Imikotoba (taboo words)

August 24, 2011

Imikotoba (忌み言葉), or taboo words, are words that are avoided  because they are believed to bring bad luck. The term can also mean the euphemism or replacement that is used instead of them (either an alternate pronunciation or a substitution word).

Some of these taboos are related to specific moments and rituals, while others are spread among the general population and condition the daily use of the language.

Those of you who understand some Japanese know how there are two series of numbers, one being based on Chinese reading or on-yomi (ichi, ni, san…) and the other on Japanese reading or kun-yomi (hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu…). Now, the Chinese reading for “4″ is shi, but Japanese people tend to avoid this pronunciation and substitute it with the kun-yomi for “4″ which is yon; this use, so common to be the rule with many counters, is due to the fact that shi is also the pronunciation of the character 死, which means “death”.

Another example: the most common word for pear is nashi 梨. Nashi, however, is also the pronunciation of 無し, which means “none.”  To avoid the hazards of this association, the word ari-no-mi / 有りの実 (lit. “the fruit of abundance”) can also be used to refer to a pear.

Other substitutions are atarime (for dried squid, surume) and etekō (for monkey, saru, whose homophone means “depart” and is used as a euphemism for death).

Other words are to be avoided especially to preserve the purity of Shinto rituals. The Engi Shiki lists taboo words associated with the saigū (Chief Priestess) of the Grand Shrine of Ise and their replacements:

1. Inner seven (related to Buddhism)
buddha(s): nakago (“middle child,” i.e. seated in the center of the worship hall)
sutra: somekami (“dyed paper;” originally printed on yellow paper)
pagoda: araraki (Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese-based word, also pronounced araragi)
temple: kawarafuki (“tiled,” as in “tiled roof,” also pronounced kawarabuki)
monk: kaminaka (“long-haired,” also pronounced kaminaga)
nun: mekaminaka (“female long-haired”)
vegetarian food/abstinence: katashiki (“one tray”).
2. Outer seven (related to non-Buddhist words)
death: naoru (to recover)
illness: yasumi (to rest)
weeping: shiotare (“shedding salt”)
blood: ase (sweat)
to strike: atsu (caress)
meat: kusahira (vegetables and mushrooms)
grave: tsuchikure (clod of earth).
3. Others
Buddhist hall: koritaki (“incense burning”)
lay Buddhist (ubasoku): tsunohasu (“notch of arrow,” also pronounced tsunohazu).

Other taboos are still avoided by ordinary people in special events such as weddings and funerals.

For example, if you have to give a  speech at a weddings you should carefully avoid words such as  hanareru (離れる, to separate), kiru (切る, to cut) or wakareru (別れる, to split) because they can be seen as references to divorce; for the same reason, one should not use words that repeat the same sound, such as tabitabi (たびたび,  frequently) or iroiro (色々, various).

At funerals, one cannot use words that infer “something sad will happen again”, “your sould cannot rest in peace” or, again, repeated sounds. Some examples are tsuzuku (続く, to continue), ukabarenai (浮ばれない, your soul cannot rest), kaesugaesu (返す返す, repeatedly).

Also you cannot use words such as nagareru (流れる, to wash away) or kieru (消える, to disappear) when congratulating a pregnant woman, because they might sound like references to miscarriage.

There are taboo words for school tests as well: during the entrance exams season, one should avoid words that make one think to failure, such as chiru (散る, to disperse), suberu (滑る to slip over), ochiru (落ちる, to fall).


In 1868, with the Meiji restoration, Edo was made the new imperial capital and changed its name to Tōkyō (東京), menaning “Capital of the East”.

On July 17, Emperor Meiji  issued the Edict Renaming Edo to Tōkyō (江戸ヲ稱シテ東京ト爲スノ詔書 Edo o shōshite Tōkyō to nasu no shōsho).

In 1869, the Emperor himself moved to Tōkyō and made Edo Castle the new Imperial Palace.

On May 1, 1889, Tōkyō City (東京市 Tōkyō-shi) was constituted as a separate municipality, and lasted until  July 1, 1943, when it was merged with its prefecture of  Tōkyō-fu (東京府), becoming part of the newly formed Tōkyō Metropolis (東京都 Tōkyō-to).

