Although the tiger is not native to Japan, it is one of the most popularly portrayed and highly symbolic animals in Japanese art, having been introduced into Japan by way of China through Buddhism. According to Chinese beliefs, the tiger sprang from one of the stars of the group known as the Great Bear. For this reason, it is explained, the tiger has the power to control the wind, and, because of the strength and power of its mighty roar, it is regarded by some as being an incarnation of thunder. The tiger is considered to be the king of all four-legged animals. Originally under Taoist teaching the tiger was a fearful, evil supernatural creature presiding over the west and autumn, both of which fall under the negative principle. However, under Buddhist influence the tiger assumed a positive force, its evil giving way to strength, nobility, and courage. In association with the dragon, however, it reverts back to its old Taoist negative principle.
The origins of the tiger in East Asian art are very ancient. A clay tablet from the Indus valley shows a tiger and other animals in attendance around a pre-Shivaite deity. Later, Shiva, as the Lord of Beasts, wears a tiger skin. This king of wild animals was adopted by Buddhism as a symbol of power. In Central Asian temples it is found in wall paintings illustrating a popular legend of Shakyamuni sacrificing himself as food for a starving tigress and her cubs.
In Chinese tradition, although its overwhelming strength is recognized, it is more a symbol of protection than an object of fear. It earliest appearance in China seems to have been as a decoration on archaic bronze vessels where it probably served as a talisman against poisoning and evil influences. Its image set against a door post protected a building from demons. Similarly, it was used in funerary art to protect the spirits of the dead. Han dynasty warriors would carry tiger amulets, usually of jade, or metal tallies with their image. Various deities are depicted riding on the backs of tigers and it was believed to be obedient to authority, retreating to the mountains when commanded to do so. The image of a boy riding a tiger refers to one of the paragons of filial piety who distracted the beast in order to protect his father.
The white tiger is the guardian of the Western Quadrant of the universe and represents the autumn. The tiger and the dragon together are the principal animals of Taoist Feng Shui. According to Taoist thinking the dragon has the nature of wood, which produces fire, while the tiger has the nature of gold, which comes from the water. Their combined names are given to the sacred Taoist mountain, Longhushan, where the founder of the faith practiced alchemy, creating an elixir which caused a dragon and a tiger to appear out of thin air. The “red tiger” was a feared demon and in Tantric images Buddhist deities sometimes wear a tiger’s, skin in their warrior-like poses, the idea derived from Shivaism. Early Chinese paintings show tigers being quelled by Buddhist sages. In Zen Buddhism tigers and dragons symbolized nature and the human spirit which could be mastered by the powers of Buddhist insight. The Ashikaga Sha´guns, who were in power from 1338 to 1573, owned ink paintings of tigers by various southern Sung masters which drew much admiration. To the military classes the tiger was emblematic of strength and virility. The huge cultural influence which China had on Japan led to them adopting the joint images of tigers and dragons as symbols of power. The official Kano school of painting produced countless works of these subjects which were to adorn the homes of the military classes, carrying with them the message of authority and the stability of the social status quo. A very common symbolic combination in art is the tiger in a bamboo grove, often depicted in Kano school screens and paintings. There are many explanations of this combination. Some say the bamboo never resists the wind, and the wind is a constant companion of the tiger, and therefore this grass is a natural harbor for the tiger. Another explanation is that the wind tossed bamboo symbolically represents a wild and tangled tossing pit of sin and that in order to penetrate this sinful jungle one needs the strength of a tiger. To have “tiger courage” was the goal of all youths, particularly the Samurai. Many possessed tiger charms and amulets to give them strength, to ward off bad luck, and to discourage demons.
In general the tiger’s symbolic meaning is “fluid rather than fixed.” It is credited with supernatural powers and is reputed to live to the age of 1,000 years. After it reaches 500 years of age it is said to turn white. It becomes immortal at 1,000 years and can take any shape or form it desires. There is a folk tale which lauds the wisdom of the tiger. It tells of a mother tiger with three cubs who wishes to cross a river. However, one of her cubs is fierce and vicious, and she is fearful of leaving it alone with any of its brothers since it might do them harm. Coming to the edge of the river, she takes the troublesome cub in her mouth and swims to the other side, where she deposits him. She then returns for the second cub. Carrying him to the other side, she then picks up the fierce cub and goes back across the river carrying him with her. She places him on the beach and takes the third cub across to the other side and puts him with his gentle brother. Finally she returns for the troublesome cub and once again carries him across to where his two brothers wait. The tiger is often seen by the side of a waterfall, since the characteristics of both are their ceaseless strength and their forcefulness. The tiger is a symbol of strength, fearlessness, and the power of faith. Referring to a safe return from a perilous journey, a popular saying is “a tiger travels a thousand miles and returns home again”.