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



How Taoist-Confucian ideology helped the Yamato rulers accommodate the indigenous fertility and phallic cults in Japan


Hōnen Matsuri at Tagata Shrine in Komaki

Hōnen Matsuri at Tagata Shrine (Wikipedia)

The Tagata and O-Agata shrines of Japan attract a great deal of interest both from locals as well as from abroad … for the phallic cult and fertility festivals.

The Tagata shrine and its paired O-Agata shrine actually enshrine and venerate a royal princess, who according to local tradition, was the daughter and husband of feudal lords who belonged  with the warrior aristocrat retinue from Nara. The Tagata shrine lies over the former residence of the Tamahime princess. This begs the question as to why the Yamato royal elites would be presiding over the phallic fertility festivals of the region they had settled or pacified.

Harvest Festival at Oh-Agata Shrine (Hime-no-miya Shrine)

Harvest Festival at Oh-Agata Shrine (Hime-no-miya Shrine) image: Japanguides

For clues to the answer, we look to the Taoist worldview and ideology that had been borrowed from China.

In Nara, the centre of Yamato state rule, the royal courtly culture was strongly influenced by continental traditions and customs, and Taoist beliefs governed every aspect of their daily lived. A veritable “Ministry of Magic” called the Bureau of Divination or Onmyoryo, headed by Taoist priests laid down yin-yang /in-yo rules for daily life and through its divination ritual practices, influenced the major and most important decisions of the day, such as when and whether to go to war, or to cross the seas in undertaking diplomatic missions or military expansions.

Phallic cults and festivals are often identified with Shintoism and assumed to be strictly local and indigenous since phallic rods and henges have been erected during prehistoric times and in early Japan. As such, they are commonly believed to be unconnected to or uninfluenced by royal customs which were foreign continental practices.

However, we suggest that the local indigenous phallic rituals and corresponding vaginal fertility cultic practices and beliefs were easily accommodated by the new system of Taoist beliefs that were taking root in Japan and forming the Way of Yin and Yang, the traditional Japanese traditional esoteric cosmology. The local fertility cults co-existed and appear to have been encouraged, institutionalized and presided over by the royal elites from Nara who established themselves as feudal lords over expanded local areas. As support for this idea, we highlight the interplay of phallic and womb-fertility component concepts inherent in Taoism-Confucian culture as it existed in the Longshan and Shang warring aristocrat communities, the continental cultural crucible for the ideas imported into Nara Japan. It may also be profitable to note the interaction of the idea of the Confucian Heavenly Divine mandate with Taoist beliefs on the continent,  may have influenced the structure of “heavenly” ruling clan deities of Yamato vs. the “earthly deities” of the localities seen in the Kojiki and Nihongi chronicles.

For support of the foregoing, we draw upon Don Lehman jr.’s writings “The Tao of China”, in which Lehman sees the historical events of the Eurasian continent as a polarization and interplay of cultures of the Bronze Age warring nomadic aristocracies and the sedentary farming agri-cultures as the former group impinges upon the lands of the latter. At Chapter 24 he lprovides a new geophysical paradigm for understanding the interaction of and interplay between the indigenous fertility phallic-womb beliefs of early prehistoric and protohistoric Japanese and the warrior and central ruling ideologies that were intrusions of the central governance from Yamato court:

“…during the Shang dynasty that there was a differentiation between the Government and the Clan. In this section we will see that during the Shang the religion of government differentiated itself from the indigenous fertility cults. The religion of government eventually became Confucianism, while the religions of fertility became Taoism. The yang phallic quest for power separated itself from the yin vaginal quest for fertility. While the religion of government was phallic, Taoism was vaginal. The roots of Taoism are in the Paleolithic as exhibited by their injunction against dependency upon agriculture. Because of their reliance upon Nature, Taoism is predicated upon a greater trust of the Tao of Heaven.

Phallus power vs. Vaginal fertility cultures

Phallic symbols represent Shang Gods

Traditionally the military cultures based upon the pursuit of power have been male based and phallus oriented. This started with the phallic spear of Homo erectus. The Shang culture followed this pattern. Their most important god was Shang Ti, the supreme ancestor. Next in importance was Shê, the god of the earth. The archaic pictogram for both ancestor and Shê is a phallic symbol. These cults have continued down to the present day. [1] This phallic orientation probably was a continuation of the Longshan with its emphasis on warfare. This stratified society with the phallic male on top is certainly reflected in the Confucian hierarchy with the male emperor on top of the father-dominated family. Hence Confucianism is based upon the Bronze Age military culture.

Vaginal symbols Taoist [ see photo of female rocks at O-agata shrine]

While the power-based cultures are normally centered on the phallus, the fertility based cultures oriented upon generation and creativity have been gynocentric, i.e. focused upon the female vagina. Taoism follows this pattern. The Taoist symbolism is riddled with references to the mysterious female, pregnancy and birth. Below is just one of the many vaginal references from the Taoist Bible, the Tao Te Ching.
“#10. Can you play the role of the female in the opening and closing of the gates of Heaven.”[2]

Vaginal Taoism polar opposite to Phallic Empire

Taoism was and is linked to the female vagina, emulating the pregnant state of the woman, to give birth to oneself. The Taoists tend to advocate small and decentralized political structures. The Shang ancestor worship was linked with the phallus, the male, the father, a patriarchy. This eventually connects up with the imperial structure with Confucianism. Thus the phallic orientation of the religion of the state oriented around Shang Ti, is a polar opposite to the vaginal orientation of Taoism whose focus is upon vitality and creativity.

