Read CHAPTER I - PRIMITIVE FAITH: RELIGION BEFORE BOOKS of The Religions of Japan From the Dawn of History to the Era of Meiji, free online book, by William Elliot Griffis, on

The Morse Lectureship and the Study of Comparative Religion.

“The investigation of the beginnings of a religion is never the
work of infidels, but of the most reverent and conscientious

“We, the forty million souls of Japan, standing firmly and persistently upon the basis of international justice, await still further manifestations as to the morality of Christianity,”-­Hiraii, of Japan.

“When the Creator [through intermediaries that were apparently animals] had finished treating this world of men, the good and the bad Gods were all mixed together promiscuously, and began disputing for the possession of this world.”-­The Aino Story of the Creation.

“If the Japanese have few beast stories, the Ainos have apparently no popular tales of heroes ... The Aino mythologies ... lack all connection with morality.... Both lack priests and prophets.... Both belong to a very primitive stage of mental development ... Excepting stories ... and a few almost metreless songs, the Ainos have no other literature at all.”-­Aino Studies.

“I asked the earth, and it answered, ‘I am not He;’ and whatsoever are therein made the same confession. I asked the sea and the deep and the creeping things that lived, and they replied, ‘We are not thy God; seek higher than we.’ ... And I answered unto all things which stand about the door of my flesh, ’Ye have told me concerning my God, that ye are not he; tell me something about him.’ And with a loud voice they explained, ’It is He who hath made us!’”-­Augustine’s Confessions.

“Seek Him that maketh the seven stars and Orion, and turneth the shadow of death into the morning, and maketh the day dark with night; that calleth for the waters of the sea, and poureth them out upon the face of the earth: The lord is his name.”-­Amos.

“That which hath been made was life in Him.”-­John.

As a graduate of the Union Theological Seminary in the city of New York, in the Class of 1877, your servant received and accepted with pleasure the invitation of the President and Board of Trustees to deliver a course of lectures upon the religions of Japan. In that country and in several parts of it, I lived from 1870 to 1874. I was in the service first of the feudal daimio of Echizen and then of the national government of Japan, helping to introduce that system of public schools which is now the glory of the country. Those four years gave me opportunities for close and constant observation of the outward side of the religions of Japan, and facilities for the study of the ideas out of which worship springs. Since 1867, however, when first as a student in Rutgers College at New Brunswick, N.J., I met and instructed those students from the far East, who, at risk of imprisonment and death had come to America for the culture of Christendom, I have been deeply interested in the study of the Japanese people and their thoughts.

To attempt a just and impartial survey of the religions of Japan may seem a task that might well appall even a life-long Oriental scholar. Yet it may be that an honest purpose, a deep sympathy and a gladly avowed desire to help the East and the West, the Japanese and the English-speaking people, to understand each other, are not wholly useless in a study of religion, but for our purpose of real value. These lectures are upon the Morse foundation which has these specifications written out by the founder:

The general subject of the lectures I desire to be: “The Relation of the Bible to any of the Sciences, as Geography, Geology, History, and Ethnology, ... and the relation of the facts and truths contained in the Word of God, to the principles, methods, and aims of any of the sciences.”

Now, among the sciences which we must call to our aid are those of geography and geology, by which are conditioned history and ethnology of which we must largely treat; and, most of all, the science of Comparative Religion.

This last is Christianity’s own child. Other sciences, such as geography and astronomy, may have been born among lands and nations outside of and even before Christendom. Other sciences, such as geology, may have had their rise in Christian time and in Christian lands, their foundation lines laid and their main processes illustrated by Christian men, which yet cannot be claimed by Christianity as her children bearing her own likeness and image; but the science of Comparative Religion is the direct offspring of the religion of Jesus. It is a distinctively Christian science. “It is so because it is a product of Christian civilization, and because it finds its impulse in that freedom of inquiry which Christianity fosters." Christian scholars began the investigations, formulated the principles, collected the materials and reared the already splendid fabric of the science of Comparative Religion, because the spirit of Christ which was in them did signify this. Jesus bade his disciples search, inquire, discern and compare. Paul, the greatest of the apostolic Christian college, taught: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” In our day one of Christ’s loving followers expressed the spirit of her Master in her favorite motto, “Truth for authority, not authority for truth.” Well says Dr. James Legge, a prince among scholars, and translator of the Chinese classics, who has added several portly volumes to Professor Max Mueller’s series of the “Sacred Books of the East,” whose face to-day is bronzed and whose hair is whitened by fifty years of service in southern China where with his own hands he baptized six hundred Chinamen:

The more that a man possesses the Christian spirit, and is governed by Christian principle, the more anxious will he be to do justice to every other system of religion, and to hold his own without taint or fetter of bigotry.

