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The Religion of the Home

THREE stages of ancestor-worship are to be distinguished in the general course of religious and social evolution; and each of these finds illustration in the history of Japanese society. The first stage is that which exists before the establishment of a settled civilization, when there is yet no national ruler, and when the unit of society is the great patriarchal family, with its elders or war-chiefs for lords. Under these conditions, the spirits of the family-ancestors only are worshipped;--each family propitiating its own dead, and recognizing no other form of worship. As the patriarchal families, later on, become grouped into tribal clans, there grows up the custom of tribal sacrifice to the spirits of the clan-rulers;--this cult being superadded to the family-cult, and marking the. second stage of ancestor-worship. Finally, with the union of all the clans or tribes under one supreme head, there is developed the custom of propitiating the spirits of national, rulers. This third form of the cult becomes the obligatory religion

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of the country; but it does not replace either of the preceding cults: the three continue to exist together.


Though, in the present state of our knowledge, the evolution in Japan of these three stages of ancestor-worship is but faintly traceable, we can divine tolerably well, from various records, how the permanent forms of the cult were first developed out of the earlier funeral-rites. Between the ancient Japanese funeral customs and those of antique Europe, there was a vast difference,--a difference indicating, as regards Japan, a far more primitive social condition. In Greece and in Italy it was an early custom to bury the family dead within the limits of the family estate; and the Greek and Roman laws of property grew out of this practice. Sometimes the dead were buried close to the house. The author of La Cité Antique cites, among other ancient texts bearing upon the subject, an interesting invocation from the tragedy of Helen, by Euripides:--"All hail! my father's tomb! I buried thee, Proteus, at the place where men pass out, that I might often greet thee; and so, even as I go out and in, I, thy son Theoclymenus, call upon thee, father! . . ." But in ancient Japan, men fled from the neighbourhood of death. It was long the custom to abandon, either temporarily, or permanently, the house in which a death occurred;

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and we can scarcely suppose that, at any time, it was thought desirable to bury the dead close to the habitation of the surviving members of the household. Some Japanese authorities declare that in the very earliest ages there was no burial, and that corpses were merely conveyed to desolate places, and there abandoned to wild creatures. Be this as it may, we have documentary evidence, of an unmistakable sort, concerning the early funeral-rites as they existed when the custom of burying had become established,--rites weird and strange, and having nothing in common with the practices of settled civilization. There is reason to believe that the family-dwelling was at first permanently, not temporarily, abandoned to the dead; and in view of the fact that the dwelling was a wooden hut of very simple structure, there is nothing improbable in the supposition. At all events the corpse was left for a certain period, called the period of mourning, either in the abandoned house where the death occurred, or in a shelter especially built for the purpose; and, during the mourning period, offerings of food and drink were set before the dead, and ceremonies performed without the house. One of these ceremonies consisted in the recital of poems in praise of the dead,--which poems were called shinobigoto. There was music also of flutes and drums, and dancing; and at night a fire was kept burning before the house. After all this had been

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done for the fixed period of mourning--eight days, according to some authorities, fourteen according to others--the corpse was interred. It is probable that the deserted house may thereafter have become an ancestral temple, or ghost-house,--prototype of the Shintô miya.

At an early time,--though when we do not know,--it certainly became the custom to erect a moya, or "mourning-house" in the event of a death; and the rites were performed at the mourning-house prior to the interment. The manner of burial was very simple: there were yet no tombs in the literal meaning of the term, and no tombstones. Only a mound was thrown up over the grave; and the size of the mound varied according to the rank of the dead.

The custom of deserting the house in which a death took place would accord with the theory of a nomadic ancestry for the Japanese people: it was a practice totally incompatible with a settled civilization like that of the early Greeks and Romans, whose customs in regard to burial presuppose small landholdings in permanent occupation. But there may have been, even in early times, some exceptions to general custom--exceptions made by necessity. To-day, in various parts of the country, and perhaps more particularly in districts remote from temples, it is the custom for farmers to bury their dead upon their own lands.

