Thursday, May 30, 2024

 Scenes from the Sanja Matsuri 1984 -2024

One of the largest festivals in Tokyo, postponed for several years due to the virus outbreak. This year the 3-day festival, which climaxed on May 19th, was blessed with good weather. For those who may not know, this is the festival of Asakusa Jinja which is located next to its more famous neighbor, Asakusa Kannon temple also known as Sensoji. On Asakusa Jinja, let me quote from my book "Shinto Shrines", "Asakusa jinja is a rare case of ordinary people being enshrined as kami, in this instance two fisherman brothers [hence the fishing net image used for the shrine] and a landowner. Sensoji tradition relates how the Hinokuma brothers... were fishing one day in the nearby Sumida River, when they caught a tiny bronze statue of the Kannon Bosatsu ("goddess of mercy") in their net. They threw it back in the rive rnumerous times only to catch it again. Finally, they decided to build a small hut for the image. The village headsman, one Hajino Matsuchi, realized the importance and enshrined it in his home, where he welcomed villagers to worship. The events are thought to have happened in 628,... and the a temple that is considered to be the origin of the present day Sensoji... was built by the monk Shokai in 645." 

The three (Jp. san) were enshrined in the jinja sometime in the Kamakura period. Although the smaller jinja might look like an after thought compared to the massive Sensoji, with its famous monzenmachi and kaminarimon, their origin is the same. For more detail, please see, "Shinto Shrines; A Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan's Ancient Religion", coauthored with John Dougill and published by the University of Hawaii Press.

 I have posted a few photos of the Sanja Matsuri that I took in 1984. Although the quality is poor, they give some flavor or the festival in bygone days. 


                                         Top: Looking toward Sensoji after passing through kaminarimon.             Bottom: The north face of the hozomon looking toward Sensoji after passing through the monzenmachi.

Yakuza ride the mikoshi and exhort the carriers. Long since prohibited.


Several exhausted, young participants.



Sunday, January 15, 2023


Portable Kamidana Jinja
An Inexpensive Fold-out Shinto Altar for Home or Away

The Portable Kamidana Jinja with a sample ofuda. The pictured ofuda is only a representation. An actual ofuda can only be purchased from a Shinto shrine.
The Portable Kamidana Jinja with a sample ofuda. The pictured ofuda is only a representation. An actual ofuda can only be purchased from a Shinto shrine. 
Originally posted on 6/19/19
Most readers of this blog know that a kamidana or "God Shelf" is a small, Shinto altar for the home, office, or place of work. Usually made of wood and attached to a wall near the ceiling it was once ubiquitous in Japan. However, these days, when most people live in apartments, where attaching anything to the wall is restricted, move frequently, or live away from home for long periods of time due to work requirements, the kamidana has all but disappeared. Still, many people frequent the local shrine, particularly at New Year's, and purchase ofuda for the home, then have no place to properly keep them. For people in these situations, as well as for foreign visitors with a keen interest in Shinto, the Portable Kamidana Jinja is an excellent solution. Please keep in mind that the kamidana is only a home alter and does not refer to any specific kami or jinja. In other words, it is not imbued with any spiritual power. Only an ofuda from a jinja can represent the spirit of any specific kami. The one pictured above is only a sample, not an actual ofuda.

Simply follow the easy instructions to unfold the kamidana, and set it up in on a shelf or cabinet. No tape or glue needed. Then place your ofuda in the position provided. Now you are set to offer a silent prayer to the kami and receive it's blessings. If you would like to send the Portable Kamidana Jinja as a gift, it slips conveniently into an A4 size envelope. You can also collapse the Kamidana and reset it any number of times. The Portable Kamidana Jinja costs 2,700 yen including 200 yen tax. (Shipping and paypal fee adds 450 yen for a total of 3,150 ). For further information or orders, contact me at

The Portable Kamidana makes an excellent gift as well. Made of heavy weight paper and beautifully printed, it presents a formal appearance appropriate to the task of supporting the ofuda. Once again, please keep in mind that the sample provided with the kamidana, is not an actual ofuda, and should not be displayed. Also note that some ofuda may be very long and not easily supported. The sample ofuda depicted here is 190mm tall but up to 250mm is fine. You can pay through paypal internationally or furikomi within Japan.

Instructions for setting up the Kamidana Jinja
 The Kamidana Jinja comes with a suzu and saisenbako. Remove the folded kamidana from the package and follow the set-up instructions printed on the back.
The kamidana with two Goshuinchou

The Kamidana Jinja with the saisenbako and suzu in place.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples for Disease Protection and Good Health

Buddhist temples

Yakushi Nyorai of Horyuji in Nara courtesy Horyuji' website (Note that not all Yakushi representations include a medicine jar in the left had, especially older statues.)

