Japan’s Sacred Island

Post 8778

Japan’s Sacred Island

For centuries, rituals performed on an isolated island played a key role in the emergence of Japan
January/February 2020


Japan Okinoshima Sacred Island

(Mainichi Newspaper)
The island of Okinoshima is home to three goddesses worshipped by followers of Shintoism, and was a destination for religious pilgrims in the first millennium A.D.
The sheer cliffs of the small island of Okinoshima rise abruptly out of the sea some 40 miles off the coast of the Japanese island of Kyushu. Okinoshima’s sole resident is a Shinto priest who serves as the caretaker of small wooden shrines built among huge boulders on its southern half. For followers of Shintoism, Japan’s indigenous religion, Okinoshima is the sacred home of a trio of goddesses who, among their many responsibilities, ensure the safety of mariners. Fishing communities on the island of Oshima and in the nearby Munakata region on Kyushu still retain beliefs associated with the goddesses that originated perhaps some 2,000 years ago. Like mariners throughout Japan, the fishermen of Oshima may utter a prayer to the deities known as the Munakata goddesses before setting out to sea, and still perform yearly rituals honoring them. These traditions have distant origins in rituals practiced by people on Okinoshima as early as the fourth century A.D. During that time, the Japanese archipelago first came under the control of the Yamato Court, which was ruled by the ancestors of today’s Japanese imperial family, and contact with the kingdoms of Korea and the Chinese imperial state began to intensify. Goods, people, and ideas began to flow from mainland Asia to the Japanese archipelago. Thousands of artifacts unearthed on Okinoshima dating to this period show that the island played a central role in this essential relationship.

For much of the first millennium A.D., no long-distance fishing trip, diplomatic mission, or merchant venture from Japan to mainland Asia was complete without a stop at Okinoshima to observe rituals honoring the Three Goddesses and seek their protection during the dangerous journey ahead. “At that time, if you were traveling to China or Korea, you needed to stop at Okinoshima,” says Sainsbury Institute archaeologist Simon Kaner. “It wasn’t an isolated, remote island at all, but lay on an important maritime route to the Korean Peninsula.” Archaeologists are uncertain just how the rituals played out, but from about A.D. 400 to 900, they clearly involved leaving objects ranging from simple pottery to elegantly crafted bronze dragon figures atop or near the massive rocks that stand close to today’s Shinto shrines. During this period, as the Yamato noble house consolidated central authority in the Japanese archipelago, the practices of Shintoism first became codified. At the same time, cultural and political influence from Korea and China was at its peak and resulted in the introduction of both writing and Buddhism by the seventh century A.D. Since then, Buddhism has been practiced in Japan alongside Shintoism, which can be translated as “way of the spirits.” The religion involves the worship of thousands of different kami, or spirits, who are as diverse as gods, ancestors, and natural forces such as wind, or even islands, including Okinoshima itself. A Shinto institution known as the Munakata Grand Shrine currently oversees Okinoshima, as well as a shrine dedicated to the goddesses on Oshima and another, the Hetsu-miya Shrine, on Kyushu.

Japan Okinoshima Map

(Ken Feisel)

The traditions of Shintoism have evolved over the past 2,000 years, not least because the authority of the central state and local powers over religious matters has waxed and waned. In the mid-nineteenth century, when imperial power was consolidated after a long period of fragmentation, Shinto institutions came under central government control. But in the post–World War II period, so-called State Shinto was suspended and authority returned to individual shrines and other Shinto institutions, such as the Munakata Grand Shrine, which precipitated a revitalization of long-dormant religious practices. In the 1950s and 1970s—despite a strict taboo against taking artifacts from the island—the Munakata Grand Shrine priests allowed archaeologists to excavate a few sites on Okinoshima in order to learn more about the rites practiced on the island in the distant past.

