Sarutahiko – Monkey or Wolf guiding deity?

Monkey masks on the front door—an old Hakata tradition

The quiet and secluded Sarutahiko Shinto shrine stands in front of the Fujisaki Bus Terminal in Fukuoka City’s Sawara Ward. It’s usually empty of parishioners or visitors, but on a few days out of the year it’s the destination of a lively crowd. The first of those days is known as Hatsukoshin, and comes early in the new year. It is a moveable festival day, and next year it will be on Wednesday, January 5. At five a.m., well before dawn, people will ring the shrine grounds to wait for the office to open. They’re lining up to buy the lucky charm that will go on sale that day—a monkey mask.

Sarutahiko, the enshrined deity, was the divinity of legend that guided Ninigi no Mikoto to earth to pacify Japan on the instructions of Amaterasu. Since then, he has been known as the divinity of roads, travelers, and guidance. The word monkey in Japanese is saru, which is a homonym for saru, or the verb to depart. From that association, Hakatans have long hung monkey masks on their front doors so that fires and thefts will depart. Walking through old Hakata, you’ll see monkey masks hung as a decoration next to the residential nameplates on which are written the duties performed by the residents in the Hakata Gion Yamakasa.

The masks are made individually by hand, and if you look carefully you can detect subtle differences of expression. The old masks are replaced by new masks every year, and there are slight changes in design. Some mask aficionados display all the masks from years gone by. There are monkey-themed decorations in several locations on the shrine grounds, and on the day of the Hatsukoshin, the monkeys are adorned with red tenugui towels as head coverings. The shrine also sells the saru-ame confection only on this day. It resembles the familiar Kintaro-ame with a monkey face instead of the Kintaro character.

In a take-off on the well-known Japanese proverb, “Even monkeys fall from trees” (i.e., even experts sometimes make a mistake), many students have begun buying the masks in the hope of passing their examinations. They hope to become monkeys who do not fall from the trees. It’s all worth getting up early for on January 5.

Excerpted from Hakata Culture no 46 – Fukuoka city government


Sarutahiko and the attendant shrines where he is venerated, in the western parts of Japan, are associated with the Monkey, and also appears to preside fairly commonly (at many though not all of the) rice planting rituals in ta asobi matsuris in the Tōkai region, and as onda matsuris in the Kinki and Izumo regions . Rice planting festivals. Centered upon shrines in the Kinki, Tōkai, Izumo, Kita Kyūshū, Minami Kyūshū and the Wakasa regions, ta asobi traditions are widely practiced. See the following examples (source: Encyclopedia of Shinto:

  • The ōmitasai is a thirteen day long festival held once every twelve years during year of the Monkey, on the first day of the Monkey in the fourth month of the lunar calendar at Niiyama Jinja in Kanzaki Town, Kanzaki County, Saga Prefecture. Every day of the festival, there is a performance of the ondamai (rice field dance). On the twelfth day of the festival, the shinkō to the lower shrine (shimomiya) is comprised of the onda actors and the taueme who are all young boys from the ages of ten through fifteen dressed in female garb. After arriving at the lower shrine, there is another performance of the ondamai on the stage in front of the shrine. The first part of the dance consists of an okina wearing high clogs and holding a fan circling the stage. The ritual gradually shifts to the rice-planting ritual in which the various aspects of rice-planting — tilling, spreading seeds, shirofumi (sodstepping, stamping in the paddies to aerate them and spread fertilizer), and planting — are enacted, and ultimately becomes an onimai (oni dance). Dancers rampage about pounding large ax handles on the floor of the stage. It is said that if the floor should splinter, the following year’s harvest will be rich. Spectators take home chips of the floorboard and hang them from the doorway with the belief that these act as a spell against small pox
  • The onda matsuri for Aso Jinja in Ichinomiya Town, Aso County, Kumamoto Prefecture, occurs on July 28 and 29. As the otaue matsuri and the shinkō have been merged, the correct name for this festival is otaue shinkō shiki. On the day of the festival, a procession of nearly one hundred attendants, beginning with a person wearing a mask of the kami, Sarutahiko, followed by saotome, fourteen unari (young women) carrying rice chests, lion dancers (shishi), dengaku, field laborers, oxen, and four sacred palanquins (shin’yo), proceeds to the first temporary shrine (ichi no angū ) and ceremonially present offerings of food (kensen) and norito. Then a ritual rice planting occurs and the procession moves to the second temporary shrine (ni no angū). In the evening, the procession returns to the main shrine (kangyo) where all of the shrines are ceremonially visited (miya mawari shiki), and another ritualized rice-planting is held in the shrine grounds (keidai).
  • Sarutahiko Jinja in Ujiurata Town, Ise City, Mie Prefecture, holds its omitasai on May first.

The ambivalent identity of Saruhiko Okami

File:Sarutahiko Ōkami.crop.4.wp.working.print.png

Sarutahiko Ōkami, (comical) painting; sumi ink & watercolours, late 19th century (more likely Meiji era than late-Edo period). Seal marking, artist not identified; Wittig collection, painting-03. circa 1850-1900

In the Kojiki, he is the leader of the earthly kami and the one who greets Ninigi-no-Mikoto, the grandson of Amaterasu, the Sun goddess, when he descends from Takamagahara.[1] He is depicted as a towering man with a large beard, jeweled spear, ruddy face, and long nose. At first he is unwilling to yield his realm until persuaded by Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto, the kami of dance and the arts, whom he later marries.[2] Sarutahiko Ōkami is seen as a symbol of strength and guidance, which is why he is the patron of martial arts such as aikido.[3]

His name consists of an etymologically obscure element, Saruta, which is traditionally transcribed with kanji (猿田) that suggest the meaning “monkey-field” as a sort of double entendre, followed by the Classical Japanese noun hiko “a male child of noble blood, a prince.”[4] Thus, Sarutahiko Ōkami’s embellished name could be roughly translated into English as “Great God, Prince Saruta.” Many variant pronunciations of his name exist, including Sarudabiko and Sadahiko.