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--At regular intervals after burial, ceremonies were performed at the graves; and food and drink were then served to the spirits. When the spirit-tablet had been introduced from China, and a true domestic cult established, the practice of making offerings at the place of burial was not discontinued. It survives to the present time,--both in the Shintô and the Buddhist rite; and every spring an Imperial messenger presents at the tomb of the Emperor Jimmu, the same offerings of birds and fish and seaweed, rice and rice-wine, which were made to the spirit of the Founder of the Empire twenty-five hundred years ago. But before the period of Chinese influence the family would seem to have worshipped its dead only before the mortuary house, or at the grave; and the spirits were yet supposed to dwell especially in their tombs, with access to some mysterious subterranean world. They were supposed to need other things besides nourishment; and it was customary to place in the grave various articles for their ghostly use,--a sword, for example, in the case of a warrior; a mirror in the case of a woman,--together with certain objects, especially prized during life,--such as objects of precious metal, and polished stones or gems. . . . At this stage of ancestor-worship, when the spirits are supposed to require shadowy service of a sort corresponding to that exacted during their life-time in the body, we should expect to hear of

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human sacrifices as well as of animal sacrifices. At the funerals of great personages such sacrifices were common. Owing to beliefs of which all knowledge has been lost, these sacrifices assumed a character much more cruel than that of the immolations of the Greek Homeric epoch. The human victims[1] were buried up to the neck in a circle about the grave, and thus left to perish under the beaks of birds and the teeth of wild beasts. The term applied to this form of immolation,--hitogaki, or "human hedge,"--implies a considerable number of victims in each case. This custom was abolished, by the Emperor Suinin, about nineteen hundred years ago; and the Nihongi declares that it was then an ancient custom. Being grieved by the crying of the victims interred in the funeral mound erected over the grave of his brother, Yamato-hiko-no-mikoto, the Emperor is recorded to have said: "It is a very painful thing to force those whom one has loved in life to follow one in death. Though it be an ancient custom, why follow it, if it is bad? From this time forward take counsel to put a stop to the following of the dead." Nomi-no-Sukuné, a court-noble-now apotheosized as the patron of wrestlers--then suggested the substitution of earthen images of men and horses for the living victims; and his suggestion was approved. The hitogaki, was thus abolished; but compulsory as well as voluntary following of the

[1. How the horses and other animals were sacrificed, does not clearly appear.]

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dead certainly continued for many hundred years after, since we find the Emperor Kôtoku issuing an edict on the subject in the year 646 A.D.:--

"When a man dies, there have been cases of people sacrificing themselves by strangulation, or of strangling others by way of sacrifice, or of compelling the dead man's horse to be sacrificed, or of burying valuables in the grave in honour of the dead, or of cutting off the hair and stabbing the thighs and [in that condition] pronouncing a eulogy on the dead. Let all such old customs he entirely discontinued."--Nihongi; Aston's translation.

As regarded compulsory sacrifice and popular custom, this edict may have had the immediate effect desired; but voluntary human sacrifices were not definitively suppressed. With the rise of the military power there gradually came into existence another custom of junshi, or following one's lord in death,--suicide by the sword. It is said to have begun about 1333, when the last of the Hôjô regents, Takatoki, performed suicide, and a number of his retainers took their own lives by harakiri, in order to follow their master. It may be doubted whether this incident really established the practice. But by the sixteenth century junshi had certainly become an honoured custom among the samurai. Loyal retainers esteemed it a duty to kill themselves after the death of their lord, in order to attend upon him during his ghostly journey. A thousand years

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of Buddhist teaching had not therefore sufficed to eradicate all primitive notions' of sacrificial duty. The practice continued into the time of the Tokugawa shôgunate, when Iyeyasu made laws to check it. These laws were rigidly applied,--the entire family of the suicide being held responsible for a case of junshi: yet the custom cannot be said to have become extinct until considerably after the beginning of the era of Meiji. Even during my own time there have been survivals,--some of a very touching kind: suicides performed in hope of being able to serve or aid the spirit of master or husband or .parent in the invisible world. Perhaps the strangest case was that of a boy fourteen years old, who killed himself in order to wait upon the spirit of a child, his master's little son.


The peculiar character of the early human sacrifices at graves, the character of the funeral-rites, the abandonment of the house in which death had occurred.--all prove that the early ancestor-worship was of a decidedly primitive kind. This is suggested also by the peculiar Shintô horror of death as pollution: even at this day to attend a funeral,--unless the funeral be conducted after the Shintô rite,--is religious defilement. The ancient legend of Izanagi's descent to the nether world, in search of his lost spouse, illustrates the terrible beliefs that once existed as to goblin-powers presiding over decay. {p. 41} Between the horror of death as corruption, and the apotheosis of the ghost, there is nothing incongruous: we must understand the apotheosis itself as a propitiation. This earliest Way of the Gods was a religion of perpetual fear. Not ordinary homes only were deserted after a death: even the Emperors, during many centuries, were wont to change their capital after the death of a predecessor. But, gradually, out of the primal funeral-rites, a higher cult was evolved. The mourning-house, or moya, became transformed into the Shintô temple, which still retains the shape of the primitive hut. Then under Chinese influence, the ancestral cult became established in the home; and Buddhism at a later day maintained this domestic cult. By degrees the household religion became a religion of tenderness as well as of duty, and changed and softened the thoughts of men about their dead. As early as the eighth century, ancestor-worship appears to have developed the three principal forms under which it still exists; and thereafter the family-cult began to assume a character which offers many resemblances to the domestic religion of the old European civilizations.


