The Patron & The Ox: Legends of Tenmangū ~ Part 2

We continue with the discussion on the legendary tales from Tenmangū. Since we were able to achieve an understanding behind these shrines through the history of Sugawara no Michizane in part 1, we will now proceed with those tales and get an idea how they have deep ties with the yearly ox Zodiac sign theme. Note that many of these stories were made long ago in Japan’s past, during a time where superstition was prevalent, and natural phenomenons were believed to have been caused by one of many gods. Whether they are believable or not, they do play a big role in the development of both culture and society.


Sugawara no Michizane was elevated to the level of a divine being after his death due to his contributions while he was alive. This isn’t so unusual, as there are plenty of examples of this happening not only in Japan, but in other countries as well. Interestingly, one could say that this was already predetermined on the day of his birth. A tale that is told at the Tenmangū shrines is that his birth was an auspicious one, and truly denotes his connection with the ox Zodiac sign, which is considered beyond normal. In this particular tale, Michizane’s birth is recorded to not only been in the year of the ox, but was also on the day of the ox, and at the time of the ox¹. What does this mean?

The Zodiac signs have a multitude of purposes, some utilitarian, others mystical. In the past, they were used to denote years, days, and time, which was key for fortune telling. Depending on the period and the tasks that are at hand, a person may believe they will see benefits, or will heed caution and refrain from doing anything important. In Michizane’s case, this repeated occurrence with the ox sign in his birth is pretty auspicious, and viewed as beyond normal. On top of this, Michizane is said to have died on the day of the ox. Such a repetition of a Zodiac sign may point to him as being divine, like a deity who took the form of a human. As for the ox reference, one could interpret it that the ox brought him into the world, as well as returned him to his true realm, since the ox is naturally a vehicle of the gods. More on this point later.


This tale can almost be seen as a continuation to part 1, based on how it’s told in the visual records of the Kitanō Tenmangū shrine called “Kitanō Tenjin Engi Emaki” (北野天神縁起絵巻). In 908, just 3 years after Michizane’s death, a member of the Fujiwara clan would die suddenly from disease. One year later, Fujiwara no Tokihira, the main antagonist in Michizane’s misfortune, also dies from disease. In 913, new Minister of the Right Minamoto no Hikaru would tragically die through drowning while out on a hunting expedition. As the Fujiwara clan gained a stronger hold of both the Imperial palace and Imperial family, more tragedy befell upon them. Such can be seen in the 930 incident where a lightning storm would strike down upon a building on the Imperial grounds where many members of the Fujiwara family were, resulting in a few of them dying on the spot, or later passing away due to suffering from lightning burns. The final tragedy befell on 60th Emperor Daigō, who is believed to have been the main target of the lightning storm. After the incident, Emperor Daigō’s health deteriorated, until finally dying 3 months later. The cause of this is viewed to be linked to his agreement with the validity of the accusations made by Tokihira and others, and Michizane being exiled from Heian Kyō.

This entire story is seen as an act of revenge by Michizane’s spirit that took its course over the course of almost 30 years. Initially, as these events were unfolding, the consensus within the Imperial palace was that Michizane’s vengeful spirit was cursing the Fujiwara clan. There were different attempts to try and “appease” him, such as bestowing upon him different titles including Minister of the Right, which was taken away from him through slander while he was still living. The lightning storm was the most severe, which happened later after the Fujiwara clan were able to become part of the Imperial family through one of the women conceiving a child for then Emperor Daigō, making him a prince. As a result, A Fujiwara member was sent to Anrakuji, where Michizane was buried at, to build an enshrinement. This enshrinement was then named Tenmangū. A few centuries later the Kitanō Tenjin Engi Emaki was created, which retells this story.

While there were those who described him as a vengeful spirit, Tenmangū instead envisions him as a wrathful god punishing wrongdoers in an act of justice. As a result, Michizane is called by several other names, including “Raijin” (雷神), which means “Thunder God”. According to old beliefs, a thunder god is generally depicted having the guise of an oni (鬼, demon) with horns². According to the Zodiac signs, the combination of the Ox and Tiger signs refer to demons, both metaphorically (i.e. they point towards the unlucky north-east direction on the typical Zodiac chart) and visually (demons are usually illustrated having ox-like horns and wearing tiger fur loincloth). This goes back to Michizane being born in the year of the ox, which contributes to this image.


There is a legend that Michizane had encounters with an ox, which may have been his guardian spirit in disguise. During his youth, Michizane found a baby ox wandering alone in a wooded area. Appearing to be lost or abandoned, he took it into his residence, where he nurtured it until it grew into an adult. At some point, just as it suddenly appeared in his life, this ox suddenly disappeared without a trace. While he wanted to set out to search for it, in the end he let the matter go. Fast forward to when he was exiled to live his life in Dazaifu in the south, Michizane would one day travel west to Dōmyōji (道明寺, Dōmyō Temple) in Osaka to visit a relative³. After parting ways, he set out to head back home when he was unexpectedly attacked by an assailant. Before harm could befall on him, a large ox suddenly appeared and drove the assailant away, saving Michizane’s life. Just as quickly as it appeared, this ox would disappear from sight in the same way.

One of the ways to interpret this story is that the baby ox was a spirit. Since Michizane showed kindness and helped raise it, this ox spirit in return acted as a guardian spirit. In a way, it is not so different from many other Japanese fabled tales of similar nature. Although it is just a legend, this contributes to Michizane’s ever-persistent connection with the ox Zodiac sign. On another note, while in this version of the story the color of the ox is not mentioned, I’ve heard another one, although very brief, where Michizane was rescued by a white ox. While I’m not sure if this is a variation of the story mentioned above, there is significance in the white ox to the Buddhist god Shiva, which the Tenjin of Tenmangū is loosely based off of.


Another story is directly related what took place after Michizane’s death and the decision with what to do with his remains. In his final days, Michizane wrote a poem as part of his will that states “people should allow themselves to be pulled along in a wagon by an ox, letting it take us where ever it may desire, and to eventually be buried in the spot where it stops at”⁴. Following this as his last wish, those sent to bury his remains put it in an ox-drawn wagon, and had intended to carry it all the way to Heian Kyō (present-day Kyōto) in the west in a procession. During the journey, the ox suddenly stopped in the middle of the road, laid down, and wouldn’t move. They didn’t make it far, as they were still in the southern part of Japan. Despite efforts to get it to stand up and proceed again, the ox wouldn’t budge. With no other choice, They took Michizane’s remains to a near by temple called Anrakuji, and had it buried there.

At Tenmangū shrines, the underlining point of this story is that everything happened based on fate. Michizane was destined to be laid to rest in the south, and the ox was like a divine messenger to show where the burial spot should be. Interestingly, this is where Michizane was enshrined in the 1st Tenmangū shrine, thus being deified. Again we see the significance of the ox, whether we choose to view this as chance or by fate.


If we look at some of the stories mentioned above, we see the ox had a close role in the life of Sugawara no Michizane, as well as after his death. At the Tenmangū, the ox is often described as a “shinshi” (神使), which can stand for being a servant or messenger of the gods. According to Shinto beliefs, there are spiritual creatures who, acting on the will of the god(s) they serve, come down to earth to handle tasks they were assigned to. At times, humans may also view these spiritual creatures as gods themselves. They would take the guise of earthly creatures such as foxes, monkeys, birds, snakes, and centipedes. In the Tenjin faith of Tenmangū, the ox is the main servant.

From another perspective, the ox can also be viewed as a vehicle for the gods. In Eastern religions and beliefs, gods are depicted as coming down to Earth on the back of a divine creature. These creatures include boars, horses, and oxen. There are artwork that feature Michizane sitting on the back of an ox, although in these he is in his humanly form, as if to say he did this while he was alive. Since Michizane is deified and now recognized as the Tenjin, this is fitting.


These are the majority of legendary tales from the Tenmangū. Bearing a lot of references to the ox, one can get an idea how important their underlining messages are especially when the ox Zodiac years come around. This here brings the 2-part series to a close. I hope readers enjoy this piece of history, and get an understanding about how intricately enwoven the Zodiac signs were with Japanese culture.

1) This is commonly written as “丑の年の丑の日の丑の刻”, which reads “ushi no toshi no ushi no hi no ushi no koku”

2) This is more in the vein of a divine demon, who is a guardian of Buddhism. Another way to describe this would be “onigami” (鬼神), or “demon god”.

3) This relative is stated to be an oba (叔母), which could mean aunt.

4) Although written in modernized Japanese, this is an interpretation of the poem:


“Kuruma wo ushi ni hikasete, ushi no yuku mama ni makase, ushi no tomatta tokoro ni hōmuttekure”

Note that during the Heian period, ox-drawn wagons were popular among the populous, which may have had an influence on him writing this.

The Patron & the Ox: Legends of Tenmangū ~ Part 1

Continuing with the ox theme that coincides with this year’s Zodiac sign, I will introduce some interesting tales that relate to it through the famous Tenmangū (天満宮), which is the name of numerous Shinto shrines built around Japan. These shrines practice the Tenjin faith (天神信仰, Tenjin shinkō), a form of Shinto belief, which involves the worship of the Tenjin (天神). A significant point worth mentioning is that the Tenjin is Sugawara no Michizane, who was as an actual scholar and aristocratic that lived during the Heian period (794 ~ 1185). He was later viewed as a patron deified due to the many good things he did while he was alive, as well as the incidents that would later take place after his death that were then told as legends.

