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Pair of Lion Roof Tiles

Object ID: 1987.015.017 & 1987.015.018
Object: Lion (Shishi) Roof Tiles, clay
Place of Origin: Tsuboya, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan
Size: 14.5×6.5×11
Credit: Museum purchase

Until modern times the African lion was known in East Asia only through description from the Middle East. Paired images of lions were used as guardian figures at palaces in Chang’an, the capital of T’ang Dynasty China (618- c. 907); this practice was followed in Japan where it continues today at Shintō shrines. A separate tradition developed in Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture and once an independent kingdom. There, solitary clay figures of lions, often showing much individual variation, adorn the tiled roofs of the common people. By contrast, the figures displayed here generally conform to standard East Asian representation of the lion, although as a pair they, too, were probably intended as rooftop guardians. The Japanese term for such stylized lions is shishi; in Okinawan language: shisa.