Shrine Shinto Confronts Internationalisation, Part One

Last Sunday (February 21st, just in case this draft takes longer than anticipated and I forget to edit the beginning) I attended a small symposium at Kokugakuin University on the subject “Shrine Shinto Confronts Internationalisation”. I found out about it because Professor Havens, one of the participants, posted about it on the English-language Shinto mailing list I’m on, and since it was free, local, and very relevant to my interests, I got my wife’s permission to disappear for a day, and went along.

It was extremely interesting. Shrine Shinto as a whole has no unified approach to internationalisation, it would seem, which is hardly surprising, as individual shrines are very independent. However, the speakers told us about their experiences, activities, and research, which shed quite a lot of light on the question.

The first two speakers were the chief priests of shrines in Hawaii. These shrines were founded by Japanese immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and both of the priests had been sent out from Japan to lead the shrines. One has since taken US citizenship, which requires him to renounce his Japanese citizenship according to the laws of both countries, so he is now a non-Japanese Shinto priest; an example of internationalisation all by himself.

The first one to speak was Revd Takizawa, the chief priest of Hawaii Kotohira Jinsha – Hawaii Dazaifu Tenmangu. (I know it’s normally “jinja”, but the shrine spells it “jinsha” on their home page, and it’s their name.) He was born in Nagoya, but apparently worked in Hawaii for a while before training as a priest. He was sent back to Hawaii, to lead the shrine, in 1994.

At that time, very few of the third-generation Japanese Americans were attending the shrine, and the surrounding area was not good, with a lot of crime and drug problems. The shrine was holding three events per year, at New Year and the two main festivals, and about a thousand people attended on New Year’s.

He started work right away on raising the shrine’s profile. He got involved in local community activities, trying to address the local problems, so that people knew there was a shrine there. He also increased the number of events that the shrine held, so that people would be less likely to forget about it. A guiding idea behind this was the desire to introduce Japanese culture to people in Hawaii. Thus, they started serving o-zoni, traditional Japanese New Year food, at the New Year festival. They also got some children’s kimonos, and provided free kimono rental to children attending the seven-five-three festival in November. We saw some photographs of that, and some of the children were clearly not of Japanese descent. If I’m reading my notes correctly, about 400 people did 7-5-3 last year.

In August, to go with the start of the American academic year, the shrine holds a Back to School ceremony, which is appropriate for a Tenmangu, as those are shrines dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane, a kami of scholarship. In June, they hold the summer grand purification, but with a twist: they do purification for pets, as well. That seems to be very popular, judging from the photographs of the people attending.

As a result of this, he said that they now get about 10,000 people on New Year’s, although he also said that the core group of volunteers helping to run the shrine is only ten people. Mind you, that proportion sounds about right to me. He also has a second priest, also sent from Japan, working at the shrine, and training to take over when the Rev Takizawa retires. From the sounds of things, that shrine is thriving.

The second speaker was the chief priest of Hilo Daijingu, Rev Watanabe. He has naturalised as a US citizen, so he is now a non-Japanese Shinto priest. However, he was born in Niigata Prefecture and trained in Japan, and apparently spoke no English when he went over to Hawaii. Apparently, when he applied for his visa, the US immigration department pointed out that the shrine where he was working then and Hilo Daijingu enshrined different kami, and wondered whether he was really the same religion as the shrine he was supposed to work at. He got round that by having two lawyers, one an expert in immigration law and the other an expert on religious law (and one of them the son of the former chief priest of one of the Hawaiian shrines), who convinced immigration that Shinto isn’t divided by kami.

Although the shrine is called Hilo Great Shrine (Daijingu), it’s actually quite a small shrine, the same sort of scale as a neighbourhood shrine in Japan, and that’s the atmosphere that Revd Watanabe says that he aims for. It is, however, the only shrine on Hawaii’s Big Island, which is apparently about half the size of Shikoku, but with a much lower population. He said that, although people are very spread out, there’s a strong community in the sense that everyone knows everyone else, particularly within the Japanese-American community.

Hilo Daijingu gets about 4000 people at New Year’s, and holds Tsukinamisai twice a month, on the first and fifteenth. About 40 families attend on the first, about 10 on the fifteenth. Most of the attendees are older people, but the number hasn’t changed over the ten years he’s been there. Although some people have died, others have retired and started attending. About 90 families come to the Great Purifications, and he does about 20 to 30 petitions per month.

They have a garage sale in the shrine every year, which serves two purposes. First, it’s something for the organising committee to do, meaning that the meetings have more substance, and they get to know each other better. Second, it gives people who do not think of themselves as Shinto a reason to visit the shrine, and the feeling that they can enter the grounds. He also holds ceremonies on the US public holidays that aren’t specifically Christian, like Independence Day.

Revd Watanabe says that he tries to talk to anyone who comes into the shrine grounds, to make them feel welcome. Japanese tourists sometimes come, and it’s apparently often the first time they’ve spoken to a Shinto priest. He says that he wants to make people feel that they want to go back to a shrine, whether Hilo Daijingu or one nearer home back in Japan.

This shrine also seems to be doing quite well. However, it was noticeable from the photographs that most of the people seriously involved with the shrines looked to be of Japanese descent. Revd Watanabe explicitly mentioned that Japanese Americans form most of the attendees at ceremonies. These shrines seem to be good examples of religions that have travelled with immigrants, and while both sound like they are very healthy at the moment, I do wonder whether their appeal will spread beyond the Japanese American community, or even whether they want it to.

This has got quite long, so I’ll break here, and post about the other speakers later.

Shinto Controversies Course — 10th Lecture

Today was the last of this year’s Shinto lectures at Kokugakuin. The theme was the origins of Yoshida Shinto, particularly the activities of Kanetomo Yoshida. (Kanetomo is his given name.)

Right at the beginning of the lecture, Professor Okada said that he didn’t generally like to criticise historical figures, because you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but when it came to Kanetomo, there were some things you just wanted to say. Thus, he was probably going to be a bit critical during the lecture. He reflected that this risked Kanetomo cursing him (as Kanetomo was enshrined as a kami after his death), and explained that he’d taken the opportunity of being in Kyoto to visit Yoshida Shrine and pay his respects at Kanetomo’s shrine, explaining what he was going to say and asking permission. With luck, that will have covered him, and hopefully it will also cover me reporting what he said.

So, what is Yoshida Shinto? Professor Okada didn’t go into detail, because he had gone into detail in previous years, and there are a lot of people who are taking the course for the fourth or fifth time. However, there are some new people, so he did give a quick overview. Essentially, it’s a version of Shinto that was created by Kanetomo in the late fifteenth century, and controlled most shrines throughout the Edo period. It lost all its power at the Meiji Restoration, in 1868, and the traditions have now largely died out, although some of the associated buildings still survive.

Anyone who knows Japanese history knows that the late fifteenth century is when the so-called warring states period begins, with the Onin War. The Onin War lasted for ten years, on and off, and was essentially fought in the capital, Kyoto. It did a lot to destroy central government, and virtually all of the imperial Shinto ceremonies were abandoned during this time; the imperial court was too busy trying to survive. This had an effect on Kanetomo.

The Yoshida family was a branch of the Urabe family, which had responsibility for divination from turtle shells in the classical period. By the Heian period they were the second in command at the Ministry of Divinities (Jingikan), and in the early Kamakura period they became known for their studies of the Nihonshoki. Two branches in Kyoto became the hereditary priests of the Hirano and Yoshida shrines, and the branch at Yoshida became known as the Yoshida Urabe. The Urabe reference is normally omitted, so that they are just called the Yoshida.

Thus, Kanetomo was born into a high-ranking priestly family, and until he was about 30 he had a conventional career for such a background, participating in imperial rituals, such as the last Daijosai of the middle ages, as well as presumably helping in the rituals at Yoshida Shrine. This all changed in the Onin era, when the war broke out.

In 1467, the first year of the Onin era, the Yoshida mansion was robbed and set on fire. In the following year, the Yoshida shrine was completely destroyed in a fire caused by a battle, and over a dozen of the people who lived in the area were killed. This seems to have have had a strong effect on Kanetomo, as can be imagined. The war had stopped all the imperial ceremonies, and his home, shrine, and friends had all been destroyed. Essentially, everything he had trained for was gone.

