At Japanese festivals, four banners with the pictures of the four divine beings are sometimes displayed.
You might have also seen them at a ceremony at the imperial palace.
They are the defenders of Shin’iki (神域 しんいき) or the sanctuary of the shrine.
These four defenders are: Blue Dragon (青龍 せいりゅう Seiryu; the defender of the east), White Tiger (白虎 びゃっこ Byakko; the defender of the west), Vermilion Bird (朱雀 すざく Suzaku; the defender of the south), and Black Tortoise (玄武 げんぶ Genbu; the defender of the north; usually entwined together with a snake).
Together these four flags are called “Four Godly Flags/ Banners” (四神旗 しじんき Shijinki).
But in the Edo period (1603-1868), they were also called “Four Godly Swords” (四神剣 しじんけん Shijinken) in the Tokyo area as they put swords at the tips of the flags.
There is a hilarious rakugo story that involves a set of “Four Godly Swords”, which is based on a true story that happened at a restaurant called Momokawa (百川 ももかわ).
Unfortunately, it is one of those stories that would get lost in translation, but I will attempt explaining it another time!
See you next time!