It was Christianity that, in a country where the religion of Jesus has fullest liberty, called the Parliament of Religions, and this for reasons clearly manifest. Only Christians had and have the requisites of success, viz.: sufficient interest in other men and religions; the necessary unity of faith and purpose; and above all, the brave and bold disregard of the consequences. Christianity calls the Parliament of Religions, following out the Divine audacity of Him who, so often, confronting worldly wisdom and priestly cunning, said to his disciples, “Think not, be not anxious, take no heed, be careful for nothing-­only for love and truth. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”

Of all places therefore, the study of comparative religion is most appropriate in a Christian theological seminary. We must know how our fellow-men think and believe, in order to help them. It is our duty to discover the pathways of approach to their minds and hearts. We must show them, as our brethren and children of the same Heavenly Father, the common ground on which we all stand. We must point them to the greater truth in the Bible and in Christ Jesus, and demonstrate wherein both the divinely inspired library and the truth written in a divine-human life fulfil that which is lacking in their books and masters.

To know just how to do this is knowledge to be coveted as a most excellent gift. An understanding of the religion of our fellow-men is good, both for him who goes as a missionary and for him who at home prays, “Thy kingdom come.”

The theological seminary, which begins the systematic and sympathetic study of Comparative Religion and fills the chair with a professor who has a vital as well as academic interest in the welfare of his fellow-men who as yet know not Jesus as Christ and Lord, is sure to lead in effective missionary work. The students thus equipped will be furnished as none others are, to begin at once the campaign of help and warfare of love.

It may be that insight into and sympathy with the struggles of men who are groping after God, if haply they may find him, will shorten the polemic sword of the professional converter whose only purpose is destructive hostility without tactics or strategy, or whose chief idea of missionary success is in statistics, in blackening the character of “the heathen,” in sensational letters for home consumption and reports properly cooked and served for the secretarial and sectarian palates. Yet, if true in history, Greek, Roman, Japanese, it is also true in the missionary wars, that “the race that shortens its weapons lengthens its boundaries."

Apart from the wit or the measure of truth in this sentence quoted, it is a matter of truth in the generalizations of fact that the figure of the “sword of the spirit, which is the word of God,” used by Paul, and also the figure of the “word of God, living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of the soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart,” of the writer to the Hebrews, had for their original in iron the victorious gladium of the Roman legionary-­a weapon both short and sharp. We may learn from this substance of fact behind the shadow of the figure a lesson for our instant application. The disciplined Romans scorned the long blades of the barbarians, whose valor so often impetuous was also impotent against discipline. The Romans measured their blades by inches, not by feet. For ages the Japanese sword has been famed for its temper more than its weight. The Christian entering upon his Master’s campaigns with as little impediments of sectarian dogma as possible, should select a weapon that is short, sure and divinely tempered.

To know exactly the defects of the religion we seek to abolish, modify, supplement, supplant or fulfil, means wise economy of force. To get at the secrets of its hold upon the people we hope to convert leads to a right use of power. In a word, knowledge of the opposing religion, and especially of alien language, literature and ways of feeling and thinking, lengthens missionary life. A man who does not know the moulds of thought of his hearers is like a swordsman trying to fight at long range but only beating the air. Armed with knowledge and sympathy, the missionary smites with effect at close quarters. He knows the vital spots.

Let me fortify my own convictions and conclude this preliminary part of my lectures by quoting again, not from academic authorities, but from active missionaries who are or have been at the front and in the field.

The Rev. Samuel Beal, author of “Buddhism in China,” said that “it was plain to him that no real work could be done among the people [of China and Japan] by missionaries until the system of their belief was understood.”

The Rev. James MacDonald, a veteran missionary in Africa, in the concluding chapter of his very able work on “Religion and Myth,” says:

The Church that first adopts for her intending missionaries the
study of Comparative Religion as a substitute for subjects now
taught will lead the van in the path of true progress.

The People of Japan.

