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Amaterasu and the Rock Cave Explained

In Japanese History, Japanese Mythology, Japanese Shrines & Temples on July 2, 2020 at 7:01 am

天岩戸の説明
Ama no Iwato Shinwa no Setsumei

Explanation of the Creation Myth

AMATERASU IN THE CAVE

Welcome to Japan’s Most Famous Legend

Also, if you haven’t read Amaterasu and the Rock Cave and all of my footnotes, go do that first. Otherwise, none of this will make any sense to you.

The Rock Cave Myth is by far the most famous of all Japanese myths. If we keep in mind that 天武天皇 Tenmu Tennō Emperor Tenmu commissioned the Kojiki in order to emphasize the imperial family’s divine origins[i] and to clarify their position as the rightful rulers of the realm. It also legitimized the ranks and duties of the most noble clans of the 大和朝廷 Yamato Chōtei Yamato Court by illustrating their divine descent as well. In a not unobvious way, the Kojiki describes how the divine ancestors of the courtiers assisted the divine ancestor of the imperial family in the Rock Cave Myth which implies their subservience to the royal family. Furthermore, we see descriptions of Shintō rituals – either the origins of them or hints that these rites and beliefs existed prior to the compilation of these myths in the 7th century.

One thing that I’ve kept coming back to is the precocious and sometimes silly or self-absorbed nature of the heavenly kami depicted in these myths. If these are indeed divine beings, they don’t impart any sort of morality and they rarely – if ever – act as role models. That’s not their role in the universe. They are part of a natural order that are bound by the same rules as the humans who study these stories. As I mentioned in a previous article, Japanese religion is not a system based on authoritative texts like the Torah, the Bible, or the Q’uran. It is a syncretic polytheistic system which requires cultic practices[ii] similar to the Greek and Roman gods. Doing the correct rituals at the right time to appease them or to ask for their help is the most important thing for humans who wish to interact with kami. If Japanese gods teach us anything, it’s how to observe rituals correctly.

So, I’m assuming that you’ve already read my version of Amaterasu and the Rock Cave, so I’ve broken down my exegesis into about four sections going through each part of the myth. If you haven’t, I’m pretty sure none of this will make any sense. If you have, then let’s get right into it!

Further Reading:

616121AB-DFF1-48CF-9843-385A0CF08C45What’s up with Susano’o?

Some have speculated that Susano’o’s obnoxious behavior is a memory of ancient rite whereby people summoned kami by howling and weeping. This might be true, but I think it’s easier to just say gods are self-absorbed and you have to really work at getting their attention. In the Rock Cave Myth, the other kami campout and basically through a party with a stripper just to get Amaterasu’s attention. If you’ve ever visited a Shintō shrine, you’ve probably walked up to the main hall, bowed, and then clapped twice to call the kami over to you. Shrine festivals usually included temporarily enshrining the kami in 御神輿 o-mikoshi a portable shrine which is picked up and carried around town while being shaken nonstop to the sound of chanting parishioners – just to make sure the kami stays present for the whole day.

A lot has been written about Susano’o. In the ancient records, he is depicted as hero god who slays a mythical snake and saves a sexy damsel in distress, but in the Kojiki, he is depicted as a whiny and obnoxious man-baby who throws a bizarre temper tantrum including animal torture and throwing shit all over his sister’s house. In my retelling of the myth, I call him the kami of winds and seas – a common attribution. The great 20th century historian Tsuda Sōkichi thought that Susano’o could be interpreted as a purely political actor in these myths and that he represented a faction of the Yamato Court that rebelled or went rogue, which is why he is portrayed as selfish and destructive[iii].

However, there are scholars who think that the angry 須佐之男命 Susano’o in the Kojiki and the heroic 素戔嗚尊等 Susano’o in the Nihon Shoki are two completely different deities who were assumed by the ancients to be the same (remember, orthography[iv] wasn’t standardized at the time, at least not as it is today). Some have even made the case that Susano’o isn’t a native Japanese kami, but a god imported from the Korean peninsula original worshiped by immigrants from the Kingdom of Silla. There’s no consensus as to Susano’o’s origins, and I’ve based my retelling only of the version in the Kojiki, so I’m not going to get into his character too deeply. Regardless of where he came from, scholar Emilia Gadeleva has suggested that Amaterasu and Susano’o came to form “a pair consisting of a sun-deity and a water-deity” whose worship was critical to the cultivation of rice.

For the purposes of my retelling of this myth, we only see Susano’o briefly. He’s a major player, and one day, I’ll get to him, I’m sure. In the Kojiki, his life unfolds in four parts: 1) as a petulant child who cries incessantly which brings disorder to the world; 2) as a teenager or young man who is rebellious and terrifying (especially to Amaterasu); 3) a mature man who slays a serpent, gets married, and builds a home; 4) as a father, he is the Lord of the Underworld[v] and protective father who harasses his daughter’s suitor[vi]. Today we only see stages one and two, which, let’s be honest, don’t paint him in a very good light.

I’d like to say one more thing about Susano’o before we move on. After bringing devastation to the world by his “weeping and howling,” he tells Izanagi that he wants to go to the Land of his Deceased Mother[vii]. This is strange since his mother died before his birth (which kinda makes her not his mother, technically, right?), but Gadeleva insists that “the land” is his destination, not his mother. And that land is the underworld, which will become his realm later in his life. If this is true, then including Susano’o’s troubled early years is a kind of foreshadowing of his ultimate destiny. But yeah, for the time being he’s just an annoying brat.

Lastly, in support of the theory that Amaterasu and Susano’o were worshipped as a pair of agricultural deities (sun and rain), there is a hint in their actions that is not so obvious upon your first reading. Both Amaterasu and Susano’o accidentally cause great disasters to the Central Land of Reeds. The brother’s incessant crying (storms and rains) made the trees wither and the rivers run dry[viii]. The sister’s retreat into the Heavenly Rock Cave plunged the world in darkness and brought the evil kami out of the shadows. If you don’t believe me that there are parallels between these two deities (I was skeptical myself at first, too), just check this out:

Amaterasu and Susano’o as Divine Foils[ix]

Amaterasu

Susano’o

Female

Male

Disciplined

Undisciplined

Cosmos

Chaos

Order

Disorder

Pure

Impure

Associated with heaven

Associated with Earth, later the Underworld

Establishes the rightful clan at Yamato

Establishes the rival clan at Izumo

Weaver

Warrior

Wears jewels (magatama beads)[x]

Wears a sword

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The Divine Commands

After purifying himself from the contagions he was covered in after leaving the Land of Yomi, Izanagi gives birth to the Three Noble Children. Susano’o is given control of the seas and storms, fitting his character nicely (at least as portrayed in the Kojiki). Tsukuyomi is given control of the night (which is inherently mysterious and fits his character nicely). However, before giving Amaterasu rule over the heavens and earth, Izanagi does something special. He takes off his necklace decorated with magatama beads and places it around his daughter’s neck. He doesn’t do this for the other two Noble Children.