At a time of heightened concern about the corona virus, I offer this short list of shrines and temples where you can pray for good health and protection against disease. The idea of praying at a specific shrine or temple for a specific purpose dates in Japan to at least to the 6th century and the assimilation of a mountain kami known for its healing powers, into the Buddhist cult of Yakushi Nyorai: commonly known as the medicine Buddha. This is according to the book Practically Religious by Ian Reader and George Tanabe. The concept of genze riyaku, which is the subject of this informative book, is usually translated as "this-worldly benefits".

Naming the concept may make it seem like something particular to Shinto and Buddhism. But if we consider prayer as a sort of dialog, with whoever we conceive of as a God who can answer our prayers, it is clear that all prayer is a plea for help. That plea may be as vague as asking for "guidance" or as specific as praying for relief from pain or debt. In fact, it is probably impossible to think of prayer which does not involve asking for something or thanking God for benefits already bestowed. Bhaiṣajyaguru – the original Sanskrit name of Yakushi (Nyorai basically means Buddha), was transmitted from India to China in the 4th century with the translation of the Sutra of the Master of Medicine (Bhaiṣajyaguru vaiḍurya prabha rāja sūtra). This according to the website of my old friend Mark Schumacher

Regardless of any amalgamation with Shinto deities, Yakushi was always a Buddha who vowed to bring care to the sick. This is by way of the above mentioned sutra, in which Yakushi makes 12 vows. Vow number 6 says:

I vow that, after my reincarnation and having attained Perfect Enlightenment, those beings who are physically inferior, with imperfect senses, such as... leprous, lunatic, or sick in many respects, shall all of them, when they hear of my name, regain their normal appearance and become intelligent. All their senses shall be perfectly restored, and they shall not suffer from disease. 

Yakushi's statue usually depicts the Buddha with a small pot of medicine held in the left hand. Perhaps the oldest temple for praying to this Buddha is Horyuji temple in Nara. But Yakushi-ji, also in Nara, is usually considered the most famous. Built in the Asuka period in the capital of Fujiwara-kyo, by Emperor Tenmu to pray for the recovery of his consort (the later Empress Jito) it was moved to Nara around 718. The massive building, located not far from the more famous Buddha of Todaiji, (457 Nishinokyo-cho, Nara City, 630-8563) is flanked by two pagodas (gojunoto) in a symmetrical layout. The temple hosts a Yakushi Triad with the main figure flanked by two bodhisattvas, Nikko and Gakko.

Arai Yakushi Baisho-in Temple 

Arai Yakushi of Baisho-in (courtesy
Address: 5-3-5, Arai, Nakano-ku, Tokyo, 165-0026
This temple in Tokyo's Nakano area, is accessible from Nakano Station on the Chuo-line. The temple has information in English at the website above. One interesting feature of this temple is their hidden Buddha statue which is displayed only in the year of the Tiger (a substitute is always on display). The next Tiger year is 2022. This Yakushi is historically linked to efficacy in curing diseases of the eyes.

Yakushi-ji Temple, Tokyo Betsu-in

Yakushi of Tokyo Betsu-in (courtesy Tokyo Betsuin)
Address: 5-15-17, Higashi-gotanda, Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo, 141-0022
Information about this temple comes from the website of Akadama Japan. According to that site the interesting thing about this temple, a branch temple of Yakushi-ji in Nara, is the chance to do shakyou. Shakyou is the practice of sutra copying. Copying sutras by hand was once the only way to reproduce them. These concise and terse expressions of received wisdom are the Eastern equivalent of scripture. Normally the practice of monks, it is believed that anyone can gain merit by copying sutras. No appointment is needed and the temple is open for shakyou from 9 to 5, 365 days of the year. The cost is 2,000 yen and apparently your copied sutra will be saved at Yakushi-ji in Nara. Tokyo Betsu-in is a short walk from Gotanda Station

Hinata Yakushi Temple (Hojobo Temple)

Hinata Yakushi (courtesy ANA's website)

Address: 1644 Hinata, Isehara, Kanagawa, 259-1101 (300 yen admission)
Get out of the city and travel to Mt. Oyama in Kanagawa to visit what, a number of other websites have called, one of the three greatest Yakushi temples in Japan. Whenever I hear "three greatest" something or other, I run for cover. So lets take one thing at a time. For one, it is said the temple was founded in 716 by Gyoki. This would make it one of the oldest temples in Kanagawa. This is not the place to get into it but Gyoki is a very significant figure in the history of Japanese Buddhism. I will just say that he may rightfully be considered one of the chief proselytizers of the religion, wandering throughout the country at a time when monks were mostly cloistered, ostracized by the elite, until he was recruited by Emperor Shomu to save the failing construction of Todai-ji.

