The value of trees

The sacred trees of Ise

The sacred trees of Ise

An article in today’s Guardian entitled Trees Make Our Lives Better in Unquantifiable Ways has appeared in response to news that a company is trying to measure exactly how much urban trees are worth.  As Oscar Wilde said, some people know the price of everything but the value of nothing!


Scientists say that that when human beings see the color green and interact with nature, our bodies manifest chemical and psychological signs of reduced stress. According to an article published on Thursday by CityLab, one Texas company is trying to quantify for cities the dollar amounts that trees are worth in their combined capacities as air-scrubbers, noise-pollution reducers, neighborhood beautifiers and natural stress relievers.

Sacred tree

“Lower cortisol is given off when you see green,” said i-Tree founder David Nowak. “We want to develop an index of how much green you can see from any given point in a city, how your body reacts to it, and what the economic value is.”

Satellite imaging shows that cities with more trees are cooler on average, have less air pollution and – as a result – fewer instances of respiratory-related illnesses. Cooler temperatures mean less energy used in the summer and more trees means higher property values.

All of that aside, and as well-intentioned as Nowak may be, there is something absolutely unquantifiable about the benefits of living near trees.

I should mention, by the way, that I’m not a Nature Person or one of those people who think there’s something wrong with you if you stay inside reading a book all day on a bright, sunny day. In fact, growing up as a black-clad teenage goth in steamy, sun-blasted south Georgia, a bright, sunny day in and of itself was sufficient reason to shelter in place until further notice.

I remember arriving at a friend’s house one spring afternoon with a bouquet of cut flowers. “Look, honey,” I said. “Some nature.”

Nicely wrapped sacred tree on the island of Shiraishi

Nicely wrapped sacred tree on the island of Shiraishi

“Ooh,” she replied, mixing a vodka gimlet, “let me open a window. It’ll be just like we’re hiking.”

And yet, I mentally mark the points of the calendar by what the trees are doing. Maybe it’s from growing up in the south, but there are points in the winter, for instance, when I swear that I can feel the iron-hard, frozen branches of the old oaks in my bones. In spring, I feel the nervous, itchy excitement of buds aching to open.

I love to visit New York City, New Orleans, London and other electric, fast-moving cities, but after about a week or so, all the noise and the grimness and the gray concrete and stone all start to get to me. I begin to ache to run loose in the woods like when I was a kid, in the long, free hours between the end of school and dinner. Back then I learned to tell time by the angle of sunlight slanting through the pines. I can still smell rain 24 hours before it comes in the soil around their roots.

Maybe it’s that trees live so much longer than we do. Maybe it’s that nothing ever seems to bother them enough to make them yank up their roots and leave, but even now, as an adult, there are times when my thinking gets too sped-up and scrambled and I need to wander into the woods behind my house, shimmy up a tree and sit in its branches. Up there, I can slow down my ricocheting mind, breathe in that sweet, green smell and just think long, slow thoughts.

I challenge all the legions of bean-counting accountants in the world to put a dollar value to that. I don’t think you can.

Money offerings - but this tree's not for sale!

Money offerings – but this tree’s not for sale!

Sacred tree dressed up in its best finery

Sacred tree dressed up in its best finery


Trees are a natural treasure

Earth Day 2016

Happy_Earth_Day_2010_by_trunks1z-1024x640Earth Day is an annual day on April 22 to heighten awareness of the need for environmental protection. The April 22 date was adopted by the United Nations in 2009 and is celebrated in more than 192 countries. The concept was first put forward by John McConnell in 1969 at a UNESCO Conference in San Francisco. It was later sanctioned in a Proclamation signed by Secretary General U Thant at the United Nations.

It’s a day when all of humankind can come together in celebration and concern for this remarkable ‘little rock’ on which we are hurtling through space. It’s a weird thought, as Alan Watts, put it, to think of ourselves rotating around the sun on a planet so green and blue. And the more one thinks about it, the more one feels inclined to offer gratitude for the wonder of existence.

The eco-system that sustains us is delicate and fragile. It behooves all of us to treat it with care and not to take it for granted. The predations of modern consumerism need to be regulated and converted into sustainable lifestyles that are not based on selfishness, shortsightedness and greed. Earth Day is a reminder to us of our responsibilities to the future.

