Japan Temples & Shrines: Umi Hachimangu Shrine & Emperor Ojin
Umi Hachimangu Shrine 宇美八幡宮
Umi is a small town a little to the east of Fukuoka city, and the main shrine in the town is well worth a visit for two reasons. For those with an interest in ancient Japanese history, Umi is known as the legendary birthplace of Ojin, a very powerful "emperor" in 5th century Japan. The other point of interest is the grove of sacred trees in the shrine's precincts.
The groves of trees that the shrine is contained within is called Kada's Forest and is composed of camphor trees. Known as kusunoki in Japanese, they are the largest hardwood trees in Japan and can be found all over the warmer parts of Japan: western Honshu, Shikoku, and particularly Kyushu.
The wood is a natural insect repellant and is used in moth balls, and the oil has many medicinal uses, but most impressive are the trees' size and age. The shrine claims the trees are 2,000 years old and while 1,000 year old camphors are not unheard of, the shrine may be exaggerating, however not far away in Saga Prefecture is one that has been dated to 3,000 years old so the shrine may be right.
The two largest trees at Umi Hachimangu are registered as Natural Monuments and have some impressive statistics. The largest is over 18 meters tall with a spread that equals its height and the circumference of the base of the tree is 24 meters!
The shrine itself is fairly typical with the usual collection of buildings and smaller shrines in the grounds. It is well visited especially because of its association with birth, but whereas at most shrines visited for prayers for safe childbirth the person would write a prayer on an ema, a small wooden board seen at many shrines and temples, at Umi the prayer is written on a stone. This relates to the legend of Ojin's birth.
The Ojin Legend
The story of Ojin's birth, according to the 7th century Kojiki, begins with the arrival of Emperor Chuai and his consort Jingu in north Kyushu to suppress a rebellion by the Kumaso of southern Kyushu.
While encamped at Kashii (near Fukuoka) he was given an oracle from the kami suggesting that instead of fighting the Kumaso he should invade the Korean Peninsula. He scoffed at the oracle and shortly after died. Jingu chose to follow the oracle and invade and subdue the Korean kingdoms even though she was pregnant with Chuai's child. Jingu was gone three years on the campaign, and to stop the baby from being born she tied a stone over her "abdomen." When she finally returned she gave birth to the child, named Homuda Wake, at what is now Umi.
Known posthumously as Ojin, Homuda Wake is counted as the 15th Emperor of Japan in a scheme that traces the lineage back from the current Emperor to the original Emperor Jimmu. In the post-war period it was believed by many historians that Ojin was in fact the first emperor that has any historical basis, the earlier ones being invented to create a lineage back to "times immemorial."
More recently historians are suggesting that the 10th Emperor Sujin may have been a historical figure, however Chuai and Jingu are both seen as fictions, Chuai added to link Ojin to the line of Sujin, and Jingu added to explain Himiko, who appeared in Chinese documents as a Queen of Wa.
What is generally believed is that Ojin represented a new dynasty of rulers. From his base in northern Kyushu he fought his way to central Japan and established himself as King (the term Tenno, translated nowadays as “Emperor” did not come into use until the 7th century) in Naniwa, present day Osaka.
The three largest kofun (mounded tombs) in Japan are to be found in Naniwa and are attributed to Ojin, his son Emperor Nintoku, and grandson Richu. No one knows for sure exactly who Ojin was, some believe he was a North Kyushu chieftain with close ties to Korea, many others that he was Korean himself, but what is known is that from Ojin on there was a very close connection between Yamato and Paekche in Korea including the introduction of horses, advanced weaponry and later Buddhism and other Chinese culture.
Much could be learned by excavating the great tombs in Osaka but the Imperial Household Agency forbids this, many believe out of fear of what might be revealed. It is believed the dynasty originating with Ojin came to an end when Emperor Keitai, the 26th Emperor, and a direct descendant of the current Imperial line, came to power and ruled in the early 6th century.
Nowadays Ojin is most commonly known as Hachiman, God of War. There are more than 20,000 Hachiman shrines in Japan, the most prevalent of any shrine, though Hachiman is not mentioned in any of the early myths.
The symbol of Hachiman, the Triple Tomoe is one of the most prevalent of all Japanese symbols, though no-one knows for sure its meaning.
Hachiman's origin lie in Usa in northern Kyushu, present day Oita Prefecture. Believed to have existed since the sixth century the Hachiman cult had seeming strong connections to Korea and to the giving of oracles. Some of his oracles are said to have been helpful in the creation of the great bronze Buddha at Todaiji in Nara that was completed in 751.
A few years later Hachiman was brought to Nara and a shrine established to protect Todaiji. The carrying of Hachiman from Usa to Nara is seen by many to be the origin of the mikoshi, portable shrines seen at most shrine matsuri.
When the capital was moved from Nara to Kyoto in the 8th century a Hachiman shrine was constructed south of the city, in what is now Yawata, for the protection of the Emperor. This is the great Iwashimizu Hachimangu that grew to be one of the most powerful shrines in the country.
It was at this time that the oracle was received that identified Hachiman as Ojin which conveniently linked this powerful kami to the Imperial line. Until the 12th century Hachiman was known as a protector of the emperor and also as a protector of Buddhism, often being portrayed wearing monks' clothing.
The first Shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate, Minamoto Yoritomo, adopted Hachiman as protective deity and eventually all samurai did the same. Since then Hachiman has had the identity of a god of war and Hachiman shrines were established everywhere the samurai ruled.
Umi Hachimangu Shrine is located a few hundred meters east of Umi Station on the Kashii Line.
Entrance is free.
Umi Hachimangu Shrine
1-1-1 Umi, Umi-machi, Kasuya-gun, Fukuoka, 811-2101