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Victimage in the Kojiki of Japan

 by Barbara Mikolajewska in cooperation with F.E.J. Linton

Copyright © 2005 by,   New Haven, CT 06511-2208 USA.
First Internet Edition. All rights reserved.

 

Part I

In the place of pure beginning

 

 

Chapter 5

On kamï, their shrines, and their worship

 

(Valuable information, gleaned from Sokyo Ono’s classic Shinto: The Kamï Way (Tuttle, 1962) and incorporated in these pages, is hereby gratefully acknowledged.)

 

1. Kojiki

2. Kamï

3. Shinto shrines

4. Worship

5. Festivals (matsuri)

 

1. Kojiki

 

       Thus far we have encountered, as a tourist might do, without any deeper understanding, a seemingly random assortment of legendary personages (Ama-terasu, Ame-n-uzume, Ninigi, and the like), along with snippets of the legendry associated with them, visits to some shrines dedicated to them, samples of the worship practices to be found there, and repeated references, without further elaboration, to the canonical sourcebook known as the Kojiki. The time has come to shed more light on each of these matters.

       Let us begin with the Kojiki. Prior to the year 405 AD Japan had been a pre-literate society: all that was known – myths, legends, historical facts, practical knowledge – was transmitted orally, passed on from parent to child, from teacher to pupil, from master to apprentice, by word of mouth, by precept, or by example. In that year, however, a learned Korean was summoned to teach a young Japanese Imperial prince the Chinese system of writing, and soon, just as had happened in Korea after the introduction of that system there some thirty years earlier, written materials began to proliferate – recording the accounts of the Imperial treasury, the genealogies of the Imperial family and of other noble families, and other words and events of note.

       Not quite three centuries later, towards 682 AD, the then-reigning Emperor Temmu, sensitive to the importance of an accurate account of various leading families’ hereditary ranks, rights, and titles, based on histories unblemished by the exaggerations and outright falsifications which had gradually been introduced, commissioned a critical selection of material from the existing record, in hope of “discarding the mistaken and establishing the true” (Kojiki, Preface, v. 42, p. 41) for transmission to posterity as the official record of reference. This effort, despite a quarter-century hiatus beginning with Temmu’s death in 686, came to fruition in the year 712 AD, under the reign of Empress Gemmei, with the completion of the Kojiki, or “Record of Ancient Matters,”a manuscript that would serve to this day as the authoritative, official, orthodox record of everything of importance, a record that “begins with the beginning of heaven and earth and ends with the reign [several generations before Emperor Temmu] of [Empress Suiko],” (Literally, “Woparida,” the site of Empress Suiko’s palace. Kojiki, Preface, v. 63, p. 44.) first wife of the Emperor Bitatsu (whose third wife would become the future Emperor Temmu’s great grandmother).

       Another such compilation, likewise to be assembled from myth, legend, and historical fact, was undertaken two years later at the command of Empress Gemmei. Begun in the year 714, and aiming to produce a complete national history, this new effort culminated in 720 with the completion of the Nihongi, or Chronicles of Japan, a manuscript far more comprehensive than the Kojiki – indeed, easily twice as long – that serves more as a comparative concordance of all the various source materials than as the authoritative arbiter of official truth. But it is in the Kojiki, primarily in Book One, that we find recorded the official versions of the myths and legends (also to be found, of course, but with multiple variations, in the first two books of the Nihongi) that constitute the basis of the Shinto religion of Japan. So it will be to the Kojiki that we turn again and again as our primary source of information regarding all those legendary personages, as we have called them, encountered earlier in these pages, and their exploits.

 

2. Kamï

 

       Regarding those legendary personages, there is one absolutely central trait they all share that requires comment. All of them – whether heavenly deities such as Ama-terasu, Ame-n-uzume, Tajikarao, Ninigi, Izanami, Izanagi, the food deity Ty-uk-bime-n-kamï, and the eight-hundred myriad deities, both individually and as a collective, or earthly rulers such as Opo-kuni-nusi, Jimmu, Jimmu’s grandfather (and Ninigi’s son) Po-wori – all of them, along with all the successive emperors after Jimmu, are kamï, a term that calls for some clarification.