Today’s article will be the 1st of a 2-part series about Tenmangū’s fabled tales surrounding Sugawara no Michizane, and the persisting imagery of the ox. Before getting into those, part 1 will cover this individual’s actual history in order to better understand the roots of his legendary status.


Sugawara no Michizane was born in 845, which was the year of the Ox. The Sugawara was an elite family during the Heian period, at a time when noble families lived in or close to Heian Kyō, (present day Kyōto) the Capital where the Imperial Palace was built, and the golden age when foreign import contributed immensely to cultural development before Japan was turned into a military state by warring feudal lords. Michizane was privileged to receiving education in many topics, including Chinese classics, writing, archery, and poetry. It is said that he was very gifted in learning, as he demonstrated natural talent in both literature and military studies¹. As an example, Michizane would not only understand Chinese poetry thoroughly at the age of 11, but he also wrote his 1st poem at that age². Earning high honors, he would became a professor of literature at the age of 33.

A pic of Sugawara no Michizane.

Outside of education, Michizane was also talented in political matters, as well as a devotee of the Shinto belief. Eventually his career would involve working for the Imperial court. He not only proved to be a loyal subject of the court, he was also very close to 59th Emperor Uda, where he was heavily depended on as an advisor. He handled different tasks that helped Japanese society as a whole, including improving living conditions for the poor and maintaining Japan’s unique image while adapting foreign influences. Michizane also proposed many reasonable ways and solutions to handling foreign relations, which Emperor Uda truly valued. With his hard-working ethics and knowledgeable insight, he rose through the ranks, and inevitably achieved the title udaijin (右大臣), or Minister of the Right. This was one of the highest ranks achievable at the time, which was a great honor to him and his family. This title was matched equally by sadaijin (左大臣), or Minister of the Left, which was held by another aristocrat named Fujiwara Tokihira (藤原時平).

Speaking of which, at the time the Fujiwara were major players in the Imperial court, where they imposed their influence in many aspects politically. Although the Sugawara had a history of good relations with the Fujiwara, Michizane and Tokihira did not get along, where the latter would not treat the former well. In fact, there were other opposing noble families who were in favor of the Fujiwara, and were also jealous of Michizane’s seemingly unfaltering favor from Emperor Uda. Secretly, Tokihira and others conspired a plan that would expose him of abusing his power in an effort to rid his presence from the Imperial palace, and help elevate their family and peers.

When Emperor Uda retired and was succeeded by the 60th Emperor Daigo, Tokihira and others took a chance to put their scheme into action. They were successful in defaming Michizane, who would then be unfortunate of being stripped of his rank, and exiled from Heian Kyō by the new Emperor. Separated from his family, he was forced to reside in Dazaifu located in the south (present day Dazaifu City, Fukuoka).

Deprived of the wealth and loved ones, Michizane’s life in Dazaifu was hard, yet he maintained his dignity and continued to present himself as a good example by continuing with scholarly studies, and devoting his time in worship for the sake of the safety of the Imperial family and the nation of Japan. He spent the remainder of his years there, and would pass away in 903. Shortly after, his remains were buried at Ankakuji, not too far away from his residence. Years later, as Michizane’s former detractors started to die due to diseases and freakish accidents, the Imperial court would exonerate him from all crimes he was judged to have committed, bestowed upon him his former ranks, and ordered for Tenmangū to be built at Ankakuji to enshrine his remains, which would in turn make him a deity — all as a means to appease what was believed to be his vengeful soul.

Today, many go to the Tenmangū to pray for academic success, since Sugawara no Michizane is viewed as a god of learning. Despite facing slander and hardship towards the later part of his life, his life story, which includes his achievements, were recorded and preserved, which in turn makes him a revered individual, and one that inspires all that visit these Tenmangū shrines. Visitors can also see large bronze statues of an ox at some of these shrines, which is also plays a significant role in several tales related to Michizane’s story.


This is how Sugawara no Michizane’s history closes, as well as concludes part 1. In the following article, we will review different tales and legends that paint vivid pictures of Sugawara no Michizane, as the Tenjin, being an auspicious, as well as the ox being like a divine creature.

1) Essentially the standard structure for learning during the Heian period, which is called bunbu ryōdō (文武両道).

2) Below is the poem he wrote:

「月夜見梅花 月輝如晴雪 梅花似照星 可憐金鏡転 庭上玉房馨」

In his poem, Michizane describes how the sweet-smelling flower garden made up of plum blossoms (ume [梅] in Japanese) looks radiant in the bright moonlight like stars, similar to how snow sparkles in the sun rays.

Hassō no Kamae & the Concept of Enlightenment

A common posture found within kenjutsu and kendō is called “Hassō”, or “Hassō no kamae”¹. Like most postures, Hassō serves a particular purpose, although there may be slight variations based on school of thought², which can include type of gear one is wearing (armor vs. plain clothing), as well as intention of use (battlefield, dueling, indoors, etc.). One particular trait of Hassō is it’s form makes it perfect for delivering a counter strike, or a followup strike when an opening arises. While this is one of it’s traits, “Hassō” doesn’t literally translate into “counter strike”. One theory³ I recently came across (in relations to the aforementioned posture from the kenjutsu style I study) is that it is coded to stand for it. To understand this, one needs to grasp the idea of when a counter strike is possible, which can be achieved through the concept of enlightenment.

Examples of Hassō no kamae. From Wikipedia

The Hassō in question is written with the kanji “八相”, and translates to “8 stages”. It originates from Buddhism and is related to the Gautama Buddha named Shakyamuni and the life events he went through in order to remove himself from the cycle of rebirth and attain enlightenment in order to become a Buddha. Out of his life events are 8 that are considered the necessary “steps” or “stages” to achieve this⁴.

Here is a short description of Shakyamuni’s 8 stages from Jōdoshu Daijiten, an online resource pertaining to Jōdo sect Buddhism, followed by my translation:



” “Eight Stages of Gautama Buddha” refers to 8 important events in Shakyamuni’s life⁵ (conception, birth, learning, becoming a monk, penance, conquering demons to become enlightened, turning the “wheel of Dharma”, and arriving to Nirvana)….”


Another phrase for reaching enlightenment based off of Shakyamuni’s story is “hassō jōdō” (八相成道).

What’s the connection to the posture Hassō? In some Japanese martial systems that have a long history contain mysterious and esoteric instructions. Those with religious influences tend to give instructions about reaching a level where you perform techniques through “divine powers” or through the “will of the gods”. This level goes beyond thought or consciousness. If done as so, then the martial artist can become unbeatable. Taking this into account, one can grasp the hidden meaning of counterattack within the title Hassō“.

Example of a counter strike through Hassō no kamae. Here, the posture is not static, but acts as a transitional medium for both the sabaki (evasion) and hangeki (counterattack).

Depending on the practitioner, one can take this concept of enlightenment seriously, or not. The main point is to use lessons like this as a guide to understand the traits of one’s sword style. For me, reaching enlightenment’s probably out of my reach, but I sure will enjoy the thought of almost achieving it every time I perform a successful counter strike through Hassō no kamae (jk)!


1) 八相 or 八相の構え. Other ways Hassō is written are “八双” and “撥草”. Different in meaning, as well as in attitude when executing sword cuts.

2) Depending on the school or style, there are variants known as In no kamae (陰の構え), Moku no kamae (木の構え), and Tonbo (蜻蛉). Differences in name include body structure, principle, and application.

3) There are other theories behind the naming scheme of Hassō, but we have to keep in mind that these are style-specific, meaning they require specific principles and movements that could differ from one another. For example, one theory I’ve heard commonly is that this posture makes the shape of the kanji “eight” (八) by how we stand in accordance to leg placement while holding our sword up. Interestingly, this theory is for a different “Hassō” (八双).

4) The idea of Shakyamuni’s story told based on 8 events is believed to have been established first in China. First version of this is said to have been found in the book called Shjiaoyi (四教義), which was written by a Buddhist monk named Zhiyi (智顗, 538~597).

5) Note that the events that enabled Shakyamuni to become a Buddha are not set in stone. Depending on the sources, some of these events differ from one another.

Marishiten For All in 2019

Recently I learned that there is another important element in celebrating the new Lunar year of 2019. In accordance to how the boar is the Zodiac sign in Japan, there is another tradition seen very prominent this year, which is the revering of the deity Marishiten¹. There is a connection being applied here, and it’s primarily linked to the boar. I will touch upon that point, while also giving an overview of Marishiten as viewed in Japan.


Marishiten is a deity within Buddhism that represents light and the sun, and is worshiped by many Buddhist sects. Believed to have originated from India’s Hindu beliefs, then passed on into Buddhism. Later the image and reverence of this deity spread throughout Asia alongside with Buddhism. After esoteric Buddhism was established in Japan, the worship of Marishiten continued in numerous Buddhist temples around the country.


A statue in the image of Marishiten. From Wikipedia.


There are countless depictions of Marishiten based on how she² is viewed, as well as the region where she is worshiped at. In Japan, she can be seen having multiple faces, and numerous arms where each are holding different weapons such as a bow & arrow. In some cases, the sun and the moon are also in her possession amongst the weapons. Out of these images, at times she is shown to be beautiful and elegant, while other times she appears fierce and war-like as if rushing into battle. One thing that almost all these images have in common is Marishiten is shown accompanied by boars, where she is standing (or saddling) on the back of a boar, or sitting on top of several boars. The meaning behind the boars is her ability to charge forward fearlessly and with absolute resolve into battle. Due to this image, there is an association with boars, to the point that at temples that feature a room or hall dedicated to Marishiten, there are statues of boars that are symbolic as guardians³.

