Week III: Part 2
Week III: Part 2


Key Work:

  • Ise Shrine (La Plante, Figs 21.8, 21.9)

    READING: La Plante, Asian Art, pp. 196-206.



    TIME LINE: (6th century A.D.)


    NOTES: What do the material remains of these early peoples tell us about their view of the universe?


    Shinto is the indigenous religion of the Japanese people. The focus of Shinto is reverence for kami, a term used to describe both deities and the numinous quality perceived in objects of nature such as trees, rocks, waters, and mountains. The spiri ts of deceased emperors and heroes, and other famous persons are revered as kami. Kami receive tribute at shrines in the form of food offerings, music, dance and the performance of traditional skills as archery and sumo wrestling.

    Ise is a collective designation for a group of Shinto shrines in the city of Ise, Mie Prefecture, in central Japan. The Ise complex includes the Naiku (Inner) Shrine, enshrining the Sun Goddess Amateratsu Omikami (divine ancestor of the emperors ), and the Geku (Outer) Shrine dedicated to a local god. "Ise" is used to refer to all of them collectively and to the land on which they are situated. From ancient times the area has been a sacred place; it is the seat of the ancestral deities of the impe rial house, a favorite pilgrimage destination and, in modern times under State Shinto, the shrine of the entire Japanese nation.

    The initial construction of the Inner Shrine is thought to date from the late fifth to the mid-sixth century. Under the ritsuryo code, noone but members of the imperial family worshiped there and thus Ise was the center of imperial rites. Of these , the Niiname-sai (first fruits festival) and the Daijo-sai (enthronement ceremony) were the most important in the very elaborate, yearly ritual calendar. In both, the Emperor offered pure food to the deities and consumed a ceremonial meal that the deiti es were thought to share.

    Shrine buildings such as the shoden are erected in an ancient style of architecture. They are constructed of undecorated wooden members and are covered with a simple, thatched roof. They are raised above the ground on wooden piles set directly int o the earth, a custom associated with the warm, humid climate of Oceania from where the style is thought to have been introduced. The natural and unadorned materials of the building are thought to mark a sympathetic association between nature and the architecture. According to a tradition originating with the Emperor Temmu (r. 673-686), the shrines are rebuilt every twenty years, approximating the cycle of growth in nature. Although the custom fell into disuse in the Middle Ages, the latest rebuilding at Ise took place in 1973 and repeats precisely the laterally symmetrical, three by two bay plan of the first of these structures dating from 690-697.

    Seasonal changes had special significance for early cultivators, and effected greatly daily life in prehistoric Japan. Farmers were ill-equipped to deal with the ravages of nature and depended on kami (spirit forces) for survival. They propitiated the kami to ensure their livelihood and the success of annual activities closely attuned to the seasons: sowing, planting, harvesting. The sacred annual cycle was strictly observed and the events were the mainstay of everyday activity.

    The earliest Shinto sanctuaries were simple piles of boulders or stones which marked the sacred dwelling place of the deity and the place were the kami were thought to dwell. It was hallowed ground and except on ritual occasions, access to the terr itory was forbidden. In early Japan, the kami were regarded with extreme awe and were strictly segregated from the secular world. Only priests could approach the kami during special rites in which they acted as mediators between human beings and the kam i world.

    In order to make the domain sacred, the physical bounds of the sacred and profane had to be demonstrated. A stone monument, in which kami were thought to dwell, was enclosed by a ring of rocks. This "heart pillar" (shin no mihashira) lies buried de ep in the ground at Ise and is dressed in the sacred evergreen tree of Shinto. These sakaki branches symbolize the tree where the divine mirror (the "literal" body of Amateratsu Omikami) was hung and where the Sun Goddess was enshrined.

    Two developments led to the establishment of these sanctuaries as Shinto shrines. First, the introduction of Buddhism from China via Korea in the sixth century led the Emperor to welcome Buddha as a great kami whose visible representation was housed in an impressive Buddhist temple. This had a profound influence on the development of Shinto shrines and on the emergence of permanent shrine sanctuaries in particular. Second, the gradual deification of the Emperor led to the establishment of an offic ial Shinto shrine. Yamato rulers unified several competing clan lineages in the Yamato Plain in central Japan at least as early as the late third and forth centuries A.D. under the aegis of their lineage, the Sun Line. The Emperor became regarded as a living kami, and his divinity surpassed that of other kami. His new status fostered the idea of the Shinto shrine. Therefore, political authority, whether gained by force or long practiced political prestige, was sanctioned by religious belief sanctified at the Inner Shrine at Ise. The sacred necklace of magatama (jewels representing the soul spirit which enter the body of the possessor) is the symbol of succession from the Sun Goddess to the Sun Line and is the emblem of the enthronement of the emperor s of Japan until today. The necklace is kept at Ise. It was at Ise that Shinto doctrines were first systematically expounded. The site is still venerated, and pilgrimages are carried out today in an expression of patriotic semtiment.

    From: Linduff, K.M., "Shinto Shrine Complex at Ise, " in Art Past/ Art Present, by D. Wilkins, B. Schultz, and K. Linduff, New York, 2000,4th ed.