Archaeology and the Kogoshui — Shinto Texts Course

Yesterday we had the third Shinto texts course, this time looking at the Kogoshui and the archaeological background. The Kogoshui may not be familiar even to people who know a bit about Shinto, so I’ll say a bit about it first, as the lecturer, Professor Sasao, did.

The Kogoshui was written in 807 by Inbe Hironari, who was eighty years old at the time, and, in the preface, famously complains that young people today (in 807) don’t pay attention to the wisdom of the past. The work is polemical, and has its origins in a dispute over family rights at the imperial court. In the Yamato court, three families were responsible for the rituals to serve the kami: the Inbe, the Sarume, and the Nakatomi. Each family claimed descent from one of the kami responsible for the ritual that lured Amaterasu out of the cave in heaven: the Inbe from Futodama, the Nakatomi from Amenokoyane, and the Sarume from Amenouzume. (It seems quite likely that those three kami play important roles in the legend because they were the ancestral kami of the ritualist families.) However, a member of the Nakatomi, Nakatomi Kamatari, played an important role in the coup in which Emperor Tenji seized power in the mid seventh century, and was granted the new name “Fujiwara”. The Fujiwara became extremely influential, eclipsing the emperor in actual power, and so their relatives, the Nakatomi, became more dominant in ritual. In 806, things came to head in a debate over which family should supply the emissaries who carried imperial offerings to shrines around Japan. The emperor initially solved it by saying that both families should supply emissaries, but asked the Inbe for an account of their traditional rights. That account it is Kogoshui.

It is not very long, but it covers quite a bit of ground. The lineage and origins of the Inbe are, of course, central, and the other kami led by Futodama also play an important role. There is a detailed discussion of the legend of Amaterasu in the cave, and of the roles of the kami associated with Futodama in providing the offerings for the kami. In addition, the history of the Inbe is brought down to the end of the eighth century. Throughout the whole work, there are also criticisms of the Nakatomi, and the Kogoshui contains a number of legends that are not found in the Kojiki or Nihonshoki. All of these factors make it a very valuable resource, telling the early legends of Shinto from a slightly different perspective from the official histories.

As Professor Sasao said, the main point of the work was to criticise the Nakatomi, so if we don’t say something about them, it’s a bit rude to the author. Essentially, Hironari complained that the Nakatomi were monopolising the ritual roles. He said that the other two families had been excluded from the chief priest’s position at the Grand Shrines of Ise, and that all the offerings from the regional shrines to the imperial court were being funnelled to the Nakatomi. He also said that, in forming the system of shrines venerated by the court, any shrine connected to the Nakatomi, no matter how small, was being listed, while shrines with no connection to them, no matter how big, were being ignored. It’s now very difficult to confirm this, because there is no independent evidence for the size of shrines that were ignored by the court; to the best of my knowledge there are no contemporary shrines that are known to have been important in the eighth century but to have been ignored by the court.

Professor Sasao picked up three points to illustrate the light that archaeology and the text can shed on each other.

The first concerns the imperial store rooms. According to the Kogoshui, Emperor Jinmu put the Inbe in charge of the imperial storehouse, called the “imi no kura”. In later years, when tribute started to come in from the Korean peninsular, a second storehouse, called the “uchi no kura” was established, and its administration entrusted to people who had come from the Korean peninsular themselves. Somewhat later, in the fifth century, a third storehouse, the “ohkura”, was established, and put under the administration of another family of immigrants (the Hata, who founded the Inari cult). The imi no kura housed ritual items and treasures of the kami, while the others housed imperial property.

Archaeology backs up the substance of this account, although it greatly compresses the timescale. The remains of storehouses have been excavated near ritual sites from various places in Japan (Chiba, Shizuoka, and Nara prefectures), dating from the fifth century. This suggests that it was not at all uncommon for storehouses to be associated with rituals. In addition, the Grand Shrines of Ise include storehouses, rebuilt every twenty years, and the designs are very, very similar to those reconstructed from the archaeological remains. Similarly, in the same period, remains of large storehouses have been found associated with imperial palaces.

In a later section, Hironari claims that an Inbe was the head of the bureau of divinities in the mid seventh century, and that the practice of using turtle shells to divine the health of the emperor was introduced at that time. The official histories claim that a Nakatomi held the post, but the Kogoshui appears to preserve the seventh century name for the post, and thus may be more accurate. In any case, archaeology shows that, in the mid seventh century, the court started building imperial palaces on a far larger scale than before. Thus, this seems to have been an important point in the introduction of the classical Ritsuryo system, and thus a reasonable time for a divinatory ritual to start. In addition, the first evidence of turtle shell divination in Japan is from the late sixth century, and after a peak in the seventh, it declines sharply in the eighth. The Nihonshoki records the import of books on many subjects, including divination, from the Korean peninsular in the sixth century, so this form of divination may have been introduced to Japan at that point. In that case, the most advanced form of divination was used to discover the emperor’s condition.