In the text, the necklace is called 御倉板挙之神 Mikuratama no Kami. In that name we have 板挙 tama which is probably ateji for the homophones /tama/ which mean jewel/bead, ball, or soul. In Modern Japanese the kanji /霊 tama conveys the idea of soul while 玉 tama means ball, bead, or jewel. The word appears in the term 勾玉 maga-tama comma-shaped jewels prized by Yayoi and Kofun Period Wajin. One way to read the necklace’s name Mikuratama no Kami is “deity of the treasury of divine spirits” which demonstrates that the necklace isn’t just a necklace, but it is, in fact, a kami in its own right. Furthermore, it implies that this kami protects the souls of the imperial family and its divine ancestors.

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Izanagi shakes the necklace before putting it on Amaterasu. This action is instantly recognizable as a Shintō ritual. It’s reminiscent of cultic practices to pacify spirits called 鎮魂 chinkon, which we will discuss later. Ultimately, the shaking of the beads indicates that this is a sacred act. In the Age of Gods, the rattling sound attracted the attention of nearby kami as witnesses; and in the Age of Man, it beckons both kami and humans.

This is thought to be a prayer for Amaterasu’s longevity, an act Izanagi doesn’t perform for Tsukuyomi or Susano’o. Therefore, I think it’s pretty clear that giving Amaterasu these beads represents a transfer of divine authority from Izanagi the creator kami to the sun goddess[xi]. Make no mistake about it. This is foreshadowing. It reminds us of Amaterasu’s later transfer of divine authority to her grandson who later transfers this sacred rulership to his grandson, thus establishing the imperial line. In European terms, the imperial family can later be seen to rule Dei gratiā by the grace of God[xii].

After being banished, Susano’o storms up to the heavens to – presumably – say farewell to Amaterasu. She immediately thinks he wants to steal her lands. She suits up for battle complete with bow and arrow. She stands ready to confront her immature brother and defend her realm, but oddly, she doesn’t shoot him nor does she reprimand him. To modern minds, Amaterasu seems weak and incapable of protecting herself and standing up to her brother. Even after Susano’o destroys her rice paddies, shits in her dining room, and then throws a dead horse in her weaving room, she forgives him by pretending to misunderstand his intentions. And when things get so bad, she can’t take it anymore; rather than fight, she retreats to the Rock Cave and hides. However, this shouldn’t be seen as weakness, but magnanimity. She is the divine ancestor of the emperors. She may rule during a state of war, but she does not fight herself. Rather, she delegates that power to others and they fight to defend her, just as the Japanese emperors ruled from their palaces and engaged in rituals while warriors fought on behalf of the imperial family[xiii].

SANKISHI

 

The Divine Competition

Upon first reading, this seemed like little more than a cosmic dick waving competition disguised as a super-boring sacred genealogy. Basically, this chapter is an excuse to have Amaterasu and Susano’o pop out some baby kami who the compilers of the Kojiki assumed were the divine ancestors of high-ranking clans in the Yamato Court or at very least kami enshrined at very important shrines of the 6th and 7th centuries. I skipped that entire part of the story because it’s just as boring as any of the ”begats” you read in the Bible or Torah. A lot of scholars get boners for this sort of thing, but I’m not even half-mast about it, so…

Anyhoo, in the Kojiki, Susano’o gives birth to 三貴子 Miharashi no Uzu no Miko the Three Divine Daughters[xiv]. The ancient Japanese name is unwieldy, so I’ll use the Chinese reading San Kishi[xv] if I ever have to refer to them again. These girls’ names are: 多紀理毗売命 Takiri-hime no Mikoto, 市寸嶋比売命 Ichikishima-hime no Mikoto[xvi], and 多岐都比売命 Takitsu-hime no Mikoto. The middle name is the only one important these days. If you’ve ever been to the sacred island of 宮島 Miyajima in Hiroshima, you’ve probably visited the famous shrine 厳島神社 Itsukushima Jinja Itsukushima Shrine (the one with the floating gate). The three daughters are enshrined there and you may have seen their images in the underground passage that leads from 宮島口駅 Miyajimaguchi Eki Miyajimaguchi Station over to the ferries that take you to the island. If the name Ichikishima (sometimes read as Itsukishima) sounds similar to Itsukushima, well, I think you can put two and two together.

Susanoo1
Susano’o Rages with Victory

As the kami of the oceans and storms, Susano’o is seen as a negative and even destructive nature god. This is definitely in line with his popular image, but as I mentioned earlier, my account only includes stages one and two of his character arc[xvii]. Some scholars claim he represents unsuccessful revolts by other kingdoms against a rising Yamato hegemony – or even a rogue faction within the Yamato Court itself, which had to be exiled[xviii]. An older version of this myth, which appears in the Nihon Shoki, states that Susano’o gave birth to three sons reflecting the patrilineal hierarchy of the Kofun Period and later Heian Period. However, the version in the Kojiki, has Susano’o give birth to three females, which some scholars believe remembers a matrilineal monarchy that existed in the earlier Yayoi Period[xix]. Again, this kami is quite the conundrum.

Susano’o commits several significant desecrations of Amaterasu’s palace. First, he destroys rice paddies. Next, he shits in her dining room and throws poo everywhere. Then he flays a horse, throws it into her weaving hall, and kills her weaving maiden.

Now, this is all pretty fucked up stuff. First, I want to say that many scholars from the Edo Period until present day have interpreted the Rock Cave Myth as an allegory comparable to the autumn equinox or even a solar eclipse (death and rebirth of the sun, yada yada yada). If we accept the autumn equinox hypothesis, that puts us in harvest season. 新嘗祭 Niiname no Matsuri the Festival of the First Fruits was an important ritual in which the first harvest was presented to the village headman or local magistrate, or in the case of the capital, to the emperor and his court. Rice paddies take a lot of work to build and maintain, but the payoff is great. Rice is food. Excess rice is income. To destroy someone’s rice paddies is to undo all of the backbreaking hard work invested in feeding people. If the village headman can’t keep the agricultural kami happy, the village starves. If the emperor can’t keep the agricultural kami happy on a national scale, the country starves. Also, he loses money. He loses respect. He theoretically could lose his family’s right to rule. So, destroying rice paddies should be seen as an outrageous sacrilege.

The second desecration is closely related to the first, and is probably equally as impactful to modern minds as it was to ancient ones. Susano’o broke into Amaterasu’s home, proceeded to her “dining hall” which conjures up the imagery of the Festival of the First Fruits, a sacred space to present the harvest that will get the people through the harsh winter and guarantee the stability of the ruling family. Rather than respect this room, the petulant brother takes a crap on the floor and throws shit everywhere. Obviously, this is dirty and disgusting. I mean, it’s just not sanitary. Nobody wants to shit where they eat. But Susano’o deliberately intends to up end the cosmic order by not shitting in proper toilet, rather he does it inside his sister’s house. Human excrement was collected and repurposed as fertilizer, so shit had a monetary value that was being wasted here. Not only did he poop in the wrong place, his poop was just wasted. Well, he already destroyed the rice paddies, so… whatever.

horse susanoo

The Weaving Room & the Flayed Pony

The final desecration is the weirdest one. Despite being armed with a bow and two quivers of arrows, Amaterasu makes excuses for Susano’o’s behavior and hopes he’ll calm down and behave. She quietly retreats to the Heavenly Weaving Room in her palace to oversee the manufacture of sacred, ritual garments by her weaving maiden. We know that during the celebration of the First Fruits Festival at 伊勢神宮 Ise Jingū Ise Grand Shrine, the center of the Amaterasu cult, expensive new garments were woven by women and presented by women to the goddess[xx]. The original readers of the Kojiki or anyone who heard this myth retold probably would have an instant image in their head of what is going on by placing Susano’o’s final act of sabotage in the Weaving Room. One other image they may have had in mind is the 大嘗祭 daijō-sai Imperial Accession Ceremony which developed out of the Festival of the First Fruits[xxi]. There are ritual elements drawn from the Weaving Room Myth and the Rock Cave Myth.

