Hearn 16): Family worship

Hearn was an agnostic, but he had a sympathetic interest in Buddhism and Shinto as his writings attest.  In an 1893 letter to his friend, Basil Hall Chamberlain, he wrote once of the daily cycle of life in his extended family (along with his wife, Setsuko, the author at one time supported as many as nine people including children, relatives and servants).

Buddhism and Shinto were formally severed by the Meiji government of 1868, though it’s evident that in people’s hearts the religions continued to be fused as one. This is clear too from the daily reverence to buddhas and kami shown in Hearn’s household, and it’s notable how integral the religious worship was to his family life. One striking feature is that particular attention is paid to hotoke in the morning and kami in the evening (I would have expected the exact opposite!). What’s interesting too is the localised nature, whereas the Meiji government was all about imposing centralisation and regularisation.

The following extract is taken from Wandering Ghost by Jonathan Cott, p. 316.  (Curved brackets are Hearn’s words), [square brackets are mine].



Morning 6am – The little alarm clock rings…   The servants enter, prostrate themselves, and say good morning to the danna-sama [master], and proceed to open the to [door]. Meanwhile, in the other chambers the little oil lamps have been lighted before the tablets of the ancestors, and the buddhist (not the Shinto) deities – and prayers are being said, and offerings to the ancestors made. (Spirits are not supposed to eat the food offered them, – only to absorb some of its living essence, therefore the offerings are very small.) Already the old men are in the garden, saluting the rising sun, and clapping their hands, and murmuring the Izumo prayers.

[Description of his daily life follows, leaving for work, then lunch, bath hour, supper.]

As evening wanes, the turn of the Kami-sama comes. During the day, they receive their usual offerings, but it is at night the special prayers are made. The little lamps are lighted, and each of the family in turn, except myself, say the prayers and pay reverence. These prayers are always said standing, but those to the hotoke [Buddhist dead] are said kneeling. Some of the prayers are said for me. I was never asked to pay but once – when there was grief in the house; and then I prayed to the Gods, repeating the Japanese words one by one as they were told to me. The little lamps of the Kami are left to burn themselves out. All wait for me to give the signal of bed-time, – unless I am so absorbed in writing as to forget the hour…



Imperial Rescript of 1890

There are moves in certain ruling circles to reintroduce the Imperial Rescript on Education of 1890, which became one of the pillars of State Shinto before the war. It’s a complex issue, and Green Shinto friend Shaun O’Dwyer recently wrote an article for the Japan Times explaining the historical background. The following is an abridged version of the original article.

(Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the School of Languages and Cultures, Kyushu University, and is completing a book on the prospects for modern Confucianism.)

FUKUOKA – The Imperial Rescript on Education, a short founding document of modern Japanese nationalism first issued to Japan’s schools by the Education Ministry in 1890 and banned from official use in 1948, has been in the news lately. There has been a scandal over Osaka school operator Moritomo Gakuen’s questionable dealings with government officials to get a sweetheart deal on state land for a new school. There were shocking revelations about the anti-Chinese and anti-Korean xenophobia of the operators. Yet for conservative nationalists like Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, the reaction to the latter revelation was “what’s so bad about the Imperial Rescript anyway?”

Reading of the Imperial Rescript at morning assembly in school

While liberal newspapers have underlined its affiliations with the pre-1945 emperor-centered State Shintoism, it is also a strikingly Confucian document. Emperor Meiji exhorts his subjects to practice the morality associated with the “five human relations” of the ancient Confucian text the “Mencius”: to be filial to parents, affectionate to siblings, true to friends, harmonious as spouses and so forth. And the Emperor speaks of his subjects “ever united in filial piety and loyalty,” two cardinal Confucian virtues. Conservatives have affirmed these homely moral elements of the rescript, arguing that the “spirit of the rescript” merely aims to make Japan a moral nation.