Finally, the Kogoshui attributes the development of the Boso peninsular in modern Chiba prefecture to a kami associated with Futodama, Amenotomi. It records the foundation of Awa Shrine in the south of the peninsular, and this shrine, along with Kashima and Katori shrines, had dedicated villages to support it, indicating its importance. Archaeology in the shrine precincts turned up items from the fifth century, suggesting that rituals on the site may go back that far. An earlier ritual site, from the fourth to fifth century, was found to the south of the shrine, at the extreme of the peninsular, so the rituals may have moved in the fifth century.

Once again, the evidence suggests that a lot of recognisably Shinto elements, and worship at contemporary shrine sites, can be traced back to the fifth century, reinforcing that as a strong candidate for the date when Shinto began. In addition, the reminder that there are other legends not found in the Kojiki or Nihonshoki once more brings the diversity of Shinto to the fore. This course is continuing to be extremely interesting.

Shinto Texts Course — The Kojiki and National Learning

Yesterday we had the second lecture in the Shinto texts course, and it was also about the Kojiki, this time from the perspective of National Learning, and more specifically from the perspective of Norinaga Motoori. Norinaga Motoori was one of the four great scholars of National Learning, a scholarly movement in the Edo period that aimed to recover genuinely Japanese ways of thinking from behind the accumulation of foreign influences, such as Buddhism and Confucianism. Obviously, their basic project is treated with significant suspicion these days, given that most scholars no longer believe that any country has a “genuine way of thinking” uncontaminated by foreign influences, but their scholarship is still respected, particularly in philology. National Learning had a very strong influence on the structure of the post-Meiji Japanese state, and an even stronger influence on post-Meiji Shinto. Indeed, it is thanks to National Learning, and Norinaga in particular, that the Kojiki is now important enough to get two of the ten lectures on this course.

Incidentally, Norinaga is normally referred to by that name. It’s not quite as straightforward as saying that this was his personal name, because Edo period Japanese naming conventions were complicated, and I don’t fully understand them, but it seems to be generally agreed that, if you want a short version, “Norinaga” is it.

Norinaga lived from 1730 to 1801, near Ise, in what is now Mie Prefecture. His father was a merchant, but Norinaga had no talent for that, so his mother sent him to Kyoto to learn to be a doctor. He did become a doctor, and that’s how he made much of his living, but he also discovered National Learning. Another National Learning scholar encouraged him to make a thorough study of the Kojiki, and Norinaga made it his life’s work, the 44-volume commentary finally being published in full after his death.

The Kojiki is the oldest surviving substantial work of Japanese literature. It is a history of Japan, from the beginning to the early seventh century, and it was completed in 712. It is actually written in Japanese, using unique conventions to write it in kanji; in contrast, the Nihonshoki, a similar history of Japan completed in 720, is basically written in Chinese. (The Japanese wrote in a form called “kanbun”, which, I believe, is almost Chinese but not quite; I don’t know the details, however.) The Kojiki’s age, concern with Japanese beliefs about the world and their place in it, and language all made it very interesting to National Learning scholars, and Norinaga made it interesting to everyone else.

Most of the lecture was taken up with discussing Norinaga’s interpretation of the Kojiki. The lecturer, Professor Nishioka, pointed out that, although Norinaga thought he was discovering the worldview of the ancient Japanese, modern scholarship is much more sceptical about that, so it is better to see Norinaga’s interpretation as just that. Since Norinaga wanted to promote a return to “true Japanese” thinking, he generally agreed with the positions he found in the Kojiki. Incidentally, if Norinaga’s philosophy sounds a bit racial supremacist, that’s because it was. As far as I’m aware, he wasn’t particularly aggressive in his belief that the Japanese were superior; it seems to have been similar to the beliefs about American superiority held today by the typical American. However, that strand in his thought did get amplified by his successors, and was one of the legacies of National Learning for modern Japan.

Professor Nishioka drew attention to two points in Norinaga’s interpretation that were quite distinctive. First, Norinaga did have a theory about life after death. However, his theory was that, after death, everyone’s body remained on earth, while everyone’s soul went to Yomi. It didn’t matter whether you were good or evil, rich or poor, emperor or slave; everyone went to Yomi, and that was it. In addition, Yomi was not a pleasant place, so you really didn’t want to go there any earlier than necessary, and death was, according to Norinaga, the saddest thing that could happen, so it was entirely proper to cry when someone close to you died. Thus, although he thought there was an afterlife, he didn’t think that your behaviour in this life had any influence on what happened to you afterwards, and he thought that avoiding going to the afterlife was the best plan. The end result, then, was a very strong emphasis on the current life, something that seems to have been a characteristic of Shinto throughout much of its history.

The second point was Norinaga’s view of the kami. Norinaga’s definition of “kami”, found early in his commentary on the Kojiki, is extremely famous, and is the standard definition used these days. Paraphrased into English, it is this. “Kami refers not only to the kami who appear in the ancient legends, but also, of course, to the kami venerated at shrines, but also to people, animals and plants, and other natural phenomena that are seen to have some sort of power or attainment that goes beyond the norm. It does not matter whether the kami are worthy of respect or not, whether they are strong or weak, whether they are good or evil. They are all kami, and all venerated.”