       The English language, alas, lacks any fully adequate counterpart of the word kamï: the terms god (or goddess), deity, divinity, divine (or sacred) spirit (or being), all commonly used to render kamï, all somehow fail to convey quite all of the conceptual freight with which that word is laden. As William George Aston, the translator of the Nihongi, points out, for example: “The word Kamï, deity, … means primarily upper, and hence nobles, the sovereign, gods, and generally any wonderful or mysterious thing. The leopard and wolf are Kamï, the peach with which Izanagi put to flight the thunders which pursued him in the land of Yomi, etc.”  (Nihongi, p. 3, end of footnote 6).

       It is also worth pointing out that, linguistically, an important role of the vocable kamï is to serve as an honorific suffix, as is illustrated in the fully expanded form Ama-terasu-opo-mi–kamï of the name of the Sun Goddess, in which the honorific kamï, itself augmented by the prefix opo-mi (“opo”=great, “mi”=august, honorable), is appended to the simple name Ama-terasu of the Sun Goddess, in expression of the supremely reverent awe the Sun Goddess inspires.

       Indeed, at the very heart of being kamï may well lie exactly the inherent capacity innately to inspire such an overwhelmingly reverent awe. Thus, not only the legendary figures prominent in the Kojiki chronicles, but virtually any manifestation of the power to inspire reverent awe may be kamï, be this a uniquely admirable feature of the natural world, such as a majestic river, an impressive mountain like Japan’s Mount Fuji, a prominent pair of off-shore boulders like Japan’s famous “Wedded Rocks” Meotoiwa, recalling Izanami and Izanagi, the various examples, already cited, of William George Aston, or a uniquely old and venerable tree; likewise, the spirits of statesmen or teachers whose fame their death has only augmented – even the spirits of one’s own ancestors – may all be kamï.

       That said, we hasten to point out that the kamï these pages will concerned with are the earliest kamï, those coming into being at the beginning of time and their immediate descendants – the original founders of Japan; and to learn what the Kojiki recounts about them, it suffices to consult Book One.

       But we digress. With reverent awe the natural human response to kamï, worship becomes the natural human expression of that awe – worship, and a perceived need so to care for the kamï that, rather than becoming angry and, in displeasure, wreaking havoc on earth or in the affairs of men, the kamï will become so pleased as to ensure, in gratitude, good fortune where there might otherwise be ill. The Kojiki itself provides numerous illustrations of both correct and incorrect approaches, and their consequences, and with its help as official codex, the same eighth-century administrations that caused the compilation of the Kojiki and Nihongi could oversee a standardization or unification of the rather more diverse worship practices prevalent theretofore into the forms one can still see today.

       A core component of these worship forms is their overwhelming focus on shrines, the protective custodians of the kamï enshrined therein. While in dim history any natural location with a sufficiently conducive atmosphere – a particularly splendid grove, an impressive cave, a marvelous cliff – may have served as a suitable place for worship, for two millennia or more the tendency grew to use primarily man-made shrines as the locus of worship activities. In fact, setting aside for the moment the innumerable private shrines in people’s homes, there are tens of thousands of shrines, large and small, in public operation throughout Japan. Moreover, just as, in the Ama-terasu-out-of-Amano-Iwato luring episode, the Kojiki sets a normative standard for the details of the worship procedure, so too does it give quite explicit instructions for many aspects of shrine architecture, specifying precise characteristics for, among other things, the foundation posts, the roof beams, even the enclosing fences (for a quick overview, see the descriptions of the palaces of Opo-kuni-nusi, of Ninigi, and of Susa-n-wo in items IV.7, V.B.2, and III.7 of Appendix 3 below). So let us turn to a closer examination of these shrines.