Let us now glance at the existing forms of this domestic cult,--the universal religion of Japan. In every home there is a shrine devoted to it. If the family profess only the Shintô belief, this shrine,

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or mitamaya[1] ("august-spirit-dwelling"),--tiny model of a Shintô temple,--is placed upon a shelf fixed against the wall of some inner chamber, at a height of about six feet from the floor. Such a shelf is called Mitama-San-no-tana, or--"Shelf of the august spirits." In the shrine are placed thin tablets of white wood, inscribed with the names of the household dead. Such tablets are called by a name signifying "spirit-substitutes" (mitamashiro), or by a probably older name signifying "spirit-sticks." . . . If the family worships its ancestors according to the Buddhist rite, the mortuary tablets are placed in the Buddhist household-shrine, or Butsudan, which usually occupies the upper shelf of an alcove in one of the inner apartments. Buddhist mortuary-tablets (with some exceptions) are called ihai,--a term signifying "soul-commemoration." They are lacquered and gilded, usually having a carved lotos-flower as pedestal; and they do not, as a rule, bear the real, but only the religious and posthumous name of the dead.

Now it is important to observe that, in either cult, the mortuary tablet actually suggests a miniature tombstone--which is a fact of some evolutional interest, though the evolution itself should be Chinese rather than Japanese. The plain gravestones in Shintô cemeteries resemble in form the simple

[1. It is more popularly termed miya, "august house,"--a name given to the ordinary Shinto temples.]

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wooden ghost-sticks, or spirit-sticks; while the Buddhist monuments in the old-fashioned Buddhist graveyards are shaped like the ihai, of which the form is slightly varied to indicate sex and age, which is also the case with the tombstone.

The number of mortuary tablets in a household shrine does not generally exceed five or six,--only grandparents and parents and the recently dead being thus represented; but the name of remoter ancestors are inscribed upon scrolls, which are kept in the Butsudan or the mitamaya.

Whatever be the family rite, prayers are repeated and offerings are placed before the ancestral tablets every day. The nature of the offerings and the character of the prayers depend upon the religion of the household; but the essential duties of the cult are everywhere the same. These duties are not to be neglected under any circumstances . their performance in these times is usually intrusted to the elders, or to the women of the household.[1]

[1. Not, however, upon any public occasion,--such as a gathering of relatives at the home for a religious anniversary: at such times the rites are performed by the head of the household.

Speaking of the ancient custom (once prevalent in every Japanese household, and still observed in Shintô homes) of making offerings to the deities of the cooking range and of food, Sir Ernest Satow observes: "The rites in honour of these gods were at first performed by the head of the household; but in after-times the duty came to he delegated to the women of the family" (Ancient Japanese Rituals). We may infer that in regard to the ancestral rites likewise, the same transfer of duties occurred at an early time, for obvious reasons of convenience. When the duty devolves upon the elders of the family--grandfather and grandmother--it is usually the grandmother who attends to the offerings. In the Greek and Roman {footnote p. 44} household the performance of the domestic rites appears to have been obligatory upon the head of the household; but we know that the women took part in them.]

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There is no long ceremony, no imperative rule about prayers, nothing solemn: the food-offerings are selected out of the family cooking; the murmured or whispered invocations are short and few. But, trifling as the rites may seem, their performance must never be overlooked. Not to make the offerings is a possibility undreamed of: so long as the family exists they must be made.

To describe the details of the domestic rite would require much space,--not because they are complicated in themselves, but because they are of a sort unfamiliar to Western experience, and vary according to the sect of the family. But to consider the details will not be necessary: the important matter is to consider the religion and its beliefs in relation to conduct and character. It should be recognized that no religion is more sincere, no faith more touching than this domestic worship, which regards the dead as continuing to form a part of the household life, and needing still the affection and the respect of their children and kindred. Originating in those dim ages when fear was stronger than love,--when the wish to please the ghosts of the departed must have been chiefly inspired by dread of their anger,--the cult at last developed into a religion of affection; and this it yet remains. The belief that the dead