It is obvious from this that “god” is a really bad translation of “kami”, as something “evil, weak, and not worthy of respect” is not a god. This is, of course, why I don’t translate “kami”. (Some people use “spirit”, which is better, but on Norinaga’s definition Mount Fuji, the actual mountain, counts as a kami, and Mount Fuji is not a spirit. Most people these days insist that the mountain itself is not the kami, but I think that’s a debatable point within Shinto, so I don’t want to prejudge it by my translation.) Norinaga also claimed that there were no kami that were purely good, and equally none that were entirely evil.

For example, when discussing the birth of the Three Great Children from Izanagi’s purification, he said that Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi, being born from the clean eyes, were good kami, and that Susano-o, born from the dirty nose, was an evil kami. Certainly, in the legends, Susano-o goes to Takamagahara and causes a lot of trouble, but then, after he is thrown out of heaven, he kills the Yamata no Orochi, a great eight-headed serpent, and saves the life of Kushinada. Thus, the earlier interpretation was that the purification Susano-o received when he was thrown out of heaven turned him into a good kami. Norinaga disagreed, pointing out that in a later legend Susano-o tries several times to murder Okuninushi. Norinaga insisted that Susano-o was always an evil kami, but that the defeat of the Yamata no Orochi was indeed a good act, showing that even evil kami do the right thing sometimes.

Professor Nishioka pointed out an interesting consequence of that. Amaterasu’s son, the ancestor of the imperial line, was born when Susano-o crushed Amaterasu’s jewellery to prove that he wasn’t trying to conquer Takamagahara (it’s complicated), which means that the imperial line was born from both a good kami and an evil kami. This particular aspect of Norinaga’s philosophy was not so influential on State Shinto.

Going beyond the kami, Norinaga said that there was always good and evil in the world. Right at the beginning, things were good, as Izanagi and Izanami had sex so that Izananmi could give birth to the islands and kami of Japan. Even then, though, they made a mistake when Izanami addressed Izanagi first, and had to do it again. The birth of the fire kami and Izanami’s death marked a decline into an evil situation, which began to recover when Izanagi purified himself after his return from Yomi. Norinaga thought that this sort of cycle would continue, although he also said that good would ultimately win. That doesn’t strike me as particularly consistent with everything else he said, so maybe his students were getting a bit too depressed by his approach.

Because Norinaga believed that good and evil were irrevocably mixed in the world, he thought that you could never guarantee a good reaction. Even if you behaved perfectly virtuously, other people might still behave badly to you. Thus, there would always be tragedies in the world. According to Professor Nishioka, this was an important source of Norinaga’s belief in “mono no aware”, often translated as “the pity of things”, as a central part of the Japanese worldview.

One final point, mentioned in passing. Norinaga did not believe that stoicism, and hiding your emotions, was the true Japanese way. Real Japanese men, he thought, cried when they thought their fathers didn’t love them (Yamato Takeru no Mikoto does this in the Kojiki), and expressed their love and hate openly. This is one aspect of his interpretation of the Kojiki that seems to have had approximately zero influence on modern Japan, which is a shame. I can’t help thinking that it would have been a more positive influence than his belief in the inherent superiority of the Yamato race.

Shinto Texts Course — The Kojiki and Archaeology

The Open College course on Shinto at Kokugakuin University has started again today, and the theme for this year is Shinto texts. They are working through in roughly chronological order, and thus starting with the Kojiki, which was completed in 712 (so next year is the 1300th anniversary). The last lectures will cover important twentieth-century figures, like Kunio Yanagita, so this promises to be another interesting year. Of course, given the emphasis that Shinto places on not putting things into words, there is a certain irony in basing a course on texts, but then this is a lecture course, so words are rather unavoidable.

Unlike the previous two years, the lectures this year are being given by various staff at Kokugakuin, and today’s was given by Professor Sasao, whose speciality is the archaeology of religion. Thus, “The Kojiki and Archaeology” was the theme of the lecture. While the Kojiki is not a very long text, it’s still far too long to cover in its entirety in a 90 minute lecture, so he focused on one incident: Ame no Iwayato, when Amaterasu hides in a cave and the other kami have to entice her out.

His initial description of the Kojiki was interesting, though. He said that it tells us what people in the early 8th century thought about the origins of the world, the birth and activities of the kami, and history up to Suiko Tenno. That is, the Kojiki does not tell us what actually happened in any of those categories. The context here is important. Kokugakuin is one of the two Shinto universities in the country, and this course is about Shinto. So, a western equivalent would be a public lecture on the Bible at a Catholic university that started by saying that the Bible tells us what people in the early 1st century thought about things. There is thus one clear respect in which Shinto is not about words, then: the Kojiki is not believed to report the truth.

So, back to the Ame no Iwayato legend. On my Japanese blog, I could assume that people knew the story, but I’d better not here. This is the very abbreviated version.

Susano-o, the younger brother of Amaterasu, the sun goddess, went to her home in Takamagahara. Once he got there, after promising to behave himself, he started breaking down the banks and filling in the ditches of the rice paddies, and scattered shit around the hall for the harvest ceremony. Amaterasu excused him, saying that he was drunk, and maybe trying to enlarge the paddies. However, he then made a big hole in the roof of the hall where the sacred clothes for the kami were woven, and threw in a horse that had been half-skinned backwards. This surprised the weaving woman so much that she stabbed herself in the vagina with the shuttle, and died.

