There was a fifth direction -- the center, representing China itself -- which carried its own seishuku.
In Japan, the symbolism of the four creatures appears to have merged with and been supplanted by the Shitennō (Four Heavenly Kings).
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In China, the four date back to at least the 2nd century BC.
Each creature has a corresponding season, color, element, virtue, and other traits.
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Further, each corresponds to a quadrant in the sky, with each quadrant containing seven seishuku, or star constellations (also called the 28 lunar mansions or lodges; for charts, see this outside site).
Each of the four groups of seven is associated with one of the four celestial creatures.