Marishiten is a deva turned into a guardian deity according to Buddhist beliefs. She is often depicted as a goddess of light of the sun and moon, as her name stands for “rays of light⁴”. Believed to originally possess a form of fire, Marishiten’s traits include being a source of light, and impervious to harm. As one of light, her abilities include creating illusions, and becoming invisible by positioning herself in front of the sun. As a whole, Marishiten represents a medium for avoiding harm, illnesses, and disasters. Many believers pray for her protection by chanting specific mantras specially designated to her. It is also believed that she can cure certain illnesses, resolve disputes, and ensure safe child birth.


After the introduction of Buddhism in Japan, warriors saw value in worshiping Marishiten for her protection as early as the 12th century. This came about when many believed that she could ensure victory through granting invisibility to others. This idea of being invisible is not to be taken literally; what it meant was a warrior could avoid attacks from their enemies by not being noticed within their line of sight. This was especially desired during times of war, for warriors were known to carry an image of Marishiten on their person while stepping onto the battlefield, such as archers wearing necklaces bearing a carving in the resemblance of Marishiten. Reknown figures such as Kusunoki Masashige⁵, Shimazu Yoshihiro⁶, and Tokugawa Ieyasu⁷ are known to have been great believers in this.

During the Asuka period (538-710), Prince Shōtoku was a great supporter of Buddhism early in Japan (left picture, middle, from Wikipedia). As one who studied the Buddhist sutras, it is said he received Marishiten’s aid in expelling the rivaling Mononobe clan. In reference to this event, the document “Ninjutsu Ōgi Den” gives a brief acknowledgment (outlined in red) where Prince Shōtoku is praised as “being cultivated & true to the warrior’s way…, he possessed the secret methods (of Buddhism) through the will of Marishiten and Kongō Rikishi.” (right picture, from author’s collection)

Outside of the battlefield, for those engaged in non-combatant scenarios such as spying and stealing in, they would pray for the ability to move undetected in order to complete their tasks. Groups utilizing shinobi no jutsu (known by the modern term ninjutsu) are an example of this. During peaceful times, Marishiten was still an essential asset within some martial systems. For some, through the incorporation of esoteric Buddhism, prayers to Marishiten helped to inspired self perfection. For others, her image helped to protect the teachings of their martial system.

Until the abolishment of the warrior caste, Marishiten was one of the deities most essential to those who wished to achieve victory against their foes.


From Edo period, Marishiten was made a patron of wealth and prosperity primarily to merchants and entertainers. This made her one of the “Santen⁸”, or 3 Deities, within Japan. The Santen is a label for 3 major deities specifically designated as patrons of luck and fortune for those in specific occupations. At some point, these 3 Deities were viewed as beneficial to everyone, thus the general mass began to pray to them as well.

Tokudai Temple is one of the few temples that is dedicated in the worship of Marishiten (left). The pic on the right shows that temple’s schedule for Marishiten Goenbi (I no Hi) celebration, which shows the months and each day on the schedule in chronological order. (from Tokudai Temple’s website here)

This year, people can access certain temples to pray to Marishiten. Just about a month ago, the Yakuri Temple⁹ (located in Takamatsu City, Kagawa Prefecture) made headlines across media outlets in Japan, for that temple’s Marishiten statue was unveiled to the public for the 1st time. There are also special days for prayer and worship called “Marishiten Goenbi¹⁰”, that take place at Tokudai Temple¹¹ (located in Ueno, Taitōku District of Tokyo). This is in connection to “I no Hi¹²”, or “Day of the Boar”, which is directly related to this year’s Zodiac being that of the boar (or otherwise known as the pig outside of Japan), and Marishiten’s utilization of boars in the images rectified of her.


As a whole, Marishiten is a guardian figure with a long history. Over the generations, many groups have found reasons to associate themselves to her for the sake of receiving different types of blessings through worship. This year is especially important due to the Lunar calendar falling on the year of the boar. If you look at it, Marishiten is for everyone when it comes down to asking for blessings, and this point is certainly being acted upon in Japan this year.

1) Original writing of the name is Marici.

2) While the prevailing image is that of a female in Japan, Marishiten is also described as being a male in other countries.

3) A guardian boar is written as “koma-inoshishi” (狛猪)

4) In Japanese the word “kagerō” (陽炎) is used to describe this.

5) 楠正成

6) 島津義弘

7) 徳川家康

8) 三天. This is made up of the following deities: Marishiten, Benzaiten, and Daikokuten.

9) 八栗寺

10) 摩利支天御縁日

11) 徳大寺

12) 亥の日

Kuki Archives: Hidari Mitsudomoe ~ Part 2

This is the continuation of the discussion on the Hidari Mitsudomoe, one of 2 family crests of the main Kuki line. In part 1 the historical, cultural, and spiritual symbolism in relations the tomoe emblem in Japan, and Asia as a whole, was introduced. For this post, we will focus solely on the Hidari Mitsudomoe’s connection to the Kuki clan, from how it was possibly acquired to how it played a role within their own personal history.


The Kuki clan’s main line has, for as long as it is known, been associated with this family crest. It is visibly shown in some of their works and activities. It may even appear on banners in public activities they take part in as well. While this crest is generally called “Hidari Mitsudomoe”, take note that there are actually 2 variations: one is a regular version, and another is a slimmer version called “Hosoi Hidari Mitsudomoe”. For the slimmer one, the 3 commas are much thinner, but still round out to make a proper circle. Is there any significant differences between the two? Other than appearances, possibly not.

These photos show the book “Kukishinden Zensho: Nakatomi Shintō, Kumano Shugendō”. 1st pic features the cover of both the book and its box dust cover. 2nd pic is of the back of both items. Note that on the back is the Hidari Mitsudomoe, which overlaps another emblem called “Jurokuyae Omotegiku”.


While mentioned to be a family crest even within their own works, The Kuki clan have not put out much info regarding the source from where they acquired the Hidari Mitsudomoe. Actually they are not entitled to, especially since in today’s generation the use of family emblems do not possess the same weight as in the past. Piecing together possible sources of information on the topic takes a bit of work, primarily with historical documents that deal with cultural practices.

Fortunately, there are valuable sources that keep records on the numerous family crests used through Japan’s history, which explain detailed information from the meaning behind each one, to the families that are linked to them. Looking back at the roots of the Kuki family has given me an idea of the possible source of the family emblem in question.

The general consensus from sources regarding kamon history state that the Kuki clan are indeed hereditarily associated with the Hidari Mitsudomoe. One theory on this is based on the original roots of the Kuki clan. The founder of the Kuki clan, Kuki Ryūshin, originally bore the family name “Fujiwara”. The Fujiwara clan was a noble family of the imperial court. There are several Fujiwara lines to be exact, so to be more specific, it is said that he is a descendant of the Fujiwara no Takaie¹. Takaie was the 4th son of Fujiwara Kitaie², who belonged to one of the Fujiwara lines that used the Hidari Mitsudomoe as a family emblem. This is primarily because Kitaie’s family were worshipers of the deity Hachiman (god of war), and helped spread its influence throughout Japan with the construction of many small shrines. This theory tends to be the common and most feasible in Japanese sources.

Next, a point to consider is the connection between the Kuki family and their role within Shinto practices. For many generations they have served in Shinto shrines, from when their ancestors were still a part of the Fujiwara clan, to even after this when the Kuki clan established in Kuki Ura. If we look at when several members served as betto³ (chief administrative of a temple) for the Kumano Hongu Taisha, the perception of the tomoe with its spiritual connections and as a mark of protection was already in place at the time. Being the shinmon (deity emblem) of Kumano Hongu Taisha, the Hidari Mitsudomoe can be found all over this shrine. Another interesting point is that another emblem called “Jurokuyae Omotegiku⁴” (a type of Kikuka⁵ emblem) is also associated with this shrine. On top of this, the Kuki clan uses a combination of both emblems, with the Hidari Mitsudomoe overlapping the other. Apart from the association due to the connection with Kumano Hongu Taisha, I am not sure the reasoning behind using both emblem in such fashion.


Kuki Yoshitaka is generally mentioned in association with the Hidari Mitsudomoe. It’s stated that on such items like the back of his jinbaori⁶ (a special vest worn by a commander) and the flag of his large ships bore the Hidari Mitsudomoe mark. Other members of the Kuki clan also used this emblem openly. Of course, this was by those who inherited it or were granted permission to use it. Places where this can be seen at an abundance are where they had resided as land owners, such as Kuki Cho.


A pic of a miniature-scaled large battle ship “Nihon Maru” (日本丸). From the book “Kukishinden Zensho”.

A town in Kuki Ura after Kuki Ryūshin moved his family to reside there, Kuki Cho is an area where the Hidari Mitsudomoe saw great use. Apart from being used as a family crest, many old buildings within Kuki Cho are said to bear this crest along the eaves of roofs and sides of the walls. It is also found on grave sites of certain Kuki members as well. Due to their control over this area, it would make sense that they would express their presence in such manner. The same can be said in other places such as where Toba castle once stood (Toba, Mie Prefecture).


