- continued -

Settlement-genesis interpretation of the 'holy seats'

We have exposed a topo-semantic system closely related to the ujigami shrines and the spatial, social and religious order derived from them. So are there two layers here too? The 'fibro-constructive' 'holy seats' were clearly the forerunners of the wooden shrines of today. They must have been in general use throughout Japan before the introduction of wooden erections from China, in other words, before the fields had been allocated by the State, and before there was a State-imposed territorial constitution.

Fig. 21 represents schematically in terms of the settlement genesis the 'holy seats' studied. The first settler arrives in an uninhabited, reed covered area, and sets down his marker. Traditionally, this means the establishment of his future settlement. The boundaries of the village are summed up neatly in the marker. Above, on the other side, behind the marker is an undefined part, wild, natural and wooded, inaccessible to human beings, a taboo area, thought to be inhabited by gods and spirits <34>, and below, a flat well-defined, accessible part, the production area for paddy fields and the living area. The peasant builds his house, has children, his descendants, all children of the extended family (ujiko). Later arrivals have no connection with the founder’s line or the religious group. The founder, as principal landowner, (and his immediate family) has power over the descendants, and later over tenants. An autonomous social hierarchy is created. The ritual renewal of the transitory marker in the centre keeps this system intact over time, and also documents the social hierarchy, whether it be the supremacy of the founder’s family (kusawake), or of the descendants as a group (ujiko), contrasted with later arrivals unconnected with the resident house and blood lines. The highest family demonstrates the superseding of the 'holy seat' through a more developed wooden shrine (fig.21).

Village order

The geographic/spatial ordering of the village is clearly determined by this system (fig.22). The antithetic claims for supremacy of the wild forest mountain and the confined production area show clearly how the community is orientated towards the structural symbolism of the marker. Human living space is thus harmoniously embedded in the wild and unknown natural surroundings. The boundary marker both divides and unites at the same time mountain and valley, forest and agricultural land. <35>

The whole layout of the settlement also appears to be initially determined by this demarcation, in the sense of a polarised system, which we shall call the ‘path-place’ schema <36> (fig.23). It uses human requirements as the basis for interpreting the basic schema (fig.22). The marking gives a fixed point, forms the border of the human domain with the uncultured other side of the forest mountain. The path to this memorial defines the shape of the entire village. Secondary to this, the human domains are subdivided by paired markings (gateways), but these continue to refer back to the most important, primary religious symbol.

Yahazu-no-uji-Matachi, founder of the Hitachi-Fudoki settlement

The fact that the initial marking of places of worship could signify the foundation of claims to territorial rights is shown quite clearly in a report cited in the Hitachi-Fudoki (SAKAI 1940), according to which a settler by the name of Matachi from the Yahazu tribe (uji), probably in the first third of the sixth century, established himself in a valley in the then Hitachi province, now the Ibaraki district.

The old Japanese Fudoki provide an unusual but undervalued wealth of written material about early Japanese history. They are, in modern parlance, ancient “folkloric” investigations, commissioned by the central government in the 8th century into the management of the provinces of the day. Requirements included topographical characteristics, customs, special products of the region, place names, even interviews with village elders.

We can therefore assume that the extract of the Matachi report referred to below is representative. <37>

(1) The spatial element: acculturation (‘purification’)

(2) The semantic-symbolic element: Marking the border/division into two domains

(3) The social hierarchy element: initialisation of the cult over generations

(4) Reclamation and settlement

The historical report verifies quite clearly the complex of settlement-genetic functions we are concerned with here (fig.20). It is in the end an elementary example of Japan’s prehistoric constitution relating to village territory. This piece of evidence also shows how closely the territorial rights, not yet enforced by the State, were linked to what we have described as the aboriginal layer of Shintô.


What we have reconstructed so far provides us with a clear insight into how in prehistoric times the agrarian village living space was protected within the framework of a traditional system. It was done astonishingly peacefully, by means of a strictly stereotypical path-place schema, primarily based around an elementary 'fibro-constructive' marker system which, through the act of marking, defined the entire settlement. <40> This applies not only to the spatial aspect, but also to the religious and social.

As the established memorial represents the territory monopolised for settlement and cultivation, the founding inevitably generates a diachronic social hierarchy <41>. Already with the descendants of the founder, and later with incomers, a process of distribution is initiated which stems from the original demands of the founder or his family: the relevant representative of the family can control the use of the living space in his capacity as priest (kami-nushi, owner of the god), and clan or village chief (uji no kami), ie. determine the division of the land. Seen from this perspective, the functional high regard in which the memorial is held can be understood. There are powerful interests intent on preserving it as a matter of ritual. House (ie, honke, bunke) and family lines (dôzoku) develop with this interest inherent in them, but can also show strong variations. The main point is, however, that, in the periodic renewal of the symbol, the territorial-political rights of the founder’s family and his descendants are written into the archives.

