The Mystery of Inari – Shinto God or Buddhism Deity?

Several days ago, I wrote about the possible origin of Yuru-kyara or Yuru-chara in Saionji Net. Today I would like to continue here, on writing about ‘fox’ more in detail, especially on its’ religious side.
Fox is a religious object in Japanese culture.
** Please refer to Saionji Net. The origin of Yuru-kyara Part I.

Asuka Daibutsu

‘Asuka Daibutsu’, a large image of Buddha in Asuka Temple in Nara. Asuka period made, oldest Buddha statue in Japan. Photo from ‘Tanbuuran-no zaregoto‘.

In Japan, Buddhism, an imported new religion, was spread without denying the native religion ShintoW but by mixing up with it.  Many Shinto KamiW (gods) were transformed into Buddhas.  Among them, Inari,W the sacred fox related religion also followed the same fate.
Inari in Japanese native is a Kami of Ine (rice plant).  The word ‘ine’ has turned into ‘Inari’.  Kami of Inari is said to have a figure of an old man.

Another origin is an evil witch called DakiniW in Hinduism of Ancient India.  Dakini generates strong wind and flies like ‘Βορέας’ (Boreas) or Kαικίας (Kaikias), although they are bearded males but their wickedness is in common with Greek myth.


Dakini on her sacred fox back. Picture from a hanging scroll from early 20th century.

In Indian Buddhism of 7th century, Daikoku-tenW, which was a metamorphose of VairocanaW, reformed Dakini.  He made her a goddess and allowed her to eat hearts of the dead.  She owned a magical power to predict the death sixth month before of human beings.  With this ability, she is thought to protect the men for six months before their death and ate their hearts after they are dead.

In 9th century, KūkaiW came back to Japan from his study in China and brought Tantric Buddhism (VajrayanaW), where Daikini was recognized as a dependent god of Emma (YamaW), who was the god of the death.  The figure used to be half-naked, but later, at the end of Heian periodW she became a goddess mounted on a white fox.  Her name was changed into Dakini-ten (Dakini-deity) or Kiko-tenno (Noble Fox-Heavenly Queen).

Why fox?


Dakini in Tibetan Buddhism. Image from ‘Mipham Shedra‘.

One of the legends in ancient India says Dakini used to ride astride a JackalW.  However, there was no jackals in China nor in Japan, they used a fox to alternative.  The original word in SanskritW was ‘śṛgāla’, which means an unidentified animal which looks like a fox.
In India, jackals had a fame as evil animals because they stole and ate the food and flesh in grave yard and they were recognized as goddess of cemeteries.

There is no doubt that there were many misunderstandings and stretches when one culture was transferred into other countries in the past, especially when there was no photographs or Google… This makes it very interesting for us to think back of the history’s routes.
The fox of which Dakini-ten mounted was mixed with the ancient Kami of foxes Inari_ŌkamiW when she was brought into Japan for the first time. Inari and Dakini-ten were recognized as almost same Kami or Buddha.

As I mentioned above, Dakini-ten was originally very strong evil and avaricious god, who used to eat the heart of the dead.  She fulfils your wish but she asks your life in return.  This aspect of the very strong ‘will’ power attracted many bushiWs, such as Taira no KiyomoriW, Oda NobunagaW and Tokugawa IeyasuW, who had strong wish to dominate the whole country.  There are many Inari shrines in Kanto area of Japan because Tokugawa shogunateW enshrined Inari / Dakini-ten in order to pray for the peace of Edo and suburbs of Edo.


Wild fox in the forest of Osaka prefecture. They have been familiar animal in Japan from ancient times…. Photo from ‘Hokusetsu no ikimono‘.

In Edo period, the worship of Inari and Dakini-ten became very popular also among normal citizens because it was a religion which was supported by ShogunW and because Dakini-ten was thought to fulfil wishes of not only the good people but all sorts including whores, gangsters, and outcasts. This is not surprising if you thought about the origin of Dakini which used to eat human flesh!