In the book “Kukishinden Zensho: Nakatomi Shintō, Kumano Shugendō⁷”, which is based heavily on the documentations kept in the care of the main line of the Kuki clan, features a page with a discussion on the Hidari Mitsudomoe. Other than stating much of the popular conceptions about this emblem explained in part one, this also contains views and insights about what it means to the Kuki clan itself. Below are a few excerpts from that page, with the actual Japanese text followed by my translations.


The page from the book “Kukishinden Zensho”, where the original Japanese text about the Hidari Mitsudomoe is taken from.



Incidentally, the triple 3-head left sided comma…is the family crest of the Kuki clan.


This kanji “巴” (ha⁸) is thought to be a hieroglyphic character representing the appearance of a snake or of such nature coiling upon itself. It’s also said to to be a character that symbolizes a whirlpool’s turning waters. As such, from this idea of “whirlpool’s water”, it was then used as an abumigawara (a roof tile consisting of a semi-cylindrical tile and a decorative pendant) for shrines and temples as a charm to ward off fire.


The 3 commas is thought to express (3-point) ideas such as heaven-earth-person (creation of all things), wisdom-virtue-valor (3 primary virtues), and the religious idea of “spirit–present-astral” (3 boundaries of the physical & spiritual realms). However, in the Kuki clan’s case, this is also found in the Shinto prayers to the grand kami of the Takamikura Jingu, a shrine that they also have a connection with….


The last point is key to understanding the significance of the Hidari Mitsudomoe to the Kuki clan, for it is very unique to them; the 3 commas are symbolic of Mihashira no Ookami⁹, or 3 grand gods pinnacle to the creation of all things within their version of shinto. There’s also connections to the term “mitsu no tomoshibi¹⁰” (3 guiding lights), which involves the rescue of Southern Emperor Godaigo, along with the 3 sacred treasures that were retrieved by and protected by Kuki Ryushin in the 1300s. However, despite these details explained in the aforementioned book, trying to understand the full gist of all this is a difficult task to undertake for many reasons, which will steer far away from this post’s main focus, which is on the Hidari Mitsudomoe.


We’ve reached the end of this topic regarding the Kuki clan’s use of the family emblem called Hidari Mitsudomoe. As mentioned from the 1st post, there is much history regarding the tomoe emblem, let alone the Hidari Mitsudomoe. The same can be said with the Kuki clan due to their religious background and beliefs. I hope that touching upon different aspects of this has helped to get an understanding its relationship with the Kuki clan, and why it would be used as their kamon. Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for more!

1) 藤原隆家. The “no” part is generally omitted in written form, but said verbally.

2) 藤原北家

3) 別当

4) 十六八重表菊. This is considered an imperial emblem.

5) 菊花

6) 陣羽織

7) 九鬼神伝全書中臣神道熊野修験道. Written by Agō Kiyohiko (吾郷清彦), an associate to the main line of the Kuki clan who was given the task of reviewing & archiving their many documents.

8) “Ha” is another pronunciation for tomoe. This is onyomi (non-native Japanese reading) for this kanji, and is shown that to be so as it is written in katakana, which is one of Japanese’s writing styles and can indicate words that are foreign.

9) 三柱大神

10) 三つの灯火

Kuki Archives: Hidari Mitsudomoe ~ Part 1

Previously, I had spoken about the Kuki clan and the 2 kamon¹, or family emblems, they are known by. I spoke extensively about the 1st family crest, Shichiyō (七曜), many months back here. The 2nd family crest, Hidari Mitsudomoe (左三つ巴), will finally be highlighted, as it is the most recognized out of the two. Since the roots of the Hidari Mitsudomoe are ancient and have a significantly long history, much of the discussion will focus soley on these as a whole. Dividing this topic into two parts, part one will cover much of these roots, from the various meanings, their influence on theoretical views, how they’ve cemented important roles within Japanese culture, as well as the variations in design. Through this, we can transition smoother into discussing solely on the Hidari Mitsudomoe and its history with the Kuki clan in a 2nd separate post.


The Hidari Mitsudomoe is better understood as a spiraling design most frequently called a “tomoe” in Japanese². The word tomoe is believed to have been derived from archery. There are records that point to its roots being that of an armguard worn on the left hand used during archery in ancient times. This special armguard was called a “tomo” (Japanese linguistics), and the written kanji for it is “鞆”. Another thought is that the tomo was a circular design on this type of armgurad. When referring to this based on visual representation, one would say “tomo-e” (鞆絵), with the 2nd kanji meaning drawing or picture. Eventually the word tomoe became its own word, and its kanji was simplified to “巴”. This is what is used today. We can look at this as being the basis of its conception.

In the series of illustration scrolls collectively known as “Nenchu Gyoji Emaki” (年中行事絵巻), there is a drawing of 2 archers, both wearing a tomo around their left wrist. The 1st pic is a section from that particular scroll (includes a drum with the actual tomoe mark). 2nd pic is the enlarged section of the archers. The 3rd pic is a colored version, from Wikipedia.


The symbol of tomoe is said to have strong roots from China’s ancient times, where its original source stems from. There are numerous ideas on how the tomoe came about from surviving records from China’s past, but no way to prove which explains the beginnings of its use. One theory about this circling pattern is that it represents a whirlpool, while another states that it represents the coiling of a snake. Usually indicating 2 or more intertwining forces, this image inspired different forms and usages throughout Asia.

There is the theory about the tomoe which is based around the kanji “巴”. It is said to have been a hieroglyphic character that represented a person whose stomach doubled in size. Whether this is a symbolic meaning of “overeating”, or something different, is difficult to distinguish. The magatama (勾玉), a curved “comma-shaped” jewel first prominent in China, also represents this kanji, and has its own theories for its conception.

Above is a tomoe emblem well recognized in Daoism. Next to it, a depiction of eternal rivalry between the tiger and dragon from Eastern culture. Generally both creatures represent a philosophy dirctly opposite of each other. While seen as a conflict, in reality both are needed to be complete, such as expressed in ying yang theory.

A general universal use of the tomoe as a pattern is where it consists of two parts, being made up of 2 commas. These commas entwine endlessly in a circle, with the head (larger section) of one comma chasing after the tail (the slimmer part) of the other. The head of the commas can refer to the intertwining of 2 individuals; this can be a figurative, or even literal, conflict between these individuals in the form of rivals. In China, this theoretical imagery has a strong connection with Daoism, such that the concept of the everlasting battle between the tiger and dragon found in many folktales and cultural-related activities represent this theory very well.


When the concept of the tomoe came to Japan, it too spread and evolved in different ways. For example, when the comma-shaped jewels called magatama made their way to Japan, they were acquired by certain wealthy families. These jewels were symbolic of divine spirits, and even played an important role within Japan’s story of creation³. Worn as a necklace consisting of many of these commas, these magatama are said to have been used in ritualistic practices to ward off evil and misfortune. They are said to have connections with the tomoe emblem as well.

2 pictures of Iwashimizu Hachimangu located in Yawata City, Kyoto Prefecture. One of many shrines dedicated to the deity Hachiman around Japan, this features the Hidari Mitsudomoe emblem, such as those on the banners in the 1st pic, as well as along the edge of the roof and golden lanterns in the 2nd pic. Pics were taken by Hideki and Genji, respectively, on Pixta. Used with permission.

After such families disappeared, these magatama became hard-to-find relics, but their religious like tones persisted. In time, the tomoe was widely incorporated in religious practices. As an example, beginning from the late 700s onward during the Heian period, many shrines and temples, as well as homes, placed the tomoe as an emblem near their rooftops and doorways as a talisman to ward off misfortune and disaster, such as fire. Along with that, it was utilized as a shinmon (神文, emblem of a deity) by shinto shrines that worshipped a god named Hachiman⁴, who represents the god of war. Elite families, such as the Seiwa Genji (清和源氏) and Kanmu Heishi (桓武平氏), were large supporters of the deity Hachiman. Due to its symbol of strength in battle, these families spread the practice of the worship of Hachiman to many military families, as many adopted this for the sake of praying for victory in battle⁵. Through this, some other families also made the tomoe a family emblem, or added it as an addition to the one they have.


While one of the most familiar design of the tomoe is of the symbol of Daoism (made up of 2 commas), it is not certain if this was the original design in conception. However, it is safe to say that there are numerous designs in history. Later, different variants were created; while their uses varied depending on the person and lifestyle, many of these patterns were used as kamon (家紋, family crests), shinmon (神文, deity crests) and jimon (寺紋, temple crests).

Examples of common tomoe emblems. Click on each for a brief description. From Wikipedia.

There are designs that range from using just one comma, to up to four commas. Then there are a those composing of small differences such as size, while others possess elaborately complex designs, such as the “kuyou⁵” type. A tomoe is further identified by the direction of its spin; the head of the comma can curve clockwise or curve counter-clockwise. This type of spin was traditionally used to indicate which side it is placed on in certain situations, such as clothing, which then identifies what type of tomoe it becomes. For example, if placed on the left side of the body, then the one with the clockwise spin is used, and is labeled a hidari (left) tomoe. Reasoning behind this is if you place the tomoe on the back of the left hand, the head of the comma has to be turning towards the left thumb. The rule is opposite for the right side of the body; the tomoe turning counter-clockwise is used and is labeled as a migi (right) tomoe.

