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What does Ōji mean?

In Japanese History on October 4, 2015 at 4:32 pm

Ōji (imperial prince, but more at “a kami divided from another kami”)


Otonashi Park in Ōji is one of Tōkyō’s secret cherry blossom viewing spots. Nearby Asukayama is even more beautiful and also a little bit off the beaten path.

Hello all! Sorry for the gap since my last article. I got bogged down with work and this article and its follow up.

Here’s the honest truth. I started re-searching and writing this article in January. It turned out to be such a colossal mess that I just made a bunch of notes taken from Japanese texts and left them as they were. I ignored the article after that.
Totally abandoned it.

But during 花見 hanami the cherry blossom season, I revisited it. As the weather got better, I found myself with a confusing list of quotes in Japanese and English and nary a timeline to speak of. So I abandoned the topic again. But then lost my research notes. Couldn’t find them anywhere.

But something amazing happened at the middle of October.

I was able to recover my notes.

The notes rambled and were pretty much all over the place. But most of the research was intact. And so, submitted for your approval, here is an article started some 6-7 months ago and finally finished now.
If it’s unpolished and rambling, I apologize, but I just wanted to get it over with. 

Ōji – A Princely Namesake… or Something Like That…

To modern eyes, this place name means “prince.” In a very general sense, it could be understood as a son of a king or emperor. In this case, it most likely isn’t a reference to a literal prince. The name of the area seems to be derived from 王子神社 Ōji Jinja Ōji Shrine. If you visit today, the shrine doesn’t look so ancient. It was lost during WWII and rebuilt in 1959 and again in 1982 with some of that sweet, sweet Bubble Economy money. But don’t let the modern veneer fool you. There’s good evidence that this shrine dates from at least the Kamakura Period. Some even suggests its history goes farther back than that.

oji shrine

Where is Ōji?

Ōji is in present day 北区 Kita-ku Kita Ward[i]. Today the area has a shitamachi image, though this area was the straight up boonies in the Edo Period. The area surrounding the shrine was actually a favorite 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing spot of the upper echelons of the Tokugawa shōgunate[ii]. These days, the area boasts 紙の博物館 Kami no Hakubutsukan the Paper Museum, 狐の行列 Kitsune no Gyōretsu the Fox Parade every New Year’s Eve, and a station catering to 都電荒川線 Toden Arakawa-sen the Toden Arakawa Line, Tōkyō’s last remaining street car. Interestingly, the area is also home to a certain ラッコズニューヨークスタイルピザ Rakkozu Nyū Yōku Sutairu Piza Rocco’s New York Style Pizza. Having lived in New York for 3 years, I definitely developed a taste for a proper New York slice. In Tōkyō, this is as close as you’re going to get. The shop has a nice New York vibe with red & white checkered tablecloths and the essential shakers: oregano, parmesan cheese, and crushed red pepper. It’s not the most convenient location for me, but I’ll make the trek if I have a hankering[iii]


Click the pic for Rocco’s website


New York style pizza toppings

So, anyways, that’s the short answer to the question “What does Ōji mean?” and I threw in some reasons that I think you might want to visit the area. The short answer ends here. If you wanna get deep into what Ōji means, find yourself a nice chair and let’s get into it proper[iv]


A Long Time Ago in a Province Far, Far Away

One of the most ancient temple and shrine complexes in Japan is a cluster of 3 major mountaintop sites called 熊野三山 Kumano Sanzan in modern Wakayama Prefecture which is in western Japan. You could translate the name as the 3 Muthafuckin’ Mountains of Kumano, but most people don’t – they usually just call them the Kumano Sanzan and are done with it[v]. That means the 3 Mountains of Kumano. Between the 3 religious complexes, something like 12 神 kami Shintō deities called 熊野権現 Kumano Gongen[vi] are enshrined. Since the Heian Period, the 3 mountains have been the focus of a major pilgrimage which is still popular today. It’s my understanding that today the entire pilgrimage course – mountains and manmade structures alike – is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The shrines themselves seem to be quite ancient. The history of these shrines clearly predates their appearance in the historical record and as such is probably affiliated with the rise of the imperial cult and the Yamato State. The shrines are mentioned in the 日本書紀 Nihon Shoki, which is Japan’s second oldest written history (finished in 720 or 750). I’m assuming the capital was in Nara at this time, but there was some reshuffling of things from 740-745ish that I can’t say with certainty. But the Nara Period is generally thought of as the time from 710 to 794. I’ll get back to this aspect at the end of the article.