The background of religions in Japan

Here, I would like to explain about the acceptance of religions in Japan so that you could figure out the broad background of how Japanese established their minds towards various beliefs.
Buddhism was imported to Japan in 6th century in Asuka periodW.  At that time, it was a religion of the government with which to pray for the peace and prosperity of the country by the Emperors and the politicians.  Many temples were built for the national peace, prosperity and the health of the citizens.  It is unfortunate that no temple buildings remain of Asuka period until today as they were rebuilt in Nara periodW.  But you can see the Asuka architectural style in temples as Horyuji-temple, Hokkiji-temple and Shitennō-jiW temple.


Asuka period style architecture, Hokki-ji. Photo from ‘Cafe terrace‘.

In Nara period, Buddhism continued to have governmental religious aspect but in Heian periodW when KukaiW came back from his study in China, bringing Tantric Buddhism (VajrayanaW)back, the conventional native religion, including former Buddhism, mixed well with the new Buddhism.  It was widely spread, also among normal citizens who needed help in their life because it was easy to understand and to be accepted.
Many schools of Buddhism were made after the return of student monks who were studying in China. Buddhism became very popular throughout Japan alongside of a native religion, Shinto. But after the Buddhist temples entered the position of power in Edo periodW, the situation changed.

The attitude of the Japanese government towards Christianity was not same as the other imported religion, Buddhism.  In 16th century when Christianity was imported for the first time, it was protected by Oda NobunagaW who had the power at that time.  On the other hand, when Toyotomi HideyoshiW, who succeeded to consolidate Japan after Oda’s death, banished the missionaries out of Japan in 1587, after knowing that the missionaries and Japanese Christian territorial lords burnt down many temples and shrines, at the same time prosecuting Buddhists.


Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founde of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

When Tokugawa IeyasuW became a Shogun after Toyotomi, establishing Edo Bakufu (government), Christianity was seriously banned in 1612.  In 1637 at Shimabara, NagasakiW, there rose a rebellion of Christians though there was no fortune for Christians as they had to fight against 125,000 soldiers of Tokugawa Shogunate (Shimabara_RebellionW).  After this rebellion, the remaining Christians were forced to renounce in public on their faith.  Many continued practicing Christianity in secret.  However, the government tightened the regulations against Christianity and for this, Buddhist temples were used.
During the Tokugawa shogunateW, in order to monitor and control the population of Japan and to also stop the diffusion of Christianity and to help detecting hidden Christians, Buddhist temple-run system was created by issuing the certification to citizens.  All the citizens including Shinto priests had to become a member of certain temple in the area and they had to support the temples substantially. Since it was the citizens’ obligation to get this certification from the temples, and for this, they did not have any other choice but only obey what the temples forced.  This system gave Buddhist temples great powers and the power tended to corrupt as Lord ActonW had mentioned.


Black Ships at Uraga which to created a great stir to the Japanese. Drawn by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka.

After Black ships arrived in Japan, Japan was forced to open its’ national gate to the world. After the collapse of Tokugawa Shogunate, Meiji government was set up in 1868.  The new government started administer the new policy on religions by separating Shinto from Buddhism; the separation of kamiW (native Shinto deities) from BuddhasW (Buddhist deities), and of Buddhist temples from Shinto shrines (jinjaW) (Shinbutsu bunriW).


Destroying and burning Buddhist-related items under Haibutsu kishakuW. Picture from ‘Shibayan no hibi‘.

Until then, Shinto and Buddhism were intimately combined as what is called shinbutsu shūgōW style.  Same sites were often used for both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, and Shinto gods were interpreted as manifestations of Buddhas.

This new policy of the Meiji government triggered the anti-Buddhism movement of citizens with dissatisfaction towards haughtily Buddhist temples. People who were not satisfied with the registration system created by temples which they had to obey started to destroy Buddhist temples, statues and texts. (Haibutsu kishakuW) Many temples were forced to close and many monks laid life or transformed into Shinto priests.

Inari shrines and temples after Meiji Restoration

It was under this new Meiji government’s policy of Shinto and Buddhism separation that Aizenji-temple which was located in the mountains of where Fushimi-Inari TaishaW is today closed.  Aizenji-temple was a head temple which transferred the separated spirit of Dakini-ten to be re-enshrined in many other Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.  After the closing of the head temple of Dakini-ten, many Shinto Inari shrines where Dakini-ten were enshrined, including Fushimi-inari, were forced not to enshrine further.  However, there were some temples which evaded the influence of the new policy and remained as they were.


