O M I H A C H I M A N -
An Ethno-historical Model

Paper written for the International Symposium
'Traditional Dwellings and Settlements
in a comparative Perspective'
7.-10. 4. 1988,
Center for Environmental Design Research,
Univ. of California, Berkeley

By Nold Egenter


The reconstructions given below are based on field research done by the author between 1972 and 1976 in the area around the town of Omihachiman at the eastern side of Lake Biwa in Central Japan. 100 villages were surveyed in regard to a type of cult which is still widespread in Japanese folk-Shinto and which is also of importance in official Shinto (Egenter 1980, 1982). The central objects of these studies were sacred symbols (yorishiro) [1] or seats of gods (kami no za) constructed with primitive building techniques and vegetal materials like reed and bamboo.

In contrast to the science of religions which studied similar phenomena in the frame of primitive creed, ie, based on theological premises (Eder 1951), we used ergological criteria and architectural theory. Material culture, in particular built form and ritual behaviour, was emphasised. The cults were reported objectively without projecting value criteria (Ludwig 1983). In regard to architectural theory, the most important result can be seen in the presentation of non-domestic, ie semantic or symbolic built form and the accurate description of the social and spatial networks they develop in the frame of the cults.

From a methodological standpoint, the most important means beside the architectonic representation was the term >accumulation<, introduced 1923 in a sociological context by Ogburn and extended by Mühlmann (1962) to the level of cultural anthropology. The obvious side by side of elements phaseologically different, like reed- and woodconstruction, sacred signs made of plant material and of paper etc., suggested extension of this two layered concept of local tradition and historical elements diffused from established centres to its application to cultic and social phenomena. In this sense primary autochthonous and secondary or developed elements (Chinese influence) were distinguished according to the list below.

This distinction between primary and developed levels was used already during field research and thus allowed the reconstruction of relatively independent functiunal complexes. Further it led to a systematic structure which allows a rather unusual interpretation of such agricultural cults.

Based on a typology of various kinds of primitive cult-signs (yorishiro) and how they are renewed, the original function of such signs could be reconstructed (Fig, 1). Signs of this type must have been the central object of a traditional sacred territorial legislation. They were set up on the occasion of the foundation of a settlement by its founder and then annually renewed (Fig. 2). The real meaning of the cult is thus a type of traditional archivation of the foundation document. Ancient strata of inhabitants (ujiko-house [2] or line of villagefounder, kusawake) [3] derived their privileges in regard to settlement politics from the cults. In some cases the representative (koshu) of the founder line can still be found as kannushi [4], the >owner of the god< in his function as a local priest.

In this context the concept of ujigami, [5] which was important also in early Japanese history, becomes of central significance (see Harada 1932). If the symbols are taken as prebuddhistic tectonics with the function of designating the cult places occupied today by shrines, the symbols must have been the focus of ujigami cults in early or protohistoric times. This is still valuable today: all cults of this type in the region are related to the local ujigami, the village god. When the construction of wooden shrines diffused from historical centres, primary cult-signs were continued in temporary fore, because their renewal had formed the real content of the previous rituals. But in the temporary form the functional sequence (>destruction of the old, renewal of the new cult sign) was reversed, the festival last its proper function and consequently its real meaning. The signs were reduced to folklore. In many villages the former value of the cult signs can still be felt. Locations of signs and procession-paths are strictly prescribed and the 'authority' of social groups in regard to construction and handling the cult signs are sharply defined (Fig, 3 and 4, territorial and social representation).

Important in the frame of a cult-typology is the differentiation of uchimatsuri [6] and goshamatsuri [7]. The uchimatsuri are dominantly of territorial character. On the other hand the goshanatsuri type commemorates all kinds of events of settlement history among several settlements. Associations or ancient peace-baking events are common after conflicts, eg. regarding irrigation (Fig. 5; for other variants see Egenter 1980: 55f.).

In the following we shall basically deal with a cult, matsuri [8],of the latter type. It is a large goshamatsuri, the torch-festival (taimatsu-matsuri) or fire festival (hi matsuri) of the town Omihachiman. But its derivation from the village type can clearly be recognised. The uchi-matsuri are preserved in the villages around the town. In the frame of the systematic structure outlined, the festival can be interpreted as the annual commemoration of the town foundation.

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