Why Are We Going Back This Far in History? And Will Talk About Ōji, Tōkyō Again?

Great questions and I’m glad you asked! As for your second question, yes, we’ll be getting back to that later. As for your first question, well… while the Tōkyō place name, Ōji, has little to do with the daily concerns of the modern Tōkyōite, all of this backstory is critical to understanding few aspects of religion in Japan.


So, Back to the… Backstory[vii]

You see, in the 500’s, Buddhism first showed up in Japan. The native Shintō priests, of course, weren’t having any of this foreign Buddhist bullcrap. After all, they had a lucrative monopoly on the traditional spirituality of the people. Nonetheless, various factions within the imperial court at Nara either embraced it or rejected it. But ultimately, the imperial court got on board with the whole idea of Buddhism (see my article on Taishi-dō) and in the end everyone seemed to agree that there wasn’t much of a conflict with the native Shintō religion.

One way of reconciling the native Shintō beliefs with Buddhism was the creation of 権現 gongen. When a Buddhist temple was established, it had to appeal to the Shintō believers of the area. They understood their own traditions but the Buddhist stuff was foreign and strange in those early days of Buddhism in Japan. The quick fix was this: if a foreign or native Japanese 菩薩 bodhisattva (a person who has reached Buddhist enlightenment) wants to communicate with Japanese people, he/she would take the shape of a Shintō 神 kami. In short, use the local language to communicate with the local people. Buddhists could endear themselves to the skeptics by saying, yes, this is a Buddhist object of veneration/reflection, but it is appearing as a native Japanese avatar that can operate on a Shintō platform. A 権現 gongen, while Buddhist in nature, was flexible and thus could be experienced through a Shintō filter and was subject to Shintō rituals – in our case, ritual division and re-enshrinement.

Gongen are often depicted as half-nekkid, pissed off, sword wielding demons. In this picture, not Kumano Gongen, he appears to be wielding a karaoke microphone.

Gongen are often depicted as half-nekkid, pissed off, sword wielding demons. In this picture, not Kumano Gongen, he appears to be wielding a karaoke microphone.

Why Didn’t They See a Conflict?

Because syncretism.

Most western countries have a cultural heritage derived from the 3 batshit crazy Abrahamic religions, the so-called Big 3 Monotheisms – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam[viii]. These religions, by definition, just hate other religions because if you only have 1 god you can’t accept or tolerate another one. That is, when you think there can only be one god, everyone else is just flat out wrong. End of story. If you’re polytheistic (ie; you believe more than one god exists), another god is no big stretch of the imagination and doesn’t threaten your world view. Polytheistic societies like Ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt were able to mix and match their native religions with foreign religions easily. This is called syncretism. You could also call it, “just getting along” (as far as religious ideologies are concerned)[ix]. Japan was/is pretty much the same way. Once people got over the initial fear of something strange and foreign, they found ways to incorporate the 2 systems, as they obviously weren’t mutually exclusive. This is syncretism

kumo shrine

And just in case you’re wondering, the Japanese word for syncretism is 習合 shūgō “learning joined.”[x] This word is derived from the 四字熟語 yoji jukugo 4 kanji word 神仏習合 shinbutsu shūgō which means “syncretism of bodhisattvas and Japanese kami.”

Your average person on the street in the Edo Period wouldn’t have even thought about the blending of Buddhism and Shintō – they were so perfectly intertwined. The native Shintō and foreign Buddhism blended well in Japan for centuries until the Meiji Government tried to separate the two in order to establish a proper Shintō-based cult based on the Imperial Family. Shrines would act as organs of the Imperial State[xi]. They succeeded in promulgating what came to be called “State Shintō”[xii] and suppressed certain Buddhist sects. Much to the chagrin of the so-called “Modern Statesmen” of the Meiji Coup who hailed from Satsuma and Chōshū, they never quite separated the two completely. After WWII, separating Shintō and Buddhism was illegal – in fact any connection between government and religious institutions became unconstitutional – so don’t be surprised to find syncretic shrine complexes still exist throughout the country. Even more so, don’t be surprised to find bizarre, modern cultish hybrids from time to time.

Nikkō Tōshō-gū. Dedicated to the great gongen of the deified Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Nikkō Tōshō-gū. Dedicated to the great gongen of the deified Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Dividing Up Deities

OK, I’ve explained syncretism and finished my anti-monotheistic rant. So, let’s talk a little bit about the mechanics of Shintō and Japanese Buddhism, shall we? In the past at JapanThis!, we’ve talked about shrines called 東照宮 Tōshō-gū dedicated to the deified 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu[xiii]. There are something like 130 shrines dedicated to 東照宮大権現 Tōshō-gū Daigongen throughout the country. The name, by the way means something like “The Great Gongen Prince of the East.” You might think that this is a lot. Were they hacking up Ieyasu’s corpse and sending bits and pieces to various domains all over the country?

