The Miracles of the Kasuga Deity

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Royall Tyler
Records of Civilization: Sources & Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , April
     314 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book consists of an annotated translation of the text of the Kasuga Gongen Genki e 春日権現験記絵 (Illustrated Chronicle of the Miracles of the Kasuga Deity; hereinafter the Genki), accompanied by notes that provide historical and religious context. The painted illustrations have been studied by art historians, but Royall Tyler is the first to make a detailed translation and study of the text in English. This book makes a valuable contribution to the study of Japanese literature, but this review will focus on its contribution to the study of medieval Japanese religion.

Kasuga 春日 shrine was established in Nara in the eighth century as the family shrine of the powerful Fujiwara 藤原 clan and became closely associated with the nearby Fujiwara temple of Kōfukuji 興福寺. Kasuga and Kōfukuji are thus representative of the relationship between Japanese deity cults and Buddhism that was expressed through the logic of honji suijaku 本地垂跡, a notion which held that Japanese deities (kami 神) were traces (suijaku 垂迹) of buddhas and bodhisattvas who were their original ground (honji 本地). Through its many tales about the Kasuga deities and their Buddhist honji, the Genki provides a window into this central aspect of Japanese medieval religion.

In chapter 1, Tyler surveys the production and reception of the Genki. The twenty-one scrolls of the Genki include ninety-three sections of text and illustrations, all on silk. The project was initiated by Minister of the Left, Saionji Kinhira 西園寺公衡 (1264–1315), as an offering to the Kasuga deity, and was dedicated in 1309. It was kept as a sacred treasure at Kasuga shrine and was released only rarely for imperial or shogunal viewing. Copies of the text, which began to be produced in the fifteenth century, made the Genki available to a wider audience. The original Genki is currently owned by the imperial household.

Chapter 2 examines the literary classification of the Genki. Tyler points out that many of the tales appear in earlier narrative (setsuwa 説話) collections, while only a few deal with shrine and temple origins, thus casting doubt on whether Genki can be classified as an origin tale (engi 縁起). Articles in a recent issue of the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies devoted to engi (42/1, 2015) highlight the difficulty of defining and classifying tales in this genre.

Chapters 3-6 are the heart of this book’s contribution to Japanese religious history. Chapter 3 examines Kasuga shrine and its deities, the origin and history of the shrine and its festivals, and the organization and administration of the shrine. Chapter 4 discusses the founding, history, organization, and rise to pre-eminence of Kōfukuji. Chapter 5 explores the cult of the Kasuga deities, the devotion of the Kōfukuji monk, Gedatsu Shōnin 解脱上人 (1155–1212), and the concept of Japan as a “land of the gods” (shinkoku 神国). Chapter 6 takes up the complex topic of the identities of the Kasuga deities and their varied manifestations in visions and dreams. These chapters highlight a fascinating variety of historical figures, including the Fujiwara statesman Kujō Kanezane 九条兼実 (1149–1207), whose diary details his devotion to the Kasuga deity; Retired Emperor Shirakawa 白河院 (1053–1129), who offered the Kasuga deity a copy of the Buddhist Canon; and the monk Myōe Shōnin 明恵上人 (1173–1232), who promoted the Kasuga cult.

Tyler’s discussions of the Kasuga shrine and its deities in chapters 3, 5, and 6 are of particular interest. According to legend, the shrine was founded when the Fujiwara ancestral deity Takemikazuchi 建御雷 rode on a sacred deer from Kashima 鹿島 to Kasuga. The shrine comprises four side-by-side main sanctuaries and a separate fifth sanctuary. The first three sanctuaries house the male deities—Takemikazuchi (the highest-ranking deity), Futsunushi 経津 from Katori 香取, and Amenokoyane 天児屋 from Hiraoka 平岡. The fourth sanctuary houses the female deity Himegami 姫神 from Hiraoka, who at the time of the Genki was believed to be an emanation of the Grand Shrine at Ise 伊勢. The deity of the fifth sanctuary, Wakamiya 若宮, is believed to be the boy child of Himegami and Amenokoyane. Associations were made between these deities and Buddhist honji, but these associations were not stable over time. For example, Takemikazuchi, the deity of the first sanctuary, was associated with Fukūkenjaku Kannon 不空羂索観音, or at times with Shaka Nyorai 釈迦如来. Tyler explains that the individual identities of the deities were also subsumed under a collective identity known as Kasuga Daimyōjin 春日大明神 (Great Bright Deity of Kasuga). Further complicating matters, Kasuga Daimyōjin appears in a bewildering number of guises, including a lady, a young boy, a mature gentleman, the bodhisattva Jizō 地蔵, a sakaki 榊 tree, fires in the air, a white hand, a deer, and a felt but unseen presence. The multiplicity of the shifting associations, forms, and manifestations of these deities is a characteristic of medieval honji suijaku through which Buddhist monks and shrine priests continually reimagined their conception of the Japanese deities.

Chapter 7 introduces poems and plays that celebrate the Kasuga deities, and demonstrate the importance of landscape and place to the construction of Kasuga in the medieval religious imaginaire. Chapter 8 provides a translation of the Sakakiba no nikki 榊葉の日記 (Sakaki Leaf Diary), a devotional work written in 1366 by the regent and head of the Fujiwara clan, Nijō Yoshimoto 二条良基 (1320–1388). This translation supplements the preceding chapters by providing a glimpse of the “mingled decline and lingering vigor” of the Kasuga cult in the fourteenth century (145).

The great strength of this book lies in Tyler’s ability to weave excerpts from a vast array of literary and historical primary sources with Japanese secondary scholarship to support his multi-faceted discussions of the material; this is in addition to the superb translation of the Genki itself. This book will be of great and enduring interest to scholars and students of Japanese religious history.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lisa Kochinski is a Ph.D. student at the University of Southern California.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Royall Tyler taught Japanese language and literature for many years at the Australian National University. He has also taught at Harvard University, Stanford University, and the University of Wisconsin. His translation ofThe Tale of Genji was acclaimed by publications such as the New York Times Book Review.


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