At this, Amaterasu lost her temper, and went to hide in the Ame no Iwayato, a cave. When she did so, both Takamagahara and this world were plunged into darkness, a lot of kami made trouble, and everyone was at a loss as to what to do. All the kami gathered on the banks of the Amenoyasu river, and asked Omoikane what they should do. He told them to find a cockerel and make it crow, then get iron from Amakana Mountain, make a curved jewel and a mirror, and hang them all from a sakaki tree outside the cave. Amenotajikarao, a strong kami, hid beside the cave’s entrance. Then Amenokoyane and Futodama used a deer’s shoulder blade to divine the will of the kami, and the ceremony began.

Amenouzume danced outside the cave, becoming possessed by the kami, so that she opened her clothes, exposing her breasts and vagina, and all the kami laughed and cheered. Hearing this, Amaterasu became very confused.

“I’m hiding in this cave, so it must be really dark out there. How come everyone’s having so much fun?” she asked.

“An even greater kami than you has come,” Amenouzume replied, “so we are having a party to welcome her.”

Amaterasu wasn’t sure whether she believed that, so she pushed the rock at the cave’s mouth open a little. When she did so, Amenokoyane and Futodama pushed the mirror forwards, so that Amaterasu saw her reflection. Thinking it was another, greater, kami, Amaterasu couldn’t resist coming a little further out. As soon as she did so, Amenotajikarao grabbed her and pulled her out the rest of the way, and in that moment Futodama slipped in behind her and put a rope across the entrance to the cave, telling Amaterasu that she couldn’t go back in now, because the way was blocked. And so light was returned to the world.

As central myths go, this has some odd elements. For example, lying to the kami of the sun is a central part of restoring the order of the universe, and the kami of the sun can’t tell the difference between her own reflection and another kami. However, there are a couple of points that, taken literally, make no sense at all. First, Amenokoyane and Futodama perform divination to learn the will of the kami. This is a bit peculiar, as all the kami are right there, at the council, and they could just ask them. Second, Amenouzume is possessed by the kami when she dances. Which kami, exactly? Wouldn’t it rather be Amenouzume who did the possessing? These elements suggest that this scene is actually a description of a Shinto ritual, moved to Takamagahara, and that is how it is usually interpreted. It’s also how Professor Sasao interpreted it, so now we can get back to the content of the lecture.

Archaeology can tell us something about the rituals and social background at various periods in history, and thus help us to place the origins of the story. So, what does it have to say about this legend?

First, paddy fields separated by banks and supplied with water by ditches were found all across Japan by the late Yayoi period, about two thousand years ago, so Susano-o’s actions make sense in that context. Such damage would have caused serious disruption to agriculture. As for his desecrations, shit is always available, but horses only came to Japan in the 5th century AD, so that part of the story cannot date any further back than that. What’s more, miniature looms have been excavated from ritual sites dating from the 5th century in Shizuoka prefecture, and are still found in sites dating from the 7th century elsewhere in the country.

The inclusion of a cockerel in the story also relates to archaeological discoveries. Burial mounds from the 4th century on sometimes have clay models of cockerels set around them, among other things, which suggests that cockerels were a part of rituals by that point. On the other hand, if we go back a hundred years or so, we find that cranes are depicted instead, which tends to date the legend to the period after the 4th century.

Next, let us look at the items gathered for the ceremony. First, the kami are told to gather iron. Iron implements are found in 5th century ritual sites in Ehime Prefecture (on Shikoku) and in Chiba Prefecture (just east of Tokyo), along with iron ingots. In the 5th century, iron was not mined and refined in Japan; rather, ingots were imported from Korea, and made into tools and weapons in Japan, which is why the ingots are also important. Curved beads are also a common find in 5th century ritual sites, again from all over Japan. Mirrors go back a bit further, becoming important in the 3rd century, when they were made in China, although they were, later, made in Japan, following Chinese models. In the 5th century there was a vogue for making mirrors modelled after Chinese mirrors from the 3rd century, and they were commonly included in grave goods in the burial mounds. Thus, the ritual significance of mirrors in this period is also clear. Finally, the mirrors, including stone mock-mirrors, and curved jewels recovered from sites of this period very often have small holes drilled through them, so that they could be hung from something. It seems very likely that they were hung from trees, although I don’t think there’s any direct evidence of that.

If we now turn to the divination, this was performed using the shoulder-bones of deer. The excavated evidence of this form of divination suggests that holes were burned through the bones with hot needles, and the resulting cracks analysed. The dates are significant here, because divination using deer bones seems to have started in around the 2nd century BC, and continued until the 5th century AD. From the 6th century, divination shifted to using turtle shells, or cow bones if there were no turtle shells available.

Amenouzume’s naked dance is also supported by archaeological evidence. The clay figures from burial mounds of the 5th and 6th centuries include naked dancing figures, both male and female.

Putting all the evidence together, the conclusion is clear. This legend describes a 5th century ritual. The horse could not have been involved any earlier, deer-bone divination would not have been used any later, and all the other elements correspond to items found in 5th century ritual sites. The 5th century is also the period in which the unification of Japan got seriously underway, and the first period in which there is conclusive evidence for the use of writing by people who understood it. Thus, the 5th century also seems to have been the period of a very significant change in ritual practice, because when people came to record a ritual 250 years later, it was a ritual from that period that they described.