While Amaterasu is overseeing this important ritual activity to ensure a good harvest and healthy winter for all, her dickhead brother goes out and finds a baby horse and flays it alive. Flaying is the act of removing the skin from an animal[xxii] usually from head to tail which is easier. Instead, Susano’o doesn’t kill the colt first, no. He flays skins the animal alive backwards – ie; from tail to head[xxiii]. This has long been interpreted as a kind of black magic or curse. And as if torturing an innocent animal to death in the most drawn out, agonizing way wasn’t enough; he drags the animal up to the top of the house and then destroyed her thatched roof (very expensive and winter is coming) and tosses the poor creature into the Weaving Hall. The weaving maiden is caught off guard, and accidentally runs the weaving shuttle into her vagina which kills her instantly.

OK, there’s a lot to unpack there. First, why a pony? Well, remember, this is Shintō. These days, many shrines may have some sacred animals on their premises. Roosters and deer are the most common in my experience. Some very important shrines may have stables with some sacred horses – 日光東照宮 Nikkō Tōshō-gū comes to mind[xxiv] – but more often than not, there may be a statue of a white horse in a symbolic “stable.” The horse is meant to represent the kami’s personal steed, so until the Meiji Period, local lords or courtiers would donate expensive horses to shrines as an act of ritual piety. Perhaps this horse was Amaterasu’s personal ride?

The death of the weaving maiden is often thought to be a substitute for the death of Amaterasu and a foreshadowing of her symbolic death in the Rock Cave. First, if the heavenly ancestor of the imperial family stabbed herself in the vagina by accident and died, it wouldn’t be a good look. Right? Therefore, the maiden dies in her place. Claude Lévi-Strauss calls the maiden’s death and Amaterasu’s symbolic death in the cave “a single chord sounded by several notes” which is just a poetic, French way of saying foreshadowing. Why’d the weaver have to get stabbed in the pussy? Your guess is as good as mine, but I suppose it makes a good parallel with Izanami’s death by having her pussy burned to death by Kagutsuchi the fire kami[xxv].

One final comment about the Weaving Room. The act of weaving can be interpreted as bringing order to chaos, and even to the myth-making process itself. In Modern English, we have a phrase “to weave a tale” which means “to create a story” which shows this concept isn’t far removed from us in this day and age. We can think of humans engaging in agriculture as bringing order to chaos, something which Alan Miller has called “cosmic weaving.” If this is the case, then all three of the desecration committed by Susano’o can be seen as related. He undoes cosmic order by destroying the agricultural cycle by “unweaving” Amaterasu’s divine order. He kills her priestess preparing the cultic offering usually given in exchange for a good harvest. That ceremony was the prototype for the ritual of imperial accession, so he threatens the cosmic order brought by the imperial clan. He defiles the purity of the weaving room and therefore the myths and rituals themselves. He craps in her dining hall making it impossible to perform the Festival of First Fruits and wastes much needed fertilizer for the fields by just flinging it around inside the palace. And lastly, he destroys the sacred rice paddies which deprive the people of food and the offerings they need to ask for good luck during the harvest and for the cold winter when resources are scarce – ultimately bankrupting and potentially starving the world.

These are unforgivable transgressions, yet Amaterasu does not seek vengeance. She does not destroy Susano’o. Instead, she hides.

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The Rock Cave Myth

Is the Rock Cave Myth simply a solar myth? Is something similar to the Dying God myths of Western Antiquity? I think there’s good reason to think so. The Festival of First Fruits was held throughout ancient Japan up until the Heian Period. There are records from villages big and small, and the most important festival was based at the heart of the Amaterasu cult, Ise Shrine. Harvest festivals celebrated bountiful food resources to get the people through the winter until the next growing season. They gave thanks to the workers who toiled in the fields, gave honor and praise to the kami that helped them and requested continued support in the next cycle. They ensured a financially stable court and imperial family, who in turn guaranteed safety and prosperity to the common people. It was win-win-win[xxvi].

In order to get that win-win-win, you needed the sun and the rain to cooperate[xxvii], but clearly Amaterasu and Susano’o are not playing well together. Things go so badly, that Amaterasu hides in the Heavenly Rock Cave, thus plunging the world into darkness. This darkness brings misery to both the kami and all other living things. This could represent a solar eclipse, which could be seen as trial run for a real eternal cosmic night[xxviii], or just winter, which could be seen as a metaphorical night. At any rate, bringing Amaterasu out of the cave and restoring order was of utmost importance.

daijosai

The Rock Cave Myth is either a description of existing rituals or a template for new rituals regarding this death/rebirth concept. The two rituals in question are:

鎮魂祭
chinkon-sai

a ritual to pacify spirits;

in Modern Japanese, it refers to ceremonies for the repose of departed souls.

大嘗祭
daijō-sai

originally the First Fruits Festival;

a secret ceremony where a newly ascended emperor offers new rice to Amaterasu, ritually eats with her, then spends the night alone with her in a special temporary building called 廻立殿 kairyūden.

If we accept the interpretation that Amaterasu’s retreat to the Rock Cave is a metaphorical death, then the chinkon-sai comparison is particular apt. Even if we disagree with that interpretation, the ritual elements present in this myth are obviously connected with these rites. However, according to John Breen and Mark Teeuven, it’s unclear whether chikon-sai is a Daoist interpretation of the Rock Cave Myth or an older Japanese ritual reflected in the myth told in the Kojiki. Anyhoo, I think we can all agree the connection is obvious.

If we accept the version in the Nihon Shoki, where it’s Amaterasu who gets banged in the pussy by the heavenly weaving loom and dies (as opposed to Amaterasu’s maiden/priestess), we can see the Rock Cave Myth as the death and burial of the sun-goddess, followed by the other kami performing a ritual correctly in order to resurrect her. This is certainly possible and conforms with Shintō rites and cultic practices of other polytheistic cultures. If we superimpose this onto the daijō-sai, we can imagine the emperor entering the kairyūden just as Amaterasu entered the cave, then reappearing later to bring back cosmic order and prosperity to the land. So, both rituals have death/rebirth elements.

