The god(dess) of iron and tatara ironmaking traditions

There is a shrine dedicated to Kanayago Photo credits:  Hitachi Metals Yasugi factory.

There is a shrine dedicated to Kanayago Photo credits: Hitachi Metals Yasugi factory.

Excerpted from Tatara,

“The god of metals was believed to be a woman, very envious, and no woman was allowed in the furnace area. The workers were all men and their wives could not wear any makeup during the operation so as not to incur jealousy of the goddess. … The furnace is compared to the vagina in which steel is given life.
(That’s why it is Goddess rather than God who takes care of metals). The kind of iron sand which is easily reduced and put into the furnace at the beginning is called ‘komori ‘iron sand meaning ‘nurse’ iron sand, which is helpful in every way in producing steel from other kinds of iron sand. The best part of produced steel is called ‘Tamahagane’ and its quality is on the world top level, and used for such sharp edges as Japanese swords. The furnace is built from soil.” For more comprehensive information see the Tatara home page by Hitachi Metals Ltd.

More is written about the history of tatara and the Kanayago patron goddess of iron:

“Tatara was likely imported into Japan from Korea by way of Shimane Prefecture, and seeing as the San’in region is rich with titanium magnetite, a necessary ingrediant for iron production, it took hold here very early on in Japanese history. Way back in ancient Japan–specifically 713AD, two years after the compilation of the Kojiki (originally ordered by Emperor Temmu) was completed, Empress Gemmei ordered the compilation of the Fudoki. While the Kojiki is like a history book (which we would now consider a book of Shinto mythology), the Fudoki were like encyclopedia, conducted in each province to chronicle geography,  plant and animal species, the lifestyles of the people, and significant historical events (many of which we would now refer to as myths). Most of the Fudoki no longer exist, but the Izumo-no-Kuni-Fudoki remains mostly in tact. Therefore, we know a lot more about life in 8th century Izumo than about any other part of Japan. It includes many details about tatara.

Because we have so much information about its history and because it was practiced in Izumo province for hundreds of years, there are a number of museums, blacksmith family residences, archeological digs, ruins, and sword museums around the towns of Okuizumo, Yasugi, and Unnan. Okuizumo is best known for this because the The Society for Preservation of Japanese Art Swords has rebuild a tatara there called Nittoho-Tatara, and forges swords using traditional means once a year a so. …

There is patron god of Tatara, though many of the popular local myths say she is a goddess. This is Kanayago, the kami that is revered throughout Japan for teaching craftsmen how to making iron. Having particular influence over Western Japan, she wanted to settle in the mountains there, so she descended upon a particular spot in southwestern Yasugi where a heron perched upon a katsura tree, a very brief hike up the hill from Kanayago-jinja, the head shrine of all Kanayago shrines.”

However, one of the best authorities on the subject is the Hitachi Metal’s “The history of the tatara” website which informs us that a couple, a male and female pair of deities tied to the Yamato royal line, named Kanayama-hiko-no-mikoto and Kanayama-hime-no-mikoto, are ritually venerated at the tatara:

“Kanayago-kami (the deity Kanayago) is enshrined at tatara in the Chugoku mountains. While the main shrine dedicated to this deity (whose name is written with characters that literally mean “child of the metal worker) is located at Nishihida in the city of Yasugi, Shimane Prefecture. Devotion to Kanayago-kami is widespread, centered on the Chugoku region but extending from Kyushu and parts of Shikoku to the distant Kanto region and parts of Tohoku. The ritual deities celebrated at present are Kanayama-hiko-no-mikoto and Kanayama-hime-no-mikoto with origins in the Yamato line (see section 2.1.3 for background), but originally it was Kanayago-kami, more familiarly called “Kanayago-san” throughout the region. Worship of Kanayama-hiko and Kanayama-hime (male and female, respectively) dates almost certainly to early modern times. This is believed to have been aimed at increasing the authority of the shrines.

The story of Kanayago-kami is as follows.

In the distant past, Kanayago-kami decided from the heavens to a place called Shiso-no-kori (Shiso County) in the province of Harima (in what is now southern Hyogo Prefecture, in the San’yo district). She taught the people there how to make iron, and made an iron kettle out of rock. Since then, that place has been called Iwanabe (“rock kettle”), which is in the vicinity of the town of Chikusa, Shiso County, Hyogo Prefecture. However, as there were no mountains nearby where she could live, Kanayago-kami declared, “If I am to be the deity who rules the western reaches, I will proceed to the west and live in a suitable place there.” So saying, she climbed on a white heron to travel to the mountains of Okuhida in Kurota in Nogi County of the province of Izumo (around Nishihida in Shimane Prefecture). The heron alit upon on a katsura tree to rest, and Kanayago-kami then taught the technique of making iron in that region to the members of the Abe clan.

Since then, Kanayago-kami has continued to be worshipped by the descendents of the Abe clan. The Abe clan involved itself not only with priestly affairs, but also with traveling around to instruct others in tatara techniques.

There are a variety of curious taboos associated with Kanayago-kami. Among them:

Kanayago-kami hates dogs, ivy, and hemp. She favors wisteria.
According to the legend in Hino County, Tottori Prefecture, a dog howled at Kanayago-kami when she descended from the heavens. The deity tried to escape by climbing a vine, but the vine broke. She was attacked by the dog and died as a result. The version of the story told in I’ishi County, Shimane Prefecture, is that, rather than ivy, she became entangled in hemp or flax and died. The legend in Nita County, Shimane Prefecture, holds that the ivy did indeed break, but she then grabbed onto a wisteria tree and was saved. She may be a deity, but in this humorous story she is a rather human character. Such legends are the reason why dogs are not allowed near tatara and hemp is not used for any tatara tools or equipment. Also, katsura trees are not burned in tatara because they are regarded as divine.

Kanayago-kami hates women.
Kanayago-kami is a female deity so she hates women. A murage will not enter the tatara when his wife is menstruating. He shuts down his tatara temporarily just before and after his wife gives birth. If work is at a point that he cannot put it aside, it is said that he will not go home nor look at the face of his newly born child. It is also said that murage are especially strict about not getting into a bath if a woman has used it.

Kanayago-kami likes corpses.
The disciples of Kanayago-kami did not know what to do with their tatara when she died so suddenly. It is said that just as they were praying to and beseeching her for help, just when the iron could not be brought to birth no matter what they did, they received an oracle calling for them either to stand a dead body up against the tatara’s four supporting pillars (Nita County) or bind the bones of a murage to the four pillars (the village of Yoshida, Shimane Prefecture). There similarly appears to have been no taboos about death in tatara in other locales, either. They apparently made coffins in tatara when a person died in Aki or Yamagata in Hiroshima Prefecture, while in Futami county in the old Bingo province (around Hiroshima today) people would carry a coffin around the tatara when holding a funeral.

Actually, it is unclear as to whether or not Kanayago-kami is meant to be a male or female deity, but in the tatara the deity has been said to be female. Masaya Abe, a descendent of the Abe clan and chief priest at Kanayago Shrine, writes, “Kanayago-kami is usually held to be a female deity. However, that is because it was a woman who enshrined it. The deity was originally a youthful male.” Details about Kanayago-kami turn up in various stories, including those related to such other deities as Yawata-kami, Ama-no-hiboko, Takuso-susano-no-mikoto, and Kanayama-hiko-no-mikoto. In all cases, Kanayago-kami was the patron deity of blacksmiths, worshipped from the start by people involved in metalwork. These artisans spread devotion to Kanayago to many locations, and the present form of that worship was probably created by the Abe clan.

Festivals are held at the shrine Kanayago-jinja in the spring around the middle of the 3rd month and in the autumn early in the 10th month, the dates being determined according to the Chinese zodiacal calendar. In the past, the Kanayago festival at Hida was an event to which tatara masters and blacksmiths would come from distant provinces, as well as from Izumo and the neighboring province of Hoki.”

Another authoritative source, the Encyclopedia of Shinto relates that the Kanayago goddess is a Kajishin kami, at the centre of an ancestral cult of the blacksmith community:

” A kami of smithing and of metal forging enshrined by people who work in those industries. In premodern times, blacksmiths (kaji) included both those living sedentary lives in towns, and those who, together with bellows-makers (tatarashi) and metal casters (imoji), would join itinerant iron-working occupational groups called kanaya that traveled from village to village. In either case, such individuals were viewed as having a quasi-religious character due to their ability to control the magical power of iron.

Among these people, the kami Kajishin was worshipped both as an occupational ancestral deity (sojin) that transmitted to humans the techniques for iron smelting and smithing, and as a tutelary of the process of production and processing. At the heart of the cult of Kajishin was the goddess Kanayago no kami. The origins of this kami are not clear, but according to the Kanayago engishō, Kanayago no kami was the offspring of the union of Kanayamabiko no mikoto and Kanayamahime no mikoto. According to the legendary history related by the Kanayago no kami saimon (found in the Kayago no kami hissho), Kanayago no kami first descended from the Plain of High Heaven to the district of Shisō in the province of Harima. Climbing astride a white heron, Kanayago flew to a mountain forest in the district of Nogi in the province of Izumo, and there she transmitted the secret techniques of iron manufacturing to a man named Abe, who would later become priest (shinshoku) of the shrine Kanayago Jinja.

Portrayed as a female kami, taboos regarding Kanayago include blood pollution and the presence of women, and she is said to fear dogs. On the other hand, this kami does not appear to make a taboo of the pollution of death.

The cult of Kanayago no kami spread mainly in Japan’s Western Honshū region, and the shrine Kanayago Jinja in the town of Hirose (Shimane Prefecture) is regarded as the major shrine to the kami. Other kami worshiped as Kajishin include a number of deities appearing in Kojiki and Nihongi, including the blacksmith Amatsumara (Yamato no kanuchi Amatsumara), Ishikoridome, and Amenomahitotsu no kami. Of these, Amenomahitotsu appears in the Nihongi’s episode of the descent of the heavenly grandchild (tenson kōrin) in the guise of Kanadakumi, and also appears in the Harima fudoki with the similar name Amanomahitotsu no mikoto.

The kami continues to be worshipped today at the shrine Amenomehitotsu Jinja in the city of Nishiwaki, Hyōgo Prefecture. Local legends regarding the kami remain in this area, and they generally relate that the deity has only one-eye, in accordance with its name (ma-hitotsu = “one eye”). At some point, the kami Inari also came to be regarded as a tutelary of smithing, and some locales continue to celebrate both Inari and Kanayago no kami during the “Bellows Festival” (Fuigo matsuri) observed on the 8th day of the 11th lunar month.”