Earth Day is something one feels that Shinto should be backing whole-heartedly.  It’s international rather than national. It’s environmental rather than political.  It’s concerned with the future rather than the past.  Celebrating the sacredness of the world we live in is a first step towards rectifying our abysmal treatment of the environment.

Nature-based religions like Shinto surely have the potential to help humanity reclaim respect towards the planet as the mother from which we all emerge. You’ll often see the Japanese flag flying at Shinto shrines: let us dream of a day when they’re replaced with Whole Earth flags and, to borrow John Lennon’s phrase, ‘the world can be as one.’

Harmony of man and nature

Harmony of man and nature


Gratitude for the blessings of nature should be a fundamental part of human consciousness

Anime mythology

koji2012In 2012, to celebrate the 1200th anniversary of Kojiki (712), NHK commissioned a version of the Hyuga cycle of myths, central to the putative descent of the imperial line from heaven.

The animator is award-winning Koji Yamamura, born 1964. He studied painting at Tokyo Zokei University, and his short films have been shown in over 30 countries.  He is currently sub-chairman of the Japan Animation Association (JAA) and visiting professor at various art colleges.

The subtitled short film gives a succinct and rather charming overview of the central Kojiki myths from the time of Izanagi, Izanami and the creation of Japan.  Following this comes the death of Izanami, the pollution of Izanagi as he defies taboo to visit her, and the subsequent birth of Amaterasu, Susanoo and Tsukunomikoto representing sun, sea-storm and moon.

The story then focusses on Susanoo’s bad behaviour and the resulting retreat of Amaterasu into the famous Rock Cave.  Following the festival to lure her out, light is restored and Susanoo expelled.  The narrative thereafter centres on Ninigi no mikoto, who descends to earth and marries the blossom princess, Konohanasakuya (called here Flowering Tree).

The children of Ninigi and his bride are known as Umisachi and Yamasachi, who harvest from the sea and from the mountains respectively.  Following a quarrel over a fishing hook, Yamasachi spends three years at the palace of the Sea God and marries his daughter, Toyotama.  Aided by the Sea God, he returns to confront his brother, who yields to him. (Though not mentioned in the anime, Yamasachi’s real name was Hikohohodemi no mikoto, grandfather of legendary Emperor Jimmu and thereby an imperial ancestor.)

The Hyuga cycle of myths can be viewed here.  Set aside 12 minutes to take a look – you may find it educational as well as entertaining.

Izanagi undergoes the primal misogi which led to the birth of Amaterasu, Susanoo and Tsukuyomi no mikoto from his facial orifices (nose and eyes)

Izanagi undergoes the primal misogi which led to the birth of Amaterasu, Susanoo and Tsukuyomi no mikoto from his facial orifices (nose and eyes)

Korean culture hero


Korean shaman ceremony, complete with drum, birds on poles (tori-i), and a ‘doutoku’ bell hung from a tree branch. Japan’s earliest rituals might have been very similar.


Green Shinto has long been fascinated by the shared religion of Korea and Japan.  A few years ago, while investigating the rock worship that stretches along the Inland Sea via Kyushu and Tsujima into the Korean peninsula, I was privileged to meet an enthusiastic investigator of Korea’s mountain spirit – Sanshin.  It is therefore with great pleasure that we are able to announce an interesting new publication by David that might well reveal more of the shared cultural history that these close neighbours have in common.



First Book in English on Korea’s Greatest Culture-Hero

Author David Mason on one of the dozens of tours he has led over the years


SEOUL, KOREA, April 18— Long-time international scholar of Korea’s traditional culture and Green Shinto friend, David Mason, has published his tenth book, Solitary Sage: The Profound Life, Wisdom and Legacy of Korea’s “Go-un” Choi Chi-won. This is a complete biography and legacy-evaluation of Choi Chi-won (857-?), one of Korea’s most interesting and iconic historical figures. It is academic quality yet also readable for the public, and includes over a hundred great photos.