Even though Tōkyō is known by the whole world as the capital of Japan, and it is surely its capital de facto, being the seat both of the Emperor and of the Governmen, its status as a capital de iure is still controversial.

Some state that Tōkyō became the capital when the Tōkyō prefecture was established in 1868, others that it occurred when Edo Castle was made an Imperial seat. On the other hand, while there was an imperial edict transferring the capital to Heian, there have been no document declaring the move from Kyōto to Tōkyō, therefore some people claim that Kyōto is still the capital of Japan, or that Tōkyō and Kyōto are both capitals simultaneously.

However, since after WWII the sovreignty was transferred to the Emperor to the people by the new Constitution, the general consensus agrees that the Tōkyō is the capital since it is the seat of the Diet.

While no laws have designated Tōkyō as the Japanese capital, many laws have defined a “capital area” (首都圏 shutoken) that incorporates Tōkyō .

Article 2 of the Capital Area Consolidation Law (首都圏整備法) of 1956 states that “In this Act, the term ‘capital area’ shall denote a broad region comprising both the territory of Tōkyō Metropolis as well as outlying regions designated by cabinet order.” This clearly implies that the government has designated Tōkyō  as the capital of Japan (although it is not explicitly stated, and the definition of the “capital area” is restricted to the terms of that specific law).

In 1941, the Ministry of Education published a book called “History of the Restoration”, that referred to Tōkyō as capital” (東京奠都 Tōkyō-tento) without talking about “moving the capital to Tōkyō” (東京遷都 Tōkyō-sento). A contemporary history textbook states that the Meiji government “moved the capital (shuto) from Kyōto to Tōkyō” without using the sento term.

In 1600 Tokugawa Ieyasu, having seized the power, established his capital in Edo.

He had already occupied the castle city in 1590, during his war against the Hōjō, when, during the Siege of Odawara, Hideyoshi  offered Ieyasu the eight Kantō provinces which they were about to take from the Hōjō in return for the five provinces that Ieyasu currently controlled (including Ieyasu’s home province of Mikawa). Ieyasu accepted this proposal. He gave up control of his five provinces (Mikawa, Tōtōmi, Suruga, Shinano, and Kai) and moved to the Kantō region with all his troops and vassals. He himself occupied the castle town of Edo.

So after the battle of Sekigahara on October 21, 1600, and then when Ieyasu was officially appointed as a new shogun on March 24, 1603, Edo became the real centre of power, even though the official capital was still the seat of the emperor in Kyōto until the Meiji restoration.

The city was arranged arount the castle; the area immediately surrounding it was known as the “Yamanote” and consisted largely of daimyō mansions;  their families lived in Edo year-round. According to the sankin kōtai system (参勤交代 lit. “alternate attendance”), daimyō families had to stay in Edo as hostages, while the daimyō himself had to move periodically between Edo and his domains ( (藩 han), typically spending an alternate year in each place.

Hiroshige's famous ukiyo-e series. 'The Fifty-Three Stations on the Tokaido Highway', showing daimyo processions known as sankin kotai.

This is a way for the shogunate to control the vassals, similar to the way Louis XIV of France forced his aristocracy to move to Versailles; also the expenditures to move from one place to the other and to maintain two luxury residences places financial  strains on the daimyō, so that they were not able to afford wars.

While Kyōto was dominated by the court aristocracy, that character of Edo was made by the noble warrior class.

Other areas further from the center were the domains chōnin (町人, literally “townsfolk” ).

1844-1848 – Perry-Castañeda Map Collection – UT Library Online”]Edo [Tokyo] 1844-1848 - Perry-Castañeda Map Collection - UT Library Online

Edo [Tokyo

The area known as Shitamachi, to the northeast of the castle, was a key centerof urban culture, with the ancient Buddhist temple of Sensō-ji, that still stands in Asakusa, marking the center of the “downtown” (literal translation of  “Shitamachi”). Some of the shops in the streets before the temple have been carried on continuously in the same location since the Edo period.