Japan Okinoshima Dragons

(The Yomiuri Newspaper/AFLO)
Two gilt-bronze dragon heads are among the 80,000 offerings archaeologists recovered from the island.
Over the course of two major excavation campaigns, archaeologists recovered some 80,000 artifacts, all of which were then stored on the grounds of Kyushu’s Hetsu-miya Shrine, thus honoring the taboo against removing artifacts from sacred sites. The objects included Korean and Chinese luxury goods, as well as iron weapons, pottery, and bronze and stone figurines of local manufacture. “It’s such a diverse collection of artifacts,” says Kaner. He notes that the majority of the offerings found on Okinoshima date to a period before Shinto rituals were first codified in writing, giving scholars a very rare glimpse of how the precursors to Japan’s indigenous religious system functioned in their earliest forms. In recent years, Japanese archaeologists, as well as foreign scholars including Kaner, have refocused attention on this collection of artifacts in order to provide context for the effort to name Okinoshima and other sacred sites overseen by the Munakata Grand Shrine to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. As they have returned to the study of this massive artifact collection using modern methods of archaeological analysis, they have shown how these objects help tell the story of a 500-year period when, under the watchful eye of both central and local powers, foreign and local traditions combined to help forge the nation of Japan.

Chinese histories dating to the early first millennium A.D. refer to Japan as the semi-mythic Land of Wa, a place that was possibly haunted and certainly difficult to reach. One source states that in A.D. 238, Queen Himiko of Wa, who was likely fictitious, dispatched a mission to China that was sent home with 100 bronze mirrors. Archaeologists working at Okinoshima found many Chinese bronze mirrors lying atop the boulders near the shrine. Dating of the mirrors and other artifacts found there shows that many of the earliest rituals on Okinoshima were carried out on the summits of the boulders, some of which are 30 feet high. Fukuoka University archaeologist Junichi Takesue speculates that the bronze mirrors, which date to the fourth century A.D., may have been first taken as diplomatic gifts to the Yamato Court, which lay far to the east of the Munakata region. Perhaps after being presented at court, speculates Takesue, the mirrors were repurposed as offerings to the Three Goddesses on Okinoshima to ensure the good fortune of another diplomatic or trading mission.

Japan Okinoshima Shrine

(Imaki Hidekazu ©World Heritage Promotion Committee)
A Shinto shrine on Okinoshima stands near boulders where rituals honoring the Three Goddesses were practiced beginning in the fourth century A.D. Today, a single priest watches over the site.
Chinese histories aren’t alone in recording early contact with the people of Wa. A stela located in the territory of the Goguryo Kingdom, in northern Korea, states that in A.D. 391, the Kingdom of Wa sent warriors to aid the Goguryo Kingdom in its war with neighboring Korean states. Korean pottery sherds dating to this era found on Okinoshima suggest the existence of a close relationship between the peninsula and the Munakata region. Among the artifacts left as offerings atop the boulders are iron ingots imported from Korea and seven iron swords made locally, as well as iron daggers and pieces of armor. That objects related to warfare feature prominently in the early offering caches on Okinoshima suggests to archaeologist Mamoru Saso of Kokugakuin University that they may have been deposited on the island as part of rituals intended to seek divine support for the military expeditions mentioned in the Goguryo stela, and that the ruling Yamato nobles had an early hand in the rituals performed on Okinoshima. Other archaeologists, including Takesue, believe that a local clan of Munakata nobles played an important role in managing international affairs from an early period, and would have carried out rituals on Okinoshima on behalf of the Yamato Court. Whoever supervised the rites, maintaining relationships with the East Asian mainland was critical by the fourth century, and the rituals undertaken on Okinoshima were intended to symbolically protect those relationships. It is possible that ritual observances on Okinoshima were supervised by both the Munakata clan and the central court, and that authority over the island went back and forth between the two over the course of the 500 years during which the island was an important destination for those worshipping the Three Goddesses.

Japan Okinoshima Site

{Imaki Hidekazu ©World Heritage Promotion Committee)
Fragments of pottery still cover the ground where offerings were made on Okinoshima more than 1,000 years ago.

