The evolution of ritual objects and worship
Ritual objects of the day changed in popularity according to the prevailing religious beliefs of the times. By examining the important Munakata clan’s shrine on the island of Okinoshima which was a state ritual site with strong connections to the Yamato kings, a changing pattern of ritual offerings over the centuries can be seen:
4th – 5th centuries: Magatama beads, mirrors, knives and swords, (green nephrite) bracelets, iron weapons and tools, steatite items were offered on top of iwakura boulder-top altars to invite the kami to descend to these altars.
6th – 7th centuries: Japanese copies of Chinese bronze mirrors, personal belongings, horse ornaments, pottery, metal miniatures and steatite items were popular as ritual objects.
7th – 8th centuries: Gold rings, horse ornaments, iron, ingots (similar to those found in tombs in the Korean Silla kingdom). Fragments of a Sassanian Persian glass bowl have been uncovered. Purification rites appear to have been conducted partly in the open and partly at the base of boulders, using ritual items of steatite, metal miniatures of weaving and spinning implements. Two Eastern Wei gilt bronze finials in the shape of dragon’s heads and fragments of a Tang dynasty 3-coloured long-necked Chinese vase.
8th – 9th centuries: Worship was carried out at open-air altars with ritual offerings that included: bronze mirrors, bronze bells (suzu), locally made steatite objects of humans, horses and boats, imported pottery, metal miniatures and bronze coins minted in Japan.
Rites involving the offerings of large quantities of talc objects such as talc swords and mortar shaped beads, previously practised in tomb rituals became widespread in the fifth century in open village ritual settings or altars.
For example in the early sixth century village of Nakasuji, in Gunma Prefecture, within the ritual place inside the village residential compound, rituals were carried out in which wild boar were sacrificed and placed on top of rocks from the river, around the rocks were three talc mortar beads. At another of the village’s ritual places to the southeast and outside the residential compound, in front of another rock arrangement stood Haji bowls: haji jars, small jars, pedestaled bowls, bowls, and pots. Inside the bowls were fifteen talc mortar-shaped beads. At yet another ritual site south of this spot were three riverbed rocks where sacrificial wild boar had also been offered up.
Elsewhere in Japan, the popular use of talc ritual offerings were replaced in the latter half of the sixth century by clay ritual human and horse figurines which were usually floated downstream in a river during certain festivals, usually combined with the drinking of a sake brew. In some cases, the purpose was to appease the kami that caused turbulence in the waters upstream, and in other cases, the purpose was a purification rite carried out on a sacred purificatory river.
Some very rare field rituals to field kami included horse sacrificial offerings and roosters painted on field embankments. Vermilion-lacquered roosters made of wooden boards have been found inside the moats of an early Makimuku burial mound. It is likely that the roosters were decorative ornaments hung on the pillars and were used during the wake ceremony to pray for the dead person’s return to life. Clay rooster shaped haniwa have also been found in some early kofun burial mounds.
Thus it can be seen ritual objects and the rites and customs themselves also waxed and waned in popularity over time. When kings first derived their authority from their spiritual roles, mountaintop shrine worship were the order of the day, but as their authority and power grew through more secular, through military prowess and victories, burials of personal items and horse and military symbols replaced the ritual offerings that accompanied ancestral worship and tumuli rites symbolic of the buried king’s authority. This eventually paved a smoother path for acceptance of Buddhist ideas at the end of the Kofun age.
Kofun rituals in involving talc swords and other talc objects
In the fifth century, a new ritual of hanging perforated discs, talc-shaped sword-shaped objects and talc mortar-shaped beads (used in units of ten thousands) were hung from tree branches of the sacred sakaki tree. (This ritual replaced the earlier custom of hanging mirrors, swords and cylindrical beads from trees).
The Kofun people spent many hours producing ritual objects in what was a huge industry and trade of the finished products. The Soga site in Kashihara City, Nara was a factory site where many talc and other stone ritual objects were made and then distributed to the rest of the country.
Talc ritual objects were popular from the second half to the 5th century to the first half of the 6th century and were used many different kinds of ritual ceremonies.
The Nihon shoki records several contexts in which the ritual was carried out: Before meeting the Emperor Keiko, Lady Kamunashi pulled up a sakaki tree and hung eight handfuls of swords on the top branches, eight spans of mirrors on middle branches and eight spans of beads on the lower branches. Emperor Chuai tells how Kumawani, ancestor of the lord of Tsukushioka, hung ten handfuls of swords on a 100-branch sakaki to show his allegiance.
The latter reference suggests that religious rituals had evolved taking on political dimensions for the ritual was practised to affirm allegiance to the divine or spiritual authority of Yamato rulers.
The spiritual role of the kings
Local chieftain kings and village leaders all derived their authority from their roles as priests of agricultural rites for the worship of “heavenly and earthly kami of land and grain”, that is, agricultural kami at appointed shrines.
As a centralizing state emerged during the Kofun age, the king or emperor at the apex of that state, even as Buddhism took hold in Japan as a new religion, could not ignore his role as the supreme kami-worshipping priest.
The Yamato state’s earliest kings are strongly connected to worship at the Omiwa Shrine where the ancient rites for the worship of the kami of Mt Miwa was carried out. The Omiwa Shrine, as another early prototype of the shrine, had no central hall of worship (shinden) for the enshrinement of its “kami body”(shintai) because Mt Miwa itself was worshipped as the kami body. Of the six burial mounds built at the base of Mt Miwa, the fifth of them is believed to belong to King Suijin.
According to Nihon shoki, King Suijin was a ruler who gave serious attention “to the worship of kami and to his heavenly duties”. The king had sought help from the kami regarding the calamities that were upon the kingdom at the time, and he received a revelation through a shamanic princess who conveyed the message from the kami speaking through the princess, that the calamities would cease if the kami were to be worshipped. When asked who the kami was, the reply came, “I am Omono Nushi no Kami worshipped within the borders of Yamato [and residing on Mt. Miwa]. According to the text, the calamities ceased after the requisite rites were held.
Mountain worship rituals were performed by rulers from the shrine at the base of the mountain. According to the Hitachi no kuni fudoki a peg was used as a marker to show that above that point onwards was the place of the kami while parts below the peg marker could be made into fields for human cultivation. This is thought to reflect the new ritual revolution where new kami now occupied the foot of the mountain so that the ancient mountain kami was moved to the mountaintop. By the latter half of the fifth century, the ornamental Y-shaped peg-markers were buried in taboo areas along with komochi comma-shaped magatama as mountain worship rites declined during the increasing powerful and secular regime of later Yamato kings.
It was recorded in the Nihon shoki’s entry for Kinmei’s reign in 552 with reference to the emergence of Buddhist beliefs as a new alternative religion:
“The kings of this country have always conducted seasonal rites in honor of the many heavenly and earthly kami of land and grain. If [our king] should now honor the kami of neighboring states, we fear that this country’s kami would be angered.”