Richard Thornhill on the strange shenanigans that made a man into a god in ancient Japan, and a legend that recalls Britain’s ‘screaming skulls’ and Lleu Llaw Gyffes
As I cycle to work through the Otemachi banking district of central Tokyo, I pass the Masakado Kubizuka (‘Masakado Head-Mound’), a little square of garden, with a grave and altar, and some kitsch stone and porcelain frogs, trapped between office blocks. There are flowers and sake on the altar, fresh every day, and I see a constant stream of salesmen, secretaries and cleaners visiting to petition Masakado for help in their daily lives. This is commonplace Japanese folk-religion. Yet this is also Otemachi, probably the most expensive plot of land on earth, and one wonders why the garden has not been covered with office blocks. Therein lies the story.
Taira no Masakado was a member of the powerful Taira clan, the later destruction of which is described in the classic Heike Monogatari (Tale of the House of Taira). He himself was a minor nobleman in Kanto (present-day Tokyo area), which at that time was the most remote part of Japan under the control of the imperial government in Kyoto. From 931 to 936 he murdered several of his relatives, firstly in a dispute over a woman, and then to consolidate his power over Kanto, which he finally conquered in 939. He then led an insurrection.
Uniquely among rebels in Japanese history, he made no claim to be acting on behalf of the emperor, but said that the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, had commanded him to revolt against Emperor Suzaku. He ruled as ‘king’ of Kanto for several months, with his base on Mount Shimahiro, near Iwai in Ibaraki County, east of Tokyo, until he was killed in battle in Chiba County by the imperial troops led by Fujiwara no Hidesato in 940.
Masakado’s severed head was carried to Kyoto in triumph, but it is said that it then leapt into the air with a terrific whooshing noise and flew back to his beloved Kanto, landing near a jinja (Shinto shrine), in the vast area of fen and salt-marsh at the head of Edo (Tokyo) Bay, where a local fertility god had been worshipped since 730. The head was buried where it landed, in a mound in the grounds of the jinja. After ten years the mound started to glow and shake violently, and then one night a haggard-looking samurai appeared, and told the villagers they would only have peace if he was worshipped there along with the fertility god.
At the beginning of the thirteenth century, a temple belonging to the aristocratic Tendai sect of Buddhism was built next door to the jinja, dominating it completely. This offended Masakado, and may also have offended the locals, who favoured Shinto and popular Amida Buddhism. Anyway, the area was stricken by plague and famines until an Amidist priest arrived in 1309, replaced the temple, and formally dedicated the jinja to Masakado.
The first Edo Castle was built on a low hill nearby by a local squire, Ota Dokan, in 1457, and was taken over by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1590, for use as the headquarters in his conquest of Japan. This completed, the castle became the seat of government, which it remained until 1868, when it became the Imperial Palace. When Tokugawa extended his castle in 1603, the villagers’ jinja was moved to Surugudai to make way for the Ote Mon (“Triumphal Gate”), outside which grew the settlement of Ote Machi. Then, in 1618, the jinja was moved to a hillside in Kanda, a couple of miles away, and Kanda Myojin, as it came to be known, was the main focus for the religious culture of the Edo plebeians. The plebeians and samurai held Edo’s main annual festivals in alternate years, these being, respectively, at Kanda Myojin and Hie Jinja, over on the other side of the city. The Kubizuka, however, remained where it was.
There are numerous legends about Masakado. One, reminiscent of both Achilles and Siegfried, is that Amaterasu showered him in light to make him invulnerable, but a small spot on his temple was in shadow, making him vulnerable at that point. As with Samson, his concubine, Kikyo no Mae, then betrayed him by telling this fact to the imperial forces, who killed him with a carefully aimed arrow. He was also said to be able to travel through space instantly, and to have a bodyguard of seven doubles of himself. Fujiwara only managed to kill him by shooting the one of the eight who cast no shadow.
Masakado’s popularity reached a peak among the Edo plebeians in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. Conscious of the newness and vulgarity of Edo, they revered the symbol of their cultural hostility to Kyoto. They also sympathised with the rebel who suffered the fate awaiting them if they stepped out of line. Masakado’s popularity led to him becoming the patron god of Tokyo, and yet, strangely, he is still not considered respectable. When the emperor visited Kanda Myojin in the early twentieth century, the spirit of Masakado, history’s sole rebel against his ancestors, was temporarily moved elsewhere. In the riots of 1968, numerous students and workers reported seeing Masakado manning the barricades with them.
A memorial service to Masakado is held at the Kubizuka on the twenty-first of September every year, and his curse hangs over any attempt to build there. In the nineteen-forties, during the Occupation, the US military ordered the attempt to be made, but everyone who followed the order died in mysterious ways. Twenty-odd years earlier, the mound had been destroyed in 1923 in the Kanto Earthquake, and the stone badly charred. In the months following the earthquake few people bothered to visit, so executives of companies with head-offices nearby kept committing suicide until it was restored.
Very few other jinja are dedicated to Masakado, but one that is, is Kokuo Jinja, at Iwai, built by his daughter in 972, on the site of his death. She also had a wooden statue of him carved, and, unusually for Shinto, which frowns on visual representation, this is considered the go-shintai (divine body) of Masakado. Kokuo means ‘National King’, and it is surprising that such a blatantly insurrectionary name was tolerated. The town of Iwai’s annual festival is dedicated to Masakado, and Kanda Myojin’s biennial festival is still as popular and raucous as ever, although the jinja itself has gone upmarket and is now a favourite venue for society weddings.
Masakado’s hands and legs are also said to buried in Tokyo, at Asakusa and Ushigome, respectively. His armour is kept at Shinjuku in Tokyo. The ashes of his torso are buried at a Buddhist temple, Enmei-in, at Iwai.
Hirose, Iku (Ed.), Nihon Rekishi Daijiten, vol. 6, Kawade Shobo Shinsha, Tokyo, 1985, pp. 383~384.
Iwai City Planning Dept., Iwai-shi no Homupeji, http://www.net-ibaraki.ne.jp/iwai/ (4365 Daiji-Iwai, Iwai, Ibaraki 306-0692), 2001.
Kitayama, Shigeo (Ed.), Nihon no Rekishi, vol. 4, Chuo Koronsha, Tokyo, 1965, pp. 385~450.
Shirai, Eiji and Masanori Toki (Eds.), Jinja Jiten, Tokyodo Shuppan, Tokyo, 1979, pp. 110~111.
Taira no Masakado, http://www.xiangs.com/Masakado/, 2001.
Information board at Masakado Kubizuka (1-2 Otemachi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo).
Rumour, hearsay and bar-fly conversations.
Published in NE87 (Autumn 2001), pp.13-15