Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
The official translation is clear: “shishi” (獅子) means “lion” and the story ends there. But it doesn’t because (a) the lion we all know is called “raion” (ライオン) and (b) its appearance, even the one that survives symbolically in the big red wooden masks, bears small resemblance to the king of the African savanna; things become even more complicated when considering that lions never made it through India and that their local subspecies, the Asiatic lion Panthera leo persica almost disappeared from the continent before the 20th century. If the shishi managed to reach, as an image, the Japanese islands, its route was certainly through the Chinese and Korean cultures and probably together with Buddhism: the Chinese and the Koreans used lion statues in the entrance of their temples as protection against primal evil and even today they can be seen playing the same role in Japan named “koma-inu” (狛犬) or “Korean dogs”.
Be it as it may, the shishi is now naturalized Japanese and in the beginning of each year it appears in various public spaces (usually in Shinto shrines or around them) where it dances to bring good luck for the next 12 months; this custom will also sound familiar to anyone having even a marginal knowledge of Chinese culture but the Japanese shishi is quite different in both appearance and choreography to be mistaken for Chinese. Its colors, at least in the main version found in Kanto are almost exclusively bright red (for the head-mask) and dark green (for the cape) while its operation is usually performed by one person instead of the two seen in China. As for the dance it involves fewer acrobatics and comprises more of playing with the audience and, mostly, “biting” the spectators’ heads, something that promises better fortune for the new year.
In older times, shishi-mai (獅子舞), the lion dance was performed at homes at the home-owner’s request; today things have changed, at least in big cities, and the whole thing is more of a public event but strangely enough (?) the sense of personal bonding between the spectator and the performer (and the good spirit the latter embodies for the duration of the dance) doesn’t seem to have been lost. Despite the surrealistic aspect, people of all ages always stop to see the lion dancing to the rhythm of a drum and the melody of a flute and they always happily accept its antics. I have yet to figure out if it is superstition or the love of the Japanese for street theater but obviously this is beside the point: shishi-mai is one more piece in the mosaic that is Japan and one more sign that regardless of the new myths the country creates, the old ones remain strong.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.