Shinto Traditions Course — Ise

As the Shinto Traditions course at Kokugakuin University approaches its end, it has been covering the really big traditions within Shinto, the ones that it is hard to miss. This week’s lecture was about the shrines connected to Ise. The Grand Shrines of Ise enshrine Amaterasu Ohmikami, the kami of the sun and the legendary ancestress of the Imperial line, along with numerous other kami, the most important of which is Toyouke Ohkami. The Grand Shrines comprise 120 separate shrines, with the Kotai Daijingu (or Naiku, inner shrine), where Amaterasu is enshrined, at the head, and the Toyouke Daijingu (or Geku, outer shrine), where Toyouke Ohkami is enshrined, in second place. The Grand Shrines are the most important single shrine complex in contemporary Shinto, but given the diversity of Shinto this does not make them equivalent to the Vatican or Mecca; there are plenty of people who practise Shinto but do not pay special attention to Ise. However, there are relatively few who ignore it entirely.

Professor Okada started the lecture by talking about the origins of the Ise shrines. According to the earliest legends, written down in the eighth century, the Naiku was founded in the reign of Emperor Suinin. In the previous reign, that of Emperor Sujin, the mirror housing Amaterasu’s spirit had been moved out of the Imperial palace, because the emperor thought it wasn’t right for it to be close. In Emperor Suinin’s reign, Yamato Hime no Mikoto took it round central Japan, until she reached Ise, and Amaterasu told her that this was the right place for the shrine.

Now, Professor Okada didn’t explicitly say that this was just a legend, but it is; the consensus is that the emperors involved never existed, and the date attached is too early. Since Professor Okada went on to talk about other hypotheses for its origin, it’s fairly clear that he also does not believe the legend is literally true.

The point Professor Okada emphasised was that, if you draw a line from Makimuku, in Nara Prefecture, through Mt. Miwa (the sacred mountain of Ohmiwa Shrine), it goes just south of east to pass through Ise, and on to Kuzaki, a place on the coast which has always provided the abalone offered in the main festivals at the Grand Shrines. The lines isn’t exact, which is not at all surprising given that he was suggesting it was laid out around the fourth century, but it is a lot closer than chance would suggest. Makimuku is not yet well known outside Japan, because it has become famous as the result of recent (and still ongoing, I believe) excavations. It’s the area near Ohmiwa Shrine, at the excavations have uncovered a third century palace complex and capital city. This is particularly exciting because the dates match up with a mention of a Japanese ruler of “Yamatai” in Chinese historical documents, so there is a suspicion that this could be her palace. Although Chinese-influenced capital cities are normally laid out around a north-south axis, Makimuku is laid out on an east-west axis, matching the line to Ise. This suggests a foundation date for Ise around this period, right at the beginning of anything that can helpfully be called Shinto.

The Geku has a separate foundation legend. An early document from Ise states that Emperor Yuryaku had a message in a dream, where Amaterasu said she was lonely at Ise, and asked him to bring another kami, Toyouke hime, to the shrine, to serve her. The date given for this is 478. In this case, Emperor Yuryaku is a real historical figure, from the late fifth century. Two swords with inscriptions referring to him (as “Great King”, not “Emperor”) have been unearthed, one from Kyushu, and one from near Tokyo, so his existence is not in doubt, although the name “Yuryaku” is a later one; his name at the time was Wakatakeru. (Japanese emperors have always received new names on their deaths, although the practice is thought to have been applied retrospectively to some of the earlier ones.) Therefore, it is quite possible that the Geku was established in the fifth century, at the behest of Emperor Yuryaku, and that the Naiku was already there at that point.

The next big change in the Grand Shrines was the introduction of the Shikinen Sengu. This is the event in which all of the main shrines and shrine treasures are completely remade, once every twenty years or so. (The next one is in 2013, although the preparatory festivals have already started.) The Nihonshoki says that this was commanded by Emperor Tenmu in 685, and first carried out under his wife and successor, Emperor Jito, in 690. This date is generally accepted, because the first other record of the ceremony is a document from the mid eighth century listing the decorative metalwork required for it. The original document survives (in the Shosoin in Nara), so at the latest the ceremony started within 5o years of the date given in the Nihonshoki. Given that that’s only two or three occurrences, there is no reason to doubt the Nihonshoki date.