For another, the main building (hondo) sports a large thatch roof that was rebuilt in 2016. An excellent site to read about the restoration (and many other topics) is Japan - Insights. A small quote from one of this site's excellent writers, Alice Gordenker, relates to another aspect of the temple.

"Although many temples in Japan preserve ancient Buddhist images, Hinata Yakushi houses an unusually high number of rare and important wooden statues of Buddhist deities, including six that are nationally designated Important Cultural Properties. Because the statues are so valuable, they have been moved for safekeeping into a fireproof building next to the main building, where they can be viewed for a small fee."

A final reason to visit Hinata Yakushi is the location. Mt. Oyama, considered one of the principle sacred mountains of Japan, is a traditional destination for worshipers of both Buddhism and Shinto. The natural environment is spectacular and at least as conducive to good health as prayer.

Nihon-ji Temple

The Great Buddha of Nihon-ji (courtesy ANA's website)

Address: Nokogiriyama, Kyonan-machi, Awa-gun, Chiba, 299-1901 (600 yen admission)

A Yakushi temple that has several things in common with Hinata Yakushi: another of the oldest temples in the Kanto, another temple founded by Gyoki, and another opportunity to refresh mind and body in spectacular nature. According to the temple's website, Nihon-ji was founded by order of Emperor Shomu, 1300 years ago in 725. While Gyoki had no choice but to walk everywhere he went, several interesting methods for getting to Nihon-ji are available to you. Drivers can cross the combination bridge and tunnel called the Tokyo Aqua Line, which lets out relatively close by. The other is a ropeway from JR Uchibo station that brings you up the mountain.

As the photo indicates, the temple itself may be the least of the attraction here. Mt. Nokogiriyama, where the temple is located, has a fantastic view of Tokyo Bay and the mountain side is peppered  with devotional sculptures – such as the 1,553 rakan – culminating in the 31 meter, carved stone, seated Yakushi. The original dates from 1783, restored in 1969.

Finally, there is Jigoku Nozoki, "hell lookout", an overhang that affords a 360 degree view. The lookout is typical of Shugendo sites, such as the Three Shrines of Kumano (Kumano Sanzan), where pilgrims hang over the edge held by the ankles, while they confess their sins out of fear of imminent death. Gyoki and his followers are usually referred to as ubasoku (layman) rather than bo (monk). The most famous ubasoku is En no Gyoya, considered the founder of Shugendo (mountain asceticism) and a contemporary of Gyoki.

Shinto shrines

Sukunahikona Shrine (courtesy Osaka Heritage Navigation)
Shinto has many kami and praying to any number of them may have some efficacy in curing disease but there is one that is immediately identifiable as a kami of medicine: Sukunahikona (or Sukunabikona) no kami. The small amount of information on this kami comes from the Kojiki, the Izumo and Harima fudoki, and Nihon Shoki. It is a curious and complex tale, so I will let Kokugakuin tell it.

The appearance of the smallest god in Japanese mythology, Sukunabikona, is filled with mysteries.

One day, a small god clothed in the feathers of a wren crossed the sea on the sheath of a metaplexis vine to where Okuninushi was. Okuninushi, wanting to learn the truth behind this mysterious deity, asked nearby gods. A toad told him that Kuebiko likely knew. Kuebiko is the ancient word for scarecrow. The knowledgeable Kuebiko said this small god was Sukunabikona, child of Kamumusuhi.

Kamumusuhi in heaven said that Sukunabikona was too small and fell through his fingers, and that now Sukunabikona should join Okuninushi as a brother in working to build the country. This was the beginning of their task to build the country.

The Kojiki does not describe the details of what they did to build the country. However, since the identity of Sukunabikona was revealed by toads and scarecrows in the fields, it can be assumed it had something to do with rice cultivation. This is pointed to by Harima no kuni no fudoki and Izumo no kuni no fudoki (works describing the geography and people of ancient Harima and Izumo, located in modern Hyogo and Shimane prefectures respectively), which both depict Okuninushi and Sukunabikona as carrying rice plants, together.

Also, in the Nihon shoki, these two gods are said to have established methods for healing people and farm animals. In other words, they spread knowledge of medicine. According to the remnants of Izu no kuni no fudoki (a work describing ancient Izu, located in the modern Izu region in Kanagawa Prefecture), Okuninushi and Sukunabikona pitied how quickly humans died and taught them how to use medicine and hot springs. The use of hot springs to improve health has been known in Japan since ancient times. The existence of these two gods attests to that. There are shrines to these two gods in hot spring areas around the country.

