Shinto Traditions Course — Hachiman

This year’s Shinto course at Kokugakuin University came to an end this week, with a discussion of the Hachiman shrines. By one measure, this tradition boasts the highest number of shrines, and unlike most other traditions those shrines are spread evenly across the whole country (apart from Okinawa, which is a special case). The count, which is based on the names of shrines, misses one Hachiman shrine just down the road from me, because it takes its name from the area, but it does include Shirahata Hachiman Daijin, which is our local shrine. While you can debate the details of the count, the Hachiman tradition is, without doubt, extremely large and prevalent.

The first question, then, is why. This is generally traced back to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, the newest, and furthest east, of the three great Hachiman shrines. It is in the city of Kamakura, southwest of Tokyo, and was moved to its present location, and prominence, by Minamoto no Yoritomo, the shogun who founded the Kamakura government in 1192. He was devoted to the Hachiman kami, and made a habit of visiting the shrine, with all his retainers, on the first day of the new year. This appears to be the beginning of the custom of a new year shrine visit, which is now, by a large margin, the most widely observed Shinto custom in Japan. As a result, Yoritomo’s retainers also developed a devotion to Hachiman, whether genuine or politically motivated, and when they were given land elsewhere in Japan, they often founded a Hachiman shrine as part of developing the area. This practice was continued into later centuries, with the result that Hachiman became closely associated with the samurai class, and now is often described, in western accounts, as a kami of war. Ironically, Hachiman’s sacred animal is the dove.

So, why did Yoritomo place so much importance on Hachiman? This goes back to Iwashimizu Hachimangu, the second oldest and second furthest east of the three great Hachiman shrines. In 858, Emperor Seiwa took the throne at the age of nine, and Hachiman announced that he wanted to protect the new emperor. He was brought to the capital, Kyoto, and enshrined on a hill south of the city, forming Iwashimizu Hachimangu. This shrine was specifically dedicated to protecting the emperor, as the capital was protected by the Kamo shrines. This connection with the imperial family rapidly became stronger, with Iwashimizu Hachimangu becoming the second shrine of the imperial line, together with the Jingu at Ise. It was also connected with the Minamoto, because the Minamoto were the descendants of Emperor Seiwa, their ancestors having been made into commoners. Thus, Yoritomo was continuing a family tradition when he founded Tsurugaoka Hachimangu.

The next question is, why did Hachiman decide he wanted to protect the emperor? This goes back to the oldest and furthest west of the three great Hachiman shrines, Usa Jingu, on the north coast of Kyushu. The direct connection between Usa Jingu and the imperial court starts in 749, when Hachiman announced that he wanted to help with the construction of the great Buddha in Nara, and the kami was enshrined anew in Nara. The connection became very close in 769. Dokyo, a Buddhist monk with a great deal of influence at court, aimed to become emperor when the emperor at the time abdicated. There was some opposition to this, so he sent Wakë Kiyomaro to Usa to ask Hachiman’s opinion. The oracle that Kiyomaro brought back said that only a descendant of the imperial line could become emperor, and this marked the end of Dokyo’s power. As a result of this oracle, Hachiman was honoured as a protector of the imperial line, and envoys were sent to announce the accession of each emperor, thus providing the opportunity for Hachiman to say that he wanted to protect Emperor Seiwa. It is an interesting feature of Japanese history that the oracle has been respected ever since; the emperor has always been a member of the imperial family, and there has never been a change of dynasty. None of the shoguns ever declared themselves emperor, even as they stripped the reigning emperor of all real power.