Now we go back to my editorialising. It is very hard to say when Shinto started, because there is no clear foundation event. However, we can say that there is a point at which it becomes useful to talk about the religious practices as “Shinto”, and start looking at the changes in Shinto, rather than at the practices that preceded it. I think that point is the 5th century, and I thought that before I heard this lecture and thus knew about the connection of the Kojiki myth to that period. There is also good evidence at Omiwa Shrine and Munakata Shrine that rituals that show strong continuity with contemporary Shinto started around the 5th century.

Of course, there have been significant changes. Deer bone divination had vanished by the sixth century, and naked dancing is no longer a prominent part of the overwhelming majority of Shinto rituals. (Shinto being Shinto, however, I’m sure it still happens somewhere, although it is quite likely to be a secret ceremony.) More subtly, although mirrors and sakaki are still important parts of Shinto ritual, mirrors are not usually offered to the kami, and offerings are not normally hung from sakaki branches.

However, I think that the common features mean that, if we are going to accept that Shinto has changed over time, the best time to start calling the rituals “Shinto” is the 5th century. That makes Shinto a fairly young religion, as religions go; Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism are all significantly older.

This lecture was extremely interesting, so if the rest are going to be like that, this is going to be a very good year.


A kamidana is a Shinto household shrine to the kami. According to a 2009 survey (reported in Ishii 2010 『神道はどこへいくけ』, page 21), about 43% of Japanese homes have one, although only 28% have one in the 14 largest cities. Since most of Japan’s population lives in the 14 largest cities, this means that kamidana must be very common in more rural areas. They are an important part of Shinto practice, but a bit difficult to find out about in English. However, one of the important jobs at New Year is taking everything off the kamidana, cleaning it, and then putting everything back on, with new o-fuda. (I’ll explain o-fuda below.) That provided a good opportunity to take lots of photographs to use in this blog entry.

A wooden shelf, high on the wall, with a wooden beam above it. “Kamidana” literally means “kami shelf”, and the name is accurate, as the traditional kamidana is, indeed, a shelf. The photograph shows the shelf part. As you can see, it is set high on the wall, and the base of the shelf is supposed to be slightly above eye level. You should put it in a clean part of the house, and not in one of the busiest parts. It shouldn’t be over a door, for example. Normally, it should face either east (to the sunrise) or south (to the noonday sun), but ours faces west, because of the layout of the flat, and because you can see Mount Fuji in that direction, from the room the kamidana is in.

The shelf does not normally extend all the way to the ceiling, but ours is quite deep, and to keep it above my eye level, it had to be fixed to the ceiling. Even then, the base is really at my eye level; I’ve walked into it a couple of times, and whacked myself on the temple. Fixing it to the ceiling is a slight problem, because it means that there is no easy way to hang a shimenawa (sacred rope) from the top. We are thinking about adding a couple of hooks.

The character for "clouds", in wood, stuck to the ceiling over the kamidana.The decoration in the wooden panel across the top of the kamidana is, I think, supposed to look like clouds, because you are supposed to put it somewhere where no-one will walk over the top of it. However, in blocks of flats, that is impossible, unless you live on the top floor. Since most Japanese people live in flats, Shinto priests have come up with a workaround. You stick the chinese character that means “clouds” to the ceiling over the kamidana (ours is wooden, and stuck just inside the front of the shelf). This apparently fools the kami into thinking that it’s the sky above them, or maybe mollifies them because you’ve obviously made an effort.

These days, shrines are very clear that you do not need a traditional shelf for your kamidana, and, indeed, in our old flat I had it on top of my bookcases. This is because it is difficult to impossible to add a kamidana to modern flats, and, despite the name, the shelf is not actually the important part.

Three o-fuda, partially overlappingThe important part is the o-fuda. O-fuda are obtained from shrines, either directly, by visiting and making an offering (usually about 1,000 yen, which is about $12.50 at the moment), or, in the case of the o-fuda of the Grand Shrines of Ise, which are called Jingū Taima, from any shrine affiliated with Jinja Honchō. Physically, an o-fuda is a thin wooden board wrapped in paper, about 25cm long and about 8cm wide, with the name of the shrine or kami written in black, with the red seal of the shrine over that.

The question of what they are religiously is controversial, because Shinto tends to be vague on central points like this. They may be purely symbolic. However, in general they seem to be taken to be dwelling places of the kami in question; the kami is thought to be present in the o-fuda, and hence on the kamidana. That’s why the o-fuda is the most important part of the kamidana, because without it you have no kami on your kami shelf.