Historical background: ‘Kokutai’
The idea of the kokutai, or national polity, was originally developed by Mito Academy scholars in the early 19th century. Reinterpreting old Shinto myths of an unbroken, single line of emperors stretching back to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, the Mito scholars wrote of how Japan could be united in loyalty and filial piety through rites-based veneration for ancestors and for the emperor.

In such rites the emperor filially venerates his ancestors and the Sun Goddess herself, and the people filially venerate their ancestors, who had themselves loyally served and venerated the emperor’s ancestors. The kokutai was a ritual-political order in which the people united in filial piety and loyalty under the emperor without the need for force.

The Meiji Constitution, also enacted in 1890, invokes the sacredness of the emperor and his ancestors, comprising the “line of emperors, unbroken for ages eternal”. This all looks conservative and weirdly mythical, but it need not have led to fascism. To understand why, we need to introduce another Meiji era intellectual largely forgotten today, but who towered over early 20th century Japanese scholarly and educational life; Tetsujiro Inoue, a professor of philosophy at the University of Tokyo.

Tetsujiro Inoue, 1855-1944

Tetsujiro Inoue
Inoue was a competent scholar and a very able propagandist. In 1891, under the direction of the Education Ministry he wrote a highly influential school textbook commentary for the Imperial Rescript on Education, and he would write much more on behalf of the ministry in coming decades.

Inoue helped rally public opinion against dissenters who “endangered the kokutai”; a Christian school teacher who did not bow before a copy of the rescript in a school ceremony in 1890, or historians who publicly questioned the veracity of the “eternal, unbroken imperial line”, intimidating them into silence.

He helped theorize a “national morality” unique to Japan, which the rescript supposedly expressed in compressed form. This national morality was cobbled together from his notions of an indigenous bushido morality, a Japanized Confucianism, Buddhism and German philosophical ideas of “national spirit” or “volksgeist.”

Ideas like this would go on to become the common sense of the more extreme nationalism and imperialism that prevailed in the 1930s. Japan’s superior, unique national morality was believed to entitle it to a position of moral leadership over other Asian countries. As Japanese armies rampaged through China, Inoue asserted that Japan’s moral mission there was to help the Chinese recover their true national morality — Confucianism — under Japanese tutelage.

– by Shaun O’Dwyer Japan Times 20/3/2017.

Hearn 15): Mt Daisen


A stupendous ghost!

Looking eastward from the great bridge over those sharply beautiful mountains, green and blue, which tooth the horizon, I see a glorious spectre towering to the sky. Its base is effaced by far mists: out of the air the things would seem to have shaped itself, – a phantom cone, diaphonously gray below, vaporously white above, with a dream of perpetual snow, – the mighty mountain of Daisen.

At the first approach of winter it will in one night become all blanched from foot to crest; and then its snowy pyramid so much resembles that Sacred Mountain, often compared by poets to a white inverted fan, half opened, hanging in the sky, that it is called Izumo-Fuji, ‘the Fuji of Izumo’. But it is really in Hoki, not in Izumo, though it cannot be seen from any part of Hoki to such advantage as from here. It is the one sublime spectacle of this charming land; but it is visible only when the air is very pure. Many are the marvelous legends related concerning it, and somewhere upon its mysterious summit the Tengu are believed to dwell.

Hearn’s description of Mt Daisen, though short, is interesting in a number of ways. First of all, it comes from the remarkable Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894), inspired by his love-affair with Matsue during his honeymoon period in the country. It’s interesting to note that while he spent less than a year in Matsue, compelled to move by the bitter cold winters, it led to two thick volumes of excitable prose about the place, the people and their customs.

One of the places that caught Hearn’s admiration was the ‘Izumo Fuji’, Mt Daisen. As always, Hearn’s sensuous language gives the mountain a seductive appeal, with its diaphonous, vaporous, marvelous and mysterious appearance. But what marks Hearn’s description in particular are the references to ‘ghost’ and ‘spectre’. These are hardly the usual words associated with mountains.

