical and spiritual transformation, and then lived beyond the bounds of governing laws (yin and yang). Free spirits who could move through the elements, and serve people and circumstances, they interacted on behalf of mortals with the gods and the Tao. Often depicted as unconventional in appearance, emphasizing their rejection of norms and rules, their transcendent state of being, as well as their supernatural capabilities.

Taoist Immortal and dragon  Soga Shōhaku Japanese ink and color on paper
Taoist Immortals, 1764 Soga Shōhaku (1730-1781), detail from pair of six-panel screens; ink and color on paper, Each 163.2x364, Private collection, Kyoto

A water dragon traditionally served as a vehicle to the Chinese immortal Lu Dongbin, but Shōhaku treatment of the theme of Immortals is extreme and amusing. The Immortal seems to be reclining on the head of a rather confused dragon. He is hardly able to balance himself amongst the dragon’s swirl of clouds and water, while holding a bowl which could be magic or for begging. He is stretched to the side in an attempt to keep stable, while the dragon force moves forward. Strong black ink brushstrokes contrast the detailed blue garment and its red sash. With fine details of comic facial expression, both Immortal and dragon convey the wit and humour of Shōhaku’s thought and brush, evident in his extravagant artistic expression and wild character.


Transforming dragons

Chinese painter Chang seng-yu and dragon Japanese ink on paper   
The Chinese painter Chang seng-yu and dragon Nagayama Kōin (1765-1849), ink on paper  

It was told that during the 4th century another great Chinese artist, Ku K’ai-chih, painted dragons without eyes. When asked why, he said “My dragons are live and if I draw their eyes they will fly away.” From then on, eyes were the last to be painted, for if the painting was real enough it might cause all sorts of natural disasters provoked by dragons. Many stories were told of painters whose work was so real and animated that their dragon flew away.

The supernatural powers of dragons come to life with painted art. In the same way as coming in and out of water and air, dragon images seem to use the paper to appear in the world of our vision, only to depart again. Kōin, a student of Goshun and a kyoka (mad verse) poet, turned to legendary subjects in his work. According to traditional belief, an image of a dragon emerging from a bowl surrounded by people, has a hidden message in it, referring to a phrase ‘a dragon out of a spittoon’ (hifuki kara ryū),  meaning that the unexpected in life may happen at any time.

In conclusion

Dragon’s cloud Mochizuki Gyokusen
'Dragon’s cloud' Mochizuki Gyokusen (1834-1913), ink on silk, private collection

Embedded in storytelling, religious legends and folklore, the dragon’s image is mystical and mysterious. Not given to obvious definition as an animal nor a dreadful creature, it remains unseen. Likened to the element’s flowing traces of curves and spiral with no sharp lines, its image follows these formless shapes, created by the patterns of water and wind. Similar by nature to climatic change, and to the transforming quality of the planetary water cycle, dragon images offer boundaries of artistic representation of the natural world phenomena and its powers.

Despite the fact that the dragon’s image is absent from the painting on the left, its ecology, habitation, arrival or departure, can be seen in the dragon’s cloud. The painted waves of the sea, suggests the unseen forceful energy of a dragon – without the dragon itself.


The wide range of dragon’s visual characteristic of power authority and efficiency, as well as, playfulness and transformation of states, reflects on the very nature of forces at play during Edo period and its artistic expansions. Originated as a powerful symbol of natural forces, protectors of the universe and in service to sages and rulers, dragon images were incorporated into the Shogunate’s and temple’s empowered symbols, as well as used in the counting of the hour, the season and the year. The 18th century art demonstrated the expansion of the image’s role into decoration and folklore symbols in print, costume, and tattoo, even to be exhibited on the commercial market. The visual language of dragon images of that time, is kaleidoscopic and rich in its role, style and mode of expression.

“The bright moon pearl is concealed in the oyster; the dragon is there.”

     Shi King


Learn More

> Learn to paint ink dragons with Talia at her Mallorca studio - June 2024


> For the comprehensive essay on 'The Visual Language of Ink Dragons in Japanese Art

of the Edo period' with Bibliography and notes

and other writings on Japanese ink paintings sign up to ArtBrush Library



> A selection of ink dragon paintings by Talia is available for you to purchase direct from the studio collection check out the portfolio collection


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About the Author

Japanese Ink Painting Instructor & Artist, Talia Lehavi - Standing with a brush in front of Notes on Pine collection in Mallorca Studio

Talia LeHavi is a professional artist and a certified teacher of Japanese ink painting. Exhibiting both in the UK and internationally, she is known for her cross-disciplinary paintings, prints and ceramic tiles.

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