Notwithstanding that blacksmithing and forging traditions were established first on mainland Japan, some of most detailed information on the key deities is surprisingly to be found on Okinawa Island to where blacksmithing was introduced:

 “Since iron is not produced in Okinawa, the development of steel making and blacksmithing techniques lagged behind other advanced areas. Thirst for iron and its riches may have well been the source for Okinawan legends regarding the advent of iron and blacksmithing techniques. Seemingly, however, it remains presumable, only through folk tales, as to when, from where, and how the aspired skills in steel making and the art of blacksmithing came to Okinawa…

In Okinawa, ex-blacksmith families own most of the “blacksmith divinity” images. These are mostly in the form of hanging scrolls. Okinawan Blacksmiths{by Hiroaki Fukuchi (福地曠昭) Kaifu-sha 1989} has numerous remarks from blacksmiths interviewed. However, description of the images themselves remain scarce. Quoted below is Mr. Koji Asaoka (朝岡康二) refering to Akaya (阿嘉屋), one of the blacksmith families, which once flourished in Kumoji, Naha:

Originally, the balcksmith family Nareira (宮平) headed the “Mindakari (新村渠) Kanja (Blacksmith) Family”. Akaya, a family of court painters, up until the great-grandfather’s generation, joined Nareira in the mid Meiji Period (latter 19th century), whereby Akaya acquired the blacksmithing technique to reestablish itself as the blacksmith family Akakaji (阿嘉鍛冶). The first master of Akakaji painted and gave out freely many hanging scrolls with the Blacksmith Divinity image to his fellow workers. He had a natural talent for painting, as his ancestors used to be court artists. Although many of these hanging scrolls have been scattered about and lost, several former blacksmith families in Okinawa preserve them. The blacksmith divinity hanging scroll uses the complete mainland style that you would find in Kanayama-ko (金山講) hanging scrolls used in blacksmiths’ self-support gatherings i.e. Kanayama-ko, Japan. In short, Kanayama-sama (金山様) divinity is painted in the center, as Yokoza (横座) the bellow operator sits on the left, while Sente (先手) the assistant sledgehammer swings down from the right. Excluding minor differences, the basic composition was shared all over Japan. Notably, however, the blacksmithing images (Mainland Japanese style) are completely irrelevant to the blacksmithing procedures practiced in Okinawa.

In Japan, the Kanayama-sama divinity hanging scroll would be found in alcoves (床の間) on occasions of Kanayama-ko self-support gatherings. In Okinawa, however, the image is believed to have been used in annual bellows festivals, as self-help groups equivalent to the Kanayama-ko were never formed by Okinawan blacksmiths. (Ref. Koji Asaoka, Ironware Culture of Japan-Comparative Ethnology of Blacksmith, Chapter Four: Okinawan Blacksmith and Ironware Culture, p.184)
Fuchiyue (鞴祭: bellows’ festival) is respected by Okinawan blacksmiths as the hallmark of annual events. It is commonly celebrated on November 8th according to the lunar calendar, in Japan, whereas in Okinawa it is celebrated, by some, on November 7th, or for two days (November 6th and 7th) or for three days (November 7th to 9th).

During Fuchiyue the image of the bellows divinity is respectfully placed in front of the bellows, as sledgehammers, iron holders and other blacksmith tools are put as offerings. Prayers are offered to banish fire, accidents and injury throughout the year. Special dishes are prepared and shared within the neighborhood. In some cases blacksmith families visit and worship Okuma Kanja-ya (奥間鍛冶屋), the first legendary blacksmith enshrined in Okinawa, just as blacksmiths on Miyako Island would visit Funadatedo (船立堂), the sacred praying spot for blacksmiths.

According to Asaoka, the introduction of boxed bellows from mainland Japan, more specifically Sakai, Osaka, relates, particularly, to the attachment that Okinawan blacksmiths have formed to their bellows festival. Fuigo-cho (吹子町) the bellows ”manufacturers” quarter of commercially advanced Osaka is believed to have manufactured standardized boxed bellows for nationwide distribution. Asaoka states that because many Okinawan legends of blacksmith divinities speak not only of iron and the advent of steel-making techniques, but also of the introduction of boxed bellows, this proves that boxed bellows were accepted technologically advanced devices. Bellows festivals in the Ryukyu Archipelago have maintained considerably different ritualistic styles when compared to other village festivals, such as Tanetori-sai (種取祭), seed-sowing ceremonies and bountiful harvest thanksgiving ceremonies (豊年祭). Thus Asaoka retains that Okinawan bellows festivals originated on the mainland and, once introduced to Okinawa, were quickly diffused throughout the Ryukyus.
(Ref. Asaoka, Study of Ironware Culture in the Archipelago of the Ryukyus, pp. 188, 204, 257)

Images of Blacksmith Divinity and the Goddess/God Kanayago (金屋子)
Mainland Japan

In the northern Tohoku area of Japan, during blacksmith self-support gatherings, Kanayama-ko, alcoves or tokonoma (床の間) were adorned with “blacksmith divinity” hanging scroll images. Found in midwestern Chugoku, Japan, instead, would be the “Goddess Kanayago” and pictorial stories on “the birth of steeling technique”. During the Edo period, the scrolled images and pictorial stories were worshipped by tatara steel laborers, blacksmiths and casting workers all over Japan, mainly at iron producing mines.
Blacksmith divinities in ancient Japanese myth included Hinokagutsuchino-kami (火之迦具土神), Kanayamahikonomikoto (金山毘古命/金山彦命), Kanayama-himegami (金山毘売神/金山姫命), Amenomahitotsukami (天目一箇神) and more. On the otherhand, Inarigami (稲荷神), originally a god of rich harvest, was altered to a god of fire, eventually becoming a blacksmith divinity. This occurred, presumably, through the sacred rite of “Ohitaki” (御火焚) for an abundant harvest in the Kyoto and Kinki areas.
The word “tatara” originated in India, meaning blast furnace. In Japan, “tatara” appears in the names of ancient goddesses in Kojiki (古事記) and Nihonsyoki (日本書紀) e.g. Seyatatara-hime (勢夜陀多良比売), Hototataraisusuki-himenomikoto (富登多多良伊須須岐比売命) or Himetataraisukiyori-hime (比売多多良伊須気余理比売). According to myth, Izanaminokami (伊邪那美神) had her private parts (mihoto) seared as she delievered her baby Hinokagutsuchino-kami, and was, thereafter, banished to the netherworld (黄泉). It may well be in this light that the word “hoto” frequently appears in the names of ancient goddesses. Furthermore a wind way bamboo kiro (木呂竹) is inserted from the hole “hoto” to connect the bellows to the basin of a mud furnace, whereby a correlation between “tatara” and the goddesses is also suggested.
Kanayago Shrine in Nishihida (西比田), Hirose Town (広瀬町), Nogi County (能義郡), Shimane Prefecture, is an established center of worship for Kanayago, the goddess/god of steelmaking and blacksmithing. According to the stories of her advent and the origin of the shrine (which dates back to the Edo period), a snowy egret carried Kanayago on its back and flew from Harima Province to a Japanese Judas tree in Kuroda Forest, Nishihida village, Nogi County, Izumo Province.
Since Kanayago has also been worshipped as a child-loving goddess, tatara steel workers in Kamisaibara Village (上斎原村), Tomata County (苫田郡) Okayama Prefecture, for example, are known to have shown their faith in Kanayago (originally the tatara steel workers guardian deity) by inviting children to their homes every New Year (January 1st to 3rd) to tell them the old tales and legends. (Ref. Akinori Maruyama ,“Goddess Kanayago and Children: Folklore from a Tatara Village”)
In contrast, Kanayago’s hatred of adult women (who menstruate and bare children) was a source for the taboo against menstrual blood (赤不浄) as a symbol of uncleanness. However it is frequently noted that the uncleanness of death, which is symbolized by the color black (黒不浄), was readily accepted or even favored in these legends.
Mandarin oranges were believed to have been an offering at the bellows festival, much like as done by public bath owners and glue makers, each of whom were fire-relevant by trade, who gave away rice cakes and oranges to children. According to a legend in Yamaguchi Prefecture, an ugly one-eyed blacksmith deity got away from a barking dog by climbing up a mandarin orange tree. Fierce concentration at their furnaces frequently cost tatara steel workers the loss of an eye. The fact created one-eyed blacksmith divinities legend which in its turn are considered to have been diverted to single-eyed ogres of legend, oni (鬼). It is, presumably, in this context that toponyms such as Onimura (鬼村) and Onigashiro (鬼ヶ城) are often located close to iron mines. [Compare these one-eyed oni with the Greek myths of Cyclopes who were also one-eyed skilled blacksmithing giants who made the trident for Poseidon, thunderbolts for Zeus, and who were imprisoned deep in the heart of the Tartaros Earth Pit by the Sky god Uranus, until freed by Cronus.]

Mandarin oranges were believed to have been an offering at the bellows festival, much like as done by public bath owners and glue makers, each of whom were fire-relevant by trade, who gave away rice cakes and oranges to children. According to a legend in Yamaguchi Prefecture, an ugly one-eyed blacksmith deity got away from a barking dog by climbing up a mandarin orange tree. Fierce concentration at their furnaces frequently cost tatara steel workers the loss of an eye. The fact created one-eyed blacksmith divinities legend which in its turn are considered to have been diverted to single-eyed ogres of legend, oni (鬼). It is, presumably, in this context that toponyms such as Onimura (鬼村) and Onigashiro (鬼ヶ城) are often located close to iron mines.

Images of the Goddess/God Kanayago are largely categorized into the following three styles:

A) A Goddess on a Fox
A goddess in a Chinese dress, wearing a long, thin scarf (領巾) rides on a white fox, with a sword in one hand and a gemstone in the other. In other instances, she may have a magic cane, or wear a jewelled crown and armor, holding a pouch in one hand. The fox wears a jewel in its tail, and may sometimes have a hoe in its mouth. The goddess in Chinese dress, who wears the long, thin scarf (領巾) and carries the sword and gemstone, resembles, in appearance, Dakini (荼吉尼天), the harvest divinity. However Dakini is recognized as the original Buddhist form (honji 本地) of Inari-gami in accordance with the philosophy of honji suijaku (本地垂迹) a theory expounding the correspondence of Shinto and Buddhist deities. Imaginably, Inari-gami and Dakini, both of whom came to be accepted and worshipped as fire and blacksmith divinities, could have been confused to be represented both in the same scene.

B) A Goddess and Two Attendants (Male and Female)
Mainly found in hanging scroll images, which depict the story of the origin of Kanayago Shrine or scenes of steel-making and blacksmithing. Frequently a long-haired woman in sacerdotal kimono, attends a holy area located close to a mountain top and sanctified with a set of hallowed straw ropes (注連縄). A lady of the court in a red hakama and over-robe would be found on the right and a nobleman on the left, both may be standing or seated, ready to serve the goddess. A white fox may accompany the two attendants. At the foot of the mountain, there is a smith’s yard with the foot-pedaled bellows humming with steeling and refining. Court-attired noblemen and blacksmiths (in their medieval hats, eboshi, and aprons, hitatare) would be found laboriously at work.

C) Sampo-kojin (三宝荒神) Image
A series of monochrome hanging scrolls in wood block print, which Kanayago Shrine issued and distributed from the end of the Edo to the early Meiji periods, would find the Kanayago deity seated on a lotus pedestal as Sampo-Kojin. In northern Tohoku, Sampo-kojin as a standing figure is frequently painted on hanging scrolls as a blacksmith divinity. Composition-wise, Sampo-kojin often stands erect on the boxed bellows and blacksmiths are working underneath. Oni, the ogres, are also at work in the smith’s yard, sending wind to the bellows or hammering down as Sente, the assistant hammers.