He does not, however, seem to have allowed this to keep him down for long. In 1470, we find what is probably the earliest document about Yoshida Shinto. This refers to it as Sogen Shinto, one of its formal names, and says that it is the orthodox transmission of the Urabe, passed down properly within the Yoshida family. It also says that the secrets should not be passed on to Shinto priests, at least normally, and certainly not to Buddhist monks. Both of these requirements were relaxed over the next two decades, but when we look at the people who were initiated into Yoshida Shinto in the early years, starting in 1471, they are all members of the Kyoto nobility, including the head of the Jingikan and a former regent for the emperor. It seems likely that Kanetomo initially conceived of Sogen Shinto as an aristocratic religion.

Another early activity concerns the Saijosho. This was, I think, originally the place in the palace where the Shinto rituals were performed. Kanetomo is mentioned as being in charge of it in a letter written by the shogun, Yoshimasa Ashikaga, to the Upper Shrine of Suwa Taisha in 1470. The letter is a formal petition to the kami, and was probably actually written by Kanetomo, who seems to have been in high favour with the shogun and his family, and responsible for many kinds of prayer. The reference is a little odd, because the imperial palace had been destroyed by the war, presumably including the Saijosho. Within a few years, Kanetomo had got the Saijosho re-established in the grounds of the Yoshida mansion, near the Yoshida shrine.

In order to achieve this, he forged an imperial decree purporting to be from a couple of hundred years earlier, and had it “reaffirmed” by the current emperor. This decree specified the form of the Saijosho, saying that all the kami, all eight million of them, and the 3132 kami listed in the Engi Shiki, all descended to that space every day. That is, all the kami of Japan were to be enshrined in this one place.

This is the point where Professor Okada particularly criticised Kanetomo. First, he forged public documents to create his religion. He also forged a lot of documents that he claimed had been passed down in the Urabe family for generations, but that’s less serious, as the only thing they didn’t have that they claimed was age. Official documents, however, claim to have the force of law, and they don’t.

The second point is more internal to Shinto. As I mentioned in my summaries of earlier lectures, Professor Okada thinks that, originally, each kami was worshipped only by the family claiming descent from it. Thus, only the emperor could worship Amaterasu, but the emperor could not worship Amenokoyane, because he was the ancestor of the Nakatomi. Even in the system of the Engi Shiki, the regional kami were not brought to the capital; instead, the emperor sent ambassadors to the shrines with offerings. Kanetomo, however, just enshrined all the kami in his own shrine.

The shrine was built properly in the 1480s. Kanetomo claimed to have had a dream in which he saw the emperor himself, dressed in ritual robes, worshipping in the shrine, while a woman served, and a monk sat off to the side. The monk introduced himself as Kukai, the founder of Shingon, and said that, in the current chaos, when the imperial house looked likely to fall, Amaterasu had decided to move to Kyoto, and specifically to Kanetomo’s shrine, to protect the emperor.

Professor Okada thinks it is possible that Kanetomo actually had this dream, although he seemed less sure that it was actually a divine message. In any case, the three important points are the need to protect the emperor, the transfer of the Ise shrines, and the presence of Kukai, a Buddhist monk. The first two points are fairly obviously connected to Kanetomo’s desire to establish Yoshida Shinto, but what about the monk? Kukai’s presence is odd, particularly considering that the first document written said that monks should not be initiated into Yoshida Shinto.

Professor Okada speculated that the reason was that Buddhism was still far more powerful than Shinto at this point, so that Kanetomo was trying to get Buddhist support for his new religion. Certainly, he started initiating monks from about this period.

The Saijosho that Kanetomo built is very interesting. At the centre is an octagonal building, the Daigenkyu, which enshrines Kunitokotachi, the first kami mentioned in the Nihonshoki. Octagonal buildings are very rare in Shinto, but apparently they represent circles, and thus universality. In covered walkways around the Daigenkyu, Kanetomo enshrined all of the kami mentioned in the Engi Shiki, while behind it he enshrined the Inner and Outer Shrines of Ise. He didn’t have permission from Ise to do this, and the priests there were definitely not pleased with what he had done, but Kanetomo was in Kyoto and had the ear of the shogun, so there was little they could do about it.

Kanetomo had a Shinto funeral, and while the details are not known, this may have been the first “modern” Shinto funeral. Certainly, Edo-period Shinto funerals were derived from the Yoshida version. As mentioned above, Kanetomo is enshrined within the precincts of Yoshida Shrine. He is also buried underneath his shrine; that is very unusual, since Shinto normally avoids any association with death or corpses.

Overall, Professor Okada said that Yoshida Shinto was genuinely new, created by Kanetomo from many elements, including the earlier traditions of Shinto, but also including Buddhism, Confucianism, and Onmyodo. Indeed, while Professor Okada finds the origins of Shinto around the beginning of the Nara period, some people say that it began as a religion with Kanetomo. He was the first person to give Shinto a set of doctrines, a central place of worship, and a centralised organisation. His influence can be seen today, as Jinja Honcho has a similar relationship to other shrines to that created by Kanetomo. It isn’t, on the other hand, much like that of the Jingikan.

Yoshida Shinto is interesting because it seems to have been completely destroyed after the Meiji Restoration, despite its supreme importance during the Edo period. As far as Professor Okada knows, and this is one of his specialised fields, there is no-one alive who knows how to perform the Yoshida rituals, and even reconstructing their ritual implements is difficult. It also seems to lack much of a modern constituency, unlike Onmyodo and Shugendo. Why did it vanish so completely? I don’t know.

At the end of the lecture, Professor Okada told us what he is planning to do next year. He wants to cover the cults of the top ten kami by number of shrines, starting with number ten, the Kasuga kami, and finishing with Hachiman, the most widespread kami in Japan. That sounds like a really interesting topic to me, so I’m looking forward to it. I’d better start saving up.

Shinto Controversies Course — 9th Lecture

Today was the ninth lecture of the Shinto Controversies course at Kokugakuin University. Today’s topic was Ise Shinto, a variety of Shinto developed at the Grand Shrines of Ise, as you might have guessed. However, it was mainly promoted and developed by the priests of the Outer Shrine, not those of the Inner Shrine. The Inner Shrine enshrines Amaterasu, while the Outer Shrine enshrines Toyoukehime, a food kami, and the kami responsible for Amaterasu’s meals. Ise Shinto dates from the middle ages, at which time the priests of the Inner and Outer Shrines came from different families. The Inner Shrine was served by the Arakida family, while the Outer Shrine was served by the Watarai family. Because the Watarai family were largely responsible for the development of Ise Shinto, it is also known as Watarai Shinto.

Central to Ise Shinto are five texts known collectively as Shinto Gobusho (Shinto Five Texts). These texts all claim to date from the Nara period (eighth century) or even earlier, but they were all written in the medieval period; no-one dates any of them earlier than the twelfth century. I’m not sure whether it’s really accurate to call them “forgeries”; they are just lying about their age.

The oldest of the five texts is probably the Hokihongi, which seems to have been written in the early thirteenth century. This one may have been written by priests at the Inner Shrine, because two thirds of it is concerned with the details of the Shikinen Sengu, the rebuilding of the shrines carried out every twenty years, and it does not privilege the Outer Shrine in any way. However, it does show the influence of Ryobu Shinto, in that it puts the Inner and Outer Shrines on the same level. Each is assigned an Onmyodo correspondence, for example, but the two (fire for the Inner Shrine and water for the Outer) are not superior or inferior to each other.

This text contains a significant amount of information about the Shin no Mihasira, the most sacred point of the Grand Shrines. This is a wooden pillar, about fifteen centimetres in diameter, under the floor of the main shrine building. The floor of the building is raised about two metres off the floor, and the Shin no Mihashira is roughly in the centre (judging from the diagrams). It is permanently covered by a small wooden shed. Indeed, even when the shrine is not on one of its two sites, the Shin no Mihashira site is still covered; if you see aerial photographs of the Ise Shrines, you can see a small shed on the empty site. This is what it is covering.

