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. www.oriens.or.jp
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.


  1. Interesting blog, it reminds me of Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, dedicated to the divine spirit (Kami) of Emperor Meiji and the Empress Shoken.
    I tried to write a blog about it, hope you also like https://stenote.blogspot.com/2021/06/tokyo-at-meiji-shrine.html

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