William Elliot Griffis.

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Frightful as these shadows of the mind appear, they are both very real
and, in a sense, very necessary to the ignorant man. He must have some
theory by which to explain the phenomena of nature and soothe his own
terrors. Hence he peoples the earth and water, not only with invisible
spirits more or less malevolent, but also with bodily presences usually
in terrific bestial form. To those who believe in one Spirit pervading,
ordering, governing all things, there is unity amid all phenomena, and
the universe is all order and beauty. To the mind which has not reached
this height of simplicity, instead of one cause there are many. The
diverse phenomena of nature are brought about by spirits innumerable,
warring and discordant. Instead of a unity to the mind, as of sun and
solar system, there is nothing but planets, asteroids and a constant
rain of shooting-stars.


Glancing at some phases of the actual unwritten religions of Japan we
name Shamanism, Mythical Zoölogy, Fetichism, Phallicism, and Tree and
Serpent Worship.

In actual Shamanism or Animism there may or there may not be a belief in
or conception of a single all-powerful Creator above and beyond all.[12]
Usually there is not such a belief, though, even if there be, the actual
government of the physical world and its surroundings is believed to lie
in the hands of many spirits or gods benevolent and malevolent. Earth,
air, water, all things teem with beings that are malevolent and
constantly active. In time of disaster, famine, epidemic the universe
seems as overcrowded with them as stagnant water seems to be when the
solar microscope throw its contents into apparition upon the screen. It
is absolutely necessary to propitiate these spirits by magic rites and

Among the tribes of the northern part of the Chinese Empire and the
Ainos of Japan this Shamanism exists as something like an organized
cultus. Indeed, it would be hard to find any part of Chinese Asia from
Korea to Annam or from Tibet to Formosa, not dominated by this belief in
the power and presence of minor spirits. The Ainos of Yezo may be called
Shamanists or Animists; that is, their minds are cramped and confused by
their belief in a multitude of inferior spirits whom they worship and
propitiate by rites and incantations through their medicine-man or
sorcerer. How they whittle sticks, keeping on the fringe of curled
shavings, and set up these, called _inao_ in places whence evil is
suspected to lurk, and how the shaman conducts his exorcisms and works
his healings, are told in the works of the traveller and the
missionary.[13] In the wand of shavings thus reared we see the same
motive as that which induced the Mikado in the eighth century to build
the great monasteries on Hiyéizan, northeast of Ki[=o]to, this being the
quarter in which Buddhist superstition locates the path of advancing
evil, to ward off malevolence by litanies and incense. Or, the _inao_ is
a sort of lightning-rod conductor by which impending mischief may be led
harmlessly away.

Yet, besides the Ainos,[14] there are millions of Japanese who are
Shamanists, even though they know not the name or organized cult. And if
we make use of the term Shamanism instead of the more exact one of
Animism, it is for the very purpose of illustrating our contention that
the underlying paganisms of the Japanese archipelago, unwritten and
unformulated, are older than the religions founded on books; and that
these paganisms, still vital and persistent, constantly modify and
corrupt the recognized religious. The term Shaman, a Pali word, was
originally a pure Buddhist term meaning one who has separated from his
family and his passions. One of the designations of the Buddha was
Shamana-Gautama. The same word, Shamon, in Japanese still means a bonze,
or Buddhist priest. Its appropriation by the sorcerers, medicine-men,
and lords of the misrule of superstition in Mongolia and Manchuria shows
decisively how indigenous paganism has corrupted the Buddhism of
northern Asia even as it has caused its decay in Japan.

As out of Animism or Shamanism grows Fetichism in which a visible object
is found for the abode or medium of the spirit, so also, out of the same
soil arises what we may call Imaginary Zoölogy. In this mental growth,
the nightmare of the diseased imagination or of the mind unable to draw
the line between the real and the unreal, Chinese Asia differs notably
from the Aryan world. With the mythical monsters of India and Iran we
are acquainted, and with those of the Semitic and ancient European cycle
of ideas which furnished us with our ancients and classics we are
familiar. The lovely presences in human form, the semi-human and bestial
creations, sphinxes, naiads, satyrs, fauns, harpies, griffins, with
which the fancy of the Mediterranean nations populated glen, grotto,
mountain and stream, are probably outnumbered by the less beautiful and
even hideous mind-shadows of the Turanian world. Chief among these are
what in Chinese literature, so slavishly borrowed by the Japanese, are
called the four supernatural or spiritually endowed creatures - the Kirin
or Unicorn, the Phoenix, the Tortoise and the Dragon.[15]

Mythical Zoölogy.