Provided I understood him correctly, Professor Okada said that Ise Jingu will not let people look at the section about Shin no Mihashira in their copy of the Hokihongi, although you can read it in the copies in other libraries, because it tells too much. Until the Meiji Restoration, the offerings at the shrines were made under the buildings, in front of the Shin no Mihashira, and it is said that the column shows cracks and damage when there is a major threat to the state. Of course, as virtually no-one is allowed to see it, it’s a bit hard to confirm such stories.

Anyway, returning to the Gobusho, the second one was the Yamato Hime no Mikoto Seiki, which is thought to have been written around the middle of the thirteenth century, and the final three, known collectively as Jingu Sanbusho were probably written in the late thirteenth century.

The Jingu Sanbusho were almost certainly written by Watarai Yukitada, a priest of the Outer Shrine. He was a major figure in the development of Ise Shinto, and the first person to talk about these texts. In addition, a late-thirteenth century copy owned by Shinpukuji, a temple in Nagoya, has proved to have been signed by Yukitada on the scroll stick. Given the dates, there is a strong possibility that this is the original fair copy of the book, although it is, of course, impossible to be certain. Professor Okada was involved in the project to study this document, and others held by the same temple, over the last five years, and by tracing its likely route to Shinpukuji we can say that it was probably written in Kyoto, and from its content it was completed shortly after one of the secondary shrines at Ise was destroyed in a storm, in January 1287. This is a period when Yukitada is known to have been in Kyoto, and other known dates narrow the likely dates of composition of the work to between April and July 1287.

The Jingu Sanbusho have warnings on them that they are not to be read by anyone under the age of sixty. Remarkably, Yukitada seems to have written them just as he was turning sixty. I suspect this wasn’t actually to give himself special privileges; it was to provide him with an explanation for why he’d never mentioned these supposedly ancient documents before. Obviously, if he’d only just been allowed to see them, he couldn’t have talked about them earlier. (And, equally obviously, he could hardly talk about them before he’d finished writing them.)

So, what about the content of the texts? There are a few significant features of them, particularly of the later four, the ones most closely associated with the Outer Shrine.

First, the kami of the Outer Shrine is said to be the same as the first kami mentioned in the Kojiki, Amenominakanushinomikoto, or the first mentioned in the Nihonshoki, Kunitokotachinomikoto. Thus, the Outer Shrine enshrines a more ancient kami than Amaterasu. Further, there was a secret pact between Amaterasu and the Outer Shrine kami, before the beginning of the world, to jointly support the Japanese emperors and state. Thus, the Outer Shrine is just as much an imperial ancestral shrine as the Inner Shrine, and should be called an imperial shrine.

This is significant because, just about the time the books were written, the Inner and Outer Shrines were engaged in a debate over whether the Outer Shrine should use the character meaning “Imperial” in the shrine name. One reason for producing these texts, then, was to argue that it should.

The second point is an emphasis on Shinto’s support for the state and the emperor. Japan was not terribly stable in the thirteenth century; the central government was weak, and the Mongols tried to invade towards the end of it. (They were prevented by the Divine Wind, Kamikaze, a storm that scattered the invasion fleet.) Thus, these books made a point of Japan being the country of the kami, and that the kami would protect the state if the state properly honoured the kami. This is the period where the concept of Japan as the country of the kami first emerged, possibly within Ise Shinto.

A third point is a distancing of Shinto from Buddhism. The Gobusho say that Buddhist theories should be avoided or hidden when expounding Shinto. Obviously, there are still many visible influences from Ryobu Shinto, and thus Buddhism, but at this point Shinto priests started trying to put some clear distance between the two religions.

Finally, the texts from Yamato Hime no Mikoto Seiki onwards emphasise purity and honesty of heart, saying that this is what the kami truly value, more so than the rituals. The idea of revering the kami and honouring the ancestors is made explicit in them, as is the importance of continuing to do things as they were originally done, going back to the source. All of these ideas were very influential in later versions of Shinto, including current Shrine Shinto.

In fact, apart from the parochial debates between the Outer and Inner Shrines, all of the main ideas of Ise Shinto were extremely influential on later Shinto. Thus, it could be (and has been) argued that what we know as modern Shinto started in the thirteenth century, with Ise Shinto. I still tend to think that it’s better to see Ise Shinto as another important transformation of a living tradition, but its importance certainly cannot be denied.

Shinto Controversies Course — 8th Lecture

The eighth lecture of the Shinto Controversies course at Kokugakuin University was held on Wednesday. This time, Professor Okada started by saying that it wasn’t a very interesting subject, and there were more than the normal number of digressions in the course of the lecture. Clearly, this is a topic that is somewhat outside Professor Okada’s main field.

The subject was Ryobu Shinto. Ryobu Shinto is, broadly, the form of Shinto developed within Japanese esoteric Buddhism (Shingon and Tendai) in the medieval period. As a result, it has not been studied as much as might be ideal. From the Meiji Restoration in the mid-nineteenth century, there has been an emphasis on separating Shinto and Buddhism into two clearly distinct religions, and that’s simply not possible with Ryobu Shinto. From the sounds of things, separating the Shinto from the Buddhism is as hard as the reverse, so I suspect that Buddhist scholars have also not given it a great deal of attention. As a result, a great deal about Ryobu Shinto is still unclear.

The name, which means “both parts”, comes from Shingon esotericism, and the narrow use of the term is to refer to the versions of Shinto associated with Shingon Buddhism. Shingon esotericism has two worlds, the Kongo and Taizo worlds (Diamond World and Womb World, perhaps; I don’t know what the standard translations are), which correspond to different aspects of Dainichi Nyorai, the universal Buddha. Ryobu Shinto linked these two worlds to the Inner and Outer Shrines at Ise. The Inner Shrine corresponded to Taizo, the Outer to Kongo. The Grand Shrines of Ise were very important in Ryobu Shinto, and it appears to have had a strong influence on Ise Shinto.

This raises the controversy. When did Ryobu Shinto appear? Earlier scholars had placed it in the fourteenth century, but Professor Okada believes it appeared some time earlier, at the end of the twelfth or beginning of the thirteenth century. This belief is based on the dates of works that were central to Ryobu Shinto, but also, I think, on the signs of mutual influence between Ryobu Shinto and Ise Shinto. Ise Shinto can be dated fairly firmly, because it was developed by identifiable priests of the Outer Shrine at Ise, and it started developing in the thirteenth century. While Professor Okada believes that the influence went both ways, he also thinks that the first influence was from Ryobu Shinto.

One reason for this is that, in earlier periods, Shinto had a strong tradition of not explaining things, of not putting things into words. Words had power (the so-called kotodama), and so should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. Buddhism, however, had a strong tradition of sermons and explanations, and thus the first systematic explanations of Shinto came from the Buddhist side.

A central text of Shinto is the Nakatomi Harai, an ancient purification prayer that is still used today. It includes a version of important Japanese myths, a version that doesn’t quite match that in the Kojiki or Nihonshoki, and thus is ideal material for interpretation. The earliest (I think) surviving interpretation is the Nakatomi Harae Kungeh, which was written by a Buddhist monk, and interprets the prayer in Buddhist terms. It provides esoteric Buddhist interpretations of the main shrines at Ise, but also of the lesser shrines associated with them. This interpretation was central to Ryobu Shinto, and seems to date from the thirteenth century (again, I think; Professor Okada wasn’t entirely clear on this point).

In any case, Ryobu Shinto continued to develop, with several versions appearing, including Sanno Shinto, Miwaryu Shinto, and Goryu Shinto. Professor Okada said that when he visited Mt. Koya, the centre of Shingon Buddhism, earlier this year, he found that Goryu Shinto was still practised there, so Ryobu Shinto is not a purely historical tradition. The protecting kami of the mountain, Niu, apparently receives the same sort of reverence as Kukai, the monk who founded the sect.

Ryobu Shinto was also closely connected, through Onjoji, a very important Tendai temple, with Shugendo and the Kumano shrines. It also gave rise to the Shinto Kanjo, esoteric initiations based on Shinto symbolism rather than Buddhist. Professor Okada didn’t go into detail on these, I suspect, again, because research on them is not as advanced as it could be.

The overall impression I got from the lecture was that Ryobu Shinto is still poorly understood. People know it was important, but not really enough about it. It looks like a fertile area for research for someone with an interest in both Buddhism and Shinto. Since my interest is primarily in Shinto, it’s not going to be me.

