The shrine, heart and soul of the community and land

Jinja (shrine) is the comprehensive term for buildings and facilities constructed for the worship of kami.  A shrine (sha or -ja) is also read yashiro.  Shrines may also be called miya, mori, and hokora

Yashiro means lord of the land and the ten thousand things which serve to nurture man are produced on the land; its blessings can hardly be exhausted. Thus it is that in the governance of the realm, rites are performed for the land. ” – p. 53 The Oracles of the Three Shrines: Windows on Japanese Religion by Brian Bocking.

The different kinds of shrine included:

  • Shrines built for the sovereign are called osha or ‘royal shrine’
  • Shrines constructed as a memorial or commemorating  person are called taisha, or ‘Great Shrines’ (four to nine cho in size)
  • Shrines built for the nobility and the peasantry are called kokusha or ‘provincial shrines’.
  • Shrines built for all those ranks below the fifth court rank of taifu is called chisha or ‘established shrine’.
  • Shrines built for the daimyo (by the daimyo themselves) is called kosha or daimyo’s shrine.
  • Shrines may further be classed into upper, middling or lower shrines – with an upper shrine extending nine cho on all four sides, middling shrines eight cho on its four sides and a lower shrine is four cho on each of the four sides.

(See:  The Oracles of the Three Shrines: Windows on Japanese Religion by Brian Bocking) Others have categorized Shinto shrines differently, see Onmark Productions’ list and the Encyclopedia of Shinto’s entry.

The kami venerated at the shrines could be heavenly kami, earthly kami, kami of the state, kami of retainers of the imperial descendants, or merely a human sovereign, or some great person.

The role and function of shrines


The name ‘The Oracles of the Three Shrines’ (san-ja-taku-sen) Three refers to the triad of heaven-earth-human powers. Taku-sen means ‘oracles’, taku can also be read yoru meaning approach which refers to the approach of the divine or the spirit that draws near to the human conveys divine words, messages or advice (see The Oracles of the Three Shrines: Windows on Japanese Religion by Brian Bocking)

Governance or rulership of the land

This element is obvious from the designation of the shrine as yashiro or ‘lord of the land’. When provincial governors went out to the lands placed in their charge, they never failed to build shrines, seal off sacred land and offer rites. Many shrines were ancestral shrines and seats of power of ruling clans.

Seat of the Sacred

Jinja or shinsha, means the “place of the god” and typically refers to a structure that houses (or “enshrines”) one or more Shinto (神道 Shintō) kami. The earliest ancient shrine structures were typically storehouses or warehouses used for the safekeeping of sacred objects (see concept of goshintai). The demarcation of sacred spaces was effected in a number of ways: by the erection of fences around the sacred space called mizugaki or tamagaki, the cordoning off of the space precinct or space with shimenawa straw rope and usually by erecting imposing (and the now ubiquitous) sacred torii gates. A himorogi (sakaki or other evergreen tree) or goshinboku tree (lit. god-tree or divine tree), or iwakura (a natural stone or boulder), were erected in a place considered to be sacred. (See The History of Shrines – Encyclopedia of Shinto, and also The origin of shimenawa)

Later, simple miniature forms imitating early palaces (miya) emerged (usually abodes of clan ancestors).  These shrines eventually became complex copies of palace abodes of early rulers of the land, with rites carried out, including food preparation and offerings to the deities enshrined, and with entertainment for the gods provided as well. These typically included archery contests and horse races (still performed at some shrines today). Kaguraden or halls of sacred dance may be found on shrine grounds where kagura dance and music are performed to the gods.

The character for jin (or shin, deity) may be read as kami or also as tamashii (soul or spirit).

We see ideas of Taoist dualism at work here. The energy of the Yang force is said to be shin (divine, spiritual), while that of the Yin force is rei (shade, spirit). In the [Book of ] Changes shin is described as the unpredictable unfolding of Yin and Yang. The Hozen shidai saku-hoki says that Yin and Yang are the dynamic circumstances within which Yang is the advancing motion (do). (see p. 57  The Oracles of the Three Shrines: Windows on Japanese Religion by Brian Bocking). The role of the shrine thus acted as a place to pacify the spirits that would upset the Yin-Yang balance, as well as a place to go to seek the beneficent favour of the gods before taking some course of action.