The northeastern corner of the city, regarded as a dangerous direction in traditional onmyōdō (cosmology/geomancy), was guarded from evil spirits by a series of temples, including Sensō-ji and Kan’ei-ji.

Just beyond these laid the districts of the eta or outcastes, who engaged in activities that were considered impure, and were thus separated from the main sections of commoner residences.

The  the Great River (大川), now called Sumida-Gawa, ran along the eastern edge of the city.

The Edo Bridge (江戸橋, Edo-bashi), also known as Nihonbashi, marked the center of the city’s commercial center, an area also known as Kuramae (蔵前, “in front of the storehouses”). Its development is largely credited to the Mitsui family, one of the most powerful families of merchants and industrialists in Japan, still active nowadays.

The Nihonbashi was the eastern terminus of the  Nakasendō and the Tōkaidō, roads that ran between Edo and Kyōto.

Near the Nihobashi, there were also the famous Yoshiwara district, Edo’s red-light district – but we might call it “red line”, since this is the translation of the  “Akasen” (赤線), the Japanse term to indicate it. It was created in 1617, after Tokugawa Hidetada ordered to restrict prostitution, that was widespread in the main cities od Japan, to designated city districts.

In 1656, due to the need for space as the city grew, the government decided to relocate Yoshiwara, and plans were made to move the district to its present location north of Asakusa. After it burned down in the Meireki fire of 1657, it was rebuilt in the new location. The new district was called Shin-Yoshiwara (“new Yoshiwara”), while the old one was known as Moto-Yoshiwara (“previous/original Yoshiwara”).


Kyōto (or Heian-kyō – as we has seen, both the names are fine) was the capital of Japan from 794 to 1868, with an interruption in 1180, when it was temporarily moved to Fukuhara-kyō, for roughly six months during the Genpei war.

Tōkyō, unlike the other cities we have seen, wasn’t built on purpose to serve as a capital, but had its own history and had been the seat of power much before the formal move.

The ancient name of Tōkyō was Edo (江戸), which means “bay entrance” or “estuary”; in ancient times it was simply a small fishing village on the bay; in the XII century Edo Shigenaga, a member of the Edo clan, a minor offshot of the Taira clan, first had fortifications built. The clan had moved there from Chichibu in present-day Saitama Prefecture led by their patriarch, Edo Shigetsugu, Shigenaga’s father.

Edo-clan tombstones at Keigen-ji

In 1180, Shigenaga was asked by Minamoto Yoritomo to cooperate in his uprising against the Taira; hesitant at first, he eventually accepted and, as a reward, he was granted seven new estates in Musashi Province, including Kitami in what is now Tokyo’s western Setagaya Ward.

In 1457, Edo Shigeyasu surrendered his main base at Edo to Ōta Dōkan, a vassal of Uesugi Sadamasa, Governor of the Kanto Plain, and moved to Kitami.

Ōta Dōkan, who is considered Tōkyō’s founder, constructed fortifications overlooking the entrance of the Kantō plain and diverted the Hira river east at Kandabashi to form the Nihonbashi river, so to improve navigation.

Edo Castle with surrounding residential palaces and moats, from a 17th century screen painting.

On the ancient seat of Edo Shigetsugu’s residence, he built Edo Castle - also known as Chiyoda Castle (千代田城 Chiyoda-jō) -  in 1457.

Edo Castle became the residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

 Edo itself became the seat of the actual power under the Shogunate, even though formally the capital was still in Heian – but this will be the topic of another post.

Purity and pollution

June 8, 2011

I’ve already mentioned how impurity or kegare (汚れ or 穢れ) is a major concern in Japanese religion. Even though nowadays the emphasis is placed more on mental or spiritual pollution, kegare originally had no moral meaning, rather being the reaction of natural forces that caused misfortune.  Some scholars interpret it to mean the exhausting of vitality, that is to say a condition in which ke=ki (vitality) has withered (kare). It was thought to be caused by the contact with impure things such as death of humans and domestic animals, childbirth, menstruation, eating meat and sickness. Since kegare is an impediment to religious cerimonies, those who are polluted with it cannot take part to them.