Okinawan Images of Blacksmith Divinity

 The four blacksmith divinity scrolls that we were able to view during our field studies in the Yanbaru (山原) area, northern Okinawa, had basically the same composition, although they differed in the details. They belong to Type C, as mentioned above, in which the blacksmith deity is expressed as Sampo-kojin (三宝荒神). Furthermore, the four scrolled images show three Oni (鬼), ogres, that are assisting as Sente (先手), a woman in kimono, who is operating the bellows as Hakozashi (箱差し) or Fuigozashi (鞴差し) and a man wearing formal headwear (烏帽子) and an apron (直垂), working as Yokaza (横座). During the forging of iron, the boxed bellows would be found in totally different positions in Mainland Japan, Okinawa and China. At least in the latter medieval period (the Kamakura and the Muromachi eras) in Mainland Japan, it is believed to have been a common practice that Yokaza alone, without Fuigozashi, operated the bellows. On the other hand, it was a characteristic on Okinawa to have Fuigozashi sit behind Yokaza and operate the boxed bellows, as Yokaza worked without touching the bellows. The first job that an apprentice, in an Okinawan blacksmith’s yard, would be assigned to was Fuigozashi. If so, even though Meuchi (前打 i.e. Sente) and Yokaza are painted in different positions, the four hanging scrolls do not contradict with blacksmithing practices in Okinawa, because they depict how Yokaza and Fuigozashi played distinguishable roles from each other, as Asaoka indicates. Most hanging scroll images from Iwate and Gifu Prefectures (Mainland Japan) have also been found to differentiate between Yokaza and Fuigozashi.
However, the female Fuigozashi (bellows operators) that are in blacksmithing images in hanging scrolls from Okinawa (fig.21,23,24) are rarely found elsewhere. As we have discusssed, most blacksmith divine images in Okinawa are believed to be copies of the originals (that are presumed to have their roots in, and have come to Okinawa from, Mainland Japan, or have been drawn, relying upon information that had been passsed on by word of mouth. Akakanja would have made models of such originals for the many blacksmith divinity hanging scroll images that they created. It is, therefore, not totally deniable that changes might have been made by the painters to reflect more of the real blacksmithing practices in Okinawa.
Although the three headed Sampo-kojin-like figure was depicted frequently as the blacksmith deity in the hanging scrolls that we viewed (fig.24), the balcksmith deity in Okinawa is also imagined as a goddess at times(fig.23). It may be possible to assume the influential role that the myth of the Goddess Kanayago from Izumo Province had while crossing over the sea to Okinawa. We found an example in which a Sampo-kojin-like Blacksmith Divine is represented by three female faces while wearing feminine clothing, whereas Sampo-kojin should be represented by wrathful faces. This image was likely adopted by local painters to fill the gap between the faith of the people and the diffusion of painted images.
Did the images of blacksmith divinities accompany the bellows when they were introduced onto Okinawa from Mainland Japan, or could the images have possibly taken different routes? The question entails further progress in these studies, as well as the discovery of more blacksmith divine images from Okinawa which have hitherto been unseen.

 The widespread practicing of bellows festivals was, presumably, fueled by the orders and policies issued by the royal government of the Ryukyus, according to Asaoka (Ironware Culture of Japan–Comparative Ethnology of Blacksmithing, p.257). Blacksmith divinity scrolls could well have been one of the most significant ritual tools that popuralized the bellows festivals. In the 20th year of the King Sho Shitsu (尚質: 1667), the dynasty of the Ryukyus started the “Stationed Blacksmith System” (在村鍛冶制) administered by Ko shoken (向象賢). As Kaji-yaku (blacksmith officials) assigned to villages were non-craftsmen, the system is considered to have spurred the presence of Akakanja and other specialized blacksmith families, as well as that of traveling blacksmith (廻村鍛冶) which was to emerge later. The roles of the Kaji-yaku are assumed to have shifted from blacksmithing to the management of the bellows festivals and smiths’ yards. (Ref. Asaoka, Ironware Culture of Japan– Comparative Ethnology of Blacksmithing, pp. 152, 193, 224, 249).

 In Okinawa the Blacksmith Divinity is worshipped at many uganju (praying spot). Also blacksmith tales are sung in ancient ballads like “Kajiyadi Fu”. Believed to have brought forth the advent of farming with iron farming tools, the balcksmith divinity is also identified with the farming deity. (Ref. Hiroaki Fukuchi, Okinawan Blacksmiths, pp. 255 to 266). According to legend the Kunigami Aji (国頭按司 chief of Kunigami Village), Kaniman (金万・金満), who was the second son of Okuma Ufuya(奥間大親, the head of Jana Village in the Urasoe quarter, and a younger brother of King Satto (察度王), was believed to have founded the Okuma Kanja Blacksmith family. For helping Kanemaru (金丸), the future King Sho En (尚円), Okuma Kanja was said to have had his second son authorized as Kunigami Aji. The presence of Okuma Kanja continues to date as the ancestor of all Okinawan blacksmiths. Having the power attained through blood-related Monchu (門中) clans and the privileges, such as tax exemptions, and abounding riches, received through such ties, this glorious story of how one family member was promoted to Kunigami Aji is considered to have been suitable for the descendants of blacksmiths. Furthermore, they connected the legend of Okuma Kanja to the myth of the farming divinity and the advent of farming, through which Kaniman was, likely, idealized and idolized as a great ancestor and founder of blacksmith families. Today, Kaniman Aji and his wife are enshrined as founders of Uekaneshi Tunchi (上兼次殿内) or Kaniman Tunchi (金万殿内), in Kaneshi, Nakijin Village (今帰仁村), where the image of the blacksmith divinity has been traditionally recognized as that of Kaniman-sama(fig.35).

Source: Explanation of Blacksmith Divinity


Although the word “tatara” is said to have its origin in India, it is more likely to have a Volga-Ural region origin as Tartar identity is synonymous with a Turkic (or Mongol-Turk) identity, as not only is are the blacksmithing and forging skills of the “Tartars” legendary, the region is among the earliest metallurgical centers of the world, and is also the origin of the one-eyed Cyclopian-ogre tales. … Alternatively, the blacksmith migrant arrivals in Japan were Saka nomads hailing from from Northern India (Saka-stan, having sojourned there from the Caucasus) in which case, the oral tradition of the origins of the tatara-production may prove to be true after all. The Hittites were said to have been the earliest (or among the earliest) iron-workers, and both India and the Volga-Ural region were known to have had Hittite populations, from whom the Tartars could have learned iron-making.

The tale of that a “snowy egret carried Kanayago on its back and flew from Harima Province to a Japanese Judas tree in Kuroda Forest, Nishihida village, Nogi County, Izumo Province” is likely a euphemistic funerary reference to the death of the original ancestral chief, as birds were often the shaman priest’s helpers on their journeys in the Other World in prehistoric times.

The tatara culture is said to have been brought into Japan by Kaya lineages, who first established themselves in the enclaves of Kibi(Okayama), Kawachi province (Osaka), Takeuichi in Yamato, Ikenokami site of Fukuoka. They are said to have arrived in such notable numbers initially that they were called the Imaki-kun, the “now arriving khans” (ima meaning now, ki, coming and “kun” synonymous with the “khan” title used by nomads of continental Eurasia (the Korean cognate was “han”) – Source:Young Sik-Lee, Recent research  trends on the history of Kaya of Korea, Int Journal of History of Korea, vol. 1 2000

Read more about the swordsmithing apprentice Pierre Nadeau’s life here and on the making of a traditional Japanese sword at his Soulsmithing Blog

See also Turks, Tartars and Mongols of European Russia and What it means to be a Turk

And detailed descriptions out of the Khorasan or Kharezm court of who the Turks and Tatars are to be found at:

The Shajrat ul atrak, or genealogical tree of the Turks and Tatars

The haplogroup N/Tat-C “controversy” is finally over. This haplogroup N is distributed throughout Northern Eurasia. It is the most common Y-chromosome type in Uralic speakers (Finns and Native Siberian). This lineage most likely originated in northern China or Mongolia and then spread into Siberia where it became a very common line in western Siberia. See:

Rootsi et al., A counter-clockwise northern route of the Y-chromosome haplogroup N from Southeast Asia towards Europe, European Journal of Human Genetics advance online publication 6 December 2006; doi: 10.1038/sj.ejhg.5201748
“…detailed analysis of hg N suggests that its high frequency in east Europe is due to its more recent expansion westward on a counter-clock northern route from inner Asia/southern Siberia, approximately 12–14 ky ago. The widespread presence of hg N in Siberia, together with its absence in Native Americans, implies its spread happened after the founder event for the Americas.The most frequent subclade N3, arose probably in the region of present day China, and subsequently experienced serial bottlenecks in Siberia and secondary expansions in eastern Europe. Another branch, N2, forms two distinctive subclusters of STR haplotypes, Asian (N2-A) and European (N2-E), the latter now mostly distributed in Finno-Ugric and related populations. These phylogeographic patterns provide evidence consistent with male-mediated counter-clockwise late Pleistocene–Holocene migratory trajectories toward Northwestern Europe from an ancestral East Asian source of Paleolithic heritage. …
14 N2-individuals from Turkey, data from Cinnioglu et al6 (updated in this study), belong to the Asian subcluster N2-A, suggesting that the clade N2 might have geographically expanded from Siberia westward by at least two different flows: one northwest through the Volga-Ural region, giving rise to N2-E, probably mainly via the Finno-Ugric group, and the other, N2-A, southwest together with Turkic languages.”

Cyclopes (Encyclopaedia Mythica)

On the similarity between metallurgical traditions of extreme west-east ends of Eurasia, we may come to an understanding by tracing the early metallurgical centres to the taiga and forest-steppe zone to the north. An important network of contacts stretched from the Ural mountains to the Altai, giving rise to a common north-Eurasian metallurgical tradition at first based on the hollow casting of bronzes (and later iron – see  (See: Korya.Bronze). This was the ancestor to both of the Chinese bronze-casting tradition for ritual vessels of the Shang and Zhou periods, and of advanced types of hollow-cast weapons and tools (spearheads, axes) in northern Europe. Due to the spread of the kurgan civilization, the impact on Chinese technology was the incorporation of the steppe chariot-complex in the later Shang period (See: Shang period). Contacts between the western and eastern ends of Eurasia were thus established across the intervening region at the time of the Bronze Age civilizations in each area, and account for certain common features, despite the very different character of these societies.


The Comparative Lexicon for Metals

(Copper technology began in East Anatolia by 6500 BC with some researchers suggesting a possible origin in the Vinca Culture..)