I mentioned in the previous paragraph that Hachiman sent an oracle that he wanted to help construct the Great Buddha at Nara. This indicates an important feature of the Hachiman tradition: it has always been very closely connected with Buddhism. The Ise tradition always maintained some distance from Buddhism, but the Hachiman tradition did not. Indeed, until the Meiji Restoration Hachiman was referred to as “Hachiman Dai Bosatsu”, which means “Hachiman Great Bodhisattva”, a Buddhist title. (After the restoration, norito began to refer to Hachiman as “Yahata no Ohkami”, using the Japanese reading of the characters, and replacing “bosatsu” with “kami”.)  This connection manifested in many ways, including the fact that Hachiman shrines were staffed primarily by Buddhist monks. While I do not agree with the theory that says that all pre-Meiji Shinto was just a kind of Buddhism, you could make a good argument for that in the case of the Hachiman tradition.

This connection appears to go all the way back to the eighth century, or even earlier. Hachiman may well have been a kami who came over from the Korean peninsular with refugees from the wars there, but, in any case, he was a patron kami of that group, and at least one of the priestly families at Usa was from the continent. The accounts of the foundation of Usa say that Hachiman was enshrined there in 571, which is around the time Buddhism was brought to Japan, and a period when there was a lot of contact with the continent. In addition, it seems that two local kami, Usa tsu Hiko and Usa tsu Hime (a male and female pair) were worshipped there before Hachiman, which tends to support the idea that Hachiman was an immigrant.

In any case, in the seventh and early eighth centuries there were serious problems on the Korean peninsular, and a substantial number of refugees. In the early eighth century, 5,000 of them were apparently settled in southern Kyushu, resulting in a rebellion by the Hayato, the original inhabitants, who didn’t like having all of these asylum-seekers turn up on their doorstep. Hachiman is said to have joined in suppressing the rebellion, in which many Hayato were killed.

What happened next is interesting. Hachiman is said to have expressed regret over his actions, and effectively converted to Buddhism to overcome the guilt of murder. Until Meiji, a distinctive feature of the Hachiman tradition was the “hojoë”, festivals at which living creatures, such as birds and fish, were released. Further, fish was never offered to Hachiman, much less meat, and when he was portrayed he was almost invariably portrayed as a Buddhist monk.

Professor Okada suggested that this also explains another unusual feature of Hachiman shrines. Ancient shrines are very often found near the base of a mountain, or a little way up the slope, but they are never found at the top; humans were forbidden to climb into the realms of the kami. The exception is Hachiman shrines. The main sanctuary at Usa is on top of a mountain, as is that at Iwashimizu. Climbing to the top of a mountain was something that Buddhist ascetics and Taoist sages did, when they wanted to meditate and overcome their sins, so Professor Okada suggested that the reason Hachiman’s shrines were placed near the top of mountains was that Hachiman was an ascetic, pursuing Buddhism and trying to purify his karma.

At this point, I need to change subject slightly. While “Hachiman” is the name of a kami, it does not necessarily indicate a single kami. It is worth remembering that Japanese does not distinguish singular and plural, so that “Great Kami Hachiman” could be a group, as well as an individual. At Usa, it indicates Emperor Ojin, the Princess Kami (Himegami), and Empress Jingu, Ojin’s mother. At other shrines, the Princess Kami might be identified as Tamayori Hime, or as the three female kami of the Munakata shrine. Empress Jingu might not be enshrined at all, or might be enshrined by herself. Instead of Emperor Ojin, you might find his father, Chuai, or his son, Nintoku. These are all “Great Kami Hachiman”, at least when enshrined in a Hachiman shrine. Professor Okada said that the differences arise because Shinto does not have a central authority in the way that Buddhism does. Thus, while all the temples in a particular Buddhist tradition have the same central Buddha, Shinto shrines get to choose their own interpretation of the kami. This, obviously, makes explaining a Shinto tradition rather more difficult than it might otherwise be, and Professor Okada gave the distinct impression that he didn’t go into any more detail because he couldn’t.

It’s been a very interesting series of lectures, but Professor Okada is taking a year off from doing everything himself next time. Instead, we’ll get a team-taught course on “Reading the Shinto Classics”. It should be interesting, particularly if the Sendai Kuji Hongi, Gobusho, and Yoshida texts are included.

Posted in Kokugakuin.

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