A related concept is imi (忌み or 斎み), which can be translated as “mouring” or “avoidance”; it is a period in which one has to stay pure in order to celebrate ceremonies. The Taihou code (701) imposed a set of rules for the Emperor, in order to keep him protected from kegare. There were imi periods in which the ruler in which he could not: attend a funeral; see sick people; eat meat; sentence someone to death; play a musical instrument – and other supposedly impure activities.

Repulsion for impurity is anything but uncommon among cultures of the world. The concept of tittu, spread among people in southern India, is similar to kegare. Also the repulsion for shoku-e (触穢 touching impurity) are acknowledged in the Bible (e.g., Leviticus 5.2-3).

Kegare was considered contagious as if it were an infective disease: it was believed to be transmitted not only by physical contact but also by handling objects such as food, fire etc. Furthermore, it could be transmitted from person to person up to three times, as stated by Engishiki (905).

The link with childhood and menstruations is also the reason why women were considered impure (again, this fact is common in many primitive cultures, up to superstitions that survive in our civilization as well). However, women were not considered impure in ancient Japanese society: actually, they were considered closer to kami; the concept of impurity stemming from blood became stronger alongside with the exclusion of women from power and reached the top with Buddhism. In the 14th century the sutra Ketsubon-kyoo was introduced in Japan; it stated that women were so impure to deserve being tortured in hell, since they were polluting earth and rivers with their blood. This concept still survives and it’s the reason why women are prevented from taking part in some institutions such as nou theatre, sumo, the pageants of Gion festivals and some shrines and rites.

In order to restore a condition worthy of approaching the gods, one has to undergo ritual ablutions (misogi, 禊) and rites of purification called harae (祓祓) – which is the traditional pronunciation is harae, but today the word is usually pronounced harai. Purification rites are still a core part of Shinto and are performed both for special purposes, and at the beginning of all religious ceremonies. As observed by Ono Sokyou, matsuri has four such elements, including (1) purification (harai); (2) offerings (shinsen); (3) litany (norito); and (4) a communal feast (naorai); the purification must be the first step, representing the separation not only form the pollution, but also from the profane world.

The name “Heian-kyou” (平安京,  meaning “tranquility and peace capital”) was supposedly of popular origin, having the Emperor changed just the selected kanji; nevertheless most Japanese people in the following centuries didn’t  use that name and rather called it simly “Miyako” (京 or 都), which means “capital”, or “Kyou”, which is another reading of 京.  京 or 都, or sometimes 京師 were used in hstorical documents. “Kyoto” (京都) was eventually a combination of the two characters for “capital”, thereof the modern name.

There were several other Chinese-derived names used of the city. Among the most common were “Rakuyou”, abbreviated as “Raku”, a reading of the characters for Loyang, the name of the Eastern Capital of theT’ang dynasty as paired with the Western Capital at Ch’ang-an. Since the model for Heian was neither Loyang nor Ch’ang-an (as it has been erroneously argued), but
on the earlier Japanese capital at Fujiwara (which was inspired to Chien-k’ang), the use of the name might be surprising. But Japan had also known a period of dual capitals – this happened when in 809 Emperor Heizei after abdicating moved to Nara (aka Heizei-kyou) and started being known as “the Emperor of Nara”; although that period was over with the establishment of the capital at Nagaoka, the tradition was revived in terminology under the reign of Emperor Saga, when the literati started referring to the western half of the city (Ukyo) as Chdan (i.e., Ch’ang-an) and the eastern half as Rakuyo (Lo-yang). As the western half withered and failed and the eastern half became the heart of the capital, Rakuyo began to function as a name for the whole.

Golden Week

May 12, 2011

I realize that I’ve missed the chance to talk on time about the Golden Week (April 29th – May 5th). So – I’ll write on the topic *now*.

Golden Week (ゴールデンウィーク), also known as Ōgon shūkan (黄金週間, “Golden Week”) or Ōgata renkyū (大型連休, “Large consecutive holiday”) is a collection of four national holidays within seven days and one of the busiest Japan’s holiday seasons. Not all the days are officially holidays, so many Japanese people take paid time off on the intervening work days to fully enjoy this time; anyway, some companies also close down completely.

