Religions Of Japan
Author: Foot Moore, George
Date: 1913

A regulation of the eighth century divided the festivals observed by the
state according to their importance into three classes. In the greatest of
all, standing alone in the first rank, is the Daijowe, celebrated by each new
emperor in the eleventh month of the year of his accession, or, if that did
not give time for the prolonged preparations, a year later. The emperor with
his own hand offered to the gods as the first-fruits of his reign the newly
harvested rice and fresh-brewed beer. The grain must be grown on two pieces of
land selected by divination, and every step of the operations, from the
designation of the fields on, was conducted in accordance with the minutely
prescribed ritual. For the offering itself new buildings were erected with
many ceremonies in a suburb of the capital; in them, on a carpet of reed mats,
was laid a large cushion, the "deity seat." Emperor and people prepared
themselves for the great occasion by avoiding for a month, and still more
strictly for three days preceding the festival, various sources of
uncleanness. The recitation of the liturgy, an address of congratulation and
benediction to the emperor by members of an ancient noble family of Idzumo,
was accompanied by a present of jewels of different colours. The ceremonies,
which are in substance an elaboration of the annual festival of first-fruits,
served as the solemn religious inauguration of the new reign.

The festivals of the second class were observed annually, and were all
connected with agriculture. At the first the gods were implored to protect
the growing crops against injury by wind or rain and to give abundant
increase; in the autumn several harvest festivals were celebrated with
offerings of first-fruits at the temples - for example, to the two goddesses
in Ise - and at court. In one of the latter the emperor offered new rice to
all the gods and partook of it himself.

The prayers for harvest in the second month, when the rice is sown, take
in part the form of a vow of the emperor to make large offerings to the gods
of the harvest if they give large crops this year. The greater part of the
liturgy for this occasion has, however, nothing particular to do with the
harvest or the harvest gods, but is addressed to several other classes of
deities, and seems to have been originally composed for the half-yearly (in
early times, monthly) festivals of a general character.

Among the minor festivals are those in which the god of waters is invoked
to avert destroying floods of rain; the wind gods, that storms may not rage;
the fire god, that conflagrations may not break out; for protection against
pestilence; for the long life of the emperor; to drive away evil spirits, and
the like.

Besides festivals and offerings such as those thus far described, by
which the favour and protection of the gods were sought or gratitude expressed
for blessings already received, piacular offerings and rites of purification
have a prominent place in the old Japanese religion. Individuals who had
incurred guilt by some offence had to make expiatory offerings; those who had
contracted uncleanness, for instance, from a dead body, purified themselves by
ablution. But inasmuch as the guilt or defilement of the individual might
infect the whole community, a general purification of the land and people was
also necessary. In earlier times such rites seem to have been occasional,
being ordered when there was special reason; but from the beginning of the
eighth century they were performed at the close of each half-year. ^1 The
ritual of these days, the so-called Great Purification (Oho-harahe), is of
peculiar interest for the insight it gives into the religious and moral
conceptions of ancient Shinto.

[Footnote 1: Like the semiannual days of atonement in Ezekiel.]

To the thinking of the natural man, all the world over, defilement,
disease, and guilt, with no sharp lines of demarcation, are contagious evils,
physically transmissible and physically removable; they may be transferred to
an animal or a human scapegoat, or to some inanimate object, and sent away
bodily. On a higher religious plane the gods are invoked to take away these
evils, and offerings, propitiatory or expiatory, are made to induce them to do
so; but the old physical means of disposing of sin as a substance are often
conserved - the higher conception does not supplant the lower, but is
superimposed upon it. The ceremonies of the Jewish Day of Atonement represent
such a fusion of diverse notions and rites, and so does the ritual of the
Shinto days of atonement. The offerings of food are propitiatory, and the
priest declares that the gods, hearing the potent words of the liturgy, will
remove both physical and moral uncleanness; but the "purification offerings"
proper are sent off in a boat and cast into the depths of the sea.

The catalogue of offences distinguishes between heavenly misdeeds -
so-called because they are like those perpetrated by Susa no wo in the myth ^1
- and earthly misdeeds; but it makes no distinction between crimes against
person or property, skin diseases, and calamities such as being struck by

[Footnote 1: See above, pp. 98 f.]

Now of the various faults and transgressions to be committed by the
celestial race destined more and more to people this land of his peaceful
rule, some are of heaven, to wit, the breaking down of divisions between
rice-fields, filling up of irrigation channels, removing water-pipes, sowing
seed over again, planting skewers, flaying alive, flaying backwards. These are
distinguished as heavenly offences. Earthly offences which will be committed
are the cutting of living bodies, the cutting of dead bodies; leprosy, kokumi
[a disease]; incest of a man with his mother or daughter, with his
mother-in-law or step-daughter, bestiality; calamities from creeping things,
from the high gods and from high birds, killing animals, bewitchments.