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need affection, that to neglect them is a cruelty, that their happiness depends upon duty, is a belief that has almost cast out the primitive fear of their displeasure. They are not thought of as dead: they are believed to remain among those who loved them. Unseen they guard the home, and watch over the welfare of its inmates: they hover nightly in the glow of the shrine-lamp; and the stirring of its flame is the motion of them. They dwell mostly within their lettered tablets;--sometimes they can animate a tablet,--change it into the substance of a human body, and return in that body to active life, in order to succour and console. From their shrine they observe and hear what happens in the house; they share the family joys and sorrows; they delight in the voices and the warmth of the life about them. They want affection; but the morning and the evening greetings of the family are enough to make them happy. They require nourishment; but the vapour of food contents them. They are exacting only as regards the daily fulfilment of duty. They were the givers of life, the givers of wealth, the makers and teachers of the present: they represent the past of the race, and all its sacrifices;--whatever the living possess is from them. Yet how little do they require in return! Scarcely more than to be thanked, as the founders and guardians of the home, in simple words like these:--"For aid received, by day and by night, accept, August Ones, our reverential gratitude."

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. . . To forget or neglect them, to treat them with rude indifference, is the proof of an evil heart; to cause them shame by ill-conduct, to disgrace their name by bad actions, is the supreme crime. They represent the moral experience of the race: whosoever denies that experience denies them also, and falls to the level of the beast, or below it. They represent the unwritten law, the traditions of the commune, the duties of all to all: whosoever offends against these, sins against the dead. And, finally, they represent the mystery of the invisible: to Shintô belief, at least, they are gods.


It is to be remembered, of course, that the Japanese word for gods, Kami, does not imply, any more than did the old Latin term, dii-manes, ideas like those which have become associated with the modern notion of divinity. The Japanese term might be more closely rendered by some such expression as "the Superiors," "the Higher Ones"; and it was formerly applied to living rulers as well as to deities and ghosts. But it implies considerably more than the idea of a disembodied spirit; for, according to old Shintô teaching the dead became world-rulers. They were the cause of all natural events,--of winds, rains, and tides, of buddings and ripenings, of growth and decay, of everything desirable or dreadful. They formed a kind of subtler element,--an ancestral æther,--universally extending and

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unceasingly operating. Their powers, when united for any purpose, were resistless; and in time of national peril they were invoked en masse for aid against the foe. . . . Thus, to the eyes of faith, behind each family ghost there extended the measureless shadowy power of countless Kami; and the sense of duty to the ancestor was deepened by dim awe of the forces controlling the world,--the whole invisible Vast. To primitive Shintô conception the universe was filled with ghosts to later Shintô conception the ghostly condition was not limited by place or time, even in the case of individual spirits. "Although," wrote Hirata, "the home of the spirits is in the Spirit-house, they are equally present wherever they are worshipped,--being gods, and therefore ubiquitous."


The Buddhist dead are not called gods, but Buddhas (Hotoké),--which term, of course, expresses a pious hope, rather than a faith. The belief is that they are only on their way to some higher state of existence; and they should not be invoked or worshipped after the manner of the Shintô gods: prayers should be said for them, not, as a rule, to them.[1] But the vast majority of Japanese Buddhists are also followers of Shintô; and the two faiths, though seemingly incongruous, have long been reconciled in the popular mind. The Buddhist doctrine has

[1. Certain Buddhist rituals prove exceptions to this teaching.]

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therefore modified the ideas attaching to the cult much less deeply than might be supposed.


In all patriarchal societies with a settled civilization, there is evolved, out of the worship of ancestors, a Religion of Filial Piety. Filial piety still remains the supreme virtue among civilized peoples possessing an ancestor-cult. . . . By filial piety must not be understood, however, what is commonly signified by the English term,--the devotion of children to parents. We must understand the word "piety" rather in its classic meaning, as the pietas of the early Romans,--that is to say, as the religious sense of household duty. Reverence for the dead, as well as the sentiment of duty towards the living; the affection of children to parents, and. the affection of parents to children; the mutual duties of husband and wife; the duties likewise of sons-in-law and daughters-in-law to the family as a body; the duties of servant to master, and of master to dependent,--all these were included under the term. The family itself was a religion; the ancestral home a temple. And so we find the family and the home to be in Japan, even at the present day. Filial piety in Japan does not mean only the duty of children to parents and grandparents: it means still more, the cult of the ancestors, reverential service to the dead, the gratitude of the present to the past, and the conduct of the individual in relation

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to the entire household. Hirata therefore declared that all virtues derived from the worship of ancestors; and his words, as translated by Sir Ernest Satow, deserve particular attention:--

"It is the duty of a subject to be diligent in worshipping his ancestors, whose minister he should consider himself to be. The custom of adoption arose from the natural desire of having some one to perform sacrifices; and this desire ought not to be rendered of no avail by neglect. Devotion to the memory of ancestors is the mainspring of all virtues. No one who discharges his duty to then will ever be disrespectful to the gods or to his living parents. Such a man also will be faithful to his prince, loyal to his friends, and kind and gentle to his wife and children. For the essence of this devotion is indeed filial piety."

