Shinto Controversies Course — 5th Lecture

Today was the fifth lecture in the Kokugakuin Open College Shinto course. According to Professor Okada, this lecture was a sort of summary of the first half of the course. He’s been considering the structure of Shinto in the classical period, and this time he was discussing the role of the Emperor in religious observances. Since this is a central feature of Shinto in the period, it drew on quite a lot of the earlier discussions; the role of Izumo, the Daijousai, the sacred marriage, and the origins of Shrine Shinto.

He started the lecture by observing that there was a strong tendency in pre-War Shinto studies, a tendency that continued until the 60s or 70s, to focus entirely on the ancient period, on the Kojiki and Ritsuryou period, and to take that as representing ideal Shinto. The ideologues of the Meiji Restoration (1868) talked about restoring the government structure of Emperor Jinmu, the mythical first Emperor of Japan, and did, in fact, start by copying the earliest recorded government structure, even though that was 1300 years later than Emperor Jinmu’s official dates. However, when you look at Shinto, you find that the reality was rather different. The practical details of rites and festivals are taken from the mid-Heian period (around 1000) or later; for example, the vestments worn by Shinto priests are the clothes worn by Heian court nobles. This is because we have basically no records of such things from earlier periods. The Kojiki doesn’t give practical details of festivals, for example.

The Meiji Restoration also introduced a system of nationally-supported shrines, the Kanpeisha. If you look at the list of the shrines that received this status at the beginning of the Meiji period, nearly all of them were either Ichi no Miya, or in the 22 Shrines. Both of these systems were introduced in the mid to late Heian period. In other words, the Meiji system was continuing Heian period judgements of the relative importance of shrines, not the earlier judgements.

On the most fundamental level, it appears that the custom of people worshipping at shrines of their choice, throughout the country, only started in the eleventh century; the mid-Heian period. Before that time, it seems that you had to be a member of the appropriate clan in order to worship at a shrine. The universal reverence for the Grand Shrines of Ise, which was quite important to the Meiji Government, was definitely not an ancient feature.

The body of the lecture, then, considered the changes in the relationship between the Emperor and shrines over time, starting with the earliest period for which we have useful records, the Ritsuryou period (mid-seventh century onwards).

In the earliest period, Professor Okada thinks that the worship of a particular kami was restricted to members of the clan claiming descent from that kami. As in the legend of Yato Shrine, which he discussed in detail last time, even the Emperor could not interfere in such rituals. This was one of the unwritten laws governing the religious structure of the period. In the early period, the only person allowed to make offerings at the Grand Shrines of Ise was the Emperor. Not even the Crown Prince could do it without permission. (He didn’t mention it in this lecture, although he has previously, but in the early period having an amulet from Ise in your household shrine was a criminal offence. It’s now almost compulsory; it’s certainly the generally accepted and encouraged practice.) Professor Okada thinks that this was not actually unique to Ise, but, instead, reflects the exclusive connection between clans and their ancestral deities. Amaterasu was the ancestral deity of the Emperors, so, naturally, only they were allowed to make offerings. The Kasuga kami was the ancestor of the Fujiwara clan, so only they were allowed to make offerings there; in particular, the Emperor was not. The fundamental rule was that the Emperor could not interfere in the rituals of other clans.

This started to change in the Ritsuryou period, when central rituals connected to shrines across the country were started at the imperial court. Of the most important, one was held in the second month, another twice, in the sixth and twelfth months, and a third in the eleventh month (all of the lunar calendar). The one held in the second month, the Kinensai, involved the central government sending offerings to over 3000 shrines across the country (these are the so-called “Shikinaisha”, the shrines listed in the Engishiki). However, the Emperor had no direct involvement in this festival. The other festivals, the Tsukinamisai in the sixth and twelfth months and the Niinamesai in the eleventh month, did have direct Imperial involvement, but offerings were only sent to about 300 shrines. Professor Okada noted that the first festival was asking for a good harvest, while the latter were giving thanks, and that the 2700 kami who got requests but no thanks might have got a bit annoyed.