After the promulgation of the National Holiday Laws in July 1948, the week spanning from the end of April to early May, in which so many of them were concentrated, became the luckiest time for leisure-based industries. After the film Jiyuu Gakkou, in 1951, recorded higher ticket sales during this week than any other time in the year, the director of Daiei Films named it as “Golden Week”, based on the Japanese radio lingo “golden time,” which denotes the period with the highest listener ratings.

The holidays included in this period are:

  • April 29: Showa-no-hi (Showa Day)
  • May 3 : Kenpou-kinen-bi (Constitution Memorial Day)
  • May 4 : Midori-no-hi (Greenery Day)
  • May 5 : Kodomo-no-hi (Children’s Day)

April 29th was originally the Emperor’s birthday. Then, after Emperor Showa’s death in 1989, the holiday was renamed “Greeneray Day”, which lasted until 2007, when it was changed again, into a memorial day of the late Emperor.


May 1, 2011

Yesterday, at the Far East Film Festival (Udine), I’ve seen “Villain” (悪人) by Lee Sang-il, based on the homonymous novel by Yoshida Shuichi, in which a girl falls in love with a murderer and runs away with him.

Now I am not talking about the film, but about another “crazy thing people do for love”, that is to say shinjuu or double suicide.

In common parlance, the world shinjuu  (心中) is used to refer to any group suicide of persons bound by love, typically lovers, but also parents and children and whole families.

Double suicide by lovers is a popular topic in Japanese theatre, which has a whole repertory of plays (the oldest was probably “The Soga Successors” in 1683) in which two people, being their ninjou (人情, human feelings) are at odds with giri (義理, social obbligation), decide to commit suicide together, in order to meet again in afterlife. The tragic act is usually preceded by a michiyuki (道行), a small journey in which the two people  evoke their happier moments and spend their last time together.

To understand this custom, we have to remember how Japanese view on suicide is far different from the western one, valuing honour of life over its lenght. This is influenced by Buddhism, which, unlike Christianity, doesn’t consider suicide as sinful. Suicide is even seen as an honourable or expected act, as in the cases of seppuku or kamikaze; actually, talking about suicide in Japanese culture might take forever, so going back to the specific issue of suicide for love, it is worth mentioning how it was influenced also by the belief, spread in Pure Land Buddhism, that the bond between husband and wife is continued into the next world (while the one with kids was supposed to last only in this world).

However, double suicide of lover was another matter, since it suggested a kind of freedom of love, which was considered anti-social in feudal Japan, so it was seen as an act of rebellion. The death of a courtesan was also a huge

Ohatsu and Tokubei, characters of "The Love Suicides at Sonezaki".

economical loss for her owner. Nevertheless, such a practice was common among star crossed lovers, that were also inspired by fictional examples:  the performance of “The Love Suicides at Sonezaki” by Chikamatsu (1703), based on a real story, was followed by so many cases of young people committing shinjuu, that government had to ban the performances of double suicide plays altogether in 1723.

Literally, the word “shinjuu” does not mean “suicide” but “inside the hearth” and originally meant simply any way to prove faithful love between a courtesan and her lover. It could have been a special letter of a vow or a few hairs, or a tattoo on the arm, or even to cut off a little finger. This custom became so fashionable that special boxes for keeping those items were on sale – and, as a consequence, those means of proof came to be undervalued, so that suicide was regarded to be the only trustworthy way to prove one’s true love.

In the spring of 793, Emperor Kanmu was convinced by Wake no Kyomaro to abandon the delay-plagued construction of a capital at Nagaoka and asked Fujiwara no Oguromaro and Ki no Kosami to determine the auspices of a site for a new capital. The site was at Uta, the mausolea area for Kanmu’s imperial lineage in the upper end of what is now called the Kyoto basin.