“Go-un” or Lonely Cloud, known by Koreans for a millennium simply as the Great Sage, is considered a primary ancestral-hero of traditional Korean Daoist, Buddhist and Confucian culture, of Oriental literature, education and diplomacy. Following a remarkably successful career as a brilliant Confucian government official in Tang China and then back in his native Shilla Kingdom, he became a wandering historian of Korean Buddhism and then was one of few Koreans who achieved the highest level of Daoist sage-hood, achieving “Spirit-Immortal” status rather than dying. He is claimed as a key progenitor of Korea’s Daoism, Confucianism and the 2-million-strong Gyeongju Choi Clan (now the 4th-largest Korean family-name, with hundreds of famous descendants; this book describes the dozen most important ones before 1900).

There are almost a hundred sites all around South Korea that claim association with him – that he was present there and accomplished some spiritual feat, or presenting veneration of his lofty reputation; many are now utilized as cultural tourist sites. This book presents a chart of them all, and descriptions, discussions and photos of most of them. The ancient background of his august clan, and Korean Confucianism and Daoism, are fully included to provide rich context.

Choi Chi-won has a tremendous legacy-significance to several contemporary issues of Korea, including its international “brand-image” & self-promotion, its diplomacy and relations with China (he was quoted by President Xi to President Park at their first summit!), government policy, tourism offerings and national identity – these are all presented in the book and can be discussed by the author in interviews.

It has long been difficult for scholars to separate the folklore myths and legends about the Solitary Sage’s life from the solid facts, and make a coherent story out of them – this volume does so in English for the first time. Every Korean knows his name, and he is in all the school textbooks on history and literature; and over a thousand books have been published about him and his legacy in Korean, and a hundred or so in Japanese & Chinese – but this is the first real one to be done in English – this factor itself is interesting to note, in recognizing that this is an important new publication in the Korean Studies field. It has been independently published.


David Mason

David Mason strikes a pose in a throne of desiccated branches

David A. Mason is a Professor of Korean Public Service at Chung-Ang University, Seoul Campus, and a longtime researcher on the religious characteristics of Korea’s mountains.  He earned a Masters’ Degree in the History of Korean Religions from Yonsei University in 1997, and was appointed the Honorary Ambassador of the Baekdu-daegan mountain-ranges by the Korean government in 2011. Mason has authored and edited ten books on Korean culture and tourism, including Spirit of the Mountains about Korea’s traditions of spiritual mountain-worship (which won the national award as “book of the year on Korea” in 2000), and the English Encyclopedia of Korean Buddhism. He has published many articles in academic journals and popular magazines, leads many group-tours in Korea, and has frequently been interviewed on various media, on many topics.

His webpage is:

The book is available in 4 digital and E-book versions, at:

Reviewers can get a free hardcover copy by mail within Korea, simply by contacting the author. Reviewers outside of Korea are requested to download and the publisher will repay the cost, by PayPal or etc.

Kyushu earthquake

The following is reposted from Trellia’s Mirror Book, run by pagan-Shintoist Megan Manson.  Green Shinto would like to acknowledge and thank her for putting out this appeal.

Aso Shrine, one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan, located in Kumamoto. The tower gate in this picture has now been destroyed by the earthquake. By Reggaeman, CC / Wikimedia Commons

Kumamoto, a prefecture in Japan’s southwest island of Kyushu, was struck by a magnitude 6.2 earthquake on April 14th. This was followed by a second earthquake on April 16th of magnitude 7.3. Concern is also growing regarding the possibility of landslides as heavy rain has been forecast, as well as increased activity at Mt Aso, Japan’s largest volcano, which is located in Kumamoto.

At time of writing information about the scale of the destruction is still unfolding, but we do know that dozens have died, hundreds are injured and hundreds more have had to evacuate. We also know that there are still victims trapped under rubble. It’s the biggest disaster to hit Japan since the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

I think it’s safe to say that everyone in the international Shinto community has a strong connection with Japan, and we are all feeling shocked and saddened by this disaster. I am feeling particularly upset because I know Kumamoto well. I lived there as an exchange student for one year, having incredible experiences and making life-long friends in the process. And like many people all over the world, I want to help.

If you would like to donate towards rescue and relief efforts in Kumamoto, these are some of the organisations that are currently assisting, or ready to assist, in the area:

Finally, I would like to offer a prayer for the people of Kumamoto. Please do feel free to offer your own prayers, energy and thoughts, according to your own personal practice and traditions.

