In Japan one is likely to come across a kamidana in various places such as someone’s home, an office or in a family owned shop. They can of course also be found in a dōjō. Kamidana are an element of Japan’s indigenous Shintō belief system. They enshrine a deity or deities within them thus offering protection for the place in which they are set up. There are many ways to arrange a kamidana so they can vary from one to another. However, there are certain attributes common to kamidana in general as well as in particular for those found in a budōjō. This post looks at the different parts of a budōjō kamidana, their significance and some of the rituals. The following description is based on the kamidana at the police station dōjō1 where I practice kendō, iaidō and jōdō.
Arrangement and Elements of a Kamidana
There are a few rules regarding how a kamidana should be located within a room. The kamidana should be located in an auspicious space that has good natural light and is relatively quiet2. They should also be located on either the north or west wall and should never be facing a butsudan (仏壇), or Buddhist altar, if they share the same room3. The reason for this is that if one is paying respects to one, then one would have their backside facing the other. I have yet to encounter a butsudan within a dōjō but they are common in Japanese homes. Finally, kamidana are usually mounted far up the wall adjacent to the ceiling.
shingu (神具) – this is a miniature, usually truncated, shinden (神殿 the part of the shrine that houses the deity). In a budōjō there would be at least three bays although this number will vary as long as it is odd (5, 7 can be found; single bay can also found in non-budō kamidana). The central bay represents Japan’s most senior shrine, Ise Jingū (伊勢神宮), and enshrines Japan’s mother goddess Amaterasu-Ōkami (天照大御神)4. This is always the case no matter how many bays the shingu has. To represent Ise Jingū a circular mirror called a shinkyō (神鏡) is placed inside. This may be replaced by a stone called a magatama (勾玉) or other symbolic object. An o-fuda from Ise Jingū5 may also be placed inside (more about o-fuda below). In the illustrated example, a curtain hangs over the doorway to this bay with the bay doors open. The other two doors are not opened in the illustrated example as this is unnecessary.
From the perspective of facing the kamidana, the bays on either side represent Kashima Jingū (鹿島神宮) on the left and Katori Jingū (香取神宮) on the right. Kashima Jingū enshrines Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto (武甕槌大神), the deity of budō. Katori Jingū enshrines Futsunushi-no-Kami (経津主神), the deity of swords and lightening. Both of these shrines have a deep history with Japanese swordsmanship and are central to some of the oldest koryū bujutsu ryūha. Non-budō kamidana may enshrine other deities in these bays. The right bay would be for the local community deity while the left bay would be for the household deity.
mizutama (水玉), o-kome (御米), o-shio (御塩) – these are offerings to the deities held in white ceramic vessels. The mizutama is a spherical container with a pointed lid for holding water (mizu means water; tama means ball). The lid should be ajar with the opening towards the deities. O-kome is washed (but not soaked) rice grains while o-shio is salt6. Their positions are prescribed as illustrated.
sakaki-tate (榊立) – this is a vase like vessel for holding branches from the sakaki tree, also known as Japanese cypress. The sakaki is considered to have sacred significance (as does other evergreens) and is used in Shintō rituals.
kasuga-toro (春日燈蘢) – these are small lanterns, typically electrified so they are plugged into a socket nearby. Traditionally, candles mounted on candle holders are used instead. Candles are sometimes present along with kasuga-toro
o-miki (御神酒) – these are containers for ritually purified nihonshu (日本酒), otherwise known as sake, which in Japanese actually means any alcoholic beverage. In the illustration there are both small white ceramic containers to hold the nihonshu as well as a commercially produced large glass bottles. In both cases they are wrapped in paper with 御神酒 written in calligraphy on them.
