Shinto Controversies Course — 10th Lecture

Today was the last of this year’s Shinto lectures at Kokugakuin. The theme was the origins of Yoshida Shinto, particularly the activities of Kanetomo Yoshida. (Kanetomo is his given name.)

Right at the beginning of the lecture, Professor Okada said that he didn’t generally like to criticise historical figures, because you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but when it came to Kanetomo, there were some things you just wanted to say. Thus, he was probably going to be a bit critical during the lecture. He reflected that this risked Kanetomo cursing him (as Kanetomo was enshrined as a kami after his death), and explained that he’d taken the opportunity of being in Kyoto to visit Yoshida Shrine and pay his respects at Kanetomo’s shrine, explaining what he was going to say and asking permission. With luck, that will have covered him, and hopefully it will also cover me reporting what he said.

So, what is Yoshida Shinto? Professor Okada didn’t go into detail, because he had gone into detail in previous years, and there are a lot of people who are taking the course for the fourth or fifth time. However, there are some new people, so he did give a quick overview. Essentially, it’s a version of Shinto that was created by Kanetomo in the late fifteenth century, and controlled most shrines throughout the Edo period. It lost all its power at the Meiji Restoration, in 1868, and the traditions have now largely died out, although some of the associated buildings still survive.

Anyone who knows Japanese history knows that the late fifteenth century is when the so-called warring states period begins, with the Onin War. The Onin War lasted for ten years, on and off, and was essentially fought in the capital, Kyoto. It did a lot to destroy central government, and virtually all of the imperial Shinto ceremonies were abandoned during this time; the imperial court was too busy trying to survive. This had an effect on Kanetomo.

The Yoshida family was a branch of the Urabe family, which had responsibility for divination from turtle shells in the classical period. By the Heian period they were the second in command at the Ministry of Divinities (Jingikan), and in the early Kamakura period they became known for their studies of the Nihonshoki. Two branches in Kyoto became the hereditary priests of the Hirano and Yoshida shrines, and the branch at Yoshida became known as the Yoshida Urabe. The Urabe reference is normally omitted, so that they are just called the Yoshida.

Thus, Kanetomo was born into a high-ranking priestly family, and until he was about 30 he had a conventional career for such a background, participating in imperial rituals, such as the last Daijosai of the middle ages, as well as presumably helping in the rituals at Yoshida Shrine. This all changed in the Onin era, when the war broke out.

In 1467, the first year of the Onin era, the Yoshida mansion was robbed and set on fire. In the following year, the Yoshida shrine was completely destroyed in a fire caused by a battle, and over a dozen of the people who lived in the area were killed. This seems to have have had a strong effect on Kanetomo, as can be imagined. The war had stopped all the imperial ceremonies, and his home, shrine, and friends had all been destroyed. Essentially, everything he had trained for was gone.

He does not, however, seem to have allowed this to keep him down for long. In 1470, we find what is probably the earliest document about Yoshida Shinto. This refers to it as Sogen Shinto, one of its formal names, and says that it is the orthodox transmission of the Urabe, passed down properly within the Yoshida family. It also says that the secrets should not be passed on to Shinto priests, at least normally, and certainly not to Buddhist monks. Both of these requirements were relaxed over the next two decades, but when we look at the people who were initiated into Yoshida Shinto in the early years, starting in 1471, they are all members of the Kyoto nobility, including the head of the Jingikan and a former regent for the emperor. It seems likely that Kanetomo initially conceived of Sogen Shinto as an aristocratic religion.

Another early activity concerns the Saijosho. This was, I think, originally the place in the palace where the Shinto rituals were performed. Kanetomo is mentioned as being in charge of it in a letter written by the shogun, Yoshimasa Ashikaga, to the Upper Shrine of Suwa Taisha in 1470. The letter is a formal petition to the kami, and was probably actually written by Kanetomo, who seems to have been in high favour with the shogun and his family, and responsible for many kinds of prayer. The reference is a little odd, because the imperial palace had been destroyed by the war, presumably including the Saijosho. Within a few years, Kanetomo had got the Saijosho re-established in the grounds of the Yoshida mansion, near the Yoshida shrine.

In order to achieve this, he forged an imperial decree purporting to be from a couple of hundred years earlier, and had it “reaffirmed” by the current emperor. This decree specified the form of the Saijosho, saying that all the kami, all eight million of them, and the 3132 kami listed in the Engi Shiki, all descended to that space every day. That is, all the kami of Japan were to be enshrined in this one place.