Great Kami-sama, I offer this prayer for all people affected by the earthquakes in Kumamoto.

I pray for those who have lost their lives, and the loved ones they leave behind – may they find strength at this most difficult time.

I pray for all those who are injured – please protect them and help them recover.

I pray for everyone who is suffering from the loss of their homes and basic amenities, and from the trauma and fear resulting from this disaster – please keep them safe and let help reach them swiftly, so they may continue with their lives.

With the greatest reverence, I humbly speak these words. Kashikomi kashikomi mo mōsu.

Sugawara no Michizane

Children stroke the ox at Kitano Tenmangu, a symbol of Sugawara no Michizane since according to tradition the animal pulling his funeral cart insisted on his burial place by refusing to move any further.

Children stroke the ox at Kitano Tenmangu, a symbol of Sugawara no Michizane since according to tradition the animal pulling his funeral cart insisted on his burial place by refusing to move any further.

Sugawara no Michizane was a courtier who fell from grace and in so doing became Japan’s second most popular deity, known as Tenjin.  How come?  Writing in today’s Japan Times, Michael Hoffman relates the story in graphic fashion in his coverage of the Heian Period (794-1187):

Sugawara scroll

Hanging scroll of Sugawara at a Tenmangu shrine

Power at the time, and throughout Heian, was wielded by a branch of the great Fujiwara family. Emperors, mere children, were almost always Fujiwara grandsons or sons-in-law; their abdication before coming of age was a matter of course; a Fujiwara “regent” ruled behind the scenes. The system was rocked by Emperor Uda, a rare adult and non-Fujiwara claimant to the throne who, determined to rule as well as reign, appointed Sugawara, the leading scholar of the day, a poet prodigiously learned in the Chinese classics, as his chief counselor.

The Fujiwaras were undone! Well, not quite. They could have murdered Sugawara; a vicious civil war could have erupted — but this is Heian, and nothing of the sort even threatened. Sugawara instead was falsely charged with treason and, tears his only resistance, packed off to exile in remote Kyushu, where he died of “a broken heart.”

The end? No. A series of disasters in the capital terrorized the Fujiwara into striving to placate the supposedly furious spirit of this docile, feckless man who in life had been putty in their hands. Promoted above mortality itself, Sugawara was made a deity — the god of literature and calligraphy, worshiped, Morris tells us, by more devotees down the ages than any other Japanese god except Hachiman — the god of war.

The deification of Sugawara thus owes itself to the notion of ‘hungry ghosts’, a concept imported from China to denote spirits who carry the unfulfilled desires of the living into the next life.  In Taoism ‘hungry ghosts’ were said to occur when people had died unhappily or violently.  Sugawara’s broken heart through being exiled from the shining imperial capital is clearly a case in point.  The resentment he was presumed to have built up in life was expressed posthumously by his vengeful spirit, here related by Wikipedia:

In the years after his death, the capital city was struck by heavy rain and lightning, and his chief Fujiwara adversary and Emperor Daigo’s crown prince died, while fires caused by lightning and floods destroyed many of residences. The court drew the conclusion that the disturbances were caused by Michizane’s angry spirit. In order to placate him, the emperor restored all his offices, burned the official order of exile, and he was promoted to Senior Second Rank. Even this wasn’t enough, and 70 years later he was elevated to the post of prime minister, and he was deified as Tenjin-sama, which means “heavenly deity”. He became the patron god of calligraphy, of poetry and of those who suffer injustice.

The Japanese term for such hungry or angry spirits is onryō (or goryō for those from the aristocratic class).  The earliest examples date back to the eighth century, and rituals were performed to pacify their spirit, both Buddhist and Shinto.  Another way of calming angry spirits was to hold a festival (called goryo-e) and to put on various kinds of entertainment.  The earliest record of such a festival is 863, and in Heian times a number of goryo gods were identified for whom annual festivals were held.  Around Kyoto they still are, most notably at Shimogoryo Shrine where eight vengeful spirits are enshrined.