There are three classes of o-fuda on a standard contemporary kamidana. The first is the Jingū Taima, representing Amaterasu Ōmikami, of the Grand Shrines of Ise. The Association of Shinto Shrines insists that every kamidana should have one of these, and that it should be placed in the most honourable position. The second is the o-fuda of the household’s ujigami-sama, or local tutelary deity. In most cases, this means the o-fuda of your closest shrine, although there are some cases where the shapes of the regions covered by a shrine mean that the ujigami-sama is not actually the closest shrine. In our case, it means the o-fuda of Shirahata Hachiman Daijin, which is, obviously, a Hachiman shrine. This o-fuda goes in the second place. The final class is the o-fuda of shrines you, personally or as a family, respect or have links to. These can be any shrines; in our case, it is Yushima Tenmangū, which is the shrine where Yuriko and I got married. These o-fuda go in last place, and it is often said that you shouldn’t have too many of them.

The miyagata with the railings and front wall taken offBecause the o-fuda may embody the kami, they are supposed to be treated with respect, and not just piled up on the shelf. Shrines provide free simple stands for them, but it’s much nicer to get a miyagata, which means “shrine model”, to hold them. This is, astonishingly, a wooden model of a shrine, and the o-fuda go inside. Although the miyagata normally does have doors on the front, like a shrine, you can’t normally get the o-fuda in through the doors, as the inside of the miyagata is not much bigger than the o-fuda. There are various ways to solve this problem, but in our case, the front of the miyagata comes off altogether, giving easy access to the interior.

The miyagata with o-fuda in, but with the front still off so that you can see themWhen the o-fuda go in a simple, one-space miyagata like ours, the place of honour is at the front, so that the Jingū Taima goes in front, with the ujigami-sama o-fuda behind it, and the o-fuda of other shrines behind both of them. The o-fuda in the photograph above are in the right order. Miyagata with three chambers are also quite common, and in that case the place of honour is the centre, with the space to the right as you look at it as the second place, for the ujigami-sama, and the space to the left for the other shrines. It is also possible to get miyagata with five or seven spaces, and while the central position is still the first, I’m not sure whether all the spaces to the right are ahead of all the ones to the left, or whether it alternates, so that the fourth most honourable location is the second on the right. Miyagata with that many spaces are really not common, because not many people have enough space for them.

The miyagata on the kamidana, in the centre at the back.Once the o-fuda are in the miyagata, you can close it up and put the kami on the kami shelf. The miyagata goes in the centre of the shelf, towards the back. Next, you can put other things on the shelf.

The kamidana should, unsurprisingly, not be used for normal storage. You should also really not use it as a place to hang washing, but the kami seem to be quite forgiving about that, and I do encourage Yuriko to move it as soon as possible. However, there are certain things that you are supposed to put on the shelf.

The wooden o-fuda have been added to the kamidana, lined up either side of the miyagata, against the wallFirst, when you go to a shrine and have a formal prayer performed in the worship hall (haiden), you usually receive a wooden o-fuda, which is a bit bigger than the ones that normally go in a miyagata, and which typically has your name and the purpose of the prayer written on. These o-fuda should be kept on the kamidana. In general, you are supposed to return the o-fuda to the shrine that issued them after a year, or more generally at the new year after you receive the o-fuda. If you got an o-fuda from the other end of Japan while you were on holiday, returning it to your local shrine is acceptable. However, I don’t do that for o-fuda that mark important events. So, for example, the o-fuda from our wedding and Mayuki’s Hatsumiyamairi are still on the kamidana. However, when we went to Shirahata-san this afternoon for a new year prayer, we got an o-fuda marked “First Prayer”, and I will take that back next year. After all, we’ll get another one. In any case, these o-fuda are supposed to be kept on the kamidana, next to the miyagata, until you take them back.

Engimono have been added to the kamidana, in front of the o-fuda, to either side of the miyagataThe second class of things that you keep on the kamidana are the so-called “engimono”, “good luck things”. This includes o-mamori, which are amulets issued by shrines for various purposes, and other similar items. One that you can see in the photograph, on the left, is a hamaya, a good-luck arrow that shrines distribute at new year. (The meaning of the name is disputed, but it is normally written with the characters for “magic destroying arrow”.) Most of these items are also supposed to be returned to a shrine after a year; again, I don’t always. Sometimes they have significant meanings, such as the two o-mamori Yuriko and I got when we performed a ceremony to announce our wedding at Shirahata-san. Sometimes, they’re interesting, and from shrines hundreds of kilometres away that I’m unlikely to visit again. The hamaya, however, does go back to Shirahata-san every year.

Two bunches of sakaki in white ceramic holdersFinally, there are the standard “furnishings” for a kamidana. The first of these is two bunches of sakaki twigs. Sakaki is an evergreen tree endemic to Japan, and it is used in a lot of Shinto ceremonies. The sakaki in the picture is new year sakaki, and you may be able to see that there are pine branches in the front; regular sakaki doesn’t have those. You are supposed to change the sakaki every two weeks, on the first and fifteenth of the month, and for a few days before that florists in Japan sell prepared sakaki bundles. If you forget to buy replacements, the sakaki tends to look very forlorn by the time they come round again. On the old Japanese lunar calendar, the first and fifteenth (or sixteenth) were the new and full moons, respectively, but these days the replacement is done according to the solar calendar, and so has nothing to do with the moon.

