3 Fierce Words for Dragon in Japanese [And How to Tell the Difference!]

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Legends of a great beast known as the dragon have been recorded from all corners of the world.

Humans seem to be predisposed to the idea of dragons, as you will find stories about them from pretty much any ancient society, such as the Fáfnir from Scandinavian mythology, the Ninki Nanka from West Africa and the Shenlong (or Shenron) dragon from China, which you may recognise from the anime ‘Dragon Ball’! 

Japan is of course no exception to the storytelling of these mythical beasts. In fact, dragons hold a huge significance in Japanese culture. I must tell you that there are actually three main words used in Japanese to refer to a dragon! How you determine which word to use depends on the type of dragon you are referring to.

Today we are going to discuss the three Japanese words for dragon: doragon (ドラゴン), ryuu (竜 / りゅう) and tatsu (辰 / たつ). But first, let’s look at the significance of dragons in Japanese culture.

Dragons in Japanese culture 

In Western mythology, dragons are often depicted as evil beasts. They are fearful creatures who must be defeated in order to protect mankind.

In Japan, it is often the opposite case. In Asian legends, dragons are symbols of great power and good fortune. Most Japanese dragons are seen as protectors of mankind, as opposed to their European counterparts.

One of the most well known dragons from Japanese myths goes by the name Ryūjin (龍神 / りゅうじん) literally meaning ‘dragon god’.

According to legend, Ryūjin is the dragon king, who hails from the sea. He is a feature of many different stories. However, much like the unpredictable ocean, Ryūjin may appear as a kind, benevolent creature, but other times may appear as the malevolent antagonist of the story. 

A woodcut print showing Princess Tamatori stealing the dragon king Ryūjin’s jewel. Source: Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Chinese vs Japanese dragons

At first glance, the appearance of a Chinese-style dragon and a Japanese-style dragon look pretty similar. However, there are some slight variations that set them apart.

Both are portrayed as massive snake-like creatures with claws and horns, often with four legs and no wings. But if you look closely, you will likely see that a dragon from Chinese mythology is illustrated having five toes, while a Japanese dragon has just three.

Woodblock print of a dragon ascending Mount Fuji from Hokusai’s ‘One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji’. Source: Katsushika Hokusai, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

How to say ‘dragon’ in Japanese



Dragon (Western style)

The loanword doragon refers to a Western style dragon like this one. Source: Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s start off with the simplest term for dragon in Japanese, doragon. As you may be able to tell, this is a loanword and comes from the English word ‘dragon’. This word is more often than not written in katakana, highlighting the fact that it is a word borrowed from another language.

When someone says doragon they are specifically referring to a dragon from Western or European mythology. Think horns, wings, two to four legs and possibly fire-breathing. Examples of this include Smaug from the Hobbit series and the dragons seen in Game of Thrones.

This term for dragon is also commonly used in movie or anime titles, as we saw with Dragon Ball or doragon boru (ドラゴンボール / どらごんぼーる).

Model of Shenron from Dragon Ball. Source: dronepicr, Dragon Ball Shenron Gamescom 2019, via flickr under licence CC BY 2.0


Dragon (Eastern style)

Ryuu would be the most common way to say dragon in Japanese. You may sometimes see it written as 龍, which comes from traditional Chinese script and is often seen in historical documents. However, the simplified 竜 is most used these days, so we’ll stick with that. 

If you are talking about a dragon in Japanese mythology, ryuu would be the word to use.

The Dragon fountain at the Eikan-do Zenrin-ji Temple at Eikando in Kyoto.


Dragon (zodiac sign)

Tatsu (辰 / たつ) also means dragon, however it specifically refers to the fifth sign of the twelve animals in the Japanese zodiac. Years of the dragon include 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012. That means the next year of the dragon will occur in 2024!

Those born in the Year of the Dragon are said to be strong, charismatic, intelligent and lucky. On the downside, they may display arrogance and a short fuse. Famous celebrities born in the Year of the Dragon include Bruce Lee, Adele and Martin Luther King Jr.

It is common for Japanese parents to choose a name which incorporates the kanji related to the birthday of their child. For example, Ryoko (良子 or 竜子 / りょうこ) a popular girl’s name in Japan, has the meaning of dragon child.  For a boy, Ryu, simply the Japanese word for dragon, has become one of the most popular boy’s names in the last century. Tatsuya (竜也 / たつや) is another Japanese boy’s name combining the kanji of ‘dragon’ and ‘to be’. 

A Japanese New Year’s decoration featuring the zodiac animals. Tatsu is the Japanese word for dragon specifically used for the zodiac.

Other related words

Although dragons are merely mythical creatures created by human imagination, their impact on our history and storytelling is undeniable. Here are a few Japanese words for very real things that stem from these fictitious animals. 

  • 恐竜 / Dinosaur

Kyouryuu (恐竜 / きょうりゅう) is made up of the kanji for ‘fear’ and ‘dragon’. Even though we may have never seen a dinosaur in our own lifetime, fossil evidence proves the existence of these enormous creatures. It is theorised that our ancestors also came across the remains of dinosaurs, and due to lack of scientific knowledge, believed that the bones belonged to the fearsome creatures we hear of in stories.  

  • 竜の落とし子 / Seahorse 

Tatsu no otoshigo (竜の落とし子 / たつのおとしご) is one of the ways you can say ‘seahorse’ in Japanese. Otoshigo means ‘offspring’, therefore ‘seahorse’ in Japanese translates to ‘dragon offspring’. When you take a closer look at these cute little creatures, you can see how they may resemble mini dragons!

  • 竜巻 / Tornado

Tatsumaki (竜巻 / たつまき) is made up of the kanji for ‘dragon’ and maku (巻く / まく) meaning ‘to wind/roll up’. It is thought that in ancient times, people believed tornadoes were caused by the movements of dragons creating the terrifying whirl we know as tornados.  

Now you know three words for dragon in Japanese!

Whether you’re a Dragon Ball fan or more into traditional Japanese mythology, there’s no escaping the power of the dragon in Japan! With these three key words for dragon in Japanese, you’ll show you know what you’re talking about.

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Hannah Stafford

Hannah is a half Irish/half Japanese girl living in Ireland. Her love for Japan and the Japanese language led her to studying languages and translation in university where she specialised in Japanese. She spent a year studying abroad at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. In her free time, Hannah enjoys using her sewing machine to upcycle clothes and create new pieces!

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