o-fuda (御札) – these are talisman from a shrine consisting of a wood block with the name of the shrine written in calligraphy then wrapped with paper with further writing. The paper is kept on the block with a simple string tied with a knot. The o-fuda is obtained from the shrine which enshrines the deity that is to be housed in the kamidana. It should be replaced annually just prior to the end of the year. The two o-fuda in the illustration are for Kashima Jingū / Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto on the left and Katori Jingū / Futsunushi-no-Kami on the right. O-fuda from other shrines may be added though if they do not represent the main deities enshrined in the kamidana they would reside temporarily.
konbu (昆布) – dried kelp that symbolizes longevity (note that the meaning varies with other Japanese rituals). The ‘kon’ in konbu also recalls the word yorokonde (喜んで) which means to do something with pleasure and therefore means that keiko should be enjoyed. This is an additional offering beyond the core offerings of nihonshu, water, rice and salt. The konbu is kept in the plastic packaging in which it was purchased. Formal ceremonial konbu might not be good for actual eating though it would be harmless to do so.
shimenawa (標縄) – this is a rope made of twisted rice straw used to signify that the object on which it is affixed is sacred. The shimenawa is tied at the ends to the vertical posts of the kamidana.
shide (紙垂) – these are zig-zag shaped paper streamers affixed to the shimenawa that signify purification.
tana-ita (棚板) – kamidana literally means ‘god-shelf’ and this is the actual shelf itself. The upper board may be a vertically orientated board with an abstracted cloud pattern cut into it, in which case this would be called a kumo-ita (雲板).Rituals of a Budōjō Kamidana
During my time practicing in the police station, including training with their kendō tokuren7 (剣道特練) team, I have been fortunate to witness some rituals involving their budōjō kamidana. These are described below.
End of the Year Closing Ceremony
This ceremony takes place after the very last practice for the year has just taken place in the dōjō. All the budōka who were at the practice line up in columns and rows in front of the kamidana. Senior members of the station also attend with the station chief taking the position of jōseki. A few short speeches are made and the kamidana is “closed” by removing the offerings, sakaki and o-fuda and closing the doors of the shingu.
Beginning of the Year Opening Ceremony
After the new year holiday a ceremony takes place just before the start of the first practice of the year in the dōjō. This is similar to the closing ceremony with budōka lined up in columns and rows facing the kamidana with senior station officers present. A few speeches are made, the shingu doors are open and new offerings, sakaki and o-fuda are placed in the kamidana. Both the opening and closing ceremonies require the use of a ladder due to the height of the kamidana.
Shutsujin-Shiki8 (出陣式 Depart for War Ceremony)
This is a ritual from Japan’s Sengoku Period (戦国時代 1467-1600) when warfare was constant. The ritual is a send off for warriors leaving for battle. The most well known example of this ritual is known to the West as the ‘Kamikaze Sake Ritual’ in which pilots of the Tokubetsu Kōgekitai (特別攻撃隊 the official name for ‘kamikaze’ units) ceremonially drank nihonshu before taking off on their fateful missions.
I witnessed this ceremony as part of my experiences with kendō tokuren. The ceremony took place on the morning of the first day of the kendō tournament the team was going to participate in but preparations took place the night before. At either side of the entrance threshold to the dōjō where one steps up from the genkan are two conical piles of salt placed on sheets of paper that are folded over at such an angle that the corners do not meet. Salt is traditionally thought of as a purifying element and similar piles of salt can be found at entrances to small shops and restaurants.
In front of the kamidana the “battle gear” of the kendō team is set out on rows of low tables that are usually used for serving food and drinks while sitting on the floor. Each team member gets an individual area in this arrangement. On these tables the dō (胴 torso protector) are placed facing towards the kamidana with the tare (垂 groin protector) stood upright behind these. Then behind this the kote (甲手 gauntlets) are placed on the table with the fist towards the right from the perspective of facing the kamidana. On top of the kote the men (面 head and face protector) is placed. Under the table are the keikogi and hakama (稽古着 / 袴 top and bottom training clothes) are folded neatly and stacked. Shinai (竹刀 bamboo swords) are kept in their bags and under the table on the right side of each individual’s arrangement. This presentation is left overnight in front of the kamidana.