The sakaki have now been added to the kamidana, in front of the o-fuda but behind the hamaya

One bunch of sakaki goes on each side of the miyagata

Next, there are three things that I don’t have on my kamidana. First, it is common to have a polished metal mirror in front of the doors to the shrine. This is because a mirror is a very common symbol of the kami, most famously of Amaterasu. Second, people often have light sources, generally electric these days because of the risk of fire, to either side of the miyagata. Finally, a shimenawa, or sacred rope, across the top is also common. We don’t have one of them because I haven’t sorted out how to fix it yet. The mirror and the lights are missing because I haven’t been able to afford them yet…

Five ceramic vessels on a wooden platformFinally, there are the offerings to the kami. These offerings should not be placed directly on the kamidana, but instead on a special tray called a “sanbō”. The name means “three directions”, and comes from the fact that there are decorative holes in three sides of the base. The side of the base without a hole is the front, and should be placed facing towards the kami. The offerings are placed on top of it, often, as here, in white ceramic containers. There are four standard offerings.

The first is rice. This can be cooked or not, although we normally offer it uncooked, because it keeps longer. This is the most important of the offerings, and is placed nearest to the kami.

A photograph with labels to show the arrangement of the offeringsThe second is sake, rice wine. This is next in importance, and it is normal to have two bottles of sake in the offerings.

Finally, water and salt are offered, and these two are furthest away from the kami.

In principle, you are supposed to change the offerings every day, but that doesn’t happen at our house; they get changed when I change the sakaki, so normally every two weeks. Normally, you eat the things that have been offered to the kami after they are taken down, but because the rice has been sitting out in the open for a couple of weeks, I just throw it away. The sake, however, is poured into a jar to be used later; the sake jars, as you can see, have lids, so it is fine.

[Edit 2021/01: Well, I wrote that ten years ago and it is no longer true. I would not recommend that anymore, even though it is standard practice and the form that some priests recommend; rather, I recommend that you put the offerings on the kamidana immediately before you pay your respects, and take them down immediately afterwards, so that there is no problem eating them. Paying your respects every day is still the ideal. My guide to Shinto Practice for Non-Japanese has more details, and my Mimusubi blog has more details on why this is not as straightforward as you might think.]

You can also offer other things to the kami, particular food that you don’t see very often. Rice, water, salt, and sake are the staples, so seasonal vegetables and sea food are standard offerings. It is unusual, although not unheard of, to offer meat to the kami. You can also offer inedible things, like books or flowers. As with the standard offerings, you would use the item after it is taken down; that is, in fact, the main point. A central part of Shinto worship is the common meal with the kami, where you eat the food offered to them.

The offerings are placed on the kamidana, in front of the miyagata, which is why it is placed towards the back. Once the offerings are in place, the kamidana is complete, and you can properly venerate the kami at your own household shrine.

The kamidana with the offerings added in the front centre, in front of the miyagata

Since writing this article, I have written An Introduction to Shinto, and a guide to Shinto Practice for Non-Japanese, both available from Amazon. I’m also writing a series of in-depth essays on Shinto, supported through Patreon. If you are interested in learning more about Shinto, I invite you to have a look, and consider becoming a patron.


Shichi-Go-San,or Shichigosan, which means “Seven-Five-Three”, is the name for the traditional Japanese ceremonies performed to mark the maturation of young children. The name comes from the ages at which the ceremonies are performed: three years old for both boys and girls, again at five years for boys, and at seven years for girls. The origins of the ceremony go back about a thousand years, when each stage referred to one change from children’s clothes to adults’. At three, parents stopped shaving the child’s head and let the hair grow, while at five boys first wore hakama, the trouser skirts like the ones I’m wearing in the pictures. At seven, girls started wearing adult kimono, with a proper belt rather than a single cord. These ceremonies are still very occasionally performed in something close to their original form, but this seems to be limited to families that have traditions going back that far.

Mayuki, Yuriko, and I, all in kimono, arrive at the shrine

It was a long walk, but we're here now

These days, the ceremony takes the form of everyone getting dressed up and going to a shrine (usually) or temple for a blessing. The star of the show almost always wears Japanese dress, and it’s not at all uncommon for the mother to do so as well. It is, however, very unusual for the father to do so, so a lot of people stopped to look as we walked from our flat to Shirahata Hachiman Daijin for the ceremony. In this form, the ceremonies date back at least three centuries, as they are described in very similar terms in the Onna Chōhōki, a book written in 1692. These days, it is becoming more common for parents to just have a photograph taken with their child, and not actually bother with the shrine visit. It’s even less common for the whole extended family to attend, but I think it’s a good idea. However, in November the major shrines are still very busy with small children having their Shichi-Go-San, so if you want to see a lot of really cute Japanese children in traditional dress, it’s a good time to visit a shrine. The timing of the ceremony, incidentally, is said to derive from the date on which it was performed for the son of one of the Tokugawa shoguns, so holding it in November does not have as long a history as the ceremony itself.

The ages at which the ceremony is performed were traditionally measured Japanese style, in which you count every calendar year in which you have been alive. So, if you are born at four minutes to midnight on December 31st, you are two before you are five minutes old. However, the advice from the shrines, and the people who rent out the kimonos (no, you don’t buy them), is that, for the first one, you should probably wait for the full age. For a child born late in the year you might do it just before the third birthday, but two-and-a-bit is too young. This was certainly true in our case; a year ago Mayuki would not really have been able to cope with the ceremony, but this year she did very well.