Taoism/fertility: Confucianism/power

Worshipping the fertility of the woman, Taoism has been main force behind Chinese artistic expression. Behind Confucianism is the warrior ethic, which developed during the Shang…Taiji Quan has its roots in Chinese warrior training of the Shang dynasty. Confucianism, in worshipping the power of the man, has been the main force behind all of Chinese politics. This split occurred during the Shang, with its stratification of society into a military aristocracy, an agri-cultural peasantry, and the artistic class.

Taoism Paleolithic not Neolithic

The focus of Taoism upon female fertility links it with the Paleolithic hunter-gatherer fertility cults. While fertility was worshipped by the agri-cultures, it was linked with the fertility of the soil. The fertility worshipped by the hunter-gatherers had to do with fertility of Nature itself. First these cultures worshipped the propagation of the species as symbolized by their many fertility figurines. Second as hunter-gatherers they were dependent upon the annual rebirth of the natural flora and fauna. The female fertility figures, which symbolize this northern fertility culture, originated deep in the Paleolithic and were merely continued in the Neolithic agri-cultures…. Due to the sedentary and annual nature of agriculture, their [farmers'] freedom was severely limited. Also because of the nature of the military aristocracy, the farmers were and are always prone to domination.”

“Unpredictability of Nature brings freedom

While the unpredictability of nature was insecure, it brought freedom. Cultures depending only upon the bounty of Nature were simultaneously the most insecure and the freest. This worship of nature is very different from the worship of nature by the agri-cultures. The agri-cultures worship the rainfall and the ground to bring good crops which they need to feed themselves and their livestock. The agri-cultures have taken matters into their own hands, depending upon their own efforts rather than trusting Heaven’s Will.

Livestock, the original corruption

One Taoist story is of a Taoist going to live in the freedom of a mountain. A friend gives him a goat. Caring for the goat leads the Taoist into the binding agricultural lifestyle, complete with fences and dependency upon the soil[4]. In this story the livestock lead to the inhibited agricultural lifestyle. …

Yielding to the Tao or The trust in divinity

…Ironically one of Adam’s sins was the lack of trust in divinity. He wanted to taste the duality of choice rather than depend upon the wisdom of greater powers. The knowledge of Good and Evil fragmented his original wholeness into parts. Depending upon the unpredictability of Nature, means the cultivation of trust. The unpredictability of natural events can be so anxiety provoking as to be paralyzing. At that point of an individual becomes paralyzed by fear or anxiety, no matter how slight it might be, freedom is gone. Thus while unpredictability can lead to freedom it can also lead to anxiety that paralyzes. Each of us has our own line at which time too much freedom becomes paralyzing. Where the line is drawn is based upon our level of trust of nature or divinity or whatever.

Trust in the continuity of cycles: Up always follows the down

The first level of trust is simply believing that one day, that one season, and that the years will follow with some regularity and continuity. Believing that the fertility of spring will follow the barrenness of winter, relieves the anxiety of winter. The anxiety we experience in each of our personal winters, the darkness before the dawn, is eliminated if we unswervingly trust that day follows night as surely as spring follows winter. The long-term perspective based upon trust relieves the anxiety of being too present. Children even go through periods of fear of the dark, which only reflects their anxiety that they might not survive the night. Many anxieties are rooted in this lack of trust during the down cycles…From the Tao Te Ching:

“5. Heaven-and-Earth is not sentimental;
It treats all things as straw dogs.”
Highest level of trust in the Tao of Heaven

For those that discriminate, the trust that everything happens for the best is insufficient to relieve anxiety. For the Taoist the highest level of trust according to my limited perceptions is the trust that aligning oneself with the Tao of Heaven is the best one can do, regardless of outcome or consequence. If one is given an evil or tragic role, one must still fulfill it to the best of one’s ability.
This level of trust is rooted in the unreality of the phenomenal world …

This higher level of trust is rooted in the Buddhist notion of unreality of the phenomenal world. Investing in the polarities of good and evil, life and death, (as did Adam and Eve) only leads to disappointment and suffering. In between the polarity of yin and yang is Taiji. Taking a yin yang bath in the non-duality of existence divests one of attachment.

Yielding to the Will of Heaven

Hence this higher level of trust is based upon the trust in Nature, not because natural events are for the best or a punishment for past transgressions, but only because Nature is so powerful that we are helpless before it… This type of trust is of a slightly different nature. The trust is a yielding to the Power of Nature, Divinity, the Will of Heaven. Hoping to fulfill Destiny but unattached. Relaxed before the potential of our aborted fate. Not assuming that because we are good people that we are blessed and protected by the almighty. But instead blessing each moment as the Grace of Conscious existence.

Taiji: trust in the Tao, not technique

In Taiji, the trust comes from the same root. Fear is based upon investment in duality. The divestment in the duality lessens the fear. The trust is based upon being in the Womb of the Mother. It is so comfortable and warm that even if she asks for your sacrifice you are thankful for the few brief moments that you have been able to reside in her womb. … Hence the trust in Taiji is not based upon trust of technique but instead upon the trust in existence. If your technique is not sufficient and you take a few knocks, so be it.

Trust that quietude will reveal the Will of Heaven

For the Taoist there is one other primary trust. This is the trust that the Tao of Nature, the Will of Heaven, is revealed in the midst of extreme quietude. While the Buddhists seek quietude in the pursuit of detachment, the Taoists seek quietude to allow the Tao of Nature to emerge and be listened to. The Buddhists seek the emptiness of the Void. The Taoists see the Void between yin and yang, but it is not empty. It is filled with purpose and meaning.