This myth is perpetuated in modern Japan through the imported Buddhist concept of お盆 o-Bon which in Japan, is a syncretic observance of the ancestor cults. You can read about it here, but long story short: all of the kami in Japan return to Izumo Province for a month to re-enact the Rock Cave Myth[xxix], in that time, the ancestors of your clan return home[xxx]. This month, in accordance with the agricultural cycles (and a little modern tweaking) is October which is traditionally called 神無月 Kannazuki the month without kami. Conversely, in Shimane Prefecture (ancient Izumo Province) they call this month 神有月 or 神在月 Kamiarizuki the month with all the gods present.

ise jingu

The Divine Camp Out and Sacred Stripper Party

For narrative purposes, the assembly of deities at the Heavenly River in front of the Heavenly Rock-Cave is just to get everyone together to figure out what to do about Amaterasu. She’s supposed to weave order in the cosmos but instead as created chaos. Most textual analysis of this myth tends to view the encampment of kami as a meeting of the Yamato Court. The divine ancestors of many court families are present, which further legitimizes their status in that government. I’ve heard Mark Ravina say that he thinks this myth illustrates “decision by committee” as a kind of Japanese cultural trait that has persisted since time immemorial[xxxi]. Whether it reflects those ideas or not, the narrative is clear: this is big enough problem that all the kami need to come together and get Amaterasu out of the cave. In other myths, some kami help other kami, but this is the only instance in which every single kami[xxxii] comes to the assistance of just one kami. That makes Amaterasu one pretty important deity, I’ll say.

To coax Amaterasu out of the cave, the assembled kami perform a ritual. If you’re unfamiliar with Shintō practices, it seems like they improvise these actions. If you’re familiar with Shintō, it seems like they engage in very normal activities. This goes back to Breen and Teeuven’s question: are these religious innovations inserted into the myth or are these older rituals incorporated into the myth? My personal opinion is that there were existing similar practices, easily recognizable to the audience of the Kojiki and the Wajin population as a whole, but the “flavor” was distinctly that of Ise Shrine and the Yamato Court. Whether intentional or not, by writing these things down, the compilers of the Kokiki may have inadvertently ushered in an era of nationwide conformity in Shintō under the umbrella of the court’s most important Shrine[xxxiii].

encampment outside the heavenly rock cave

First, the kami bring roosters on to the scene. When the sun rises, roosters crow. Anyone from any agrarian society can tell you this[xxxiv]. This is a kind of sympathetic magic – ie; if the roosters crow, the sun will come up. That’s the natural order of things to primitive minds. That said, the natural order has broken down. Susano’o has wreaked chaos upon the world and Amaterasu’s retreat into the cave has compounded this upending of order. And the people writing these myths weren’t primitive minds. Maybe shitty storytellers, but not primitive lol.

Anyhoo, the rooster didn’t work. So, next the gods try a real ritual. First, they call two very specific kami associated with metal-working: 天児屋命 Ame no Koyane no Mikoto (Amenokoyane) and 布刀玉命 Futo Tama no Mikoto (Futotama). In my article on Japanese Cosmology, I mentioned that these two kami are presented as divine ancestors of two priestly clans, 中臣氏 Nakatomi-uji the Nakatomi Clan and 斎部氏 Imibe-uji the Inbe Clan respectively[xxxv]. The Nakatomi were responsible for chanting magic incantations, and the Inbe were responsible for performing cultic offerings. We see Amenokoyane and Futotama perform these same roles in front of the Rock Cave. The other main kami to feature prominently in the encampment of the kami is 天宇受賣命 Ama no Uzume no Mikoto (Amano’uzume) who is presented as the divine ancestor of 猿女氏 Surume-uji the Surume clan. As you can probably guess, the Surume provided ritual dancers to the court. The dancing style perfected by the Surume eventually evolved into 神楽 kagura shrine dancing[xxxvi]. All in all, seven kami are specifically listed as present at the encampment outside of the Rock Cave, all of them trying to coax Amaterasu to come outside. These seven kami will appear again in the Descent from Heaven Myth, which I’ll write about later. But for the time being, just recognize that the main actors in the Rock Cave Myth are considered ancestors of the highest-ranking members of the Yamato Court at the time these stories were compiled[xxxvii].

yata no kagami

The metal-working kami forge a bronze mirror. Mirrors were considered symbols of the sun because they reflected light. Metal-working, and mirrors specifically, were foreign technologies and at one time were so rare and expensive, that it seems inevitable they were assigned magical and spiritual values. To this day, you’ll still find mirrors in the 拝殿 haiden front hall and/or 本殿 honden main hall[xxxviii] of most Shintō shrines. The tree replanted in front of the Rock Cave is of a variety that is still considered sacred today, and it is decorated with ropes upon which hang a myriad of magatama beads. Now we have two items included in the future imperial regalia mentioned specifically in writing: 八咫鏡 Yata no Kagami the Eight Ta Mirror[xxxix] and 勾玉 magatama the sacred beads. Just as the presence of the divine ancestors foreshadows the Descent from Heaven Myth, I think the presence of these sacred items also foreshadows that same future myth which is critical to the legitimizing the imperial family’s divine right to rule Japan.

Another point that might seem weird about the campsite is the collection of a deer’s shoulder and hahaka wood from Mt. Amanokagu. This is a reference to an ancient type of divination called 占 uranai[xl]. This practice is not unlike divinations performed by haruspicēs and auspicēs in Ancient Rome. The former pulled out livers and organs of sacrificed animals and read them much as a palm reader might look at your hand today, while the latter looked for meaning in the flight patterns of birds. In ancient Japanese, burning a male deer bone over hahaka wood caused cracks to appear in the osseous material which the diviners “read” – again, just like a palm reader “reads” the lines and fingerprints of your hand[xli]. While any information gleaned from these kinds of acts was meaningless, a lot of cultures have considered it valuable for millennia. The Yamato Court found it so valuable, in fact, that they had courtiers who oversaw such rituals and thought it important enough to include in the Kojiki.

go-hei

Two other terms jumped out at me: 青和幣 ao nikite blue cloth and 白和幣 shiro nikite white cloth. These appear to be the precursors of what is as ubiquitous a symbol of Shintō as a 鳥居 torii gate. That is, 御幣 go-hei lightening-shaped pieces of white paper that decorate purified spaces. There are a few interesting things we can learn about the use of these terms ao nikite and shiro nikite. One is that they are quite ancient ritual items that predate the use of go-hei which are only made of white paper today (often of a very low-grade traditional paper). The second is that the custom predates the introduction of 洋産業  yōsangyō sericulture (ie; silk culture), or at least the widespread cultivation of silkworms in Japan. Ao nikite was made from undyed hemp paper which has a naturally blue/green tint. Shiro nikite could be bleached hemp paper, but was more likely made from white mulberry bark which was naturally white[xlii].

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Let’s Wrap Things Up

In the Rock Cave Myth, we see a crystallization of Shintō ritual and Shintō symbolism. The paper streams, the magic ropes, the magatama beads, the sacred mirror; ritual incantations, offerings, and dances; the stories of kami from whom the most elite of the elite members of the Yamato Court claimed descent from[xliii]; and we get hints at a fantasy-world cosmology slowly being consolidated into a national mytho-historic narrative that has clearly placed the sun goddess, Amaterasu, at the top of the spiritual hierarchy.