 

3. Shinto shrines

 

       Etymologically, the component syllables of the Japanese term Jinja, term conventionally rendered as shrine, signify respectively kamï and dwelling place or abode. Thus the purpose of a Shinto shrine is to provide for its kamï both a secure place in which to dwell, and the care and attention that will enable the kamï to feel “at home” there.

       The kamï’s dwelling place, or sanctuary, is generally provided for within a sanctuary building, whose interior is off-limits to ordinary mortals; the requisite care and attention are provided by the shrine’s priests and the shrine’s visiting faithful in acts of worship and other service carried out in the exterior space adjacent to the sanctuary building, space itself often organized as another building, separate from but contiguous with the sanctuary, and open to the visiting public, termed oratory or worship hall (Plate 1).

       Thus, while an oratory building per se is not, strictly speaking, an essential component of a shrine, a shrine without some sort of sanctuary is, by the very root meaning of the word Jinja, such a complete contradiction in terms that it can be no shrine at all.

       In a nutshell, then, the function of a shrine is to provide for one or more kamï a safe heaven, or sanctuary, in which the kamï can be worshipped, venerated or otherwise served. The smallest of shrines (household shrines aside) may consist of little more than a diminutive sanctuary building, situated on a tiny plot of land barely able to accommodate that structure. The largest, on the other hand, perhaps situated on a quite a vast expanse of land, some of it intentionally left unimproved (as is the case for the Amano-Iwato Jinja outside Takachiho), may comprise numerous auxiliary buildings beyond just the sanctuary. An administrative building, sleeping quarters for the resident priests and/or their assistants, kitchens, a dining facility, gardeners’ and maintenance sheds, public lavatories, retail kiosks for the sale of shrine devotionalia, secondary shrines, and a kagura-den, all are possible such auxiliary buildings. Even in such a large shrine complex, however, the most important structure is the sanctuary.

       This sanctuary is generally a full-size building, modest in appearance, manifesting certain characteristic architectural details, and equipped with an inner chamber – the honden, a kind of sanctum sanctorum – within which a distinguished sacred object – the shintai, or divine body, a manifestation of the kamï there enshrined – is carefully maintained.

       Despite varying architectural styles, the sanctuary building characteristically sports a roof supported at either end by a pair of crossbeams  (supporting an internal or external ridge beam) – the chigi (Plate 1) – that extend diagonally upward far further than structurally necessary, in keeping with the Kojiki’s implicit injunction that they strive “unto Takama-n-para itself,” and with ridge decorated with a number of short, horizontal boards or logs, laid perpendicularly across the ridge at intervals, and generally thought to resemble dried fish, whence their Japanese name katsuogi (Plate 1b). These chigi and katsuogi, then, are among the field-marks of a sanctuary, as are the sacred straw rope (shimenawa) (Plate 2c), often decorated with short pendants of flax or zigzag-cut paper, suspended between (or simply hanging from) the sanctuary’s entrance pillars, and the one or more ceremonial gateway-arches, or torii, often set before the entrance.

 

 

Plate 1. Jinja

 

a

 

b

 

 

a. Only the chigi marking the sanctuary roof are visible behind this oratory (Rokusho Jinja, Shimane pref.).

b. Roof top chigi and katsuogi mark the sanctuary building: the low building in the foreground is an oratory (Manai-Jinja, Shimane pref.).

 

       The honden within the sanctuary is generally set fairly far back from the front of the sanctuary structure, and shielded from view by a pair of swinging doors, most often closed. Even when these are swung open, however, curtains of split bamboo, strung beads, or other such opaque material, prevent priests and worshippers alike from seeing the receptacle within that houses the shintai.

       The shintai itself is in most cases a specific tangible object, such as a mirror, a sword, a painting, a comb, an iron ball, or an especially significant piece of wood or paper or metal or stone. Generally it is swathed in layer upon layer of wrappings and ensconced within a box that may itself again be wrapped in more cloth before being enclosed in yet another box, and so on, never to be seen by layman’s eye, and only rarely, if ever, by priest’s. Thus the precise nature of the shintai, often simply a secret, may in some cases be totally unknown, having been kept too secret too long in a setting forbidding human inspection of the shintai.