As you can see from the pictures, Mayuki is wearing a sort of jacket over her kimono. This is standard for three-year-old girls, because they can’t wear a proper kimono with an obi. Instead, the kimono just ties shut, and the jacket hides the fact that there is no obi, as well as being in a contrasting colour. This makes it much easier and quicker to dress the child, which is a good thing. She’d sat in the chair for an hour having her hair done, so I think her patience might have been running out, and getting me, Yuriko, and Yuriko’s mother all dressed in our kimonos took quite long enough.

Mayuki and I filling in the forms at the shrine

I can write my name, too!

Once you arrive at the shrine, you have to fill in a form giving your address and the child’s name, along with his or her age. In our case, at Shirahata-san, this is largely redundant, because they know who we are, but if you’re one of thirty groups being done at once at a big shrine, it’s quite essential. The names and addresses are incorporated into the norito, the prayer to the kami, so that the kami knows who the priest is talking about. When Mayuki saw me filling in the form, she wanted to do it as well, so we gave her one, and she carefully filled it in. Obviously, she can’t really write yet, but she was filling it in with small letter-like bits, in the spaces, rather than scribbling all over it. This required great concentration.

The Shinto priest, in his vestments, beating the taikoThere are several advantages to doing the ceremony at a local shrine, one of which is not having to take a three-year-old long distances in a kimono. Another, and to my mind more important, one is that at most local shrines the priests will do one family at a time, rather than half a dozen at once. Of course, if you do it a local shrine you attend frequently, they might even give you permission to have photographs taken during the ceremony, which is a little unusual. As I mentioned before, we didn’t do this ourselves; we hired one of Yuriko’s friends, who is a professional photographer, instead.

The ceremony starts with the priest banging a taiko, a Japanese drum, to draw the kami’s attention and announce that the ceremony is starting. This generally happens while all the attendees are finding their seats. For this ceremony, Mayuki sat in the centre, with me to her right and Yuriko to her left, and then my parents on my side and Yuriko’s on hers.

The priest waving the harae-gushi to purify us

Even Mayuki bowed her head

After the drum, and a greeting from the priest, the next element is the purification, or harae. First, the priest recites the harae norito while kneeling in front of the harae-gushi, or ÅŒnusa, which is also called a purification wand. This normally consists of a large number of strips of white paper on a wooden handle. When he has completed the norito, he performs the normal two bow-two clap-one bow ceremony, then takes the harae-gushi and waves it first over the inner shrine, then over the offerings, and then finally over the people gathered for the ceremony. While you are being purified, you are supposed to bow your heads, and even Mayuki did it.

Next, the priest goes deeper into the haiden, or worship hall, and kneels to recite the main norito. At a Shichi-Go-San, this is a prayer of thanks for the child’s safe development so far, and a request that she will continue to be healthy, and grow up strong, happy, and prosperous. On this sort of occasion there are standard noritos, and by the end of November the priests must be very good at reciting them. They probably even do it in their sleep.

Mayuki, Yuriko, and I kneeling on the platform in the worship hall of the shrineFinally, the child, with her parents, goes to pay her respects to the kami. The three of us climbed up onto the platform in the worship hall, and knelt on a mat, in the centre, facing in towards the honden, or sanctuary. The priest then explained what to do: “First, bow twice to say hello to the kami. Then, clap your hands twice to get his attention. Finally, bow once more to say thank you.” Mayuki has been to the shrine quite a few times, and we do the same thing in front of the kamidana (household shrine) when we do “thank you things”, so she had no problem following the directions, and then going back to her seat.

It’s very important to note that we did not enter the honden, the sanctuary, to perform the ceremony. In the photograph above, you can see a mirror, and behind that two lanterns in front of a bamboo curtain, with another two lanterns behind the curtain. The sanctuary is behind the curtain, beyond the lanterns. The priest might enter it once per year to clean it, but otherwise no-one ever goes in. This has occasionally led to surprising historical discoveries in older shrines.

Almost all of our family, in front of the shrineAfter the ceremony, Mayuki was given a pack of traditional candy, which is much like a stick of rock, and given a choice of o-mamori, or amulet. There were amulets in three colours, all with Hello Kitty on, and Mayuki decided that she liked the blue one. Then the priest gave us the traditional bottle of sake and packet of bonito flakes, and the whole thing was over. Afterwards, the shrine family let us take a lot of photographs in the worship hall, the garden behind the shrine, and, finally, in the shrine precincts, in front of the shrine. Since I can’t put all of them up, I’ve chosen one of the family group ones taken in front of the shrine.

By this time, Mayuki was getting tired, and we went on taking photographs for a little bit too long, so that she started complaining and crying, and fell asleep on my shoulder on the way home. As I said at the beginning, she participated in the ceremony very well, and had very nearly enough endurance to cope with all the photographs we wanted to take. That would not have been the case a year ago, so we made the right choice for the timing. We might, however, do the next one on the traditional Japanese age.

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.

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.

Nyotai Daijin and Wakamiya Hachimangu

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

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Shinto Traditions Course — Tenjin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shinto Traditions Course — Inari

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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