In this faith then, in the spirit of Him who said, “I come not to destroy but to fulfil,” let us cast our eyes upon that part of the world where lies the empire of Japan with its forty-one millions of souls. Here we have not a country like India-­a vast conglomeration of nations, languages and religions occupying a peninsula itself like a continent, whose history consists of a stratification of many civilizations. Nor have we here a seemingly inert mass of humanity in a political structure blending democracy and imperialism, as in China, so great in age, area and numbers as to weary the imagination that strives to grasp the details. On the contrary, in Dai Nippon, or Great Land of the Sun’s Origin, we have a little country easy of study. In geology it is one of the youngest of lands. Its known history is comparatively modern. Its area roughly reckoned as 150,000 square miles, is about that of our Dakotas or of Great Britain and Ireland. The census completed December 31, 1892, illustrates here, as all over the world, nature’s argument against polygamy. It tells us that the relation between the sexes is, numerically at least, normal. There were 20,752,366 males and 20,337,574 females, making a population of 41,089,940 souls. All these people are subjects of the one emperor, and excepting fewer than twenty thousand savages in the northern islands called Ainos, speak one language and form substantially one race. Even the Riu Kiu islanders are Japanese in language, customs and religion. In a word, except in minor differences appreciable or at least important only to the special student, the modern Japanese are a homogeneous people.

In origin and formation, this people is a composite of many tribes. Roughly outlining the ethnology of Japan, we should say that the aborigines were immigrants from the continent with Malay reinforcement in the south, Koreans in the centre, and Ainos in the east and north, with occasional strains of blood at different periods from various parts of the Asian mainland. In brief, the Japanese are a very mixed race. Authentic history before the Christian era is unknown. At some point of time, probably later than A.D. 200, a conquering tribe, one of many from the Asian mainland, began to be paramount on the main island. About the fourth century something like historic events and personages begin to be visible, but no Japanese writings are older than the early part of the eighth century, though almanacs and means of measuring time are found in the sixth century. Whatever Japan may be in legend and mythology, she is in fact and in history younger than Christianity. Her line of rulers, as alleged in old official documents and ostentatiously reaffirmed in the first article of the constitution of 1889, to be “unbroken for ages eternal,” is no older than that of the popes. Let us not think of Aryan or Chinese antiquity when we talk of Japan. Her history as a state began when the Roman empire fell. The Germanic nations emerged into history long before the Japanese.

Roughly outlining the political and religious life of the ancient Japanese, we note that their first system of government was a rude sort of feudalism imposed by the conquerors and was synchronous with aboriginal fetichism, nature worship, ancestral sacrifices, sun-worship and possibly but not probably, a very rude sort of monotheism akin to the primitive Chinese cultus. Almost contemporary with Buddhism, its introduction and missionary development, was the struggle for centralized imperialism borrowed from the Chinese and consolidated in the period from the seventh to the twelfth century. During most of this time Shinto, or the primitive religion, was overshadowed while the Confucian ethics were taught. From the twelfth to this nineteenth century feudalism in politics and Buddhism in religion prevailed, though Confucianism furnished the social laws or rules of daily conduct. Since the epochal year of 1868, with imperialism reestablished and the feudal system abolished, Shinto has had a visible revival, being kept alive by government patronage. Buddhism, though politically disestablished, is still the popular religion with recent increase of life, while Confucianism is decidedly losing force. Christianity has begun its promising career.

The Amalgam of Religions.

Yet in the imperial and constitutional Japan of our day it is still true of probably at least thirty-eight millions of Japanese that their religion is not one, Shinto, Confucianism or Buddhism, but an amalgam of all three. There is not in every-day life that sharp distinction between these religions which the native or foreign scholar makes, and which both history and philosophy demand shall be made for the student at least. Using the technical language of Christian theologians, Shinto furnishes theology, Confucianism anthropology and Buddhism soteriology. The average Japanese learns about the gods and draws inspiration for his patriotism from Shinto, maxims for his ethical and social life from Confucius, and his hope of what he regards as salvation from Buddhism. Or, as a native scholar, Nobuta Kishimoto, expresses it,

In Japan these three different systems of religion and morality are not only living together on friendly terms with one another, but, in fact, they are blended together in the minds of the people, who draw necessary nourishment from all of these sources. One and the same Japanese is both a Shintoist, a Confucianist, and a Buddhist. He plays a triple part, so to speak ... Our religion may be likened to a triangle.... Shintoism furnishes the object, Confucianism offers the rules of life, while Buddhism supplies the way of salvation; so you see we Japanese are eclectic in everything, even in religion.