       In other cases the shintai may be a natural feature of the nearby terrain, such as a local boulder, or waterfall, or volcano, or mountain, or (as is the case for Amano-Iwato Jinja) a cave. Here, obviously, the shintai cannot literally be housed within the honden of a sanctuary; yet, in a symbolic sense, it can be – and, indeed, is – considered so to be. While in each case the shintai is considered a manifestation of a particular kamï, there is no predefined universal correspondence between the various kamï, on the one hand, and possible shintai objects on the other. And while in many cases there is but one kamï a given shrine enshrines, other shrines may well enshrine several. There are even kamï who are plural in their very nature.

       If the honden area in the rear portion of a sanctuary is painstakingly shielded from public view, the forward area in front of the protective honden doors is openly visible. And there one usually finds, all according to the space actually available, one or more tables bearing offerings of various sorts – vessels of food or drink, sacks of rice, or kegs of sake – often with a large round mirror mounted somewhat behind them as if gazing out over them; banners or figurines of animals sometimes watch over these offerings; and, in close proximity hereto, there generally stand one or more gohei (Plate 2a) – long, slender, upright wooden wands from which there hang, on either side, two long strips of paper so cut and folded as to descend in a zigzag or thunderbolt pattern, suggesting vastly elongated versions of the short zigzag pendants adorning the shimenawa (Plate 2c) outside.

       Except in the case of the very smallest shrines, there will also be an oratory building, or worship hall, facing the front of the sanctuary, from which the honden doors and the paraphernalia before them can easily be seen. The rear of this oratory is likely to be furnished, like the visible part of the sanctuary, with tables bearing offerings, or a mirror, or a pair of guardian creatures, and a gohei wand or two. To one side, moreover, there is apt to stand a haraigushi (Plate 2b), or purification wand, again a long slender, upright wooden wand, from whose tip, however, there hang down, like the long tresses of a thick head of hair, innumerable long slender streamers of paper and flax: these rustle audibly when the haraigushi is shaken, with a sound that purifies like droplets of clean fresh rain. And a large, resonant Taiko drum may be standing in patient readiness nearby, as well.

 

Plate 2. Some characteristic Shinto decorative elements.

 

a

 

b

c

 

d

 

 

a. Gohei.

b. Haraigushi.

c. Shimenawa.

d. Tamagushi: sakaki greenery festooned with a gohei strip.

 

       The rest of the oratory, available to accommodate priest and parishioners during services of worship or marriage, of offering or benediction, of kagura, or the like, is largely unoccupied, save for a long pull-rope at the entrance to the oratory, affixed to an annunciatory bell or clapper, beneath which there stands a large collection box, its open top covered by a grate through which offerings can easily be accepted.

       It remains to say a few words about the private shrines people maintain in their homes. These tend to be smallish affairs, bookshelf-sized, maintained on a shelf or two in some quiet niche, nook, or corner of the home, often incorporating a small mirror with small lanterns or candles and sprigs of sakaki tree on either side, and a talisman, if not from the Grand Shrine at Ise, then from some other shrine of personal significance to the household, with depictions of ancillary kamï around it, the whole sometimes covered by a curtain draped before it, and framed under an appropriately diminutive shimenawa. A separate lower shelf, dedicated to the spirits of the forebears of this household, may contain a small box holding memorial tablets of deceased relatives, another mirror, and more such items as the higher shelf holds.

       As a rule, these domestic shrines lack all ostentation. One (or rather three) notable exception(s): the private shrines of the Imperial Family – three of them – opulent, full-size shrines within the Palace grounds. These are: (i) a central shrine, Kashiko-dokoro, dedicated to Ama-terasu, and enshrining a copy of the legendary mirror currently ensconced in the Great Shrine of the Sun Goddess at Ise; (ii) an Ancestral Spirit Sanctuary, Korei-den, which enshrines the divine spirits of all the successive emperors; and (iii) a Sanctuary of the Kamï, Shin-den, which is sacred to all the kamï of heaven and earth.

