Saturday, December 3, 2011


So people have been asking me why there are Inari shrines everywhere I go, which is a pretty valid question.  I gave some of them kind of lame and spastic answers, but now I have decided to...

Academic Post #7
Inari, or Seriously Why Are There So Many of These Shrines

Let's start with the basics.  Inari is a kami of rice.  There's a fair amount of dispute over whether Inari is a man, a woman, a fox, a man who can turn into a fox, a woman who can turn into a fox, a man who rides a fox, a woman who rides a fox, a man with a fox familiar, a woman with a fox familiar, etc.  What basically everyone can agree on is that Inari is probably associated with foxes.  So far so good.

Inari worship is centered around Fushimi Inari on Inari Mountain in Kyoto, which I visited a couple of weeks ago, if you recall.  Fushimi Inari was founded in 711, although scholars believe that people were worshiping at that site centuries beforehand.

One of the really interesting things about Inari is that he/she/it can undergo a process called kanjō (勧請) in which a portion of the kami's spirit is separated from the main shrine and enshrined in a new location for a specific benefit.*  This little piece of the kami's spirit is sometimes called the bunrei (分霊) or "divided spirit" of the kami.  Priests often compare the process “to lighting a new candle from a burning one: the light of the first is in no way diminished as it becomes two” (Smyers 156).

"But what does this meeeeeeeean, Dana?" you cry.  Well, let me illustrate with a mildly dorky (okay, really dorky) example.

So I'm mildly obsessed** with a nerdy card game called Dominion.  All you really need to know for this hypothetical example is that I'm currently involved in the 2011 Championships.  I'm a pretty okay player, but in the next round I have to go up against the second best player in the entire tournament.

So maybe I decide that I need some divine intervention, so I head over to Fushimi Inari and ask for a divided spirit of Inari to enshrine in my room.  And let's say I get the divided spirit, name it Dominion Inari***, and decide that it grants success in Dominion.  And then let's say that, somehow, I win the Dominion tournament.  Suddenly, everyone's saying, "Dang, how the heck did she win?  She always underestimates Fool's Gold!"  And then they realize that it's because I prayed to Dominion Inari, so they start to visit Dominion Inari as well, to pray for success in Dominion because, hey, if it worked for me, maybe it'll work for them.  Next thing you know, word of Dominion Inari's success has been transmitted back to Fushimi Inari, where "success in Dominion" is added to the list of benefits that Inari offers.

This probably seems overwhelmingly ridiculous to you, but that's basically how the re-enshrinement process works.  The re-enshrined spirit is worshiped for a specific benefit, and if it's successful, that benefit is associated with the Inari back on Fushimi Inari.  That's why Inari is associated with benefits such as:
- agricultural prosperity
- victory in sumo wrestling (and you thought my Dominion example was silly!)
- faithful husbands
- wealthy patrons for geisha
- protection from small pox
- business prosperity
- cures for colds
- cures for coughs
- protection of mulberry and silk worms
Inari is also the patron of:
- blacksmiths
- prostitutes
- rice farmers
- the fishing industry
Keep in mind that Fushimi Inari is in Kyoto, which is in central Japan and thus has no fishing industry!
Also, as technology changes, some benefits become more important while others fade into the background.  For example, granting business prosperity has overshadowed Inari’s original role as a rice deity, and protection of mulberry and silk worms, which are no longer associated with major industries in Japan, has pretty much faded off of the lists of benefits.

Okay, so this is all very cool, but, as many of my professors would write in bright red pen across the top of the paper, “SO WHAT?”

So what does this tell us about the Japanese concept of deity? 

Well, for one thing, kami aren’t static.  Just because Inari was originally a rice deity doesn’t mean he/she/it can’t also be the patron of prostitutes or start granting success in sumo or faithful husbands.  Inari’s power is shaped by the needs of the worshipers.

Also, efficacy (or perceived efficacy) shapes kami.  Let's say I enshrine Dominion Inari and then lose the tournament spectacularly.  Will anyone worship Dominion Inari?  No, because it's not efficacious.  Here's a big difference between Western and Eastern religion.  In general, in Western religion you worship god(s) because it/they are higher than you and more powerful.  The relationship is vertical.  In Eastern religion, in general, the relationship may be slightly vertical, but it's a mutual relationship.  If Dominion Inari doesn't help you win at Dominion, most people won't worship Dominion Inari, and those that do come pray at Dominion Inari will probably not be expecting success in Dominion.  (See my post about genze riyaku for other reasons they could be visiting.)  Plus, if Dominion Inari isn't successful, the benefit won't be transmitted back to Fushimi Inari's Inari, and Dominion Inari will fade into obscurity forever...

And thus ends me quick introduction to Inari and general obsession over Dominion.

Disclaimer: Re-enshrining Inari is a serious business and should not be done lightly, no matter how desperate you are to win at Dominion.  Please consult a priest before attempting to re-enshrine a divided spirit of Inari.
On a completely unrelated note, if you already know of a Dominion Inari shrine, please tell me where it is, so I can go.  You know, for research.

Further Reading
The Fox and the Jewel by Karen Smyers
Pretty much THE book on Inari.
Because everyone should know how to play a silk roads strategy.

*Technically other kami can undergo this process, but it most commonly occurs with Inari.  If you want an example of kami being re-enshrined for "worship from afar" in the Meiji period, check out Helen Hardacre's Shinto and the State, 1868-1988.

**It's not an addiction; I can stop whenever I want!

***Divided spirits are often renamed.  Some names for re-enshrined Inari include "White Jewel Inari," "Toyomitsu Inari," and "White Beard Inari."  So Dominion Inari is actually a pretty reasonable name

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