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.






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