Dispenser of justice

The idea of divine retribution is very clear from many of the myths of old. The kami were recorded in various stories as becoming angry and visiting retribution on whoever was responsible for infractions of divine laws or desecrations committed, and for meting out divine punishment. According to Bocking at p. 58, punishment was of three kinds:

“divine punishment, punishment by fate or human punishment. Divine punishment is aplied through a display of the power of the kami. Fate punishment is delivered without one realizing it, and the application of human punishment is obvious…”

The sen part of taku-sen (oracle) was also read as noburu (announce) and meant to proclaim words relating to the divine. Terms such as sen-ji, sen-myo and sen-ge were all words indicating a divine or imperial proclamation, usually delivered by a government official. Thus, early shrines also served out divine justice with its issuance or proclamations of divine retribution or punishment.

The heart and soul of festivities, i.e. the centre for receiving food offerings and for the dispensation of blessings and bounty upon the land

“Two themes lie at the heart of Japanese festivals: in fall, gratitude for the harvest and, in spring, expectant hopes for the fertility of crops. Since the Nara Period, the Japanese people in each community have observed festivals to entreat and express thanks to the kami (deities). The administrative unit responsible for observing festivals was the gou*, or township. However, festivals represented more than just the offering of food. Banquets were also held and rice beer was served. In that respect, festivals represented the dail life of the people. Festivals were so important that they were systemized by the Imperial Court and given official support.

Ise Grand Shrine shows the importance of food offerings

One glance at the Ise Grand Shrine (Jingu) reveals just how important the offering of food to kami truly was. First, it was no coincidence that Ise, a region blessed with the bounty of the sea, was selected as the site for the shrine. Furthermore, Ise Grand Shrine is normally described as consisting of an Inner Shrine and Outer Shrine. Toyouke-no-Omikami, the deity enshrined at the Outer Shrine, is know as the deity of foodstuffs, and was invited to Ise specifically to to provide food offerings to Amaterasu Omikami, the deity of the Inner Shrine. Even today, the Outer Shrine prepares morning and evening food offerings each day for the Inner Shrine. The fact that the Outer Shrine is approxiamtely the same scale as the Inner Shrine also suggests the great importance placed on the Outer Shrine and its food offerings.” — Washoku culture embodies the heart of the Japanese people by Naoya Kase (Yomiuri Shimbun)

 Gou once denoted an administrative unit consisting of a specified number of households. Today it refers to one’s hometown.

A centre of finance and an incipient cash economy

Amino Yoshihiko’s “Rethinking Japanese history“, proposed that a kind of cash economy arose fairly from the institution of “the first harvest offering” early from the Yayoi through the Kofun tumulus period. Clear evidence of primitive currency could be seen from Kofun Period archaeological digs of a wide variety of commodity currencies that were used as means of payment and measures of value. The main commodity of currency in the west was rice; in the east, it was cloth or silk.

“Rice–as a sacred grain–offered to the gods and received from the gods in return. Textiles too became a kind of currency being offered to the gods and then received in turn.  Rice and silk became the general means of exchange, taking on the function of currency through their role as offerings to the gods. In addition, salt, iron and livestock functioned as currency.

By the Tomb period a primitive form of finance known as suiko–a process in which the first harvest, once offered to the gods, was used as capital, loaned out as seed, and recovered with interest as rice at the next harvest–was being practised. Management of the storehouses containing this first-harvest rice was probably originallly the task of local leaders, and through this practice “wealthy” people first began to appear. I believe it is reasonable to surmse that this primitive form of finance was conducted with capital in the form of rice and sake in the west and silk and cloth in the east.” — pp 46-47, Amino Yoshihiko’s “Rethinking Japanese history


The sepulchral shrine, ancestral worship or the veneration of deified humans

“The Shinto Shrines dedicated to Deified Humans
The Yasukuni Jinja is not the only shrine that was dedicated to the spirit of those who did distinguished services for the locality.
The Meiji Jingu situated in the center of Tokyo surrouonded by the dense sacred forest is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken who led the modern Japan in the Meiji era. The shrine receives a great number of visitors throughout a year.
In Kyoto, the Heian Jingu is well known as the shrine dedicated to both Emperor Kanmu who built the capital of Heian, and Emperor Komei who was the last emperor before the Meiji Restoration.
There are shrines that enshrine the spirit of loyal subjects to the emperor, vi. Minatogawa Jinja in Kobe enshrines the spirit of Kusunoki Masashige, a loyal warrior, the Nawa Jinja in Tottori prefecture enshrines the spirit of Nawa nagatoshi.
There are many shrines that enshrine the spirit of feudal lords such as the Oyama Jinja in Kanazawa which enshrines Maeda Toshiie, the Terukuni Jinja in Kagoshima prefecture which enshrines the spirit of Shimazu Nariakira. Those shrines are highly revered by each local people.
The Nogi Jinja in Tokyo which enshrines the spirit of General Nogi, the war hero in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), Togo Jinja in Tokyo which enshrines the spirit of Admiral Togo, another war hero in the same war, the Hotoku Ninomiya Jinja in Odawara which enshrines Ninomiya Sontoku who was the agri-economist, are alsowell-known for enshrinement of deified men.
We can say that, on the background of the custom of the human deification, there lies profound reverence for people who have done great services for the public cause at the risk of their own life. It has existed long before the modernization of Japan. There is a long history of the worship of these spirits as awesome Kami deities.” — The Japanese view on ancestral spirits