Hearn’s friend, Basil Hall Chamberlain, claimed that no one could understand Hearn who did not take into account his reference to ghosts. He’s known of course as the author of the eerie stories in Kwaidan, but for the author the word ‘ghost’ had a far wider meaning than just the frightening apparition of a spirit. It was rather a reminder, or a remains, of the past. In other words, it was something which spoke to us of other worlds and another time.

In Hearn’s animist universe, the mountain was tantamount to a living thing, made of the same elemental material as ourselves in that we are all constituted of cells that comprise the universe.  The sacred mountains of Japan, like Mt Fuji, are inhabited by kami and act as a conduit between this world and the heavenly one towards which they rise.  For Hearn, this gave them a ghostly essence, in that they were so much more than mere physical matter.  They were part of a divine paradise in which the ‘charming’ people of the ‘sublime’ Izumo area enjoyed a blessed existence. A stupendous ghost, indeed, even despite the kind of ugly modern encroachment pictured below that Hearn so loathed and opposed.

Picture taken from the Matsue to Okayama train in late February



Hearn 14): Ancestor worship

Hearn is noted for his sensitivity and understanding of Shinto animism, but he also had a fine appreciation of the ancestral side of Shinto.  This is evident in the first of his Japanese books, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894), which contains sentiments that dovetail with my own. Indeed, I’ve written of them in previous articles though not with the same eloquence as that master wordsmith of more than a hundred years ago. (See here or here or here.)

Prayers in Japan are to the spirit of dead ancestors

Shinto seemed to Hearn an ‘occult force..  part of the Soul of the Race.’ In this respect it was close to his own thinking, which had developed under the influence of the evolutionary psychologist, Herbert Spencer. It consisted of a notion of the dead ruling over the living in that their ‘ghostly presences’ had shaped the present. Yet this was not all, for Hearn thought that our body cells had ‘inherited memories’ from previous existences, whether in human or animal or even inanimate form.

From the outset of his time in Japan, Hearn therefore found himself sympathetic to the reverence in Shinto shown to ancestors. Moreover, in contrast to other foreigners, it was easy for him to accept that the dead become gods ruling over us, or that the dead are no less real than the living. It was a different concept from the idea of individual reincarnation, as is evident in the following passage.

‘When we become conscious that we owe whatever is wise or good or strong or beautiful in each one of us, not to one particular inner individuality, but to the struggles and sufferings and experiences of the whole unknown chain of human lives behind us, reaching back into mystery unthinkable, – the worship of ancestors seems an extremely righteous thing to do.’

Later in his last book on Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation (1904) Hearn was to put forward the thesis that the whole of Japanese culture was based on the worship of ancestors, whether in familial, local or national form.  It’s a book that has stood the test of time, and is remarkably relevant still at a time when the government of Japan is looking to Yasukuni and Ise Jingu as buttresses for its reactionary ideology. Together the ancestral ghosts of one and the imperial ancestors of the other show just how powerful a force the dead of Japan remain in terms of governing the living.  Small wonder then that Hearn had an obsession with ghosts!

Tamatsukuriyu Shrine

The hillside Tamatsukuriyu Jinja, founded in 733 to guard over the hot springs

You often find shrines in Japan presiding over hot springs. Why? Clearly there are few places as awe-inspiring in terms of nature’s magnificence than places where steam continually issues forth from underground.  Few places are more evocative of nature’s blessings, as well as its ominous power.

At the Tamatsukuri resort, reported on in a previous post, there is a hillside shrine dating back to 733 commemorating the site where magatama were produced in ancient times. The shrine has an unusual feature in using pebbles infused with energy from a ‘power stone’ for its omamori (amulets).  The procedure is clearly outlined in a paper explanation available at the shrine, and illustrated in the pictures below.