Shinto Controversies Course — 7th Lecture

Today, the Kokugakuin Shinto controversies course restarted after the summer break. Today’s lecture had two main parts, and an introduction.

The introduction was Professor Okada telling us about his summer holidays. One of the things he did was visit an archaeological dig in Hamamatsu (I think), where a number of festival-related items had been unearthed. One was an an, a rectangular table with eight legs, four in a line along each of the short sides. It was all but identical to the ones used in virtually all shrines in Japan today.

It dated to the fifth century.

This raises one feature of contemporary Shinto: its emphasis on the importance of following and preserving traditions, of continuing the rituals in the same way as they have always been done. Professor Okada said that this was the standard approach of most people in Shinto today.

However, other discoveries from the same dig made him, he said, think a bit differently about it. A number of iron implements were discovered among the items offered to the kami. In fifth century Japan, iron implements were the height of advanced technology, imported from the continent. The modern equivalent might be a liquid crystal television. He reflected a bit on the need for Shinto to adapt to changing times, or die. It sounded as if this visit had brought home to him the fact that even the most ancient tradition was an innovation once. This is one of those facts that’s obvious once stated, but which can be remarkably easy to forget.

The two main topics of the lecture were Shinbutsu Shugo (Shinto-Buddhist syncretism) and Toshio Kuroda’s view of Shinto.

The last four lectures of the course will look at the medieval and later periods, which means that Shinto-Buddhist syncretism is central to understanding what is going on. From the eighth century to the nineteenth, Shinto and Buddhism in Japan were deeply enmeshed with one another, and neither existed fully independently. However, Professor Okada insisted that they had always been conceptually separate; Shinto priests and Buddhist monks had different roles, even when they participated in the same rituals, and people could distinguish the two in general terms.

There were, according to Professor Okada, two basic forms of syncretism.

The first was syncretism for the sake of the kami. This took the form of reading Buddhist sutras to the kami, or founding temples at shrines to pray for the kami. He argued that this was, essentially, an extension of the way that the kami had always been worshipped; the new rituals that had come from the continent were used in an attempt to calm angry kami, or to increase their power. Certainly, the evidence suggests that the very first reaction to Buddhism was to treat it as just another foreign kami; there are some foreign kami that are now a standard part of Shinto.

The second was syncretism for the sake of the buddhas. The most prominent form of this was the founding of shrines to protect temple complexes. The most famous example is probably the Hachiman shrine that protects Todaiji in Nara (the one with the giant Buddha), but virtually every major temple from the ninth century on seems to have had an associated shrine. One reason for the popularity of Inari is that Fushimi Inari was closely associated with Toji in Kyoto, an important Shingon temple, and so Inari shrines were often founded as the guardian shrines for Shingon temples.

An important difference between the two forms, apparently, is that in the second case Shinto priests were not involved. The shrines were entirely managed by the Buddhist monks. Indeed, although monks going to shrines to read sutras for the kami was common, the reverse, Shinto priests going to temples to read norito, was unheard of. To the best of Professor Okada’s knowledge, the first historical example happened in May this year, on Mount Koya. His comment was along the lines of “Well, Shinto has to change with the times, so I suppose it might be OK. But from a historical perspective, it’s really odd”. However, in the early period Shinto priests performed no rituals outside their own shrines. Personal rituals at homes were performed by onmyoji, or shugenja, or esoteric Buddhist monks. This started to change in the medieval period, with the onshi from Ise, but I don’t think this change was fully established until the Meiji Revolution, when onmyoji and shugenja were abolished. Thus, the fact that the priests did not go to temples may not tell us much about the relationship between Shinto and Buddhism, as it may be due to reasons internal to Shinto.

This syncretism was developed by a number of Buddhist monks, and this is where the Honji Suijaku theory comes in. That, I think, will be touched on rather more next time.

The other theme was Toshio Kuroda’s theory on Shinto. Kuroda was a scholar of Buddhism, and his Kenmitsu Taisei theory, proposed in 1975, revolutionised studies of medieval Japanese Buddhism. Essentially, he claimed that the esoteric sects of Buddhism, Shingon and Tendai, remained the dominant sects throughout the medieval period, despite the appearance of so-called Kamakura Buddhism, which had previously been seen as more important. He also argued that Shingon and Tendai temples were major centres of political power.

In Buddhist studies, his theory was highly influential, and is the current orthodoxy. Outside Japan, Professor Okada estimated that 99% of scholars accept it in broad outline.

So, what did he have to say about Shinto? Essentially, he denied it existed. He said that there was no independent religion called Shinto in this period, and that it just indicated a special tradition of Buddhist rituals unique to Japan.

Shinto scholars did not react to this with unalloyed delight. Professor Okada was a young scholar at the time, and he remembers feeling that this matter had to be sorted out, but also that he could not oppose Kuroda directly, because Kuroda was far too important and influential.

Thirty four years later, a number of criticisms of Kuroda’s position have been gathered.

First, he was a historian of Buddhism, not Shinto. He didn’t do any research into shrines or Shinto practice. If he had been right, this wouldn’t have been a problem, because Shinto would have been entirely contained within Buddhism. However, it wasn’t, and so Kuroda’s research missed the evidence that his theory of Shinto was inaccurate.

Second, he was working with a narrow definition of religion, one that saw universal religions like Buddhism as superior, and the ideal form of religion, and that believed that a religion had to have doctrines and scriptures of some sort. On that definition, the first form of Shinto that is a religion independent of (although influenced by) Buddhism is Yoshida Shinto in the fifteenth century, and this was the date that Kuroda gave for the appearance of Shinto.

However, that’s an unnecessarily restrictive definition. In particular, it doesn’t apply to Shinto as currently practised. Ironically, Professor Okada explicitly said that it did apply to State Shinto, as formulated in the Meiji period, which is the period when Shinto was explicitly claiming not to be a religion. I think he’s right. Contemporary Shinto, however, is once again without doctrines or scriptures, for the most part, and is mainly practised as a set of rituals. If you take that definition, you have to say that Shinto does not exist now, and that’s clearly not a useful way to talk.

If you extend the definition of Shinto, it becomes clear that it existed much earlier. Professor Okada’s favoured date for the establishment of Shinto is the late seventh/early eighth century, the reigns of Tenmu and Jito and the immediate sequel. This is when the Daijosai started, and when the 20-year cycle of reconstructions of the Grand Shrines of Ise began. It’s also when the Jingiryo, which set the central court rituals, was promulgated. Another candidate is the fifth century, when we first see evidence of rituals that have continuity with Shinto as defined by Tenmu and Jito. At the moment, I actually incline to the fifth century date as being more useful, but I’m hardly an expert, and it does seem that such features as shrine buildings and organised rituals date from Tenmu and Jito. At the very least, that’s when Shinto was organised.

So, to return to Kuroda, while there was a form of Shinto that existed purely within esoteric Buddhism in the middle ages, this was not the only form of Shinto that existed then, and Kuroda’s definition of a religion was overly restrictive. However, if you take his definition, it is true that Shinto as an independent religion-with-doctrines only appears in the fifteenth century. That has been denied, and is an important point. Yoshida Shinto was made up by Yoshida Kanetomo in the fifteenth century, and State Shinto was made up by various people in the late nineteenth century. Both, however, drew on a religious tradition that can usefully be called “Shinto”, and which dates back to at least the late seventh century.

All in all, a very interesting lecture.


The second of the Kokugakuin shrine visits on the 5th was to Okunitamajinja. This is the Soja for Musashi no Kuni. The Soja was a shrine set up near the seat of government with the kami of the most important shrines in the province (or kuni) so that the provincial governor could easily honour the kami. Since this was an important part of his job, the Soja made things much easier for him. There are thus six kami enshrined in the main shrine at Okunitamajinja. Musashi is the old province including the current Tokyo Metropolitan Prefecture, Saitama Prefecture, and the eastern end of Kanagawa Prefecture. (Where I live used to be in Musashi; I think the border was somewhere in Yokohama, but it may actually have been the Yokohama border.)

