June 26, 2018

The Ballad of Usa Jingu

Oita's Usa Jingu is an ancient shrine that was also the first place to see the syncretic union of Shinto and Buddhism over 1,000 years ago.

The main hall of Oita Prefecture's Usa Jingu on the Kunisaki Peninsula

Ladies and gentlemen, gather ‘round. It’s story time! Today we’ll be taking a look at the long lost history of Oita Prefecture’s Usa Jingu. As far as I can tell, this is the first time the tragic tale of this amazing shrine has even been told in English. The reasons behind this obfuscation will become apparent by the end of the article, but suffice to say, this legend is for the hardcore history nerds out there. If you’re not interested in diving deep down the historical rabbit hole with me, I’m going to be frank and suggest that you check out one of my other articles instead. Don’t worry, you won’t hurt my feelings!

Still with me? Good. Let’s start by reviewing what exactly Usa Jingu is. I’ve briefly introduced this antediluvian shrine before in my area guide to Oita Prefecture yet a review is certainly in order. Simply stated, Usa Jingu is the head shrine of thousands of other establishments across the country that honor the god of war and archery. Known as Hachiman, this deity’s name translates literally to “God of the Eight Banners.” This is in reference to the eight heavenly banners that signaled the birth of the Emperor Ojin who is said to have been deified following his death as the god Hachiman.

What makes this deity so special is that Hachiman is said to be the divine protector of Japan, the Japanese people, and the Imperial household. Despite having dominion over the art of war though, Hachiman’s symbolic animal and messenger is the dove. This strange connection is likely due to his syncretic origins of his divinity. You see, Hachiman is one of the few gods who fully incorporates elements of both Shinto and Buddhism. In fact, evidence suggests that this symbiotic relation began at none other than Usa Jingu itself. Even today, the grounds are rife with many Buddhist elements that are not commonly found at wholly Shinto shrines.

Buddhist and Shinto leaders meet at Oita Prefecture’s Usa Jingu

How Buddhism and Shinto ultimately became intertwined is beyond the scope of this article. If you’re interested in learning more, this article is a good starting point. Still, since the two religion’s symbiosis is integral to understanding Usa Jingu, I’ll try to provide a very brief synopsis. Essentially, when Buddhism arrived in Japan during the Asuka period (538–710), it brought with it the summation of centuries of collective learning. The first monks to enter Japanese territory did so from the Korean Peninsula via Kyushu (where Usa Jingu and Oita Prefecture are located). When the two religions met, the Japanese tried to reconcile the two and assumed that Buddhism’s deities were just another depiction of Shinto’s.

As hinted, supposedly, Usa Jingu is one of the very first places where this mingling of Buddhism and Shinto occurred. Why you ask? Well, in 7th century, the Shinto priests held dominion over large swaths of the land but lacked necessary knowledge requiring writing and architecture. Here, the Buddhist monks armed with centuries of wisdom were more than happy to help in exchange for influence. This generosity was just what the Shinto priests needed and soon thereafter the two groups cooperated to combine their influence into a single ruling faction.

This “meeting of the minds” between Buddhism and Shinto at Usa Jingu eventually gave rise to a polity known as the Rokugo Manzan (lit. “Six Villages”). The term refers to the many valleys of Mt. Futago which radiate out from the 721 meter-high summit. Located on the now remote Kunisaki Peninsula, this area proved to be the perfect seat of power for the Rokugo Manzan elite to establish control. Even today, you’ll find remnants of their legacy scattered throughout the area. In fact, it is even said that through Usa Jingu, the polity controlled as much as two-thirds of all of the arable land in Kyushu!

Getting to Oita Prefecture & Usa Jingu

OK, let’s pause our tale for a quick second and take a look at where Usa Jingu is located and how to get there. As mentioned, the shrine is located at the entrance to Oita Prefecture’s Kunisaki Peninsula. Unfortunately, this remote and bucolic area is plagued by poor access and even worse public transportation. While Usa Jingu can be reached with only a few minor headaches via a combination of the train and bus, the rest of the region is inaccessible. As such, if you want to see more of the remnants of the Rokugo Manzan culture, you’ll either need to hire a tour guide or rent a car and drive there yourself.

As for getting to Oita Prefecture itself, you have two options. The first of these is to simply fly down and is recommended for those coming from Tokyo or Osaka. Alternatively, Usa Jingu and the Kunisaki Peninsula can also be reached via the Ltd. Express Sonic trains from Fukuoka. This latter method allows for one to see more of Kyushu and therefore is recommended for those who enjoy a slower pace of travel. Just remember to check Hyperdia or a similar service for the best train connections.

Retelling Usa Jingu’s Sad Story

Kyoto’s Iwashimizu Hachimangu, a branch shrine of Usa Jingu in Oita Prefecture

With the travel logistics handled, let’s now return to the tragic tale of Usa Jingu. To better understand where the story goes from here, we’ll next need to take a quick peek at the Hachiman branch shrine pictured above. Known as Iwashimizu Hachimangu, this shrine sits on the outskirts of Kyoto. It was erected back in 859 at the behest of Emperor Seiwa following the establishment of Kyoto as the capital (then called Heian-kyo). According to tradition, the emperor allegedly heard from a Buddhist monk that Hachiman himself expressed a desire to be nearer to Kyoto.

To accomplish this feat, the deity’s spirit was split between Usa Jingu in Kyushu and Iwashimizu Hachimangu in Kyoto. Thereafter, thanks in no small part to hosting a portion of the Hachiman’s divine essence, the Kyoto branch grew to great prominence. During the Heian period (794–1185), the shrine was patronized by the Imperial family as well as the powerful Minamoto clan who were said to be under Hachiman’s protection. While many other sanctums to the god of war began to appear around this time, only Usa Jingu and Iwashimizu Hachimangu officially housed Hachiman’s spirit.