Sumerian KAxUD.BAR (or) UDxKA.BAR (or) SI.BAR … also URUDU
Latvian varš (pronounced “varsh”), dim. VARiņš… also Latvian RUDU- “copper colored”, RUDVARIS (var. RUDU VARA)
Lithuanian      varis viz. varias  
Old Prussian wargien  
Latvian svars “weight” *sa-VARS 
Akkadian    SIPARRU 
Hebrew      SEPER
Urdu/Hindi  Tanba

Gujerati      Tabu

Pali                Tamba

Tibetan      zangs

Southern Min  Tang

Hakka            Thung

Chinese        Tong

Japanese      Dou

Vietnamese  Đồng

Thai                ทองแดง thongdaeng


Latvian          Dzelzs

Lithuanian   Geležis


Azerbaijani Dəmir

Chuvash      Timĕr 

Kazakh         temir 

Khakas         Timîr

Kirgiz            Temir

Turkic           Demir 

Turkmen      Ütüklemek, Demir 

Uighur          tömür

Uzbek           Temir

Mongolian  tömör

Hakka           Thiet
Chinese        Tie / Tit
Southern Min Thih
Japanese     Tetsu
Korean         Ceol 
Thai               lek
Tibetan        lcags 
Gujerati (India) lokha’ḍa 
Tin lead
Turkish Kalay  Used in most of the Balkan as well as in the Altaic languages
Baltic  Alavas (Baltic)The Baltic Alavas is used in Eastern Slavic languages (Russian Олово). In Western Slavic languages this is the name for Lead.

Azerbaijiani Qalay
Chuvash     Тăхлан [Tăhlan]
Kazakh       Къалайы [k"alajy]

Mongolian  Цагаан тугалга [cagaan tugalga]

Turkish       Kalay

Uighur قەلەي [qäläy]
Uzbek         Qalay
Georgian     kala
Hakka           Siak
Chinese        錫 [xi / sik]
Japanese スズ [suzu]
Korean      주석 [juseog]
Thai       ดีบุก [dībuk]
Vietnamese    Thiếc 
Germanic      Gold 
Bengali            Gold
Gujerati          Sonu
Latvian           Zelts 
Russian          Zoloto
Lithuanian    Auksos
Armenian      Oski
Khakas            altin
Uighur             altun
Uzbek              Oltin
Hakka                kim
Southern Min Kim
Japanese          kin
Chinese             金jin / gam
Korean              금geum
Source: Krogt; Salonen; Kassiteros at Eedle’s homepage.

The legend of Lake Titicaca and how the Japanese ended up in The Americas

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca

Photo: Wikipedia

A Japanese documentary recently broadcasted on NHK terrestrial TV, featured the theory of the origin of the name Lake Titicaca, and various lines of evidence supporting the theory that Japanese settlers arrived to populate the Americas (forming one of several waves of Asian migrants). The article “Establishing Japanese Ancestry” by Ariel Takada sums up the same points examined and made in the documentary:

- Waves of migration from Asian Siberia to the American Alaska occurred approximately 14,000 years ago. From then on, a slow movement southward began to take place all the way to Chile itself.

- In a substantial Brazilian project of ethnic research, for instance, researcher Heinz Budweg affirms that across the ocean “the Japanese, Chinese and even Indians traveled constantly to South America between 2,000 and 3,000 B.C.”

- Some of these migrants arrived via the land bridge, others by sea. The Japanese are thought to be later arrivals on the American continent

- Traces have been found demonstrating their presence have become increasingly more significant. Of these, here are a few examples:

1) Japanese vases of the Mid-Jomon period (1,600 B.C.), excavated at Napo, Ecuador. [Much earlier work focused on the similarity of Valdivian pottery to the Jomon period pottery of Japan]

2) The use of Japanese words for place names in the Americas. Here are two examples: “water” in Japanese is “mizu,” and it is suggested that it may have been the root basis for naming the Missouri River. The name of Mount Suyama in Bolivia is thought to have been derived from “yama,” which means “mountain.”

3) At the end of the ’70s, archaeologist Charlotte Emerich lived with a tribe of the Upper Xingu, proved that they communicated by way of an ancient Japanese dialect.

4) In December 1999, a team of Japanese scientists led by Kazuo Yajima of the Center of Cancer Research of Nagoya discovered Chilean mummies, buried more than 1,500 years ago, that were infected with the HTLV-1 virus (a leukemia variant), which is particular to certain regions of Japan and a few other spots in Asia. (The Chilean mummy — “Miss Chile” — infected with the virus can be found at the Museo San Pedro de Atacama in Arica.)


The Legend of the Japanese naming of Lake Titicaca

Excerpted from “Establishing Japanese Ancestry: “A Japanese myth that we grew up with and that mentions Chile talks about one of those possible currents. Additionally, the story brings to light a number of geographical names that remain in use, as well as the possible realization of a dream that may have given grounds for genetic and cultural influences over the Amerindian peoples:

“It is said that the oldest son of a great Japanese lord, obsessed with a prophecy foretelling that he was destined to be the founder of an empire across the ocean, set sail, accompanied by several faithful followers, around the year 1,100 B.C. The ocean current ‘kuro-shiö’ brought them to a beach they called ‘Arika’ (Arica), which can be translated as ‘here it is.’

Later, they traveled south while looking for the promised land, but they came to a halt at “Asaban” (“morning and night” – Azapa [in Spanish] to us) after surmising that they were on the wrong track. They retraced their steps and traveled northwest from the ‘Yutoo’ (Lluta) River, which means ‘something better’ or ‘better than the other.’ They crossed desert and mountain ranges, finally arriving at a great lake they called ‘Chichi-haha’ (‘Dad and Mom’ — Lake Titicaca), which was supposed to have been the divine sign that would lead them down the final route to the place where the prophecy would be fulfilled.”


Chichi means “father” and haha means “mother” in Japanese. Lake Titicaca a.k.a. Titiqaqa (Quechua) is a lake in the Andes on the border of Peru and Bolivia. By volume of water, it is the largest lake in South America.

Good news, Nara residents! You’re in the middle of a huge upside-down pentagram!

Featured Image -- 7914


Sacred geometry was an important facet of religion for both Taoists and Buddhists alike…

Originally posted on RocketNews24:

The pentagram is a simple shape with deep meanings. No matter what faith or race we come from that little star seems to conjure up thoughts and feelings more than mere circles or dodecahedrons could ever do to the masses.

So when someone tweeted an image from Google Maps with a pentagram laying upside-down over much of the Kansai Region of Japan, it generated quite a bit of buzz along with 13,000 retweets. It was created by joining several religiously significant locations in the area and has Japan’s ancient capital of Nara smack dab in the center.

View original 1,062 more words

Why the Maneki Neko beckons to you…

Maneki neko beckons to you

Maneki neko beckons to you

Reblogged and sourced from JNTO:

Since old times, cats had been kept at home in Japan to get rid of rats that gave damage to crops. And in about 18th century, cats had come on the scene as “Maneki Neko,” a cat doll that brings good luck. In today’s Japan, Maneki Neko is frequently found sitting near the entrance of shops. Shop owners put it there wishing for prosperity in business. There are interesting legends about the origin of Maneki Neko.

In the Edo Period, when the feudal lord of Hikone walked by a temple in Edo on his way home from falconry, the temple’s cat was beckoning to the lord in front of the temple gate. So he stopped by at the temple and had some rest. Just then, the clouds covered the sky all the sudden and a severe thunderstorm arrived. Not getting wet, the lord was so glad that he made a lot of donation to re-build the poverty-stricken temple. And he designated this temple as his family temple. This temple is Gotokuji Temple which still exists in Tokyo. When the cat died, Shobyodo temple (beckoning cat temple) was built in the temple’s ground and the cat has become a god called Shobyo Kannon. Visitors to the temple started to offer Maneki Neko, a cat doll to show their gratitude when their wish came true.

In Hikone where the castle of the feudal lord is, Hiko-nyan has born as the mascot for the 400th anniversary of Hikonejo Castle. It is said that Hiko-nyan is modeled after the Gotokuji Temple’s cat.

There is another legend in Edo (Tokyo). An old woman was forced to let go of her dear cat due to extreme poverty. And she let the cat go in Imado Shrine. That night the cat appeared in her dream and said, “You will be happy if you make a doll in the image of me.” So she made ceramic dolls in the image of her cat and sold them to see what happens. Soon after, the dolls became popular and that made the old woman happy. Today, a pair of female and male Maneki Neko sitting close together in Imado Shrine has become famous. And the shrine is popular among young women as a shrine of “Enmusubi (tying the knot)” that helps to get married. At the shrine a big beckoning cat welcomes the visitors.

There are a number of folk tales in Japan that animals such as dog, fox, rabbit and crow show people a way to happiness. As it tells, Japanese have been creating stories and lucky charms in their life using their creativity to wish their happiness. A wide variety of Maneki Neko is sold at souvenir shops in popular tourist sites such as Asakusa. There are whine ones, black ones, ones holding coins etc. How about getting one for yourself?

Gotokuji Temple
2-24-7, Gotokuji, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo
Get off at Odakyu Electric Railway “Gotokuji” Station from Shinjuku, and 5-min walk
Get off at Tokyu Setagaya Line “Miyanosaka” Station from Sangenjaya, and right outside the station

Imado Shrine
1-5-22, Imado, Taito-ku, Tokyo
Get off at Tokyo Metro Ginza Line, Asakusa Line or Tobu Isesaki Line “Asakusa” Station, and 15-min walk

Source: “what is that cat?” JNTO Japan’s monthly web magazine Apr 2014 issue

Kyoto’s Mt. Potola, and the poor and vagrant’s Juichimen Kannon and entrance to the Six Realms

The temple house a number of statues of the Heian and Kamakura periods that have been designated Important Cultural Properties, including a Kamakura period image of its founder Kūya, as well as a Heian Jūichimen Kannon that is a National Treasure

The Rokuharamitsuji temple house a number of statues of the Heian and Kamakura periods that have been designated Important Cultural Properties, including a Kamakura period image of its founder Kūya, as well as a Heian Jūichimen Kannon that is a National Treasure

The Rokuharamitsuji temple is located on Fudarakusan – Mt Potola (Kannon’s Paradise Island). In this temple, Kuya Shonin laid to rest the souls of the dead who had been dumped at the entrance to the cemetery, too poor to afford a proper burial. In naming the temple after the mythical heaven of Potolaka, Kuya clearly felt that his temple was Kannon’s Western Paradise for the poor of Kyoto.

About Rokuharamitsuji:
The name of the temple refers to the “Practice of Perfection in the Six Realms of Existence”. It is said that souls wander throughout these six realms – the realm of hell, the realm of the hungry ghosts, the animal realm, the realm of the titans, the human realm and the realm of the gods – until they reach a state of enlightenment. Nearby was the entrance to the great Toribe cemetery extending up the mountain side. Those who couldn’t afford a burial would be unceremoniously dumped at the entrance. The crossroads by Toribeno, were called the Rokudo no Tsuji – “Crossroads of the Six Realms”, a liminal space between this world and the next that was said to be the entrance to the underworld. It was next to this intersection that Rokuharamitusji was built.

