A Portrait of My Father: The 95th High Priest of the Tsubaki Grand Shrin
My father was actually adopted into the Yamamoto family. In Japan, marriage is rather like adoption. Either the bride or the groom may change their names and once they do they become a member of the new family . Traditionally, heredity in Japan was either patrilineal or matrilineal. My own son Yukiyasu, who will be the 97th High Priest in our family is adopted as was my father. Such circumstances make little difference provided we live in understanding and our minds become closely identified with our common purpose - in this case continuing the work and traditions of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine.
At the age of thirteen, he came from the neighboring village of Kameyama to the shrine and in time married my mother who as a daughter of the Yamamoto family stood directly in the long line of descent.
He was born in 1886, about twenty years after Japan had begun her tumultuous surge of modernization following the Meiji Restoration, as it is called, when the feudal government of the Shoguns of the house of Tokugawa collapsed in the face of internal dissension and external threats from Western nations. His life spanned the traumas of that era and he lived through two world wars. Despite all the changes and transitions that he lived through and saw, at no point did he ever lose faith in the values and ideals by which he lived. He believed profoundly in the brotherhood of all humanity, in the dignity of human life, in the value of freedom and in the divine providence we experience when we follow the way of the Kami.
What sort of man was he? Photographs show him to be dignified and bearded and all that one would expect of a Shinto priest. In my view, although it is also the view of many people who knew him, he was one of the greatest Shinto priests certainly of the era he lived in, if not of the century. He was profound, scholastic and sincere. He wrote numerous books on Shinto. He was not by reason of personality fond of being in the limelight. But he was a man of immense power and vast spiritual resources.
He did not perform the rituals of a priest in a perfunctory manner. He wanted to understand what he was doing and to be able to explain to people the basis of the Tsubaki shinko or faith.
He researched and devoted his life to the better understanding of the tradition of Shinto and of shrine of which he was the 95th and I am the 96th guardian priest. He probed the mysteries of the universe as they are set forth in Shinto ritual. He sought to unlock the powers of the cosmos by studying to practice the Shinto rituals with a pure heart, a clear mind and a receptive spirit so that their efficacy in his life and in the lives of those on behalf of whom he was performing them would be released to the full. He strove to embody his understanding of these eternal verities in his life and in his work. The degree to which this was achieved is attested in a strange way. More than one visitor to the shrine has remarked, with surprise, on seeing the photograph of my father in his later years, that he had grown to look very like the physical image that we use in the Shrine of the Kami whose origin, nature and powers he had devoted his entire life to growing to know better. In time, he grew to have a kind of likeness to the
Great Kami he had come to know so well. If nothing else, this shows how intense, how sincere and how genuinely dedicated my father was to the Shrine, to Sarutahiko OKami and to his belief in the intrinsic value of what he was doing as High Priest of the Shrine.
From him I learned more than from my university days concerning the ideals of the priesthood. In him I had the finest model of what a priest should be. His influence still permeates the shrine and our daily ritual reflects the imprint of the routine and discipline by which he ordered his life. He arose every morning at 5 a.m. and performed misogi. Many of the senior men born in the Meiji era reflected a strange blend of the samurai ethic with its stoic tendencies and a sense of commitment and discipline that would be worthy of Immanuel Kant who like my father rose at 5 a.m. every morning rain or shine. He would spend about one hour meditating in the Shinden and of course he would open the great doors of the Honden and carry in the shinsen, the specially prepared food offerings to the enshrined Kami, rice, the sustainer of life, water the basis of life and salt, the purifier of life. These you will find in every Shinto shrine among the basic offerings of the daily morning ritual. Nowadays, my younger brother, Yukimine, the Negi performs the morning ritual at 6.00 a.m. The remainder of the young priests and miko or shrine maidens attend the chorei at 8.00 am every morning. My father breakfasted before 7.00 a.m. and he never varied this pattern until his death in the year Show 45, 1960.
Although he made such demands upon himself, he never imposed himself or his opinions on his children. He did transmit to us Shi-shi-mai-shinji,
the power of the lion dance and many other of the intangible cultural properties of our heritage and this we could find in the various children's rituals he observed on our behalf. We learned to practice misogi from eight or nine years of age. As small children facing that cold waterfall, you can bet he got us to do that only under pressure. People sometimes say that a child grows up seeing his father's back. That was very true in our case. My father studied very hard until late at night. He truly burned the midnight oil, which was literally the case in a mountain shrine to which electricity came rather late! I usually went to bed around 10 p.m. My father would be poring over old texts or writing his own manuscripts. But like most children, I would drink something too late at night and pay the price by waking up with a toilet call! Even then, in the dark, as I fumbled to find my way to the toilet, I would oftentimes see my father's
back bent over his books. It is hard not to respect such a man as that. Japanese people are renowned for being reticent to praise their own. It is not a part of our culture. But it is hard not to feel deeply proud of having such a father.
(Note: At no point does Yamamoto Guji actually speak words of praise directly. His courtesy and sense of good taste prevent him. However, the tone of his description is such that the feeling comes across of the degree respect in which he held his father, and as translator/compiler I felt that his Western readers should understand what he would have said if he had been saying it in purely Western terms. I do this respectfully but I also think justifiably- S.D.B.P.)