In a case where the number of comma and direction of spin played an important role is seen through wa-taiko (和太鼓), or Japanese drums. During the Heian period, within the main building of a Shinto shrine were various drums used for specific purposes. They needed to be placed in a particular fashion. To distinguish these, drums that were placed on the right side would bear a tomoe mark on top which had 2 commas with a counter-clockwise (right) spin, while the drums on the left would have a tomoe mark which had 3 commas with a -clockwise (left) spin. Take note that this was not always consistent, as these rules may have changed with each generation. There are other meanings behind this which are related to in-yo (ying yang), but the visual differences are what stick out the most.

As a whole, there are over 100 designs in Asia alone. Japan has its own designs that are unique, with a good number of them being family crests. Note that some of these designs are variants of others, which could mean that these variations are merely cosmetic.


Here ends the first part regarding the Hidari Mitsudomoe. More of an overview of its roots from a historical and cultural perspective both in and outside of Japan, we get an understanding of how it is generally conceived and its purpose in use. Please check back in a few days for part 2, which will go much further in discussion both on the Hidari Mitsudomoe and how the Kuki clan not only acquired this as a family crest, but how it is deeply connected to their family and religious practices.

1) 家紋

2) Take note that “domoe” is the same as “tomoe”, only difference is in pronunciation. In cases where tomoe is attached to another word, it will change to domoe. However, this is not always the case, such as the topic at hand. While generally called “Hidari Mitsudomoe”, there are cases where it is instead pronounced as “Hidari Mitsu Tomoe”. Factors for this are very lenient, so both cases are correct.

3) Within old stories such as Kojiki (古事記, Records of Ancient Matters) and Nihon Shoki (日本書記, The Chronicles of Japan), the magatama was portrayed as “Yasakani no Magatama” (八尺瓊勾玉, Long [approx. 8 ft] string of Curved Jewels), which was one of three sacred treasures of the gods. The concept is symbolic, as replicas of these treasures are currently kept by the imperial family in Japan.

4) 八幡. Generally referred to as the deity Hachiman (八幡神, Hachiman shin), also known by the (older) name “Yahata no kami”, as well as several other titles such as “Hondawake no Mikoto” (誉田別命).

5) While often recognized as the “god of war” (武神, bushin), he was specifically called a “god that brings fortune in battle”, or “bu-un no kami” (武運の神) .

6) 九曜.

Kijin Jinja: Ridding Misfortune through Demons

There are some unique and unusual things in Japan that are not normally seen or talked about, especially those that are old & have a long history. For example, in a few posts in my blog I discussed about tales of certain oni¹ (or demons in English) viewed as beings to be revered. While oni are generally seen as being scary and bringers of misfortune in Japanese culture, there are groups that are opposite of this, and instead give praise to particular oni for the sake of luck and protection².

A snapshot of the entrance into Kijin Jinja. All credit and rights of picture goes to  Yoshi Oka.

One of the more unusual practices of giving praise to oni can be found in shrines. Take for example Kijin Jinja³, a shrine located in Saitama Prefecture. It is 1 of the 4 shrines found on Japan’s east side that are dedicated to worshiping oni⁴. At Kijin Jinja, the oni is viewed as a model of unwavering effort, resilience, and having the will to win. This shrine is well known for it’s small ornamental statues of demons on the roof tops, paired red and blue demons drawn on “ema⁵” (small wooden plaques) used for writing one’s prayers & wishes, and small omamori⁶ (charm for protection) in the form of a “oni no kanabo⁷” (demon’s metal club). Thus, visitors that frequent here come to get “powered up” in passing entrance exams into universities, making their homes safe, thriving business, and the like.

Records of Kijin Jinja state that it was established in 1182, nearing the end of the Heian period. Its history lies with a military commander by the name of Hatakeyama Shigetada⁸ (1164 – 1205) , who was owner of the castle called Sugaya Shiro⁹ in Musashi no Kuni (present day Saitama Prefecture). In order to protect his castle at its point of misfortune¹⁰, Shigetada built a shrine there. To make things even more interesting, the deity of worship in this shrine was devised to be that of a demon itself, to counteract bad luck that is usually associated with demons themselves. Thus is the beginning of Kijin Jinja.

One of the festivals that take place throughout Japan is called “Setsubun¹¹”.  It’s a celebration of the end of winter, and a period to rid one’s household of bad luck. Part of the celebration called “mame maki¹²” is where roasted soybeans are spread along the ground in one’s residence to drive away demons, then swept up as if “sweeping away misfortune”. A phrase that goes along with this is “oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi¹³”, which means “demons (bad luck) go outside, good luck stays inside”. At Kijin Jinja, since (good) demons are respected, the celebration of Setsubun has some tweaks to it. Along with demons not associated with bad luck, the phrase used at the celebration there is “fuku wa uchi, oni wa uchi, akuma wa soto¹⁴”, which means “good luck stays inside, demons stay inside, evil demons stay out”.

Artwork called “Setsubun no Oni” (節分の鬼). A man is shown throwing roasted beans at a demon to drive it away. By Katsushika Hokusai, from his series “Hokusai Manga” (北斎漫画). From Wikipedia.

There is another tale that is attached to the Kijin Jinja, which is about “Kijin-sama¹⁵”, the actual demon deity that is worshiped here. Kijin-sama (with -sama being the honorific title) is said to be enshrined within Kijin Jinja upon its establishment. The version of the tale I am about to share is from the publication “Ranzamachi Shi” reproduced on the website called “Kijin Jinja“. Below is the Japanese version of this tale, followed by an English translation done by myself.








Tale of Kijin-Sama

A long time ago, there was a blacksmith that made swords who lived in Kawajima. From morning to night, he put his heart into making swords as the clanking sounds from his hammer could be heard from his shop. One day, a young man came to the blacksmith’s shop.

“I want to make swords, so please teach me.” The young man requested. Having a lot of work to be done at his shop, an extra pair of hands would help the blacksmith greatly.

“Okay, you’re in.” The blacksmith acknowledged his request.

The young man, full of enthusiasm, put his all into making swords, for he didn’t take breaks or sleep at night. In the home of the blacksmith, was a beautiful girl, who was his daughter. The young man requested to his new boss that he be allowed to make the daughter his wife. The blacksmith gave the request some thought, before giving his answer.

“If you can produce 100 swords in one night, then you may take my daughter as your wife.” the blacksmith replied.

Excitedly, the young man made all sorts of preparations at the shop for his task at hand, and waited for that designated nighttime. Once nightfall came, the young picked up his hammer, and swung it making lots of clanging sounds as he proceeded to making swords. In a blink of an eye, he had already produced 35 swords.

It became late at night. Worrying about the matter at hand, the blacksmith went to the shop to take a look at how the young man was doing. Secretly watching the young man at work, he eyed how quickly the swords were being made one after another. In such a short time the swords were piling up!

Just then the blacksmith stared at the young man as he was making swords. Suddenly, the man before him was no longer a man! Bearing eyes that pierced like daggers, and horns protruding from his head, the being before the blacksmith’s eyes was none other than a demon!! This demon stood before what seemed like a sea of fire, as sparks scattered around the demon like fireworks as he clanged away repeatedly with his hammer, producing with his hands one sword after another.

Shocked at what he was witnessing, the blacksmith rushed out of the shop. “There’s no way I can allow my beloved daughter be taken by the likes of such a person!” He thought. Frantically, the blacksmith ran to the chicken coop, thinking that if he could get the rooster to crow, this will signal that the night is over.

“Cock-doodle-doo!” The rooster crowed (through the blacksmith’s efforts).

Afterwards, the blacksmith snuck back into the shop. There stood the man-turned-demon, who was in the middle of striking a sword with his hammer. However, just then the sky to the East began to light up as the night truly came to a close. The demon-man then fell down dead to the ground, still clutching his hammer. He was not able to accomplish his goal, for he managed to produce only 99 swords.

Feeling pity for the man who’s life was lost in work he put his heart into, the blacksmith picked up his lifeless body and carried it outside. He left the body in the hands of  Shinto priest, who in turn buried it at the edge of a garden. Later, this same place was turned into the shrine for Kijin-sama, where the celebrations in honor of him take place.

By reading this, one can tell that Kijin-sama’s inspiring points are going beyond what may be seen as the impossible in order to accomplish one’s goals. That unyielding drive to produce nearly 100 swords in one night is definitely beyond human…which in turn is that same drive visitors wish to acquire to succeed in their tasks at hand.

That sums up this post about Kijin Jinja and its relationship with demons. There are plenty more unique and unsual things of old to be discovered that are a part of Japanese cultures, so please stay tuned for more posts regarding them.

1) 鬼. Along with the image of a large frightful creature with horns and dressed in tigerskin loincloth, oni (demons) are liken to bad luck and disasters according to certain superstitions and practices specializing in reading fortune.

2) Certain demons that do good for the sake of mankind are said to be similar to deities, thus can be revered as a god. Usually these demons are considered “dehorned”. See my posts here and here for more on this.

3) 鬼鎮神社. Kijin can be translated as “Demon Quelling” (or if referring to someone, “Demon Queller”), and Jinja as “shrine”

4) The other 3 shrines are located in Aomori Prefecture, Ōita Prefecture, and Fukuoka Prefecture.

5) 絵馬. Literally meaning “horse-drawing”, originally a picture of a horse was drawn on these wooden boards. Reason behind this is that there was an old belief that gods travel by horses. To offer one’s wishes and prayers to the gods, one method was to draw a picture of a horse on paper or a wooden board, for those who couldn’t do so in front of a shinme (神馬, a divine horse). Later, the drawn image varied depending on the god of worship.

