Monday, September 23, 2013

From Shinto Shrines: A Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan's Ancient Religion
Another post from the book relating to the architecture of shrines. As some readers may know, the vast majority of existing shrine buildings (as distinct from the founding of the shrine and what may or may not have been its original structure) were built between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most have been repaired or totally rebuilt but have managed to keep something close to the original style. The pitched roof is standard for all such buildings and very early on—perhaps as early as the seventh or eighth centuries—pent roofs were often added. While this is not yet a chidorihafu it is easy to see the evolution of the false dormer from the pitched roof - pent roof combination. The obviously separate pent roof—as in the Kasuga-zukuri style—evolved differently from what might be called the continuous-flowing combination of gable and pent roof known as a hip and gable (irimoya-zukuri) roof, which is more common. This combination was also prominent in both the shoin and shinden architectural styles. However it was probably not until the extensive building of castles got underway that the chidorihafu became a standard of any building attempting to express nobility or strength. While this sentiment may seem unrelated to shrines at first glance, it is important to remember that shrines were always built by the nobility. Therefore the aesthetic is closely connected and the chidorihafu became a standard of Shinto shrines and castles alike. Along with this, the slightly more decorative karahafu was used at an early date and can also be seen on castles from the sixteenth century. Though said to be from China (Jp. kara), this is not confirmed. It is often considered the more "noble" of the two and used more sparingly, for example, just over the main entrance. These two features do not apply to some specific shrine types, particularly as it concerns the honden. But even in these cases, the haiden (which may possibly have been constructed at a later date) is likely to contain chidorihafu and karahafu. As to chigi and katsuogi, many have been added after the Meiji period in an attempt to fall into line with the idea that Ise Jingu and its shinmei zukuri style, represented the "true" or most "elite" Shinto style. Here then is an excerpt from the book on a few of the common building characteristics of Shinto shrines.

Building Characteristics

Measurements: The traditional Japanese measurement system (shakkan-ho) came to Japan from China. The metric system was adopted in 1924 but the old system is still used in traditional building. Shrines are usually measured in bays (ken), with a bay being the distance between two columns. The actual measurement of one bay varies according to age, location, and custom. Excavations of Heian-period Kyoto show a bay having a span of 9.8 feet (from center to center of the pillar), whereas in the Edo period a bay measured about six feet-where it has remained to this day. The extremely large bays of Izumo Taisha measure about eighteen feet, but they are exceptional for shrines. The size of the bay may also vary within the same structure. The traditional Japanese length of measure is the shaku, which is 30.3 centimeters or about one foot. It is further divided in ten parts, called sun. Generally the standard is six shaku to a bay.

Wood construction: Japan is noted for its Hinoki Cypress(Chamaecyparis obtusa), which have provided most of the wood for both shrine and temple construction over the centuries. The structures all use post-and-lintel construction with cut and fitted joints. The use of nails or glue is limited. Some shrine types have the main pillars planted directly in the ground. Most shrines since the eighth century have pillars resting on stone bases, as do Buddhist temples. Infill walls may be wooden board or clay and plaster over bamboo lath.

Periodic rebuilding: Shikinen sengu means a periodic rebuilding of the shrine. The period is often fixed at twenty or twenty-one years, but it varies by shrine. The reasons for the rebuilding are ritual renewal to maintain purity; the natural deterioration of wood construction (especially where pillars are planted directly in the ground); and the need to train new carpenters in the ancient building techniques before the older carpenters die off (however, temples did not follow the custom, which seems to lend weight to reasons of ritual purity). The most famous such rebuilding is that of Ise Jingu, the preeminent shrine of Japan. Though many shrines that once underwent this renewal process are currently designated Important Cultural Properties and are only repaired, not rebuilt., Ise Jingu still observes a twenty-year rebuilding cycle. It has been carried out since the seventh century, uninterrupted except for a hundred-year interval between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Some of the 125 structures at Ise are rebuilt at twenty-year intervals, while others are rebuilt every forty years or as need be.

