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Agatamori battling mizuchi in the pool. From Zenken kojitsu (1878)

The Mizuchi 蛟 is a type of Japanese dragon or legendary serpent-like creature, either found in aquatic habitat or otherwise connected to water. Some commentators perceived it to have been a water deity. It is described in the ancient chronicle Nihon Shoki, and one Man'yōshū poem.

Mizuchi is also the Japanese transliteration for several types of Chinese dragons (Shinmura 1976, Kojien dictionary, 2nd. ed.[a]), and may refer to the jiāolóng (蛟竜; Japanese: kōryū) or "4-legged dragon", the qíulóng (虬竜 or 虯竜; Japanese: kyūryū) or "hornless dragon", and the chīlóng (螭竜; Japanese: chiryū) or "yellow dragon".

Daniels (1960:157) notes that rain-controlling Japanese snake deities are sometimes called dragons, but cautions that for okami and mizuchi, "it is unsafe to deduce their forms from the Chinese characters allotted to them".

Early references[edit]

The ancient chronicle Nihongi contains references to mizuchi. Under the 67th year of the reign of Emperor Nintoku (conventionally dated 379 AD), it is mentioned that in central Kibi Province, at a fork on Kawashima River (川嶋河, old name of Takahashi River in Okayama Prefecture), a great water serpent or dragon (大虬) dwelled and would breathe or spew out its venom, poisoning and killing many passersby.[b]

This mizuchi was exterminated by a man named Agatamori (県守), ancestor of the Kasa-no-omi (笠臣) clan. He approached the pool of the river, cast three calabashes which floated to the surface of the water, and challenged the beast to make these gourds sink, threatening to slay it should it fail. The beast transformed into a deer and tried unsuccessfully to sink them, whereby the man slew the monster. The record goes on to say: "...He further sought out the water-dragon's fellows. Now the tribe of all the water-dragons filled a cave in the bottom of the pool. He slew them every one, and the water of the river became changed to blood. Therefore that water was called the pool of Agatamori" (tr. Aston 1896: 1, 299; orig. JHTI 2002[c]).

A river-god reported seen in Nintoku 11 (323 AD) is also regarded by commentators to be a mizuchi, due to paralleling circumstances. On that year, the Mamuta dikes [ja] built along Yodo River kept getting breached, and the Emperor guided by an oracular dream ordered two men, Kowa-kubi from Musashi Province and Koromo-no-ko from Kawachi Province be sought ought and sacrificed to the "River God" or Kawa-no-kami (河伯). One of the men, who resisted being sacrificed, employed the floating calabash and dared the River God to sink it as proof to show it was truly divine will that demanded him as sacrifice. A whirlwind came and tried, but the calabash just floated away, and thus he extricated himself from death using his wits. Although River God is not called mizuchi in the source, Aston has regarded the River God (Kawa-no-kami) and the mizuchi as equivalent (Aston 1905: 1, 150–151).

De Visser (1913:139) concludes, "From this passage, we learn that in ancient times human sacrifices were made to the dragon-shaped river-gods." Foster (1998:1) suggests this is "perhaps the first documented appearance of the water spirit that would become known popularly in Japan as the kappa." In Japanese folklore the kappa is a water sprite often considered benignly mischievous, in contrast to the deadly dragon. However, the kappa can also be seen as sinister, reaching in and extracting the liver or the shirikodama from humans (see also #Name for kappa below).

A mizuchi is also mentioned in the Man'yōshū, the ancient collection of Japanese poems. The tanka poem composed by Prince Sakaibe (境部王) can be paraphrased to mean "Oh if I only had a tiger to ride to leap over the Old Shack, to the green pool to capture the mizuchi dragon, and a (capable) sword (in hand)" (Man'yōshū, Book 16; Yoshimoto 1998).[need quotation to verify](in English)[d]

Folklorist study[edit]

Minakata Kumagusu, in the opening section of his Jūnishi kō: mi(hebi) (『十二支考・蛇』, "A Study of Twelve Animals of Chinese Zodiac: Snake") states "Even in our country (Japan), the various snakes that dwelled by water and were feared by people seemed to have been called mizuchi, or 'master of the water'" (Minakata 1917. Minakata mizuchi's suffix -chi signifies nushi, i.e., "den-master" of lakes, etc., a re-interpretation of the view by historian Motoori Norinaga that -chi signified an honorific (Minakata 1916).

To be precise Motoori (Kojiki-den, 1822)[e] stated that the "-chi" root was a tatae-na (讃え名, "name of reverence"), and that it occurred in the name of the great serpent Yamata no Orochi, as well as in the names of the serpent's victims named Ashinazuchi and Tenazuchi [ja].

Minakata was also tempted to regard the stem tsuchi and chi as meaning "serpent", including the example of the snake native to Japan named "akakagachi, i.e., yamakagashi)(Minakata 1916, "Dragon"). Whereas Minakata's acquaintance and celebrated folklorist Kunio Yanagita had a sublimated view of the word tsuchi, and saw it as meaning a "spirit" (Minakata 1916 and Yanagita 2004, 32;573[f]).