This is the point where Professor Okada particularly criticised Kanetomo. First, he forged public documents to create his religion. He also forged a lot of documents that he claimed had been passed down in the Urabe family for generations, but that’s less serious, as the only thing they didn’t have that they claimed was age. Official documents, however, claim to have the force of law, and they don’t.

The second point is more internal to Shinto. As I mentioned in my summaries of earlier lectures, Professor Okada thinks that, originally, each kami was worshipped only by the family claiming descent from it. Thus, only the emperor could worship Amaterasu, but the emperor could not worship Amenokoyane, because he was the ancestor of the Nakatomi. Even in the system of the Engi Shiki, the regional kami were not brought to the capital; instead, the emperor sent ambassadors to the shrines with offerings. Kanetomo, however, just enshrined all the kami in his own shrine.

The shrine was built properly in the 1480s. Kanetomo claimed to have had a dream in which he saw the emperor himself, dressed in ritual robes, worshipping in the shrine, while a woman served, and a monk sat off to the side. The monk introduced himself as Kukai, the founder of Shingon, and said that, in the current chaos, when the imperial house looked likely to fall, Amaterasu had decided to move to Kyoto, and specifically to Kanetomo’s shrine, to protect the emperor.

Professor Okada thinks it is possible that Kanetomo actually had this dream, although he seemed less sure that it was actually a divine message. In any case, the three important points are the need to protect the emperor, the transfer of the Ise shrines, and the presence of Kukai, a Buddhist monk. The first two points are fairly obviously connected to Kanetomo’s desire to establish Yoshida Shinto, but what about the monk? Kukai’s presence is odd, particularly considering that the first document written said that monks should not be initiated into Yoshida Shinto.

Professor Okada speculated that the reason was that Buddhism was still far more powerful than Shinto at this point, so that Kanetomo was trying to get Buddhist support for his new religion. Certainly, he started initiating monks from about this period.

The Saijosho that Kanetomo built is very interesting. At the centre is an octagonal building, the Daigenkyu, which enshrines Kunitokotachi, the first kami mentioned in the Nihonshoki. Octagonal buildings are very rare in Shinto, but apparently they represent circles, and thus universality. In covered walkways around the Daigenkyu, Kanetomo enshrined all of the kami mentioned in the Engi Shiki, while behind it he enshrined the Inner and Outer Shrines of Ise. He didn’t have permission from Ise to do this, and the priests there were definitely not pleased with what he had done, but Kanetomo was in Kyoto and had the ear of the shogun, so there was little they could do about it.

Kanetomo had a Shinto funeral, and while the details are not known, this may have been the first “modern” Shinto funeral. Certainly, Edo-period Shinto funerals were derived from the Yoshida version. As mentioned above, Kanetomo is enshrined within the precincts of Yoshida Shrine. He is also buried underneath his shrine; that is very unusual, since Shinto normally avoids any association with death or corpses.

Overall, Professor Okada said that Yoshida Shinto was genuinely new, created by Kanetomo from many elements, including the earlier traditions of Shinto, but also including Buddhism, Confucianism, and Onmyodo. Indeed, while Professor Okada finds the origins of Shinto around the beginning of the Nara period, some people say that it began as a religion with Kanetomo. He was the first person to give Shinto a set of doctrines, a central place of worship, and a centralised organisation. His influence can be seen today, as Jinja Honcho has a similar relationship to other shrines to that created by Kanetomo. It isn’t, on the other hand, much like that of the Jingikan.

Yoshida Shinto is interesting because it seems to have been completely destroyed after the Meiji Restoration, despite its supreme importance during the Edo period. As far as Professor Okada knows, and this is one of his specialised fields, there is no-one alive who knows how to perform the Yoshida rituals, and even reconstructing their ritual implements is difficult. It also seems to lack much of a modern constituency, unlike Onmyodo and Shugendo. Why did it vanish so completely? I don’t know.

At the end of the lecture, Professor Okada told us what he is planning to do next year. He wants to cover the cults of the top ten kami by number of shrines, starting with number ten, the Kasuga kami, and finishing with Hachiman, the most widespread kami in Japan. That sounds like a really interesting topic to me, so I’m looking forward to it. I’d better start saving up.

Posted in Kokugakuin.

2 Comments

  1. Your posts on the shinto yahoo group, and your writings here on the blog are some of the most informative I have found. Thank you for writing.

  2. You’re welcome; thank you for the comment. I hope they continue to be useful.

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