At the shrine office there is a paper explanation of how to go about the power stone ritual

You first collect a pouch and small agate stone

At the top of the flight of stairs, next to the Honden, is a ‘power rock’

First you pay respects…

… then you pour water over the rock as ritual purification

… and then you rub the pebble against the rock to absorb its power

Inside the pouch is a piece of paper on which to write your prayer-wish

You leave the paper-wish in a small box before the Worship Hall which the priest will ritually offer up to the kami

The shrine is in the attractive Izumo style with thick shimenawa rice ropes outside the Worship Hall and, here, within the Worship Hall at the entrance to the Honden (Sanctuary)

The custom is to leave a coin offering in the thick shimenawa in front of the Haiden.  Having done that, you can be more assured that the kami will favour you.

Tamatsukuri (Hot spring of myths)

Tamatsukuri Onsen is a charming hot spring resort either side of a small stream and boasting ‘the biggest magatama in Japan’

Just outside Matsue City in Shimane Prefecture is the hot spring resort of Tamatsukuri Onsen.  Tamatsukuri translates as Making Jewels, for it was at this place in ancient times that magatama were made.  An actual site has been excavated with evidence of magatama production going back to Yayoi times, based on the agate in the surrounding hills.

The significance of the magatama is not well-known, though there are several theories about the jewellery beads. Some say it is a symbolic part of the yin-yang pairing, others that it represents strength through being shaped after a wild boar’s or mountain tiger’s tooth.  My archaeological colleague at university was adamant it was a kind of hook for catching good luck.

Looking to exploit its magatama connections, the resort has adopted the theme of Izumo myths in order to provide interest to those who stroll along the small river. Statues illustrating ancient myths are placed at various points, and as well as celebrated Kojiki episodes such as Okuninushi and the Inaba Hare, there are lesser known local legends, to which noticeboards helpfully provide explanations.

Magatama is the theme of the small resort, here featured in a magatama water basin


Susanoo no mikoto’s struggle with the fearsome eight-headed Orochi monster is one of the more familiar of the myths depicted in the hot spring resort.  Susanoo’s victory enabled him to marry a local princess and take dominion of the land, presenting the sword he found in the monster’s tale to Amaterasu as a sign of fealty.


Okuninushi and the Inaba hare that he befriended is another well-known myth. Okuninushi took pity on the hare which had been bullied by his brothers by being told to bathe its flayed skin in the salt water of the sea.


Not so well known is the tale of the shark which fell in love with the beautiful princess, Tamahime no mikoto, who put up a barrier of rocks in order to prevent his advances.


Once when Okuninushi had died and gone to the underworld of Ne no kuni, his mother interceded on his behalf and a couple of shell princesses, Kisagaihime and Umugaihime, brought him back to life.


There were other myths to ‘soak in’, but by now the hot springs were calling and it was time to sweat over the deeper significance before taking a leisurely dinner-feast. Outside the magatama bridge spoke to the endlessly flowing sense of time and the deep connection one still feels in the Izumo region between ancient times and now.

Hearn 13): Matsue Revisited

Hearn’s beloved garden, kept as it was over a hundred years ago

Some years ago I visited Lafcadio Hearn’s house in Matsue City, which is preserved just as when he lived in it. It’s an attractive former samurai house next to the moat around Matsue Castle. The garden he described in his writing is still the same, and one can appreciate the joy he must have felt in living in such harmony and closeness with nature, in such an aesthetically pleasing setting.  (You can read all about the house and garden here.}

This time I wanted to explore some other places associated with Hearn to see what inspired his affinity with Shinto.  Already on his journey to the Matsue area he had noticed that the region did not embrace Buddhism so tightly as other regions, meaning that it retained more of a traditional character.  For Hearn it was the true Province of the Gods.

Shoko Koizumi, married to Hearn’s great grandson, at the Jozan Inari Shrine

Two of the author’s favourite shrines, Yaegaki and Kumaso, are in the countryside around Matsue, and these were reported on in an earlier post. This time I visited Hearn’s favourite Inari shrine, close to his house.  Escorting me was the wife of Hearn’s great-grandson, Koizumi Shoko, and I was lucky enough to join the pair for dinner in the evening.

