by Robert Gutowski, Director of Public Programs at Morris Arboretum

Komainu have returned to the Japanese Overlook Garden in the English Park. How did they get there and where have they been? This story could begin about 2,500 years ago in India and follow the path of Buddhism and its variants through time and across China, through Korea and into Japan. More recently, John Morris purchased a pair of “Shrine Dogs” in 1912 from the Boston office of Yamanaka & Co., an antique dealer based in Japan with international distribution. The pair came from a Japanese temple in Nara and is dated to about 1700.  John Morris noted “They are certainly very rare in design and condition.” With the guidance of Y. Muto, a consulting Japanese landscape designer and Frank Gould, Head Gardener at Compton, the komainu were placed in the Japanese Overlook Garden as a part of the original design. Their return restores an important sense of place and visual reference points in the core of this very special garden.

Komainu is a Japanese term often literally translated as “Korean-dog” in reference to its origin. Komainu are typically pairs of shrine guardians set along the approach to the temple to ward of evil spirits. They have become iconic figures in Japan. They are distinguished from each other by the open and closed mouths. One often has a horn on its head. Gender is not so clearly distinguished as in their Chinese antecedent, the Foo-lions or dogs. In the 9th century the open mouth figure was referred to as shishi (lion) and the closed mouth figure as komainu (Korean-dog). Over time, the pair was referred to collectively and individually as komainu. The open and closed mouths reference the a-un posture or sound, the “alpha” and “omega” from Sanskrit.

Foo Dogs

The image above was sent to John Morris from Yamanaka & Co.  prior to their purchase for Compton.


During the Second World War, many of the Asian garden ornaments were removed from the garden.  While several lanterns and other feature have disappeared, the komainu were eventually relocated to the Bloomfield Barn. Their condition was such that a return to the garden setting was not possible. In 2012 replicas were cast of the originals by Campania International, Inc. through the generosity of Peter Cilio and his family. A gift from Christine James and her father to restore the Japanese Overlook Garden included placement of the replicate komainu in the garden where Section Head Kate Deregibus oversaw their installation with staff and stone masons from Joseph Monero & Sons.

The original komainu are now safely displayed in the Horticulture Center at Bloomfield Farm. Horticulture and Facilities staff lifted them into place using teamwork, muscle, ingenuity and a mobile hydraulic jack from the garage. 

If you haven’t been to the Japanese Overlook Garden, it may be time for your return.

Photo of new komainu

Installing the new komainu in the Japanese Overlook Garden