If you visit Ise near the time of the Sengu, there are two sets of shrine buildings at both the Naiku and Geku, the old and new structures. At all other times, there is one set of shrine buildings, and an almost empty area, where the last and next buildings were and will be. However, it’s only almost empty. A little way towards the back, there is a small hut-like structure. This covers the Shin no Mihashira, one of the most sacred and mysterious parts of the Ise shrines.

The Shin no Mihashira is never on public display, but records from people who have seen it say that it is a block of wood about 1.5m long and about 12cm thick. The bottom 50cm are set into the ground, so that it projects up by about 1m. It is underneath the main sanctuary of the shrines, but they have raised floors, about 2m from the ground, so the pillar is not structural. It is said to be directly underneath the point at which the mirror containing the spirit of the kami is kept in the sanctuary, and thus may provide symbolic support for it. The Shin no Mihashira has been called the central axis of Japan, and there are stories that it cracks when Japan faces a crisis. Until the Meiji Restoration, the offerings at the most important festivals at Ise were made in front of the Shin no Mihashira, underneath the shrine buildings, rather than in front of the doors. (Personally, I think they should go back to doing that as soon as possible, but that’s just me.)

There are a number of theories as to what the Shin no Mihashira is, but none have strong support. It could well be the original form of the shrines, because there is good evidence that, in early Shinto, the kami were summoned into trees or wooden pillars to participate in festivals. However, it could also be something unique to Ise. In this context, the important part is that it is the only part of the old shrine that is not disassembled. The new shrine is built around it, to ensure that it is in the right place.

The Sengu is very, very expensive. Originally it was paid for by taxes on the regions of Japan around Ise, but in the Heian period that was replaced by a national tax. In the Sengoku period of civil wars, the Sengu was suspended for over a hundred years, because the shrines could not afford to do it. When the country was reunified, however, the shoguns took over responsibility for it, and at the Meiji Restoration it became a state ceremony, paid for out of taxes. However, after the second world war, state contributions to Shinto ceremonies were forbidden. The first post-war Sengu was in 1953, having been delayed because of the occupation of Japan. However, much of the material for that Sengu had been gathered before the war, so the first one to be funded entirely by voluntary contributions was the 1973 Sengu; the 2013 one will be the third.

I think that the fact that it can be funded by voluntary donations shows that the Grand Shrines of Ise still have an important place in the Japanese psyche. This is despite the fact that, originally, people other than the emperor were strictly forbidden to make offerings at Ise, and having a shrine tablet (o-fuda) from there was a criminal offence. This rule was relaxed as the shrine came to rely more on the support of people in general, and low-ranking priests travelled the country, extolling the importance of Ise.

If you look at the contemporary distribution of shrines connected to Ise, there is a heavy bias towards eastern Japan, the area to the east of Ise. This was a surprising discovery, because most Shinto scholars had assumed that Ise was fairly evenly nationwide; certainly, the fact that there are no Ise-related shrines at all in Tottori prefecture was a bit of a shock. However, the reason seems likely to be that the priests recruiting supporters tended to head east, to the areas that formed the headquarters of the newly powerful warriors. Since the shrines tended to be founded on land given to support the Grand Shrines, they tended to be founded in the region targeted for recruitment.

Although Ise is closely associated with the Imperial family, it is also an important part of folk Shinto. It’s also a very old shrine complex, with fascinating customs that have very old roots. While it is certainly possible to exaggerate the importance of Ise in Shinto, both historically and today, it’s probably a bigger mistake to minimise it.

The next lecture will be the last one, covering Hachiman, the largest tradition in Shinto, and one that does cover the whole country fairly evenly.

Sitting on Trains

As I have mentioned before, there is a rumour on the internet that Japanese people will refuse to sit next to obvious foreigners on trains, even when the train is very crowded. As I have also mentioned before, I see no evidence that this is true. Today, I wish to report further evidence.