There are theories of religion that the origin of all supernatural belief lies in the deep desire of humans to think that death is not the end.  The belief in the continuation of the human spirit is an immensely powerful force, and ancestral ties in Japan are particularly strong.  For Lafcadio Hearn Japanese religion was not only fundamentally ancestral in essence, but the dead had such a grip on the national psyche that they were the real rulers of the country.   Sugawara no Michizane’s continuing hold on the popular imagination might be considered a case in point.


For more about Kitano Tenmangu, click here and here.  For more about Sugawara and Dazaifu, click here.


Sugiwara no Michizane ema at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine in Kyoto. His spirit is closely connected with scholarship and exam success, making the ema immensely popular at times of entrance exams.


Shrine dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane next to Kyoto’s Gosho (Former Imperial Palace), which stands on the site of his father’s palace where he would have grown up.


Water spout at the shrine above, memorialising the ox that determined his burial place at Dazaifu in Kyushu (Dazaifu Tenmangu marks the spot)


A stubborn ox bathing in the sunshine.  The custom (as in the top picture) is to stroke it on the part of the body ailing you in order to heal or strengthen it.  People often rub the head too for greater mental power.

Zen and Shinto 13 Fusion


This and all subsequent photos by Ferdinand Liefert

Look at the picture above.  Is it a Zen garden with raked sand and rocks arranged in an enigmatic pattern to represent islands in an ocean of nothingness?  Or is it a Shinto circle of ‘iwakura’ (sacred rocks), such as are found along the Inland Sea where ancestral ‘gods’ gather for discussion?

Now let’s take a look at another picture, below, featuring two simple objects.  One is a blue happi, adorned with the triple tomoe of Shinto with the kanji for matsuri.  It’s typically worn by participants at Shinto festivals, such as the saké-fuelled men who carry the mikoshi (portable shrine.  In front of it is container of four parts used for food – rice, soup, pickles and vegetable.  It’s characteristic of Zen, used by monks in training when they eat a minimum of nutritious food while doing zazen meditation.  Food and festival – meditation and procession.  Are the two exhibits complementary or in conflict?

happi and container

The combining of Zen and Shinto here comes surprisingly not from Japan – but Germany.  It’s from an intriguing creation by Johann Radeloff which Green Shinto reader Ferdinand Liefert came across in northern Germany.  He writes:

I visited a quite unique place called Mitsuko castle, where the artist Heinrich Johann Radeloff created a space, where German and Japanese culture meet. So do Zen and Shinto, there!  Heinrich Johann Radeloff has been a professor in Kyoto for many years and his wife is a descendant of the Tokugawa family. In this “castle”, which is more a kind of mansion, they display a variety of Japanese and German cultural goods.

Inside, one can also find gifts from the Daitoku-ji and an installation created by Mr. Radeloff, which is nothing else but a shrine. Outside one can find the German-Japanese-grove, where one can also find a mixture of Japanese and Western cultural influences. E.g., there are torii standing in the grove, also one can find a rock garden or stones from slavic stones.

The website for Schloss Mitsuko, which is in German, reveals that the castle was built in 2001 near Teterow in Mecklenburg.  The originator, Johann Radeloff, was born in 1931 and was active in Kyoto from 1964 until around the end of the century.  From what he writes, I take it that he practised zazen and was inspired in his art by Japanese aesthetics.  The building was once a manor house, and the garden has been converted into a grove is described as a symbiotic combination of Japanese  elements with the local landscape and nature.   It has since become a cultural exchange centre, housing Japanese-German art exhibitions and concerts.

In his fusion of Zen and Shinto, Radeloff has captured much of the essence of traditional Japanese spirituality.  The beauty of form, the harmony with nature, and the treasuring of transience lie at its core.  In his conversion of a German mansion into a Zen-Shinto fusion, Radeloff has produced a work that is at once artistic and spiritual.  It’s a fitting tribute to the genius of traditional Japan.


With thanks to Ferdinand Liefert for drawing attention to this project.

Castle Mitsuko, converted from a German manor

Castle Mitsuko, converted from a German manor

Zen hangings DSCI0553 DSCI0563

incompleted torii

An unfinished torii, expression of the Japanese aesthetic of mikansei (incompleteness), the suggestion being that the project will be on-going in the search for perfection.


