Shinto Traditions Course — Kasuga

The Japanese academic year starts in April, and with it the Kokugakuin Open College courses also start again. Once again, they are offering a Shinto course, and once again I’m taking it. The number of people taking the course has increased every year, and this year there are over 180 students. The lecture room is about three-quarters full, and they make about 360,000 yen (about $4,000) for every 90 minute lecture. This may not be entirely unconnected with their decision to continue offering the course, although the fact that Professor Okada enjoys giving it is probably also an important factor.

Anyway, this year he chose Shinto traditions as his theme. “Traditions” is the way I have chosen to translate “shinkou”, which would more normally be translated as “cults” or “religions”. However, those have misleading overtones. Shinto encompasses the worship of many different kami, and there are some shrines to kami that are worshipped nowhere else. There are also shrines that are all connected to the same kami, and back to one or two major shrines. A few years ago, Professor Okada led a project to analyse the data for the shrines affiliated with the Organisation of Shinto Shrines, and look at the size and distribution of the various affiliations. For this course, he is planning to spend one lecture on each of the top ten affiliation groups. I’ve decided to call these affiliation groups “traditions”, because that seems to be the least misleading way to describe them.

In fact, he decided not to talk about the tenth largest tradition, that of “mountain kami”. This is because most of the shrines are very small, and they don’t tie back to a central shrine. There may not, in fact, be any unified tradition to talk about, as all the cults may be local. In any case, I suspect that it was also more work than he wanted to put into a single 90-minute lecture, even if it would earn the university $4000. So, instead, he chose to talk about the eleventh tradition, that of Kasuga. Since he is starting at the bottom, and working up to the biggest tradition (Hachiman), this week’s lecture was the one about Kasuga.

The Kasuga tradition is based at Kasuga Shrine in Nara. This shrine is closely connected to the Fujiwara family, who provided the wives of the Emperors for several centuries in the Heian period, and effectively ruled Japan for much of that time, and their patronage and that of Emperors born to Fujiwara mothers is why the shrine is so significant. The prefecture with the largest number of shrines in the Kasuga tradition is Nara, unsurprisingly, but the second highest number is found in Fukui, in southern Tohoku. I suspect that this is because an important branch of the Fujiwara had its headquarters in this area.

Most of the lecture was about the origins of the shrine. That wasn’t the original plan (it was point one of six), but it’s clearly something that interests Professor Okada, so he got a little involved in it. In addition, the origins of the shrine are intrinsically interesting.

In the Engishiki, the early tenth-century collection of court rituals that provides a lot of information on early Shinto, most shrines are referred to as “jinja”. There are a handful of exceptions; Izumo is “taisha”, and Ise, Kashima, and Katori are “jingu”. Kasuga is also an exception. It is referred to as “matsuru kami”, which means “worship the kami”. Why is this?

The kami enshrined at Kasuga are the clan kami of the Fujiwara. These are Amenokoyane, their ancestral kami, who is originally enshrined in Hiraoka shrine in Osaka, Takemikazuchi, enshrined in Kashima Shrine in Ibaraki, Futsunushi, enshrined in Katori Shrine in Chiba, and Himegami, originally thought to be the bride of Amenokoyane. The precise nature of the connection between the Fujiwara and the two shrines in the region just east of Tokyo (Kashima and Katori) is unclear; some stories say that the first Fujiwara, Kamatari, was born in the area. In any case, they greatly revered the kami of those shrines.

In 710, the capital of Japan was moved to Nara, called Heijokyo at the time. (They are celebrating the 1300th anniversary this year.) This moved the Fujiwara away from the shrines to their clan deities, and it is thought that Kasuga Shrine was initially established as a place from which to worship those shrines from afar. A map of the area around Nara survives from 756, and it shows a number of important buildings. On Mt Mikasa, the small mountain on which Kasuga Shrine is built, however, there is no indication of a building. Instead, there is a square marked, with “ground of the kami” written in it. The characters are written so that they are the right way up if you are facing east, which, judging from the characters for surviving buildings, means that the front of the area was in the west. The square is about the same size, and in about the same place, as the current inner sanctum at Kasuga, and so almost certainly indicates its forerunner.