The tiny Sukunabikona who fell from heaven brought with him to Earth the advents of medicine and bountiful harvests. 

There are many shrines that worship Okuninushi. Many of them enshrine both kami. Two of the most famous are Izumo Taisha in Shimane Prefecture and Omiwa Jinja in Nara Prefecture. This kami is also called Omononushi and Onamuchi, the explanation of which is too complicated to get into here. I will say only that Okuninushi is worshiped for other things such as wishes for a good marriage and childbirth but, despite the strong agricultural connections, Sukunabikona is thought of as a god of medicine. Interestingly, the Chinese ruler Shennong (Jap. Shinno) is said to have taught the people agriculture and the use of herbs to concoct medicines. He is worshiped as  a god of medicine and often conflated (in Japan) with Sukunabikona.

Even today, many drugs are made from concentrating the active ingredients of certain plants. China has a very long history of using plants as medicine and much of this knowledge was transferred to Japan by Buddhist monks who traveled to China in search of doctrines and teachers. Almost coincidentally, they brought back the knowledge of using plants for health benefits. Many Chinese monks who came to Japan did likewise. These plants were often infused in hot water and drank as a tea. They were also mashed into pastes and dried and processed into powders. Along with this knowledge of medicines, the worship of Shennong came to Japan.

But since Japan already had a kami of medicine – Sukunabikona – Shennong (or Shinno), was conflated with this kami, which only served to strengthen his reputation as a kami of medicine. Thus it was that in the Doshomachi area of Osaka, which became the center of import and sale of Chinese medicines by the 16th century, also became the home of some of Japans largest pharmaceutical companies. It was only natural then that in 1780, a shrine to Sukunabikona and Shennong was founded which is commonly referred to as Shino-san. Today, the shrine is reached by walking through a narrow alley between two tall modern buildings, one of which is the shrine office that also houses the Doshomachi Pharmaceutical and Historical Museum on the third floor.

Sukunahikona Jinja (Shinno-san)

Haiden of Sukunahikona Jinja (courtesy of the above website)

Address: 2-1-8 Doshomachi, Chuo-ku, Osaka-shi 541-0045.
The Sukunahikona kami enshrined here was originally brought from Gojo Ten Jinja of Kyoto, and combined with the Chinese god Shennong. As I mentioned above, Osaka became the import-export capital of Japan, and this was likely due to its good access by ship, and its proximity to the capital of Kyoto. It also quite naturally became a hub of trade in Western medicine, or rangaku (Dutch medicine), as it was called at the time. The area gave birth to Takeda Pharmaceuticals in 1781. The company's main office is located a short distance away but it is now a multi-national company. Another company, which later became Tokyo Tanabe, was founded in Doshomachi in 1678 by a descendant of Tanabeya Matazaemon who was a trader in medicines appointed by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1604. For those familiar with Japanese history this may come as a surprise since we are taught that Japan was closed to trade with the outside world at this time except through the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki.

While you are in the area you may as well visit the Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma Historical Museum but be warned that reservations are necessary. Another point of interest in medical history is the Tekijuku of the famous rangakusha, Ogata Koan. Founded in 1838 to teach medicine, it is considered the ancestor of Osaka University. Guided tours are offered on their website.

Gojo Tenjin Jinja 

Haiden of Gojo Tenjin Jinja in Ueno Park. Tokyo (from Wikipedia)

Address: 4-17 Ueno Park, Taito-ku, Tokyo. Sukunhikona of Doshomachi is said to be divided from Jojoten Jinja in Kyoto, but as many times as I searched the internet for the shrine, is is the Goto Tenjin-sha in Tokyo's Ueno Park, which always shows up first. For that unreasonable reason, I have listed it first here. Onamuchi no mikoto is also enshrined here. According to shrine legend, the foundation date is 1486. Apparently the shrine was moved several times due to expansion of neighboring Kanei-ji Temple, during the Edo period. Unfortunately, its current location near the Ameya Yokocho entrance, is a little obscure. To confuse matters further, it seems that the kami of learning, Tenjin, was also enshrined here in 1641, hence the name.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Kinpu Jinja

Kinpu Jinja     (Kimpu, Kinbu, Jinja)                                                     UC
Kinpu Jinja, photo courtesy Kansai Explorer

Date founded: Date is unclear but mentioned in the Eiga Monogatari written between 1028 and 1107.
Address: 1651 Yoshino-yama, Yoshino-cho, Yoshino-gun, Nara 639-3115
Tel/Information: 0746-32-8167(3032) (Yoshino Tourism Office) Admission of 300 yen for the tower where Yoshitsune Moritomo hid from the Taira.
How to get there: Take the Kintetsu Yoshino Line to Yoshino Station. Then take the Yoshinoyama rope way to Yoshinoyama Station. From there take the Yoshino Omine Cable-car minibus headed to Okusenbon Kuchi and get off at the last stop. Then walk about 15 minutes.
Enshrined kami: Kanayamahiko no mikoto.
Prayers offered: Good fortune and protection against danger.
Best time to go: Late March to early May for the cherry blossoms.