Kunōzan, the birthplace of the cult of Tōshō-gū.

Kunōzan, the birthplace of the cult of Tōshō-gū.

Of course not. Ieyasu’s corpse is most likely very much intact and rests at either 日光東照宮 Nikkō Tōshō-gū or 久能山東照宮 Kunōzan Tōshō-gū[xiv]. But just as Buddhism venerates objects associated with a particular bodhisattva (person who has achieved pure enlightenment) and allows for those objects and images to be copied or even modified for each culture, Shintō allows for kami to be divided. Again for people in western cultures, it’s hard to imagine this. Without a physical body or some holy event having occurred on a spot, how is there anything to venerate?

Interestingly, Shintō has a mechanism that operates on a level similar to biological cell division. A kami can divide and a new kami is thus born. Just as a Buddhist statue or similar object of veneration can be copied or recreated infinitely, a Shintō kami can be divided infinitely.

Tokugawa Ieyasu - Tōshō-gū Daigongen (the Great Gongen Eastern Prince).

Tokugawa Ieyasu – Tōshō-gū Daigongen (the Great Gongen Eastern Prince).

130 Tōshō Daigongen?

We’re Not Even Getting Started.

I mentioned Tōshō-gū. Ieyasu was deified as 大正大権現 Tōshō Daigongen the Great Deity Who Guards the East. There were about 500 shrines dedicated to Ieyasu in the Edo Period. This means that the kami named Tōshō Daigongen was divided at least 500 times. And for those who have a short memory, a 権現 gongen is a 菩薩 bosatsu bodhisattva (buddha) who manifests him/herself  to the Japanese in the form of a 神 kami[xv]. But other kami were divided far more times than this. I’ll put it this way, Tokugawa Ieyasu died in 1616 and so he was relatively late to the game. But he’s a perfect example of a syncretic deity – a “gongen” for the Edo Period, if you will. He was buried in a perfectly normal syncretic tradition for a person of his stature. He was both a buddha and a kami.


Bunrei – separating a kami

How Widespread Was Dividing Kami and Gongen?

As a Tōkyō resident, one of my favorite kami is 稲荷神 Inari-gami. This is kami visually characterized by foxes. In Edo, this kami was associated with the daimyō class and the samurai class. In the outskirts of the city, he was associated with farmers. But as far out as you go in 本州 Honshū the main island of Japan, Inari was originally a tutelary kami of the 大名家 daimyō-ke daimyō families during the Sengoku Period. Since the daimyō families were expected to take care of their farmers, the farmers also latched on to this kami. Veneration of Inari exploded during the Edo Period.

It exploded to such a point that the number of Inari shrines in Japan is literally impossible to count[xvi]. One great example is 伏見稲荷大社 Fushimi Inari Taisha Fushimi Grand Inari Shrine in Kyōto – truly one of the world’s greatest treasures. But you can find dollhouse sized Inari shrines and shrines on temple precincts that seen like after thoughts. My point? Inari has been popular for ages and divided again and again.

Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine

Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine

The 2nd place holder is 八幡 Hachiman, the god of war who is the tutelary kami of 武家 buke samurai families. Veneration of Hachiman was spread by 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo. The most famous shrine is 鶴岡八幡宮 Tsurugaoka Hachimangū in 鎌倉 Kamakura. But this shrine wasn’t the first shrine dedicated to Hachiman. There are an estimated 44,000 Hachiman shrines in Japan.

OK, so there are an unknowable number of Inari shrines, some 44,000 Hachiman shrines, about 130 remaining Tōshō-gū shrines, and roughly 3000 shrines dedicated Kumano Gongen. and 13 shrines dedicated to various kami in Hawaii, Colorado, and Washington. I’m assuming those were brought from Japan[xvii].

Tsurugaoka Hachimangū at Kamakura. Many say the cult of Hachimangū was the main cult of the post-Minamoto samurai families.

Tsurugaoka Hachimangū at Kamakura. Many say the cult of Hachimangū was the main cult of the post-Minamoto samurai families.

OK, Time to Bring the Story Back to Edo-Tōkyō

The Toshima were granted control of 豊島郡 Toshima-gun Toshima District in the 1000’s, which included this area. It’s not clear when the Kumano Gongen was installed in the area because there are two contradictory stories about how the place name Ōji came about.