I’m going to take a break from mythology for a while because, wow… please understand that the research I’m doing into this is way above my pay grade (ps: I don’t have a pay grade. I do this for free, so if you like what I do, feel free to make a donation down below). However, when we return to the Japanese Creation Myths, it’s gonna be just as much fun and just as nerdy. I promise.

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[i] Remember in a previous article I mentioned that emperors used to be called 大君Ōkimi great kings, but since the Tenmu Emperor’s time they we called 天皇 tennō heavenly king (a term modeled on the Chinese 天帝 tentei (actual Chinese reading is tiān-dì heavenly emperor). Both the Japanese and Chinese words are often translated as “son of heaven.”
[ii] Remember, the word “cult” in this sense doesn’t mean Scientology or Jehovah’s Witnesses or anything like that. It is the original meaning of the word, which is intrinsically tied to the Roman concept of cultus deōrum devotion to the gods, observance of divine rituals.
[iii] These days, Tsuda’s take on Japanese mythology seems quite cynical, as he seemed to interpret many characters and actions in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki as mytho-historic political machinations within the Yamato Court.
[iv] Orthography is “spelling.”
[v] Ne no Katasu no Kuni; it’s unclear if this is the same of different than the Land of Yomi.
[vi] The suitor is Ōnamuchi no Kami, who later becomes Ōkuninushi no Kami. We’ll hear about him in the next article.
[vii] 妣國 Haha no Kuni the Land of my Dead Mother.
[viii] I’m still not sure how adding more water makes a river run dry, but nobody asked me.
[ix] This chart is taken directly from Alan Miller’s work.
[x] Amaterasu dons bow and arrow, yet never uses them. Therefore, I see her as a symbolic head of an army, but not a warrior herself. Furthermore, this donning of weaponry and striking a warlike pose (similar to what you see before a bout of 相撲 sumō begins) may hearken back to Amaterasu’s prehistoric male origins. This is not, however, the mythological origins of sumō. We’ll cover that in a later article.
[xi] Remember, the Imperial Regalia of Japan are a sword, a mirror, and magatama beads.
[xii] But let’s be truthful with out Latin, the Japanese imperial family ruled deōrum infīnītōrum gratiā by the grace of the infinite gods.
[xiii] Keep in mind that the word 侍 samurai literally means “servant of the imperial court.” Before the rise of the samurai class, the unrefined warriors were the regional military governors who ruled and fought on behalf of their Kyōto benefactors. That is, until they realized they had all the armies and local villages and the courtiers in Kyōto were just a bunch of pussies who didn’t respect them and ordered them around. Then you got the rise of the samurai class.
[xiv] By the way, the Nihon Shoki claims Susano’o has three sons, not daughters.
[xv] Apparently, Sān Guìzǐ in Chinese.
[xvi] Also written 市杵島媛命 Ichikishima-hime no Mikoto.
[xvii] We’ll probably come back to stages 3 and 4 in a future installment – probably next year.
[xviii] And perhaps was later allowed to return to the court after atonement.
[xix] Compare to Queen Himiko who reigned in the first half of the 3rd century, only appearing in ancient Chinese records.
[xx] Priestesses, not just any ol’ woman off the street, mind you.
[xxi] Among other ceremonies.
[xxii] And by animals, of course, I include humans. You can totally flay a human. If you’re interested in flaying humans, this website shows you how.
[xxiii] This would be excruciatingly painful to the animal causing it make a lot of noise and probably try to fight back or escape. Flaying an animal alive is just horrific.
[xxiv] I mention Nikkō Tōshō-gū because you can still see the descendants of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s sacred horse there today.
[xxv] Keep in mind that at the time these myths were compiled, Confucianism had begun to take hold at the Yamato Court. This philosophy was very male-oriented (dare I say the word? “patriarchal”) and was all about burning vaginas. In fact, to this day, Confucius’ most famous saying is still “Just kiss. Don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Burn ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
[xxvi] The court won, the people won, and the kami won.
[xxvii] This goes back to the theory that Amaterasu and Susano’o originally represented a relatively indivisible pair of agricultural kami.
[xxviii] Or even death.
[xxix] They also decide the 缘结 en-musubi personal relationships of all humans for the next year.
[xxx] Well, technically, they return to their graves and families leave incense and special dolls made from vegetables and chopsticks to guide the spirits back to the family home. Interestingly, all of the kami return to Izumo except for 恵比須 Ebisu a god of good luck. He came to be associated with 蛭子 Hiruko the Leech Child whom Izanagi and Izanami put in the boat and sent off to sea. The idea is that Hiruko was lost at sea during the events of the Rock Cave Myth and so he stays among the humans, who can still pray to him for good luck.
[xxxi] I find this assessment kind of orientalist. I view “Japanese solve problems in groups/act in groups” as weak as “Japanese are good at copying, but not innovation.”
[xxxii] Minus Hiruko/Ebisu, of course.
[xxxiii] The most important shrine being Ise Shrine, obviously.
[xxxiv] When I lived in Italy, I didn’t need an alarm clock. The roosters always woke me up on time.[xxxv] In Old Japanese, Inbe was pronounced Imibe.
[xxxvi] See my article What does Kagurazaka mean? The term Kagura is supposedly derived from 神 kami and 楽 raku/gaku music/entertainment/leisure.
[xxxvii] After Buddhism arrives, all bets are off. These court ritualists eventually disappear…
[xxxviii] Usually, the back hall which is generally off limits to normal people.
[xxxix] Ta is an ancient Chinese measurement. I think eight ta is the equivalent of 64 thumb lengths. Somebody correct me if I’m wrong. I once heard that “eight ta” actually meant eight lines drawn out from the center of a circle, which created a primitive sun with sunbeams – a prototype of modern 菊御紋 Kiku no Go-Mon the Chrysanthemum Crest (coat of arms of the Imperial Family). I don’t think I believe that second theory, but, again, somebody correct me if I’m wrong.
[xl] This was /ɯɾanapʰi̥/ in Old Japanese.
[xli] That is to say, it’s utter horseshit.
[xlii] Or could be bleached to produce a whiter effect.
[xliii] And these “divine ancestors” may just be imaginary gods or actual historical figures with magical names!

What does Tennōzu Isle mean?

In Japanese History on April 8, 2020 at 8:46 am

天王洲 I S L E
Tennōzu Isle (island of the sandbar of the heavenly king)

So, COVID-19 is Still a Thing

I hope everyone is staying at home as much as possible. Deaths worldwide are up 13,000 since the last article. Yeah, so… you know what? Today we’re going to look at a popular man-made island in 東京湾 Tōkyō Wan Tōkyō Bay that is connected to a 神 kami god who has the power to protect mankind from disease epidemics. So, how ya like dem apples, Corona-chan?