A quick aside, Iwashimizu Hachimangu was not the first time that the spirit of Hachiman up and left Usa Jingu. In fact, during the 8th century when the giant Buddha of Todai-ji was being built, the deity was carried halfway across the country to from Kyushu to Nara. Historical evidence suggests this was the very first use of a mikoshi or portable shrine. By the early 10th century, this practice would become commonplace as a method for bringing the deity out for festivals. Next time you see a mikoshi during a celebration, remember that it all started at Usa Jingu!

The Genpei War & Usa Jingu’s Fate

A depiction of Japan’s Genpei War on a folding screen, the conflict that ultimately lead to the destruction of Usa Jingu

Here is where our story gets a little complicated. For simplicity’s sake, I am going to brush over huge swaths of this important turning point in Japanese history. If you’re interested in learning more, I’ll again suggest you start with the Wikipedia entry for the Genpei War for a layman’s understanding. The CliffsNotes version of this epic struggle is the war was the culmination of a decades-long conflict between the Taira and the Minamoto. These illustrious clans were two of the four great clans that vied for dominance and control of the Imperial court during the Heian period (794–1185).

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that the Taira clan ended up losing the Genpei War following five years of vicious bloodshed. After achieving victory over their bitter rivals, the Minamoto clan would go on to establish the Kamakura shogunate far away from Kyoto in eastern Japan. Up until this point, Japan had been supposedly under direct control of the emperor (though he was often controlled by regents from behind the scenes). Therefore, this shift towards control by a military government ushered in a new era of history for Japan.

One of the first goals the shogunate accomplished in its infancy was to erect the famous Kamakura landmark, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu. After all, Hachiman is said to be the protector of the Minamoto clan and having the god of archery and war on the side of the shogunate would do wonders for legitimacy. When constructing Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, the Minamoto clan moved the spirit of Hachiman from Kyoto’s Iwashimizu Hachimangu to Kamakura. As the samurai class began to be codified as such during the Kamakura period (1185–1333), worship of Hachiman came to be the norm for these warriors.

How Usa Jingu’s History Was Rewritten

The relationship between the Minamoto clan, the Taira clan and Usa Jingu

Now, you may be wondering why the Kamakura shogunate chose to relocate the portion of Hachiman’s spirit enshrined at Iwashimizu Hachimangu instead of that at Usa Jingu. The reason behind this move is key to what comes next in our story. As can be seen in the above diagram, Iwashimizu Hachimangu supported the Minamoto clan, albeit through the threat of force (but that is a tale for another time). Usa Jingu on the other hand had ties to, you guessed it, the Taira clan. After being kicked out of the capital by the Minamoto clan, some of the Taira clan fled to present-day Oita Prefecture and sought the protection of the powerful Rokugo Manzan polity with whom they had strong familial ties.

Needless to say, the Minamoto clan was in no position to overlook this alliance with the Rokugo Manzan. In the throes of consolidating power, the last thing the fledgling shogunate in Kamakura needed was for their bitter rivals, the Taira clan, to hold sway over Usa Jingu. After all, Hachiman is supposed to be the protector of the Minamoto clan and having the enemy in control of the main shrine would decimate their legitimacy. Needing to settle things once and for all the Minamoto clan, under the command of Minamoto Yoritomo, again rallied their forces and marched on Kyushu.

Usa Jingu & the Wrath of the Minamoto

A folding screen depiction of the samurai leader Minamoto Yoritomo who leveled Usa Jingu

And now, we finally come to the lost tragedy of Usa Jingu. The military superior Minamoto clan brought the full might of their force to bear against the remnants of the Taira clan and their allies at Usa Jingu. Though the Rokugo Manzan polity did indeed hold sway over much of Kyushu, they were no match for the battle-hardened proto-samurai marching under the Minamoto banners. After demolishing the Taira-Rokugo Manzan alliance, the victors burned the entirety of Usa Jingu to the ground. Following this tragic event, the Minamoto clan continued on and incinerated all records of the Rokugo Manzan which effectively erased the polity from existence as far as history is concerned.

Houston, we have a problem. While the complete elimination Rokugo Manzan polity and Taira clan in Kyushu are understandable, there’s a major issue with the Minamoto clan destroying Usa Jingu. Remember, Hachiman is the god of war and the protector deity of the Minamoto clan itself. Furthermore, the newly established Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura owed its lineage to Usa Jingu. Because of this, the Minamoto clan allowed the shrine’s priests to rebuilt, albeit it without the support of the public funds from the nearby lands. This harsh decree was the final nail in the coffin for the Rokugo Manzan collective and whatever remained soon thereafter began to disintegrate.

Now, you may be wondering how the hell I learned of this account given all the historical documents and records were destroyed. Well, here I owe a genuine thanks to Ono Tatsuhiro of the Usa Tourism Association who has been studying the Usa Jingu and the Rokugo Manzan polity for over twenty years. Along with a few others, Ono-san has painstakingly pieced together the broken fragments of history that remain. He was kind enough to help me baby step my way through this complex narrative and I sincerely hope that I’ve been able to distill his immense knowledge into a cohesive article.

Before closing, let me thank Yamasaki Yuko from Tourism Oita! None of this would have been possible without her help coordinating everything! Hopefully I can repay the favor by helping to get more foreign tourists to visit Oita Prefecture and Usa Jingu!