 

4. Worship

 

       We have already pointed out that the reverent awe that the kamï inspire in humans finds expression in worship, on the one hand, and in the impulse so to care for the kamï that, in gratitude, they will ensure good fortune where otherwise – were they to feel rebuffed, or abandon, or ignored – there might be ill. We should make it clear that no kamï is intentionally good or bad. But a kamï annoyed – like Ama-terasu in the face of her “evil” brother’s heavenly misdeeds – may, out of petulance, engage in actions  inadvertently having calamitous consequences for others – Ama-terasu’s retreat to the cave, for example, deprives all the world of life-giving warmth and light; so one wants to propitiate the kamï, to minimize the chances of their feeling neglected, or becoming polluted, or becoming for whatever other reason upset enough to create what for humans would be havoc. And it is this propitiation that every act of worship, modest or elaborate, in some measure achieves.

 

Plate 3: Shinto wedding  (at Atsuta Jinja, Nagoya; here the enshrined kamï is the fabled sword Kusa Nagi).

 

a

 

b

 

c

 

d

 

e

f

 

 

a. The wedding pair

b. The altar with offerings to the kamï.

c. Priestess performing nuptual Kagura dance.

d. Priestess in her ritual attire.

e. After the ceremony: sake ritually offered to the newlyweds.

f. The wedding offerings ready to shared with the newlyweds.

 

       Among the particular circumstances in a person’s life calling for special such acts of propitiation to help assure good fortune or avoid the lingering consequences of inadvertent bad luck, we may mention marriage (Plate 3), the birth of a child, an impending university entrance or degree examination, an upcoming job interview, moving into a new residence, the inception of a new year, or, for a farmer or anyone in the farmer’s circle, the start of sowing or transplanting or harvest seasons. Worship on these occasions often calls for the assistance or intervention of a priest. Less focused instances of worship, however, can occur practically every day, as people are apt to wish simply to pay their respects to their kamï, so as not, so to speak, to be forgotten.

       Let us watch as a believer engages in a typical such act of daily worship at a shrine. The whole process is quite simple, and relatively brief. Having reached the shrine compound by whatever means of transport was appropriate, our worshipper enters on foot. Passing under the first torii and proceeding along the sandō, its gravel crunching reassuringly underfoot, our worshipper will experience a sense of calm, of neatness, of order, of the heart becoming purified. Upon reaching the ablution spring, our worshipper will pause to cleanse first one hand, by means of spring water poured over it with the help of a special dipper, then the other, and finally the mouth (Plate 4a). Thus purified in body as in heart, our worshipper will pass under the last torii and approach the sanctuary building. There, before the collection box, beneath the cord hanging down from the annunciatory bell or clapper, our worshipper will pause a moment to bow, to jangle the bell or clapper, to toss a coin or two, or a small bill, into the collection box, to bow again slightly, perhaps reciting a silent prayer, and then, bowing twice more, clapping the hands twice at chest level, and making one last parting bow (Plate 4b), turn quietly away, perhaps to visit the shrine kiosk so as to purchase some postcards, or shrine memorabilia, or a tightly wrapped written oracle, before departing the grounds.

 

Plate 4. Pictorial guides to basic worship activities.

 

a

 

b

 

a. How to perform one’s ablutions.

b. How to bow and clap before the kamï.

 

       Even in this simple act of worship, one can already discern three of the four elements indispensable to all more formal worship ceremonies – these are purification, offerings, and prayer; the fourth is symbolic feasting. These elements may be of a modest, simple nature, or may be quite elaborately carried out, all accordingly to the nature of the occasion, for ceremonies can vary enormously in intricacy, from simple daily priestly presentation of offerings to the kamï, to annual festivals with grand processions with elaborate trimmings and thousands of participants. We now take up each of these four indispensable worship elements in turn.