So persistent are the primitive notions that in relatively modern times
they have given rise to a new custom quite in the ancient spirit. A few days
before the semiannual Oho-harahe, a man or woman who wishes to be purified
procures from the temple a small piece of white paper cut rudely in the shape
of a shirt. On this he writes his name, sex, the year and month of his birth,
rubs the paper over his whole body, and breathes into it, thus transferring to
it his sins or ailments, and brings it back to the temple, where the
collection is deposited on a black table during the purification ceremony, and
at the end is sent off in a boat and thrown into the water.

It is a commonplace with writers on Shinto that it has no ethics. The
enthusiasts of "Pure Shinto" made a virtue out of this defect: moral precepts
and ethical systems are made necessary only by depravity; the Chinese needed
them, but the ancient Japanese were good by pure nature, and therefore did not
have to talk about goodness. Western students have commented on the absence
of moral teaching in a less favourable sense, but have been equally positive
about the fact. It is doubtless true that Shinto had no ethical doctrine to
be compared with Confucianism or Buddhism; equally true that we should look in
vain in the Kojiki and Nihongi or in the ritual books for either moral
instruction or moralising reflections on history. Nevertheless, the ancient
Japanese had a customary morality corresponding to their plane of culture, and
that to this morality religion gave its effective sanction the Great
Purification itself is sufficient proof. The function of religion in the
stage in which Shinto was in the age which produced its oldest literary
monuments never goes beyond such a sanction. Here, as in other things, the
early introduction of the standards of a higher civilisation forestalled the
development which would doubtless have taken place if Japan had gone its
independent way.

To ward off ills caused by demons, especially the demons of disease, the
ancient Japanese sought the protection of a particular group of gods, the Sahe
no Kami, or "preventive deities", who are invoked in an old liturgical text to
defend the worshippers against the "hostile and savage beings of the root
country," such as the "hags of Hades" who pursued Izanagi. These deities were
represented by phalli, often of gigantic size, which were set up along
highways and especially at cross-roads to bar the passage against malignant
beings who sought to pass. In the liturgy referred to, one of these gods is
called "No Thoroughfare" (Kunado, or Funado), the name of the staff which
Izanagi threw down to prevent his pursuing spouse from breaking out from Hades
into the world above; two others are the prince and princess of the eight
cross-roads. They had no temples, and were worshipped at the end of the sixth
and twelfth months - the time of the semiannual lustration - and on occasion
at other times, for example, on the outbreak of a pestilence. The phallic
form of the end post of a balustrade or a bridge has a similar meaning; it
keeps evil influence from passing. The apotropaic virtue of this symbol - a
virtue which it has in many other countries, notably among the ancient Greeks
- is due to the association of virility with manly strength, power to overcome
invisible foes as well as visible, and to protect those in need of help.
Standing as they did on the roadside and at cross-roads, these gods became the
protectors of the wayfarers; travellers prayed to them before setting out on a
journey and made a little offering of hemp leaves and rice to each one they
passed. These gods had nothing to do, so far as the evidence shows, with
fertility or the reproductive functions; ^1 no peculiar rites were observed in
their worship, and however objectionable to the taste of a more refined age,
the cult was in no sense immoral or conducive to immorality. In modern times,
out of regard to the prejudices of Europeans who connected obscene notions
with them, they have been generally removed from the roads, remaining only in
out-of-the-way corners of the empire.

[Footnote 1: In a kind of Japanese Lupercalia described by a writer of the
Middle Ages, the boys in the imperial palace used on the first full moon of
the year to go about striking the younger women with the pot-sticks used in
stirring the gruel made for the festival. This was believed to promote
fertility. The festival is said to have been for the Sahe no Kami; but the
association of this magical performance with these deities is perhaps
secondary, induced by their phallic form. Phallic shrines in brothels have
probably, as in Greece, an origin independent of the wayside gods.]

The ancient Japanese buried their dead; and this custom only slowly gave
way under Buddhist influence to burning, which became universal in the course
of the ninth century; from the eighth to the seventeenth centuries even the
bodies of the emperors were burned. In the modern revival of Shinto the
effort was made to return in this respect also to the old way; but the masses
of the people continue to burn their dead with Buddhist rites. The tombs of
the rulers and nobles were megalithic vaults covered by great mounds of earth,
in which food, utensils, arms, and ornaments were deposited - evidence, if
evidence were needed, that the Japanese entertained the universal belief in
the survival of the dead under conditions and with needs similar to those of
this life. The Nihongi narrates that in the year 2 B.C., ^1 at the funeral of
a brother of the emperor, his personal attendants were "all buried alive,
upright, in the precinct of the tomb," and that the Mikado was so affected by
their sufferings that when, in the following year, the empress died, he
forbade a repetition of the barbarous custom, ordaining that in future clay
images of men, horses, and other objects should be set up in the tumuli
instead of living creatures. ^2 The common people were merely interred in some
piece of waste land at a distance from the habitations of men, and the
provision for their needs was correspondingly simple - a little rice and