The religious memorials came to provide an ancient calendar of festivals, where the time when the cult was originally founded is forever forcing its way through into the here and now. We saw how the signs used in worship also mould human behaviour. A traditional ‘morality’, in terms of the highest concept of values, can be seen. Morphological research has demonstrated, moreover, that conventionally unimportant elementary building technology allows us to accumulate a wealth of cultural heritage from ancient times. The ‘axis mundi’ is visible. We can understand its intrinsic value. A specific ‘world view’, a local ontology, existentially meaningful, becomes apparent. Does the polarised model of harmony perhaps represent at its core the beginnings of a metaphysical element in the origins of settlement? Epistemology, aesthetics, symbolism; are these symbols perhaps a strongly influenced beginning of Japanese culture?

Traditional village culture and historic culture

Organisation of space in the village, social hierarchy, territorial politics, spatial ‘writings’ and religious ‘archives’ from local history, an art passed down from ancient times which demonstrates not just originality but, existentially, ‘origo’, The Origin, literally ‘cultivated’ each year by the old established families, representing the highest values, celebrated in joyful or ecstatic festivals, within the framework of a harmonious value system, a polarised ontology, which assembles the normal and abnormal, culture and anti-culture into harmonised unities. <42>

In other words, the sacred space of village Shinto suggests, in settlement-genesis terms, a Japanese village culture which is much more complex than that which is portrayed in the conventional disciplines. But this approach does more than simply reveal a culture which is hardly recognisable today <43>. Using this ethno-historical reconstruction as a starting point, some elements of the great tradition can be rediscovered. Particularly impressive is the way we can still today see the two layered structure of village Shinto in historical and centralised shrine systems. At the principal festival based around the following shrines there appear each time religious constructions in which ancient functionality quite clearly takes precedence both materially and architecturally.

Finally we also find in the territorial components new openings into early Japanese history. The two-layered structure of Japanese myths is obvious. A primary layer of gods named by the earliest generations, still clearly indigenous to the reed beds, is followed by a spatially more developed, Chinese influenced overlying layer. This corroborates the theory that even the centralised form of Shintô was originally closely connected to prehistoric local peasants’ territorial constitutions. This also suggests that Buddhism was perhaps not introduced through religious feelings alone: it annulled the prehistoric local constitutions. Evidently, such territorio-constitutional conditions were also the main contributory factors leading to the Taika Reform (646) when the Emperor became the supreme landowner. To conclude our subject we can perhaps say that sacred space in the prehistoric agrarian village was an essential element in the history of Japan’s territorial constitution.


Using BOLLNOW’s anthropological or settlement-genesis theory of space as a point of departure, we have looked at ‘sacred space’ in Japan . BOLLNOW’s space argued for casting aside the cell settlement idea together with its sacred space, which we adapted to fit the theoretical conditions, giving it a distinct central value, as ‘local ontology’. We presented a layered view of village Shintô, and described by way of example a festival showing sacred topography. Onto this example of a single settlement were projected the results of research in one hundred neighbouring villages.

By placing today’s developed village Shintô shrines in context with regard to an older, explicitly topo-semantic, architecture in the form of the 'holy seats', we have shown a continuity which stretches from prehistoric village cultures, temporary or mysterious in Shintô in many areas, right through to the present day. In this continuum of highest values, in the sacred space of the settlement, we see that a centrally important element in its origin is the protection of living space.

BOLLNOW’s theories are thus not only fully corroborated, his theory of space gains a new dimension. Culture moves very close to the anthropological definition of space. The origins of cultures, in the ‘high’ sense, can be thought of in settlement-genesis terms in the sacred space of settlement. YANAGITA Kunio once said of Japan: the religious festivals (matsuri) are the gateway into Japanese culture. The same goes for its real beginning. There is no doubt that Japan’s culture, even today, draws its much admired strength from its ‘human cultural space’, since this ‘human space’ also means, as BOLLNOW demonstrates, identification.

To conclude: at the beginning of this essay we indicated that space, along with time, was fundamental in numerous human sciences. Time was again and again reflected intensively. Space on the other hand is usually taken for granted. The fact that western human sciences leave space to physics and mathematics may not be particularly beneficial to man when seen from the viewpoint of Japan’s ‘spatial humanism’.

Illustrations and Figure Captions
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