Painted or unpainted: It is widely thought that shrines are made in unfinished wood and temples are painted, but this is incorrect. Both can be found in unfinished or polychromed wood. Where paint is used, a vermillion or cinnabar red generally predominates. Toshogu shrines tend to have the most ornate polychroming. Certain types of shrine building are never painted (and probably never were). Shinmei- and taisha-zukuri are two such styles. Others, such as Toshogu, Sumiyoshi, and Kasuga, are always painted (please see the descriptions of these styles below).

Roof types: There are several roof types, surfaced in one of a number of materials: straw; kaya (miscanthus); cypress bark; cedar or other wood shingle; copper shingle; copper tile; and at a later date ceramic tile. (Tile is used primarily in temple construction.) Roofs are always gabled, and one of the most common types is the irimoya-zukuri (hip-and-gable style). The other common style is called nagare-zukuri and is essentially an asymmetrical gable, with one side extended to cover the stairway on the entrance (front) side. The other primary type is the yatsumune roof found on buildings that combine the honden and haiden in one (see below).
Chidorihafu and karahafu
Key features: False A-shaped dormers called chidorihafu are a common feature on shrines, especially on the haiden from the sixteenth century onward. They are generally featured on the front side, in the center of the roof. Below them is often found a curved-bargeboard roof feature called a karahafu. It is usually on the edge of the roof directly over the entrance, or on an extended roof canopy overhanging the stairs (kohai). It is also a key feature of elaborate gates and the extensive use of both types give Japanese castles their distinctive appearance. Other key features include pent roofs, verandas, and bracket sets supporting the roof eaves and veranda.
Chigi and katsuogi

Chigi and katsuogi: These are the most distinctive markings of Shinto shrines, though they only appear on some building types. Chigi are forked finials supporting the ridge board and extending past the ridge to form a V shape above the roofline, or sitting on the ridge to form an X shape. They are thought to be the remnants of the roof brace poles that were lashed together with rope in ancient construction styles. Today they are usually symbolic additions that sit on top of the roof ridge at each end. The direction of the cut at the end of the chigi may indicate the presence of a male or female kami-a vertical cut indicating a male, and a horizontal cut indicating a female. Katsuogi are log-like forms that sit on top of the roof ridge, perpendicular to it; they usually number five or six, but there may be as few as two or as many as twelve. The katsuogi (so named because they resemble dried katsuo bonito) once served to help weigh down the ridge and hold the straw roof in place. But at least by the fifth century, they also became decorative elements adorning the emperor's palace, according to an entry in the Kojiki relating to Emperor Yuryaku (r. 456-79). As early as the sixth century, the right to erect chigi and katsuogi was extended to include the homes of powerful families. Today both katsuogi and chigi are used to adorn certain types of shrine buildings, especially those in the shinmei, taisha, Sumiyoshi, and Kasuga styles.

Emblems: Most shrines sport a crest that is a representation of either the enshrined kami, the clan that founded the shrine, or the shrine's status. They are generally round marks with some type of pattern within, such as the hollyhock of the Kamo shrines, the yatagarasu three-legged crow of the Kumano shrines, or the chrysanthemum of shrines associated with the imperial court. An emblem common to many shrines is the mitsu tomoe representing the division of heaven, earth and man.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


The "Dark Brother" of Amatarasu; Susano-o no mikoto 
and the traditions of Izumo Taisha
Susano-o by Kuniyoshi
(courtesy of Wikipedia)
While 2013 is most significant in the world of Shinto for the twenty-year rebuilding (shikinen sengu) of Ise Jingu, the second most significant event may be the sixty-year refurbishing of Izumo Taisha in Shimane Prefecture. I have gone into some detail about this impressive shrine in Shinto Shrines; A Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan's Ancient Religion. Here I will summarize some of the research that relates to the shrine and its deities. As readers of the book and this blog are probably aware, Izumo Taisha enshrines Okuninushi no okami who is the son (or sixth-generation ancestor depending on the source) of Susano-o. The latter deity is said to be the brother of Amaterasu omikami of Ise Jingu, and is portrayed as the "dark force" to Amaterasu's "light force" in the Kojiki and Nihon shoki. Though never couched in quite those terms, the story is the quintessential "good guys vs. bad guys" scenario. As you might expect, the "bad guy" is in many ways the more complex and more interesting of the two. His ancestor, Okuninushi, is also a very interesting and significant kami and may even represent the influence and contribution to Japanese culture made by peoples form the Asian mainland—especially those from the ancient kingdoms of Korea. Hopefully I will have a chance to recount some of the more interesting research related to Okuninushi in future entries. For this entry, however, I want to concentrate on Susano-o. Though he is not the deity of Izumo Taisha as I mentioned above, he embodies the spirit of independence of the region as well as reveling some of the character of the early Yamato polity by the way it represented its opposition.