Japanese people are perfectly happy to sit next to foreigners even when the foreigner is throwing up.

Well, strictly speaking it was Mayuki who was throwing up, and she has dual citizenship, so she isn’t a foreigner. She’s also three, which probably makes a difference to the immediate reaction. Still, the high school girl sitting next to me and the woman sitting next to her were helpful, even though the girl got slightly splashed. There wasn’t a great deal I could do; I was holding Mayuki on my lap, and trying to make sure that she threw up on me, not anyone else. We were given a lot of pocket tissues, and the woman even gave us a handkerchief, which she didn’t want back once it had vomit on it.

Oh yes, there’s also the claim that Japanese people stare at foreigners. Well, walking through a crowded station being very foreign and covered in vomit, only one person gave me a noticeable second glance. On the other hand, father and small daughter, both covered in vomit: it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to work out the story behind that one.

Fortunately, I had a full change of clothes for Mayuki with me, and, using the handkerchief, I was able to clean myself up enough that we could enjoy the main purpose of the trip. That was a visit to a Thomas the Tank Engine theme park, where Mayuki went on the rollercoasters several times, and wasn’t sick at all.

On the one hand, this is a good candidate for “worst Japanese travel experience”. Not just a crowded rush hour train in Tokyo, but being thrown up on the middle of it. On the other, it showed the Japanese people around me in a very good light. A good experience overall, then.

Nyotai Daijin and Wakamiya Hachimangu

Yesterday we had another meeting of the various chairpeople of the Representative Assembly, and afterwards I took advantage of being in southern Kawasaki to visit a couple of the shrines there. One of them, Wakamiya Hachimangu, is a little notorious, due to the nature of a second shrine found in the grounds, so the pictures in this article may not be entirely safe for work, or for those of an exceptionally sensitive disposition. On the other hand, both shrines have kindergartens in the grounds, so they can’t be that bad. To avoid offending people unnecessarily, however, you have to click on the “more” link to see the whole of this article.

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Shinto Traditions Course — Tenjin

This week’s Shinto Traditions lecture at Kokugakuin University was on Tenjin. Tenjin is, these days, best known as the kami of passing entrance exams, but originally he was Sugawara no Michizane, a scholar and politician of the late ninth and early tenth century.

The Sugawara family were mid-ranking aristocrats in Heian Japan, with hereditary jobs in the university, and in preparing drafts of official documents. Michizane was recognised as being exceptionally talented early on, and was promoted quite quickly. At the age of 42 he was appointed governor of Sanuki, part of Shikoku, and unlike many such governors he actually went to his region, where he was reputedly responsible for many improvements to irrigation and other agricultural systems. (Obviously, at the distance of a thousand years and with the legends that have grown up around him, it’s hard to be sure.) He returned to the capital when his term as a governor expired, and continued his rise through the ranks. When he was 53 his eldest daughter entered the imperial court, and became the wife of one of the sons of the emperor. Soon after that emperor abdicated, in favour of another of his sons, Michizane was, at the age of 55, appointed Minister of the Right, the second-highest actual post in the government. (In theory, the third highest under the emperor, but the nominal highest post, the Prime Minister, was vacant at this point.)

Alongside his political career, he was a significant scholar. He edited a volume of the official history of Japan, and produced several collections of poetry, in both Chinese and Japanese, along with other writings. He was also famed for the quality of his calligraphy.

Two years after that, early in 901, a rumour spread that he was plotting to put his son-in-law on the throne. He was appointed assistant head of Dazaifu, the main governmental centre in Kyushu, and sent from the capital. This was, effectively, the end of his political career; it was a way of punishing him without having to formally decide that he had done anything wrong. These days, the consensus seems to be that the charges were made up by the Fujiwara, the highest aristocrat family, who had almost succeeded in taking control of the government by ensuring that all the emperors were married to Fujiwara daughters. Michizane’s rise was a threat to their dominance, which was not yet secure. With his defeat, it became secure, so that for the next 150 years or so the Fujiwara effectively ruled Japan, with the emperors as little more than figureheads. (Figurehead emperors are the normal state in Japanese history; the actual authority that the emperors had from the Meiji Emperor to the end of the Second World War was unusual. The power behind the throne has changed quite a lot, however.)