Other artifacts from the same time that bronze mirrors from China and iron ingots from Korea were being left as offerings atop the boulders have given archaeologists more insight into how the rituals were conducted. Simple pottery vessels recovered from the island dating to this period may have once held food. Fujio Oda, an emeritus professor of archaeology at Fukuoka University who participated in the original excavations at Okinoshima, notes that feeding the kami remains a critical element in Shinto observances today, and that it was likely a key part of these early rites as well. Oda also notes that near the remains of a stone altar atop one of the tallest Okinoshima boulders, his team recovered a series of comma-shaped jade beads. He now believes that the beads may have originally hung from a string that delineated the border of an altar where offerings were left, a subtle detail that speaks to how the earliest people to petition the Three Goddesses may have worshipped them.

In the fifth and sixth centuries, the voyagers practicing rituals on Okinoshima changed how they honored the Three Goddesses. At this point, visitors to the island began to leave their gifts not on top of the boulders but below them, in their shadows. Archaeologists are uncertain why visitors to Okinoshima changed the location of the rituals, but it is evident that an entirely new class of offerings was being left. According to Takesue, the sophistication and value of the gifts to the Three Goddesses increased dramatically. Some locally manufactured items, such as bronze mirrors and iron weapons, were left in the boulders’ shadows, but Korean gold rings and gilt-bronze horse trappings were as well.

Japan Okinoshima Ring Bridle

(© Munakata Taisha, The Yomiuri Newspaper/AFLO)
A Korean gold ring (left) and gilt-bronze horse fittings (right), all found on Okinoshima, are evidence of the island’s role in fostering connections between Japan and the Asian

.Later records indicate that in A.D. 571, a Japanese envoy was sent to the court of Korea’s Silla Kingdom, then one of the most prominent states on the peninsula, and that 40 such missions followed. It is possible that the horse trappings and rings were acquired during these diplomatic trips. Saso, who has studied Okinoshima’s metal artifacts, believes that the appearance of horse trappings in particular may relate to the development of a seasonal Shinto wind deity festival during which a divine horse is saddled with offerings for the gods.

Japan Okinoshima Mirror

(© Munakata Taisha, The Yomiuri Newspaper/AFLO)
A bronze mirror is among the votive objects dated to the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. found atop boulders on Okinoshima.
The expense and high quality of these goods suggests to many of the scholars studying Okinoshima that the Yamato Court now played a direct role in maintaining the ritual sites on the island, with the local Munakata clan taking on a supporting role. Nevertheless, the clan was still quite powerful. During this period, large keyhole-shaped earthen tombs, similar to those constructed for the imperial Japanese family, were being built in the Munakata region to hold the honored dead of the clan. These burial mounds, known as the Shimbaru-Nuyama Tombs, stand clustered on a plateau looking out toward both Oshima and Okinoshima, next to land that was once the site of a pair of inlets where the clan’s ships are thought to have docked, a clear statement that the sea was a place from which the clan drew its authority.

As Japan’s contact with the Korean kingdoms and China intensified, the Yamato Court moved to the city of Nara, which became the capital of a centralized state organized around a complex bureaucracy similar to the one that existed in China. During this period, ritual practices on Okinoshima changed once again. Based on the location of artifact caches, it seems that rituals took place both in the shadow of the boulders and out in the open on a flat area of land some distance from the rocks. However, those leaving goods on Okinoshima still seem to have felt that only the best objects would do as gifts for the goddesses. Among the prestigious goods recovered that date to this period are a Chinese Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618–906) vase and gilt-bronze dragon heads. Visitors also left miniature objects made in imitation of larger ones. These included gilt-bronze musical instruments, such as a five-string zither, and a loom. This last item was perhaps an acknowledgment of the role the Three Goddesses played as the patron deities of silk weaving, which had been introduced from Korea and China around the time the island first became an important ritual site.