Before the ceremony begins, the team arrives and dismantle their equipment from in front of the kamidana. They get dressed in their keikogi and hakama. Tare and dō are also worn but the men and kote are placed in bags for bōgu (kendō armor, lit. protective equipment). These bags along with the shinai are taken to a side area for equipment that will travel to the tournament.
At the appointed time, senior station officers arrive at the dōjō, including the station chief. The team arrange themselves in a single row facing the kamidana with the sensei standing behind them on the senior end. The senior members of the station are to one side of this facing perpendicular to the team. Respects are paid to the deities then the station chief steps forward to make a short speech. The member of the team responsible for conveying orders to the rest of the team (not the sensei and not necessarily the team captain called the taishō / 大将) steps forward to face the station chief and with one arm raised makes a pledge that the team will make their best effort in the upcoming “battle.” This team member then returns to his (in some cases her) position. Then a few of the most junior members break from the rank to fetch nihonshu as well as some preserved ceremonial foods to serve to everyone. The nihonshu is served in small cups while the ceremonial foods are served in small dishes, traditionally ceramic but in this case plastic cups for the nihonshu and aluminum dishes for the foods. The ceremonial foods consisted of single bite sized pieces of dried konbu, dried shreds of cuttlefish or squid called surume (鯣) and pickled plums called umeboshi (梅干).
Traditionally the ceremonial foods would consist of dried abalone called uchi-awabi (打ちアワビ), “victorious” chestnuts called kachikuri (勝ち栗) and konbu. Together the terms for these three foods sound similar to uchikatteyorokobu (打ち勝ってよろこぶ) meaning to “Overcome [the opponent] with Pleasure9.”
After everyone has received their nihonshu and ceremonial foods a toast is made and everyone drinks the nihonshu. Those being sent off to battle however do not ingest the nihonshu. Instead, they spit it back out on the tops of their wrists, first on the right wrist then on the left. The preserved foods are then eaten, a last bow is made and everyone disperses while the junior members go about collecting the cups and dishes from everyone. The salt piles are also then removed from the entrance way and discarded. The team stays in “battle dress” all the way to the tournament as well as on their way home.
Shintō is deeply ingrained within Japanese culture, all the more so in cultural practices with strong traditional roots such as budō. Depending on the dōjō, this can be even more evident when practicing budō in Japan. As budō training often takes place in a general sports gymnasium or other non-dedicated space, kamidana are not always present. Dedicated budōjō however, often do have kamidana. Understanding the significance of a kamidana and some of the related rituals will at the very least add a little more color or flavor to training in budō.
1 Due to Keishichō (Tokyo Metropolitan Police) security policy, publication of photos taken inside of police facilities is forbidden. Although a photograph of a kamidana within a police station might not pose a security risk, in order to respect this policy this post uses illustrations.
2 this rule is not applicable in a budōjō since often there is the practice of kakekoe (掛け声), the audible rendition of kiai (気合い)
3 Reference: http://www.komeri.com/howto/html/00240.html
4 According to Japanese mythology, Amaterasu-Ōkami is the mother of Emperor Jimmu (神武天皇), the first emperor of Japan.
5 Representative branch shrines of Ise Jingū can be found all over Japan so it is not necessary to obtain the o-fuda from the original Ise Jingū.
6 Throughout this post terms often have an ‘o’ as a polite prefix added to the basic words for whatever the term is for such as ‘kome’ for uncooked rice and ‘shio’ for salt. This is a common feature of the Japanese language.
7 Tokuren is short for tokubetsu renshu (特別練習), which means special practice. There are tokuren teams and practices not just for kendō but also for judō and taihojutsu (逮捕術 arresting techniques). These are practices for police officers who will represent their units in martial art competitions.
8 This is sometimes referred to by Westerners as the Bushi-Nin Sake Ritual but this is not a term used by the Japanese.
9 Reference: http://homepage1.nifty.com/hankai/mini/mini14.htm