NohW mask of a fox. Fox characters are also seen in Noh stages, Photo from ‘Noh Mask Homepage ‘by Inoue Co.

In my study, I was not able to find any documents or any clues on why Inari and Dakini were mixed up at some period of time… Therefore, the only thing I can do is just to imagine and my very personal idea is the ‘colour’.  The colour of rice plant at the time of the harvest and the colour of fox are gold in common!
As Inari mixing up with Dakini, the benefit increased, in addition to the original benefit of ‘abundant crop’. The needs and the desires of ordinary people such as ‘to be rich’, ‘to be successful in business’ were added.
The benefit cost of the modern Inari or Dakini is not your flesh or your heart any more but have to offer AburaageW, deep fried sliced tofu which is used to make sushi which looks like rice bag.  It is not that because that foxes like to eat aburaage but one of the origin belief of Inari as rice grain god.
We can definitely say that because the item we offer on our pray to Inari or Dakini now is not Dakini’s but Inari’s, it is easy for us to go and make our wish!

Inari shrine and temple in Tokyo for a visit

There are many Inari shrines in Tokyo but most of them are deified on the same sites of shrines or temples which have chief gods or Buddhas.  Still, I would like to recommend an Inari Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple where you can reach easily while your stay in Tokyo.

Toyokawa Inari Betsuin temple in Akasaka


SIte of Toyokawa Inari Betsuin. More businessmen are seen at the site as it is located near Akasaka where many business compamies are.

Toyokawa Inari is one of the Buddhist temples which was able to maintain the status even after the policy of Meiji government.  You will be astonished with numbers of fox statues in various different figures and sizes with many of red banner flags.  There are many other deities to Dakini-ten and you can stay here for a while looking at many interesting things that you won’t see in other places for over an hour! I would like to come back for more information on Toyokawa Inari again, soon after my research. Till then please refer to the information in the site that I have found.

Even though I need some researching time, I will write one interesting and unique Kami of Inari enshrined which I know now.

  • Yuzu Inari (融通稲荷)


    ‘Yuzu’ coin in yellow envelope ready for you on yellow tray!

    The verb ‘Yuzu’ (融通する) means lend or accommodate money. Here you will find small yellow envelopes prepared for you. If you take one packet (Attention: one packet each for one person!) and put it in your purse, it is believed that you will have a fortune on money matters.  In the envelope, a single shiny 10 Yen coin.  This is a money you borrowed from Kami of Yuzu Inari which you will have to come back a year after, giving 10 Yen you have borrowed with thoughts of thanks.


Toyokawa Inari Betsuin (TOYOKAWA INARI BETSUIN)


Ouji Inari Shrine


The main building of Ouji Inari Shrine.

Ouji Inari Shrine is a Shinto shrine smaller and in more folksy atmosphere compared to Toyokawa Inari.
It is considered as the head Inari shrine in Kanto area nominated by Shogun Minamoto no YoriyoshiW in 11th century.  The Inari deity ‘Daimyojin’ is said to be also enshrined here.  It is believed that on New Year’s Eve, foxes, who are considered to be the guardians and messengers of Kami of Inari, gather here from all over the Kanto region.  Gathered foxes after transforming themselves into noble court ladies at Shozoku Inari shrine nearby, they come together to Oji Inari Shrine for their annual pilgrimage. Honouring these foxes, local residents, dressed in traditional dress with paper-maché fox masks, gather nearby Shozoku shrine.  From here they parade to Oji Inari Shrine.  On the Oji Inari Shrine grounds, bonfires are lit and the participants dance around it.


A stool selling traditional Japanese kite for decoration. A lucky charm to avoid fire.

In addition, on the first horse day of February each year, Kite market is held.  This event can date back to the Edo period.  On this day, kites are sold and flown at the shrine site.  Kites hold an important place in Japanese culture as it is believed that they cut the wind and stop fires from spreading.  I found no document on this but it reminded me of the Dakini in the ancient days who was thought to be an evil witch controlling the wind!!

Ouji Inari Shrine (OUJI INARI JINJA)


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