Kirins are the unicorns of traditional Japanese tattoos, not only in the sense that they’re rare, but in that they are literally the Eastern cousins of unicorns. These mythological creatures actually predate unicorns by hundreds of years, and unlike their sparkly relatives, they’re able to breath fire and their horn(s) face backward, so they don’t look like the offspring of a horse and a narwhal that we’re all more familiar with. Basically, beyond being a powerful omen of prosperity, kirins put their Western kin to shame in both magnificence and magical abilities.
Most of the creatures in Japanese folklore tend to be harbingers of doom, but kirins are some of the gentler members of the yokai tribe. They’re basically the vegans of Irezumi, being averse to causing harm to other forms of life. Not only do they refuse to eat the flesh of other animals, according to some Buddhists, they even go so far as to refuse to walk on grass for fear of hurting it. Instead, they take the route that all the other unicorns do, prancing their way from cloud to cloud or skipping on water.
Kirins are thought of as omens of peace, a theme which come from the myths about them in China, where they are known at qilin. In one of the most famous of these ancient legends, it is said that the Emperor Wu of the Han captured a real-life qilin, after it descended from the heavens as a sign his benevolent rule. Because of stories like this one, it is believed that kirins are evocative of a prosperous era and heralds of divine right.
Aside from their peaceful disposition, the chimeric physiology of kirins is one of their most fascinating aspects, especially in tattoos, where these creatures are most commonly seen today. Throughout Irezumi, they typically feature a deer-like body, a long neck similar to a giraffe’s (the animal that many scholars believe kirins are based on), and the head of a camel, resembling Japanese dragons but with hooves instead of claws.
To see more traditional Japanese tattoos of mythological creatures, perhaps even a few more of the rare kirin, venture to these artists’ Instagrams. Should you want the unicorn of the East on your body, have one of them design it for you.
You’ve just experienced Indomitable, our series where we examine the meaning behind our favorite motifs from traditional Japanese tattoos. We hope you liked learning about kirins. While you’re at it, check out our previous posts about cherry blossoms, dragons, hannya masks, kitsune, the Nue, samurai crabs, and tofu boys.