The ancestor worship of the Longshan clans and Shang government was oriented around phallic power, while the Taoism has always been oriented around vaginal fertility. The traditions based around the government and ancestor worship eventually coalesced around Confucianism, while the traditions centered upon cultivating fertility became associated with Taoism. Taoism is based in the freedom and insecurity of the Paleolithic while Confucianism is based in the military aristocracy of the Bronze Age. The insecurity of freedom is neutralized by the trust that doing the Will of Heaven, the Tao of Nature, is the best that we can do…”

We can see Lehman’s described dynamic of the underlying warrior-rule and dominance as well as the Taoist-Shinto elements at work in the fertility phallic-vs.-womb pairing of the respective Tagata and O-Agata shrines. It is significant that both shrines enshrine the Tamahime goddess who according to local tradition was the princess and daughter of Ogata, feudal aristocrats from the Nara court.

Manifesting the dualism of in-yo harmony, the Tagata shrine’s phallic-penis displays are paired with the “vaginal” womb celebrations of the nearby O-Agata shrine, see Green Shinto’s “Fertility festival (Ohgata shrine)

“Oh-agata Jinja is a shrine near Nagoya dedicated to Oh-Agata, a kami who is said to have founded the local area of Owari County. It’s known for its female fertility symbols and attracts women seeking marriage or the birth of a child. As such it’s paired with nearby Tagata Jinja, famed for its ‘big penis’ festival about which I wrote recently.

A central role is played by the Hime no miya subshrine, where the daughter of Oh-Agata is worshipped. Known as Tamahime no mikoto, she is a goddess of marriage, pregnancy, safe birth and happy conjugal life. ‘Above all,’ says the shrine brochure, ‘she is worshipped as the guardian goddess of women.’

The shrine’s Grand Festival takes place on the Sunday prior to March 15, when the Tagata festival is held. Like similar fertility festivals, it is aimed at securing good harvests and prosperity. The parade is led by Sarutahiko, kami of showing the way, and features unmarried women and a vaginal symbol made of pink rice.”


That the paired Tagata and O-agata shrines show the Taoist yin-yang principles at work, is also confirmed by the commentary on Honen Matsuri in the Encyclopedia of Shinto:

Good Harvest Festival. A festival held at Ōagata Shrine (Ōagata jinja) in Inuyama City, Aichi Prefecture. The Sunday closest to March 15 is the festival day. Also called the Hime no Miya Hōnen Festival. The festival complements the Good Harvest Festival of Tagata Shrine and is famous for the worship of genitalia. Called the Yin (in or female) festival in contrast to the Yang (yō or male) festival of Tagata Shrine, rocks symbolizing the female genitals are enshrined. There is a procession of a sacred palanquin (mi-koshi) representing the female genitals, great banners (ō-nobori), and decorated horses. Good luck mochi are scattered from a sacred palanquin carrying a giant clam. In front of the shrine hall onlookers scramble for valuable items hanging from the large sakaki. These are talismans for safe birth, getting married, and satisfaction in married life.
There is also the Good Harvest Festival on the Sunday closest to March 15 at Tagata Shrine in Komaki City, Aichi Prefecture. It is said that this transporting of the deity rite is based on a legend about the enshrined kami, Takeinazumi-no-mikoto, who had an enormous penis and took to wife the local Aratahime-no-mikoto. The festival involves the transporting of the deity from Shinmei Shrine or Kubo Temple to Tagata Shrine. A linga (penis) almost two meters in length rides on the sacred palanquin, following a large banner upon which a penis is drawn. The banner is carried by youths, and at the shrine the onlookers scramble to claim pieces of it. The talismans that are on the banner pieces are skewered, and it is said that if these are placed in the fields the harvest will be good. It is also said they will bless one with good relationships and keep away sexual diseases. It is said that if one does not attend both this festival and the Yin festival at Ōagata Shrine then one will not prosper. — Mogi Sakae


Sources and Further readings:

Honen Matsuri, the Encyclopedia of Shinto

Don Lehman jr.’s writings “The Tao of China”, Chapter 24

The Tagata shrine and the “vaginal” womb celebrations of the nearby O-Agata shrine, Shinto’s “Fertility festival (Ohgata shrine or O-Agata shrin)

The Bureau of Yin-yang Divination, Onmyodo (the Encyclopedia of Shinto)

Eccentric Spaces, Hidden Histories: Narrative, Ritual, and Royal Authority from the Chronicles of Japan to the Tale of the Heike by David T. Bialock

Mt Shigi’s Myoren monk and miraculous tale of the flying rice bowl and granary


The legends of Mt. Shigi are depicted in the Shigisan engi emaki, a set of three-picture scrolls, preserved at the Chogo Sonshiji Temple , Mt. Shigi, Nara Prefecture. The scrolls are dated to around 1156-80.

The Mount Shigi scrolls illustrate three miracles associated with a Buddhist monk named Myoren and his mountaintop temple on Mount Shigi. Myoren was drawn to Mt. Shigi by a Buddhist statue, where he then built a shrine. He would eat whatever he could find himself, taking upon himself the task of praying for the statue. During the winter, he was visited by his long-lost rice bowl, which brought him rice every day. The rice bowl would fly down to the storehouse of a rich man (or rich farmer) Yamazaki, who had stingily refused to share his bounty with the monks, scoop out a bowlful of rice and then return to the monk. One day, the stingy rich man traps the bowl as it was scooping out rice, only to thwarted by the bowl carrying the entire storage house to the shrine. In exchange for sharing his grain with the monks, the monk had the rice bowl return all of the farmer’s rice to where it came from. Read the story of the Flying Rice Bowl /Granary here.