[Footnote 1: The reader need hardly be reminded that the chronology is not

[Footnote 2: Similar substitution in China, p. 76; cf. Egypt, pp. 157 f.,

The story of Izanagi's descent to Hades shows that by the side of this
primitive belief in a continued existence in the tomb was the notion of an
abode of the dead in the depths of the earth or beneath the sea, a place of
darkness and loathsome corruption, imagined like the interior of some great
tomb filled with decaying bodies. There are the "ugly hags of Hades," perhaps
a kind of ghoul. To this "root country, the bottom country," as the remotest
end of the world whence there is no return, the sins and uncleanness of the
people are sent off in the great ritual of purification. A different
conception seems to be implied in the myths which make Susa no wo the ruler of
the nether world: the land that Ohonamochi visits is a counterpart of this
earth, with trees and moors and a great palace of the god; it does not appear,
however, that the dead go thither. There is no notion of retribution beyond
this life; Buddhism, with its whole system of heavens and of hells, left
neither need nor room for a development which might otherwise, perhaps, have
taken place in Shinto.

The cult of the dead had no such prominence in the old Japanese religion
as in China. It may be assumed from the world-wide prevalence of the custom
that food was from time to time set out at the tombs; such pious provision for
the wants of the departed, however, even when conjoined with the fear that the
neglected dead may work mischief to the living, is not to be confounded with
offerings to the forefathers for protection and prosperity, the motive which
alone makes them in the proper sense religious.

Before the sixth century there is no evidence of the worship of even the
ancestors of the Mikado; in the Kojiki and the Nihongi (eighth century)
references to such worship are rare. By the time of the Yengishiki (tenth
century) the ritual of worship to deceased emperors was prescribed, and
offerings like those to the gods were periodically made to them; but among the
ancient liturgical texts (norito) there is none that belongs to this cult, and
it is significant that the care of the imperial tombs was not assigned to the
ministry of religion. The inference can hardly be avoided that the religious
worship of the imperial ancestors is not an original feature of Japanese
religion, but a result of Chinese influence. It is to be observed also that,
though assimilated to the worship of the nature deities, the imperial
ancestors never actually take their place among them as they do in China,
where they rank immediately after Heaven, the Supreme Emperor, himself, taking
precedence of all other gods. A few emperors have become in their individual
capacity great gods; the most conspicuous instance being the Mikado Ojin, son
of the militant empress Jingo, who under the name Hachiman has become the god
of war; but precisely in this case foreign influence - Chinese, Buddhist - is
peculiarly plain; it was as Hachiman Dai-bosatsu that he was worshipped by
mediaeval warriors. Since the restoration, in 1868, increased honour is paid
to the deceased Mikados. Four annual services now have a place in the calendar
of court observances, viz., the anniversary of the death of the last emperor;
the commemoration of the death of Jimmu Tenno, the first emperor; and two, in
the spring and autumn respectively, in memory of all the imperial ancestors.

The living emperor, who claims direct descent in unbroken line from the
sun goddess, is called the "Heavenly Grandchild"; in decrees he may describe
himself as "manifest deity"; the heir apparent is entitled "August Child of
the Sun." These magniloquent titles, which have many parallels in other
countries, do not prove that the Mikado was believed to have divine powers,
but that he was entitled to divine reverence; religious worship was, in fact,
not paid to him any more than to the emperor of China, who, as the designated
Son of Heaven, had actually a higher place in the religion of the state than
the Mikado in Japan.

The homage paid by the masses of the people to the ancestors of their own
family resembles at a distance the religious veneration of the Chinese, of
which it is obviously an imitation. In most modern households the ancestral
tablets bearing the posthumous Buddha-names of the deceased stand on the
Buddha-shelf (Butsu-dan); only the strictest sort of reformed Shintoists put
similar, but plain, unpainted tablets, bearing the real name, on a shelf by
themselves; never on the same shelf with the gods, and, if possible, not in
the same room. At stated times food is offered to them, and prayers recited.
The worship of the Uji-gami (literally, "surname gods"), or reputed
progenitors of the clan, is not true ancestor worship; many of these first
forefathers - originally, it seems, all of them - are gods belonging to the
pantheon of religion or mythology; others are probably merely imaginary
figures. With time they have become no more than the tutelary deities of a
man's birthplace, at whose shrine infants are presented soon after birth, as
in Christian countries at the parish church. ^1 The common people in ancient
times had no Uji-gami; they had no surnames, and made no pretence of divine

[Footnote 1: Compare also the registration of children in the phratry at the
Athenian Apaturia.]