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Tennozu Isle at dusk

Tennōzu Isle

It’s dusk, on a hot summer’s eve and you’re strolling along a fashionable boardwalk on a rectangular man-made island. Couples and families bounce in and out of the galleries, restaurants, and creative spaces that line the boulevard as bridges tower overhead. Enjoying the sea breeze in the wind, you pause to take in the flittering lights that dance across the waterfront. It doesn’t seem so hot anymore. The salt water in the wind soothes you. Looking down to where the sea splashes up against the land, you spot something familiar – something old. Everything fades into the background as you squint to get a better look at… yes, yes, you can see them clearly now. This is the only thing that matters now.

Edo muthafuckin’ Period stone walls, bitch. Focused on what must be done now, you grunt with satisfaction and begin rolling up your sleeves and hock a loogie into the water. A seagull perched on a rooftop above inhales deeply, opens its beak wide, and releases a single stream of fire writhing like a whip. You growl to the stone walls, “Oh yeah, baby. You ready for this? You think you’re ready? You better be. That’s right. You know you love it. It’s time to get nerrrrrdy. Awwwwwwww yeah.”

The seagull flies away aaaaaaaaaaaand… SCENE!

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First Let’s Look at the Kanji


ten, ama/ame

heaven, sky


ō

king

[i]
su, –zu

sandbar, mid-ocean sandbank

Today’s place name is a combination of two words: 天王 tennō heavenly king and 洲 su sandbar. It has a spiritual connotation which could better be translated as “sandbank sacred to the heavenly king.” In this case, the heavenly king is a reference to 牛頭天王 Gozu Tennō – a syncretic deity with Shintō, Buddhist, and Hindi aspects[ii]. He is the god of plagues, pestilence, and pandemics, who has the power to bring epidemic destruction as well as take it away and protect from it. Soon after the importation of this Indian deity through Buddhism, the Japanese came to equate him with the kami of storms and seas, 須佐之男命 Susano’o no Mikoto. The center of Gozu Tennō worship is 八坂神社 Yasaka Jinja Yasaka Shrine in 京都 Kyōto.

Obviously, Tennōzu Isle glaringly includes an English word. In Japanese, island is shima/-jima and so theoretically we could’ve gotten *天王() *Tennō(zu)jima Tennōzu Island, but let’s face it. That sounds dumb. So, the cool English word “isle” is used in ローマ字 rōma-ji romanization rather than 片仮名 katakana the simplified syllabary, which would be アイル airu. Also, the area is officially known as 天王洲 I S L E, but at the train station name is written only in Japanese characters as 天王洲アイル.

Anyways, the keen reader has probably figured out that water is pretty important to this story. We’ve got the sandbar in the middle of the ocean, a mashup kami who deals with the seas, and a reference to an island. Keep the water theme in the back of your mind.

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Tennozu Isle during the Bakumatsu

The Etymology

Before any artificial islands were built here, there was a large sandbar formed by the accumulation of sediment. It was well known by fisherman who worked in 江戸湾 Edo Wan Edo Bay for centuries.

The story goes that one day in 1751, a fisherman cast his nets across the sandbank, but when he tried to pull it back aboard, there was something heavy weighing it down. He soon realized that he had caught a wooden carving of the face of Gozu Tennō. Realizing that this was “miracle” – which was a more common occurrence than you’d think[iii] – the people began referring to this place as Tennō’s Sandbar. The people of 品川 Shinagawa gathered round and took the sacred object up the 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River to 荏原神社 Ebara Jinja Ebara Shrine which protected all of 荏原国 Ebara no Kuni Ebara Province. Gozu was enshrined as Susan’o and came to be worshipped as a triune kami. Furthermore, the locals began celebrating 天王洲祭 Tennōzu Matsuri Tennōzu Festival every spring by parading 御神輿 o-mikoshi portable shrines decorated with the 神面 shinmen sacred visage of Gozu Tennō down to the bay. There, in a rite called 海上渡御 kaijō togyo[iv] they would return him to the sandbar whence he arose to present himself to the good people of Shinagawa.

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Notice the divine face on this portable shrine.

It’s a good story and I suppose it does a decent job of explaining the etymology of this place name. Except, according to Ebara Shrine itself, Gozu Tennō was enshrined as Susano’o all the way back in the Kamakura Period – June 19th, 1247, to be precise. Priests at Yasaka Shrine[v] in Kyōto perfumed a ritual called 勧請 kanjō and split the spirit of Gozu Tennō and sent it all the way across the country to Ebara Shrine. That’s about 500 years before the Edo Period story I just told you!

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Gozu Tenno

So Which is Correct?

Who the fuck knows? But clearly, there’s a strong association between Ebara Shrine and the sea and the local people who make a living off the bay – and I suspect that has to do with the sea god aspect of Gozu Tennō. In the 1200’s, the villages around Edo experienced a boom, so it makes sense that with a little finagling and a little help from the Minamoto court in Kamakura, the shrine could convince the priests of Yasaka Shrine to share a bit of their juju with Shinagawa, both areas were now fairly connected via the 古東海道 Ko-Tōkaidō ancient Tōkaidō trail[vi].

By the Edo Period, Shinagawa was home to the busiest and most prestigious post town on the shōgunate’s most prominent highway. Even to this day, the modern road is littered with temples and shrines once made rich by travelers coming and leaving the bustling capital. It isn’t hard to imagine an overly zealous Ebara Shrine priest taking a boat out one moonless night in 1751, then tossing a wooden carving of Gozu Tennō’s face into the shallow waters covering the sandbar in hopes that some dumb ass fisherman is gonna find it the next day and show it to the other mud-grubbing, low-tide-smelling lemmings of the village. Ebara Shrine would blow the fuck up over night. Every local, every traveler, every priest and monk from far and near would want to throw a few coins in the collection box just to get a look at the miracle face mask, know what I’m sayin’?

 

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Tennozu Isle today

 

From Baby Sandbar to Big Boy Island

Tennōzu was just a sandbar only known to fishermen for most of its history. Then in 1851, Commodore Perry arrived in Edo Bay demanding the shōgunate open up for trade and international relations. He gave them time think about it, vowing to return in a year to accept Japan’s agreement to his terms, or he would bombard the shōgun’s capital. Understandably, the government lost its collective shit and ordered the construction of 11 man-made islands to serve as 台場 daiba cannon batteries to prevent Perry’s 黒船 Kurofune Black Ships from getting to close to the city. The government chose Tennō’s Sandbar as the most efficient spot to build 第四台場 dai-yon daiba Battery #4. Work was completed in 1853, but a fire broke out and burned down the wooden structures. The shōgunate abandoned the island, its stone sea walls being the only indicator that it had once been an artificial island, much less a sandbar.

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Oaki Daiba in the Taisho Period. You can see the factory buildings.

In 1873 (Meiji 6), a shipbuilder named 緒明菊三郎 Oaki Kikusaburō bought former Daiba #4  and renamed it 緒明台場 Oaki Daiba. Then, with a little investment by the 中将 chūjō vice-admiral of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 榎本武揚 Enomoto Takoyaki[vii], a pro-Tokugawa loyalist turned Meiji statesman, he began expanding the island to use as a shipyard. Kikusaburō made a killing building boats, and the island was still is use during 日清戦争 Nisshin Sensō the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895; Meiji 28-28) and 日露戦争 Nichiro Sensō the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905; Meiji 37-38).