6) お守り

7) 鬼の金棒

8) 畠山重忠

9) 菅谷城

10) According to Onmyōdō (Japanese divination system based off of Taoist beliefs and the 5 Elements), northeast is believed to be the direction where evil spirits come from. The name common for the northeast direction is kimon (鬼門, demon’s gate). In the past, one way to block these evil spirits away was to build a shrine in that direction, and have a particular deity enshrined inside for protection. Thus, many land owners had a shrine built to the northeast of their estate or castle. This practice is called “kimon yoke” (鬼門除け, repelling the demon’s gate).

11) 節分. This takes place usually the 1st week of February, either on the 3rd or 4th day. Originally, Setsubun symbolized the change in seasons, and was celebrated 4 times a year at the end of each season according to the Japanese calendar. Now, there is only one Setsubun celebration for the close of winter.

12) 豆撒き

13) 「鬼は外、福は内」

14) 「福は内、鬼は内、悪魔は外」

15) 鬼鎮様

Kuki Archives: Deciphering the Name ~ Part 2 ~

We continue with the discussion on the Kuki family’s name and how it came to be. In part 1 of this discussion, the original name “Kukami” is introduced, followed by an explanation about the “kami” kanji in this name. This post will continue this by touching on the sources behind the Kukami/Kuki name, which includes the beginnings of the Kuki family’s history1, their position as a wealthy & powerful family during Edo period, and how the standardization of the Japanese language affects their name. Before that, however, let’s take a few steps back and examine the kami kanji abit further, which should give better clarity in the relationship the Kuki clan has with it.

A pic of the sign board on Kishi Mojin Do, a Buddhist temple in Toshima District, Tokyo. It reads from right to left “Kishi Mojin”, with the kami (tsuno ga nai oni) kanji in use.


The kami kanji, a derivative2 of the oni kanji (demon character), is commonly referred to as “tsuno ga nai oni” kanji (the hornless demon). This kanji is said to represent the “onigami”, which can be described as “a figure reaching a divine status despite being of demonic origin”. To better explain this, let’s look at an insert from a website called “Shinshizo Meguri”3, which includes discussions about the kami kanji in relations to specific temples and shrines, along with some lore, found in Japan. The insert states the following:


My translation of the text below:

“This kanji expresses meanings such as a demon becoming a deity of good through the conversion of Buddhism, as well as a demon that helps people.”

This insert offers 2 definitions to the kami kanji, with the 1st covered in part 1 through the tale “Kishi Mojin”. Note that in this case, a demon turning good is not naturally willed, but a controlled phenomenon; Buddhism is used as a means to convince a demon of rather sinister nature to turn over a new leaf and do good for the sake of mankind. The means for making the conversion happen varies. For example, in an extreme case, the trickster monkey spirit Sun Wukong’s assistance in aiding a holy priest on a pilgrimage to retrieve Buddhist sutras is ensured through a powerful headband made by the Great Buddha in the Chinese literature “Journey to the West”4.


For the 2nd definition, a demon doing good by helping people is an ancient interpretation imbedded in parts of Japan’s history and culture. The idea of an onigami doesn’t only exist in Buddhism, but is incorporated into Shinto, Doukyo, Shugendo, and the like. The roots for religious and esoteric groups to view certain demons akin to deities lie in the development of Japan itself, cultural beliefs, and certain isolated events5. Some are based on mythical figures from the Kojiki6. Others on stories to inspire the best qualities in people by relating it to the fierce powers demons possess7.

Let’s take a look at Aomori Prefecture in Japan, which is home to several temples and shrines that worship these good demons. This has helped to develop a culture in this area where townsfolk pray to these demons for protection and good fortune. Taking Oni Jinja (also pronounced Ki Jinja)8 as an example, this shrine tells a particular lore of how a demon is praised as a god. From the website “Shinshi no Yakata”9, a short summary of that lore goes as follows:


Following this text is my translation below:

“In the past, when the villagers faced hardship and couldn’t harvest crops due to a long drought, they were saved by a demon who climbed down from a mountain (Mt. Iwaki), and made an irrigation channel that delivered much needed water to them. To express their thanks, the villagers chose this demon as a god of agriculture and established the shrine “Oni Jinja” in order to give worship.”10

This demon is addressed as “Onigami-sama”11, which gives an indication that the villagers view it as a good and divine being, as well as a source of successful agriculture. On the torii (grand gate) of this shrine is a sign that reads “Oni Jinja”, but the kami (tsuno ga nai oni) kanji is used in place of the oni kanji. This is to express the belief that the demon of worship is in fact not a horrifying creature, but a deity that brings good fortune.

A page from the book “Shinden Bujutsu” written by Takatsuka Eichoku.


Now that certain key points regarding the kami kanji and its ties to religious cultural aspects have been covered, we can now turn our focus to how the Kukami/Kuki name came to be. The Kuki family are associated with Shinto practice and duties at the Kumano Hongu Taisha. However many learn about them through one of many budo schools that teach a version of the martial system originally devised by ancestors of the Kuki line. The history of this martial system, along with the family line, is said to begin with the originator named Kuki Yakushimaru Ryuushin12.

Yakushimaru’s story is said to be found in a record called “Kongou Hihouhen”13, which is part of the many documentations within the Kuki family’s collection. Below is a short summary of Yakushimaru’s story taken from the book “Shinden Bujutsu”, primarily with key points important to how both the “Kukami” and Kuki” names came to be. Snippets from this book will be used to support certain points, each followed by my own translations.

Yakushimaru was born in the year 1318. His family, of a prestige status due to being descendants of the Fujiwara clan, were well to do and provided him the essentials. This included being educated through literature, and trained in martial arts. Along with this, he received Shugendo training (mountain asceticism) through his father Douyuu, as well as studied Shingon Mikkyo (esoteric Buddhism of the Shingon sect) from the monk Joukai while staying at the Sanmakuin (Buddhist temple) in Kyoto. Yakushimaru was also versed in Kuji no Ho, and Ongyou no Jutsu. These esoteric practices involve praying to, and invoking power from, different types of deities and spirits.

At around age 18, Yakushimaru participated in assisting the Ashikaga army of the Northern Court defeat the Imperial forces of the Southern Court13. Emperor Godaigo, of the Southern Court, was captured and held in captivity under harsh conditions, while the 3 Sacred Treasures14 were taken as spoils of war. Learning of this, Yakushimaru made an unexpected move and went to rescue the fallen Emperor Godaigo, as well as retrieve these 3 treasures. With the assistance of close trustworthy warriors, Yakushimaru was successful in freeing the Emperor from the enemies’ clutches, and fighting off pursuers with a broken nagamaki15. He delivered the Emperor to safety in Yoshino, the area where the Imperial line of the Southern Court resides. Later, he managed to retrieve and return the 3 Sacred Treasures back to the Emperor.

After witnessing his prowess, Emperor Godaigo inquired Yakushimaru about his secret techniques. Upon hearing that it was through the use of Kuji no Ho, Emperor Godaigo responded with the following text, as written in “Shinden Bujutsu”16:

“汝の忠心、神の知ろしめすところなり。汝、今日より藤原 改め九鬼と改む可し”

Translation, “The gods know well your display of loyalty. From this day forward, your family name ‘Fujiwara’ can be changed to ‘Kukami’.”

The choice of kanji for the family name is not random; there are significant meanings in the name that indicate how he should be recognized. Starting with the ‘ku’ part of the name, this is the number ‘9’ in Japanese. Ku is significant to Kuji no Ho. This is integral to his family line, as it was considered a secret methodology. Not only was it used to invoke protection, Yakushimaru applied kuji with the shaft of his broken nagamaki during battle as stated in “Shinden Bujutsu”17:


Translation, “…Ryuushin fought wielding the remaining shaft (of his nagamaki), felling the opponent closest to him with a strike. In opposition to the swarming troops, he slashed Kuji in the air with the front end of his shaft.”

The “kami” part of the name means “onigami” (demon god). Some references state that this was chosen because it relates to how fiercely Yakushimaru fought for the sake of Emperor Godaigo, like a benevolent demon god18. It is also believed to be in reference to actual demon gods guiding Yakushimaru to take on this endeavor. In the “Ryuko no Maki”, it is said that Yakushimaru saw Bishamonten19 in his dream. It’s written as so in “Shinden Bujutsu”20:


Translation, “One night, Bishamonten appeared in Ryuushin’s dream and said, “You there, hurry and rescue Emperor Godaigo from his ordeal!”. Excited, Ryuushin bowed his head many times and rose to his feet, accepting the task at hand.”

A pic of my training naginata. This is an example of the polearm believed to have been used by Yakushimaru.

The name Kukami holds the tale of how Yakushimaru gained recognition through his vision of onigami and the power he attained through Kuji no Ho in order to save Godaigo. It is also the defining ideology behind him creating Kukishin ryu, which is deeply rooted in esoteric influences from Mikkyo Hihou in the techniques.


Today, the main Kuki line retains their martial tradition, without physically being involved, through “Kukishinden Tenshin Hyoho”. A system that utilizes the shihanke21 model, the current teacher overseeing the training both within Japan and overseas is Takatsuka Eichoku. However, over the years there is a growing push to acknowledge their original roots, and are using their original name more frequently. For example, their style of bujutsu is now identified as “Kukamishin ryu”.