If you are in Nara, Kashima and Katori Shrines are to the east, so if you want to worship them remotely, you should face that way. However, it is very unusual for shrines to face west, and the main sanctuaries at Kasuga (there are four separate ones, one for each kami) do not. This dates back to their original construction, in 768. According to the records, the Emperor Shotoku (the daughter of Emperor Shomu, who built the Great Buddha of Nara, and Empress Komyo, who was a daughter of the Fujiwara) had a divine vision in which she was instructed to construct shrine buildings, facing south. The fact that the records explicitly mention the direction, which is the normal direction for shrines to face, suggests that they didn’t originally face that way.

So, it seems most likely that Kasuga Shrine originated as a sacred enclosure, without buildings, for worshipping the kami of distant shrines.

Professor Okada then moved on to tell us a bit more about the history of the tradition. He was running out of time, so some of these points were covered rather briefly. The first point concerns two of the minor shrines in the precincts of Kasuga Shrine, Verdant Sakaki Shrine and Withered Sakaki Shrine. Sakaki is the evergreen tree that features in most Shinto rituals, and which grows around Kasuga Shrine. But why are there shrines to these two states of the tree?

The forests around Kasuga Shrine are unusual in the present day, as they are virgin forest in the middle of a city. This is because it has been explicitly forbidden to hunt or cut wood in them since 841, and they were probably untouched before that, since they became sacred at the same time as people moved to the area in any significant numbers. Shinto has always valued trees, and shrines still need the permission of the Association of Shinto Shrines to cut down trees in their precincts. However, the trees at Kasuga were particularly important to the shrine.

First, they were thought to warn of the anger of the kami. If the trees on the Kasuga hills became brown and dead, this was a sign that the kami was displeased about something, and had withdrawn from the area. The number of brown trees indicated the severity of his anger, so the exact number was recorded; it could be several thousand. The Fujiwara would then perform ceremonies to placate the kami, and wait for things to improve.

The second point relates to the attempts of the shrine (and the associated Buddhist temple, Kofukuji) to browbeat the government into doing what it wanted. When the shrine was unhappy with the government, it used to send its men (lots of them) to the capital with a sacred tree, threatening the Emperor with divine displeasure. The men would all carry withered sakaki branches, to show that the kami was angry, and they went to the imperial palace to make their demands. If these demands were not met, they threw the withered sakaki branches into the compound, symbolically throwing the kami’s curse in as well. On the other hand, if the government caved in, they would come back with green sakaki, indicating that the kami was happy now.

Professor Okada briefly mentioned the Kasuga Wakamiya On-matsuri. The Wakamiya enshrines the son of Amenokoyane, and the On-matsuri is its big festival. It happens once per year, and was popular with the local people, while the main festival of the main shrine was more of a government event, with official ambassadors from the Emperor (as there still are, in fact). The people would put on performances for the kami, and these performances were very important in the development of Noh. These days, Noh is still performed at the festival. However, the performances do not take place at the normal shrine. Instead, the kami is taken in procession to a temporary shrine, which is built every time, and then returned to the main shrine when the plays are over. However, he must get back within 24 hours, possibly because his father gets annoyed if he stays out too late at parties. (Or possibly because he turns into a pumpkin, although that’s less likely; Professor Okada did compare it to Cinderella, however.) The On-matsuri was first held in 1136, making it old, but significantly younger than the main shrine.

Finally, he talked about the Oracle of the Three Shrines, very briefly. This is a set of three oracles, from Ise, Hachiman, and Kasuga, which became very popular in the middle ages, and remained popular in the early modern period. Each of the three kami extols a particular virtue, and Kasuga extols compassion. Professor Okada provided a modern Japanese translation, as well as the original text, so I can provide an English translation.

Even if you purify yourself for a thousand days, I will not enter a house of malice
Even if you are mourning your father, I must enter a room of compassion

The death of your father is one of the greatest sources of ritual pollution in Shinto, close behind your own death, so the gist of this oracle is that ritual purity is much less important to the kami than compassion.

As the oracle was very important, and both the other kami are going to be covered later, I suspect we may come back to this topic.

This promises to be another extremely interesting course of lectures. I’m really looking forward to it.

Posted in Kokugakuin.

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