Izumo as the 'Other Japan': Construction vs. Reality
by Klaus Antoni
This first piece is a sort of overview of the issues related to Izumo and its position in the history and mythology of Japan. The paper focuses on the ancient and the Meiji era history and how these became intertwined to create the image of Izumo as an "exotic other" which tries to both be and not be a part of the Emperor-centric shinto mythology. The secondary focus of this article, as with so much of the discussion of Shinto (or of any faith) is how much effort—if any—should be put into trying to relate myth to actual history. The author discusses this issue in relation to the actual historical ties between the Izumo region and the ancient Korean kingdom of Silla (jp. shiragi) vs. the mythology in the Izumo fudoki, as well as the romantic writings of Lafcadio Hern who introduced a "dreamlike" Izumo to the world in his recounting of myths and fables vs the reality of late ninteenth century JapanY.
Antoni begins with a look back at the history of Izumo from the death of the 83rd guji of Izumo Taisha and kuni no miyatsuko of Izumo, Senge Takatoshi. In recounting the traditional independence of Izumo, he explains the position of kuni no miyatsko and its pre-Taika reform status and how the Senge clung to this now purely ceremonial status into the modern age. He then introduces the ninth-century Izumo Fudoki which recounts the mythology of the region from the point of view of the people who lived there. It may be recalled that the fudoki was a report made to the Yamato government by individual regions, recording their myths and deities and significant events. These were in-turn used to augment the official mythology that was compiled into the Nihon shoki. Antoni makes clear some of the differences between the official mythology and the original. In the original Izumo mythology, the most important myth is the "land-pulling" myth (kunihiki) which recounts how the main deity of Izumo, Yatsukamizu omitsuno no mikoto pulls several chunks of land from the kingdom of Silla and adds them on to the land of Izumo to enlarge it. Both this deity and this story are missing from the official mythology. On the other hand, Susano-o, a benign agricultural deity of the region, is given central position as the errant brother of the sun goddess, who tries to overturn the rule of heaven and gets his comeuppance in the end. But the real influence of this tail on later—and especially the Meiji—generations, is in the position of Susano-o's son, Okuninushi. Okuninushi is portrayed in the official mythology as the deity who surrendered the land to the rule of the heavenly grandson in return for being worshipped at Izumo Taisha and for being given domain over the invisible world which includes the soul after death. Much of the development of this idea is credited to late-Edo period scholar Hirata Atsutane. It is in this capacity, it was argued in early-Meiji, that Okuninushi and Izumo should be ranked equal to Amaterasu and Ise Jingu. Lafcadio Hearn who lived in Izumo during this time, did much to spread the image of the region as a "cultural heartland" of the very ancient and pure Japan that the Meiji oligarchs tried so hard to promote—but in relation to the Emperor and Ise. This conflict between history and myth, especially as it plays out in the ancient conflict between Izumo vs Yamato, Korea vs Japan, archaeological and textural evidence vs modern constructs, sets the background for the ongoing discussion of the significance of the Izumo region and its mythology.
Online at