Why not change their last name back? Why the change in the first place? There are 2 reasons for this, which are the registration as a daimyo under the shogunate, and the standardization of the Japanese language.


During the Edo period, this Kuki line in discussion was prestigious. Not only did they have strong ties with the Kumano Hongu Taisha, they also owned the Ayabe Domain in Tanba Province (present day Ayabe City in Kyoto Prefecture) and served in battle under the guise of the Kuki Suigun22, receiving merits for their efforts & contributions. In order to be recognized as a daimyo23 under the newly established Tokugawa shogunate, certain documentations had to be presented.

An important factor on how the Kuki approached this is based on particular historical data. For starters, the Tokugawa shogunate was established by Tokugawa Ieyasu, who managed to seize control of Japan after several battles with opposing forces. Claiming as a descendant of the Minamoto clan, Ieyasu and the Tokugawa shogunate were naturally affiliated with the Imperial line of the Northern Court. The Kuki line’s roots, on the other hand, is on the side of the opposing Southern Court, under the name ‘Kukami’. This can be found in older documentation within the Kuki household.

Not wanting to risk losing their status by having this info revealed, they changed their name to ‘Kuki’ (includes replacing the kami kanji with the oni kanji), and omitted much of their history in their presented documentations during registration. It was a necessary move to retain the lands, wealth, and status the Kuki family amassed. They still kept their family documentations, fortunately, so their roots weren’t forgotten.


During the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1926) periods, efforts were made to standardize the Japanese language in order to promote unification throughout Japan. This standardized form of Japanese, called Kokugo24, shaped a speaking, written, and reading form of the language the majority of the nation learns. In the case of kanji, there was a considerable reduction of derivatives each kanji possess, as well as reduction of kanji that had the same meaning as others but with slight difference in nuances. Kanji that are obscured, not adapted into the Japanese culture, or forgotten meaning were also excluded from standardized use.

This standardization became even more apparent as society moved towards the digital and electronic medium. In order for the Japanese language (includes kana and kanji) to display on interfaces such as computers, special coding types were developed, one being called JIS coding25. Just about all standardized kanji have been adapted into JIS coding, making them readily usable. Some older and out-of-use kanji also have been converted into JIS coding, and can be downloaded as packets from certain online kanji resource sites. While it is possible to find many kanji that are no longer in use on the same sites, they are only in picture form just for references, however.

The kami (tsuno ga nai oni) kanji is, unfortunately, one of those out-of-use kanji that are considered dated and out of use. There are no available JIS coding packets for it, thus it cannot be typed. The oni kanji has to be used in its place, with a note identifying it is actually the kami kanji in use. While not considered part of standard Japanese, this does not stop its use entirely; temples and shrines that have a history with the kami kanji still use it when applicable, whether by writing it or having it etched in metallic or wooden signs. Interestingly, the Kuki family use the kami kanji also in printed books. How they’ve managed to acquire the means to do this is unknown. This could be one of those rare cases where it was designed specifically for use by them.


A screen capture of the different variants (異体字, itaiji) of the oni kanji. The kami kanji is circled in red. From the website “字形検索”, an educational resource and database on kanji (Chinese). It can be accessed here.

This concludes our discussion regarding the Kuki family’s name. I hope much has been put to light regarding the acquisition of the Kukami and Kuki names, along with the cultural overview of the kami kanji. A special “THANK YOU!” to those who helped guide me to useful resources and offered detailed explanations regarding the kami kanji. Thank you for reading this, and look forward to more posts concerning the Kuki family and their history.

1) The main line with direct connection to Kumano Hongu Taisha, one of the three grand shrines labeled “Kumano Sanzan”. For more information, visit an older post of mine here.

2) 異体字, pronounced ‘itaiji’ in Japanese.

3) Website can be accessed here.

4) “Journey to the West” is a famous fiction novel in China written in the 16th century. It is loosely based on the non-fictional journey by Chinese Buddhist monk named Xuanzang who, from mainland China through the Western regions of Central Asia, traveled to India to retrieve Buddhist sutras. In this novel, the Buddhist priest Tang Sanzang (same as Xuanzang) is accompanied by 4 demons (or demon spirits depending on how you interpret them) to retrieve the Buddhist sutras, each serving as his protector through reformation as Buddhist monks themselves: Sun Wukong (monkey spirit), Zu Bajie (pig spirit), Sha Wujing (sand creature spirit), and Yulong (dragon spirit in the guise of a horse).

Here’s a broader explanation how Buddhism subdued a potentially great but dangerous demon. Sun Wukong, originally imprisoned under a mountain by the Great Buddha, agreed to help the Buddhist priest Sanzang in his journey to India in exchange for freedom. However, understanding that Wukong, through his past crimes, is uncontrollable and unpredictable, a Bodhisattva named Guanyin gave Sanzang a gift in the form of a golden headband made by the Great Buddha, which would help keep Wukong in check. Tricked into wearing it, Wukong put it on his head, but couldn’t take it off. On top of this, Sanzang had only to chant a secret set of words and the band would tighten on Wukong’s head, causing great pain and immobilizing him. Through this, Sun Wukong was made, more or less, obedient to assist in the journey.

5) Japan’s history regarding openness to the idea of good/bad demons is very old in conception. This is apparent if you look into the different religions & esoteric practices, rituals, lore, literature, and artworks. One prevailing point concerning onigami that needs to be understood is they are viewed as not truly evil. This is because onigami are believed to serve specific purposes, sometimes beneficial to humans, and other times, not.

6)The book Kojiki, generally translated as “Records of Ancient Matters”, is a collection of recorded events in ancient Japan by Ou no Yasumaro in the 8th century. The Kojiki depicts the start of humanity, as well as early civilization in Japan. In its earlier chapters are many descriptions of god-like figures, demons, and spirit-like creatures, each interacting with people in Japan one way or another.

For example, Koutai Jinja (皇大神社) , which is located in Kyoto (western part of Japan), gives worship to Amaterasu Oomikami, who is the Sun Goddess as told in the Kojiki. This deity is very important in Shinto religion.

7) As an example, a temple called Kijin Jinja (鬼鎮神社) in Saitama Prefecture (eastern part of Japan) pays homage to red and blue skinned demons that wield kinbou (metal clubs). These kinbou represent absolute victory. So not only do townsfolk work hard in passing examination tests, sporting events, and the like with the vigor of an ‘oni’, but also visit Kijin Jinja to pray for added luck in succeeding in these tasks.

8) 鬼神社. Generally written with the kami (tsuno ga nai oni) kanji

9) Link is here.

10) This tale appears to have been devised to give some mystical flavor to what may have truly happened. Within the Oni Jinja there are many steel farming tools (such as sickles, spades, and hoes) that were given as a form of offerings. Some of these tools are said to be as old as 1000 years. It is believed that this is an indication that the knowledge to take care of their land was actually taught to them by foreigners possibly visiting Japan.

11) The word “sama” is an honorific label. Thus, much respect is given to this onigami.

12) 九鬼薬師丸隆真

13) 金剛秘宝遍

14) In the Nanboku era during the 13th century, the power to rule Japan was left in the hands of the 2 sons of the dying Emperor Gosaga. Both in disagreement in how and when each would hold the power to rule, soon a division spurred, which created 2 factions. One faction, called the Northern Court, resided in Kyoto (northern part of Japan geographically). The other faction, called the Southern Court, stayed in Yoshino (southern part of Japan geographically). Both sides struggled for power during the 14th century, with 6 Emperors from the Northern Court seizing power at one point, while 5 Emperors from the Southern Court claimed power at another point.

14) The 3 Sacred Treasures, also known as the Imperial Regalia of Japan, believed to be handed down by the gods. These treasures are the following: Kusanagi no Tsurugi (草薙劍, The Grass-Cutting Sword), Yata no Kagami (八咫鏡,the 8-Span Mirror), and Yasakani no Magatama (八尺瓊勾玉, Long [approx. 8 ft] string of Curved Jewels).

15) There are conflicting views when describing the weapon Yakushimaru wielded. In “Shinden Bujutsu”, it is mentioned to be a nagamaki. However, in the once available website “Kuki-Shinden”, (a site to help promote the Kuki family’s Kukishinden Tenshin Hyoho martial system, having both an English and Japanese section) in the English section where they described the same story of Yakushimaru, the info about the polearm differs slightly. For starters, it is mentioned that the weapon was a naginata. Secondly, in note 4 for the story, it is mentioned that, in the Kongou Hihouhen and Ryuko no Maki documents, the weapon was a yari (spear). The polearm being a naginata is mentioned in a document called “Kuki Bojutsu Hihouhen no Maki,” which comes from the Chosui line. Furthermore, in the book “Shinden Bujutsu”, it is written that based on the time period when Yakushimaru was alive, it would’ve been “correct” for it to have been a nagamaki.

The naginata-nagamaki reference appears to be interchangeable, for certain details may warrant either weapon to be called one or another. This is dependent on such details like the style of the blade, size of shaft, fittings, and the like. Since there are numerous documents within the Kuki family’s collections that say one way or another, there is no way to get a definitive confirmation.

Whichever weapon it was, what can be agreed on is that Yakushimaru’s weapon was indeed a polearm with a blade at the end.