In Gardner’s Art through the Ages: Non-Western Perspectives, Fred Kleiner writes,

“The first relates the story of the flying storehouse and depicts Myoren’s begging bowl lifting the rice-filled granary of a greedy farmer and carrying it off to the monk’s hut in the mountains. The painter depicted the astonished landowner, his attendants, and several onlookers in various poses–some grimacing, others gesticulating wildly and scurrying about in frantic amazement. In striking contrast to the Genji scroll figures, the artist exaggerated each feature of the painted figures, but still depicted the actors and architecture seen from above.


[Further notes: The scrolls represented a new technique depicting pictures in continuous whole, since up till now, pictures were in separate panel form. This was to become the norm for later e-maki. The second scroll tells a story of Myoren healing the Emperor; The third scroll tells the story of Myoren's sister who in her old age decided to find and re-united with him, her brother.]


This legend is a variation of Asian Buddhist jataka tales of magical rice bowls or multiplying rice (see One Grain of Rice) or divining rice bowls such as that found in Life of Buddha: The Golden Rice Bowl


For further analysis, read Karen L. Brock’s The Making and Remaking of “Miraculous Origins of Mt. Shigi“, Archives of Asian Art, Vol. 45 (1992), pp. 42-71


Sources and References:

The Flying Rice Bowl, Itaya

Wikipedia’s entry “Mt Shigi

Gardner’s Art through the Ages: Non-Western Perspectives, by Fred Kleiner p. 100

The Japanese Experience: A Short History of Japan by William G. Beasley  p. 76

Jataka tales for Young and Old

One Grain of Rice by Demi

Imaging Japanese History (see handout p 5 only)

Karen L. Brock’s The Making and Remaking of “Miraculous Origins of Mt. Shigi“, Archives of Asian Art, Vol. 45 (1992), pp. 42-71

Bishamon(ten) and why paper tigers are placed around Chougosonshi-ji Temple

Mt Shigi (Image: Shigisan Chouson

Tiger figurine and Chogosonshiji Temple on Mt Shigi (Image: Shigisan Chogoshonshi-ji Temple)

Mt. Shigi is said to be the first place in Japan where Bishamonten appeared. Legend has it that when Prince Shotoku Taishi prayed for victory over Mononobe no Moriya, – an opponent of the Buddhism that the prince was promoting – Bishamonten appeared on Mt. Shigi at the hour of the tiger, on the day of the tiger, in the year of the tiger, and led the prince to victory. To express his deep gratitude, the prince built a temple dedicated to Bishamonten in 594 and named the temple Shigi-san which can be translated as “the mountain to be trusted and respected”. This anecdote is believed to be a reason why paper-tigers are placed around the temple. Affectionately known as “Shigi no Bishamon-san”, the temple is especially crowded with visitors during their first visit of the year (New Year’s Day).  As the temple enshrines Bishamonten, the original god of war and warriors, and also has a tiger as a guardian god, Chougosonshi-ji Temple is also famous for attracting professional baseball players from the Hanshin Tigers who go there to pray for victory.

Shigi-san Chougosonshi-ji Temple is the head temple of the Shigi-san faction of Shingon Buddhism and is located in Mt. Shigi in Heguri Town, Ikoma, Nara Prefecture. It is also the head temple of Bishamonten, one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune.

Painting of Tamonten, the Guardian of the North (one of the Four Guardian Kings). 13th century

Painting of Tamonten, the Guardian of the North (one of the Four Guardian Kings). 13th century (Image: Wikipedia)

The “Bishamonten” are dedicated to the God of war. There are three famous Bishamonten in Japan. Saishouji Temple, in Oiwa, holds one of them, the Oiwa Bishamonten. The other two are located on Kurama mountain in Kyoto Prefecture as well as the abovementioned Shigi Mountain in Nara Prefecture. The main hall was rebuilt in 1762(Houreki 12nen) and in 1993 it was widely repaired. The principal image is 1.8inches tall and is made of pure gold. It is said to have been made by Shotoku Taishi(the regent of Emperor Suiko in the Nara period). Here many votive pictures of horses are dedicated.

More historical background is given in The Seven Propitious Gods: Bishamonten – Wealth or War – Which is it?:

“Mimi Hall Yiengpruksawan in a 1998 publication of the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies said that Bishamon has his origins primarily in Central Asia and not India. He emerged in the sixth and seventh centuries as a militant protector of Buddhism and Buddhist rulers.” She added that “There were also legendary accounts of the barbarian-quelling powers of Bishamonten.” These became popular in both China and Japan. “Later a Japanese emperor, Kanmu 桓武, would install a monumental sculpture of Bishamonten in the upper story of Rajōmon 羅城門, the main gate to his new imperial capital, Heiankyō (the predecessor of Kyoto), which he had ordered built and occupied as the Emishi wars came to a close… [¶] This is an iconography that helps explain… why shrine-temple complexes and military outposts bear so many similarities, why pagodas, to name but one example, are reminiscent watch towers.”

Bishamon is the patron saint of (among others) priests, soldiers, doctors and missionaries – All of this makes sense. This god defends the faith, i.e, Buddhism, he is militant, at least, in costume, he wards off evil – which includes things that could harm one’s health …

Henri Joly, who didn’t always get things exactly right, cited Ernest Eitel about Bishamon in saying that “…he was canonized as God of Riches by Hiuen Tsung in 753, and plays an important part in exorcism….

Getty notes that “In Japan [Vaiśravaṇa] is worshipped under the name Bishamon, and is represented in armour ornamented with the seven precious jewels, and is generally standing on one or two demons. In his left hand he holds either a small shrine or the flaming pearl, while in his right is a jewelled lance.” The shrine is said to represent the Iron Tower in India where the Buddhist scriptures were found. Bishamon is often shown looking at the shrine as a symbol of him overseeing the treasures of that religion.

