The Political Meaning of the Hachiman Cult in Ancient and Early Medieval Japan

The Political Meaning of the Hachiman Cult in Ancient and Early Medieval Japan

By Ross Bender

PhD Dissertation, Columbia University, 1980

Abstract: This is a study of the state cult of the Shinto deity Hachiman from the eighth century through early medieval times. During this period there flourished three major state shrines to Hachiman: Usa, an ancient shrine in Kyushu of uncertain origin which gained the patronage of the Nara court; Iwashimizu, founded near Kyoto in the ninth century, and supported by the Heian emperors; and Tsurugaoka, sponsored by the military government at Kamakura. The entries in official historical chronicles describing the worship of Hachiman at these shrines form the basic source material for this study. My purpose in analyzing these fragmentary accounts of the body of beliefs which I term the state cult of Hachiman is to identify political ideas embodied in the Hachiman faith.

The first chapter describes the rise of the Usa Shrine from obscurity to national prominence, and emphasizes that the Hachiman oracles given through a medium at Usa were an important reason for that development. The role of the Hachiman belief in the crisis of 769, when the Buddhist priest Dokyo attempted to usurp the throne by claiming Hachiman’s support, is the subject of Chapter Two. In this crisis of legitimacy, the deity Hachiman was looked to as an arbiter to decide who should rule Japan.

Chapter Three is a study of the new identities, those of Great Bodhisattva and Imperial Ancestor, which Hachiman acquired in the early Heian period, and of the imperial tutelary cult which developed at Iwashimizu on the basis of these identities. Hachiman, bot in his role as imperial ancestor and as bodhisattva, was viewed as a divine guardian of the state and of the emperor.

The development of the association of the warrior clan of the Minamoto with Hachiman at Tsurugaoka Shrine is analyzed in Chapter Four. This chapter emphasizes that the Minamoto worshipped Hachiman as a tutelary deity and as a source of legitimacy for their new military government, and not just as a god of war.

The fifth chapter examines the images of Hachiman in selected medieval literary works. Three historical aspects, or stages, of the cult described in the previous chapters — the oracular, tutelary, and martial — are used as classifications of the Hachiman material in those works.

In the conclusion I argue that the political meaning of the Hachiman cult throughout the five and a half centuries studied was that the body of beliefs about Hachiman comprised ideas concerning legitimacy — the right to exercise political power. This body of beliefs was a consistent and coherent system of thought, even though it was not fully articulated as political philosophy.

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