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.

Shinto Controversies Course — 3rd Lecture

Yesterday, I went to the third lecture in this year’s open Shinto course at Kokugakuin University. The topic was the Sacred Marriage hypothesis. In this context, this is the claim that certain Shinto rituals originally included an act of ritual sex, as a central part of the rite. The lecturer, Professor Okada, does not believe this.

The first case he dealt with was the Daijousai, the oldest rite that is part of the accession rituals for a new Japanese emperor. The rite is carried out in temporary buildings, built a few days before the rite and disassembled a few days afterwards. The main rituals happen in two of these buildings, which are exactly similar. They are performed in one just before midnight, and in the other a few hours later, on the following day. The details of the rites are secret, and in theory known only to emperors, although in practice a few other people have learned them, in part because in the eleventh century some new emperors were only four years old, and needed help. What is known is that an important part of the rite is offering food to a kami, presumed to be Amaterasu. This takes place at two mats set out to one side of the room.

However, the room is dominated by a bed, complete with a bedside table bearing various toilet articles and a pair of shoes at the base. This has led numerous people to suggest that the bed must be involved in the rite somehow. Seiji Okada (to be distinguished from Shouji Okada, who is giving these lectures) suggested that it might have been the site of an act of ritual sex, symbolising the submission of the country to the emperor.

This is not a completely random suggestion; Seiji Okada is a respectable scholar. In the ancient period (around the seventh century AD in Japan; history started rather late here) the regional families sent women, called uneme, to the imperial court. They had sexual relations with the emperor, were not allowed to have such relations with anyone else, and were, effectively, hostages. They also played a significant role in the Daijousai, bringing the food in. In addition, the rice in the Daijousai was grown at two locations in the more distant areas of the country, chosen through divination.

So, it seems plausible that the Daijousai does symbolise the emperor’s rule over the whole of Japan, and it seems certain that the uneme were sexually related to the emperor. In that sense, it isn’t a great stretch to suppose that such an act of sex was part of the rite.

The big problem with this theory is that there is absolutely no evidence for it. All of the records of the ritual suggest that the central part of the ceremony was the offering of food. Obviously, if a sexual act were involved, it would also be more than a little difficult for a four-year-old to perform the rite, and it would also cause problems for female emperors, who were not uncommon in the seventh and eighth centuries. Indeed, the evidence we have suggests that the bed is carefully avoided at all points during the ceremony.

Professor (Shouji) Okada argues that the bed was for the kami, and thus the most sacred location in the hall. No-one, not even the emperor, could touch it; it had the strongest taboos. Having sex in it would be even more taboo.

The second case he discussed was the Miare festival at the Kamo Shrines in Kyoto. These shrines were very closely associated with the imperial court from the late eighth century, when the capital moved to Kyoto. The Miare festival takes place at night, a few days before the most famous festival of the shrines, the Aoi Festival, and it is a secret ceremony.

Two scholars, Yoshie and Miyake (the Japanese use of honorifics means that I don’t know what the correct titles would be in English; probably Dr, maybe Professor; I’ll use Dr from this point), have suggested that the Miare festival involved ritual sex between the hafuri, a male priest, and the imiko or iwaiko, a female priest. (Prof. Okada couldn’t seem to decide on which reading of the kanji was best.)

The theory apparently started with Dr Yoshie. She noted that, in the seventh and eighth century lineages of the Kamo priests, of eight, three are connected to four imiko, and she claimed that these women were the original Tamayorihime, the female kami enshrined at one of the Kamo shrines. She said that the imiko and the hafuri, representing Tamayorihime and Tamayorihiko, from the legends, were linked in a sacred marriage. In addition, she said that the areotoko and areotome involved in the festival were names for the male and female priests. Dr Miyake elaborated it to say that the ritual sex between the priests representing Tamayorihime and Tamayorihiko represented the birth of the lightning kami who is the main kami of the other Kamo shrine.

Prof. Okada said that this theory made several large jumps. First, while the recorded legends of the Kamo shrines do include a sacred marriage and the birth of the lightning kami, the sacred marriage is between Tamayorihime and Honoikazuchi no kami. Tamayorihime and Tamayorihiko are brothers, and the shrine families are all descended from Tamayorihiko. Similarly, the areotoko and areotome, while they were male and female, referred to ambassadors sent from the emperor to the festival, not to priests at the shrines.

The only real ground for the sacred marriage theory here seems to be the existence of a sacred marriage legend at the shrine. However, that’s not very good grounds. The legend need not be literally acted out in the festivals, after all.

In addition, Prof. Okada, being a professor at one of the two Shinto Universities in Japan, was able to examine the eighteenth century record of rituals held at the Kamo shrines. (It hasn’t been published.) This gives details of what the imiko do, and, significantly, they are not involved in the Miare festival. They spend the entire time enclosed in a building in the shrine grounds. (This is quite common in Shinto, for both men and women, and both for purification, actual festivals, and the aftermath of festivals.)

Thus, in these two cases, the evidence for a sacred marriage is rather tenuous. More generally, Kunio Yanagita suggested that miko, the female attendants at shrines, were originally the wives of the kami. Prof. Okada is not sure about this, either. The evidence that we have, going back to Chinese records of an embassy from the Japanese islands in the third century, suggests that Shinto associated abstaining from sex with rituals. He also mentioned a ritual at one of the Sumiyoshi shrines (I didn’t catch which one, and this wasn’t on his handout), where the entire shrine is closed for several days and almost no-one but the priests are allowed in. The priests are all enclosed in the shrine, and perform certain rituals. However, some things are taken in and out, by women, but by women in their fifties and sixties, not young women. He then tied himself in knots trying to get across the idea that these women were asexual, while facing an audience containing a high proportion of women in their fifties and sixties.

The sacred marriage hypothesis is not entirely a modern phenomenon. Prof. Okada talked about a document from the Kamakura period (I think; the Japanese middle ages, anyway) which mentions a popular belief that the kami of the Grand Shrines of Ise visited the Ise Princess, the imperial princess sent as a representative of the emperor to the grand shrines, in the form of a snake, and slept with her. The monk (and son of the Ise shrine family) who reported this rejects the story, pointing out that, according to the legends, the kami at Ise was not born sexually, and did not produce descendants sexually, either, so why would there be a sacred marriage? Oh, and the kami in question is Amaterasu, who is a goddess, which makes the whole thing even less sensible.

It does sound like there is, at best, very little evidence for these theories. However, one line of evidence that Prof. Okada adduced did not convince me. He said that people who served in Shinto ceremonies could see that these hypotheses were ridiculous, because sex would never be involved in the rituals. Maintaining a calm heart is, he said, central. However, this is true of Shinto rituals now. It doesn’t tell us anything about what they were like twelve or thirteen hundred years ago, particularly not when we know that they were substantially revised about 150 years ago. If sex had been part of the rituals, I would expect a bit more trace of it in the oldest records, so I suspect he’s right about that, but spirit possession and uncontrolled dancing does make a number of appearances in a ritual context, most famously in the legend of the heavenly cave, so I’m not convinced that the importance of a calm heart goes all the way back.

One thing he said at the end of the lecture was that he hoped that, as we learned more about Shinto, we would come to agree with him. (He was at least half joking at the time.) It’s certainly true that, the more I learn about Shinto, the more certain things do not seem to fit into it. On the other hand, Shinto is very diverse, even now, so I’m not sure that you can say of anything that it doesn’t fit into Shinto at all. The diversity and lack of centralisation of Shinto is one of the things that makes it so interesting.