Description English: portrait of monk Kūya(ACE930-972), total about cm height, wood, coloured, ACE13th century, Sculptor is Kosho(early 13th century), in Rokuharamitsu-ji temple, Kyoto, Japan

Portrait of monk Kūya(ACE930-972), total about cm height, wood, coloured, carved in 1207 by Unkei ‘s fourth son Kosho, in Rokuharamitsu-ji temple, Kyoto, Japan

Kūya Shōnin, nembutsu monk, and son of Emperor Godaigo

Kūya Shōnin 空也上人 (903-972) was the son of Emperor Daigo and was tonsured as a monk at a young age. He rose through the clerical ranks to become the abbot of an important temple before forgoing all titles and becoming a wandering holy man instead. He became famous for his unique dance which he enacted as he chanted the Nembutsu. This dance is still performed and is called “Kuya’s Dancing Nembutsu”.

Until Kuya’s time, Buddhism was far too difficult for the common person to understand. So Kuya would travel around the countryside tapping a bell he wore around his neck, dancing to the beat and chanting “Namu Amida Butsu” as a way of bringing Buddhist practice to ordinary citizens.

He also built roads and bridges as well as digging wells for towns without water. He put his whole effort into helping the people of the villages and countryside. Always wearing shabby poor clothing and living a simple and frugal life, Kuya came to be revered as “The Marketplace Saint”, referring to his habit of preaching and dancing the Nembutsu in the village marketplace.

One year a terrible plague struck the people of Kyoto and one after another many people died. Kuya carved an image of Juichimen Kannon and mounted it onto a little cart which he pulled around Kyoto dancing the Nembutsu and giving medicine to the sick. In this way many people were cured of the plague. He stationed himself on a corner in the Gion district and dispensed a special tea made of pickled plums and kelp, called oyubukicha皇服茶. This tea became famous for its curative powers and sick people came from all over the city to drink it. Not only the poor people of the city came but also the nobility for the plague affected everyone regardless of rank. Gradually, the plague dissipated.

Thereafter the people commemorated the end of the plague by drinking Kuya’s tea ōbukucha on New Year’s Day, calling the tea “Prevention from Disaster Tea”. Nowadays people drink this tea on the third day of the New Year when it is considered to bring good luck for the year.

After the plague had run its course, he received Imperial permission to build a temple at the edge of Toribeno in order to continue praying for the souls of the dead.

One time, when Kuya was living amongst the beggars in Kyoto, a high-ranked priest named Senkan recognized him at the river side and asked Kuya, “Please tell me how I can be saved after death.” Kuya, recognizing the priest, humbly answered, “Surely it is I who should be asking you such a question. I’m just a poor vagrant who wanders around in confusion. I’ve never thought about such things.” But Senkan wouldn’t give up and very respectfully asked him once again. Feeling that an answer of some kind was due, Kuya replied, “Just discard your body anywhere,” and hurried off.

History of Rokuharamitsuji

After Kūya Shōnin’s death in 972, the temple he left behind prospered under the care of Nakanobu Shōnin中信上人, and the district gradually lost its gruesome reputation as the charnel ground of the poor. It even became fashionable when the all-powerful Taira clan, headed by Taira No Tadamori (1096-1153), established its mansions and military headquarters here, in the middle of the twelfth century. At the peak of its splendor, the temple complex covered the entire area from the river to the mountains, and there were over five thousand people living here. Unfortunately, when the Taira were destroyed by the Genji or Minamoto clan in 1183, after one of the most epic struggles of Japanese history, the whole district was destroyed by fire by the enemy. The temple was later rebuilt, but Rokuharamitsuji never grew very large again and remained a neighborhood temple. Japan’s first military ruler, Taira no Kiyomori平清盛 (1118–1181) became a monk and lived at the temple until his death.

From this time onwards the fortunes of Rokuharamitsuji went up and down along with the prevailing political and military winners and losers. Through the ascendancy and fall of the Hōjō and Ashikaga clans and later through the civil wars of the late 16th century, the temple and its buildings were regularly burned down and rebuilt by the subsequent winners. However, it was never able to rise to the glory it experienced in its heyday of the early 12th century. The temple was extensively renovated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi after the civil war, in early 17th century. However, when the Meiji Restoration implemented its State Shinto nationalist agenda, this Buddhist temple was attacked and ruined. It remained in a ruinous state until the thousand year anniversary of the founding of the temple in 1969, when the building was completely dismantled and renovated.

Pothigai Malai in Tamil Nadu, believed to be Mt Potola or Potolaka.

Pothigai Malai in Tamil Nadu, believed to be Mt Potola or Potolaka.

The origin of Mt Potala and the Six Realms is believed to be India:

Six Paths (Jp. = Rokudō 六道 or Rokudō-rinne 六道輪廻 or Mutsu no Sekai 六つの世界). Buddhist concept stemming from Hindu philosophies. Commonly translated in English as the “Six Realms of Karmic Rebirth.”

Long before Buddhism’s introduction to India, Hindu (Brahman) beliefs and traditions held sway. One important concept was “transmigration,” more commonly known in the West as “reincarnation.” It holds that all living things die and are reborn again. Your rebirth into the next life will be based on your behavior in your past life. This rebirth occurs again and again. When Buddhism emerged in India around 500 BC, it too stressed this Hindu belief in transmigration, one that still plays a major role in modern Buddhist philosophy. The modern Buddhist concept of Karma is also a byproduct of ancient Hindu beliefs in transmigration and reincarnation.

Among Buddhists, all living beings are born into one of the six states of existence (Samsara in Sanskrit, the cycle of life and death). All are trapped in this wheel of life, as the Tibetans call it. All beings within the six realms are doomed to death and rebirth in a recurring cycle over countless ages — unless they can break free from desire and attain enlightenment. Further, upon death, all beings are reborn into a lower or a higher realm depending on their actions while still alive. This involves the concept of Karma and Karmic Retribution. The lowest three states are called the three evil paths, or three bad states. The Japanese spellings of all six, plus brief descriptions, are shown … here, along with more the rest of the article “Cycle of suffering; Cycle of Samsara” (Onmark productions).

Where is Mt. Potola?

Mt. Potola aka Potalaka, Potikai, Potiyil, (Putuo mountain in Chinese) and the cult of Avalokiteśvara

The Japanese scholar Shu Hikosaka on the basis of his study of Buddhist scriptures, ancient Tamil literary sources, as well as field survey, proposes the hypothesis that, the ancient mount Potalaka, the residence of Avalokiteśvara described in the Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra and Xuanzang’s Records, is the real mountain Potikai or Potiyil situated at Ambasamudram in Tirunelveli district, Tamil Nadu. Shu also says that mount Potiyil/Potalaka has been a sacred place for the people of South India from time immemorial. With the spread of Buddhism in the region beginning at the time of the great king Aśoka in the third century B.C.E., it became a holy place also for Buddhists who gradually became dominant as a number of their hermits settled there. The local people, though, mainly remained followers of the Hindu religion. The mixed Hindu-Buddhist cult culminated in the formation of the figure of Avalokiteśvara.

In Tibet, the name of the Tibetan Dalai Lama’s Potola Palace (winter palace since the 7th c.)  stems from the same Indian-origined tradition pointing also, to an origin in southern India, and thus bears the above interpretation and theory out:

“From as early as the eleventh century the palace was called Potala. This name probably derives from Mt. Potala, the mythological mountain abode of the Bodhisattva Chenresi (Avilokiteshvara / Kuan Yin) in southern India.” –The Potola Palace

The compassion of Avalokitevara/Kuan Yin/Kannon for the poor and vagrant

An etymology of the Tibetan name Jänräsig (Jainraisig) is jän (eye), rä (continuity) and sig (to look). This gives the meaning of one who always looks upon all beings (with the eye of compassion).

The name Avalokiteśvara is made of the following parts: the verbal prefix ava, which means “down”; lokita, a past participle of the verb lok (“to notice, behold, observe”), here used in an active sense (an occasional irregularity of Sanskrit grammar); and finally īśvara, “lord”, “ruler”, “sovereign” or “master”. In accordance with sandhi (Sanskrit rules of sound combination), a+iśvara becomes eśvara. Combined, the parts mean “lord who gazes down (at the world)”. The word loka (“world”) is absent from the name, but the phrase is implied.

It was initially thought that the Chinese mis-transliterated the word Avalokiteśvara as Avalokitasvara which explained why Xuanzang translated it as Guānzìzài (Ch. 觀自在) instead of Guānyīn (Ch. 觀音). However, according to recent research, the original form was indeed Avalokitasvara with the ending a-svara (“sound, noise”), which means “sound perceiver”, literally “he who looks down upon sound” (i.e., the cries of sentient beings who need his help; a-svara can be glossed as ahr-svara, “sound of lamentation”). This is the exact equivalent of the Chinese translation Guānyīn. This etymology was furthered in the Chinese by the tendency of some Chinese translators, notably Kumarajiva, to use the variant Guānshìyīn (Ch. 觀世音), literally “he who perceives the world’s lamentations”—wherein lok was read as simultaneously meaning both “to look” and “world” (Skt. loka; Ch. 世, shì). This name was later supplanted by the form containing the ending -īśvara, which does not occur in Sanskrit before the seventh century. The original form Avalokitasvara already appears in Sanskrit fragments of the fifth century.

The original meaning of the name fits the Buddhist understanding of the role of a bodhisattva. The reinterpretation presenting him as an īśvara shows a strong influence of Hinduism, as the term īśvara was usually connected to the Hindu notion of Krishna (in Vaisnavism) or Śiva (in Śaivism) as the Supreme Lord, Creator and Ruler of the world. Some attributes of such a god were transmitted to the bodhisattva, but the mainstream of those who venerated Avalokiteśvara upheld the Buddhist rejection of the doctrine of any creator god.

According to Mahāyāna doctrine, Avalokiteśvara is the bodhisattva who has made a great vow to assist sentient beings in times of difficulty, and to postpone his own Buddhahood until he has assisted every sentient being in achieving Nirvāṇa.

The Lotus Sūtra (Skt. Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra) is generally accepted to be the earliest literature teaching about the doctrines of Avalokiteśvara. These are found in the Lotus Sūtra chapter 25, The Universal Gateway of Avalokitasvara Bodhisattva (Ch. 觀世音菩薩普門品). This chapter is devoted to Avalokitasvara, describing him as a compassionate bodhisattva who hears the cries of sentient beings, and who works tirelessly to help those who call upon his name. A total of 33 different manifestations of Avalokitasvara are described, including female manifestations, all to suit the minds of various beings. The chapter consists of both a prose and a verse section. This earliest source often circulates separately as its own sūtra, called the Avalokitasvara Sūtra (Ch. 觀世音經), and is commonly recited or chanted at Buddhist temples in East Asia.

When the Chinese monk Faxian traveled to Mathura in India around 400 CE, he wrote about monks presenting offerings to Avalokiteśvara. When Xuanzang traveled to India in the 7th century, he provided eyewitness accounts of Avalokiteśvara statues being venerated by devotees of all walks of life, from kings, to monks, to laypeople. Avalokiteśvara remained popular in India until the 12th century when Muslim invaders conquered the land and destroyed Buddhist monasteries.