From the sociologist's point of view, Hirata is right: it is unquestionably true that the whole system of Far-Eastern ethics derives from the religion of the household. By aid of that cult have been evolved all ideas of duty to the living as well as to the dead,--the sentiment of reverence, the sentiment of loyalty, the spirit of self-sacrifice, and the spirit of patriotism. What filial piety signifies as a religious force can best be imagined from the fact that you can buy life in the East--that it has its price in the market. This religion is the religion of China, and of countries adjacent; and life is for sale in China. It was the filial piety of China that rendered

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possible the completion of the Panama railroad, where to strike the soil was to liberate death,--where the land devoured labourers by the thousand, until white and black labour could no more be procured in quantity sufficient for the work. But labour could be obtained from China--any amount of labour--at the cost of life; and the cost was paid; and multitudes of men came from the East to toil and die, in order that the price of their lives might be sent to their families. . . . I have no doubt that, were the sacrifice imperatively demanded, life could be as readily bought in Japan,--though lot, perhaps, so cheaply. Where this religion prevails, the individual is ready to give his life, in a majority of cases, for the family, the home, the ancestors. And the filial piety impelling such sacrifice becomes, by extension, the loyalty that will sacrifice even the family itself for the sake of the lord,--or, by yet further extension, the loyalty that prays, like Kusunoki Masashige, for seven successive lives to lay down on behalf of the sovereign. Out of filial piety indeed has been developed the whole moral power that protects the state,--the power also that has seldom failed to impose the rightful restraints upon official despotism whenever that despotism grew dangerous to the common weal.


Probably the filial piety that centred about the domestic altars of the ancient West differed in little

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from that which yet rules the most eastern East. But we miss in Japan the Aryan hearth, the family altar with its perpetual fire. The Japanese home-religion represents, apparently, a much earlier stage of the cult than that which existed within historic time among the Greeks and Romans. The homestead in Old Japan was not a stable institution like the Greek or the Roman home; the custom. of burying the family dead upon the family estate never became general; the dwelling itself never assumed a substantial and lasting character. It could not be literally said of the Japanese warrior, as of the Roman, that he fought pro aris et focis. There was neither altar nor sacred fire: the place of these was taken by the spirit-shelf or shrine, with its tiny lamp, kindled afresh each evening; and, in early times, there were no Japanese images of divinities. For Lares and Penates there were only the mortuary-tablets of the ancestors, and certain little tablets bearing names of other gods--tutelar gods. . . . The presence of these frail wooden objects still makes the home; and they may be, of course, transported anywhere.


To apprehend the full meaning of ancestor-worship as a family religion, a living faith, is now difficult for the Western mind. We are able to imagine only in the vaguest way how our Aryan forefathers felt and thought about their dead. But in the

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living beliefs of Japan we find much to suggest the nature of the old Greek piety. Each member of the family supposes himself, or herself, under perpetual ghostly surveillance. Spirit-eyes are watching every act; spirit-ears are listening to every word. Thoughts too, not less than deeds, are visible to the gaze of the dead: the heart must be pure, the mind must be under control, within the presence of the spirits. Probably the influence of such beliefs, uninterruptedly exerted upon conduct during thousands of years, did much to form the charming side of Japanese character. Yet there is nothing stern or solemn in this home-religion to-day,--nothing of that rigid and unvarying discipline supposed by Fustel de Coulanges to have especially characterized the Roman cult. It is a religion rather of gratitude and tenderness; the dead being served by the household as if they were actually present in the body. . . . I fancy that if we were able to enter for a moment into the vanished life of some old Greek city, we should find the domestic religion there not less cheerful than the Japanese home-cult remains to-day. I imagine that Greek children, three thousand years ago, must have watched, like the Japanese children of to-day, for a chance to steal some of the good things offered to the ghosts of the ancestors; and I fancy that Greek parents must have chidden quite as gently as Japanese parents

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chide in this era of Meiji,-- mingling reproof with instruction, and hinting of weird possibilities.[1]

[1. Food presented to the dead may afterwards be eaten by the elders of the household, or given to pilgrims; but it is said that if children eat of it, they will grow with feeble memories, and incapable of becoming scholars.]

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