The four celestial beasts are originated from China, to be precise it is from Chinese constellation. It is already date back to at least the second century BC. In Chinese constellation, the sky is divided into 5 regions: East, South, West, North and Center. Each cardinal region is associated with one celestial beast, while the center is associated with the Emperor. The East direction is associated with the Azure Dragon. South is associated with the Vermillion Bird. West is associated with the White Tiger. North is associated with the Black Tortoise.
In Japan, the Azure Dragon of the East is called Seiryuu (called Qīng Lóng in China). Seiryuu is associated with the season spring, the color blue or green, and the element wood. Seiryu is powerful and arrogant.1 In Kyoto there are temples dedicated to each of these guardian spirits. There are several temples dedicated to Seiryuu, one of them is Kiyomizu Temple in Eastern Kyoto. Before the entrance of the Kiyomizu Temple there is a statue of the dragon which is said to drink from the waterfall within the temple complex at nighttime. Hence each year a ceremony to worship Seiryuu is held.2
In Japan, the Vermilion Bird of the South is called Suzaku (called Zhū Què in China). Suzaku is associated with the season summer, the color red, and the element fire. Suzaku can make small seeds grow into giant trees.1 The Vermilion bird is an elegant and noble bird in both appearance and behavior, it is very selective in what it eats and where it perches. Suzaku is portrayed with radiant feathers with many different hues of vermilion. Suzaku is often mistaken for Fenghuang, the Chinese Phoenix, due to similarities in appearance. Fenghuang is legendary ruler of birds associated with the Chinese Empress in the same way the dragon is associated with the Emperor, while the Vermilion Bird is a mythological spirit creature of the Chinese constellations.3 Fenghuang is said to be made up of the beak of a rooster, the face of a swallow, the forehead of a fowl, the neck of a snake, the breast of a goose, the back of a tortoise, the hindquarters of a stag and the tail of a fish. Its feathers contain the five fundamental colors: black, white, red, blue and yellow.4 The color of feather of Suzaku and Fenghuang are different, so you can distinguish them by looking at its color.
Byakko is the Japanese name of the White Tiger of the West (Bái Hǔ is the Chinese name). Byakko is associated with the season autumn, the color white, and the element metal. Byakko observes the world with clairvoyance, but is a fierce warrior in battle.1 Tigers represent ferocious defense like metal or steel.5 It was said that the white tiger would only appear when the Emperor ruled with absolute virtue, or if there was peace throughout the world. In the Chinese five elements, the color white represents the west. Hence the white tiger became a mythological guardian of the west.6
Genbu is the Japanese name of The Black Tortoise of the North (Xuán Wǔ is the Chinese name). Genbu is associated with the season winter, the color black, and the element water. Says Derek Walters: "One of the Celestial Emblems, the symbol of longevity and wisdom. It is said that its shell represents the vault of the universe. A common symbol for longevity is the Tortoise and Snake, whose union was thought to have engendered the universe. The reason why tortoise symbolism has been superseded by the Black Warrior as the emblem of the North, is probably due to the fact that 'tortoise' is a term of abuse in China." 7 In the artwork, tortoise is often made together with snake. The ancient Chinese believed that there is no male tortoise, thus the female tortoise had to mate with other species, which is snake. 7 In Chinese culture, especially under the influence of Taoism, the shell of tortoise is the symbol of heaven and earth. The upside is the heaven and the underside is the earth. The shell...