So, the question is why the Emperor played no part in the Kinensai. Professor Okada’s suggestion, although this is not certain by any means, is that it may have had something to do with the desire not to interfere with the rights of clans to control rituals at their shrines. The central government was not the Emperor, so it was a sort of neutral body that could send lots of offerings. In addition, the Tsukinamisai were connected to important festivals at Ise, and the Niinamesai was the annual version of the Daijousai. In other words, the festivals in which the Emperor participated were derived from the worship of the Emperor’s ancestral kami.

From the middle of the eighth century, however, the Emperor started getting involved in festivals at other shrines. This first becomes clear when Emperor Shotoku makes an offering to the Kasuga kami at that shrine’s main festival. So, what is happening here? Emperor Shotoku’s mother was from the Fujiwara clan, so although the Emperor was not in the male line, she was connected to the Fujiwara, and thus to their kami. Over the following two centuries, more shrines were added to the central list, the shrines enshrining the kami of the Emperor’s mother.

A parallel expansion was to the shrines responsible for the area where the Imperial capital was located, which probably relates to the localism that Professor Okada mentioned last time, but he didn’t go into detail about it today. This was the origin of the 22 shrine system.

However, one great mystery remains. Professor Okada described this as the greatest of the seven mysteries of Shinto, but I think “seven mysteries” is just a standard expression; I suspect he doesn’t have another six in mind. The mystery is that the Emperor never went to worship at shrines.

Before the tenth century, Emperors just didn’t go. They sent agents. Even to Ise, they sent an Imperial princess, the Ise Princess, to attend the ceremonies on their behalf. In the tenth century there were two rebellions, and when they were put down the Emperor at the time, Emperor Suzaku, appears to have felt that he could not properly express his gratitude through an agent, and so went to the Kamo Shrines in person.

Even then, however, he did not enter the shrine. Instead, he stopped just inside the precincts, well away from the main hall that housed the kami, and sent a messenger in to read his prayer to the kami. Although such visits became more common over the next four centuries, the Emperor never approached the main hall closely. (After the fourteenth century, due to wars and restrictions imposed by the Tokugawa shogunate, the shrine visits seem to have been suspended.)

As Professor Okada said, the reason for this failure to approach the shrine closely is a mystery. He thinks that it may have been a combination of a fear that the Emperor might be cursed if he approached the kami too closely and a concern not to intrude on the ceremonies of other clans. Whatever the reason, this unwritten rule was followed quite strictly.

However, when Imperial shrine visits were restarted in the mid-nineteenth century, the Emperor did go all the way in to the heart of the shrine, going to the place normally occupied by the shrine priests. There was no historical precedent for this at all.

Professor Okada’s interpretation of this was that Shinto had changed over the centuries, adapting to the changing times. He said that, as a result of this development, the best elements from the past were combined with new elements to create a living religion that wasn’t just a part of Japan’s past, but still part of the present. He emphasised that this development should continue, so that Shinto could continue into the future.

The most important thing to note here is that he wasn’t talking about the “true essence” of Shinto. He was talking about the religion actually changing, with new elements added for which there was no precedent. I agree with his attitude, but it’s certainly not an attitude that can be characterised as fundamentally conservative, which may be a little surprising given the reputation that the Shinto establishment has.

Posted in Kokugakuin.


  1. As you know, David, I know nothing about all this. The first thought that crossed my mind, concerning why the Emperor would not attend a shrine was to wonder whether it was anything to do with the status of the Emperor, such that it might have looked like a potential kami paying respects to an already-kami.

  2. Sheila: That’s a theory I’ve heard before, but it wasn’t one that Professor Okada mentioned today, so I suspect he doesn’t believe it. He’s probably the world expert on this topic, as well. (It’s a small field, so it’s unlikely that anyone else is specialised in the same period.)

  3. Domo arigato David san,
    I very much appreciate the work you put in and your reports. I learn a lot from you.
    Regards ….. Iandalf.
    (Admin of facebook group – Shinto, Religion of the Forest)

  4. I’m thinking “Soka University” again…. Tell me again “why not”?

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