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TRANSLATION: minister of the four directions; one who sees in all directions

APPEARANCE: In ancient times, a hōsōshi was an official government minister and a priest in the imperial court. He wears special robes (the particular outfit varies depending on which shrine the ritual is being performed at), and carries a spear in his right hand and a shield in his left hand. The name also refers to a demon god which this priest would dress up as during yearly purification rituals. This god appears as a four-eyed oni who can see in all directions, and punishes all evil that it sees.

BEHAVIOR: During the early Heian Period, the hōsōshi’s duties included leading coffins during state funeral processions, officiating at burial ceremonies, and driving corpse-stealing yōkai away from burial mounds. By donning the mask and costume, the hōsōshi (priest) became the hōsōshi (god) and was able to scare away evil spirits. The hōsōshi’s most famous duty was a purification ceremony called tsuina.

Tsuina was performed annually on Ōmisoka—the last day of the year—at shrines and government buildings (such as the imperial palace). In this ritual, the hōsōshi and his servant would run around the shrine courtyard (covering “the four directions”), chanting and warding the area against oni and other evil spirits. Meanwhile, a number of attending officials would shoot arrows around the hōsōshi from the shrine or palace buildings, symbolically defending the area against evil spirits. Other observers would play small hand drums with ritualistic cleansing significance.

ORIGINHōsō was a concept related to divination, the four directions, and the magical barriers between the human world and the spirit world. It dealt with creating and maintaining these boundaries and barriers. It including things like planting trees or placing stones in the four corners of an area, or utilizing existing features like rivers and roads, which serve as natural boundaries. By maintaining these natural boundaries, the spiritual boundaries between the worlds could also be maintained, with the ultimate goal of keeping the imperial family and other government officials safe from supernatural harm.

The concept originated in ancient Chinese folk religion, where it is called fangxiang. The fangxiangshi wore a four eyed mask and a bear skin, and acted as a sort of exorcist. Chinese folk religion eventually became mixed with Buddhism and Taoism, and made its way to Japan. The Japanese hōsōshi’s rituals and costume were derived from this folk belief.

Over time, the Japanese version evolved further away from its Chinese roots. The hōsōshi came to be seen not as a god which keeps oni away, but as an oni itself. Rather than exorcising evil spirits, the hōsōshi became an evil spirit, and it was the imperial officials who chased away and exorcised the hōsōshi (thus symbolically chasing all evil spirits away). This may have been due to changing perceptions during the Heian period about the concept of ritual purity. The hōsōshi, who was associated with funerals and dead bodies, came to be viewed as unclean. It would be inappropriate for such a creature to be on the same “side” as the imperial household, so it became the target of the ritual instead of the officiator.

While the governmental position of hōsōshi no longer exists today, some shrines still perform annual tsuina rituals involving the hōsōshi. The celebration of Setsubun, in which beans are thrown at people wearing oni masks, is also derived from this ancient ritual.




TRANSLATION: eight-span (i.e. giant) crow
ALTERNATE NAMES: sansokuu (three-legged crow), kin’u (golden crow)
HABITAT: the sun
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Yatagarasu is a three-legged which inhabits the sun. It is found across East Asian folklore.

ORIGIN: A three-legged crow has been used as a symbol of the sun since neolithic times in China. It may have originated as a personification of sunspots by ancient astronomers. In Japan, the crow has also been a symbol of the sun since ancient times, appearing in Japan’s earliest written works. It is a holy creature and a servant of the sun goddess, Amaterasu. The name Yatagarasu means “eight span crow.” One “span” was the length between the outstretched thumb and middle finger—roughly 18 centimeters—but this moniker is mainly just a poetic way to say “very large.” Originally Yatagarasu was depicted with two legs, but in the 930’s CE, the Chinese myth of the three-legged crow was merged into the story of Yatagarasu. Since then, Yatagarasu and the three-legged crow have been synonymous with each other.

The three-legged crow has long been used in religious and astrological symbolism across China and Japan, particularly among those involved with sun worship and onmyōdō. The three legs of the bird represent heaven, the earth, and humanity, while the crow itself represents the sun. This symbolizes that heaven, earth, and mankind all come from the same sun, and are like brothers to each other. They are also said to represent the three virtues of the gods: wisdom, benevolence, and valor. The three legs may also represent the three powerful clans of ancient Kumano—Ui, Suzuki, and Enomoto—who use a three-legged crow as their clan crest.

LEGENDS: Yatagarasu is an important figure in the mythical history of Japanese. According to the Kojiki, Japan’s oldest written history, Yatagarasu is an incarnation of the god Kamo Taketsunumi—today enshrined in Kyoto’s Shimogamo Shrine. As Yatagarasu, he led Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan, through the mountains to establish his country.

Jimmu’s clan originated in Kyushu, in present-day Miyazaki Prefecture. He and his brothers led an eastward migration from along the Seto Insland Sea, looking for a better homeland, and subduing the various tribes they encountered along the way. They suffered many hardships. When they reached Naniwa (present-day Osaka), Jimmu’s older brother Itsuse, leader of the expedition, was killed in battle. Jimmu realized that they had lost because they were fighting facing eastwards, fighting against the sun. He led his troops around the Kii peninsula, to Kumano (present-day Mie Prefecture), and began a westward push. His expedition became lost in the mountains of Kumano. Seeing this, Amaterasu, the sun goddess, and Takamimusubi, one of the creator gods, ordered Kamo Taketsunumi to act as a guide to Jimmu. Kamo Taketsunumi took the form of a giant crow, and flew to Jimmu’s side to show him the way. With Yatagarasu leading the way, Jimmu was able to navigate the mountains of Kumano and reach Yamato (in present-day Nara Prefecture), where he would found his capital and become Japan’s first emperor.

According to legend, Jimmu’s great-grandfather Ninigi was the grandson of Amaterasu. Thus, Jimmu, and the entire Japanese imperial line are the direct descendants of the sun goddess. Yatagarasu, as a guide to Jimmu, played a small roll with a very big impact on the future of the imperial dynasty.