These three religious systems as at present constituted, are “book religions.” They rest, respectively, upon the Kojiki and other ancient Japanese literature and the modern commentators; upon the Chinese classics edited and commented on by Confucius and upon Chu Hi and other mediaeval scholastics who commented upon Confucius; and upon the shastras and sutras with which Gautama, the Buddha, had something to do. Yet in primeval and prehistoric Nippon neither these books nor the religions growing out of the books were extant. Furthermore, strictly speaking, it is not with any or all of these three religions that the Christian missionary comes first, oftenest or longest in contact. In ancient, in mediaeval, and in modern times the student notices a great undergrowth of superstition clinging parasitically to all religions, though formally recognized by none. Whether we call it fetichism, shamanism, nature worship or heathenism in its myriad forms, it is there in awful reality. It is as omnipresent, as persistent, as hard to kill as the scrub bamboo which both efficiently and sufficiently takes the place of thorns and thistles as the curse of Japanese ground.

The book-religions can be more or less apprehended by those alien to them, but to fully appreciate the depth, extent, influence and tenacity of these archaic, unwritten and unformulated beliefs requires residence upon the soil and life among the devotees. Disowned it may be by the priests and sages, indignantly disclaimed or secretly approved in part by the organized religions, this great undergrowth of superstition is as apparent as the silicious bamboo grass which everywhere conditions and modifies Japanese agriculture. Such prevalence of mental and spiritual disease is the sad fact that confronts every lover of his fellow-men. This paganism is more ancient and universal than any one of the religions founded on writing or teachers of name and fame. Even the applied science and the wonderful inventions imported from the West, so far from eradicating it, only serve as the iron-clad man-of-war in warm salt water serves the barnacles, furnishing them food and hold.

We propose to give in this our first lecture, a general or bird’s-eye view of this dead level of paganism above which the systems of Shinto, Confucianism and Buddhism tower like mountains. It in by this omnipresent superstition that the respectable religious have been conditioned in their history and are modified at present, even as Christianity has been influenced in its progress by ethnic or local ideas and temperaments, and will be yet in its course of victory in the Mikado’s empire.

Just as the terms “heathen” (happily no longer, in the Revised Version of the English Bible) and “pagan” suggest the heath-man of Northern Europe and the isolated hamlet of the Roman empire, while the cities were illuminated with Christian truth, so, in the main, the matted superstitious of Chinese Asia are more suggestive of distances from books and centres of knowledge, though still sufficiently rooted in the crowded cities.

One to whom the boundary line between the Creator and his world is perfectly clear, one who knows the eternal difference between mind and matter, one born amid the triumphs of science can but faintly realize the mental condition of the millions of Japan to whom there is no unifying thought of the Creator-Father. Faith in the unity of law is the foundation of all science, but the average Asiatic has not this thought or faith. Appalled at his own insignificance amid the sublime mysteries and awful immensities of nature, the shadows of his own mind become to him real existences. As it is affirmed that the human skin, sensitive to the effects of light, takes the photograph of the tree riven by lightning, so, on the pagan mind lie in ineffaceable and exaggerated grotesqueness the scars of impressions left by hereditary teaching, by natural phenomena and by the memory of events and of landmarks. Out of the soil of diseased imagination has sprung up a growth as terrible as the drunkard’s phantasies. The earthquake, flood, tidal wave, famine, withering or devastating wind and poisonous gases, the geological monsters and ravening bird, beast and fish, have their representatives or supposed incarnations in mythical phantasms.

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


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

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

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

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

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

Mythical Zooelogy.

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

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

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

Older than the elaborate descriptions of it and its representations in art, the Ho-wo is one of the creations of primitive Chinese Animism.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Into the details of the former display and carriage of these now obscene symbols in the popular celebrations; of the behavior of even respectable citizens during the excitement and frenzy of the festivals; of their presence in the wayside shrines; of the philosophy, hideousness or pathos of the subject, we cannot here enter. We simply call attention to their existence, and to a form of thought, if not of religion, properly so-called, which has survived all imported systems of faith and which shows what the native or indigenous idea of divinity really is-­an idea that profoundly affects the organization of society. To the enlightened Buddhist, Confucian, and even the modern Shintoist the phallus-worshipper is a “heathen,” a “pagan,” and yet he still practises his faith and rites. It is for us to hint at the powerful influence such persistent ideas have upon Japanese morals and civilization. Still further, we illustrate the basic fact which all foreign religions and all missionaries, Confucian, Buddhist, Mahometan or Christian must deal with, viz.: That the Eastern Asiatic mind runs to pantheism as surely as the body of flesh and blood seeks food.

Tree and Serpent Worship.