Izanagi and Izanami, the Adam and Eve of Japan

Izanagi and Izanami, the Adam and Eve of Japan?

My attention was caught recently by an article in the conservative leaning Daily Yomiuri by a Japanese professor at Waseda University.  It asked the question about when the Japanese became Japanese.  The answer he gave, interestingly, is constructed by myth.

The assertion that the Kojiki and Nihongi were ‘artificial myths’ collected as part of a nation-building policy by the Yamato clan is hardly new.  Nor is the claim that they served to legitimise the emperor and keep the ruling family in power.  However, the idea that Ookuninushi was originally the main Yamato deity rather than an Izumo god is an interesting viewpoint, which effectively torpedoes the notion of Amaterasu having been the imperial ancestor since ancient times.

The professor’s theory suggests that after an Izumo ruler called Ohonamochi ceded his country to the Yamato, the people of Izumo began to worship the Yamato deity, Okuninushi (the main kami at Izumo Taisha).  The rulers of Yamato subsequently invented a new myth for themselves, that of descent from Amaterasu.

It’s an intriguing assertion and might be considered radical for a conservative paper.  However, there is one key sentence worth noting in what the professor says…   “the artificial national myth preserves the traces of myths that had been passed down from older generations around the Japanese islands.”

Those older local myths are the ones the common people lived by before the artificial national myth was constructed.  It is there that folk Shinto, as opposed to imperial Shinto, has its roots.  It is in those older local myths that I believe the true heart of Japan resides.


Myth of  Kojiki: When Did We Become Japanese?

Naoki Matsumoto
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University


According to its preface, the Kojiki was completed in 712 A.D. What did the creation of Kojiki mean to the Japanese islands? I will reconsider this question through the myth shown in its first volume.

O no Yasumaro, the man who compiled the Kojiki (Muromachi Period statue, pic by Michael Lambe)

O no Yasumaro, the man who compiled the Kojiki (Muromachi Period statue, pic by Michael Lambe)

The Kojiki (in 3 volumes) and the Nihon Shoki (in 30 volumes, completed in 720) are the national histories of the Yamato dynasty whose compilation was allegedly ordered by Emperor Temmu, who ascended to the throne in 672. There seem to be two background factors behind the issuance of those national histories from the late 7th century to the early 8th century: the position of the Yamato dynasty in the East Asian world, and domestic politics.

Simply put, the issuance was part of the process of recognizing their own national identity and declaring it both domestically and internationally. It was a time when new nation building was in progress by declaring independence from the vassal relationship with China, adopting their own era names starting from Taika, the country name Nippon and the title name Tenno (Emperor), and establishing their own legal system, called Ritsuryo, based on the law of an old Chinese dynasty called Tang. Those who seek to build a new nation need to establish a national history that explains their own origin and legitimacy, and this should be a matter of common sense throughout the world.

Why do Kojiki and Nihon Shoki incorporate myths?

The first volume of Kojiki and the first and second volumes of Nihon Shoki describe Kamuyo, or the time of gods. This part is generally called Kiki Shinwa (the myths of Kojiki and Nihon Shoki) or Shindaishi (a history of the time of gods).

From the creation of the universe to Izanaki and Izanami creating a new country, the supreme goddess Amaterasu hiding inside a rock hut, Susanowo exterminating a monster serpent, Ookuninushi-no-Mikoto building a new country and handing it over to the descendants of gods, the descendants of gods falling onto the country, and the birth of the first emperor Jinmu, this part is organized in the form of a history progressing in chronological order. In so doing, it explains the origin and legitimacy of the Yamato dynasty.

This is, to put it very briefly, an artificial myth of extremely political nature stating that the power of the great goddess Amaterasu was vital to the world and this is the reason why her descendants had to descend to the country to be its king (in order to differentiate traditional folk myths and intentionally created myths, we will call the latter myths).

Why, incidentally, did both Kojiki and Nihon Shoki place this long Kamuyo part before the first emperor, instead of starting the history from him? In the past, there were a number of small village communities around the Japanese islands. Each community had its own myth narrating the origin of the village, and the myths worked as a social rule to maintain the community.