While you're here, any readers who are interested in having a kamidana of their own, or would like to send one to a friend or family member, please check out this post:

Important physical features:  Physically, Kinpu Jinja is a very modest construction of heavily weathered wood, belying the image of its name – Gold Ridge. (It is not to be confused with Kinpusen-ji, a very large Buddhist temple, also in the Yoshino area – though somewhat distant from Kinpu Jinja – and also considered a center of Shugendo.) Passing through the first torii, you travel along an ascending paved road to the second torii at the very front of the jinja. The shrine itself is a square structure, three bays wide and deep, with a chidorihafu roof and no walls. From the rear of the shrine a stone stair leads further up the mountain: a clear indication that this is the home of a mountain kami. The present form of the shrine is probably from around 1613 when it was rebuilt after a fire. A pine tree on the grounds is thought to be more than 1,000 years old.
    Another important structure is found following the narrow path past the shrine. The so called Yoshitsune kakure-to is a one story pagoda. No more than a simple one room "box" with a cypress-bark roof, as architecture it's neither particularly interesting nor even typical of one-story pagodas. The interest here is related to the historical myth. An 18th century print by, Utagawa Toyohara, depicts an elaborate three-story building which was likely pure imagination on the part of the artist. The title of the print comes from a tale about Yoshitsune no Minamoto, one of many tales related to the Minamoto clan and locations from Kinki to Kanto. Yoshitsune spent years on the run from his jealous and rivalrous brother, the first shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo, who had previously spent years in hiding from his enemy, the Taira clan.  One such tale has it that Yoshitsune hid out in this pagoda and, when discovered and surrounded, escaped by kicking out the roof and running away. Therefore, the title of the print and an alternate name for the pagoda, Kenuke-no-to (literally ‘kicking and escaping pagoda’).

Kenuke-no-to, print in the possession of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

     However, as with so many shrines and temples in Japan, the real physical attraction is in the surroundings. The Yoshino and Omine mountain ranges in southern Nara prefecture present a breathtaking and generally unspoiled environment. Kinpu Jinja is near the famous Okusenbon area of some 1300 cherry trees (the entire Yoshino area is said to contain some 30,000 trees), which bloom between April and May. The area is best seen by hiking its many rugged trails – between 100 and 600 meters above sea level – stopping to refresh at one of the many onsen, or by joining an ascetic practice group and staying in a shukubo accommodation.

Important spiritual features: The true significance of this shrine is in the history of combinatory gods and religious practices that was once the hallmark of Japanese religion. When the feudal system of government and social organization finally toppled in the late 19th century, it was replaced by a combination of enlightened, Western ideologies – public education, Western medicine, a semi-representative form of government, modern transportation and industrial systems – and a rigid ideology based on the image of a modern European-style monarchy, with a strong military and a God-like Emperor at its head. That ideology demanded that Buddhism and Shinto be completely separated and that Shinto become "what it had always been" – a philosophy of state control and protection. In such an environment, the combination of Buddhas and Kami that had been practiced since the 7th century, was abruptly destroyed. Places such as Kinpu were forbidden from continuing their former practices and Shugendo – an ideology developed from a combination of ancient native gods and sacred sites, overlaid with Buddhist iconography and esoteric spiritualism – was outlawed.
    Still today, religion in Japan is basically the Meiji construct that it became at the beginning of the 20th century. But believers are now free to practice as they wish and Shugendo continues to exist at the margins. 