Hearn used to visit Jozan Inari Shrine in the castle grounds on his way to go and teach at the High School. He was particularly fond of the foxes at the shrine, especially the big stone figure in front of the shrine gate (the original is now at the Hearn Memorial Museum). In Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan he wrote:

Prayer for the good health of a child not to cry at night and be plagued by ‘bugs’

Upon almost every door there is one ofuda (charm) especially particularly likely to attract the attention of a stranger. These ofuda are from the great Inari shrine of the Castle Hill and are charms against fire. They represent, indeed, the only form of assurance against fire yet known in Matsue – so far, at least, as wooden dwellings are concerned.

Another shrine Hearn was fond of was Komori Inari Jinja, specialist in blessings for children. He was particularly interested in the drawings and prayers that were pinned up on pieces of paper. Still today you find children playing in the yard next to the shrine and prayers from mothers displayed on the outside of the building.

The last place I’d like to mention here is a temple rather than a Shinto shrine, but typically syncretic in Edo-era style.  Hearn loved it, and so did I.  Gessho-ji has one of the most striking atmospheres I’ve come across in Japan, enhanced by the accompanying rain and moist surfaces.  In fact Hearn loved it so much he longed to be buried there, though there was little chance of that. Gessho-ji is the burial place of the Matsudaira, the local daimyo (feudal lords),

Wandering around the graveyard I mused on the use of torii in this Pure Land temple. There’s not only the oddity of the marker of sacred space in a Buddhist sect not normally friendly to Shinto tradition, but there’s the anomaly of a Shinto symbol before a grave when every book you read says that Shinto shuns death.

The Gessho-ji cemetery for the local daimyo of Matsue, with torii standing in front of a grave

One is used to torii marking the burial mounds of imperial ancestors, given their supposedly divine descent.  But daimyo?  These are mere mortals, who happen to have temporal power. On the other hand, if one thinks in terms of an ancestral religion and the way that family dead become kamisama as well as buddhist hotoke. The more power a person has in this world, the more powerful their spirit after death. It’s a shamanic trait, nowhere more evident than in the great Mongol deity, Ghengis Khan.

One of the main sights of Gessho-ji is the Great Tortoise that features in a folk story and which particularly took Hearn’s fancy.  Just as the ghost tales of Matsue sparked his imagination, so the giant tortoise loomed large in his fancy. Animals and insects feature prominently in his writing, and his sympathy with them was tied to a belief in the oneness of all beings.

Hearn not only had a great affinity with animals but was something of an animal rightist. He was vehemently opposed to hunting for recreation, and his description of the torture undergone by a terrified cow in the slaughter house of Cincinnati is stomach churning. Once when he saw a cat being tortured by the side of the road, he pulled out a pistol and shot it in the direction of the perpetrator.

‘Toads, butterflys, ants, spiders, cicadas, bamboo-sprouts, and sunsets were among Papa-san’s best friends,’ said his wife Setsuko in her Reminiscences. Based on such evidence, leading scholar Sukehiro Hirakawa wrote, ‘ I believe that the principal reason for Hearn’s appeal to the Japanese derives from Hearn’s sympathetic understanding of Japanese animism.’  The strong sense of Oneness he felt was fostered in the shrines of Matsue and the environment of his own back garden.

The tokonoma in Hearn’s house, where the objects on display are changed with the seasons. The aesthetic appeal and harmony with nature were part of why Hearn fell in love with Matsue.


It was just before March 3, Dolls Day, on the day of my visit, and the hanging scroll a male and female pair beneath plum blossom.


A window shutter in town featured the Chaplin-like drawing of Hearn when he left the US for Japan in 1890, done by a commissioned illustrator who accompanied him on the journey. Hearn soon cut his ties to the magazine that had nominally (but not financially) sponsored his trip.

