Shinto Controversies Course — 4th Lecture

Today (and I think I might just get this article finished today) I went to the fourth of the Shinto controversies lectures at the Open College at Kokugakuin University. Again, the lecturer was Professor Okada. This time, he was talking about the origins of Shrine Shinto, and its basic characteristics in the classical period.

The first question is when Shrine Shinto started. This is difficult to say, as its origins are prehistoric. However, in Japan prehistory doesn’t finish until around the sixth century AD; the current consensus, apparently, is that Shrine Shinto starts in the second half of the fourth century AD. This isn’t when the Japanese started having religious ceremonies; there is good evidence for such things going back about ten thousand years. However, in order for a religious practice to be recognisably Shrine Shinto there are, according to Professor Okada, four necessary features.

The first is the family or group that celebrates the rituals. Shinto is not, and never has been, a religion for individuals, primarily. It’s based on family and group rituals. The second is a fixed place where the kami are worshipped. The third is at least a temporary building for the rites. (Without the building, there is no shrine.) Finally, there is a need for some sort of annual cycle of festivals, even if it’s only one. These features seem to have been first brought together in the late fourth century.

Of course, we don’t know much about Shinto in that period, although research is continuing, and archaeology may tell us more, and change the dates (the start date for the Yayoi period of Japanese history has been pushed back about 500 years by recent discoveries, for example). If we look at written records, and pick out the bits that might have a historical basis, the earliest one is in the time of Yuryaku Tenno, in the late fifth century, when the foundation of the Outer Shrine at Ise and the institution of the morning and evening offerings is noted. Professor Okada didn’t say much about this, but I suspect that this is taken to be a good candidate for the actual founding date of the Grand Shrines of Ise.

The next burst of records come in the seventh century. There are legends concerning Usa Jingu in Kyushu (the home shrine of Hachiman), Suwa Taisha in Nagano, and the Kamo Shrines in Kyoto from the mid-sixth century, and archaeology suggests that the rituals around Mt Miwa became concentrated around the Forbidden Area (an area of the mountain that people are not allowed to enter, with the exception of the priests, briefly, during one festival) in the late sixth century. These suggest that the sixth century was a very important period in the development of Shinto. It is also generally accepted as the period when Buddhism properly arrived in Japan; if both of these dates are correct, the fact that these developments happened together is unlikely to be coincidence.

There is another very famous legend from this period, recorded in the Hitachi no Kuni Fudoki, which was written down in the early eighth century. Hitachi no Kuni is the modern Ibaraki Prefecture, just to the north-east of Tokyo. In the early sixth century, a man was developing the area, creating rice paddies, but kami, in the form of snakes, appeared and interfered with the work. He set stakes in the ground, declaring the area above the stakes to belong to the kami, and that below to belong to humans, and promising to worship the kami if they refrained from cursing him and his descendants. According to the Fudoki, those rituals were still being carried out in the eighth century. This shrine is called “Yato Shrine”, written with the characters for “night sword”, which is cool, but probably just meaning “mouth of the valley”.

The legend continues, recounting the arrival of the representative of the central court, who also developed the area. The snake-kami reappeared, but he just ordered attacks on them, because they would not obey the emperor, and they disappeared. Professor Okada pointed out, however, that even after this incident, the descendants of the original family were still carrying out the rituals. Yato Shrine never became associated with the Imperial court, and so it does not appear in the Engishiki. It is, apparently, still there, but it is a very small shrine, and even local people hardly know about it, despite the fact that it is one of the oldest recorded shrines in Japan.

On the other hand, another legend in the same Fudoki tells about a cursing deity that was pacified by a member of the Nakatomi family, sent from the Imperial court. This shrine did become associated with the central government, and is recorded in the Engishiki.