From 1925-1939, further land reclamation projects expanded the island ever more. Although no longer used as a shipyard, the site became home to bayside factories, warehouses, and distribution centers. This changed the look of the former sandbar and daiba forever. The former nickname, Oaki Daiba was gradually forgotten and the traditional name Tennōzu came back into use.

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Edo Period stone walls. Awwww yeah.

Fast forward to about 1985, a group of 22 landholders designed the diabolical 東品川二丁目マスタープラン Higashi-Shinagawa Ni-chōme Masutā Puran Master Plan for the 2nd Block of East Shinagawa[viii]. It included a plan to redevelop the area as a stylish boardwalk with a waterfront view, including a new station for the super-spiffy 東京モノレール Tōkyō Monorēru Tōkyō Monorail. It’s during this expansion that the island took its final, rectangular shape which can still be seen today. Two sides (the northwest corner) of the former pentagonal daiba are still visible, this is where you can see the Edo Period seawalls.

The developers thought Higashi-Shinagawa 2-chōme was too long and re-christened the project 天王洲I S L Eマスタープラン Tennōzu Airu Masutā Puran the Tennōzu Isle Master Plan. Now, remember, this was the height of the Bubble Economy, and one of many fads at the time was studying English just because it was popular. Suddenly, 和製英語 wasei eigo Japanese English meant to be understood by Japanese speakers only began popping up everywhere. This place name is a product of that fad. Tennōzu Isle sounded like Tennō’s Isle and rolled off the tongue easier than Tennōzu-jima (both “Tennō’s Island”) [ix], but it looked foreign and exotic – perfect for a population of passively English-literate Tōkyōites with money burning holes in their pockets.

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kaijo togyo

To this day, Ebara Shrine celebrates the Tennōzu Festival and local worshippers still perform the kaijō togyo ritual, returning the Oxhead Heavenly King to the sandbar he first appeared at. This tradition is said to protect the area from floods, hurricanes, and most importantly for us, massive epidemic outbreaks.

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I hope you found this bite-sized JapanThis! article informative. I tried to avoid as many rabbit holes as possible, and I hope I’ve succeeded. We’re not out of the dark on this coronavirus bullshit yet, so please stay home, wash your hands, and stay six-feet apart from everyone. Call your loved ones and take care of yourself. Also, if you see a fire breathing seagull, get the hell away from it.

 

Further Reading:

 

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[i] This is an older kanji still used in place names or to seem old timey. Modern Japanese tends to use , but this kanji can also mean “state” or “province,” so the older kanji is good for clarity in place names.
[ii] Gozu literally means “ox head” and is probably a reference to Mt. Oxhead in Southern India.
[iii] Longtime readers will remember all the other time people were just finding random Buddhist statues in the water. It’s a pretty hilarious trope. I can picture monks whose temples are lacking funds, dumping statues in the water to create “miracles” and drum up a little business for themselves.
[iv] Transferring a sacred object to the sea.
[v] Also known as 祇園神社 Gion Jinja Gion Shrine.
[vi] I use Ancient Tōkaidō and 旧東海道 Kyū-Tōkaidō former Tōkaidō (“old Tōkaidō”) to distinguish between the very well organized and regulated Edo Period highway. Ancient refers to the road as it slowly developed over centuries.
[vii] OK, ya got me! He’s real name is Enomoto Takeaki. You can read more about him here.
[viii] Well, let’s be honest. It wasn’t actually diabolical.
[ix] Though, the more natural Tennō-jima doesn’t sound bad. Just doesn’t pop like the Japanese/English hybrid.

What does Ushima mean?

In Japanese History on August 31, 2015 at 6:20 am

牛島
Ushima (cow/ox island)

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Today’s article is a bit of whimsy. I want to investigate some really obscure and unknown aspects of Japanese religion that tangentially hit on the history of Edo-Tōkyō. In my article on 向島 Mukōjima, I mentioned that one of the theories is that there were a collection of islands (or more likely sandbars in a flood plain) dotting the east bank of the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River. According to this story, these were collectively called mukōjima “the islands on the other side of the river” by the people of the west bank who lived in 浅草 Asakusa. Today I want to talk about the name 牛島 Ushima Cow Island[i]. It’s not preserved as an official place name today, but there is shrine in Mukōjima that bears the name. It’s a quite ancient name – possibly as ancient as Asakusa[ii].

Eat more chikin, bitches

Eat mor chikin, bitches

As I’ve said many times before, the west bank of the 大川 Ōkawa the Great River (as this stretch of the river was known as in the Edo Period) had been fairly developed since the Heian Period. It got a major boost with the rise of the 鎌倉幕府 Kamakura Bakufu Kamakura Shōgunate in the 1200’s and was one of the few shining centers of art and commerce in the Edo area in those early days. The area really rose to prominence with the establishment of the 江戸幕府 Edo Bakufu Edo Shōgunate in the early 1600’s by the 徳川家 Tokugawa-ke Tokugawa family.

As I said earlier, today there isn’t any area officially called Ushima, but prior to the Meiji Period, there was an area of present day 墨田区本所 Sumida-ku Honjo Honjo, Sumida Ward that was referred to by that name. The east bank of the river was essentially grassland, even during most of the Edo Period this side of the river was relatively rustic[iii]. During the Asuka Period and Nara Period[iv], the grounds on the flood plains of the eastern bank of the Sumida River were used for grazing cattle. Thus the area came to be called 牛島 Ushijima Cow Island – a name that was eventually contracted to Ushima[v].

A stone lantern at Ushima Shrine circa 1868.

A stone lantern at Ushima Shrine circa 1868.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

Asakusa is the Rockstar of the Area, but…

Meanwhile, on the west bank of the Sumida River, in 628 or 645[vi] (the Asuka Period) Sensō-ji was founded in Asakusa Village. Sensō-ji was a key temple in the area and it was pivotal in the spreading of Buddhism in the Kantō area. In the 850’s (Heian Period), a famous itinerant monk who had recently studied Buddhism in China visited Sensō-ji to view the secret image of Buddha that was alleged fished out of a stretch of the river and is the alleged raison d’être of the great temple. That monk was a certain 慈覚大師 Jikaku Daishi[vii] and he is about to play the biggest part of the Ushima story.

Jikaku Daishi

Jikaku Daishi

The story goes that Jikaku Daishi, who had been studying Buddhism in China, was ejected from the country during the Great Buddhism Purge of 845 and forced to return to Japan. Upon his return he visited various centers of Buddhism in the country to share his knowledge and engage in philosophical discussions with other monks. While visiting a hermitage called 一草庵 Issōan, Jikaku Daishi took a walk and happened upon an old man. The old man told him that he should build a shrine to protect the local people on the east bank of the Sumida River. The old man then revealed that he was an incarnation of the Shintō 神 kami deity named 須佐之男命 Susano’o no Mikoto.

Susano’o no Mikoto

Susano’o no Mikoto

Wait. Whaaaa?!!