In 1902 Clarence Brownell referred to Bishamon as “the lucky god of War.”

In a 1906 volume of Kokka there is a one page entry entitled “Portrait of Bishamon-ten (The Indian Mars)”.  Joly in 1906 identified Bishamon as one of thesan-sen-jin (三戦神) or war gods. This figure he says is represented by a head with three faces riding on a boar.

August Karl Reischauer, Edwin O’s father, said he is in his Studies in Japanese Buddhism originally published in 1917. That same year Basil Stewart concurred, but added that Bishamon was also the god of glory.

On the other hand, L. Beatrice Thompson wrote in 1906 that “…in spite of Bishamon’s armour and ferocious aspect, he is not more especially the god of war than is Daikoku, and quite as much the god of riches as he…”

Bishamon as the god of wealth – A number of ancient Japanese texts say that Vaiśravaṇa is the same as Kuvera (sometimes Kubera) the ancient Hindu guardian of wealth. According to Chaudhuri “These writings projected the image of Vaiśravaṇa as a god of wealth to the common Japanese, in addition to that of a protector of the country. Thus he became a god of fortune.


The article Bishamonten draws our attention to the earliest introduction of Bishamonten in Japan as one of the four compass or directional deities:

“This armor-clad, weapon-wielding, demon-stomping deity was introduced to Japan in the 6th century AD as one of the four Shitennō (Four Heavenly Kings Protecting the Four Directions), wherein he is known as Tamonten 多聞天, the guardian of the north and protector of the holy places where Buddha expounds the teachings. The Four Kings soon rose to great prominence in rites to safeguard the Japanese nation. In later centuries, however, Tamonten became the object of an independent cult, supplanting the other three in importance. When worshipped independently, he is called Bishamonten (or Bishamon, Bishamon Tennō, Tobatsu Bishamon), but when portrayed among the Shitennō he is called Tamonten.”

Despite Bishamonten’s associations with warriors and war, the article Bishamonten appears to make a distinction saying that “Bishamon is the god of warriors (but not of war) and prayed to for victory prior to battle. He is also a god of defense against foreign invaders, a deity of healing with the power to save emperors from life-threatening illness and to expel demons of plague…, to keep personal enemies at bay, and to reward followers with riches, good fortune, and even children.  Around the 15th century, he was enlisted as one of Japan’s Seven Lucky Gods owing to his association with treasure and wealth. He is identified with various other deities, including the Hindu god of wealth Kubera / Kuvera; the Buddhist deity Tobatsu Bishamon (protector of capital cities and dispeller of foreign invaders); the Great Black Warrior of Vedic lore Mahākāla (aka Daikokuten, another member of Japan’s Seven Lucky Gods); the goddess of wealth and beauty Kichijōten (his wife in Japanese Buddhist lore); and with various syncretic deities including Sanmen Daikokuten, Tenkawa Benzaiten, Shōgun Jizō, and Sōshin Bishamonten.”

Tamonten statue at Tōdai-ji, Nara

Tamonten statue at Tōdai-ji, Nara (Image: Wikipedia)

In particular, the article Bishamonten highlights the deity’s role as expeller of plagues:

“The Shigisan Engi Emaki 信貴山縁起絵巻 (Illustrated Handscroll of the Legends of Mt. Shigi), was painted in the 12th century as a tribute to Bishamon’s miraculous power to ward off illness and expel the demons of plague. It includes the story of how Bishamon cured Emperor Daigo 醍醐天皇 (885-930) by dispatching Kumāra 倶摩羅 (Bishamon’s youthful dōji 童子 attendant) to help the sick emperor.Bishamon appears in other painted scrolls of the same period. Says the Tokyo National Museum (about adjacent image): “Here, Bishamonten is portrayed as a benevolent deity who protects devotees of the Lotus Sutra. Examples of Bishamon holding a bow, as he is painted here, are found in Chinese works of the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties. This scroll, called the Extermination of Evil (Hekija-e) or Exorcists Scroll, is conjectured to have been made during the time of Emperor Goshirakawa (1127-92, r. 1155-58) in the latter part of the Heian period (794-1185) and kept in the treasure house of Rengeo-in Temple (Sanjusangendo). All the deities shown here [in the five scolls] are considered, in China, to be benevolent deities who expel the demons of plague. This set was originally mounted as a handscroll that was known as the ‘second edition of the Masuda family Hell Scroll.’ After the war, the hand scroll was cut into five sections and the paintings mounted as hanging scrolls. The acts of each of the gods in exterminating evil are briefly explained in the texts accompanying the illustrations. <end text from Tokyo National Museum


The Indian equivalent of Bishamonten or Tamonten is Vaiśravaṇa -  the Indian guardian of the northern direction, and his home is in the northern quadrant of the topmost tier of the lower half of Mount Sumeru. He is the leader of all the yakṣas who dwell on the Sumeru’s slopes. In the Pāli scriptures of the Theravāda Buddhist tradition, Vaiśravaṇa is called VessavaṇaVessavaṇa is one of the four Great Kings, each of whom rules over a specific direction. Vessavaṇa‘s realm is the northern quadrant of the world, including the land of Uttarakuru. According to some suttas, he takes his name from a region there called Visāṇa;  Vessavaṇa has the authority to grant the yakkhas particular areas (e.g., a lake) to protect, and these are usually assigned at the beginning of aVessavaṇa‘s reign. When the Buddha was born, Vessavaṇa became his follower, and  often brought the Buddha and his followers messages from the gods and other humans, and protected them (Source: Wikipedia entry on Vaisravana. )  It maybe a somewhat futile or frustrating task to sort out whether the origins of Bishamon are Chinese or Indian as Buddhism originated in India and Buddhist figures and concepts filtered to Japan, not only via China (after having evolved or having been transformed there) but also directly by Indian monks to Japan or interacting with Japanese monks.