Anyway, when we arrived at the shrine we all gathered in the middle courtyard. Okunitamajinja is very, very big, for a shrine within the urban bit of Tokyo, and it has a courtyard area in front of the haiden. That was where the chief priest (purple hakama with patterns, so first rank) told us a bit of the history of the shrine; the basic Soja stuff, and an unusual feature of the shrine. In most shrines, the kami face south or east, so that you are facing north or west when you pray. At Okunitamajinja, however, the kami face north. This is, apparently, because they are looking north to the region that was still being conquered in the eleventh century, to keep an eye on it. However, apparently the honden were rotated individually, so that the more important kami were on the left as you looked at them, rather than the right. As a result, the shrine now does everything backwards, treating the left-hand-side as more sacred than the right. This tends to throw visitors from other shrines.

After the little talk, we were led out of the courtyard and lined up, with Professor Okada at the front, ready to process into the shrine. The procession was led by one of the priests, and two men wearing happi coats and carrying iron staves with rings on the top. As they walked, they banged the staves on the ground, first one and then the other, so that the rings rang. These staves were originally Buddhist; their use at Okunitamajinja is probably a relic of Shinto-Buddhist syncretism, although I didn’t check to be sure.

The procession did not go to the haiden. There were other people having prayers done in the haiden. Instead, we were led round the back, into the inner courtyard between the honden and the haiden. This is covered with raked sand, so we stood for the sanpai.

The ceremony itself was very simple, just the harae and the tamagushi offering. However, another priest then explained a bit about the honden. (This priest had purple hakama, and so was second rank, and possibly the second priest of the shrine.) The current honden was built in 1667, by the fourth shogun. The previous honden was, apparently, quite spectacular, but it burned down in the early seventeenth century. (I may have mentioned that I’m occasionally tempted by the idea of writing a book entitled And Then It Burned Down: An Architectural History of Japan.) By the time they came to rebuild, the shogunate had spent all its money on building Nikko Toshogu, so they built a very simple building as a temporary measure.

Now, of course, it’s a Prefectural Treasure, because it’s pushing 350 years old. It’s all one building, although it has three doors, because the previous honden had three buildings, with two kami per building. There’s a large courtyard in front of it because, during the shrine’s biggest festival, eight mikoshi (palanquins for the kami) are brought in and lined up there. One effect of this is that you can’t see the honden well from the haiden, and it’s surrounded by a fence so that you can’t see it well from outside, either. Thus, we got a much better view of it than most people do. (Again, obviously, we couldn’t see properly inside, although the doors were open, and I could see another set of doors within.)

After that, we went to the shrine museum. The ground floor has the eight mikoshi for the festival. Apparently, one mikoshi costs about one hundred million yen, or around a million dollars. (They aren’t worth that, though, because they’re impossible to sell; they’re made for a particular shrine, so no other shrine would buy them, and they are very, very distinctive.) These mikoshi are around a hundred years old, weigh about a tonne each, and the most nominally valuable one is the one with the least gold leaf on it. This is because the carvings on it are extremely good, and didn’t need tarting up with gold. According to the priest explaining it to us. Most of the mikoshi have phoenixes on, but there is one that has dragons, and this one is also extremely elaborate. The story here, if I heard it right, is that the patron was rich, and he kept getting the craftsman drunk and telling him he could put whatever he liked on it. This one has lots of gold leaf.

The mikoshi, while impressive, are fairly standard for an influential shrine. Almost unique to Okunitamajinja, however, are the enormous taiko. When I say “enormous”, I mean that the diameter of the drum skin is over two metres. The biggest one was pulled forward in the museum because it got very wet during the big festival this year, and needed to have air flowing on both sides to dry the skins out.

The festival is held in early May. It’s a really big drum.

It’s so big, in fact, that it barely fits through the gate into the middle courtyard, and for the nominal 1,900th anniversary of the founding of the shrine (the legendary founding date is 111) the shrine is planning to rebuild the gate and make it a bit bigger.

After the group visit broke up, I went to get a Red Stamp. This is something that a lot of larger shrines do. You take a book along, and they write the name of the shrine and the date in, then stamp the page with the shrine’s seal in red. The slightly odd bit was that they didn’t ask for money. I had to bring that up. This is the official tradition, but this was the first time I’d encountered it. I suppose they figure that anyone who knows about the Red Stamps knows about the tradition as well. This is not necessarily true for the amulets.

One of these years I want to go to see the festival. I suppose the year after next, when they’re celebrating 1,900 years, might well be a good choice.

Shinto Controversies Course — 6th Lecture

The sixth lecture of the Shinto Controversies course at Kokugakuin was held yesterday. This time, Professor Okada only barely got on to the controversy part, because explaining the background took most of the lecture. Fortunately, the controversies involved are easy to understand once you understand the background, so while it would have been nice had he had a little more time for it, I don’t think the lecture suffered too much for it.

The lecture was about the Twenty Two Shrines and the Ichi no Miya. These two systems were both established in the Heian period (794 to 1192), and the main scholarly controversy is over the extent to which they were separate systems. Most of the lecture, then, was devoted to introducing the systems. Professor Okada remarked near the beginning of the lecture that the previous Open College courses had been largely introductory, but that this year’s was concerned with the cutting edge of research on Shinto, and thus had suddenly become a lot more complex. I think he might be finding it quite hard work to prepare the lectures, trying to present this work to a lay audience.

The first system he dealt with was the Twenty Two Shrines. These are twenty two shrines (there’s a shock), mostly close to the old capitals of Nara and Kyoto, which received direct visits from Imperial messengers. The system appears to have developed around the turn of the tenth century, as the pre-Heian system was disappearing. Under the old system, the court had sent offerings to all the Myojin Taisha (Famous kami, great shrine), of which there were just over 300 scattered across the country. However, that, obviously, required quite a lot of effort, so around 900 attention was focused on, initially, 16 shrines.

For most of these shrines, a high court noble was appointed the Imperial messenger, and sent out by personal command of the Emperor. There were exceptions, which I’ll note below. The despatch ceremony took several days, after the Department of Divination had chosen favourable days for the shrine visits. Most of the messengers were chosen, and the Emperor approved their names and the prayers that they would offer. On the day of the despatch, the Emperor took a bath and was ritually purified.

There was then a ceremony for the despatch of the messenger to Ise. This took place at the main, formal hall of the Imperial palace, where the Nakatomi and Inbe ritualists, and the messenger himself, an Imperial prince chosen by lot, received the offerings and the prayer.

When this was finished, the Emperor withdrew into the inner palace, and there was a second ceremony for the despatch of all the other messengers.

This distinction suggests that the Ise messengers were state functionaries, but the others were personal messengers from the Emperor, at least in origin.

The messengers were despatched at least twice a year, in the second and seventh months of the lunar calendar, to ask for good crops (that’s roughly planting and the beginning of harvest). If there were other crises, such as drought, epidemics, or earthquakes, they might be despatched more often, up to five or six times some years. This was, therefore, a significant part of court ritual.

So, which shrines were involved? (It’s quite possible that many readers won’t have heard of these shrines; at some point I will probably write some introductory articles, but not today.)

The first group of three were the Grand Shrines of Ise, Iwashimizu Hachimangu, and the Upper and Lower Kamo Shrines. These shrines had been closely associated with state ritual since the capital moved to Kyoto. Ise, obviously, is the shrine of Amaterasu Omikami, the Imperial ancestor goddess. Iwashimizu Hachimangu is the main shrine near Kyoto for Hachiman, who was regarded as very closely associated with the Imperial family; indeed, by this time he was believed to be one of the past Emperors, Hondawake no Mikoto, or Ojin Tenno. Finally, the Kamo shrines housed the tutelary deities for the whole of the capital.

The next group of three were Matsu no O, Hirano, and Fushimi Inari. These shrines housed the kami of the areas immediately around the capital, and through various connections with the Imperial family were regarded as protecting the capital and the Emperor.

Next come two shrines associated with the Fujiwara family, Kasuga (in Nara) and Oharano. The Fujiwara provided many Imperial consorts, and thus were the maternal ancestors of many emperors, as well as holding a near-monopoly on genuine political power, so it was important to respect their kami.