Japan Okinoshima Zither

(Imaki Hidekazu ©World Heritage Promotion Committee)
A 5-stringed bronze zither is one of the many miniature objects visitors left on Okinoshima.
In the early seventh century, the Nara emperors commissioned the earliest histories of Japan, which describe myths that tie the Three Goddesses of Munakata to Amaterasu, the sun goddess and ancestor of the emperors of Japan. According to one legend recorded during this period, the goddesses were born when Amaterasu challenged her brother to a contest of honor. As part of the challenge, Amaterasu ate three pieces of her brother’s broken sword and exhaled the pieces as fog, which transformed into the Three Goddesses. Recording such myths helped codify the Shinto traditions that lay behind rituals such as those practiced on Okinoshima.

These rituals began to lose their international character during the eighth century. Around this time, the Yamato Court stopped participating in wars on the Korean Peninsula, and enthusiasm for mainland Asian culture may have begun to diminish as well. Against the backdrop of these events, around A.D. 750, the location of the religious rites on Okinoshima changed once again. Whoever was now responsible for the rituals practiced them only in the open air, away from the imposing boulders. Although people continued to offer miniature bronzes to the goddesses, including bowls and jars, locally produced pottery and figures crafted from the mineral steatite depicting stylized figures that may have represented ancestors became more prominent among the offerings. The people visiting Okinoshima during this period seem to have been celebrating regional folk traditions rather than international connections. To archaeologists, this suggests that the Munakata clan was now asserting exclusive religious authority over Okinoshima.

Around A.D. 870, Korean pirates began to pose a serious threat to Japanese expeditions to mainland Asia. According to contemporaneous court records, imperial emissaries from the capital of Kyoto were dispatched to pray to the Munakata goddesses for safe voyages. But the long history of intense exchange between Japan and mainland Asia was nearing an end. By A.D. 894, a plan to send embassies to China was canceled. The Yamato Court then suspended the tradition of dispatching envoys to China altogether. Around this time, the practice of leaving ritual offerings to the Munakata goddesses also stopped. “This was a time when Japan was limiting contact with mainland Asia,” says Kaner. “To a certain extent, the country began to look more inward.” Instead of leaving votive offerings in the open air or near boulders, Shinto priests of this period began to worship inside wooden shrines on Okinoshima and Oshima, as well as inside the Hetsu-miya Shrine, an arrangement that has persisted to the present day.

Japan Okinoshima Festival

{Imaki Hidekazu ©World Heritage Promotion Committee)
Boats traveling from Okinoshima to the large island of Kyushu during the annual Miare festival are part of a ritual intended to regenerate the divine power of the Three Goddesses, who ensure the safety of mariners.

The worship of the Three Goddesses of Munakata is still widespread throughout Japan, but rituals dedicated to them continue to be especially important to the people who live within sight of Okinoshima. The largest and most important of these rituals is the Miare festival, dedicated to the annual rebirth of the goddesses, a version of which has been practiced for 800 years. After the abolition of State Shinto in the wake of World War II and the return of local authority, the Munakata Grand Shrine sought to revitalize the Miare festival. Traditionally, it was a small affair involving Shinto priests and a small group of devotees, but, in the 1960s, the festival was combined with others to create a large event in which the entire community could participate.

The ritual’s set piece is a bamboo flagpole known as the Minagate being brought by boat from Okinoshima to the Hetsu-miya Shrine. Like the goddesses themselves, the Minagate has a mythic history. It is said that in the third century, an empress dispatched an old man to the Korean Peninsula carrying the Minagate. As he neared the coast, he swung the pole and parted the sea. An enemy army then advanced toward the ship, but the old man swung the Minagate again, and the seas swallowed the army. The old man then took the Minagate to Okinoshima in triumph, where he set it up as a marker on the spot where the goddesses are said to descend to Earth. Every October, a fleet of boats bedecked with colorful banners accompanies the Minagate as it is taken from Okinoshima to the shrine on Kyushu, where ceremonies regenerate the divine power of the goddesses. Like the changing rites once practiced on Okinoshima, this new festival combines rituals that are bound to a tradition that dates to a time when Japan was just beginning to emerge as a nation united by common beliefs.

Eric A. Powell is deputy editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.


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