16) Page 25, line 5-6

17) Page 23, line 10-12

18) It is said to be mentioned in “Kuki Bojutsu Hihouhen no Maki”, for example. This document is part of the Chosui line of Kukishin ryu. It is also mentioned here that the “ku” of Kukami is in reference to how Yakushimaru utilized his broken weapon with ever-changing responses against the opposing forces. This ability is described using the number 9 in Japanese.

19) Vaisravana in Sanskrit. He is one of the Heavenly Four Kings in Buddhism, as well as a guardian deity of Buddhism in Japan. Also one of the Seven Lucky Gods in Japanese folklore.

20) Page 24, note #2

21) A system where a teacher reaching a master level of proficiency heads the training of a martial arts school, or branches out to start a new line. This does not mean, however, inheritance of the entire system is granted to those who reach this level.

22) 九鬼水軍, Kuki Naval Force

23)大名, recognized lord who could privately own their land. Rulers of their territories, they only answer to the shogun.

24) 国語, national-standard language

25) There are other coding types, such as Shift-JIS, EUC, and Unicode.

Kuki Archives: Deciphering the Name ~Part 1~

In today’s post, we set our focus on the Kuki family’s name and it’s background story. The kanji (Chinese written characters) in their name is “九鬼”, which few locations in Japan and different branches of martial systems with certain relations also share in their titles1. Primarily read as “kuki”, the general translation of this is “9 Demons”. However, statements from the Kuki family, who are the main stem for the aforementioned name, claim that the original pronunciation of this was not only “kukami”, but that the 2nd kanji in the name was actually a slightly altered version with a different meaning. A topic I’ve been invested in for some time, I will share some of my findings in relations to this from 2 viewpoints. This post will cover the 1st viewpoint, which looks at that one kanji in question, covering abit of its history and ties to religious matters.

Japanese character oni
A hand painting of the oni (demon) kanji. Notice the small line on top of this kanji. This line is often viewed as the “horn” (tsuno in Japanese). By Yoko A.


In the Chinese and Japanese language, there were periods where a specific kanji had a few different ways to be written depending on usage, which in those cases gave it an altered meaning. The kanji “鬼“ is no different. Normally pronounced as “oni” or “ki”2 in Japanese, it generally possesses the following meanings: demon, (evil) spirit, ghost, fierce, violent, dead body, and death. As expected, this has a negative, demonic connotation. Normally, images associated with the oni kanji in ancient times (whether on its own or in conjunction with other kanji) is ominous, frightful, and/or dreadful. Especially in ancient times of Japan, where superstitions and stories of demons had a big impact on the culture. The general image of an oni in Japan is a being with a large frame, skin that is dark red or dark blue toned, unkempt hair, wearing tiger skin loincloth, talons for fingernails, a large mouth with 2 fangs protruding out, and 1~2 horns on the head. While in popular children’s tales of old, such as “Momotaro”, the depiction of the oni may appear whimsical, the features remain the same, and the overall negative undertone of the oni persists. With such an ominous makeup, would the Kuki family, devoted followers of the religion Nakatomi Shinto, want their name associated with a word that would demonify them?

Two pictures featuring oni characters. Click on each one for more info.


In various publications and mediums, the Kuki family and associates of them have expressed many times that the Kuki name was not originally read as it is commonly so now. From their public website “Kuki-shinden” (which is no longer available), to the most recent published book under their authorization called “Shinden Bujutsu” (written by Takatsuka Eichoku), it has been explained that the correct pronunciation is “Kukami”, which actually means “9 Gods”. This is due in part that the oni kanji wasn’t used in their name in conception, but instead another version of this kanji. This kanji is often dubbed “tsuno ga nai oni”3, or the hornless demon.

The “tsuno ga nai oni ” kanji has its history begin first in China, with use primarily by religious sects and groups. With usage mainly in religious practices, it is rarely seen in standard writings or general use, thus quite uncommon even in the general public. The same with Japan as this kanji made its way to this island country possibly through the spread of Buddhism. In Japanese, this kanji has a few pronunciations4 which includes “ki” and “kami”. The meaning of this kanji is stated4 as “onigami”, which is a combination of oni (demon) and kami (god)5. Take note of this meaning, for it is a special terminology that has a deep and unique implication of its usage, which some light will be shed on through the following story below.

Japanese characters oni and kami
A hand painting of both the oni kanji (left), and “kami” kanji (right). By Yoko A.


As mentioned above, the oni kanji has a small line on top that is viewed as a horn. Well, with that small line removed, this oni is now “dehorned”, and the threat is gone. What we now have is a divine being on the side of good despite retaining its demonic looks.  This seems to be what the term “onigami” entails. There is an interesting tale that further supports this notion, as the “tsuno ga nai oni” kanji often compared to an old story called Kishi Mojin6.

Kishi Mojin
An artwork of Kishi Mojin. From Sacchin san’s website on Buddhist figures and stories here .

Within Buddhist lore7 in Japan, Kishi Mojin is a tale about a raksasi (a female mythological demon) who goes by the name of Kariteimo8 (Hariti Ma in Sanskrit). Kariteimo resided in Rajgir9, at the same time when the Guatama Buddha known as Shakyamuni was living there. Being the wife of Pancika10, they beared hundreds of children together. To feed her children, Kariteimo would capture humans (primarily human children)  and feed to her children their flesh. Many parents, particularly mothers, lamented to Buddha to save them from this ordeal.

Heeding their pleas, Shakyamuni made a plan to not only to bring salvation to the human race, but to also save Kariteimo in the process. For this, Shakyamuni hid Ainuru, her youngest and most dearest of her children. When she discovered her child was missing, the wife searched around the world for many days half-crazed. With no luck tracking her child, she sought help and guidance from Shakyamuni. When approached by this matter, Shakyamuni asked her if she could compare the lost of one of her hundreds of kids to the hundreds of mothers who lost all their kids due to her savage habits. In response, Kariteimo agreed that their loss is much greater than hers.

Now that she understood the pains of others due experiencing the pain of losing her own child, Kariteimo devoted herself to the ways of Buddhism, through the direction of Shakyamuni, and vowed to protect children. She became enlightened11, and, as a guardian deity of Buddhism, is a patron that represents ease of child birth, safety of children, and mercy & happiness.

Hand paint of name Kishi Mojin
A hand painting of Kishi Mojin. This is the correct way it is written, but cannot be done so in computers and other electronic devices. By Yoko A.

There are various shrines and temples in Japan that honor Kariteimo and the story of Kishi Mojin. There, you will usually see artworks and statues of Kariteimo that depict her as having a womanly appearance dressed in fine robes and holding a child. Despite being a raksasi, sometimes she is depicted as not having horns12. What is also important to note is that in signs and writings of the word Kishi Mojin outside of typed text uses the “tsuno ga nai oni” kanji. This is important to remember, and directly relates to the Kuki family’s claims regarding the correct writing of their name.

This concludes the 1st part on the Kuki family’s name. Stay tuned for the 2nd part, which will focus on the Kuki clan’s definition of their name along with the unintentional change to as we know it now. Also, the reasoning behind the use of “tsuno ga nai oni” kanji outside of electronic devices will be covered as well.

1) Some martial arts systems having a form of relation to the Kuki family bearing the “Kuki” name are the following:

  • Kukishinden Tenshin Hyoho (Takatsuka Eichoku)
  • Kukishin ryu Bojutsu (Tanaka Fumon)
  • Kukishinden Happou Bikenjutsu (Masaaki Hatsumi)
  • Tenshin Hyoho Kukishin ryu (Tanemura Shoto)

2) One of the main reasons for a kanji to have numerous pronunciations in Japan is based on if it is used based on Onyomi (音読み, China-originated reading) or Kunyomi (訓読み, Japanese reading). For examples, words that are directly borrowed from, or influenced by the manner of literacy of China, are pronounce with a Chinese-influenced phonetic (Onyomi), whereas others that are developed and used in accordance to Japanese standards are pronounced under Japanese phonetics (Kunyomi). Depending on    if the Onyomi or Kunyomi of a kanji is used can change the meaning of a word.

In the case of the demon character, “ki” is onyomi, and “oni” is kunyomi.

3) 角が無い鬼. Also called “tsuno no nai oni” (角の無い鬼), with pretty much the same meaning.

4) Based on proclamation by religious groups in Japan, including the Kuki family.

5) The term onigami is written as 鬼神, with “kami” (神, gami in its conjugated form) meaning (but not limited to) the following: god, deity, divine, spirit, and amazing.

6) 鬼子母神. Also pronounced as the following: Kishi Boushin, Kishi Boujin.

7)  There are, like many stories of old, different versions of the Kishi Mojin story. The roots of this tale is Hindu, and was later adapted by other countries and religions, with changes made to fit with the culture of those countries. Even in Japan there are several varying points concerning this story depending on if told from the viewpoint of Nichiren Buddhism or Shingon Buddhism. For example, in a particular version Kariteimo is not married to Pancika, while in another she is assisted by Ten Raksasi Women (Ju Rasetsunyo十羅刹女 in  Japanese) in capturing human children.

9) A city in Nalanda district of Bihar, in the eastern part of India.

8) Also referred to as Karitei (Hariti in Sanskrit) depending on the Buddhist sect.

10) Pancika is a rakshasa (male mythological demon) who was one of the 8 commanders in the yaksha army of the deity Vaisravana (Bishamonten in Japanese).

11) This process of enlightenment is called “Bohdi”.

12) Raksasi that have humanly appearances are called “Manushya-Raksasi”.