In Japanese iconography, Bishamon is portrayed holding a spear in one hand and a small pagoda in the other hand, the latter symbolizing the divine treasure house, whose contents he both guards and gives away. For images of Bishamonten in Japan, see the BISHAMON, BISHAMONTEN article.



Sources and references:

Shigisan-chougo-sonshi-ji Shigi-san Chougosonshi-ji Temple

New Year Rituals in the Temple of the God of War (Ancient Worlds)


The Seven Propitious Gods: Bishamonten – Wealth or War – Which is it? Vegder’s Blog


Notes: The solar cult of Mitras may have been a fertility cult

The Real History Behind the Da Vinci Code by Sharan Newman at p. 170:

“As early as AD 160 Justinian Martyr wrote about the Christian celebration of the Eucharist adding, “This also the wicked demons in imitation handed down as something to be done in the mysteries of Mithras, for bread and a cup of water are brought out in their secret rites of initiation, with certain invocations which you either know or learn.”5

A hundred years after Justin, in the third century, the Christian writer Origen stated that “in the mystery of Mithras … of Persian origin … there is a symbol of the two orbits in heaven, the one being of the fixed stars and the other that assigned to the planets, and of the soul’s passage through these … There is a ladder with seven gates and at its top an eighth gate.”6

A non-Christian account of Mithras comes from Apuleius, whose satire The Golden Ass was popular well into the Middle Ages and is still read today. He describes his initiation into the rites of Isis. ” When I ended my oration to the great goddess, I went to embrace the great priest Mithras, now my spiritual father.”7

The connection to Isis is especially important because in some of her temples there was a ritual slaying of a bull, as in the image of Mitrhas. The genitals of the bull were cut off (see the scorpion in the picture….) and burned. I have read that this took the place of an earlier ritual castration of the high priest. ..


Ancient authors assumed that Mithras was a form of a Persian god Mithras. Until recently, modern scholars followed this, assuming that any differences between the two were the result of cultural changes as the cult moved east. But recently people have tried to look at the representations of Mithras without a Persian base. The results have been interesting and sometimes controversial.

Just looking at the images in Mithraea, one scholar states, “We may still wonder at the attnetion devoted to the dying bull’s genitals … which depict semen being collected in a krater [a bowl, the root of the word grail], a scorpion grabbing at the testicles, and the tail turning into ears of grain. This seems to hint at themes of fertilization*, castration and miraculous procreation for which we have no text.”8 I’m sure we’d understand a lot more about the Roman world if we did have one.

One theory is that the image of Mithras killing the bull is really Perseus ending the Age of Taurus to bring on the Age of Aries.9 Now since Mithraism began in the Age of Pisces, this theory becomes complicated. But an astrological explanation of the symbolisms does fit in many ways. The scorpion, snake and dog are all constellations that follow Taurus across the path of the ecliptic of the sun from winter to summer solstices. The zodiac is shown in most settings of Mithras. He is associated with the sun god. … Mithraism lasted at least into the fifth century. The Emperor Julian the Apostate, who ruledi nthe late fourth ncentury worshipped Mithras. Eventually Mithraism died out or was suppressed. …”

This may be what Mithraism was all about…”

Newman in highlighting the above passages, draws our attention to the ear of grains and the fertilization and castration motif and original castration of the priest (bull-substitute) indicates the ancient theme that death is necessary to bring about life, procreation or fertility of the land.

Themes about castration and fertility remain in the various Testicle Festivals around the world. Bull’s testicles, for example, are known delicacy in Spain, Argentina, Mexico and Serbians from the central village of Lunjevica (see Cooking with balls: Serbian chefs honor animal testicles, NY Times, Sep 9, 2013 – where bull’s testicles are said to have  been popular dishes with Serbian chiefs since medieval times). In ancient Greece it was thought that eating bull testicles before a battle would strengthen the soldiers, in ancient Rome,  a way to cure testicle maladies, for the Chinese a boost for libido and cure for impotence. In Granada, Spain, bull testicles (criadillas) are considered a delicacy and bulls symbolizes bravery and strength. (see Testicle Festival, Digital Journal)


Yama-no-kami, the mountain deity, and the folk culture of the fishing communities

Statue of Ebisu, Kessennuma

Statue of Ebisu, Kessennuma, image: Wikipedia

In today’s post, we would like to highlight the research of Johannes H. Wilheim, whose paper “Traditional Ecological Knowledge in the Beliefs of Japanese Fishing Villages: With Special Reference to Yoriiso (Miyagi) and the Sanriku Region”, on the folk beliefs of fishing village communities. In particular, we draw attention to the keen insights the paper gives us on the all-important role of the yama-no-kami or mountain deity in the ceremonial life and fishing culture of the Sanriku northeastern coastal fishing villages as well as the related ideas of fertility and ritual impurity, their impact on gender division of labour, and upon the organization of social institutions. This is a rare paper because most writings on the yama-no-kami focus only on the mountain and rice-field aspects of the religion (cf. Encyclopedia of Shinto) but this paper shows how the mountain kami concept (the Ebisu deity is the most prominent of the fisherfolk deities) relates to fishing and maritime spheres as well.  The salient parts of his paper touching on these themes are excerpted below:

“An essential factor in the beliefs of Japanese coastal fishing culture is the concept of yama[defined earlier as a concept related to a "turning point", a boundary and the transition of zones, rather than a mountain]. For instance, in many fishing villages a yama no kami is worshipped near an adjacent forest or inside a shrine, and often, these are located at boundaries of a settlement. Generally, the yama no kami in fishing communities is believed to be a female deity affecting numerous aspects of everyday life. For example, in many communities she is associated with the forest and thus to fire (wood). She is said to bring easier childbirth to women but is worshipped by male (foresters and rangers), too.18 At the same time, however, the yama no kami is regarded to be a very jealous deity and dislikes the presence of other women in her territory.19 At occasions such as pregnancy, when villagers have to “meet the goddess,” it often happens that exclusively men are allowed to perform the ceremonial duties to avoid angering her. In addition, reverential installation of male phallic symbols in the yama is a common custom that can be found in many regions.