Detail of Yamata no Orochi
by Toyohara Chikanobu
Susanoo: One of the Central Gods in Japanese Mythology  (21 September 2013)
by Emilia Gadeleva
This paper focuses on Susano-o and its premise is that the deity was one of rain/water/agriculture which by its very nature contained both positive and negative aspects. The concept is also put forth that the imperial myths which were transformed and codified in the eighth century were based on much older beliefs. In other words, the author disputes the idea that assignment of negative characteristics to this deity was purely politically motivated and instead sees the primary pairing of a rain and sun god (Susano-o and Amaterasu) as a natural consequence of an agriculturally based society (near the conclusion of the paper, the author points out how this important pair could also be characterized as a benign and predictable sun vs an unpredictable and sometimes destructive rain). Her conclusions are the result of textural studies of the five remaining fudoki as well as the Kojiki and Nihon shoki. She also reviews the opinions of a number of Japanese scholars who see Susano-o as everything from a deity of the underworld, to a political foil for the consolidation of the Amaterasu-centric Yamato state, to a benign agricultural deity, to a deity of forests and shipbuilders, to a deity worshipped by Korean immigrants.
Susano-o mythology is looked at from the point of view of four phases: beginning with the character of Susano-o as a young boy, his constant crying and causing of disasters in his desire to go to "the land of his mother" (ne no kuni) is highlighted. Then, as a young man, his exuberance and violence is highlighted and a parallel is drawn with Yamato Takeru—that other violent hero of Japanese mythology. Next comes his transformation from bad actor to hero and benefactor when he slays the goddess of grains (an act of destruction which results in the positive birth of the five-grains), slays a dragon and saves a maiden. Finally, the paper takes a look at his role as lord of the neither world and father of Okuninushi. Along the way his negative image is highlighted as the result of two atributes; his reckless exuberance (unintentional "badness") and his rivalry with his sister, Amaterasu (more intentionally bad). While his positive image is related to his slaying of the dragon in Izumo (water and the image of dragons is closely related in ancient custom) and either his slaying of the food goddess (Kojiki) or his planting of trees (Nihon shoki). As to Susano-o's depiction in the fudoki, the author first refers to the fudoki of Bungo (present day Oita prefecture in Kyushu) where Susano-o is identified with the deity of the northern seas called Muto. He is depicted in a story where he is considered a god of the sea who brings calamities upon those who do not respect him, and he is considered a foreign god (banshin). However, in relation to Susano-o it is the Izumo fudoki which is of prime importance. Here the author looks for the roots of the name itself and its connection to rice and agriculture. In reference to one myth recorded here the author points out the mention of the deity of Kumano Shrine, a prominent shrine in both Izumo and Kumano in the Kii Peninsula. The importance of this god was said to have determined the roles of the hereditary worker groups (be) in relation to their religious duties, and that one of these was responsibility for offering clean food and water to the gods. The deity worshipped at both Kumano shrines is Susano-o—again tying this deity to agriculture, water and the cleanliness of food (Susano-o's reason for killing the food goddess is the unclean way in which she offered him food). Later on, the author relates the name Kumano to the ancient word kuma meaning "rice offered to the gods." Through the connection with Kumano Shrines as well as with numerous references to Korea (including the possibility that the name Susano-o is related to the Korean word susung meaning "shamen") in the myths relating to Susano-o, the author concludes that Susano-o was originally modeled on the priesthood which was responsible for food offerings and for predicting the amount and timing of rainfall. The latter responsibility exposed the shamen to criticism and blame when too little or too much rainfall was forthcoming—hence the image of the god as destructive. Perhaps also because of the relation of the location of the Kumano Shrines at what was believed to be the entrance and exit to ne no kuni (the neither world or more literally "land of roots"), Susano-o came to be seen as the ruler of the ne no kuni. Though not originally considered a negative place but one of rebirth and revitalization, ne no kuni eventually became associated with yomi no kuni, the place of death and pollution. This too contributed to the negative image of this important and complex deity. Interesting and detailed research.
Online at