Of the first species the _ki_ is the male, the _lin_ is the female,
hence the name Kilin. The Japanese having no _l_, pronounce this Kirin.
Its appearance on the earth is regarded as a happy portent of the advent
of good government or the birth of men who are to prove virtuous rulers.
It has the body of a deer, the tail of an ox, and a single, soft horn.
As messenger of mercy and benevolence, the Kirin never treads on a live
insect or eats growing grass. Later philosophy made this imaginary beast
the incarnation of those five primordial elements - earth, air, water,
fire and ether of which all things, including man's body, are made and
which are symbolized in the shapes of the cube, globe, pyramid, saucer
and tuft of rays in the Japanese gravestones. It is said to attain the
age of a thousand years, to be the noblest form of the animal creation
and the emblem of perfect good. In Chinese and Japanese art this
creature holds a prominent place, and in literature even more so. It is
not only part of the repertoire of the artist's symbols in the Chinese
world of ideas, but is almost a necessity to the moulds of thought in
eastern Asia. Yet it is older than Confucius or the book-religions, and
its conception shows one of the nobler sides of Animism.

The Feng-hwang or Phoenix, Japanese H[=o]-w[=o], the second of the
incarnations of the spirits, is of wondrous form and mystic nature. The
rare advent of this bird upon the earth is, like that of the kirin or
unicorn, a presage of the advent of virtuous rulers and good government.
It has the head of a pheasant, the beak of a swallow, the neck of a
tortoise, and the features of the dragon and fish. Its colors and
streaming feathers are gorgeous with iridian sheen, combining the
splendors of the pheasant and the peacock. Its five colors symbolize the
cardinal virtues of uprightness of mind, obedience, justice, fidelity
and benevolence. The male bird _H[=o]_, and female _w[=o]_, by their
inseparable fellowship furnish the artist, poet and literary writer with
the originals of the ten thousand references which are found in Chinese
and its derived literatures. Of this mystic Phoenix a Chinese dictionary
thus gives description:

The Phoenix is of the essence of water; it was born in the
vermilion cave; it perches not but on the most beautiful of all
trees; it eats not but of the seed of the bamboo; its body is
adorned with the five colors; its song contains the five notes;
as it walks it looks around; as it flies hosts of birds follow

Older than the elaborate descriptions of it and its representations in
art, the H[=o]-w[=o] is one of the creations of primitive Chinese

The Kwei or Tortoise is not the actual horny reptile known to
naturalists and to common experience, but a spirit, an animated creature
that ages ago rose up out of the Yellow River, having on its carapace
the mystic writing out of which the legendary founder of Chinese
civilization deciphered the basis of moral teachings and the secrets of
the unseen. From this divine tortoise which conceived by thought alone,
all other tortoises sprang. In the elaboration of the myths and legends
concerning the tortoise we find many varieties of this scaly
incarnation. It lives a thousand years, hence it is emblem of longevity
in art and literature. It is the attendant of the god of the waters. It
has some of the qualities and energies of the dragon, it has the power
of transformation. In pictures and sculptures we are familiar with its
figure, often of colossal size, as forming the curb of a well, the base
of a monument or tablet. Yet, whatever its form in literature or art, it
is the later elaborated representation of ancient Animism which selected
the tortoise as one of the manifold incarnations or media of the myriad
spirits that populate the air.