In the following, yama-related aspects of beliefs and customs in a typical fishing village (Yoriiso, Miyagi Prefecture and surrounding areas) are described. We will see that yama cannot be reduced to a topographic feature, but as concept rather symbolizes a “turning point.”20 Another feature of yama as concept is femaleness that is woven into a complex system of beliefs and ceremonies.”

“The wakagi mukae is a ceremony on January 6 that ritually opens the mountain for woodcutting. Male villagers cut down twigs and sticks from several trees and bushes. These are bundled and offered with kiri-mochi to the yama no kami.38 Until 1951, this was the first time in a year to enter the yama, because the shishi-buri shifted from January 16 to January 5 in 1952.

A similar ceremony to the wakagi mukae, the yamanokami mairi 山神参り (lit. “procession to the yama no kami”), is carried out on January 12 by women of the yamanokami-kØ.39 The yama no kami is worshipped at a “sacred stone” (Map 1, Y)40 serving as shintai beneath a tree located at the eastern boundary of Yoriiso to the forest that leads to the neighboring settlement of Maeami. There, the women make offerings and pray for an easy and safe delivery. After this, the group convenes at a member’s house and enjoys a feast-like banquet for the rest of that day. On days of yamanokami-kØ, all members of the group are freed from profane work …

… In Japan, New Year (shØgatsu 正月) is, next to the ancestor’s festival (bon盆) in summer, the most important part of the annual ceremonial cycle, the nenchË gyØji. A cycle of New Year ceremonies usually continues until ko-shØgatsu 小正月 (lit. “small New Year”) on January 15. In Yoriiso, on the first day of a year there is the obligatory genchØ mairi 元朝参り (commonly known as hatsu mØde 初詣) at the local Kumano shrine 熊野神社 (Map 1, K), and the first sunrise (hatsu hi no de 初 日の出) is regarded to be best seen on top of Azumamoriyama. Also kuzen 供膳 (ceremonial food offerings) are prepared by female members of a household in advance for these days of ritual renewal at the turn of a year. This ceremonial food is placed by male members in front of a household’s kamidana and later removed from there (also done by male) to be eaten by the family. The go-nensho mawari 御年始回り, the “first day visit” to several households of the community, is also customarily done in Yoriiso by the major domus of a household.28 Also, division of actors by gender can be observed, however, there are other ceremonies in which this is more evident.

The “first ride on a boat” (nori some 乗り初め) is celebrated on the second day of a year. One important part of this ceremony is the veneration of the funadama 船霊 (or 船玉; Illustration 2), the guardian deity of a vessel. Its shintai is usually a small wooden box with female hair next to sugoroku 双六 (dice), old coins or even puppets and other objects inside (TRS 1984: 41, Yoshida 1981: 93), and on modern vessels it is also possible that there are two of them aboard, for example, one at front deck and one in the cabin each venerated at ceremonies, and, at last, “invisible” funadama are also known. Yet, on old style sailing boats, the box is mostly located below the mast of a vessel, where the shipbuilder installs the shintai – in some cases secretly – before the launching. This place aboard is often called mori 森 (lit. “where many trees are” = forest or mountain) or muro 室 (room) (Sakurada 1934: 148). In many Japanese fishing villages, people consider the funadama as a spirit that is embodied in female human beings, and there are even cases, in which women are considered to be the manifestation of a funadama deity.29 For this reason, a female’s hair – containing elements of the yama (i.e. wood [fire] and the soil) – is believed to protect a vessel from being shipwrecked. In other places of Japan, the funadama is also said to bring good wind direction or even attract fish (Sakurada 1934: 162), an interesting analogy to Ebisu.30


Funadama ritual and female deity

As for Yoriiso, descriptions of nori some is rudimentary, we instead refer to the one in Kesennuma 気仙沼 (about 50 km north of Yoriiso) as described in Kawashima (2003: 71-73). The nori some in Kesennuma begins with a ritual purification of the vessel. Among others, the fishing vessel is turned to southern direction so that the ship-owner (or sendØ) can look at the mountains from starboard, while praying words like “Shall the yama at hakari be visible!” or “Please show the yama soon!” to the sai no kami 幸神 (deity of luck), which is regarded as metaphor of the yama no kami. A piece of kiri mochi 切り餅 (cut rice cake) is offered as ceremonial food, which is dipped with a hook into seawater thrice. After a recitation to the oki no kami 沖の神 (offshore deity), this piece of mochi is denoted oki no mochi 沖の餅 and it is said that this consecrated mochi helps people suffering illness in the mountains. In analogy, there exists a yama no mochi 山の餅 that helps when suffering from seasickness consecrated at the wakagi mukae 若木迎え (lit. “greeting the young tree”; described below). The nori some continues with a first ceremonial catch (hatsuryØ). Some of the caught fish are offered at the kamidana. The rest of the fish is sold at the first, rather ceremonial, sale.”