Then there is a group of five: Ohmiwa, Isonokami, Ohyamato, Hirose, and Tatsuta. These shrines are all found in the area of the older capitals, and were a central part of court ritual before the capital moved to Kyoto. Naturally, they retained some of their importance, and they were not too far away.

Sumiyoshi is a singleton shrine, some distance to the west in what is now Osaka. The kami of this shrine were associated with foreign relations and sea travel, and thus were propitiated for calm in international matters.

Finally, Niu and Kifune shrines were the kami responsible for the sources of water in Nara and Kyoto, respectively. Given the importance of water, and the danger of floods, it was obviously vital to keep these kami happy, but they were otherwise fairly minor, so the messengers despatched were officials from the Bureau of Divinities rather than high court nobles. Indeed, when the twenty two shrine system fell out of use in the fifteenth century, Niu Shrine was lost; there were a number of candidates, but it was not clear which one (or ones) was the historical Niu Shrine. The issue was finally cleared up in the early twentieth century.

The system expanded a lot in the last decade of the tenth century. in 991, Yoshida, Kitano Tenmangu, and Hirota shrines were added. Yoshida was the shrine of the clan kami of Emperor’s maternal grandmother, while Kitano Tenmangu had become very closely associated with the Fujiwara. Hirota, off to the west in what is now Hyogo Prefecture, had supernaturally contributed to the suppression of rebels and bandits in a recent rebellion.

In 994 Umemiya was added, as the clan kami of the emperor’s maternal great-grandmother.

In 996, Gion Shrine, now known as Yasaka Jinja, although its main festival is still called the Gion festival, was added. This was due to an epidemic in the capital, as the Gion kami was believed to have particular power over diseases.

The last shrine to be added, in 1039 (permanently added in 1081) was Hie Jinja (also known as Hiyoshi Jinja), on Mount Hiei, to the north east of the capital. This shrine was the tutelary kami of the head temple, Enryakuji, of the Tendai Buddhist sect, and its addition to the Twenty Two Shrines was, in part, a political move to improve Imperial relations with Tendai.

In the late twelfth century, Taira no Kiyomori apparently attempted to add Itsukushima Jinja to the list, but opposition from court nobles prevented this, and there were no further additions to the system. However, it fell into disuse from the middle of the fifteenth century, when persistent wars throughout Japan made travel unsafe, and even in the Edo period, when the country was calm again, only the visits to the top seven shrines (Ise, Iwashimizu, Kamo, Matsu no O, Hirano, Inari, and Kasuga) were resumed. Nevertheless, the shrines retained a great deal of influence, which was not purely local.

Next, we have the Ichi no Miya system. Unlike the Twenty Two Shrines, these were found all across Japan, one in each of the old provinces. (“Ichi no Miya” means “Number One Shrine”.) This system appears to have developed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, as the provincial governors formalised the shrines they were supposed to support as part of their duties. According to Professor Okada, there were two kinds of Ichi no Miya. The first kind were selected when there was obviously one supreme shrine in the province. The obvious example of this is Izumo, where Isumo Taisha was clearly the most important shrine. The second kind arose in provinces without such an obvious candidate, when an important shrine close to the provincial capital was normally chosen. The second case led to controversies over which shrine in a province was actually the Ichi no Miya. In a number of cases, these controversies still continue, with several shrines claiming that position. (I believe the highest number is four in one province; in Musashi, the province that included Tokyo, Kawasaki, Yokohama, and parts of Saitama, there are two candidates.)

Professor Okada believes that there was very little central control over the Ichi no Miya system, which explains the lack of clarity. Rather, provincial governors and the provincial populations designated them over time, so that they became fixed by tradition. However, one scholar, Professor Inoue, believes that the Ichi no Miya system was centrally controlled, and linked to the Twenty Two Shrines system. This is connected to Toshio Kuroda’s Kenmitsu Taisei theory, which will be the subject of the next lecture.

Professor Okada also pointed out that many of the most important shrines are not found in either of these systems. Atsuta Jingu, which enshrines the sword of the Three Sacred Treasures, is neither an Ichi no Miya nor one of the Twenty Two Shrines. During the Kamakura period, the most important shrine was Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura, but that is also found in neither system. Similarly, the Kumano shrines, which drew so many pilgrims they were compared to ants, and which many retired Emperors visited repeatedly, were also outside the systems. Thus, it is a mistake to think of these systems as a list of the most important shrines in Japan. All the shrines on the lists are important, but there are a number of very important shrines that aren’t on the lists.

The summer holidays start now, so the next lecture is not until the end of September. We have to wait to find out what Professor Okada thinks of the Kuroda’s theory.


Every year the Kokugakuin Shinto course organises a formal shrine visit for the students on the course. This is optional, partly because it isn’t covered by the course fee, but also because it involves an extra day coming to Tokyo. Since some people apparently travel enormous distances to attend the lectures, the extra thing should really be optional. Of course, the people who travel enormous distances are likely to be enthusiastic enough to attend the shrine visits as well. The visits so far have always been to two shrines on the same day, and to shrines within Tokyo. I’ve written about the previous ones I attended in my Japan Diary. This year’s visits were on July 5th, and I’ll write about them in separate articles, partly to make them easy to find.

These posts are about the visits, not the shrines themselves. I’m planning to write about the shrines at some point, but not just yet. Although a formal shrine visit has a fairly standard structure, so far all the visits I’ve been on with Kokugakuin have been different. The level of effort the shrine puts in seems to vary a bit, but there’s much more variation in where they put the effort.

Fudatenjinja put the effort into the ceremony. Fudatenjinja is a Shikinaisha (that means it’s recorded in the Engishiki, a compilation of court rituals from the early tenth century; there are just over 3,000 shrines from across Japan recorded there), and despite the “tenjin” in the name, the main kami is not Sugawara no Michizane Ko; it’s Sukunahikona no Kami. Sugawara no Michizane Ko is also enshrined there, however. It’s in Chofu, one of the cities outside the main central part of Tokyo, and it has a nice atmosphere; the shrine forest is still preserved.

We all filed into the haiden (the worship hall), where there were two shrine staff, an older man and a younger woman. I think the older man was the chief priest of the shrine. I’m not sure what the woman was, for reasons I will explain later. Once we were all seated, the ceremony started, with the woman beating a taiko (Japanese drum). She then briefly returned to her seat, before going to stand in front of the ohnusa (the wooden wand with paper streamers used in purification), and recite a harai norito (purification prayer). She then waved the ohnusa over the priest, the offerings, and us. Then she briefly returned to her seat, before going to take the lids of the bottles of sake placed on a table in front of the steps to the honden (the hall where the kami is enshrined). This is a standard abbreviated form for making offerings.

Next, the chief priest went up to the centre of the haiden, in front of the offerings, and read a norito. This was written for us, and, in addition to general protection, asked for aid with our studies. Since Sugawara no Michizane Ko, a kami of scholarship, is enshrined there, this was very appropriate.

After the norito had been recited, the woman danced kagura (sacred dance); a sakaki-mai, with a branch of sakaki.

Next, Professor Okada, representing the rest of us, offered a tamagushi, a branch of sakaki with shide (white paper strips folded into a lightning shape) attached. He received it from the woman, then put it on a table, bowed twice, clapped twice, and bowed once. We all bowed and clapped with him.

After he had returned to his seat, the woman put the lids back on the sake, which, like taking them off, is a standard short form of taking the offerings down again. The kami only get the offerings while the ceremony is happening; afterwards people eat and drink them.

Finally, the chief priest made a single bow, and that closed the ceremony.

Now, why am I not sure about the woman’s status? Her role in the ceremony was that of a subsidiary priest, and she was wearing the headgear specified for female priests. The dances are normally performed by miko, but there is nothing saying that a priest cannot do that. However, the woman’s hakama (trouser skirt) were the wrong colour. This isn’t as random as it sounds; the Association of Shinto Shrines has rules for the colour of hakama, and they depend on your rank as a priest. The lowest ranks, fourth and third, have pale yellow-green, the second rank has purple, the first rank has purple with designs, and the special rank has white with designs. Miko wear red hakama. Her hakama, however, were dark green, which isn’t on the list. My hypothesis, then, is that she is training to be a priest, but hasn’t formally received her rank yet. This may be wrong; someone who knows more about it than me might be able to tell me what it means.

