THE TENNO-SAMA, OR MIKOSHI; ARK-SHRINES OF JAPAN

Mr William Simpson

[Extracted from TSBA, 5, 550-54.]

Read 6th March, 1877

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WHEN in Japan in 1878, I chanced to become acquainted with the curious fact that in some of the religions ceremonies of the country a shrine is used, which is carried by means of staves on men's shoulders, in the same manner as the Ark of the Covenant is described to have been. As these shrines have many points of resemblance to the Ark of the Jewish Tabernacle, and as they do not seem to have been vi t described, a short account of them maybe of value to Biblical scholars.

The name given to them is Tenno-Sama, which may be translated "Heaven's Lord": they are also called Mikoshi; mi, is "precious" or "honourable," koshi, is seat.

In construction these shrines are miniatures of a Japanese temple; there is a small square cella, with a large overhanging roof; the cella has folding doors on each of its four sides; round the whole is a miniature wooden fence, through which there is a gate of approach to each door. Temples in Japan are all made of wood, and a particular kind of tree is sacred for this purpose, and I understood that this was also used for the construction of the Tenno-Samas. The temple of Solomon was built principally of wood and bronze, the early Greek buildings were also of the same materials, and this condition of architecture is still to be found in Japan to-day, and many of the temples arc very beautiful specimens of work. Brass or bronze is largely used for binding the wood together, as well as for ornament.

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Some of these arks have small figures of a deity within them, and they no doubt belong to the Buddhist faith. The primitive religion of Japan is Shintoism, and its temples are marked by the absence of idolatrous images. Lately Buddhism has undergone something like dis-establishment, and Shintoism is now proclaimed as the only religion authorized by the State. There are three emblems which are common to a Shinto temple: these are a Mirror, a Sword, and a Jewel; some accounts make it a Casket instead of the last-named article, but the Casket contains the Jewel; as the Mikado as Emperor is ex-oficio a god, the Tenno-Samas sacred to him contain these three symbols: they are the insignia of his rank; they are called Mitakara. Mi, is rendered as "three," and takara, as "precious things." Satow's translation is very slightly different; he puts it, "Mite-gura is compound of the honorific mi, corresponding in meaning to the Chinese go, te, a contraction of tae, an archaic word for cloth. This is the derivation given in the Wakunkan." This word also means the Gohei, and the Gohei is also at times rendered the Jewel; but the Gohei is not a "Jewel" in our sense of the word; it is a slender wand set up on end, to which is attached a piece of cut paper, which hangs down symmetrically on each side. This emblem is frequently the only object to be found in the sanctum of Japanese temples. This curious symbol of worship is said to represent cloth or clothes, and that hemp was one of the primitive offerings of an early age, and the paper now stands for the hemp. The Mirror, one of "Three Precious Things," is always round, and is, according to Japanese authorities, a symbol of the sun. There is a legend that the first mirror was made by a mythic blacksmith, the counterpart of Vulcan no doubt, and iron from the mines in Heaven was procured for the purpose. In addition to the mirror in the cella, there are twenty-four small round mirrors on the outside; they are placed on the folding doors, three on each side, one above the other.

The corner ridges of the roof are elongated, and turned into what might be termed the horns of the altar, from each is suspended a small bell, as in Chinese bells on temples, there is a piece of thin flat wood suspended, which is moved [p.552] when the wind blows, causing the clappers to strike, thus producing an agreeable effect when there is a number of them. On the ripper side a small bird is perched on each ; these are not unlike doves; quail are favourite birds with the people of that country, and it may be these birds which are intended. Kaempfer describes these shrines as having "a gilt crane on the top," but those I have seen were surmounted by a cock. This is explained from Shintoism being founded on sun-worship, and the cock is a worthy worshipper, being usually the first to announce the early dawn of morning.

The outer gateways are a very important feature in all Japanese temples, both Buddhist and Shinto; they are erected on the approaches to temples as something honorific, at wealthy and well frequented shrines numbers of these peculiar gateways have been erected, it will be seen from the drawing that they bear a strong family likeness to the Pailows of the Chinese. They are called Torii, which is said to mean "Bird Rest," and that they were so called from a dove resting on the first one which was constructed. Their original signification is difficult to arrive at, for they are do doubt very ancient, and many ideas are now connected with them, and their supposed power of conferring purification on those who pass through is too remarkable to be omitted; on this account it is considered necessary to wash the hands with water before doing so. One of the brass ornaments, and which is repeated many times on this ark, is a circle, containing what might be described as three notes of interrogation, or a trefoil of decorated Gothic. It is called mitztomoye, or the three tomoyes; but what tomoye means I have not yet been able to discover. It bears such a strong resemblance to the Chinese Yin-Yang, that although the one is a dual symbol, and the other triple, I can hardly doubt but there must be some connection.

It was not my good fortune to see any of the ceremonies with these arks, but I have seen a picture where it is carried on men's shoulders, and a surging crowd around, evidently pushing, while the shrine sways heavily to one side and the crowd are throwing what seems to be pieces [p.553] of paper in the air, banners are being carried, and numerous hands are holding up fans, which are being waved towards the sacred object.

There are seven of these shrines in the temple of Hachiman at Kamakura; they are said by some to be State Norimans, but as these shrines are connected with the deified Mikado, they are most probably Tenno-Samas, or Mikoshis, as well as Norimans. This is confirmed by a statement of Kaempfer's; he says, "The Mikoshi themselves being eight." From this it is evident that a certain number, it may be eight as Kaempfer puts it, or seven as they are stated to be at the temple of Hachiman, are connected with the peculiar rites and ceremonies which belong to them.

1 may also mention that I found a toy shop in Yokohama where small ones were sold as toys for children. I also found that small models could be got, and I brought home two of these. One, a very beautiful model, I got made at the request of the Rev. W. D. Parish, Rector of Selmeston, Suffolk, in whose possession it is; and the other is in the Museum of the Andersonian University, Glasgow.

The many points of resemblance between these Tenno-Samas and the Ark of the Hebrew Temple are so evident that they require no insisting upon. I cannot pretend to explain how such resemblances have come into existence. The geographical space between Palestine and Japan adds much to the difficulties of the problem. The question of race is also another of the knotty considerations involved. I would suggest that the subject is worthy of further consideration, and I would refer readers to Bellew's Journal of a Political Mission to Afghanistan in 1857, p. 49, where he will find an account from one of the Afghan Tawarickhs, or histories, which recounts how a tribe called Bani-Israel has an ark called the Tabut-i-Sakina, made of Shamshad wood; on it were figured all the prophets of God, and it was the oracle of the tribe. I would also refer to an article written by myself, descriptive of what I saw, and published in Good Words, in September, 1866, which describes some very curious ceremonies in the Himalayas, where an ark-like shrine was carried with staves on men's shoulders, round which the [p.554] people danced with music, and to which offerings were made, and they called this shrine their Khuda or "god." Afghanistan and the Himalayas are a long way from Japan, still these ceremonies will show that portable shrines or temples had a very extended acceptation in the ancient world, relics of which only exist now in out of the way quarters.