Susano-o slaying the dragon
by Kuniteru
The Land-Pulling Myth and Some Aspects of Historic Reality (22 September 2013)
by Anders Carlquvist
This paper focuses on an important aspect of Izumo mythology as mentioned in the previous paper: The Land-Pulling Myth. The author seeks the true significance of this important myth, from the Izumo Fudoki, in aspects of recorded history. The author begins by recounting the myth while annotating its four chapters which refer to four different pieces of land that were "pulled" and "attached" to the Land of Izumo by the deity called Yatsukamizu Omitsuno. That land includes; Kidzuki Cape, pulled from Silla in Korea; Sada. pulled from Sakai Country; Kurami, pulled from Yonami Country; and Miho, pulled from Tsutsu Cape in Koshi. The exploration for meaning begins with looking at similar myths from other counttries. The author finds numerous references in Asia to new land being dredged up from the sea but finds nothing like the "cutting" of land that appears in this myth. The author looks as far afield as Scandinavia and finds some compelling similarities but concludes that the connection is tenuous. In support of the theory that the land-pulling myth represents the "countries" allied to form the socio-political-economic Izumo Alliance, the author extensively outlines the number and size of kofun (burial mounds of the late Yayoi period)  in the area and their possible relation to the relative strength of the areas mentioned in the myth. Though the fudoki was compiled at a much later period, the author argues that elements of the ancient power centers survived. While recounting the writers of the Izumo Fudoki and their position—especially that of kuni no miyatsuko—the author goes on to explain some of the key differences in the interpretation of the fudoki and the kiki* of deities who were central to the Land-ceding myth. The Land-ceding myth explains how the heavenly ancestor of the imperial house, came to be the ruler of the land of Japan by gaining suzerainty over the land of Izumo. These differences reflect the way hat Izumo and Yamato viewed their positions. Finally, the author recounts a second prominent myth from Izumo fudoki that of the wani—and uses this as part of his argument that the real purpose of the Izumo fudoki was to assert the rights of the kuni no miyatsuko and emphasize the willingness of the region to protect itself from encroachment by the Yamato state. The inclusion of a strong relation to the Korean kingdom of Silla and the area of Koshi—both of which which had previously fought and won a major battle with the Yamato state—serves also as a warning to treat Izumo as a docile, yet dangerous, ally. Thus the author concludes that the significance of the land-pulling myth is defensive and political.
* the Kojiki and Nihon shoki

Online at

The Kusanagi Sword (October 26, 2013)
by Nelly Naumann
This paper focuses on one of the three symbols of power, known as the "Three Regalia" (sanshu no jingi), associated with the accession of the emperor. The three are the Yata no kagami (mirror), Yasakani no magatama (jewel) and the Kusanagi no tsurugi (sword). Although a symbol of power of the emperor, the Kojiki and Nihon shoki relate that the sword had its origins in Izumo. The sword is kept at Atsuta Jingu in Nagaoya and this paper follows the origins and mythology attached to it.
Much uncertainty surrounds all the regalia including whether or not the current objects are copies of the originals or copies of copies, and of what provenience. The Nihon shoki recounts that when Emperor Sujin became fearful of the power of the two kami (Yamato no okunitama and Amaterasu) as embodied in the sword and mirror, he sent them out of the palace. The mirror went to Ise and the sword was enshrined at "Anashi in Yamato" and later put under the care of the Yamato no Atae and finally sent to Ise. How it is that the sword resides at Atsuta Jingu is part of one of several lines of mythology which this paper attempts to follow. The first line, which Naumann describes as essentially political in nature, has us follow the discovery of the sword by Susano-o in the tail of the eight-headed serpent which he kills on his arrival in Izumo. He then sends it to his sister Amaterasu as a token of sincere apology (servitude?) and she bestows it upon her nephew Ninigi when he descends to rule the land (hence its role in imperial succession). Many generations later the sword is given for protection to Yamato-takeru by his aunt the saigu of Ise Jingu, while he is on his way to subdue the tribes of the East. Before his last mission, he leaves the sword with his wife, a daughter of the Wohari clan, and she enshrines it at Atsuta Jingu after he is killed.
   The second important line is the more natural one; the sword stays in the family of Susano-o and resides in Izumo. This line is supported by the sojourn of Susano-o's son Okuninushi to the underworld to visit his father. He is assisted in overcoming the trails through which his father puts him by Suseri-bime with who he flees, taking with him the sword of life, the bow-and-arrows of life, and the talking zither, with which he will rule the land. In this line, Susano-o naturally bestows three regalia on his own son who is to be the new ruler of the land and the serpent symbolism is seen as one of new life generated from death. 
   But there is a third line which posits that the sword always belonged to the Wohari clan and may only have been lent to Tenmu, who saw to it that it figured prominently in the royal succession. This theory takes its support from two directions. First, the implausibility and convoluted stories relating to how the sword was visited upon the emperor and how it came to reside at Atsuta. Second, is the historical relationship between the house of Wohari and that of the imperial family. Beside the fact that the Wohari saved Tenmu's bacon so-to-speak in his war against his brother's son to gain the throne, the author points out that the Wohari traced their family back to the third son of Ninigi and were therefore of the same lineage as the emperor. A Wohari consort of Emperor Keitai bore two sons who became Emperor Ankan and Emperor Senka. Only the entries for Keitai and Senka in the Nihon Shoki record accession rites involving the Kusanagi sword. There is also the curious recorded incident of the monk Dogyo stealing the sword in the year 688 and making for Korea. Inclement weather forced the monk to return and the sword was kept in the palace for eighteen years before being sent (returned?) to Atsuta after it was deemed to be the cause of Emperor Tenmu's illness. Naumann concludes that the third line is the most plausible with the qualification that the sword most likely did originate in Izumo and may have been a sign of that countries subordination to Yamato and of Yamato's early reliance on the clans of its eastern-most territories.
Online at 