Name for kappa[edit]

Minakata also collected variants that sounded like mizuchi in local dialects, such as mizushi (Ishikawa prefecture), medochi (Iwate prefecture), mintsuchi (Hokkaido). Elsewhere, Asakawa Zenan (Essay, vol. 1, 1850[g]) mentions medochi (Ehime prefecture) and mizushi (Fukui prefecture). However these all turned out to be local names for the kappa or "water imp". Minakata observed however that the kappa legend started out as tales of the nushi (den-masters of water) transforming into human-like forms and causing harm to humans, but that these origins had become forgotten. Folklorists such as Yanagita and Junichiro Ishikawa inherit a similar view.

Minakata in this work has also collected local lore around Japan regarding aquatic snakes capable of killing humans. And he has made connection between these snakes and the lore around the kappa which has the reputation of extracting the shirikodama or a fabulous organ belonging to the human victim that the kappa is capable of yanking out through the anus. This connection seems to serve his conviction that the mizuchi though in later times identified with the kappa, originally referred to aquatic snakes.

As synonym for Chinese dragon names[edit]

Japanese scholars up to the Edo Period relied heavily on classical Chinese encyclopedic texts and natural history treatises. One extensively used reference is the Honzō Kōmoku or in Chinese Bencao Gangmu aka Compendium of Materia Medica (本草綱目), which mentions the "jialong dragon" as follows:

蛟龍【釋名】時珍曰︰按︰任 《述異記》雲︰蛟乃龍屬龍;有翼,曰應龍;有角,曰虯龍;無角,曰螭龍也。(Li Shizhen, 1596, Chapter:Scales (part 1))
Li Shizhen: The book Shuyi Ji by Ren Fang: The Jiao is a kind of dragon. As its eyebrows cross each other, it is called Jailong. (Jiao ≅ come across). The Jialong has scales. The variety with wings is called Yinglong. The variety with horns is called Qiulong. The variety without horns is called Chilong ... (tr. Luo Xiwen 2003, p.3508)

When this purely Chinese text is "read as Japanese" using what is called kanbun kundoku (漢文訓読), this will be read "The mizuchi is a kind of dragon.." This is because the character 蛟 (jiāo) can be read as "mizuchi" when read Japanese style (kun) reading.

The first Chinese character for the Chinese dragon names qíulóng ( or ; Ja: kyū; pinyin: qiú) and chīlóng (; Ja: chi; pinyin: chī) can also be read mizuchi in Japanese.

In popular culture[edit]

(vehicles, vessels)
(manga, anime)
  • Eight Clouds Rising – Mizuchi (水蛇, "Watersnake") is one of seven divine swords.
  • GeGeGe no Kitaro (manga, anime) – a kōryū (syn. mizuchi) appears as adversary.
  • Omamori Himari (manga, novella, anime) – the character Shizuku is a mizuchi.
  • Our Home's Fox Deity. – A miko priestess is possessed by a mizuchi.
  • Samurai Deeper Kyo (manga) – Demon Eyes Kyo uses an attack called "mizuchi" in his sword fighting style. Compare Japanese kōryū or kōryō 蛟竜 "rain dragon; hidden genius; Kaiten torpedo".
  • Noragami (manga, anime) – the character Nora is called Mizuchi by Father and is frequently shown walking over water.
  • Spirited Away (anime, movie) – the character Haku looks like a Mizuchi, and he is a river spirit.

See also[edit]

Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ Shinmura 1976 under "mizuchi" gives "" as applicable Chinese characters.
  2. ^ The text designates the creature as a qiulong (虬/虯) in Chinese prose (kanbun), but the annotation gives its Japanese reading as mizuchi (水父).
  3. ^ Original Nihongi quote "是歳於吉備中国川嶋河派有大虬令苦人時路人触其処而行必被其毒以多死亡".
  4. ^ Original poem: 虎尓乗 古屋乎越而 青淵尓 鮫龍取将来 劒刀毛我". Interpretation: Man'yōshū chūshaku (萬葉集釋注) (snippet). 8. 集英社. 2005. p. 475. (三八三三)虎にまたがり、古屋の屋根を飛び越えて行って、薄気味悪い青淵で、その主..蛟龍を捕らえて来られるような、そんな剣大刀があればよいのに。.
  5. ^ 『記伝』9-2(神代七之巻【八俣遠呂智の段】
  6. ^ Yanagita 2004 32:573-「今では虬と書くので、支那の知識を持っている人たちは蛇の類だろうと思っているが、字義からいっても水という言葉に、霊物とか何とかいう意味のチという字がっいているだけなのだから、水の霊ということに外ならない。」
  7. ^ Minakata quotes from this book the discussion on the water snakes of Mogami River and Sado, Niigata, which is relevant to mizuchi.


(Nihongi / Nihon Shoki)

→See under Nihon shoki for fuller bibliography.

(Secondary sources)