Theory 1: The Shrine Dates From Well Before the Kamakura Period

Some claim that Ōji Shrine existed in some form or another before the Kamakura Period.

A popular story says that pre-shōgun Yoritomo passed through Toshima District near Edo[xviii] on his way to fight the 奥州藤原 Ōshū Fujiwara in Tōhoku[xix] in 1189. Praying for good luck, Yoritomo presented a full set of armor to 若一王子社 Nyakuichi Ōji-sha Nyakuichi Ōji Shrine – later Ōji Shrine Ōji Jinja Ōji Shrine.

Conspicuously, Ōji Shrine possesses no armor from Minamoto no Yoritomo.

Conspicuously, Ōji Shrine possesses no armor from Minamoto no Yoritomo.

The earliest textual evidence seems to come from an obscure reference in a war chronicle thought to have been written between the 南北朝時 Nanbokuchō Jidai Nanbokuchō Period[xx] (1334-1392) and the very early 室町時代 Muromachi Jidai Muromachi Period (1337-1573)[xxi]. This war chronicle is called the 義経記 Gikeiki[xxii] and it sings the praises of 源義経 Minamoto no Yoshitsune[xxiii], brother of Yoritomo.

A passing reference is made to Yoshitsune crossing the 王子板橋 Ōji Itabashi Ōji Plank Bridge. Was there an epic battle here? Did Yoshitsune give a rousing speech here? Probably not. The reason the “plank bridge” is probably even mentioned at all is that the area was such a backwater at the time that elegant plank bridges were few and far between. You could see them in Kyōto and maybe in Yoritomo’s capital at Kamakura, but never in the nasty, rural marshlands of the Toshima. People would take a boat across a river or just stay on their side of the river.  Interestingly, this plank bridge is most likely the same bridge related to the etymology of nearby 板橋 Itabashi[xxiv], which literally means “plank bridge.

Yoritomo vs Yoshitsune

Yoritomo vs Yoshitsune

Theory 2: The Shrine Dates From the Kamakura Period

There’s a contradictory claim about the age of the Ōji Shrine in an Edo Period text called the 新編武蔵風土記稿 Shinpen Musashi Fūdokikō Lands and Customs of Musashi Province (New Edition)[xxv].  This text claims, quite clearly, that in 1322, the Toshima Clan had the 熊野若一王子 Kumano Nyakuichi Ōji brought from 熊野新宮 Kumano Shingū New Main Kumano Shrine of Kumanoto Toshima District.

New Grand Shrine

New Grand Shrine

Nyakuichi Ōji is the name given to kami that are separated from 浜王子Hama Ōji. Hama Ōji itself was split from the 熊野権現 Kumano Gongen at the 熊野本宮 Kumano Hongū Kumano Main Shrine. So it’s a split of a split.



The 新宮 shingū “new main temple,” itself a branch temple of the 本宮 hongū “officially designated main temple,” is cited in the 日本書紀 Nihon Shoki Japan Chronicles[xxvi] and so is believed to have existed before 大化の改新 Taika no Kaishin the Taika Reforms of 645. The Nihon Shoki refers to the title 熊野国造 Kumano no Kuni Miyatsuko – a provincial governor of the Yamato court controlling the area[xxvii]. The argument for the shrine’s antiquity is that 熊野国 Kumano no Kuni Kumano Province was a pre-Taika Reforms province, 造 miyatsuko is a pre-Taika Reforms title, and the Nihon Shoki was finished about 75 years later in 720 after Kumano Province had been abolished[xxviii]. Most of the provinces we encounter at JapanThis! are post-Taika Reforms – Kumano was abolished. The provinces remained relatively unchanged until the abolition of domains and provinces in the early Meiji Period. Of course, in the Edo Period, 藩 han domains were more important than provinces (which were archaic territories with no practical civil administration).