Folk traditions of the western parts of Japan as noted above, appear to give Sarutahiko Okami monkey attributes, while elsewhere in Japan, his identity appears to have been identified the Wolf as a messenger or guide of the mountain god and/ god of the rice-field, possibly a conflation with another folk tradition that holds when Prince Yamatotakeru, the legendary unifier of Japan, who, during pacification campaigns in central Honshu, had wandered astray of the Karisaka mountain-pass road, a white-wolf deity led him out of the mountains, hence the Mitsumine shrine records this early connection with wolves.

To understand more about wolf worship, legends and folkloric beliefs of Japan and their relationship with those of Central Asia, read the following:

The She-Wolf and Werewolf Wife Tales and wolf shrines in Japan provides strong evidence that the Japanese wolf legends are derived from lineages once related to those of the Ashina/Asena, Wusun tribe who used to live in western Gansu (northwest China) but whose descendants are the Usysn, who live mostly in modern-day Kazakhstan today, as well as an Uysyn diaspora in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The Wusuns have also been traced to origins in the Xiongnu, their historical migrations, and their connections to the Ashina Turks, Rouran-Tuoba, Mongolic Xianbei as well as to the Saka tribes. The text of the monument to the Turkic prince Tonyukuk describes the routes taken “I brought troops to Shantung (Mountainous East) and the sea river (Huang He)…”  Other

Descended from Wolves: Wolf Symbolism Around the World

Mitsumine Shrine  (Daruma Pilgrims)

Excerpt from Ta no Kami Yama no Kami and its relationship with wolf lore in Japan

“… there seems also to have existed a belief that if one encountered an okami (wolf) on a mountain and “treated him kindly”, he would bestow kindness in return, and protect the man against other dangers. This may have to do with the belief, current in many parts of Japan, that the okami is a messenger of the gods, especially also of Yama-no-kami, the Mountain-deity, who during agricultural activities of the humans descends from her mountain residence to act as Ta-no-kami, the Field-deity.

(While commonly conceived as a female, Yama-no-kami may at times be a male; as usual with kami, the sex is variable.) Possibly as Yama-no-kami/Ta-no-kami’s messenger, the wolf was thought of as a kind of protector of the rice against evil goblins.”

Genetic studies in East Asia  on the domestication of dogs, on the face of it, appears to match the early distribution of wolve-lore with Turkish-Indo-European-Scythian-Hun east-to-westward expansions across Eurasia:

Genetic research shows that “dogs universally share a common homogenous gene pool containing 10 major haplogroups. However, the full range of genetic diversity, all 10 haplogroups, was found only in southeastern Asia south of Yangtze River, and diversity decreased following a gradient across Eurasia, through seven haplogroups in Central China and five in North China and Southwest (SW)Asia, down to only four haplogroups in Europe. The mean sequence distance to ancestral haplotypes indicates an origin 5,400–16,300 years ago (ya) from at least 51 female wolf founders. These results indicate that the domestic dog originated in southern China less than 16,300 ya, from several hundred wolves. The place and time coincide approximately with the origin of rice agriculture, suggesting that the dogs may have originated among sedentary hunter-gatherers or early farmers, and the numerous founders indicate that wolf taming was an important.”

Source: Jun-Feng Pang  mtDNA Data Indicate a Single Origin for Dogs South of Yangtze River, Less Than 16,300 Years Ago, from Numerous Wolves Mol Biol Evol (2009) 26 (12): 2849-2864. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msp195. This study was followed that of Ding et al. (2011) research “Origin of domestic dog in Southern East Asia is supported by analysis of Y-chromosome DNA”  that presented new Y-chromosome data from 151 dogs sampled worldwide, again pointing to a single domestication region south of the Yangtze river. .

However,  archaeological evidence and a 2010 study by Bridgett vonHoldt et al., pointed to the Middle East as the source of most of the genetic diversity in the domestic dog and a more likely origin of domestication events — see Z-L vonHoldt, Bridgett; et al. (2010-03-17). “Genome-wide SNP and haplotype analyses reveal a rich history underlying dog domestication”. Nature 464 (7290): 898–902. Bibcode 2010 Natur.464..898V. doi:10.1038/nature08837. PMID 20237475.  (See also Dogs likely descended from Middle Eastern Wolf” NPR, March 18, 2010)

There is molecular and archaeological fossil evidence to support the view that gray wolves began to adapt and co-exist with humans around 130,000 years ago, much earlier than allowed by the above research — see “Humans live a dog’s life” ABC Science Online, 26 March 2002Danny Kingsley – ABC Science Online:

Other evidence points to earlier domestication, note the researchers. DNA analysis suggests a split between dogs and wolves over 100,000 years ago, and possibly as much as 135,000 years ago.

In addition, fossil canine skulls much smaller than those of most wolves have been found at archaeological sites in England along with human artefacts. These are estimated to be 190,000 to 130,000 years old”


Further readings:

Walker, Brett L. (2005). The Lost Wolves Of Japan. p. 331. ISBN 0-295-98492-9.


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