After the ceremony the chief priest told us a bit about the shrine. Although it’s very old, it had to move after a major flood about five hundred years ago, and all the records were lost in the flood, so not much is known about its early history. The honden, however, is over three hundred years old, and recognised as a major treasure of the city (Chofu, not Tokyo). The haiden has been built entirely around it, so you can only see it from inside the haiden, and then only if you walk all the way in to the back. After the talk, the chief priest invited us to go and have a look, so, of course, we all did. After all, it’s rather unlikely that we’ll have another opportunity. It does have interesting carvings on it, and certainly looked old.

Naturally, we couldn’t see inside the honden. The honden’s doors are typically only opened once or twice a year, and even then no-one goes inside. At some shrines, wooden kami images centuries old got rotten and worm-eaten because no-one went into the honden to look at them for decades at a time. I think these days the practice is to go in once a year to clean (at least, that’s what happens at my local shrine), to prevent those sorts of problems. Anyway, the outside of the honden is all you normally get to see, and at most shrines even that is quite difficult. Having it entirely enclosed, as at Fudatenjinja, is a little unusual, but fences to restrict visibility are common.

When we left, we received a very small drink of miki (sacred sake), and an ume sweet, which had been offered to the kami. The ume (Japanese plum or apricot) is associated with Sugawara no Michizane Ko, which is presumably why that was chosen. It was rather tastier than the bonito flakes that seem to be the standard choice.

I enjoyed this visit, and liked the atmosphere of the shrine. It’s also fairly close to our home (about an hour door to door), so I may well go back in the future.

Shinto Controversies Course — 5th Lecture

Today was the fifth lecture in the Kokugakuin Open College Shinto course. According to Professor Okada, this lecture was a sort of summary of the first half of the course. He’s been considering the structure of Shinto in the classical period, and this time he was discussing the role of the Emperor in religious observances. Since this is a central feature of Shinto in the period, it drew on quite a lot of the earlier discussions; the role of Izumo, the Daijousai, the sacred marriage, and the origins of Shrine Shinto.

He started the lecture by observing that there was a strong tendency in pre-War Shinto studies, a tendency that continued until the 60s or 70s, to focus entirely on the ancient period, on the Kojiki and Ritsuryou period, and to take that as representing ideal Shinto. The ideologues of the Meiji Restoration (1868) talked about restoring the government structure of Emperor Jinmu, the mythical first Emperor of Japan, and did, in fact, start by copying the earliest recorded government structure, even though that was 1300 years later than Emperor Jinmu’s official dates. However, when you look at Shinto, you find that the reality was rather different. The practical details of rites and festivals are taken from the mid-Heian period (around 1000) or later; for example, the vestments worn by Shinto priests are the clothes worn by Heian court nobles. This is because we have basically no records of such things from earlier periods. The Kojiki doesn’t give practical details of festivals, for example.

The Meiji Restoration also introduced a system of nationally-supported shrines, the Kanpeisha. If you look at the list of the shrines that received this status at the beginning of the Meiji period, nearly all of them were either Ichi no Miya, or in the 22 Shrines. Both of these systems were introduced in the mid to late Heian period. In other words, the Meiji system was continuing Heian period judgements of the relative importance of shrines, not the earlier judgements.

On the most fundamental level, it appears that the custom of people worshipping at shrines of their choice, throughout the country, only started in the eleventh century; the mid-Heian period. Before that time, it seems that you had to be a member of the appropriate clan in order to worship at a shrine. The universal reverence for the Grand Shrines of Ise, which was quite important to the Meiji Government, was definitely not an ancient feature.

The body of the lecture, then, considered the changes in the relationship between the Emperor and shrines over time, starting with the earliest period for which we have useful records, the Ritsuryou period (mid-seventh century onwards).

In the earliest period, Professor Okada thinks that the worship of a particular kami was restricted to members of the clan claiming descent from that kami. As in the legend of Yato Shrine, which he discussed in detail last time, even the Emperor could not interfere in such rituals. This was one of the unwritten laws governing the religious structure of the period. In the early period, the only person allowed to make offerings at the Grand Shrines of Ise was the Emperor. Not even the Crown Prince could do it without permission. (He didn’t mention it in this lecture, although he has previously, but in the early period having an amulet from Ise in your household shrine was a criminal offence. It’s now almost compulsory; it’s certainly the generally accepted and encouraged practice.) Professor Okada thinks that this was not actually unique to Ise, but, instead, reflects the exclusive connection between clans and their ancestral deities. Amaterasu was the ancestral deity of the Emperors, so, naturally, only they were allowed to make offerings. The Kasuga kami was the ancestor of the Fujiwara clan, so only they were allowed to make offerings there; in particular, the Emperor was not. The fundamental rule was that the Emperor could not interfere in the rituals of other clans.

This started to change in the Ritsuryou period, when central rituals connected to shrines across the country were started at the imperial court. Of the most important, one was held in the second month, another twice, in the sixth and twelfth months, and a third in the eleventh month (all of the lunar calendar). The one held in the second month, the Kinensai, involved the central government sending offerings to over 3000 shrines across the country (these are the so-called “Shikinaisha”, the shrines listed in the Engishiki). However, the Emperor had no direct involvement in this festival. The other festivals, the Tsukinamisai in the sixth and twelfth months and the Niinamesai in the eleventh month, did have direct Imperial involvement, but offerings were only sent to about 300 shrines. Professor Okada noted that the first festival was asking for a good harvest, while the latter were giving thanks, and that the 2700 kami who got requests but no thanks might have got a bit annoyed.

So, the question is why the Emperor played no part in the Kinensai. Professor Okada’s suggestion, although this is not certain by any means, is that it may have had something to do with the desire not to interfere with the rights of clans to control rituals at their shrines. The central government was not the Emperor, so it was a sort of neutral body that could send lots of offerings. In addition, the Tsukinamisai were connected to important festivals at Ise, and the Niinamesai was the annual version of the Daijousai. In other words, the festivals in which the Emperor participated were derived from the worship of the Emperor’s ancestral kami.

From the middle of the eighth century, however, the Emperor started getting involved in festivals at other shrines. This first becomes clear when Emperor Shotoku makes an offering to the Kasuga kami at that shrine’s main festival. So, what is happening here? Emperor Shotoku’s mother was from the Fujiwara clan, so although the Emperor was not in the male line, she was connected to the Fujiwara, and thus to their kami. Over the following two centuries, more shrines were added to the central list, the shrines enshrining the kami of the Emperor’s mother.

A parallel expansion was to the shrines responsible for the area where the Imperial capital was located, which probably relates to the localism that Professor Okada mentioned last time, but he didn’t go into detail about it today. This was the origin of the 22 shrine system.

However, one great mystery remains. Professor Okada described this as the greatest of the seven mysteries of Shinto, but I think “seven mysteries” is just a standard expression; I suspect he doesn’t have another six in mind. The mystery is that the Emperor never went to worship at shrines.

Before the tenth century, Emperors just didn’t go. They sent agents. Even to Ise, they sent an Imperial princess, the Ise Princess, to attend the ceremonies on their behalf. In the tenth century there were two rebellions, and when they were put down the Emperor at the time, Emperor Suzaku, appears to have felt that he could not properly express his gratitude through an agent, and so went to the Kamo Shrines in person.

Even then, however, he did not enter the shrine. Instead, he stopped just inside the precincts, well away from the main hall that housed the kami, and sent a messenger in to read his prayer to the kami. Although such visits became more common over the next four centuries, the Emperor never approached the main hall closely. (After the fourteenth century, due to wars and restrictions imposed by the Tokugawa shogunate, the shrine visits seem to have been suspended.)

As Professor Okada said, the reason for this failure to approach the shrine closely is a mystery. He thinks that it may have been a combination of a fear that the Emperor might be cursed if he approached the kami too closely and a concern not to intrude on the ceremonies of other clans. Whatever the reason, this unwritten rule was followed quite strictly.

However, when Imperial shrine visits were restarted in the mid-nineteenth century, the Emperor did go all the way in to the heart of the shrine, going to the place normally occupied by the shrine priests. There was no historical precedent for this at all.