At that time, most prominent inhabitants of the area were the Hata (members of a rich and powerful clan that claimed Chinese descent but seems to have come most immediately from Korea) and, in the souther part, the Haji. The presence of those clans may have been one of its chief attractions for Kammu and his advisers: Kammu himself was the maternal grandson of a Haji woman and Fujiwara no Tanetsugu and Oguromaro were intimately related with the Hata.

Following the advice of Wake no Kiyomaro, Kanmu himself had twice used the pretext of a hunting expedition to visit and inspect the Uta area and confirm his decision.

Oguromaro was appointed to supervise the construction of the new imperial palace and had to deal with several complex tasks, such as controlling the numerous streams that flowed though the area (a project in which he might have been helped by his Hata in-laws, with their wealth, experience, and engineering skills).

A 1696 Japanese woodblock map of Kyoto.

Although his palace was still in the early stages of construction, Kanmu moved to the new imperial seat in the late autumn of 794. Few weeks later, he issued an edict conferring on the capital city its official name and renaming (or, rather, selecting different Chinese characters for the name of) the province in which the site was located:

Enclosed collar-and-sash by mountains and streams, the province here makes a natural citadel. Because of that configuration, we devise a new designation for it: let this Postmontane [Yamashiro] Province be renamed the Province of the Mountain Citadel [Yamashiro]. Moreover, the joyfully
flocking people and the singers of praise raise their different voices in identical words, naming this the Capital of Peace and Tranquillity [Heian-kyou, 平安京].

The city covered an area measuring 4.5 km from East to West and 5.2 km from North to South, organized in a grid pattern. The Imperial Palace (Dairai) was placed in the centre Northern city limits; the Suzaku-oji had a width of 83m. At the souther end of it, the monumental gate called Rashōmon (羅城門) was built. The name of the gate can be written also as 羅生門 and this choice was popularized by a noh play of the same title, written by Kanze Nobumitsu (1435-1516). This gate inspired other artists: “Rashomon” is the title of a short novel by Ryunosuke Akutagawa first published in 1915 and of the renowned film of 1950 by Kurosawa, based on the novel by Akutagawa.

The area of the city was divided into 40 Jo (about 120m) square “Cho” (町) by major (oji) and minor streets (koji). There were two large markets, West Market (西市) and East Market (東市), facing the seventh street, Shichijō-ōji (七条大路). Tō-ji (東寺, “East Temple”) and Sai-ji (西寺, “West Temple”) were Buddhist temples built on the southern edge of the capital. An imperial garden called Shinsenen (ja:神泉苑) was adjacent to the Daidairi.

The capital outside the Greater Imperial Palace was divided into western and eastern halves, the line of demarcation being Suzaku Avenue. The western part of the city was swampy and dangerous, since it  overlapped the wetlands formed by the Katsura River, and even by the 9th century little progress had been made in developing the area. By the 10th century,he district had become so dilapidated that it began to be used as farmland, something which had previously been forbidden within the city limits.

With the exception of an area in the north of the Right Capital near to the palace, the residential areas which housed the aristocracy were all situated in the Left Capital, with the highest aristocracy such as the Fujiwara clan gathering in the northernmost part of the district.

Heian may rightly be called the first successful city in Japan, not only because it survived and prospered, unlike previous capitals, but also because it is there that we can see for the first time in Japanese history the distinctive characteristics of what urban life and civilization. It appears in several ways, but the most fundamental were the diversity of the population and the population’s removal from primary modes of production, with a variety of occupations and social differences that clearly distinguished the urban society from that of the countryside, where agriculture tended to monopolize the economy, and specialization of labor and social differentiation were limited.

Heian-kyou was the capital of Japan for over one thousand years, from 794 to 1868, with an interruption in 1180, when it was temporarily moved to Fukuhara-kyou (福原京).

A movement in favour of returning the capital to Heijou-kyou arose in 810 A.D. during a standoff over the emperor’s succession. However, Emperor Saga thought that keeping the capital in Heian would be best for the stability of the country and resisted this movement, naming Heian-kyou “Yorozuyo no Miya” (the eternal city.)

With the advent of the Kamakura and Edo Shogunate, Heian lost its importanceas a seat of power; however it kept its formal role as a capital until the Meiji restoration.