Jozan Inari Jinja, near Hearn’s house, was a particular favourite of his


Hearn was particularly fond of the stone fox figures at the shrine


This guardian fox figure has an unusual shimenawa neckband


The Hearn trail around Matsue features 16 places in all, including the Kodomo no Inari Jinja (Children’s Inari Shrine), where Hearn was fascinated by the prayers pinned by mothers on the side of the shrine



Dragon detail at the entrance to Kodomo no Inari Shrine


The wonderfully atmospheric Gessho-ji, where Hearn wanted to be buried

Hearn was particularly struck by this enormous creature in the graveyard of Gessho-ji, and so was I! The giant turtle features in one of the eerie tales that feature in Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan.


An Edo-era hand print of the famous sumo wrestler, Raiden

Hasegawa Yoko, deputy head of the Shusse Inari Shrine close to Ryusho-ji temple where Hearn went to see the splendid Jizo statues

Yomegashima was one of Hearn’s favourite sites in Matsue – small wonder given that it is dedicated to the ‘Goddess of Eloquence and Beauty’. It’s  particularly alluring at sunset when deep reds and crimson spread over the far side of Lake Shinji (see Hearn’s description below).

A sculpture entitled The Open Mind of Lafcadio Hearn captures the sunset in a heart-mind shape, beautifully expressing the animist embrace of nature

Hearn’s description of Yomegashima in Lake Shinji (see above), with characteristic attention to the morbid legend concerning its name and origin:

The vapors have vanished, sharply revealing a beautiful little islet in the lake, lying scarcely half a mile away, – a low, narrow strip of of land with a Shinto shrine upon it, shadowed by giant pines; not pines like ours, but huge gnarled, shaggy, torturous shapes, vast-reaching like ancient oaks. Through a glass one can easily discern a torii, and before it two symbolic lions of stone (Kara-shishi), one with its head broken off, doubtless by its having been overturned and dashed about by heavy waves during some great storm. This islet is sacred to Benten, the Goddess of Eloquence and Beauty, wherefore it is called Ben-ten-no-shima. But it is more commonly called Yome-ga-shima, or ‘The Island of the Young Wife,’ by reason of a legend. It is said that it arose in one night, noiselessly as a dream, bearing up from the depths of the lake the body of a drowned woman who had been very lovely, very pious, and very unhappy. The people, deeming this a sign from heaven, consecrated the isle to Benten, and thereon built a shrine unto her, planted trees about it, set a torii before it, and made a rampart about it with great curiously-shaped stones; and there they buried the drowned woman.

Hearn 12): Fairies

Kami or fairy? Japanese myth and folklore is full of little creatures.

The trailblazing Megan Manson has written of the similarity of fairies and kami on her Shinto Pagan website. She writes excellent book reviews, and one of her top recommendations of books in 2016 was on Fairycraft. ‘It is my belief that kami and fairies are very much one and the same thing in essence,’ she writes, ‘and some of the ideas expressed in Fairycraft supported this idea, to my delight.’

The pioneering Megan Manson, forging a brand of Pagan-Shinto in the UK

Megan Manson and her pioneering Shinto-Paganism seems very much a contemporary phenomenon, yet it so happens that dear old Lafcadio Hearn had been down a fairy path himself over a hundred years ago.  It is just another example of how extraordinarily ahead of his times the transgressive author was.

Look at this remarkable piece of prose from ‘A Living God’ in which he has the audacity to switch the first person narrative from shrine visitor to kami. (For Hearn’s view of shrines as ‘ghost-houses’, see here.)

As for myself, whenever I am alone in the presence of a Shinto shrine, I have the sensation of being haunted; and I cannot help thinking about the possible apperceptions of the haunter. And this tempts me to fancy how I should feel if I myself were a god – dwelling in some old Izumo shrine on the summit of a hill, guarded by stone lions and shadowed by a holy grove.

