Religious Meanings of the Hachiman Cult: Releasing Living Beings in Hōjōgawa


a translation


--Ross Bender


"Hirai is a Shinto priest who studied the history of

religions at Chicago with Joachim Wach. One day he took

us to see a famous temple at Ise. Someone in our group,

an American philosopher, told him: I see the temples, I

attend the ceremonials, the dances, I admire the

costumes and the courtesy of the priests -- but I don't

see any theology implied by Shintoism. Hirai reflected

a second and answered: "We have no theology. We dance."

-- Mircea Eliade



Usa Hachiman Jingu, photo by Yukiharu Kai


Hōjōgawa is a god play by Zeami which is in the currently performed repertoire. It describes the autumn festival (Hōjōe) of Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine at which birds and fish are released. Like its counterpart, Yumi Yawata ["The Bow of Hachiman"], which describes the spring festival at Iwashimizu, Hōjōgawa portrays a god who protects the emperor and brings peace to the realm. Like the spring festival, the Hōjōe connects the present time with the Age of the Gods, the divine time of origins with the temporal cycle. Although Hachiman in Yumi Yawata is depicted as a Bodhisattva, Hōjōgawa more explicitly stresses the religious mission of the Bodhisattva. The Hōjōe is a Buddhist rite that makes tangible the vow of the Bodhisattva to release all living beings. The action of releasing birds and fish in the shrine precincts is a salvific gesture that mimes the cosmic deliverance.

          McCullough and McCullough (Tales of Flowering Fortunes, p. 403) describe the two day festival of Hōjōe (whch began on the 15th day of the 8th month) as practiced at Iwashimizu Hachiman in Heian times:

          “On the first day, an imposing procession of senior nobles escorted the sacred god's palanquin from the top of the mountain to the bottom, where offerings of food were presented, an Imperial prayer was read, sacred dances were performed, and the Saishōō Sutra (Suvarnaprabhasa-sutra) was expounded. On the second, as recommended in the Saishōō Sutra, birds were released from the mountaintop and fish were set free in a stream. The occasion ended with dances and wrestling matches.”

The Nihon Kiryaku gives a brief description of preparations for the Hōjōe in the year 974:

          "The Iwashimizu Hachimangu has its Hōjōe on the fifteenth day. The director of Gagaku will be in charge of the music; it will be patterned on Sechie music. There will be music and dance of T'ang and Korai. The festival is to be celebrated after this pattern in perpetuity. Also, the Left and Right Headquarters of the Inner Palace Guards will present riders, ten from each division, in alternate years."

          The origins of the Hōjōe are obscure. At Iwashimizu the first mention in the Nihon Kiryaku occurs in the year 948. According to De Visser, the first notice in the Fusō Ryakki comes in 939, although that passage notes that the festival had already been performed for many years before; the Daijii, he notes, says that Seiwa Tennō first “held such a meeting" in 863.

          It is generally agreed that the Hōjōe had originally been practiced since early times at the Usa Hachiman shrine and was then transferred to the Iwashimizu shrine sometime after its foundation in 859. It should be noted that the Hōjōe is not mentioned in the Rikkokushi in connection with either shrine, although some Usa shrine traditions link it to the suppression of a Hayato uprising of 720 recorded in the Shoku Nihongi. The practice is seen as originating in the Buddhist prohibition against killing and the scriptural basis for the rite is variously given as the Bonmokyō, the Konkōmyōkyō and Saishōō-kyō. The T'ien T'ai abbot in T’ang China is said to have had special pools created for the release of fish on the T'ien T'ai mountain in 759.

          In the Nihongi, various imperial prohibitions on killing animals are noted beginning in the reign of the Emperor Bidatsu (578) and these proliferate with the rise of Buddhism at the court. Shōtoku Taishi admonished the Empress Suiko against hunting in 611.

But the first specific reference to Hōjō is in 677 (Temmu 5.8.16) when the emperor Temmu commanded that hōjō be carried out in all the provinces, and, later in the year, specifically in the home provinces. The empress Jitō established hōjōchi (ikihanatsutokoro) in all provinces in 691.

          During the Nara period hōjō was ordered several times during the illness of retired empresses. On one occasion cormorants and wild boar were released all over the country; there were two general orders prohibiting killing in the Tempyō years. Finally, the Emperor Shōmu's edict of Tempyō Shōhō 3.10.23 (751) notes that by releasing living beings all will escape sickness and lives will be lengthened. In 764 a Hōjō Commissioner was appointed.

          That the Buddhist doctrine of compassion was translated specifically into prohibitions of killing and the release of animals in early Buddhist Japan is clear. But the specific festival of Hōjōe was associated with the great Hachiman shrines at Usa and then at Iwashimizu, and the origins of that festival remain unclear. While the practice of hōjō has a Buddhist pedigree, Nakano Hatayoshi and others believe that the Buddhist practice was superimposed on a native Shintō festival and that the result is an early example of the fusion of Shinto and Buddhism. The locus of the first Hōjōe at Usa, according to Nakano, was a tumulus of the koen type.

See also:

Ross Bender, The Political Meaning of the Hachiman Cult in Ancient and Early Medieval Japan, 81-84

Ross Bender, Metamorphosis of a Deity: The Image of Hachiman in Yumi Yawata

Ross Bender, The Hachiman Cult and the Dōkyō Incident

Jane Marie Law Violence, Ritual Reenactment, and Ideology: The "Hōjō-e" (Rite for Release of Sentient Beings) of the USA Hachiman Shrine in Japan; History of Religions, Vol. 33, No. 4 (May, 1994), pp. 325-357

Mae J. Smethurst and Christina Laffin, eds. The Noh Ominameshi: A Flower Viewed from Many Directions


Mircea Eliade -- No Souvenirs:

see pp. 31-35


indifference toward the abstract and the transcendent;

in a word, longing for the primordial bridge which used

to connect heaven and earth (the floating bridge, Amano

Ukihashi, by which, in illo tempore, Izanagi and

Izaname ascended to heaven). The Japanese soul yearns

for a concrete epiphany of the divine. I don't think

that a doctrine of the incarnation of the Christian

type (that is, historical and once-and-for-all) could

interest a Japanese; he is attracted by a theology of

the provisional, lightninglike incarnation of the

spirit; gods, god-men, spirits, souls of the dead,

souls of animals, etc., etc. The gods are travelers

par excellence, visitors (they are, in fact, marebito).

Everything in the cosmos can be transfigured, no one is

unworthy to receive the visit of a god: a flower, a

stone, a pillar of wood. The universe is constantly

being sanctified by an infinity of instant epiphanies.

The gods do not settle down anywhere in the world. The

spirit descends any time, anywhere, but it does not

remain; it does not allow itself to be caught by

temporal duration. Epiphany is especially

lightninglike. Every divine presence is provisional.


Usa Hachiman Jingu, photo by Yukiharu Kai

copyright 1989 Ross Bender; first posted online 2003; revised 6/6/07