The Doukyou affair

April 20, 2011

In my post about Nagaoka-kyou I mentioned the Doukyou affair – now let’s see something more on the topic.

Doukyou (道鏡, 700 – May 13, 772) was a Buddhist monk of the Hossou school. He was born in the Yuge family, in the lineage of the Mononobe clan (yes, the conservatives that had opposed the introduction of Buddhism in 538 – but a couple of centuries can change many things…) so he was known also as Yuge no Doukyou (弓削道鏡). He had been a disciple of the monk Gien and learned Sanskrit from Rouben. In addition, it was said that he acquired the spells of Esoteric Buddhism while studying in the mountains of Yamato Province.

In 761 he cured a mysterious illness of Empress Kouken, who had reigned from 749 to 758, then abdicating in favour of her cousin Emperor Junnin. The nature of their relationship was not clear, however they are often reasoned to have been lovers. At that time, Kouken was 43 years old, Doukyou was 61. The Nihon Ryoiki, written at the beginning of the ninth century, says “the priest Doukyou and the retired empress shared the same pillow”.

In the sixth month of 762, Koken became irritated with the ruling Emperor and decided to excercize her influence as a retired Empress, like her her mother, Empress Koumyou, had done. She suddenly left the detached palace at Hora and took up residence at a Buddhist temple in Nara, issuing an edict stating that “henceforth the emperor will conduct minor affairs of state, but important matters of state, including the dispensation of swards and punishments, will be handled by me”.

In 763 Doukyou was appointed Shosozu.

In 764 Fujiwara no Nakamaro plotted against the two; scholars have reasoned about the causes of his strong opposition, which are probably due not so much to an anti-Buddhist feeling, but rather to different opinions on the role of the Emperor, Koutoku favouring the Chinese model, in which the monarch had an actual power, while Nakamaro and his supporters preferred the usual practice of having the Emperor devoted to rituals and the current affairs in the hands of a related clan. Anyway, his rebellion failed, and he was executed in Lake Biwa with his wife and children.

On January 26, 765, Kouken reascended the throne with the new name of Empress Shoutoku (not to be confused with Prince Shoutoku). The same year Doukyou was appointed Daijin Zenji. In the next year he was promoted to Hō-ō (法王; king of the Dharma).

In 769 he obtained a divine proclamation from the Shinto god Hachiman at the Usa Shrine that prophesied peace in the realm if Doukyou were proclaimed Emperor. Shortly afterwards, Empress Shoutoku is said by the Shoku Nihongi to have herself received a message from Hachiman advising her to have the authenticity of the report checked. So she dispatched Wake no Kiyomaro to the Usa Shrine to find out what Hachiman’s wishes were.

The southern roumon of Usa Shrine.

Kiyomaro returned to the capital, he brought back quite a different version of the Hachiman oracle:

Ever since the founding of the Yamato state, emperors and empresses have been selected by their predecessors. But no minister has ever become emperor.
An emperor or empress must necessarily be selected from those who are in the Sun Goddess’s line of descent. A person not selected in accordance with this principle should be summarily rejected.

This report angered Doukyou, who used his influence to have an edict issued sending Kiyomaro into exile; he also had the tendons of Kiyomaro’s legs cut, and only the protection of the Fujiwara clan saved him from being killed.

The chief priest of the Usa Shrine may have been trying to ingratiate himself with Shotoku and Dokyo by passing along the first version, and the Fujiwara clan might have arranged for Kiyomaro to bring back the second. We do not know what really happened except that efforts to make Dokyo the emperor were blocked.

In the eighth month of 770 Shotoku suddenly died of smallpox, without having selected a successor. The Fujiwara managed to have Prince Shirakabe was enthroned as Emperor Kounin. Doukyou was removed from his high offices and was exiled to the province of Shimotsuke.

Wake no Kiyomaro was recalled from exile and appointed as both governor of Bizen Province and Udaijin. The following year, he had officials sent to Usa to investigate allegations of “fraudulent oracles”; in his later report, Wake no Kiyomaro stated that out of five oracles checked, two were found to be fabricated, so he had the head priest replaced by the previously disgraced one.


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