In one of his books, he has a sentence that reads, "Human beings who are weak will become the victims of those who are strong" He never showed any fear of people in authority at any time in his life and he refused ever to become the victim of any tyrant's strength. His strong beliefs caused him trouble more than once before and during the war years. He had a disdain for the military mentality that had seized hold of the Japanese government, and never hesitated to say so when the occasion arose. He was constantly harassed by the kempetai, the special police that went around looking for dissidents, spying on teachers in classrooms and generally intimidating any citizens who showed any resistance to the policies of the government. But somehow, he survived and He considered that the time at which he lived in was one of confusion. Ideally, human beings and Kami should work for co-prosperity. Nations he believed should be equal. His philosophy was of the strange admixture of human being, Kami and animal that can be found in everything and of how these should be kept in balance.
It was his hopes of peace and understanding that led me to my interest in world peace and to my involvement in the International Association of Religious Freedom. I am sure that if he had lived long enough, he would have shared my activities, because my ideals are his ideals, my hopes are his hopes and the dreams that I have come to cherish I know he would have dreamed of also.
My Father's Death and Tsubaki as Ichi-no-Miya
In 1970, on April 25th, my father died of a stroke. He had performed misogi four days before he died, at the age of 84. In the year that I completed my gyo , 1965, my father had begun to step back from the administration of shrine affairs and had handed over all financial matters to me. On his death, I acceded to the position of Guji and began the 96th High Priest of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine.
During the time after his retirement from involvement in the administration of the shrine, he commenced a more energetic pursuit of the studies on Shinto that he had ben engaged in all his life. He studied the history of Tsubaki Grand Shrine and he devoted tremendous energy to the study and understanding of Sarutahiko OKami, leaving behind hundreds of pages of manuscript and about one hundred small booklets. He enjoined me to read them after his death.
During his lifetime, we reached fairly solid conclusions about the origins of Sarutahiko OKami and the worship of Sarutahiko OKami and the status of the Shrine in Japan and Japanese history.
Apart from its age and title, Tsubaki Grand Shrine is also designated Ise -no-Ichi-no-Miya, which means the first shrine of the Ise district. This implies that from ancient times it was considered to be the representative shrine of the people in that area. After the middle of the Heian age (794-1185), people became rather lax in their attachment to shrines because of the growing power of Buddhism in the realm. Shrine worship by the Imperial Household came to be limited to the Home Provinces or the Kinki Region as it was known. There were twenty-two very important shrines known as the niju-ni-sha and these were recognized as the principal shrines where worship was to be offered. In most areas, in order to clarify which shrines regional governors should visit rankings were established to indicate seniority and status. Regional governors or Kokushi as they were called were expected to visit the shrines designated as Ichi-no-miya, i.e. number one shrines . Some local variations took place, but the hierarchy of the shrines is fairly clear from that period.
Tsubaki Grand Shrine was ranked from then in the district of Ise, of infinite importance because the Grand Shrines of Ise enshrine Amaterasu OmiKami, the divinity of the Sun and Japan"'s primal divinity since she is the ancestor of the Imperial House. Tsubaki Grand Shrine has both tradition and status.
The Shrine is also called Sarutahiko Daihongu. Dai means great, hon means head and gu is a suffix which means shrine with an imperial connection. The same character for gu can also be read miya which can mean either shrine or palace. Tsubaki Grand Shrine is the principal and oldest shrine of Sarutahiko OKami amongst the 2,000 shrines where he is also enshrined and celebrated.
This is the story of how our titles were confirmed in my father's lifetime.
Back in 1932, the then Chief of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police considered that Sarutahiko OKami was the guardian Kami of the Police Department and enquired of the government ministry concerned which was the principal shrine. Their information revealed that Sarutahiko OKami was being worshipped in many places and that the proper shrine to be recognized as the central shrine for the worship of Sarutahiko OKami had not been identified. As a consequence, three distinguished scholars were designated to research and identify the hongu or principal shrine. For three years they exhaustively investigated all the shrines where Sarutahiko OKami was enshrined. They came to various conclusions.
Firstly, the omoto or root or KunitsuKami was discovered to be Sarutahiko OKami and secondly, the place of worship was identified as Ise no Kuni, that is the ancient district of Ise.
The designated shrine from days past was Ise no Kuni, Ichi-no-Miya, Tsubaki OKamiyashiro. (Note: OKamiyashiro is simply another way of reading the same characters as can be read Daijinja meaning Grand Shrine). In March 1935, a representative of the Chief of Police visited Tsubaki and received a bunke, a symbolic branch of the spirit of Sarutahiko OKami and built a shrine to Sarutahiko OKami on the roof of the Metropolitan Police Headquarters in downtown Tokyo . The sign that identified it read:
Tsubaki OKami Yashiro - Sarutahiko OKami Hongu
(Tsubaki Grand Shrine - Sarutahiko OKami Central Shrine)
This designation has been used to describe the shrine ever since and is to be found on all publications and official documents.
There is another shrine in Mie Prefecture in which Sarutahiko OKami is worshipped and the status of Tsubaki was challenged in more recent times. However, the decision remained in favour of Tsubaki and once that had been finally settled we began to receive worshippers in increasing numbers.
Perhaps the finest epitaph with which to close this description of my father is to narrate an incident that dates back to August 15th, 1945. As I said, my father strongly resisted the government and he was quite opposed to the way in which the militarists had plunged Japan into a war again the United States. He felt that no good would come of it. There were those who perhaps sympathized with him, but did not feel strong enough, like him to speak. At any rate, after Japan's surrender had been announced when the Emperor made his famous broadcast instructing the armed forces to cease fire and telling the nation that further resistance was futile and would result in the possible destruction of Japan forever, my father received a telegram bearing the words:
"Japan defeated - Yamamoto has won!"
Sad for the nation's pride perhaps, but his wisdom had prevailed.