In Chinese Buddhism and East Asia, practices for an 18-armed form of Avalokiteśvara called Cundī are very popular. These practices have their basis in early Indian Esoteric Buddhism. Cundī is also referred to as “Cundī Buddha-Mother” or “Cundī Bhagavatī.” The popularity of Cundī is attested by the three extant translations of the Cundī Dhāraṇī Sūtra from Sanskrit to Chinese, made from the end of the seventh century to the beginning of the eighth century. In late imperial China, these early traditions of Esoteric Buddhism are known to have been still thriving in Buddhist communities. Robert Gimello has also observed that in these communities, the esoteric practices of Cundī were extremely popular among both the populace and the elite.

The significance of six

In the Tiantai school, six forms of Avalokiteśvara are defined. Each of the bodhisattva’s six qualities are said to break the hindrances respectively of the six realms of existence: hell-beings, pretas, animals, humans, asuras, and devas.

In Shingon Buddhism, the mantra for Avalokiteśvara is:

おん あるりきゃ そわか
On Arurikya Sowaka
The Mahākaruṇā Dhāraṇī (Great Compassion Dhāraṇī), also called the Nīlakaṇṭha Dhāraṇī, is an 82-syllable dhāraṇī for Avalokiteśvara.

While the Avalokiteśvara has an extraordinarily large number of manifestations in different forms (including wisdom goddesses (vidyaas) directly associated with him in images and texts), the form it takes At the Rokuharamitsuji, is the eleven-faced Avalokitesvara. The additional faces manifested are meant to teach all the 10 planes of existence. (Source: Avalokitesvara)

This image of Avalokitesvara is said to have been by Kuya himself, which he carted around on his nembutsu rounds (Source: Sacred Japan)

This image of Avalokitesvara is said to have been by Kuya himself, which he carted around on his nembutsu rounds (Source: Sacred Japan)

Mani wall carving of Avalokitesvara, Ghap, Nepal (Photo: Manaslu's Mountains of Travel photo gallery)

Mani wall carving of Avalokitesvara, Ghap, Nepal (Photo: Manaslu’s Mountains of Travel photo gallery)

The 11-headed Kannon with the four arms, and a lotus, of the Rokuharamitsuji temple, however, appears to be a form of iconography in between the Nepali(mani carving at Ghap) form and the Tibetan one, which also has a distinctive Four-Armed Avalokiteshvara, worshipped by all Tibetans as “Chenrezig”, the Holder of the White Lotus.

Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, 17th-18th c., Metropolitan Museum

Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Tibet, 17th-18th c., The Art Institute of Chicago

However, unlike the Japanese form, The Tibetan one is in the male form which has two hands in the praying gesture while the other two hands hold his symbols, the Crystal Rosary and the Lotus Flower (see Kuan Shih-Yin). Compare the Japanese iconography also with the Nepali one called the Mani Wall in Ghap, as well as the Tibetan one. Each of the four arms is said to represent a different aspect of his compassionate nature. For an exposition of the relationship, development and meaning of the Indian, Nepali,  Tibetan and Chinese forms of Avalokitesvara, see Eleven-headed Avalokitesvara, 17th-18th century, Tibet.

According to the Metropolitan Museum’s theory, the Japanese Juichimen Kannon of Mt Fudaraka is derived from trade with the Chinese port of Ningpo:

“Described in the sutras as a mountainous island in the southern sea, Mount Fudaraka (Sanskrit: Potalaka[Putuoshan]) is said to be the residence of the bodhisattva Kannon (Sanskrit: Avalokiteshvara). This place was popularly identified in China as an island off the coast of Ningbo in Zhejiang province. Because Ningbo was the main port of entry for ships from Japan during the medieval period, the cult became known in Japan and was eventually assimilated into syncretic mountain worship shugendō) there. Certain sacred Japanese mountains, such as Kumano and Kasuga, came to be revered as Pure Land abodes of Kannon, who is viewed as an emanation of the Buddha Amida (Sanskrit: Amitâbha). In this case, the bodhisattva is shown with eleven heads (jūichimen), one of the most commonly depicted of the deity’s thirty-three forms.

Here, details of the landscape, such as the spring blossoms and autumn leaves, reflect the painting’s role as a virtual pilgrimage to the sacred site, which is approached by a supernatural boatman to the right and the daughter of the Dragon King who emerges from the sea at left. Kannon’s luminous form is rendered by the painstaking technique of applying color to the reverse of the silk. That aspect, as well as the brushwork and the formal composition, suggests the hand of a thirteenth-century painter with formal influences from Song-dynasty China.”


Hirosaka, Shu. The Potiyil Mountain in Tamil Nadu and the origin of the Avalokiteśvara cult

Rokuharamitsuji (Sacred Japan)


Images: Wikimedia Commons

Crossreference 10th c. Heian image of two-armed juichimen kannon sculpture, Shizuoka prefecture, Museum of Art

Further reading:

Kannon notebook (Onmark Productions)

The Foxes’ Wedding — a weather or ghostly phenomenon, an astronomical and shrine ritual

A real wedding ceremony to be held tomorrow in Takasaki, Gunma, being a re-enactment of the Fox's Wedding folktale and shrine legend

A real wedding ceremony to be held tomorrow in Takasaki, Gunma, being a re-enactment of the Fox’s Wedding folktale and shrine legend (source: NHK Asaichi TV program)

The “Fox’s Wedding”, one of the most mysterious and romantic myths of Japan, is a popular folktale being re-enacted in actual weddings and shrine festivals in today.

Minowa no Sato no Kitsune no Yomeiri

Minowa no Sato no Kitsune no Yomeiri

Above is a photo of the re-enactment of the “Fox’s Wedding” held in the castle town of Minowa. The wedding ceremony passed down the generations in the Takasaki City Misato area is portrayed in a fox’s wedding and people made up to look like foxes march along in a parade. (Contact the Misato Branch Office of Takasaki City for tourist info, and see this blog). It is celebrated by locals in Gunma Prefecture’s Takasaki City on  6 (Sun) October.

The fox’s wedding, the legend

The fox bride and the fox groom

The fox bride and the fox groom, in a festival of  Takasaki, Gunma

As the legend goes,

Once upon a time there was a young white fox, whose name was Fukuyémon. When he had reached the fitting age, he shaved off his forelock and began to think of taking to himself a beautiful bride. The old fox, his father, resolved to give up his inheritance to his son, and retired into private life; so the young fox, in gratitude for this, laboured hard and earnestly to increase his patrimony. Now it happened that in a famous old family of foxes there was a beautiful young lady-fox, with such lovely fur that the fame of her jewel-like charms was spread far and wide. The young white fox, who had heard of this, was bent on making her his wife, and a meeting was arranged between them. There was not a fault to be found on either side; so the preliminaries were settled, and the wedding presents sent from the bridegroom to the bride’s house, with congratulatory speeches from the messenger, which were duly acknowledged by the person deputed to receive the gifts; the bearers, of course, received the customary fee in copper cash.

When the ceremonies had been concluded, an auspicious day was chosen for the bride to go to her husband’s house, and she was carried off in solemn procession during a shower of rain, the sun shining all the while.* After the ceremonies of drinking wine had been gone through, the bride changed her dress, and the wedding was concluded, without let or hindrance, amid singing and dancing and merry-making.

The bride and bridegroom lived lovingly together, and a litter of little foxes were born to them, to the great joy of the old grandsire, who treated the little cubs as tenderly as if they had been butterflies or flowers. “They’re the very image of their old grandfather,” said he, as proud as possible. “As for medicine, bless them, they’re so healthy that they’ll never need a copper coin’s worth!”

As soon as they were old enough, they were carried off to the temple of Inari Sama, the patron saint of foxes, and the old grand-parents prayed that they might be delivered from dogs and all the other ills to which fox flesh is heir.

In this way the white fox by degrees waxed old and prosperous, and his children, year by year, became more and more numerous around him; so that, happy in his family and his business, every recurring spring brought him fresh cause for joy.

*A shower during sunshine, which we call “the devil beating his wife,” is called in Japan “the fox’s bride going to her husband’s house.”

(This account of the story appears in Tales of Old Japan, by Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford. It and its illustrations are reused according to the terms of the Project Gutenberg License online at

Associations of the myth with weather phenomenon, such as sunshowers and fox-rain

In the Kantō region, Chūbu region, Kansai region! Chūgoku region, Shikoku, Kyushu, among other places, sunshowers are called “kitsune no yomeiri.”

Like kitsune-bi foxfires and atmospheric ghost lights, this phenomena is called various names depending on area. In the Nanbu Region, Aomori Prefecture, it is called “kitsune no yometori” (狐の嫁取り, the fox’s wife-taking), and in Serizawa, Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture and the mountainous areas of Oe District, Tokushima Prefecture, it is called “kitsune-ame” (狐雨, fox rain).  In the eastern Isumi District, Chiba Prefecture, it is called “kitsune no shūgen” (狐の祝言). In the Higashi-Katsushika District, Chiba Prefecture, it is referred to as “kitsune no yometori ame” (狐の嫁取り雨, the fox’s wife-taking rain) like in Aomori, but this stems from the fact that this area was once a farming area, and seeing as how wives were noted for their labor, wives were thought as ones who existed to be “taken” for the sake of the prosperity of the family.

The relation between a fox’s wedding and the weather also differs by area, and in the Kumamoto Prefecture, it is when a rainbow appears, and in the Aichi Prefecture, it is when graupel falls that there is a fox’s wedding.

The “Kitsune no Yomeiri-zu” from the Edo period by the ukiyo-e artist Hokusai Katsushika was based upon this weather-related folk belief, and it depicted various people surprised by a fox’s wedding procession and a sudden shower, and their bustle to take in their crop. This has been pointed out to be an unusual example where the imaginary background of the foxes and the real customs of farming villages are depicted at the same time in a painting.

Detail of Hokusai's

Detail from “Hokusai’s Kitsune-no-yomeiri-zu”

A poem of Kobayashi Issa, a haiku poet of the same era, reads, “in the autumn flames and mountains, there is the rain of fox’s weddings” (秋の火や山は狐の嫁入雨). Also, in the works of the Meiji period waka and haiku poet Kobayashi Issa, there was a tanka that read, “when the rain falls on the village from a blue sky at the hour of the horse, perhaps the king fox is getting married” (青空にむら雨すぐる馬時狐の大王妻めすらんか).

From the ningyō jōruri “Dan no Ura Kabuto Gunki” (壇浦兜軍記) first performed in 1732, one hears the refrain “it was quite clear weather all the way up to now, but then I heard it, the playful rain of the fox’s wedding” and in the period novel Onihei Hankachō published after the war, there was one volume titled “fox rain” (狐雨).