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[i] Literally, the North Ward. And yes. I have an article about that.
[ii] 飛鳥山 Asuka-yama Mt. Asuka is still a popular spot for hanami today. It’s located a short distance from Ōji Station. The park is not very well known, so it doesn’t attract huge crowds. I highly recommend it.
[iii] On the topic of pizza, there is another shop also big among the expats in Tōkyō that specializes in Chicago style pizza called DevilCraft. The shop has been successful enough to open 2 shops, one in Kanda and one in Hamamatsu-chō. But I fucking can’t stand Chicago style pizza. It’s not pizza. It’s pizza flavored quiche – and it needs to get over itself. That said, DevilCraft brews their own beer and I respect that. Beer is good.
[-iv] Read that with a British accent – or else it’s just ungrammatical.
[v] Believe it or not, Japanese doesn’t have a word for “muthafuckin’.”
[vi] What’s a “gongen?” Have patience, my flower. All in due time.
[vii] Unfortunately, not a porno – though it may sound like one.
[viii] And just to be fair, yours truly thinks all religions are batshit crazy. I tend to show a little more respect to the peaceful ones and a great amount of disdain to the overbearing or violent ones. #AntiTheism
[ix] Yes, this is a simplification, but I think it’s more or less the case. Before a funerary memorial service, I was talking with the officiating Buddhist priest about the history of the graveyard at the temple. He said that while religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam reject Japanese spirituality altogether, the Japanese tradition can make room for aspects of those religions and even adopt aspects of them while ignoring other aspects. I believe his conclusion was “the Japanese have the potential for a richer spiritual tapestry.” I both agree and disagree with that statement, but it was the first time I heard a Buddhist priest say it in a cemetery. So, there’s that.
[x] Pssst! Hey dude, you still haven’t told us what a fucking “gongen” is yet. FFS, will you settle down, I’m getting to it now! I told you this was going to be a convoluted story.
[xi] Though, to be honest, this was nothing new. The Tokugawa and other shōgunates and the imperial family itself were always harnessing the power of both shrines and temples.
[xii] “State Shintō” is a term invented by the Americans during the post-WWII occupation. There was no “separation of church & state” in the Meiji Constitution, but in many ways Shintō was just seen as Japanese tradition. Some argue the term “State Shintō” isn’t accurate or fair. But c’mon, let’s be real here. What the winners of the Meiji Coup set in motion, got waaaaaaaaaaay out of control. And while I’ll grant they didn’t create “State Shintō,” by the 1930’s and 1940’s they definitely had something that looked like, smelled liked, and quacked like “State Shintō.”
[xiii] You can find my article about Tōshō-gū here.
[xiv] Interestingly, both shrines bicker over who has the body. Simply opening up the 宝塔 hōtō 2 story urns would solve the question once and for all, but neither shrine wants to allow that – probably because neither wants to be the one who was wrong.
[xv] This is one way that Buddhism tried to one up the native Shintō religion. Shintō was originally of shamanic roots, but Buddhism offered a kind of salvation (or second chance) through reincarnation or transcendence. Shintō seems to have been more daily and superstitious. Both were as ridiculous as any modern religion, though.
[xvi] Tiny shrines are littered all over the country, especially in agricultural areas or in the confines of castles and the detached residences of daimyō. In Edo, there was a idiom used by Edoites to describe common place sights and occurrences: 火事喧嘩伊勢屋稲荷に犬の糞 kaji kenka, Iseya Inari ni, inu no kuso which essentially means “fires and fights, shops named Iseya and Inari shrines are scattered like dog shit in the streets.” I can vouch for this one. If I walk 15 minutes in any direction from my home, I’ll stumble across 2 or more Inari Shrines. In some places you’ll find shrines so small they look like Edo Period doll houses.
[xvii] But I don’t know for sure.
[xviii] Long time readers will know that I’ve talked about the Toshima extensively throughout the blog. This isn’t a focused list, but this link will bring up any article in which I referenced the Toshima.
[xix] His victory in this battle paved his way for receiving the title shōgun.
[xx] Read about the Nanbokuchō Period here.
[xxi] The dates I gave for the Muromachi Period are one of many reckonings. Samurai Archives has a brief summary of the Muromachi Period here, they also have a pretty handy timeline of the Muromachi Period here.
[xxii] The name Gikeiki is sometimes misread as Yoshitsune-ki. The title means “Yoshitsune’s Story.”
[xxiii] Yoshitsune is the archetypal tragic samurai character in Japanese culture. He’s not important to our story today, but he is interesting. You can read about him here.
[xxiv] Long time readers will recognize this as the spot where 近藤勇 Kondō Isami of the 新撰組 Shinsengumi was executed in the 1860’s. Read my article here.
[xxv] The translation is mine. Not sure if this book has a standard English title. The book was compiled from 1804 to 1829.
[xxvi] Japan’s second oldest book.
[xxvii] From what I can tell, the hereditary title Kuni no Miyatsuko was not as much a governmental official as a person who oversaw regional Shintō matters. But I don’t know about it in detail.
[xxviii] Interestingly, the title wasn’t abolished and was still passed down among the same families until the mid 1300’s. It had fallen out of use by the end of the Nanboku-chō Period.

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