You may be scratching your head now. Buddhism builds temples to reflect upon enlightened souls… or something like that. Shintō builds shrines to house 神 kami deities[viii]… or something like that. At the very least, these are just 2 distinct belief systems!

Long time readers should be well aware that Japanese religions – and polytheistic religions in general – tend to be syncretic. This means they are open to blending, mixing and matching, and picking and choosing. Roman religion was like this prior to Christianity and is probably the best example I can think of in terms of western syncretism. In short, while for some people Buddhism and Shintō may have been diametrically opposed to one another in many ways; for the most part both can accommodate each other. Indeed, until a Meiji Era imperial decree separating Buddhism and Shintō[ix], the two faiths were essentially in bed together. Other faiths like 庚申 Kōshin[x] flourished in conjunction with Buddhism and Shintō. It was all one spiritual tapestry. A Buddhist founding a Shintō shrine was nothing out of the ordinary.

2 diagrams of typical Kōshin statues

2 diagrams of typical Kōshin statues. The Kōshin faith is neither Shintō nor Buddhist, but rather Taoist.

But Back To Ushima

Jikaku Daishi set about founding a shrine on the east bank of the Sumida River in the Ushima area. The name of the original shrine was 牛御前社 Ushi Gozen-sha[xi]. It was built sometime between 859 and 879[xii]. Keep in mind, this all went down in the 800’s. If the Tokugawa Shōgunate hadn’t been established in the 1600’s, Sensō-ji may have remained the temple with the largest influence in the area until today.

The wishes of the old man that Jikaku Daishi encountered were that the shrine would protect the people on the east bank of the Sumida River. The shrine would become home to the 本所総鎮守 Honjo sō-chinju the tutelary kami of the entire Honjo area. The west bankers had their Sensō-ji but the people on the east bank needed a tutelary kami[xiii], too. The Sumida River even had its own deity[xiv]. So the people who lived in the eastern flood plain needed equal protection from the powerful river god.

Ushi Gozen-sha on the banks of the Sumida River in the Edo Period.

Ushi Gozen-sha on the banks of the Sumida River in the Edo Period.

The Gods of Ushi Gozen-sha

Ushi Gozen-sha didn’t only enshrine one deity. It enshrined 3 specific kami to protect the people of Honjo (present Mukōjima). Let’s take a quick look at these 3 kami.

須佐之男命
Susano’o no Mikoto

a major kami associated with rough seas and summer storms (typhoons)[xv]

天之穂日命
Ame no Hohi no Mikoto[xvi]

a minor kami with close ties to Susano’o no Mikoto[xvii]

貞辰親王命
Sadatoki Shin’ō no Mikoto

my understanding is that this is the kami of an imperial prince whose death coincided with the construction of the shrine[xviii]

At the beginning of the Edo Period, the 3rd shōgun, 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu began to patronize the shrine as the Tokugawa family came down to their beautiful palace where the river met the bay. In its time, it must have been a gorgeous villa with a spectacular view of the sea.

Iemitsu called for a secondary shrine to be created. That shrine was called 若宮牛嶋神社 Wakamiya Ushima Jinja Wakamiya Ushima Shrine[xix]. It is a 20 minute walk from Ushima Shrine to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine. During the shrines’ festival on 9/15, the kami is carried in a 神輿 mikoshi portable shrine from Ushima Shrine in Mukōjima to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine in Honjo.

This is roughly the route from Ushima Shrine to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine.

This is roughly the route from Ushima Shrine to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine.

Sadly, both shrines were completely destroyed in the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923. For some reason, the main shrine was relocated and rebuilt a little bit south at its present location[xx]. In the Meiji Period, the rank of the shrine was officially demoted by the government to the status of 郷社 gōsha village shrine[xxi]. Like many shrines and temples that didn’t fully recover after the earfquake and/or WWII, Ushijima Shrine is clearly a shadow of its former glory. But it’s not as dismal as, say, Shiogama Shrine, and its summer festival still draws substantial crowds.

This monument marks the former location of the shrine.

This monument marks the former location of the shrine.

As for the place name, Ushima has all but vanished from Tōkyō’s civil administration and postal code system. Mukōjima and Honjo have superseded officially. But today the shrine sits in the shade enjoying its quiet solitude. It eschews the modern writing, 牛島 Ushima, for the pre-Modern writing, 牛嶋 Ushima. While the city has moved on and Sensō-ji has grown in fame and Tōkyō Skytree has become yet another symbol of a city replete with symbols, Ushima Shrine proudly holds on to its former glory as the protector of the people on the east bank of the Sumida River.If you’re interested further reading, I have related articles:

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[i] Could be “ox” island, too. The Japanese is ambiguous.
[ii] The name 浅草 Asakusa is without a doubt much older than 浅草寺 Sensō-ji Sensō Temple (literally, Asakusa Temple). See my article on Asakusa.
[iii] This is why the 隅田川御殿 Sumida-gawa Goten Sumida River Palace was built by the shōguns here – they had plenty of space for private villa.
[iv] And presumably later, too.
[v] Because syllables are hard.
[vi] Depending on what you consider the foundational act. See my article on Asakusa.
[vii] He is best known in Japan by his 諡号 shigō (okurigō) posthumous name, Jikaku Daishi. His name as a monk was 円仁 Ennin.  He was born into the 壬生氏 Mibu-shi Mibu clan of 下野国 Shimozuke no Kuni Shimozuke Province which is modern day 栃木県 Tochigi-ken Tochigi Prefecture. Jikaku Daishi means Great Teacher of Merciful Enlightenment (satori).
[viii] Kami isn’t a word that translates easily into English. The English language has spent most of its life with a Judeo-Christian backdrop, ie; Abrahamic monotheism. If you want to understand more about the concept of kami, here is a good place to start.
[ix] Read more about the policy here.
[x] This is a totally unrelated article, but I talk about the Kōshin faith in my article on Gohongi.
[xi] Another reading is Ushi Gozen-ja. The name means something like “revered shrine in front of the cows.” Unfortunately, I can’t find any information on the etymology of the original shrine name, but the area’s name of Ushima seems to have had much more influence than the name of the shrine.
[xii] The few surviving documents only list the 年号 nengō era name 貞観年間 Jōgan nenkan (859-879). I rarely use nengō on this site, but here’s Wiki’s explanation of them.
[xiii] Tutelary deity/tutelary kami means a deity who looks out for your best interests and protects you.
[xiv] See my article on Suijin.
[xv] Here’s the Wiki on him.
[xvi] Sometimes rendered as Ama no Hohi no Mikoto.
[xvii] Check out the story here.
[xviii] In Japanese they say 胡麻刷り goma suri brown nosing. In this case, the shōgunate was placating the increasingly irrelevant 朝廷 chōtei imperial court in Kyōto.
[xix] 若宮 wakamiya mean “young prince” and often indicates an auxiliary shrine.
[xx] If you walk a bit north, there is a commemorative sign that marks the original location of the shrine.
[xxi] That means, it wasn’t the tutelary kami of the Honjo area – presumably because it was absorbed into the Mukōjima area.

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