       Purification has as its purpose the removal of all pollution, unrighteousness, or evil that might interfere with the efficacy of worship. In the ordinary purification that precedes the sort of simple daily worship we have just described, it suffices symbolically to rinse hands and mouth with fresh water. On more formal occasions, a priest will recite a prayer of purification in the presence of the person or object to be purified, and then wave a purification wand, or haraigushi, over that person or object. Still more thoroughgoing purification can be accomplished through a special bath, or a period of abstinence. There is even a special rite, known as a “Great Purification,” whereby the whole nation is purified. Yet anyone with any illness, or an open wound, or flowing blood, or recent contact with a dead person, is deemed so incorrigibly polluted that no purification can cleanse them sufficiently to permit them to worship without hopelessly offending the kamï their worship would be focused upon.

       Indicative of the all-important role of the element of offerings is the belief that neglect of this component would render the kamï seriously unhappy, with attendant great misfortune befalling the neglectful worshipper. While an offering may be as simple as the coin or two we have already witnessed being tossed into the offering-box, the offerings prepared in connection with an annual festival at a shrine of great importance can become quite elaborate, with their mode of preparation usually prescribed in exquisite detail in the shrine’s records. Offerings tend to fall under one of four main types: money, as we have seen; food and drink; other material offerings; and offerings of purely symbolic character, many of them modeled after offerings described in the Kojiki.

       More elaborate forms of monetary offerings than the coin or two tossed into an offering-box may take the form of a rather larger sum of money elegantly wrapped up as a gift and offered in exchange for a special service, or as a donation.

       As to food and drink, drink offerings are prepared primarily by the priest of shrine, and consist mainly of water drawn from a sacred well located on the shrine grounds, and of sake, while offerings of food can include rice (which may be cooked or uncooked), fish, seaweed, fruits, vegetables, grain, cakes, and more. Their preparation generally involves the intervention of the shrine’s priest, and includes a special purification ceremony to help ensure that even such potentially hazardous items as raw fish remain ritually clean and unpolluted.

       Other material offerings may include bolts of cloth, jewels, weapons, or paper, or even special white chickens, white horses, or white boars, not killed, but just maintained on the grounds of the shrine to be shown to the kamï from time to time. The monthly showing of a white horse at one of the shrines in Ise is a case in point.

       Among the symbolic offerings we may mention green sprigs of the sacred sakaki tree, as first used in the attempt to lure Ama-terasu out of the cave, often adorned with attached strips of flax and paper; or again, gohei as already mentioned; and also various forms of what appear to be entertainments, such as dances, dramas, wrestling bouts, or archery contests. All of these may be viewed as some sort of invocation to the kamï, inducements to the kamï to come and to accept the monetary, food, drink, and other material offerings.

       The element of prayer, of course, is equally indispensable. There are traditional prayers, the norito, written in classical Japanese, taking the form of beautifully sonorous, rhythmic poetry, and recited by the priests. Some priests may also compose their own prayers, in a style consistent with the traditional ones, for recital in worship services. Depending on the rite of the moment, they might be expressing respect, or offering thanks, or making a plea, or reporting an event of personal significance.

       Finally, there is the element we have not yet seen, the symbolic feasting, the naorai (sacred feast), or “eating together with the kamï,” which concludes any but the simplest Shinto ceremony. In the case of an individual visiting shrine for some more special worship purpose, this feast takes the form of a little cup of sake offered the worshipper by the priest or a priestess at the conclusion of the service; on larger festival worship occasions, there may well be a large communal feast that is offered to all the participants, using parts of the earlier offerings of food and drink, as we will see in more detail in our examination of a matsuri.

       But let us take a moment to identify these elements in the service that take place when a worshipper engages the intermediation of a priest on some special occasion (Plate 5). After the usual self-purifying ablution, the worshipper will make known to the priest the special service required, and present to the priest a small sum of money, ceremonially wrapped, or a relevant material object. This the priest will then purify and place on the offering table, whereupon the worshipper will be taken to the sanctuary, or oratory, there to be seated behind the priest, who, facing the inner sanctuary, recites a prayer and presents an offering, such as a sprig of sakaki, to the kamï. The priest then receives from the kamï a symbolic cup of sake, which the priest in turn offers to the worshipper as symbolic feast.