In prehistoric and medieval Japan, as among the Ainos to-day, trees and serpents as well as rocks, rivers and other inanimate objects were worshipped, because such of them as were supposed for reasons known and felt to be awe-inspiring or wonderful were “kami,” that is, above the common, wonderful. This word kami is usually translated god or deity, but the term does not conform to our ideas, by a great gulf of difference. It is more than probable that the Japanese term kami is the same as the Aino word kamui, and that the despised and conquered aboriginal savage has furnished the mould of the ordinary Japanese idea of god-­which even to-day with them means anything wonderful or extraordinary. From the days before history the people have worshipped trees, and do so yet, considering them as the abodes of and as means of communication with supernatural powers. On them the people hang their votive offerings, twist on the branches their prayers written on paper, avoid cutting down, breaking or in any way injuring certain trees. The sakaki tree is especially sacred, even to this day, in funeral or Shinto services. To wound or defile a tree sacred to a particular god was to call forth the vengeance of the insulted deity upon the insulter, or as the hearer of prayer upon another to whom guilt was imputed and punishment was due.

Thus, in the days older than this present generation, but still within this century, as the writer has witnessed, it was the custom of women betrayed by their lovers to perform the religious act of vengeance called Ushi toki mairi, or going to the temple at the hour of the ox, that is at 2 A.M. First making an image or manikin of straw, she set out on her errand of revenge, with nails held in her mouth and with hammer in one hand and straw figure in the other, sometimes also having on her head a reversed tripod in which were stuck three lighted candles. Arriving at the shrine she selected a tree dedicated to a god, and then nailed the straw simulacrum of her betrayer to the trunk, invoking the kami to curse and annihilate the destroyer of her peace. She adjures the god to save his tree, impute the guilt of desecration to the traitor and visit him with deadly vengeance. The visit is repeated and nails are driven until the object of the incantation sickens and dies, or is at least supposed to do so. I have more than once seen such trees and straw images upon them, and have observed others in which the large number of rusted nails and fragments of straw showed how tenaciously the superstition lingered.

In instances more pleasant to witness, may be seen trees festooned with the symbolical rice-straw in cords and fringes. With these the people honor the trees as the abode of the kami, or as evidence of their faith in the renown accredited in the past.

In common with most human beings the Japanese consider the serpent an object of mystery and awe, but most of them go further and pay the ophidian a reverence and awe which is worship. Their oldest literature shows how large a part the serpent played in the so-called divine age, how it acted as progenitress of the Mikado’s ancestry, and how it afforded means of incarnation for the kami or gods. Ten species of ophidia are known in the Japanese islands, but in the larger number of more or less imaginary varieties which figure in the ancient books we shall find plenty of material for fetich-worship. In perusing the “Kojiki” one scarcely knows, when he begins a story, whether the character which to all appearance is a man or woman is to end as a snake, or whether the mother after delivering her child will or will not glide into the marsh or slide away into the sea, leaving behind a trail of slime. A dragon is three-fourths serpent, and both the dragon and the serpent are prominent figures, perhaps the most prominent of the kami or gods in human or animal form in the “Kojiki” and other early legends of the gods, though the crocodile, crow, deer, dog, and other animals are kami. It is therefore no wonder that serpents have been and are still worshipped by the people, that some of their gods and goddesses are liable at any time to slip away in scaly form, that famous temples are built on sites noted as being the abode or visible place of the actual water or land snake of natural history, and that the spot where a serpent is seen to-day is usually marked with a sacred emblem or a shrine. We shall see how this snake-worship became not only a part of Shinto but even a notable feature in corrupt Buddhism.

Pantheism’s Destruction of Boundaries.

In its rudest forms, this pantheism branches out into animism or shamanism, fetichism and phallicism. In its higher forms, it becomes polytheism, idolatry and defective philosophy. Having centuries ago corrupted Buddhism it is the malaria which, unseen and unfelt, is ready to poison and corrupt Christianity. Indeed, it has already given over to disease and spiritual death more than one once hopeful Christian believer, teacher and preacher in the Japan of our decade.

To assault and remove the incubus, to replace and refill the mind, to lift up and enlighten the Japanese peasant, science as already known and faith in one God, Creator and Father of all things, must go hand in hand. Education and civilization will do much for the ignorant inaka or boors, but for the cultured whose minds waver and whose feet flounder, as well as for the unlearned and priest-ridden, there is no surer help and healing than that faith in the Heavenly Father which gives the unifying thought to him who looks into creation.

Keep the boundary line clear between God and his world and all is order and discrimination. Obliterate that boundary and all is pathless morass, black chaos and on the mind the phantasms which belong to the victim of delirium tremens.

There is one Lawgiver. In the beginning, God. In the end, God, all in all.