Professor Okada’s interpretation of this was that Shinto had changed over the centuries, adapting to the changing times. He said that, as a result of this development, the best elements from the past were combined with new elements to create a living religion that wasn’t just a part of Japan’s past, but still part of the present. He emphasised that this development should continue, so that Shinto could continue into the future.

The most important thing to note here is that he wasn’t talking about the “true essence” of Shinto. He was talking about the religion actually changing, with new elements added for which there was no precedent. I agree with his attitude, but it’s certainly not an attitude that can be characterised as fundamentally conservative, which may be a little surprising given the reputation that the Shinto establishment has.

Shinto Controversies Course — 4th Lecture

Today (and I think I might just get this article finished today) I went to the fourth of the Shinto controversies lectures at the Open College at Kokugakuin University. Again, the lecturer was Professor Okada. This time, he was talking about the origins of Shrine Shinto, and its basic characteristics in the classical period.

The first question is when Shrine Shinto started. This is difficult to say, as its origins are prehistoric. However, in Japan prehistory doesn’t finish until around the sixth century AD; the current consensus, apparently, is that Shrine Shinto starts in the second half of the fourth century AD. This isn’t when the Japanese started having religious ceremonies; there is good evidence for such things going back about ten thousand years. However, in order for a religious practice to be recognisably Shrine Shinto there are, according to Professor Okada, four necessary features.

The first is the family or group that celebrates the rituals. Shinto is not, and never has been, a religion for individuals, primarily. It’s based on family and group rituals. The second is a fixed place where the kami are worshipped. The third is at least a temporary building for the rites. (Without the building, there is no shrine.) Finally, there is a need for some sort of annual cycle of festivals, even if it’s only one. These features seem to have been first brought together in the late fourth century.

Of course, we don’t know much about Shinto in that period, although research is continuing, and archaeology may tell us more, and change the dates (the start date for the Yayoi period of Japanese history has been pushed back about 500 years by recent discoveries, for example). If we look at written records, and pick out the bits that might have a historical basis, the earliest one is in the time of Yuryaku Tenno, in the late fifth century, when the foundation of the Outer Shrine at Ise and the institution of the morning and evening offerings is noted. Professor Okada didn’t say much about this, but I suspect that this is taken to be a good candidate for the actual founding date of the Grand Shrines of Ise.

The next burst of records come in the seventh century. There are legends concerning Usa Jingu in Kyushu (the home shrine of Hachiman), Suwa Taisha in Nagano, and the Kamo Shrines in Kyoto from the mid-sixth century, and archaeology suggests that the rituals around Mt Miwa became concentrated around the Forbidden Area (an area of the mountain that people are not allowed to enter, with the exception of the priests, briefly, during one festival) in the late sixth century. These suggest that the sixth century was a very important period in the development of Shinto. It is also generally accepted as the period when Buddhism properly arrived in Japan; if both of these dates are correct, the fact that these developments happened together is unlikely to be coincidence.

There is another very famous legend from this period, recorded in the Hitachi no Kuni Fudoki, which was written down in the early eighth century. Hitachi no Kuni is the modern Ibaraki Prefecture, just to the north-east of Tokyo. In the early sixth century, a man was developing the area, creating rice paddies, but kami, in the form of snakes, appeared and interfered with the work. He set stakes in the ground, declaring the area above the stakes to belong to the kami, and that below to belong to humans, and promising to worship the kami if they refrained from cursing him and his descendants. According to the Fudoki, those rituals were still being carried out in the eighth century. This shrine is called “Yato Shrine”, written with the characters for “night sword”, which is cool, but probably just meaning “mouth of the valley”.

The legend continues, recounting the arrival of the representative of the central court, who also developed the area. The snake-kami reappeared, but he just ordered attacks on them, because they would not obey the emperor, and they disappeared. Professor Okada pointed out, however, that even after this incident, the descendants of the original family were still carrying out the rituals. Yato Shrine never became associated with the Imperial court, and so it does not appear in the Engishiki. It is, apparently, still there, but it is a very small shrine, and even local people hardly know about it, despite the fact that it is one of the oldest recorded shrines in Japan.

On the other hand, another legend in the same Fudoki tells about a cursing deity that was pacified by a member of the Nakatomi family, sent from the Imperial court. This shrine did become associated with the central government, and is recorded in the Engishiki.

There is a document from the early ninth century, called the Kogoshui, which was written by a member of the Inbe family. This was another family associated with kami rituals, but it was losing influence to the Nakatomi. (One branch of the Nakatomi became the Fujiwara, who were the real rulers of Japan for much of the Heian period.) The author complains that even small shrines connected with the Nakatomi are being listed as imperial shrines, while important shrines that are not connected with them are being cut off and ignored.

Professor Okada drew attention to one point of these legends. The right to conduct certain rituals belonged to a particular family, and not even the Imperial court could take it away. The rituals at Yato Shrine were conducted by that family, not by the Imperial representatives. Similarly, at the Fujiwara family shrine of Kasuga in Nara, even now you have to be a scion of the Fujiwara in order to become chief priest. This is very common in Shinto; my local shrine also has a hereditary priest. Professor Okada commented that this can make Shinto sound like a closed shop, but this is a very strong tendency. (Another strong tendency he mentioned was localism; the kami are worshipped by people who live nearby. He only mentioned this in passing, however.)

Something I want to draw attention to, however, is the existence, and continuing existence, of shrines with at most a minimal connection to the Imperial court. According to the Kogoshui, even at the beginning of the ninth century some of them were still very important. This is, I think, fairly clear evidence that the Emperor was, in the classical period, only central to the Shinto of the Imperial court, and not to Shinto as a whole. (I shall now get off that particular hobby horse of mine for the rest of this report.)

The other important element that Professor Okada picked up from these legends was the idea of kami cursing people; tatarigami, as they are called in Japanese. These are a very important factor in the classical legends, and right through the Nara period, on into the early Heian period in the ninth century. In the later Heian period, the idea of curses drops out of use.

Saimei Tenno (who was female) is recorded as having been struck with sickness by a kami in retaliation for cutting down the kami’s trees to build a palace. Two months later, she died, and while the curse is not blamed directly, it’s a fairly easy inference. Her son (and indirect successor) Tenmu Tenno (male) is also recorded as dying two months after being struck by a kami’s curse, in his case from the Kusanagi no Tsurugi, the sword from the three sacred treasures, which was annoyed because it hadn’t been returned to Atsuta Jingu after being stolen. In Tenmu’s case, a divination was performed on the tenth day of the sixth month (lunar calendar, so some time in July) to find the source of the curse.

Under his wife and successor, Jito Tenno (end of the seventh century), this divination seems to have become a custom. Indeed, quite a lot of the central customs of Shinto seem to have been codified by Jito Tenno. She commanded the first Shikinen Sengu at Ise (the rebuilding of the shrines once every twenty years), started the practice of holding the Daijosai once per reign, and established the Department of Divinities (Jingikan), the government body dealing with the kami. If you really need a founder for organised, Imperial Shinto, she’s probably the best bet.

Anyway, to return to the divination, if it was determined that the Emperor had been cursed by some kami, the central government would send offerings to that shrine to appease the kami and break the curse. A couple of the documents transferring land to remove a curse survive in the archives of the Yoshida family (as in Yoshida Shinto), dating from the late eighth century. They bear the signature, in his own hand, of the main compiler of the Man’yoshu.

There are many examples of kami cursing emperors, or the whole nation, recorded in the oldest records of Japan, but such records die out during the Heian period. First, the cursing behaviour moves from the established kami to new ones, such as Tenjin (Sugawara no Michizane), and then it seems to disappear altogether. Early modern and modern Japanese people do not seem to worry about curses from the kami.

Professor Okada, however, does. He put this down to being steeped in classical Shinto, believing in the kami, and having had experiences that he thought were due to being cursed after he tramped around on a grave during his research. He said that, while he was researching funerals, he made sure to always research the Great Purification Prayer before sleeping, to avoid problems. This may not be unconnected to the fact that one of the handouts for today’s lecture bears, on its back, the complete text of the Great Purification Prayer, which had nothing to do with the content of the lecture at all. The lecture was all about curses.

It was a very interesting lecture, but I was already familiar with the basic outline. People who have been reading Tamao now know why the central kami curses people, and takes the form of a snake.