Chief and leader of the four divinely constituted beasts is the Lung,
Japanese Ri[=o], or Dragon, which has the power of transformation and of
making itself visible or invisible. At will it reduces itself to the
size of a silk-worm, or is swollen until it fills the space of heaven
and earth. This is the creature especially preeminent in art, literature
and rhetoric. There are nine kinds of dragons, all with various features
and functions, and artists and authors revel in their representation.
The celestial dragon guards the mansions of the gods and supports them
lest they fall; the spiritual dragon causes the winds to blow and rain
to descend for the service of mankind; the earth dragon marks out the
courses of rivers and streams; the dragon of the hidden treasures
watches over the wealth concealed from mortals, etc. Outwardly, the
dragon of superstition resembles the geological monsters brought to
resurrection by our paleontologists. He seems to incarnate all the
attributes and forces of animal life - vigor, rapidity of motion,
endurance, power of offence in horn, hoof, claw, tooth, nail, scale and
fiery breath. Being the embodiment of all force the dragon is especially
symbolical of the emperor. Usually associated with malevolence, one
sees, besides the conventional art and literature of civilization, the
primitive animistic idea of men to whose mind this mysterious universe
had no unity, who believed in myriad discordant spirits but knew not of
"one Law-giver, who is able both to save and to destroy." An
enlargement, possibly, of prehistoric man's reminiscence of now extinct
monsters, the dragon is, in its artistic development, a mythical
embodiment of all the powers of moisture to bless and to harm. We shall
see how, when Buddhism entered China, the cobra-de-capello, so often
figured in the Buddhistic representations of India, is replaced by the

Yet besides these four incarnations of the spirits that misrule the
world there is a host, a menagerie of mythical monsters. In Korea, one
of the Asian countries richest in demonology, beast worship is very
prevalent. Mythical winged tigers and flying serpents with attributes of
fire, lightning and combinations of forces not found in any one
creature, are common to the popular fancy. In Japan, the _kappa_, half
monkey half tortoise, which seizes children bathing in the rivers, as
real to millions of the native common folk as is the shark or porpoise;
the flying-weasel, that moves in the whirlwind with sickle-like blades
on his claws, which cut the face of the unfortunate; the wind-god or imp
that lets loose the gale or storm; the thunder-imp or hairy, cat-like
creature that on the cloud-edges beats his drums in crash, roll, or
rattle; the earthquake-fish or subterranean bull-head or cat-fish that
wriggles and writhes, causing the earth to shiver, shudder and open; the
_ja_ or dragon centipede; the _tengu_ or long-nosed and winged mountain
sprite, which acts as the messenger of the gods, pulling out the tongues
of fibbing, lying children; besides the colossal spiders and mythical
creatures of the old story-books; the foxes, badgers, cats and other
creatures which transform themselves and "possess" human beings, still
influence the popular mind. These, once the old _kami_ of the primitive
Japanese, or _kamui_ of the aboriginal Aino, show the mental soil and
climate[16] which were to condition the growth of the seed imported from
other lands, whether of Buddhism or Christianity. It is very hard to
kill a god while the old mind that grew and nourished him still remains
the same. Banish or brand a phantom or mind-shadow once worshipped as
divine, and it will appear as a fairy, a demon, a mythical animal, or an
_oni_; but to annihilate it requires many centuries of higher culture.

As with the superstitions and survival of Animism and Fetichism from our
pagan ancestors among ourselves, many of the lingering beliefs may be
harmless, but over the mass of men in Japan and in Chinese Asia they
still exert a baleful influence. They make life full of distress; they
curtail human joy; they are a hindrance, to spiritual progress and to


The animistic tendency in that part of Asia dominated by the Chinese
world of ideas shows itself not only in a belief in messengers or
embodiments of divine malevolence or benevolence, but also in the
location of the spiritual influence in or upon an inanimate object or
fetich. Among men in Chinese Asia, from the clodhopper to the gentleman,
the inheritance of Fetichism from the primeval ages is constantly
noticeable. Let us glance at the term itself.

As the Chinaman's "Joss" is only his own pronunciation of the Portuguese
word _Deos_, or the Latin _Deus_, so the word "fetich" is but the
Portuguese modification of the Latin word _facticius_, that is
_feitiço_. Portugal, beginning nearly five hundred years ago, had the
honor of sending the first ships and crews to explore the coasts of
Africa and Asia, and her sailors by this word, now Englished as fetich,
described the native charms or talismans. The word "fetichism" came into
the European languages through the work of Charles de Brosses, who, in
1760, wrote on "Du Culte des Dieux Fétiches." In Fetichism, the "object
is treated as having personal consciousness and power, is talked with,
worshipped, prayed to, sacrificed to, petted or ill-treated with
reference to its past or future behavior to its votaries."