Description: Now part of the United Nations designated World Heritage site formally called "Sacred Sited and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range, Kinpu Jinja is an important stop on the Omine Pilgrimage route (Omine Okugakemichi). The World Heritage groups together the Koyasan route, the Kumano Kodo routes, and the Yoshino and Omine routes. I have detailed the history of the pilgrimage routes in other posts such as Tenkawa Jinja and Yoshino Mikumari Jinja. The essential thing to note is the influence of Shingon Buddhism, also known as Mikkyo. This esoteric Buddhism was brought to Japan by the priest Kukai, or as he was known later in life, Kobo Daishi. As a scion of the Saeki family of Shikoku, he traveled to Nara for study and eventually was selected to travel on a government sponsored pilgrimage to China in the year 804. In 805 he was introduced to Master Huiguo who initiated him in the esoteric teachings of Indian Mahayana Buddhism at the Qinglong Monastery. Huiguo died shortly after and Kukai returned to Japan in 806 to establish Shingon Buddhism.
     Quoting from Oliver Statler's Japanese Pilgrimage, in 816 Kukai petitioned Emperor Saga (786-842) to be given Mount Koya saying, "It is regrettable that only a few priests practice meditation in high mountains, in deep forests, in wide canyons, and in secluded caves. This is because the teaching of meditation has not been transmitted, nor has a suitable place been allocated for the practice of meditation." This is probably the beginning of the pilgrimage routes that started in the capital of Kyoto and ended at the tip of the Kii Peninsula in modern day Wakayama Prefecture. Early pilgrimage was often an elaborate months-long affair, including Emperors and a retinue of hundreds. As a result, an entire pilgrimage enterprise developed with small temples, shrines, and lodgings popping up along the route. The practice of mountain asceticism became key to both Shingon and Tendai Buddhism from this time. Pilgrimage is still very much alive in these mountains with thousands walking the various routes each year.

Festival: Hanakueshiki Festival, April 10 to 12. Take the Kintetsu Line from Osaka to Yoshino Station. Then take the ropeway to Yoshinoyama Station. Actually a festival closely associated with Kinpusen-ji Temple, flowers are offered to the statue of En no Gyoja, the father of Shugendo, in front of the temple. On the 11th a grand parade departs from Chikurn-in Temple and makes its way to the Zao-do of Kinpusen-ji, amid the sound of the conch and an array of brightly costumed shugenja. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

This article is reproduced from the Japan Mission Journal, September 2019. The Journal is published by Oriens Institute for Religious Research. Some of the references can be better understood by reading the September issue.
Thomas Pains courtesy of JSTOR Daily

The Local and the Universal: What Thomas Paine has to say to the Daijosai by Joseph Cali

At the time of the Daijōsai and the Enthronement, attention is again focused on the minutiae of ceremony, of Shintō, and on the supposed origins of Emperorship in Japan. In this essay I will bypass what I consider to be a misplaced focus on mythology as history and return to the fundamentals of Localism vs. Universalism via the essays of the Englishman cum American, writer and philosopher, Thomas Paine (1737-1809).
The fascination of ceremony and ritualespecially when they are unfamiliar and shrouded in mysteryis as captivating and entertaining in the age of YouTube as it was in ages past. It is also just as irrelevant as ever to the fundamentals of human existence. This fact was eloquently addressed by one of the most farsighted and critical thinkers of the late 18th century, Thomas Paine. Sometimes called the Father of the American Revolution, the moniker was earned through his attacks on the British Monarchy, most famously in his pre-war pamphlets Common Sense, and The American Crisis of 1776. Paines writings focused on the abuse of power, whether by one man over another or by one man over another using God as a justification. Therefore, his writings attacked the evils of monarchy and religion. An heir of John Lockes doctrine of consent of the governed, Paine was a great defender of what we call democracy. He was also a deist who abhorred the tyranny of religion, believing that God is omnipresent in all nature, including man.

The Daijōsai in the Tradition of Sacral Kingship

First, to matters at hand, the Daijōsai has been described as a harvest festival, a variation of the Imperial Niiname Festival wherein the Emperor relays the blessings of heaven to the people for the coming year. This also confirms the position of Emperor as chief celebrant of the Shintō faith. Leaving aside the fact that there was no Emperor, no Enthronement ceremony, and no Shintō faith at the supposed time of the first Emperor, Jinmu (mythic date 660 BCE), or for many centuries thereafter, the mythology continues in periodically modified forms. For instance, at one of those many points in Japanese history when rival factions fought for selfish gain, a court noble named Kitabatake Chikafusa (1293-1354) wrote an oft-quoted tract, Jinnō shōtōki (Chronicle of Legitimate Succession of the Divine Emperors). This tract was thought a necessary justification for the continuation of the Imperial line, at one of those not infrequent times when it was splintered by infighting. The tract was later taken as another piece of evidence that the Imperial line has never been broken. The need for such justification in this case was the namboku senso that deposed the Imperial line for about fifty years. Without delving too deeply, Kitabatakes spurious history is forever used to deny that the line of kings was, in fact, broken, and had been several times in its history. A quote from Mark Riddles Tennō sums it up:

Kitabatake Chikafusa (1293–1354), a court noble whose political-historical work Jinnou Shoutouki (神皇正統記, Chronicle of the Legitimate Succession of the Divine Emperors) was the classic expression of the imperial ideology that provided an official state dogma for Japan from the Meiji Restoration (1868) until well into the twentieth century, wrote:

Japan is the land of the gods. The divine ancestor Kuni-no-tokotachi-no-mikoto laid its initial foundation, and the sun goddess Amaterasu-oo-mi-kami bestowed eternal sovereignty. This is unique to Japan; there is nothing like it in other countries. Thus Japan is the land of the gods.