Ritual performance

These types of rituals are performed by shrines:

  • Personal prayers for families or individuals, eg hatsumode, hatsumairi, the first shrine visit of newborn baby, shichigosan the celebration of the child’s third, fifth and seventh birthday. During these occasions, the priest performs a norito solemn prayer and a maiden performs a dance in front of the altar. Participants may offer a sakaki branch offering and drink a cup of sake wine, signifying a mutual promise between kami and worshipper.
  • Purification rituals for inauguration of building sites, cars, weddings, prayers for success in examinations, etc.
  • Imperial rites involving the emperor’s offerings of thsnks for the year’s harvest, such as kinensai, niiname-sai, kigensetsu,and the celebration of emperors’ birthdays.(these are all said to be late additions to the ritual calendar.
  • The final and possibly most important category is the holding of festivals. These are ritual ceremonies that involve the community, worshippers, local traditions. Most of these take on the either the aforementioned offerings of food, entertainment to the gods, but also often the form of parades.

Carrying out of festive matsuri

A new history of Shinto (Breen and Teeuwen) describes the matsuri:

“The most common pattern of the festival is a parade, for which the kami is transferred from the kami hall into a palanquin called a mikoshi. The mikoshi is carried or wheeled through the neighborhood and temporarily installed at various sites where the kami is entertained with dancing, theater performances, wrestling matches, archery contests, and the like. Festivals tend to be run by the local community rather than the shrine priests, who take center-stage only as ritual specialists performing liturgical tasks such as the transfer of the kami to the mikoshi or the recitation of prayers. Most festivities take place outside the shrine and are managed by selected community members. Typical of shrine festivals is that they envelop the community in a carnivalesque atmosphere in which much is allowed and all is forgiven.”

While many shrines and shrine traditions can be traced to ancient times and locations based on ancient texts or archaeology, it is also important to recognize that what constitutes a Shinto shrine and the current sacred landscape of Shinto shrines across the nation does not reflect the sacred landscapes of ancient times, but is a snapshot of the evolving and changing picture of shrine interaction with historical, political and religious events. The shrine landscape has been vastly changed by
– the purging of Buddhist elements that were once a part of the syncretic religious landscape for example, when in 1882 shrine priests were banned from engaging in any religious activities such as conducting funerals, selling amulets preaching, or the withdrawal of state funding in 1871.
– the Meiji state cult and edict that shrines were places of ritual, not religion creating a “non-religious” body of state ritual focusing on the emperor
– dedicating new or old shrines to national, sometimes new heroes, new kami, courtly customs, promoting at shrines ritual services that were once the purview of other specialists. Thus, shichigosan used to be rites of passage for the elite or courtiers that were celebrated privately; omikuji fortune-telling practice only spread from the Taisho period and originated from the Edo Kannon omikuji popularized first at Tendai temples.
– the militarizing or politicizing of shrines during wars as places to carry out enemy-quelling rites, eg during the Russo- Japanese war, or WWII.
– the redefining of Shinto religious dogma and the ritual landscape, and sometimes shifting and reinterpreted pantheon of kami, often by drawing on ancient Classical texts, whether by officialdom, imperial sources or by new Shinto sect activities and nationalist scholars.
– the false emphasis and understanding of the “purity”, continuity since ancient times, and the “indigenousness” of the Shinto religion.
The separation of Shinto first from Buddhism, and then from “religion” excluded many traditional practices from shrines. Healing, divination, rites of possession as a means of communicating with ancestors or protector spirits, and other kinds of rituals were banned. The result of a changed sacred landscape from the tension between officialdom’s interventions and folk practices or communal life. The rise of a number of Shinto sects in the Meiji period and propagation of Shinto dogma has confused the public’s ideas of what constitutes “indigenous Shinto” religion, of how shrines originally functioned, and the rise of new grassroot-led Shinto religious activities focusing on single sites or deities given universal meaning, such as a creator deity…resulting in a new form of religious organization to Japan.


References and sources:

Breen, John and Teeuwen, Mark, “A New History of Shinto”

Bocking, Brian, The Oracles of the Three Shrines: Windows on Japanese Religion

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