The article also contributes to our understanding of how the yama-no-kami concept affects social organization and institutions:

“Society in Yoriiso is structured by a relatively intact system of age-grade- groups (nenrei kaitei-sei 年齢階梯制; Table 1) that is historically traceable to mid- 18th century (OHI 1988: 978). For instance, women of bearable age are associated with a specific group called yamanokami-kØ 山神講.22 At the same time, women become members of the jizØ-kØ 地蔵講, the group of the children’s guardian deity. Together these groups are called jo-kØ 女講 (women’s group) to which the women belong until the age of about 42.23 The fujin-kai 婦人会 (women’s association) is a much newer social institution and is not directly related to the yama no kami. Today, most of these women in Yoriiso are associated with both groups, the traditional jo-kØ and the modern fujin-kai; i.e. no clear distinction of membership is drawn between the groups. We often find such overlays between traditional and modern social institutions in Japanese fishing villages..” The male counterpart of the jo-ko, “The jitsugyØ-dan is the backbone of Yoriiso’s village self-management, especially in ceremonial matters (TRS 1998: 50). Other important functions are activities for mutual aid (at childbirth, funerals, shipwreck), management of common property (common land and forests) and local public services (for instance, concerning education of children = local school and related matters) and also at certain degrees financial aid in form of a mutual credit association (tanomoshi 頼母子, in which credits are allocated by lottery) for impoverished members or those needing capital for investments such as for building or renewal of a house. The jitsugyØ-dan was called keiyaku-kØ 契約講 (“contract group”) until 1878, then (possibly under the influence of state ShintØ, but this is questionable) renamed jinp ̈-kØ 神風講 (“group of the divine wind”) and since 1923 named jitsugyØ-dan (OHI 1988: 978). A memorial stone in Yoriiso documents that the local keiyaku-kØ was founded in 1808 (OHI 2002: 514), however, as has been noted above, it is possible that there existed a preceding group with similar functions since mid of 18th century (OHI 1988: 978) or even before.26 There used to be two annual meetings of this group held on February and November 11, yet, these days, it convenes only once after the ceremonial cycle of New Year on January 20 (TRS 1984: 50).

We can see that everyday life in Yoriiso is structured by social institutions that can be characterized as gender-specific age-grade groups. Each of these groups is assigned a specific domain of ceremonies. The keiyaku acts as core institution and is therefore the most important group among all. In Yoriiso, labor at sea was until recently exclusively done by males. An exception was the collection of seaweed and other benthic species from the shore, which was mainly done by women…”


18. There are in fact many facets of the yama no kami. Shibusawa comprehends yama no kami as a multi-layered deity that can be a “mountain spirit” or a deity of hunting, fishing, agriculture, sericulture, forestry, pharmacy or even one with explicit territory and power to rule (Shibusawa 1959: 172). Although, not focusing on the yama no kami in fishing villages, Naumann (1963/1964) presented a detailed study on several traditions of this deity. For the purpose of this paper, however, the yama no kami is simply seen as found during fieldwork in Yoriiso and other places by the author, i.e. as an important deity in village life that is in several ways related to the mountains.
19. According to contemporary legislation women older than 18 must not work in tunnel construction (Japanese Labour Standards Law 労働基準法 64, 2; http: //www. as of Feb. 15, 2005). Administration insists that this law is to secure pregnant women from hard and dangerous work, but a closer look at the history shows that menstruating women were banned from such work at least since the Edo period because they were “ritually unpure.” This can be seen in connection to beliefs of the yama as female deity.
20. Yama-ba 山場 (lit. “place of yama”) denotes a “turning point” in Japanese and not a “mountain place.”
22. KØ 講 in most cases denotes a social institution found in most Japanese villages that can be characterized as “cult groups,” yet, the term kØ can also denote a day of veneration for a specific deity or kØ-group, such as the Ebisu-kØ found in many fishing villages. They originate in Buddhistic seminars in ancient times. During the Edo-period (1603-1867) they became a widespread social institution in many villages and can be characterized as gender specific age or generation groups. These have also been characterized as age-grades (e.g. Norbeck 1953).To avoid confusion, these are simply called groups in the following.
23. Although in Yoriiso the yamanokami-kØ and the jizØ-kØ are regarded more or less the the same, days of worship can differ. There are communities on Oshika peninsula that clearly make differences between the two, i.e. younger (married) women belong to the jizØ-kØ and later join the yamanokami-kØ.
29. Interestingly, fishermen, on the other hand, often avoid taking a single women aboard a vessel. (Makita 1954: 224-225). See also Sakurada (1934: 134) and Yoshida (1981: 91-92). In the Sanriku region, especially pregnant women play an important role in ceremonies concerning fishing vessels. Yoshida translates funadama as “guardian spirit of the boat” (1981: 92).
30. The Ebisu is enshrined in every kamidana of a net-shed (naya 納屋), too (TRS 1984: 40- 41). A special ceremony for the Ebisu is held in Yoriiso on the 20th of January and October. In these ceremonies Ebisu is worshipped by offering rare crops from the yama and the sea together with sake 酒 in front of the kamidana and the funadama.

Source: Johannes H. WILHELM, “Traditional Ecological Knowledge in the Beliefs of Japanese Fishing Villages: With Special Reference to Yoriiso (Miyagi) and the Sanriku Region”, Japanese Religions 30, 1&2

Read the rest of the article here.

Further information on Ebisu:

Ebisu, the visiting deity of fishing and good fortune - more excerpts here focused on Ebisu from Wilheim’s paper

Wikipedia entry on Ebisu