For such communities, the myths were past facts that undoubtedly existed with the ability to shape everything from the life and death of the people, to what the society looked like. Therefore, even if these types of myths look similar to other sorts of fiction, their nature is fundamentally different from stories that are told in the past tense and the indirect form such as “I heard that there was a man in the past” or old tales that do not specify a location like “once upon a time, in a certain place.” I believe that the Yamato dynasty attempted to claim their origin and legitimacy by taking advantage of the power of myths.


The back of the 26th leaf, Kojiki, Vol. 1, the Kan’ei version (owned by the author)
The third to sixth lines describe that Ookuninushi-no-Mikoto had five names in total. After this part, this god overcomes numerous hardships to become literally Ookuninushi, or the great master of the country.

The cover of Kojiki, Vol. 1, the Kan’ei version (owned by the author)
Published in 1644. The basic text of Kojiki in the early modern age. Kada no Azumamaro and Kamo no Mabuchi also learnt Kojiki with this text.

How to create a new myth: Ookuninushi-no-Mikoto, etc.
In the myth of Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, many gods that the people and clans around the country believed in appear, including Susanowo, Ohonamuchi, and other gods in the area of the Izumo myth. According to Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, Ohonamuchi is another name for the well-known Ookuninushi-no-Mikoto. Curiously enough, Ookuninushi-no-Mikoto only appears in Kojiki, Nihon Shoki, and books that are apparently under their influence. I consider that he was probably a god created by the Yamato dynasty and originally did not exist in Izumo.

Kojiki says that Ookuninushi-no-Mikoto had four other names, and Nihon Shoki mentions his six bynames. As the name of a god represents the character or function of the god in question, each byname means a god who was originally a distinct one. In other words, the myth of the Yamato dynasty consolidated multiple individual gods to craft a single god under the name of the great country master.

This god claimed the legitimacy of the Yamato dynasty for their control over this land by holding that the god handed over the country to the descendant of gods as a stable country master. But even so, why was the legitimacy explained in such a complicated manner? It is obviously a roundabout way in terms of the subject of the myth that “the power of Amaterasu was., so her descendants did.,” as mentioned above. Why was Amaterasu not made the one and absolute god to undertake the whole process to the establishment of the nation?

The answer is that such a roundabout way was a means of managing to establish Shindaishi as a myth. Suppose that you wrote a new myth from scratch. How persuasive could it be? Who would be convinced by facing, one day almost suddenly, a myth that is only full of strange stories with gods that people believe from generation to generation found nowhere in those stories, and being told that this is the national myth of the Yamato dynasty and you must live according to it from this day forward? If myths had no power, it would be meaningless for Kojiki and Nihon Shoki to incorporate myths. This was why those histories needed to have local gods.

People can only believe in myths if they contain gods that they have believed in and stories that they have heard from the old people in their village. The Yamato dynasty probably created the myth of the nation as a quasi-community by leveraging local faith and myths to maintain the power of myth that defines how a community should be. Viewed from the reverse angle, it means that the artificial national myth preserves the traces of myths that had been passed down from older generations around the Japanese islands.


Inasa no Obama, or the Little Beach of Inasa (photo by the author)
Ookuninushi-no-Mikoto allegedly swore to hand over the country at this place, just near the Izumo Taisha shrine, Izumo City, Shimane Prefecture.



Myths represent the ideology of the people who believe them. A variety of myths that existed around the Japanese islands were gathered to create the myth as a national ideology, and this myth in turn spread around the islands gradually. The Records of Izumo Province [Izumo-no-kuni Fudoki] established in 733, for example, describes Ohonamochi handing over the country to the descendants of gods, and the Izumo Taisha shrine started deifying Ookuninushi-no-Mikoto sometime later. This means that Izumo embraced the myth of the Yamato dynasty. Izumo became Japan, and the people in Izumo became Japanese at this point.

It is not easy to answer the questions of what Japan is and when the Japanese culture started to exist, but I suppose that the ancient myth and myths imply a clue to solve them.


Okuninushi, perhaps the true maker of the land of Japan, here featured in the tale of the hare of Inaba.