Elfishly small my habitation might be, but never too small, because I should have neither size nor form…  As air to the bird, as water to the fish, so would all substance be permeable to the essence of me.  I should pass at will through the walls of my dwelling to swim in the long gold bath of a sunbeam, to thrill in the heart of a flower, to ride on the neck of a dragon-fly…

From the dusk of my ghost-house I should look for the coming of sandaled feet, and watch brown supple fingers weaving to my bars the knotted papers which are records of vows and observe the motion of the lips of my worshipers making prayer…

Kumaso Jinja, one of the favourite ‘ghost-houses’ of Hearn (and myself).

A kami riding on the neck of a dragon-fly?  Tinkerbell springs to mind. As Masaru Toda points out in ‘Hearn’s Romantic Representation of Shinto’, the image is nothing to do with kami but has a lot to do with Irish fairies. Hearn of course grew up in Dublin, and in a letter to W.B. Yeats he wrote of having a nanny from Connaught who used to tell him folk tales. It seems then he was conflating images from his youth with supernatural notions of kami.

For Masaru Toda there is a further fault in the passage to do with the concept of nature.  According to Hearn, the kami’s progression is akin to flying in the air like a bird, swimming in the water like a fish, thrilling in the heart of a flower like a butterfly etc. ‘But nature thus represented is romantically idealized nature in the modern Western mind, which has nothing to do with terrible awe-inspiring nature in the old traditional Shinto faith,’ writes Toda. This becomes evident in the next part of Hearn’s writing, in which he describes kami for his readers in a way that begins in a highly romantic way but ends in unexpected fashion.

They are lovers of Nature; they haunt her fairest solitudes, and enter into the life of her trees, and speak in her waters, and hover in her winds. Once upon the earth they lived as men; and the people of the land are their posterity. Even as divine ghosts, they remain very human and of many dispositions… Of course such representations vary greatly.  But were you to ask what is the ordinary traditional aspect of a Kami, I should answer: ‘An ancient smiling man of wondrously gentle countenance, having a long white beard, and all robed in white with a white girdle.’

In Hearn’s vivid imagination, sympathetic as he was to animistic notions, the fairy-like nature of the kami ends up as a kind of Merlin figure, like something out of Lord of the Rings. It may seem risible, yet was Hearn so very wrong?  People often forget that Shinto is as much ancestral as animist, and when you look at the pictures on ema (votive plaques) displayed at shrines, what you find as often as not is depictions of kami as Yayoi chieftains all dressed in white or figures like Sarutahiko with a long white beard. Surprise, surprise, what do we find in Celtic cultures but a traditional association of fairies with ancestors, prominent amongst whom would have been Druids in long white robes (as Pliny described them).

Hearn’s description of kami was certainly not orthodox (he was after all noted for his unconventional ways and reworkings of tradition), yet in the end the conflation with fairies may not have been so wide of the mark after all. Masaru Toda thinks he got his representation of Shinto wrong.  Personally I think he struck a higher truth, one that resides in the realm of the imagination.

The meeting of Uzume and Sarutahiko as depicted on an ema at Tsubaki Jinja

Big rock hunter

A pair of Meoto rocks at Nobeno Jinja

I happened to come across a Japanese book the other day that very much took my fancy.  It was called Ishigami san o tazunete (Visiting Stone Kami) and was produced by the editorial staff of a local publisher in the Matsue area, Sanin Chuo Shinposha. It featured photographs of Shimane Prefecture’s sacred rocks together with an introduction by ‘Big Rock Hunter’ Suda Gunji.

It seems that Suda Gunji shares my own fascination with sacred rocks. Even before coming to Japan, I was fascinated by the standing stones of the Avebury stone circle and pondered what had driven ancient Britons to move these megaliths such long distances. For me, sacred rocks are the heart of Shinto, yet they are sorely overlooked by the post-Meiji fixation with emperors and imperial ancestors.  Some apparently see the rocks as belonging to an ancient and mysterious past which is no longer relevant.  The downplaying (even removal) of phallic and vulvic rocks is a classic example. By contrast contemporary Shinto emphasises the ancestral side of the religion.

