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. houko.com/00/01/S22/049.HTM 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


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