Michizane died in Kyushu in 903, and when his body was taken for burial, the ox drawing the cart stopped at one point, and refused to move any further. This was taken as a sign that he should be buried on that spot, and so he was, directly under what is now the sanctum of Dazaifu Tenmangu, the big Tenjin shrine in Kyushu.

A couple of years later the Fujiwara responsible for Michizane’s exile, Fujiwara no Tokihira, died, and this was attributed to Michizane’s curse. Lightning struck the palace, and in the mid 920s two crown princes died in quick succession, which was also attributed to Michizane’s curse. He was restored to Minister of the Right, and his court rank was increased. In the end, he was appointed Prime Minister (after his death), and raised to the First Rank. Buddhist rites were also performed to calm his spirit. This sort of thing was fairly normal at the time; it’s called Onryo Belief. However, Michizane was different in an important way.

Most dead people suspected of cursing the living were calmed with Buddhist rites. Michizane, however, came to be worshipped with Shinto rites, as Tenjin, or Jizaitenjin, a title originally used for the version of the Hindu god Shiva that made it to Japan. According to Professor Okada, he was the first human to be worshipped as a kami. (There is a possible exception, in that Hachiman was said to be Emperor Ojin, but since Emperor Ojin was mythical in the first place, and the association with Hachiman came after the Hachiman tradition was established, it isn’t the same sort of thing.) The question is why. In Kyushu, a Buddhist temple, Anrakuji, was established around his grave to pray for his soul, which was normal. However, in Kyoto a shrine was established, which wasn’t.

The details are difficult to put together at this distance, but several key points can be noted. In 939 Taira no Masakado, a rebel in the region around Tokyo, received an oracle purportedly from Hachiman and Michizane saying that he should be the emperor. This rebellion really frightened the central government, so oracles associated with it were well known. A few years later, in 942, a girl living in Kyoto received an oracle that she should worship Michizane, and set up a small shrine. In 945, a mikoshi carrying Michizane, as Jizaitenjin, was among a group that came from Kyushu to the capital (I think; the details of this got skipped over a bit). In 947, the son of a priest near Kyoto received an oracle telling him to build a shrine on Kitano, a plain to the northwest of the capital which was used for many Shinto-related ceremonies, and in 959 the Fujiwara started contributing to building the shrine there. Fairly soon it became a major target of Fujiwara patronage, and also of imperial patronage, becoming one of the 22 shrines that received special imperial attention.

The popular spread of the Tenjin tradition was probably partly due to the fact that Tenjin was a thunder kami, and thus associated with rain and agriculture. To become popular in that period, an association with agriculture was basically essential, as that was what most people did. However, due to his scholarship in life, he became associated with scholarship by the late Heian period, the late twelfth century, at the latest. In the Edo period, from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, Tenjin was closely associated with the local schools for townsmen, the terakoya, and this cemented his association with scholarship, and particularly with school studies. When entrance exams became important, particularly after the Second World War, he became known as a kami of entrance exams, and the major Tenjin shrines in Tokyo are very, very busy around exam season (December/January).

I’d like to mention three other points of interest. First, the dates of Michizane’s birth, exile, and death were all the 25th of the month, although in different months. Thus, the 25th is Tenjin’s “day”, and the shrines are particularly busy on that day. December 25th and January 25th, falling in exam season, are the busiest. So, if you want a Shinto substitute for Christmas, you can study for exams. I can’t really see this catching on.

The second point is that, although the historical records are quite clear that Michizane’s father was Sugawara no Koreyoshi, the legends that had grown up around him by the thirteenth century were clear that this was not the case. In one collection, preserved in an important Tenjin shrine in Yamaguchi prefecture, in western Japan, it is stated that Koreyoshi found a young boy playing in his garden, and the boy claimed to have no mother or father, so he was adopted by Koreyoshi. This is thought to be because it was still not easy for people to think that an ordinary person could become a kami, so Michizane needed some sort of supernatural origin.

Finally, there is a Japanese poem said to be by Michizane that goes roughly as follows:

If you follow the true path, the kami will protect you even though you never pray.