 

Plate 5. Worship with the mediation of a priest.

 

a

 

b

 

c

d

 

e

f

 

 

a. Priest and worshipper in the oratory.

b. Haraigushi being used as purification tool.

c. The worshipper’s offering (of sakaki) resting on a table before the honden.

d. Use of the gohei to attract the kamï.

e. The worshippers own offerings being offered back to the worshipper.

f. The final ritual sharing of sake.

 

       Daily worship at home, before a domestic shrine, follows a comparable pattern. Hands and mouth are rinsed with water; fresh offerings – perhaps water, or food, or flowers – are set out near the kamï; the worshipper will bow several times toward the shrine, offer a prayer, clap twice, and bow again. Any offerings of food may be removed now, and, as a token of the symbolic feast, incorporated into the next family meal.

       A wholly separate system of rites is connected with the important milestones in the lives of the members of the imperial family, but these, like the rites that only the emperor can perform, are quite beyond the purview of these pages.

 

5. Festivals (matsuri)

 

       The Japanese religious festival known as matsuri, no matter how unabashedly playful, exuberantly uninhibited, and even irreverent it may appear to the casual outside observer, really deserves to be classified as yet another mode of worship. Without a doubt, matsuri are indeed festive occasions. Yet shrines organize them, generally on an annual basis, to mark the passage of a particular milestone in the year or the agricultural cycle, to commemorate an enshrined spirit or the decease of a notable person, to celebrate a seasonal holiday, or to honor a local custom or national tradition. Always there is some religious purpose in view. Rarely, as for example at Ise in conjunction with the centuries-old tradition of renewing the sacred buildings on a twenty-year cycle, matsuri may be timed not annually but in synchronicity with the period of the event-cycle they mark.

       Matsuri share with all the other forms of worship the four basic elements of purification, prayer, offerings, and feast, though in them it is the feast, the festive component, that is the most apparent. But it is a fifth element, one intimately related to – one might even say, serving as underlying motive for – the feasting, but quite absent from any other form of worship, that is the most important: namely the return of the kamï from the protected seclusion of the innermost sanctuary into the open bosom of the community from which the kamï arose. This involves the opening of the inner sanctuary and the removal therefrom of the kamï there enshrined, to be carefully transported to a special cart or palanquin – the mikoshi – therein to reside while being paraded through the streets and, presumably pleasurably, regaled and entertained by the festive activities – floats and parades, bouts of eating and drinking, contests of skill or luck or bravado, performances of music or dance or theater – of the matsuri participants.

       Of course matsuri is therefore also the most dangerous form of worship, by virtue of the breaking of the all-important barriers normally insulating the kamï from the general community. Thus, the rituals of purification at the outset must be far more thorough and elaborate, the presentation of offerings must be far more careful and considered, and the removal and transfer of the kamï from the inner sanctuary – otherwise unheard of! – to the specially prepared mikoshi must be carried out with the utmost ceremonial care. For the least taint by exposure to illness, or blood, or death, or other trace of pollution in air, drink, food, or actions, could have calamitous consequences of unforeseeable character but catastrophic proportions. If all this is done well, however, and if the kamï is pleased with and rejuvenated by his reintroduction to the community and the entertainment this joyride amidst the community provides, he is sure to remain a benevolent spirit during the year ahead.

       Among the matsuri of international renown we may mention Kyoto’s Gion Festival, the August Feast of the Dead, or the Bon festivals. Perhaps less well known abroad, but certainly no less important or impressive, is Takachiho’s Yokagura festival, celebrated each winter, and remembered briefly every evening of the year at the Takachiho Jinja, as we have reported. It is to this festival in particular, and to a Girardian analysis of its religious significance, that the next chapter will be devoted.


First posted 2005.05.18. Last updated 2005.05.21. All rights reserved.