Let me draw a picture from actual observation. I look out of the windows
of my house in Fukui. Here is a peasant who comes back after the winter
to prepare his field for cultivation. The man's horizon of ideas, like
his vocabulary, is very limited. His view of actual life is bounded by a
few rice-fields, a range of hills, and the village near by. Possibly one
visit to a city or large town has enriched his experience. More
probably, however, the wind and clouds, the weather, the soil, crops and
taxes, his family and food and how to provide for them, are the main
thoughts that occupy his mind. Before he will strike mattock or spade in
the soil, lay axe to a tree, collect or burn underbrush, he will select
a stone, a slab of rock or a stick of wood, set it upon hill side or mud
field-boundary, and to this he will bow, prostrate himself or pray. To
him, this stone or stick is consecrated. It has power to placate the
spirits and ward off their evil. It is the medium of communication
between him and them. Now, having attended, as he thinks, to the
proprieties in the case, he proceeds to dig, plough, drain, put in order
and treat soil or water, tree or other growth as is most convenient for
his purpose. His fetich is erected to "the honorable spirits." Were this
not attended to, some known or unknown bad luck, sinister fortune, or
calamity would befall him. Here, then, is a fetich-worshipper. The stick
or stone is the medium of communication between the man and the spirits
who can bless or harm him, and which to his mind are as countlessly
numerous as the swarms of mosquitoes which he drives out of and away
from his summer cottage by smudge fires in August.

One need not travel in Yezo or Saghalin to see practical Fetichism. Go
where you will in Japan, there are fetich worshippers. Among the country
folk, the "_inaka_" of Japanese parlance, Fetichism is seen in its
grossest forms. Yet among probably millions of Buddhists, especially of
certain sects, the Nichiren for example, and even among the
rationalistic Confucians, there are fetich-worshippers. Rare is the
Japanese farmer, laborer, mechanic, ward-man, or _hei-min_ of any trade
who does not wear amulet, charm or other object which he regards with
more or less of reverence as having relation to the powers that help or
harm.[17] In most of the Buddhist temples these amulets are sold for the
benefit of the priests or of the shrine or monastery. Not a few even of
the gentry consider it best to be on the safe side and wear in pouch or
purse these protectors against evil.

Of the 7,817,570 houses in the empire, enumerated in the census of 1892,
it is probable that seven millions of them are subjects of insurance by
fetich.[18] They are guaranteed against fire, thieves, lightning, plague
and pestilence. It is because of money paid to the priests that the
wooden policies are duly nailed on the walls, and not on account of the
wise application of mathematical, financial or medical science. Examine
also the paper packages carefully tied and affixed above the transom,
decipher the writing in ink or the brand left by the hot iron on the
little slabs of pine-wood - there may be one or a score of them - and what
will you read? Names of the temples with date of issue and seal of
certificate from the priests, mottoes or titles from sacred books, often
only a Sanskrit letter or monogram, of which the priest-pedler may long
since have forgotten the meaning. To build a house, select a cemetery or
proceed to any of the ordinary events of life without making use of some
sort of material fetich, is unusual, extraordinary and is voted

Long after the brutish stage of thought is past the fetichistic instinct
remains in the sacredness attached to the mere letter or paper or
parchment of the sacred book or writing, when used as amulet, plaster or
medicine. The survivals, even in Buddhism, of ancient and prehistoric
Fetichism are many and often with undenied approval of the religious
authorities, especially in those sects which are themselves reversions
to primitive and lower types of religion.

Among the Ainos of Yezo and Saghalin the medicine-man or shaman is
decorated with fetichistic bric-à-brac of all sorts, and these bits of
shells, metals, and other clinking substances are believed to be media
of communication with mysterious influences and forces. In Korea
thousands of trees bedecked with fluttering rags, clinking scraps of
tin, metal or stone signify the same thing. In Japan these primitive
tinkling scraps and clinking bunches of glass have long since become the
_suzu_ or wind-bells seen on the pagoda which tintinabulate with every
passing breeze. The whittled sticks of the Aino, non-conductors of evil
and protectors of those who make and rear them, stuck up in every place
of awe or supposed danger, have in the slow evolution of centuries
become the innumerable flag-poles, banners and streamers which one sees
at their _matsuris_ or temple festivals. Millions of towels and
handkerchiefs still flutter over wells and on sacred trees. In old Japan
the banners of an army almost outnumbered the men who fought beneath
them. Today, at times they nearly conceal the temples from view.