Actually, divine kingship was ubiquitous in the ancient world. Riddle seeks for the roots of the solar kingship model that Japan adopted as late as the 9th century CE, and recounts the Indo-Asian roots of the Kings relation to the Goddess from whom he derives his right to rule. This long essay is well worth rereading on the occasion of the current Daijōsai. It clearly relates the continuity of culture from West to East from which most of Japans religious and cultural practices derive:

Divine authority was a sine qua non of kingship in antiquity—the king derived his status from special powers bestowed upon him by the gods, or, more specifically, by a goddess. As Henri Frankfort expressed it, ‘only those kings were deified who had been commanded by a goddess to share her couch’ (297). According to Frankfort, divine kingship began when the king began to play the role of the bridegroom in the annual rites of spring, the divine union—the marriage of a god and goddess, which brought about the renewal of nature, ritually enacted in the city temples of Mesopotamia. In several Sumerian texts the king is described as ‘the beloved of Inanna.Sargon of Akkad wrote of his love for Ishtar and of the powers she furnished him. The divine right of kingship through a special relationship with the goddess of the land was ritualized in a hieros gamos, a sacred marriage between the king and a priestess who represented the goddess. The Hittite sun goddess Arinna was described as ‘she who controls kingship in heaven and on earth.’ Of the Egyptian pharaoh, Henri Frankfort wrote (200), ‘A succession of individuals embodies the same divine being,and in that same way, each Japanese emperor embodies, in succession, the divine spirit of his ancestors. It is in the series of rites called the Daijōsai (大嘗祭) that the emperor is infused with the spirit of the sun goddess and becomes a divine king. (Riddle, 2-4) 

     It is worth noting that in the currently approved Japanese version of the Daijōsai, any inference of a sexual or physical union between the Emperor and Amaterasu, or that the ritual enacts the birth of the Emperor from Amaterasus womb, or even that the Emperor once may have lain on the shinza couchone placed in the sukiden and one in the yukidenis vehemently denied.
The current view rejects the previously influential theory of scholar Orikuchi Shinobu who wrote an essay in 1928 called Daijōsai no hongi (see Blacker, 85-97).  There he expresses the view that it is not so much hereditary blood succession that creates the new emperor, but the correct transference of the imperial mitama or soul from the old emperor to the new. He conjectured that this must happen in complete darkness and that the Emperor, lying on the shinza couch, is likely wrapped in the coverlet called ofusuma, which allows his mitama to gestate. Such a ritual would also mimic the way the first ancestor, Amaterasus grandson Ninigi no mikoto, descended to earth wrapped in the madoko-ofusuma. Orikuchi argued that an immortal, unchangeable imperial soul (tennō rei), which had left the body of the deceased emperor, is reinvigorated and directed by ritual means into the body of the new tennō lying on the shinza, wrapped like Ninigi no Mikoto in the coverlet, madoko ofusuma, where it is duly incorporated. In other words, while the mortal frame changes, the imperial tama remains forever the samea special type of reincarnation (Liscutin, 38-9).  That this imperial tama was believed to be solar is shown by the Chinkonsai ritual performed by the emperor annually on the eve of the Niinamesai, the late fall harvest festival. Like the sun, the emperors soul was believed to weaken as winter approached, and it was feared that his soul was about to leave his body. This soul appeasement (chinkon, , means soul-calming) is performed to maintain political order and prevent the world from falling into chaos (Riddle, 5-6).
Riddle adds information on the views of the Japanese-Canadian scholar Waida Manabu, who held that the meaning of the mythico-ritual complex of the Chinkon-sai lies in the emperors repetition or reenactment of the rebirth of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu at the critical time of the winter solstice. The sovereign is homologized with Amaterasu. Drawing on Georges Dumézils analysis of Indo-European kingship, Waida picked out three ceremonies in which the emperor reenacts what was done in the two cosmic zones of heaven and earth in the beginning of mythical time by mythical figures: Amaterasu, Ninigi, and the first emperor Jinmu, representing the magico-religious, economic, and military functions of kingship respectively.
Of course, there are other views and no one knows for sure what the significance is. However, there is a larger picture we should not lose sight of: why are we still even bothering with defunct notions of Gods, Goddesses and Emperorship (Kingship), when the world continues to face potential destruction caused in part by these very notions? Returning to Paine, I would like to quote from Common Sense in the section headed Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession:

But there is another and greater distinction for which no truly natural or religious reason can be assigned, and that is, the distinction of men into KINGS and SUBJECTS. Male and female are the distinctions of nature, good and bad the distinctions of heaven; but how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth enquiring into, and whether they are the means of happiness or of misery to mankind….