Onbashira Festival (Nagano)

Shinto devotees cling to giant sliding logs in Nagano shrine ritual
 JiJi / Japan Times April 3, 2016

A tree-felling ritual, the climax of the famed Onbashira Shinto festival held every six years, began in Suwa, Nagano Prefecture, on Sunday. A giant fir tree log about 17 meters long and weighing about 10 tons, was slid down a steep hill as several male worshipers hung on to it in the kiotoshi ceremony.

A total of eight logs were to be used in the two-day ritual. They will later be erected at the four corners of the two main buildings at the Kamisha branches of Suwa Taisha Shrine next month.

Another kiotoshi event is scheduled over a three-day stretch starting Friday for eight other logs to be used at the shrine’s Shimosha branches.

Zen and Shinto 12: Martial Connections


A Kendo contest held at Kashihara Jingu

Brian Victoria, author of Zen at War, recently gave a talk in Kyoto about Zen terrorism in the 1930s. Brian is a Soto Zen priest, and his book has been hugely influential – as well as controversial.   The book focuses on Japanese militarism from the time of the Meiji Restoration through the Second World War and the post-War period. It describes the influence of state policy on Buddhism in general, and particularly the influence on Zen which eagerly supported the military in its war of aggression. A famous quote is from a leading Zen figure, Harada Daiun Sogaku: “[If ordered to] march: tramp, tramp, or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest Wisdom [of Enlightenment]. The unity of Zen and war of which I speak extends to the farthest reaches of the holy war.”

While reading about Brian Victoria’s book in an article in Japan Focus, I came across the following passage, which suggests a very conscious effort by Zen leaders to assimilate with Shinto in the Edo Period.  It was a time of Kokugaku, when Nativists such as Motoori Norinaga were increasingly influential:

In the Edo period [1600-1867] Zen priests such as Shidō Bunan [1603-1676], Hakuin [1685-1768], and Torei [1721-1792] attempted to promote the unity of Zen and Shinto by emphasizing Shinto’s Zen-like features. While this resulted in the further assimilation of Zen into Japan, it occurred at the same time as the establishment of the power of the emperor system. Ultimately this meant that Zen lost almost all of its independence.


It seems then that the desire of leading Zen practitioners to align themselves with the Shinto cause brought identification with the nationalism of figures like Motoori (a noted China hater), which was exploited by Meiji leaders in formulating a State Shinto ideology aimed at bolstering the authority of the emperor they controlled.  Acting on behalf of the nation was seen as an act of glorious self-sacrifice, by which the individual ego was sacrificed for the will of the emperor.  It was an ideology to which both Zen and Shinto assented.

It is perhaps not coincidental then that both Zen and Shinto have been closely related to the development of martial arts.  Zen was embraced by the warrior class, who took to its concern with mindfulness, self-discipline, and transcending the fear of death.  Shinto was similarly allied to  martial arts, not surprisingly given that ancient clan kami stood at the forefront of military conflict.  The whole Yamato conquest was fuelled after all by notion of divine legitimacy.  The swords that samurai treasured were imbued with animist spirit and buried with them.

When one thinks about it, there’s a military precision to the rituals of both Shinto and Zen.  Anyone who has stayed overnight at a Zen temple will have noticed the emphasis on obeying orders, marching in line, and correctness in all things.  Similarly those who have seen ceremonies at large Shinto shrines will have noticed the orderliness with which priests walk in file, the attention to detail in their rituals, and the hierarchical nature of the ranking.

It seems then that the military connection provides a key to understanding the commonality of Zen and Shinto.  For those of us in the peace camp, it gives much to be concerned about.  When I spoke to Brian Victoria about this, he suggested that the problem lay in the interaction of State and Religion.  Regardless of the leanings of a particular religion, when it becomes allied to the State through seeking patronage and protection, it necessarily becomes a servant of State in times of war.  Christianity has done it, Islam has done it, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism have done it.  Perhaps there then lies the lesson in all this, and perhaps the hermit tradition of Daoism is the perfect response!



Sword skills displayed at Shimogamo Jinja


Zabuton cushions laid out in a Zen temple meditation room. Each monk is allotted one tatami and small cupboard space, similar to life in a barracks.


Obeisance lies at the heart of Shinto – and Zen


Shaved heads and lined up in a straight row…


Priests parading in single file are a common sight at Shinto ceremonies.

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