Shinto Traditions Course — Inari

Today, the Shinto course at Kokugakuin University started again after the summer break. Of course, I’ve not posted any reports of the course in English since the very first lecture, way back in April, due to not having enough time, but I’m going to try to cover the last four lectures, because they cover the four most important and widespread traditions in Shinto.

Today’s lecture covered the fourth largest tradition, Inari. Now, if you’ve read about Shinto you may have heard that there are more Inari shrines in Japan than any other kind, up to around 30,000. However, according to Professor Okada there is no basis for that statement. The analysis that they did at Kokugakuin of a survey conducted by the Association of Shinto Shrines suggests that there are only a few thousand Inari shrines, and that it is the fourth largest tradition. However, as he pointed out, that survey was based on the names of the shrines, so it only reflects the primary kami. If you go to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura, it’s a Hachiman shrine, but it has three Inari shrines in the precincts. So, if you count all of the sub-shrines, and the shrines on the roofs of department stores (which are not part of the Association of Shinto Shrines), and the shrines in people’s gardens, then it might get up to 30,000. However, nobody has counted them, so there is no real evidence for the large number. Thus, Inari is a large Shinto tradition, but maybe not the largest.

The central shrine of the Inari tradition is Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto. According to the shrine tradition, it was founded in 711 by the Hata family, who were immigrants from the Korean peninsular. The story is that one of them, Irogu, became rich from rice farming, and made a rice cake, and then set it up as a target for archery. However, it turned into a white bird and flew away, and where it landed lots of rice sprang up. It landed in a cedar tree, and Irogu took one of the branches as a lucky charm. The shrine was founded where the bird landed, and branches from the tree remained lucky charms. It is said that if you plant one and it flourishes, you will be rich, but if it withers, you won’t be.

The name “Inari” is written with the characters for “burden of rice”, but it was originally written with those for “growing rice”. The most common kami at Inari shrines (it isn’t always the same one) is Ukanomitama no Mikoto, and his (or her) name is sometimes written with the characters for “rice granary”. It is, as you might guess, uncontroversial that Inari was originally an agricultural kami. Many kami were, of course, so this is hardly unusual.

So, the question is why Inari’s cult spread so much. Professor Okada suggested several reasons. First, in the ninth century Fushimi Inari became associated with the Imperial court. The emperor fell ill, and he despatched a messenger to make offerings at the shrine, because the illness was judged to be due to the kami’s curse. One of the causes was that Kukai (Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism) had chopped down trees on Mount Inari to build Toji, his large temple in Kyoto. This incident seems to have created a link between Inari and Shingon, as well as with the imperial court. In the later Heian period, Fushimi Inari became one of the 22 shrines that received special attention from the imperial court, which helped it to become more popular. In addition, its association with Shingon meant that it spread as Shingon temples spread across Japan.

Another reason for Inari’s popularity was that women were allowed to worship there. Most Buddhist temples, particularly the ones with sacred mountains, forbade entry to women. This was true until the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century, and I believe there is still one place that maintains the tradition today. This was, obviously, a problem for women who wanted to visit sacred places. However, Fushimi Inari allowed women to visit all parts of the shrine, and it was quite close to the capital, so it became a popular destination for pilgrimages. It features in quite a few works of literature from the later Heian period (from about 950 to 1100), generally in the context of women visiting the mountain. This factor seems to have increased its popularity with ordinary people; indeed, Fushimi Inari may well have been one of the first shrines that people in general visited for personal worship.

A further reason is Fushimi Inari’s attitude to distributing divided spirits of the kami. Basically, this is what you need to found a new shrine; it’s a kami to enshrine there. Fushimi Inari would, basically, give one to anyone who made an appropriate offering. That meant that, if you wanted to establish a shrine to look after your new house, it was easiest to establish an Inari shrine.

A final reason is connected to Inari’s current area of influence. These days, Inari is seen mainly as a kami of commercial prosperity. Professor Okada suggested that this started because the people living in the area of Kyoto that was taken to be under Fushimi Inari’s protection were mostly craftsmen (particularly metalworkers) and tradesmen. Thus, Inari became associated with business success and when, in the Edo period, people founded businesses in the towns that grew up around the castles of the samurai, they established Inari shrines as well.

As a result, Inari spread widely, but if you tabulate the shrines by region, there is a noticeable bias towards eastern Japan. The reasons for this are not entirely clear.

To prepare for this lecture, Professor Okada visited Fushimi Inari, for the first time in about twenty years. He said that the famous tunnel of red torii, set up by people making offerings to the kami, has got longer, and now covers most of the main path up and around the mountain. At the top, there are areas full of torii erected in the Heisei period, which means since 1989. Thus, this practice is still current. He also mentioned that there are, along the tunnel, signs giving a price list for the torii. The smallest one is 500,000 yen, or about $6000 (at the moment), and for the largest ones you can expect to pay a few million yen. Not exactly an impulse purchase, but within the budget of ordinary individuals.

One shrine on the mountain is called “White Fox Shrine”, and it enshrines a white fox who serves Inari. The association of foxes with Inari is very strong, and very famous, but its origin is also very obscure. There is one theory that says that Inari was associated with a Shingon Buddhist deity called Dakiniten, and that, as Dakiniten rode a white fox, the fox became associated with Inari. Another theory, however, says that Inari was associated with Dakiniten because they were both associated with foxes. This is a mystery, but everyone knows about Inari and foxes, if only because the guardian statues at an Inari shrine are invariably foxes rather than the koma-inu that most shrines have.

At the end of the lecture, Professor Okada told us an extra story, nothing to do with Inari. Over the summer, he went to Tsushima, an island near Korea, and found an interesting shrine. It isn’t very big, and looks like any other small shrine, but the kami is Maria Konishi, the wife of a lord at the beginning of the Edo period. As you might guess from her name, she was a Christian. While Christianity was forbidden in Japan, the hidden Christians used the shrine as a way to worship, but now it is an ordinary Shinto shrine, as the Christians have churches. Professor Okada commented that he wasn’t sure how Maria Konishi herself felt about becoming a Shinto kami, but it shows how ready Shinto is to accept and incorporate outside influences, of various sorts.

One thing that this series of lectures has made clear is the variety found within Shinto. Inari might be very popular, but the Inari shrines are noticeably different from other shrines, with their red torii and foxes. The diversity of Shinto is, for me, one of the most appealing things about it.

Posted in Kokugakuin.


  1. I’m reading all these Shinto lecture posts, and they’re so great! Thank you immensely for the effort to write them up. If you have others not yet in English, I would look forward to seeing them as well! Any other resources you could recommend would be appreciated too. 🙂

  2. Daniel,

    Thanks for the comment. I’m afraid the ones that are online are all I have; the lectures started to clash with my job, so I had to stop going. There are also not very many good resources on Shinto in English. I’m thinking about writing some, but I’m not sure whether they’ll actually be good.

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