In Edo period kusazōshi and kibyōshi such as “無物喰狐婿入” (illustrated by Kitao Masayoshi) published in 1785 (Tenmei 5), “Mukashigatari Kitsune Yomeiri” (昔語狐娶入) (illustrated by Kitao Shigemasa), and “Anasaka Kitsune Engumi” (穴賢狐縁組) (illustrated by Jippensha Ikku), as well as in Kamigata e-hon such as the “Shūgen Kitsune no Mukoiri” and “Ehon Atsumegusa,” there are depictions of “foxes weddings” of humanized foxes going through weddings. There was a genre of works called “yomeiri mono” (嫁入り物, “wedding things”) of humanized animals going through weddings, but foxes had the special characteristic of concretely having the name Inari no Kami attached to them. This is seen to be an indication that faith in the god Inari as well as “yomeiri mono” both deeply permeated among the common people.

The foxes' wedding as depicted in Shugen Kitsne no Mukoiri

The foxes’ wedding as depicted in Shugen Kitsne no Mukoiri

Among local people, in Akaoka, Kōchi Prefecture (now Kōnan) among other places, there is the children’s song in which we hear “when rain falls in good weather, it’s the fox’s wedding” (日和に雨が降りゃ 狐の嫁入り, hiyori ni ame ga furya, kitsune no yomeiri), and it is said that an actual fox’s wedding precession was seen on a day of a sunshower.

The foxes’s wedding as an auspicious wedding reenactment (or wedding rite for the reversal of ill-fortune)

In the Suzakihamamiyashinemei Jinja in Miyado, Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture, during setsubun, a shinto ritual called “kitsune no yomeiri dōchū (the fox’s wedding journey)” performed in the Edo period, and revived during the postwar period, and a man and woman who were in a yakudoshi or “unlucky age” that year would dress up as a little fox, the head envoy of the gods, and a girl fox, the envoy of the god of Suzakihamamiyashinemei Jinja, and then re-enact a wedding, which at that time it can be seen to flourish with several tens of thousands of visitors to the shrine. [The dressup as foxes was probably an act of deception intended to trick the gods into not knowing the couple’s true identity, so as not to attract misfortun while allowing them to go ahead with their wedding rites.)


Fox sightings, supernatural and ghostly encounters and — omens of death

The abovementioned auspicious tale has an ominous and foreboding counterpart legend in Tokushima prefecture, where the lantern procession and fox’s wedding weather phenomena sightings, are an omen that someone is about to die, a part of a funeral ritual.

Generally at night in the mountains or at riverbeds, it is said that countless kitsunebi would come together in a line and look like a procession of paper lanterns, and it is said that the foxes are lighting paper lanterns for a wedding ceremony, and thus it is called “the fox’s wedding.” These mysterious flames have the particular characteeristic that they can only be seen from afar.

In the essay “Kokon Yōdan Shū” from the Edo Period, there was a story where someone actually encountered the wedding. In Kanpō 5 (1745), a man appeared in the ferry landing in Takemachi, Honjo, and since there was a wedding ceremony in the home of his employer who he works for, he requested many ferryboats to gather, and as a gift to the host of the ferry landing, he gave one ryō as a tip. The host happily prepared the boats and waited, and since a splendid wedding procession came, the host courteously escorted the procession. However, the next morning, not to mention the tip, all of the ferry money turned into tree leaves. Local rumors have it that there was a wedding between deities(?) of Handa Inari in Kanamachi, Kasai (now Katsushika, Tokyo) and Yasuzemon Inari in Asakusa.

There are many foxes that live in Kirinzan in the Niigata Prefecture, and it is said that at night, there was a wedding procession with hanging paper lanterns. For this reason,  there is a festival called the Kitsune no Yomeiri Gyōretsu is performed in the Tsugawa region, Aga, Higashikanbara also in the same prefecture. Originally a place famous for kitsunebi, an event related to kitsunebi was performed starting from Shōwa 27, the wedding precession (yomeiri gyōretsu) is today an annual sightseeing event, with about 40 thousand sightseers.

A topography book of the Echigo province (now Niigata Prefecture), from the Hōreki period, the “Echigo Nayose” (越後名寄), includes the following statement about the appearance of the “kitsune no yomeiri”:

At whatever time at night, whatever place, on occasions when it becomes extraordinarily quiet, flames like paper lanterns or embers can be seen continuing far into the distance, far surpassing even one ri. They are quite rare in all places, but they appear occasionally in the Kanbara district. This is said to be the wedding of young foxes.

In here, lines of atmospheric ghost lights that stretch close to 4 kilometers are called “kitsune no kon,” and also in Nakakubiki District, Niigata Prefecture, and Uonuma of the same prefecture, the Akita Prefecture, Sakuragawa, Ibaraki Prefecture, Nanakai, Nishiibaraki District of the same prefecture(now Shirosato), Hitachiōta of the same prefecture, Koshigaya, Saitama Prefecture, Higashichichibu of the same prefecture, the Tama area of Tokyo, the Gunma Prefecture, the Tochigi Prefecture, Mukawa, Hokuto, Yamanashi Prefecture, the Mie Prefecture, Kashihara, Nara Prefecture, and Nanbu, Saihaku District, Tottori Prefecture, among other places, when atmospheric ghost lights (kitsunebi) are seen in the countryside at night, the phenomenon is called “kitsune no yomeiri.”

What it is called can vary depending on area; for example, the phenomenon is called “kitsune no yometori (狐の嫁取り, the fox’s wife-taking)” in Sōka, Saitama Prefecture and Noto, Fugeshi District, Ishikawa Prefecture (now Noto, Hōsu District)[15][16] while referred to as “kitsune no shūgen” (狐の祝言) in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture. Several theories exist as to why the bride and groom are seen as foxes. One such theory says that although the lights appeared to be signifying a wedding, there was actually no wedding anywhere and the entire thing was an elaborate trick played by foxes.

Past phenomenon in Toyoshima in Edo (now Toshima, Kita ward, Tokyo, and Ouji, of the same ward), allegedly include the atmospheric ghost lights that continuously appear and quiver and shake around in the darkness is called “kitsune no yomeiri,” –the phenomenon is counted as one of the “seven mysteries of Toshima” told about in this village.


The superhuman and supernatural

Stories of marriages between foxes that were shown to humans are disseminated country-wide.

One such example, was the folk legend of Sōka, Saitama prefecture, in the Sengoku period, where a certain woman promised to marry with her lover, but who died to an illness, and foxes were said to have been inspired by the regretfulness of this situation … into holding the fox’s wedding procession spotted taking place near the woman’s grave.  Also, according to a folktale in the Shinano Province (now Nagano Prefecture), there is a story where when an old man helped a little fox, he was eventually greeted by the wedding procession of the fox when it grew mature, and as a gift of thinks to the old man, he was taken along it. In stories of weddings like these, natural phenomena like those written about above as well as supernatural “kitsune no yomeiri,” function like stage settings, and weddings that take place in the day frequently take place in a sunshower, and those that take place at night frequently take place among atmospheric ghost lights.

There are various stories of strange wedding processions that were witnessed, and recorded, especially in old Edo literature which involved sightings of actual foxes, like in the essay “Konjaku Yōdan Shū” (今昔妖談集) of Kan’ei period of one taking place in Takemachi, in the Honjo area of Edo, as well as the written work “Edo Chirihiroi” (江戸塵拾) where one was seen at the Hacchō canal in Edo, as well as the kaidan collection “Kaidan Oi no Tsue” (怪談老の杖) of the Kansei period where one was seen in the village of Kanda, Kōzuke (now Gunma Prefecture).

The fox myths, as linked to the Inari deity and Inari shrine agricultural tradition, where the fox is deified as a god of harvest OR a messenger of the grain deity Inari.

In the Hanaoka Tokufuku Inari-sha in Kudamatsu, Yamaguchi Prefecture, in the Inari festival held in November 3 every year, the “kitsune no yomeiri” is performed. This is not related to either atmospheric ghost lights or sunshowers, but is rather a re-enactment of a wedding between foxes, and is due to the efforts of volunteers after the old practice of praying for good harvest at the Inari festival at that shrine ceased in the chaos of the postwar period, and the re-enactment refers to the fact a white fox couple at that shrine was looking for something lost, and was deified as a god of good harvest and thriving business. The ones who perform as the fox couple are selected among the people of Kudamatsu, but it is said that as the female who plays the part of one of the newlywed is going to be blessed with a good match, there is a benefit to a marriage at that same shrine.

See Hatsu Uma Festival commemorates the day that Inari, the grain deity descended upon Mt Inari

The fox is associated with Inari, a grain deity who descended upon Mt Inari

The fox is associated with Inari, a grain deity who descended upon Mt Inari

Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社?) is the head shrine of Inari, located in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto, Japan. The shrine that sits at the base of a mountain also named Inari, is predominantly patronized in early Japan by merchants.

The earliest structures were built in 711 on the Inariyama hill in southwestern Kyoto, but the shrine was re-located in 816 on the request of the monk Kūkai to the current Fushimi-ku location in Kyoto. The shrine became the object of Imperial patronage during the early Heian period. In 965 Emperor Murakami decreed that messengers carry written accounts of important events to the guardian kami of Japan. Inari shrine was among the 16 shrines, these heihaku were initially presented to. From 1871 through 1946, Fushimi Inari-taisha was officially designated one of the Kanpei-taisha (官幣大社?), meaning that it stood in the first rank of government supported shrines.

The clear link between foxes and Inari is documented in Edo period kusazōshi and kibyōshi such as “無物喰狐婿入” (illustrated by Kitao Masayoshi) published in 1785 (Tenmei 5), “Mukashigatari Kitsune Yomeiri” (昔語狐娶入) (illustrated by Kitao Shigemasa), and “Anasaka Kitsune Engumi” (穴賢狐縁組) (illustrated by Jippensha Ikku), as well as in Kamigata e-hon such as the “Shūgen Kitsune no Mukoiri” and “Ehon Atsumegusa,” there are depictions of “foxes weddings” of humanized foxes going through weddings. There was a genre of works called “yomeiri mono” (嫁入り物, “wedding things”) of humanized animals going through weddings, but foxes had the special characteristic of concretely having the name Inari no Kami attached to them. This is seen to be an indication that faith in the god Inari as well as “yomeiri mono” both deeply permeated among the common people.

The foxes’ legend as a cosmological myth of great antiquity and with a broader common origin

The most probable explanation for the fox’s wedding, and other fox, legends, is that it was an ancient agricultural and seasonal astronomical precessional rite, that was inherited from the Altaic-or Northern Chinese continental migrants who brought grain agriculture into the land, both millet and rice. From studies of archaeology and astronomical knowledge, fox legends are believed to have a four thousand year old history, associated with prehistoric earth and sky agricultural rites and a part of the ancients’ rich body of calendrical knowledge of cyclical-seasonal readings. Fox sculptures are known in archeaology from Turkey’s Gobleki Tepe site, and fox myths and temples are found in abundance pan-Mesoamerican and -South American, the fox temples featuring earth offerings and sightings of celestial bodies’ alignments and seasonal predictions.