The first record of this poem dates from 1377, so its attribution to Michizane is rather shaky, but Professor Okada has found late medieval references to it from Mt Koya, the centre of Shingon Buddhism, and from court nobles, indicating that it had some spread. It is interesting that even within Shinto, which places such importance on ritual practice, also includes traditions that say ritual does not matter.

Finally, Real Discussions

I’m afraid this post is a week or so late, but on the 26th September we had another meeting of the Kawasaki City Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents. This was the fifth meeting of the assembly, and we finally got on to actually discussing issues, at least in the Life and Society subcommittee. As you may remember, at the end of our last exciting meeting, we still had to decide the order in which we would discuss the topics that we thought would take some time, so that was what we started last week’s session with. Fortunately, this proved to be almost completely uncontroversial, and it took about ten minutes to agree on an order. That meant that we could get on with discussing the topics we had chosen as not requiring too much time.

The first topic was immigration rules, and specifically the rules for family. If a foreigner has residence rights in Japan, they are allowed to bring their spouse or children over, and those family members can also get long-term visas. However, this is as far as it extends. The particular problem that people wanted to raise was that of parents. First, several of the women on the committee said that they wanted their mothers to come over when they gave birth, to help with the baby, but they could only come on tourist visas, which are limited to three months. Obviously, that’s not really long enough to help with a baby. The other major issue was that people wanted their parents to come live with them, as their parents were getting old. It seems that, if your parents have no other relatives in their home country, or cannot live by themselves, it is possible to get special permission for them to stay in Japan long-term, but this is rather limited. It might be better to spend time as a family before your parents lose their independence, for example, or you might be the best able to look after them, even though there are other children back in their home country.

Looking at other countries, South Korea is similar to Japan, while Canada is much more generous, admitting parents, siblings, and unmarried partners. Thus, we decided that we wanted to ask Kawasaki to ask the government to broaden the family category, to allow parents, at least, to come and live in Japan with their children. However, we also want to note that the availability of special permission is a good thing, so we are going to return to the issue next time, after our secretariat has looked into the details of when it might be available. We really don’t want to formally ask for something that already exists. However, that’s just the details of the proposal; the broad outline has been fixed.

The second topic was the availability of City Hall services on the weekend. There are a number of things that you have to do at the ward offices, but they are normally only open during weekday working hours, which can be difficult if you work. However, the material provided by the secretariat revealed that Kawasaki offices are already open two Saturday mornings a month, and that you can do almost all of the paperwork then. (The big exception is tax-related paperwork.) In particular, you can do foreigner registration. A lot of the representatives didn’t know about this at all, and although I knew the offices opened, I didn’t think you could do foreigner registration, or most of the other things. In addition, the comparative information the secretariat provided showed that Kawasaki has the most generous opening hours of any of the “shireitoshi”; large cities with a special form of government that makes them largely independent of the prefecture. As a result, we decided that we didn’t want to ask for any improvement of the services, but rather to ask for better publicity. However, that sort of topic is the purview of the other subcommittee, so we’re going to talk about passing it over when we have the next Chairpersons’ Meeting.

That took about an hour, for both together. I really hadn’t expected the topics to take so little time to discuss. It’s not a bad thing, but we were at a bit of a loose end. We decided what information we wanted the secretariat to prepare for the next meeting, and then talked about experiences of being foreign in Japan, such as being stopped by the police and asked for ID. This has never happened to me, but it has happened to a lot of the other representatives. This is a tricky topic, because most of it falls outside the jurisdiction of the city, but it is clearly very important to foreigners living in Japan. We’re planning to discuss something related to it later (surveying foreign residents to find out what the problems are), but it’s not clear what we can do about it directly.

Overall, then, the meeting went very well. We might even be able to get through the three remaining short topics next time, which would be great, as it would leave us plenty of time to discuss the complicated issues. The discussion as a whole went well, with only one representative saying nothing until asked directly for an opinion. Obviously, some people are more proactive than others, but everyone is participating, and, so far, we have reached unanimous agreement on what we want to say about the topics. Long may this continue.