There is a document from the early ninth century, called the Kogoshui, which was written by a member of the Inbe family. This was another family associated with kami rituals, but it was losing influence to the Nakatomi. (One branch of the Nakatomi became the Fujiwara, who were the real rulers of Japan for much of the Heian period.) The author complains that even small shrines connected with the Nakatomi are being listed as imperial shrines, while important shrines that are not connected with them are being cut off and ignored.

Professor Okada drew attention to one point of these legends. The right to conduct certain rituals belonged to a particular family, and not even the Imperial court could take it away. The rituals at Yato Shrine were conducted by that family, not by the Imperial representatives. Similarly, at the Fujiwara family shrine of Kasuga in Nara, even now you have to be a scion of the Fujiwara in order to become chief priest. This is very common in Shinto; my local shrine also has a hereditary priest. Professor Okada commented that this can make Shinto sound like a closed shop, but this is a very strong tendency. (Another strong tendency he mentioned was localism; the kami are worshipped by people who live nearby. He only mentioned this in passing, however.)

Something I want to draw attention to, however, is the existence, and continuing existence, of shrines with at most a minimal connection to the Imperial court. According to the Kogoshui, even at the beginning of the ninth century some of them were still very important. This is, I think, fairly clear evidence that the Emperor was, in the classical period, only central to the Shinto of the Imperial court, and not to Shinto as a whole. (I shall now get off that particular hobby horse of mine for the rest of this report.)

The other important element that Professor Okada picked up from these legends was the idea of kami cursing people; tatarigami, as they are called in Japanese. These are a very important factor in the classical legends, and right through the Nara period, on into the early Heian period in the ninth century. In the later Heian period, the idea of curses drops out of use.

Saimei Tenno (who was female) is recorded as having been struck with sickness by a kami in retaliation for cutting down the kami’s trees to build a palace. Two months later, she died, and while the curse is not blamed directly, it’s a fairly easy inference. Her son (and indirect successor) Tenmu Tenno (male) is also recorded as dying two months after being struck by a kami’s curse, in his case from the Kusanagi no Tsurugi, the sword from the three sacred treasures, which was annoyed because it hadn’t been returned to Atsuta Jingu after being stolen. In Tenmu’s case, a divination was performed on the tenth day of the sixth month (lunar calendar, so some time in July) to find the source of the curse.

Under his wife and successor, Jito Tenno (end of the seventh century), this divination seems to have become a custom. Indeed, quite a lot of the central customs of Shinto seem to have been codified by Jito Tenno. She commanded the first Shikinen Sengu at Ise (the rebuilding of the shrines once every twenty years), started the practice of holding the Daijosai once per reign, and established the Department of Divinities (Jingikan), the government body dealing with the kami. If you really need a founder for organised, Imperial Shinto, she’s probably the best bet.

Anyway, to return to the divination, if it was determined that the Emperor had been cursed by some kami, the central government would send offerings to that shrine to appease the kami and break the curse. A couple of the documents transferring land to remove a curse survive in the archives of the Yoshida family (as in Yoshida Shinto), dating from the late eighth century. They bear the signature, in his own hand, of the main compiler of the Man’yoshu.

There are many examples of kami cursing emperors, or the whole nation, recorded in the oldest records of Japan, but such records die out during the Heian period. First, the cursing behaviour moves from the established kami to new ones, such as Tenjin (Sugawara no Michizane), and then it seems to disappear altogether. Early modern and modern Japanese people do not seem to worry about curses from the kami.

Professor Okada, however, does. He put this down to being steeped in classical Shinto, believing in the kami, and having had experiences that he thought were due to being cursed after he tramped around on a grave during his research. He said that, while he was researching funerals, he made sure to always research the Great Purification Prayer before sleeping, to avoid problems. This may not be unconnected to the fact that one of the handouts for today’s lecture bears, on its back, the complete text of the Great Purification Prayer, which had nothing to do with the content of the lecture at all. The lecture was all about curses.

It was a very interesting lecture, but I was already familiar with the basic outline. People who have been reading Tamao now know why the central kami curses people, and takes the form of a snake.

Posted in Kokugakuin.

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