Big rocks impress, they don’t change or age like humans, says Suda Gunji in his introduction. We respect them because of their monumental nature. He then goes on to identify four basic types:

  1. those with myths attached to them
  2. those that formed the origin of a shrine
  3. those into which kami descended
  4. those with a special shape that became part of local folklore

Personally this strikes me as a rather strange classification system. There are after all plenty of rocks into which kami descended which then became the origin of shrines. There are rocks with myths about kami descending into them, and there are rocks with a special shape to which myths accrue. In short, many if not most rocks fall into more than one of the groups. Rather than shedding light the classification seems rather to create false borders.

The book contains a map of Shimane Prefecture showing the sites of some hundred special rocks.  I’ve always been impressed by the number of sacred rocks along the Inland Sea coast, seeing them as the legacy of Korean shamanism spread by traders and emigrants on the main trading route between the continent and the seat of the Japanese government. The prevalence of sacred rocks in the Shimane area may be due to a similar link with Korean shamanism in the Silla origins of the Izumo clan.

Of the 100 sacred rocks in Shimane, Suda Gunji has inspected 44 of them (he’s been photographing rocks for over 20 years). He can sense the energy given off by rocks, and the most powerful he’s come across is Izumo-shi Tateishi Jinja (Standing Rock Shrine in Izumo City). It stands in a forest amidst a group of rocks, the entrance to which is marked by gohei.  It reminded him of an Okinawan utaki, he writes. Since the shrine is for a rain god, it gives him a sense of antiqueness, as if stretching back to the primitive rain practices of Jomon times.

Modern people think rocks are silent, notes Suda Gunji, but Norito prayers from the past show that people in ancient times had a sense of them talking. Native Americans also think rocks communicate spiritual power (interestingly, they may have been racially and culturally linked to ancient Japanese).

For Suda Gunji rocks have mystical import and a sense of presence. His photographs back up his assertions. Once numinous rocks with awe-inspiring qualities were the only shrines people needed for their nature worship.  Now however they have come to occupy a peripheral or subsidiary position away from the Sanctuary, hidden in the woods or housed in an Okunoin (back shrine).

For ‘Big Rock Hunters’ like myself, however, these sacred rocks are central to the religion, for they resonate with the energy of the universe.  Mighty and magnificent, they stand in sobering contrast to the transience of human life.  There is, after all, good reason why kami descend into them!


For previous entries about rocks, please see Shigemori Mirei and the power of rocks, or this one on Alan Watts, or an extract from The Stones Cry Out, or the awesomeness of Okayama rocks, or even The Dao of Rock.

Kogakkan and Ise study tour

Last November, thanks to Christopher Mayo, Green Shinto carried news of a study programme taking place at Kogakkan University this year in Feb-March.  Now I’m delighted to say that one of our readers has posted news that not only is she attending but she’s writing a blog about the experience.  It’s very informative, and gives a real sense of the day-to-day activities. Because of the promptness of reporting, there’s a feeling of immediacy about the accounts, and this together with some of the insider information makes it great reading for those interested in Shinto and Ise Jingu in particular.

Please take a look at the blog site at https://philoinise.wordpress.com/.  The poster Philo Ouweleen also suggests looking at some of the sites being maintained by her fellow students by googling for their blogs under ‘kogakkan study program 2017’.

Meanwhile, our thanks to Philo Ouweleen for the chance to experience the study programme with her! It’s a prime example of the way in which Shinto in recent years is seeking to ‘internationalise’ by making itself better known to the outside world.

The 2014 multifaith Arc Conference held at Ise Jingu to raise consider Shinto’s connections with nature

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