The civilized Japanese, having passed far beyond the Aino's stage of
religion, still show their fetichistic instincts in the veneration
accorded to priestly inventions for raising revenue.[19] This instinct
lingers in the faith accorded to medicine in the form of decoction,
pill, bolus or poultice made from the sacred writing and piously
swallowed; in the reverence paid to the idol for its own sake, and in
the charm or amulet worn by the soldier in his cap or by the gentleman
in his pill-box, tobacco-pouch or purse.

As the will of the worshipper who selects the fetich makes it what it
is, so also, by the exercise of that will he imagines he can in a
certain measure be the equal or superior of his god. Like the Italian
peasant who beats or scolds his bambino when his prayers are not
answered or his wishes gratified, so the fetich is punished or not
allowed to know what is going on, by being covered up or hidden away.
Instances of such rough handling of their fetiches by the people are far
from unknown in the Land of Great Peace. At such childishness we may
wonder and imagine that fetich-worship is the very antipodes of
religion; and yet it requires but little study of the lower orders of
mind and conduct in Christendom to see how fetich-worship still lingers
among people called Christians, whether the fetich be the image of a
saint or the Virgin, or a verse of the Bible found at random and used
much as is a penny-toss to decide minor actions. Or, to look farther
south, what means the rabbit's foot carried in the pocket or the various
articles of faith now hanging in the limbo between religion and
folk-lore in various parts of our own country?


Further illustrations of far Eastern Animism and Fetichism are seen in
forms once vastly more prevalent in Japan than now. Indeed, so far
improved off the face of the earth are they, that some are already
matters of memory or archæology, and their very existence even in former
days is nearly or wholly incredible to the generation born since
1868 - when Old Japan began to vanish in dissolving views and New Japan
to emerge. What the author has seen with his own eyes, would amaze many
Japanese born since 1868 and the readers of the rhapsodies of tourists
who study Japan from the _jin-riki-sha_. Phases of tree and serpent
worship are still quite common, and will be probably for generations to
come; but the phallic shrines and emblems abolished by the government in
1872 have been so far invisible to most living travellers and natives,
that their once general existence and use are now scarcely suspected.
Even profound scholars of the Japanese language and literature whose
work dates from after the year 1872 have scarcely suspected the
universality of phallic worship. Yet what we could say of this cult and
its emblems, especially in treating of Shint[=o], the special ethnic
faith of Japan, would be from sight of our own eyes besides the
testimony of many witnesses.[20]

The cultus has been known in the Japanese archipelago from Riu Kin to
Yezo. Despite official edicts of abolition it is still secretly
practised by the "heathen," the _inaka_ of Japan. "Government law lasts
three days," is an ancient proverb in Nippon. Sharp eyes have, within
three months of the writing of this line, unearthed a phallic shrine
within a stone's-throw of Shint[=o]'s most sacred temples at Isé.
Formerly, however, these implements of worship were seen numerously - in
the cornucopia distributed in the temples, in the _matsuris_ or
religious processions and in representation by various plastic
material - and all this until 1872, to an extent that is absolutely
incredible to all except the eye-witnesses, some of whose written
testimonies we possess. What seems to our mind shocking and revolting
was once a part of our own ancestors' faith, and until very recently was
the perfectly natural and innocent creed of many millions of Japanese
and is yet the same for tens of thousands of them.

We may easily see why and how that which to us is a degrading cult was
not only closely allied to Shint[=o], but directly fostered by and
properly a part of it, as soon as we read the account of the creation of
the world, an contained in the national "Book of Ancient Traditions,"
the "Kojiki." Several of the opening paragraphs of this sacred book of
Shint[=o] are phallic myths explaining cosmogony. Yet the myths and the
cult are older than the writing and are phases of primitive Japanese
faith. The mystery of fatherhood is to the primitive man the mystery of
creation also. To him neither the thought nor the word was at hand to
put difference and transcendental separation between him and what he
worshipped as a god.

Into the details of the former display and carriage of these now obscene
symbols in the popular celebrations; of the behavior of even respectable

Online LibraryWilliam Elliot GriffisThe Religions of Japan From the Dawn of History to the Era of Méiji → online text (page 3 of 31)