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Motif Information
Motif tora 01.jpg
Rōmaji Tora
English Tiger
Kana とら
Season Autumn
Seasonal Exceptions Winter
Auspicious Yes
Motif Type Animal

Although tora were never native to Japan, they were well known from contact with China since before the Heian period. Skins and pictures were imported from China and Korea along with more abstract concepts. Tora remains one of the twelve zodiac animals found in the calendar the Japanese received from China.

Some live tigers were even imported at great cost during the Heian period including one in 840 which was painted by Kose no Kaneoka. Tora were hunted during the various invasions of Korea and Katō Kiyomasa is often pictured hunting tigers with a spear. Toyotami Hideoyoshi famously brought one back from his Korean campaign (1592-94) which he kept in Osaka and fed live dogs.

Also from the Chinese, the Japanese learned to prize tiger bones as a source of medicine. More generally tora became associated with protection from disease.

Seasonal Use, Exceptions & Pairings

Tora with take on hanafuda

Tora take their seasonality from their Chinese association with autumn,[1] although sometimes they are shown playing in the snow in which case they are a winter motif.

Motif Connotations & Symbolism

The pairing of tora and ryū was imported from China, representing dominion over heaven and earth. In Zen Buddhism the pairing of tora with ryū took on the meaning of the marriage of an earthbound mind with a soaring of a freed soul.

Auspicious Nature

Tora are considered a protective charm, especially for children and against illness. During the Edo period, tora became a popular charm with soldiers, expressing a wish to return safely home. Today tora are mostly found on men's garments.

Common Motif Pairings

  • Ryū - a common Buddhist symbolic pairing, ryū represent a mastery over the heavens while tora represent a mastery over the earth
    • With clouds or rain standing in for the actual ryū
  • Take - another common Buddhist symbolic pairing, the tora hiding in a bamboo thicket represents the protection of the strong by the weak
  • Rocks and waterfalls
  • The sun

Motif Examples

Motif in Literature & Other Usage

Kato Kiyomasa hunting tora in Korea by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Toyotomi Hideyoshi's Tiger

Toyotomi Hideyoshi brought back a tiger from his Korean campaign (1592-94) which he displayed to the emperor and then installed at Osaka Castle. The tiger was fed live dogs which were procured from surrounding villages. Eventually one of the dogs killed the tiger, although it also died. An investigation found that the dog had been seized against its master's wishes by the village headman and sent to the castle. Toyotomi believed that it was its master's anger that allowed the dog to overcome the tiger and had the master compensated and the headman punished. [2]

Tora Tora

Tora Tora is a drinking game similar to rock-paper-scissors. A geisha and a customer are separated by a screen that allows the audience to see both. On a count of three, each comes out and strikes the pose of a tora, samurai, or old woman. Samurai defeats tora, tora defeats old woman, and old woman defeats samurai.

Article Notes

Relevant Threads / Discussions

  • Link to any relevant threads on IG


  1. Volker, T. The Animal in Far Eastern Art: And Especially in the Art of the Japanese Netzsuke, with References to Chinese Origins, Traditions, Legends, and Art. Brill. 1950. p.163.
  2. Shinchomonshu. 1683.

Image Credits

  • Kokoro

Authors & Contributors

Author/s: tzippurah (IG Username)