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Goin’ Japanesque!

Shinto Fundamentals (Japanese Religion): Popular Deities

In the last article, we looked at the basics of Shintō, Japan’s native religion. Unlike many systems of belief spread by missionaries and acolytes, Shintō does not have an established canon. There are few prescriptive guidelines, though there is an emphasis on avoiding impurity and respecting the gods… and if there is one thing that Shintō is not short on, it is gods. The gods of Japan, called “kami,” include not only the mighty and powerful deities you might think of when you hear the word “god” but spirits of ever description and type. Filling invisibly the entire country, they reside in trees and in artifacts, at holy waterfalls and sacred grottos. You may be surprised to hear that the gods who appear in the great myths are not the ones you’ll encounter the most at shrines, though they loom large in the imagination.

 

Inari

inari
Left: fox statue at Fushimi Inari; right: Inari appearing as a maiden with a fox consort

The most widely-enshrined kami in Japan is actually commonly imagined as a goddess. Her name is Inari, and you’ve probably seen the tunnel of red torii at Fushimi Inari Taisha (“Fushimi Inari Shrine”), one of her shrine in Kyoto. This famous tourist destination is actually the head shrine for the 30,000+ shrines across Japan dedicated to Inari, and many of them are painted in brilliant crimson reds. The precincts of Fushimi Inari cover an astonishing 870,000 square meters and see 2.5 million visitors every year during the New Year, when people flock to the shrine for hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the year.

inarizushi
Inarizushi, a dish of fried tofu pouches filled with vinegared sushi rice

As a goddess, Inari has many spiritual domains. She represents not only fertility and farming but also the products of agriculture: rice, tea, and even sake. Her messengers are foxes with pure white fur, and this connection to foxes is believed to be the source for the name of the dish shown above, inarizushi. Hunters once used deep-fried mice to catch foxes, and so mouse-nuggets (as gift of her messengers’ favorite food) became a common offering to Inari. However, in an increasingly-meatless Buddhist society, deep-fried mice were exchanged for rice wrapped in deep-fried tofu, and the inarizushi we enjoy today is a delicious and vegetarian snack.

 

Hachiman

Another god whose shrines can be found all across the country is Hachiman, the name under which the legendary emperor Ōjin was deified. The kanji for his name can also be read Yahata or Yawata, and many towns, villages, and districts have names containing one of these readings. He is a god of archery and warriors, invoked for good health, protection from evil, and family fortune. Not surprisingly, he was widely worshipped by samurai families owing to his status as a god of war and the protector of Japan.

hachiman
Left: the gates of Tsurugaoka Hachimangū; right: Hachiman as a bosatsu

Hachiman is also an excellent example of the ways that Buddhism and Shintō were blended in historical Japan. He was revered as both a kami and a bosatsu (a bodhisattva: anyone who has achieved Buddhist enlightenment) and was often depicted as a shaven-head monk. One of Kamakura’s most famous religious sites, Tsurugaoka Hachimangū, was once both a Tendai temple and a Shintō shrine dedicated to Hachiman. However, anti-Buddhist government ordinances in the 19th century forbade “conflating” Buddhism and Shintō, and many syncretic religious sites were forced to become either only shrines or only temples.

 

The Seven Lucky Gods

However, even if you’ve never stepped into a single shrine, you’re likely to know about one of the most interesting parts of the classic Japanese pantheon: the Seven Lucky Gods. The list below is organized in the order you’ll find them going clockwise from the top left corner of the following picture.

shichifukujin
The seven gods of fortune, or shichifukujin, in a scene playing with children.

  • Bishamonten—a fierce and often red-faced warrior god depicted as a “defender of the faithful” at some Buddhist temples
  • Jurōjin—the bearded and capped mythological personification of the star Canopus and legendary Chinese deity of immortality
  • Fukurokuju—a bearded, bald, and long-headed god inherited from ancient Taoism who represents the three great Taoist wishes: long life, wealth, and success for one’s descendants
  • Ebisu—the only completely Japanese god of the seven, a deity of fishermen who is shown carrying a sea bream (a traditional symbol of good fortune)
  • Daikoku—a syncretic god of commerce, who carries a bag of good fortune and a lucky wish-granting hammer
  • Benzaiten—the lone goddess of the seven, a Buddhist deity with a lute in her hands who has domain over music and scholarship
  • Hotei—instantly recognizable the world over as the fat and jolly “laughing Buddha”

They are often depicted aboard a takarabune (“treasure ship”), especially on postcards and in other media during the New Year’s season. Also, the smiling combination of Ebisu and Daikoku decorate the walls in many traditional shops (you can see them talking together in the picture above, as well.) As a melding of a variety of different religious traditions, the group can be found enshrined both individually and in combination all across Japan, and there is a special type of pilgrimage where a person visits a shrine (or temple) dedicated to one of each of the seven gods, for a total of seven stops.

 

Just as Judaism is not simply the stories of the Old Testament, there is more to Shintō than the gods. It is part of the fabric of Japan’s society, even as many Japanese people themselves are unconscious of its influence. In the next installments, we’ll look beyond Shintō deities to how Shintō thinking and ritual have integrated into Japanese culture as a part of everyday life.

Related: Shintō Fundamentals (Japanese Religion): Philosophy and Myth

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Barry

About the author

World wanderer and travelling translator, with a great love for language learning, blue-collar cuisine, and rural realms.

View all articles by Barry
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