10 June 2013

Whence the Kirin?

The kirin (qilin) is a mythical animal of Chinese origin, half horse and half dragon, a harbinger of good fortune and world harmony said to appear in conjunction with the arrival and death of great personages.  Mention of it can be traced back in literature and art to the 5th century BCE.  The figure and the meaning attached to it probably reached Japan on one of the ships carrying news of Chinese Buddhism, architecture and kanji written script about a millennium later. 

The kirin engraved on a transom at the Nishihonganji Head Temple in Kyoto. 
Illustration of a kirin in the notes of German physician Engelbert Kaempfer, who served as chief surgeon at the Dutch East India Company factory on Dejima in Nagasaki from 1690 to 1692. 

In present-day Japan, however, the kirin is better known for the animal portrayed on the labels of Kirin Beer Company products than for any traditional artistic representation.  Kirin Beer also has a rather garbled Nagasaki connection, discussed below.
The Japan Brewery Company, predecessor of Kirin Beer Company, was founded in Yokohama in 1885 and began production of its signature "Kirin Beer" in 1888.  The main mover was Scottish entrepreneur Thomas B. Glover (1838-1911), whose famous house is preserved today in Nagasaki's Glover Garden.  Glover exercised his considerable entrepreneurial skills in scouting German brewmasters, drumming up investments from both foreign and Japanese residents, and turning beer into a beverage as popular as sake and shochu in Japanese drinking establishments.  

The first label used by the Japan Brewery Company after its inception in 1885 featured an unidentified animal dancing in front of a rising sun.  Whether or not this was intended to look like a kirin is unclear.  
A new illustration appeared in 1889 and remains in use to this day.  The Japan Brewery Company was disbanded in 1907 and renamed "Kirin Brewery Company," an organization registered in Japan without the assistance of foreigners and based entirely on Japanese capital.

How Thomas Glover and his colleagues came up with the kirin to serve as a company symbol, however, remains a mystery.  Nothing can be found in company records to shed light on the question.  The original label illustration and related documents have also been lost, apparently in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.   All we have, therefore, is conjecture.

One unconfirmed theory states that the bushy mustache shown on the animal of the label -- a feature absent in illustrations of the traditional kirin -- was inspired by Glover's trademark mustache and was added as an expression of respect.  But even if that is true, it does not answer the fundamental question as to why and under what circumstances the kirin was chosen as a company symbol.

Another theory has it that the pair of stone komainu (guardian dogs) currently on display in the former Glover House in Nagasaki served as models.  In fact the sign beside the statues states in rather definite terms that this is so.  Several years ago your writer was asked to translate the sign.  I stealthily added the word "perhaps" to the English text because I suspected, correctly as it would turn out, that there is no proof for the supposed connection between the statues and the famous beer.  In fact, not only is there nothing to show that Glover referred to the statues in choosing a logo for his beer, there is no record as to how the statues ended up in his house in the first place.  Someone just threw out a guess, and it stuck to the wall.

The guardian dogs in the sunroom at the former Glover House, with Nagasaki Harbor and Mt. Inasa in the background.   The Japanese explanation board claims that the statues inspired Thomas Glover to choose the kirin as a logo for his new beer, quite a leap of logic considering that the guardian dog and the kirin are entirely different entities.     

So, let's join in the guessing game.  Fuller’s Brewery, the producer of London Pride and other popular British brands, has been operating in the Chiswick suburb of West London since 1845.  The company emblem is the griffin, a legendary creature of European origin similar to the kirin in use and meaning but combining a lion with an eagle instead of a dragon with a horse.  Perhaps Thomas Glover or one of his British colleagues 1) remembered the griffin when looking around for a name, 2) heard from Japanese friends that Japan and China had something remarkably similar, and 3) decided to use the kirin as a trademark.  This is pure conjecture, but it seems far more plausible than the guardian dogs. 

The insignia of Fuller's Brewery, showing the griffin symbol.


  1. i have a question about Iwaya shrine... 2 or 3 hundred years ago it was the location of a buddhist temple... now it is a (shinto) shrine..... at what point and why would it change??? can you recommend any source in print or online that can give me more details about Nagasaki history... I am Jan (Hillestad) Fujikawa by the way.....

    1. Jan! I didn't notice your question until now, five months post facto. Many apologies. The best answer to your question is that Iwaya-san was/is the object of "mountain worship" (山岳信仰), neither precisely Buddhist nor Shinto. It wasn't until the Meiji Period that facilities like Iwaya Jinja had to draw a clear line between the two systems. I'll look into it and let you know if I find anything. In the meantime, the following two Wikipedia articles might be informative.
      All the best, Brian