To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and an imposition on posterity. For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever….

Perhaps the disorders which threatened, or seemed to threaten on the decease of a leader and the choice of a new one (for elections among ruffians could not be very orderly) induced many at first to favor hereditary pretensions; by which means it happened, as it hath happened since, that what at first was submitted to as a convenience, was afterwards claimed as a right. (Paine 1776:25-37)

At this time of renewed kingship, I think it is equally important to renew the power of the sober reflections of Thomas Paine.

Localism vs. Universalism

A subject that seems to be an undercurrent in discussions about Shintō and its rituals, is the question of whether the religion has elements of the Universal and whether foreigners can understand or connect with it. First, let me put forth some of my own definitions.
I consider God (with a capital G) to be a universal concept. It is expansive, all-encompassing, and unrestricted. Religion, however, is a local concept. It is definitive, exclusive, and restrictive. By the same token, the family of man is inclusive, egalitarian, and somewhat abstract. My family is exclusive, hierarchal, and very close to the bone. By these brief definitions I think it is obvious where the problems of man arise, and why we can never be at peace until the day we can be free of religion, family, and county as they are still defined.
Not to say that such experiments are not always underway. The United States is one such experiment. So are the EU and the UN. There are experiments in extended family structure and in the adoption of rules to make religions and membership in various organizations less restrictive and more inclusive. But there are as many failures as successes.
Let me stop there and look at how these definitions apply to Shintō and the Emperor of Japan. Shintō has an element of universalism in that it finds god or kami in everything. This is what I take the yaoyorozu to signify. So, to the degree that Shintō is worship of the divinity in nature, it is universal, and speaks to us all. But where it is tied to specific place, or where it deifies humans as gods, or attempts to define a host of gods, it is a religion with all that the word implies: it is strictly local. Where Shintō seeks inclusiveness and is open to change and interpretation, and can accept that much of its symbolism is not unlike that of other belief systems in other parts of the world, it has a universal element. Where it defines itself by its Japaneseness and exclusive traditions that cannot possibly be understood by outsiders, it is local. The Emperor and the rituals surrounding the throne are part of this Japanesenesswhether or not most Japanese are even aware of them.
I believe that confusion comes when modern-day people, with knowledge of the wider world, feel irrelevant and isolated, and scramble to prove that their beliefs are as valid as any. I sense this strongly from Rev. Katō Taishis essay in this journal. Why else try to convince us of the universality of something that is so clearly local? A quick glance at Japanese media reveals the abject need of the Japanese people to be praised by people from other countries in order to feel validated. My point is that Shintō is neither superior nor inferior to any other belief. Universalism is not superior to localism nor the other way around: they are co-equal aspects of our humanity.
Here are some of Thomas Paines definitions and beliefs, again edited for brevity:

I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.
I believe in the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.
All national institutions of churcheswhether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish [Islamic]appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind and monopolize power for profit.
Every national church or religion established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals.
Each of these churches show certain books which they call revelation, or the word of God… Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and, for my own part, I disbelieve them all. (Paine 1994:53-9)

Shintō’s books of revelation, if we wish to call them that, are the Kojiki, the Nihon shoki, and the Engishiki. Shintō, as a belief system, falls very specifically into the category of a local religion. One that is forever at the beck and call of a government that cant seem to decide if it wants to be spiritual or secular but lives in constant fear of losing its grip on poweras John Breens essay eloquently points out. Long before the current constitution enshrined the principle, religious and secular authority have been quite separate in Japan. Yet, when it comes to the institution of the Emperor and of the Shrines that empower him, the state is still quite willing to envelop itself with a mystical aura of divine authority. Thus, we arrive at the very definition of the modern-day Daijōsai: a ritual designed to give a man the aura of a god, and help perpetuate the authority of the state as the secular expression of that divinity. 


Blacker, Carmen (2000). Collected Writings. Edition Synapse.
Frankfort, Henri (1948). Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Religion as the Integration of Society & Nature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Liscutin, Nicola (1990). Daijōsai: The Great Festival of Tasting the New Fruits. Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan 5:2552.
Paine, Thomas (1776). Common Sense. Philadelphia: W. & T. Bradford.
——— (1894). The Writings of Thomas Paine, ed. Moncure Daniel Conway, IV. New York: G. P. Putnams Sons.
Riddle, Mark A. (2011). Tennō (天皇): The Central Asian Origin of Japans Solar Kingship. Sino-Platonic Papers (Philadelphia), no. 214, September.
Waida Manabu (1976). Sacred Kingship in Early Japan: A Historical Introduction. History of Religions 15:319-42.