The Susano-o character from an RPG game

Sakahagi: The "Reverse Flaying" of the Heavenly Piebald Horse (20 March 2014)
by Nelly Nauman
I am finally getting around to the last of these papers dealing with the "dark brother" of Amaterasu, Susano-o. It is another paper by the great German ethnologist and folklorist, Nelly Nauman. Here she focuses on an aspect of the mythology of the wild and rude behavior of Susano-o; the "Reverse Flaying" of a piebald horse. Briefly, after Susano-o and Amaterasu have a contest to see who can produce the best children, Susano-o declares himself the winner and proceeds to revel in his victory resulting in all manner of "sins" such as defiling the heavenly rice fields and the hall of the tasting of first fruits. All this is forgiven but when he "reverse flays" a piebald horse and dumps it through a hole in the ceiling of the sacred weaving hall, he frightens the weaving maiden (or Amaterasu herself) who strikes herself in the genitals with the shuttle and dies. This causes Amaterasu to hide herself away which causes the world to go dark. Nauman says that most studies of the myth gloss over this event as just one more in a series of misdeeds by Susano-o. But Nauman delves further to try to uncover the deeper meaning behind this "final straw". She begins with the concept of "reverse flaying" which she associates with other types of reverse actions such as reverse clapping and reverse drinking which are mentioned elsewhere in Japanese mythology. It seems that the very action of reversing what are normally life affirming actions are considered a cause of death. In this case, we have the death of the weaving maiden or indeed of Amaterasu herself who then "hides away" in a cave sealed with a huge stone in the same way that kofun tombs were used to bury the dead. She also goes into a detailed explanation of how the opposite action (the putting on of a new skin) can symbolize the attainment of new life. Through another series of myths, especially Chinese,  she relates the piebald horse to the moon and also explains how it was probably a cultic figure in Japan. She then interprets the dropping of the reverse-flayed piebold skin into the weaving house as the death of the moon (represented by the horse) and the killing of the light (represented by the weaving maiden). His punishment, besides banishment from heaven, is to have his nails and his hair pulled out. This is seen as a kind of exorcism and purification allowing him to transform into a giver of and protector of life as is seen by his subsequent actions on earth. As this disappearance of the light is followed by another disappearance (that of Amaterasu into the cave) Nauman fells that these are similar myths from two different cultures (Izumo and Yamato) mixed together because of their similarities. Such mixing of myths and the grafting of contemporary (i.e eighth century myths) onto late Jomon and Yayoi myths (weaving was likely introduced in the very late Jomon or early Yayoi) is what makes Japanese mythology so difficult to decipher. Nauman shows us again how the coincidence of imagery can lead us astray while a broader and deeper search for meaning enriches our understanding.
Online at