A 2011 study, published in the Journal of Cosmology, reviews the “evidence associated with the fox representations [and] argues that the beginnings of hierarchy in Andean South America occurred with the rise of a priestly cult who maintained a complex knowledge of astronomy.” The article entitled “Ancient South American Cosmology: Four Thousand Years of the Myth of the Fox”, excerpted below states,

“The mythology of the South American fox is associated with both the sky, into which he ascended, and more strongly, the earth below. He brought back carbohydrates from the heavens in the form of agricultural plants, and animal protein in the form of fish. His association with climate change and prediction of crop success is told in stories over much of South America. His constellation is visible to indigenous peoples in a number of South American countries. From coastal Peru to southern Ecuador, shamans still use the fox to make prophesies, and variations on the fox myths are still heard from Central to South… The first representations of the Andean fox were found at the site of Buena Vista, Chillón Valley, Perú.


The fox representations at Buena Vista are the earliest three‐dimensional art in the Americas (Benfer et al. 2010). These 4,000‐year‐ago acts marked a point where stories about the fox first became expressed visually in sculptures, murals, paintings, and architecture. The archaeological representations of the fox at Buena Vista are associated with temples where one could observe sky‐events and make offerings to the earth.

These associations of the fox with the earth and the sky persisted from the Late Preceramic until the time of the Incas and are still known today among Andean peoples, both Quechua‐speakers and Aymara‐speakers….

An Andean constellation of his personage is widely known throughout much of South America. The fox of contemporary SA indigenous peoples’ cosmology appears to be the same fox that by 2000 BC was first represented in art associated with monumental architecture at Buena Vista.”

“The rising of the Andean Fox constellation in the Milky Way marked seasonally important dates such as solstices (Benfer et al. 2010) and lunar standstills (Adkins and Benfer 2009) between 2200 and 2000 BC. So, too, the Maya constellations and the Milky Way marked solstices.”

The authors argues for a distant common origin of the fox myths, having found that there were common elements of Mesoamerican and South American origin fox myths, such as nocturnal associations, trickery and associations with earth and agricultural offerings and a relationship between the fox and the sacred mountain: “The South American fox monitors offerings to the earth, which are reviewed for adequacy by animated mountains”.

In Japan, with its adopted western Gregorian calendar, the calendrical associations of fox myths are for the most part forgotten, however, vestiges of the seasonal significance remain. For eg.,according to legends of Fukushima Prefecture, it is said that at evening on 10th day of the 10th month on the lunisolar calendar, if one wears a suribachi on one’s head, and sticks a wooden pestle in one’s waist, and stand under a date plum, it is possible to see a fox’s wedding, and in the Aichi Prefecture, it is said that if one spits in a well, intertwine one’s fingers and look through a gap in between, one is able to see a fox’s wedding.

Shapeshifters, a separate Indo-European or Indo-Iranian development

The same 2011 study emphasized that stories of shape-shifting foxes belong to a separate tradition and possibly a later Indo-European/Aryan development. This appears to accord with the Japanese situation where shapeshifting foxes are mostly medieval developments showing diversified late Silk Road Eurasian influences.

There are also stories of weddings not just between foxes, but also between a human male and a female fox, and a representative work, which also became a ningyō jōruri, is the story about the birth of the Heian period onmyoji, Abe no Seimei in Kuzunoha. There is also a similar tale in the Nihonkoku Genpō Zen’aku Ryōiki, as well as in the “Tonegawa Zushi” (利根川図志) a topography book published in 1857 (Ansei).  The town of Onabake (女化, literally meaning “shapeshift into woman”) in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture got its name from this, and the a fox is deified in the Onabake Jinja in Ryūgasaki of the same prefecture.

Also, in the Konjaku Monogatarishū as well as the “Honchō Koji Innen Shū” (本朝故事因縁集) published in 1689 (Genroku 2) and the “Tamahahaki” (玉掃木) published in 1696 (Genroku 9), there is the story of a fox who appeared before a married man, shapeshifted and disguised as that person’s wife. Also, in the kaidan collection “Tonoigusa” (宿直草) published in 1677 (Enpō 5), there is the reverse story where a male fox fell in love with a female human, shapedshifted and disguised as that woman’s husband and intercourse, and resulted in the birth of children with atypical appearance.

See also She-Wolf, Were-Wolf Wives and wolf shrines of Japan

In Descended from Wolves: Wolf Symbolism, I draw upon the writings of Daniele Guizzo’s work, “”Blessed and cursed: Wolf”s totemism and tabooisation between the Caucasus and Iran“(p. 117~) says the fox was interchangeable with wolves in Iranic symbolism and the shapeshifting and other wolf attributes were indistinguishable in the Iranian and Caucasian world, — to show that wolves, werewolves originated in a Proto-Indo-European or Aryan homeland and moved westwards, from early Turk-Mongol centres, while the fox shapeshifter can be traced out of Iranic Central Asian dispersing through eastwards in East Asian cultural spheres (through China, Korea and Japan), perhaps in tandem with the spread of millet and rice agriculture (foxes’ tails are often compare with millet).

Finally, in Myths and Legends from Korea: An Annotated Compendium of Ancient and Modern Materials (edited by James Huntley Grayson) at pp.396-7 the Korean Fox Wife tale is compared with its counterpart Fox Wife tale from Japan, and at the same time, it is suggested from the background of the next tale of the fox who became the Empress of China, that the fox-ancestry or fox-descent tales of both Korea and Japan originate from Chinese sources [which in turn may have originated from Iranic or Dravidian sources), and are a variant of the Mongolic wolf-descent tales. The three Chinese-Korean-Japanese mythic cultural spheres are clearly related, for they share the same mythical nine-tailed fox iconography with genealogical significance (and therefore possibly the same royal bloodlines?). Korean tales, however, tend to portray the fox mountain spirit as evil, while foxes are more often than not regarded as benevolent by the Japanese.  History books like Book of Zhou and story collections like Extensive Records of the Taiping Era, depict the nine-tailed fox as a beast of fortune. Sent by the heavens, the nine-tailed fox was seen as a sign of fortune, peace and luck. In the Han dynasty, it is the protector of royal blood.

Nine-tailed fox from the Qing period Shanghaijing.

Nine-tailed fox from the Qing period Shanghaijing.

Source and references:

“Ancient South American Cosmology:
Four Thousand Years of the Myth of the Fox”, Journal of Cosmology, 2011

Kitsune-bi (

Wikipedia entry “kitsune no yomeiri

For more resources on foxwives and nine-tailed foxes and more, see this page

Namahage – friend or foe?



The Namahage stories and traditions are so ancient, nobody can agree upon their origins anymore…

The Namahage is a demon-or ogre-like creature which features prevalently in an annual New Year’s tradition in Akita prefecture. On the 31st of December, young men don a demon mask and straw raincoat, and carry a pail and a weapon made of wood. They roar menacingly, dance around bonfires, play taiko drums and visit every house in the village, searching for indolent and disobedient children to drag away into the mountains. Once the children have been sufficiently chased around and frightened, parents assure the Namahage that there are no bad children in the house, and appease them with food and sake. The Namahage encourages the children to keep studying and working hard, and the children make a new year’s resolution to behave. Finally, the Namahage wishes prosperity and good health on the family before moving on to the next house.(source: ilovejapan website)

The Namahage’s role thus reminds us a little of Santa Claus (or Saint Nicholas’) …”better be good, better be nice,  Santa knows…” as the carol goes. Actually, in this repsect, the Namahage has a very close counterpart in the Krampus demon found in Germanic areas of Europe. This suggests the diffusion of a very distant common tradition from a common origin in the early Aryan/Caucasus/Eurasian steppelands (or homeland of the proto-Europeans). See the Horned demons of Europe and Images of oni from Onmyodo traditions and beliefs

The namahage’s purpose was to admonish laggards who sit around the fire idly doing nothing useful. One of the refrains used by the namahage in the olden days was “Blisters peeled yet?” (なもみコ剝げたかよ namomi ko hagetaka yo?). Namomi signifies the heat blisters, or more precisely hidako (火だこ hidako?) (Erythema ab igne or EAI), a rashlike condition caused by overexposure to fire sitting by the dugout irori hearth. Thus “Fire rash peeling” is generally believed to be the derivation of the name namahage.

Some of the namahage’s other spoken lines of old were “Knife whetted yet?” (包丁コとげたかよ hōchōko togetaka yo?) and “Boiled adzuki beans done yet?” (小豆コ煮えたかよ azuki ko nietaka yo?). The knife apparently signified the instrument to peel the blisters. And it may be mentioned in passing that it was customary to have azuki gruel on the “Little New Year”.

Although the namahage takes the form of a type of oni or ogre, it was originally thought to be a custom where youngsters impersonated the kami who made visitations during the New Year’s season. Thus it is a kind of toshigami.

The namahage would typically receive mochi from the households they visited, but newlywed couples were supposed to play host to them in full formal attire and offer them sake and food.

Some ethnologists and folklorists suggest it relates to a belief in deities (or spirits) coming from abroad to take away misfortune and bring blessings for the new year, while others believe it is an agricultural custom where the kami from the sacred mountains visit. See the related marebito concept.

Namahage visits are nowadays practiced on New Year’s Eve using the Western Gregorian calendar. But it used to be practiced on the so-called “Little New Year” (小正月 Koshōgatsu?), the first full moon night of the year. This is 15th day of the first lunar calendrical year, which is not the same thing as January 15 as it fluctuates and usually falls around mid-February, exactly two weeks after the Chinese New Year (Japanese: Kyūshogatsu).


From the Oga peninsula, comes a great favorite folktale that paints the Han Chinese as unwelcome maurauders in the distant past…

The Legend of the 999 Stone Stairs and the Namahage

Legend has it that the Emperor Wu of Han (d. 87 BC) China came to Japan bringing five demonic ogres to the Oga area, and the ogres established quarters in the two local high peaks, Honzan (本山)and Shinzan (真山). These oni, as ogres are most commonly called in Japan, stole crops and young women from Oga’s villages.

The citizens of Oga wagered the ogres that if they could build a flight of stone steps, one thousand steps in all, from the village to the five shrine halls, [variant: from the sea shore to the top of Mt. Shinzan, all in one night, then the villagers will supply them with a young woman every year.  If on the other hand, the oni failed in their task, they would have to leave Oga never to return again.

The ogres accepted the wager and had reached 999 stairs when a quick-witted villager mimicked a cock crowing at dawn. So the ogres departed dismayed, believing they had failed.


In other regions, namahage act as village guardians and protectors against disaster… Eg., at the Namahage Sedo Festival

This famous winter rite is the union of the folk Namahage tradition and a Shinto festival.

The festival begins with Chinkamayu no Mai, a sacred kagura dance particular to the area. This is followed by the dynamic Namahage dance and drums. Finally, fifteen Namahage march down from the mountain bearing torches, bringing the night to its climax. The sticky rice cakes passed out by the demons themselves(unlike elsewhere where they are bribed with mochi cakes), are said to ward off disaster.



Sources and further reading:

Namahage  Museum

Yamamoto, Yoshiko (1978). The Namahage: a festival in the northeast of Japan. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, Inc. p. 114. ISBN 0-915980-66-5.

Wikipedia’s entry “Namahage”

Banishing the demons one bean at a time

Horned demons of Europe

Images of oni from onmyodo traditions and beliefs


Namahage image: own work