The prevailing notion that Shinto was, like the old Chinese religion,
from the beginning a fusion of nature worship and ancestor worship can appeal
to the authority of many modern Japanese students, including some of the
Shinto reformers. A learned jurist, Hozumi, has shown how it underlies the
laws of marriage and succession and of adoption; inasmuch, however, as the
earliest Japanese codes are framed on Chinese models, this does not prove that
ancestor worship in the proper sense was a constitutive factor of primitive
Japanese society as it is in China, and there are many indications that it was

The domestic rites of Shinto are simple: in a corner of one of the rooms
- usually the living-room - of the house is a shelf on which stand tablets or
strips of paper inscribed with the names of the gods peculiarly venerated,
especially the sun goddess and other deities of Ise, and the tutelary god of
the owner's calling, or one or more small, unpainted wooden shrines for the
habitation of the gods; images, introduced in the Middle Ages by imitation of
Buddhist statues, are also not infrequently found on this "god-shelf." It is
hardly to be doubted that the tablets and the shrines are borrowed from the
Chinese. To the furniture of the shelf belong, further, two jars for rice
whisky (sake), a pair of vases to hold flowers or a twig of Sakaki, and a
miniature lamp, lighted, except in very poor households, every evening. The
sake and the flowers or twigs are renewed on the first, fifteenth, and
twenty-eighth of each month. On New Year's the shelf is adorned also with the
sacred straw-rope, and cakes of peculiar form are offered to the gods.
Worshippers bring home pieces of the gohei from the temple and place them on
the shelf, in the belief that the spirit of the deities has taken lodgment in

Besides visits to near-by temples, either to present to the deity a
private petition or to participate in a festival, pilgrimages are made to
distant shrines; for instance, to Ise, or to the Kasuga temple at Nara, or to
Fujiyama. Like pilgrims to "ferne halwes" in countries nearer home, the
Japanese combine the pleasures of a grand excursion with the profit of a visit
to the sacred places. The worship at these places was not of a sort to damp
the spirits of the visitors by gloomy solemnity; Buddhism took the dark side
of life and the dark prospects of the hereafter for its province, and left to
Shinto the more joyous aspects of existence. So it has retained through all
the centuries something of the spirit of happy childhood.

It has been observed above that for a thousand years Shinto hardly
existed except in combination with Buddhism. With the re-establishment of
peace and order under the strong rule of the first Tokugawa Shoguns came a
revival of the national consciousness, one manifestation of which was a
zealous study of the national history and an endeavour to promote Japanese
literature and learning, which had long been neglected for Chinese studies.
From one thing these students of antiquity went to another, till they
convinced themselves of the vast superiority of the native Japanese character
and culture to all foreign peoples, particularly the Chinese; the golden age
of Japan was before the influx of Chinese ideas and customs, which have been
in every sphere a cause of declension and corruption. Of the scholars who
thus endeavoured to dispel the illusion of their countrymen that China was the
fountain of wisdom and culture, the greatest were Mabuchi (1697-1769 A. D.),
Motoori (1730-1801), and Hirata (1776-1843), and these are also the chief
names in the revival of Pure Shinto. The first two contented themselves with
showing from the ancient books what the native religion was, and how much
better it was in its original purity than all foreign religions and
philosophies. It alone was in truth the "Way of the Gods" (Kami no michi),
established by Izanagi and Izanami, delivered by them to the sun goddess, and
by her to the people over whom her descendants rule. That men have been
turned aside from it to Buddhism and Chinese philosophy is the work of demons
("spirits of crookedness"). ^1 Motoori has no thought of a reformation by
which the ancient religion, freed from all alien admixture, should be
established as the religion of the present time; for according to his
deterministic theory the actual religion is what it is by the will of the
gods, and it is not for men to be wiser than the gods.

[Footnote 1: There is a noticeable dualistic strain in these authors.]

Hirata was of a different temper. His ideal was the restoration of Pure
Shinto as the religion of rulers and people, to the exclusion of both Buddhism
and Confucianism; and he composed, among other works, forms of prayer suitable
for the worship of reformed Shintoists. Despite Hirata's antipathy for all
things Chinese, he could not divest himself of his education. He was too much
of a thinker to be able to do without philosophy in his theology; and his
ethics, in particular, are based on the worship of ancestors and the filial
piety which this veneration cultivates, quite after the Confucian model.
Hirata's efforts for a revival of Pure Shinto in practice had not much more
immediate effect than the antiquarian restoration of his predecessors; but the
writings of these scholars, with their enthusiasm for native Japanese culture
literature and religion, their highly idealised pictures of the good old days,
and the prominence they gave to the divine origin and right of the Mikado,
contributed not a little to the movement which resulted in the political
restoration of 1868.


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