Sometime near the start of the 8th century, the advent of urbanization helped spur two shifts of momentous importance for the material contexts in which the kami of the Japanese islands were worshipped. The first of these was constituted by a transformation in the material character of shrines: whereas in the 7th century shrines for kami worship were envisioned in terms of consecrated areas of natural environments, from the 8th century onwards shrines for kami worship increasingly took the form of built structures in which the kami could dwell. A second, equally profound shift, was engendered by the construction of road and canal networks across the Japanese islands. As these networks facilitated the movement of people, goods, and spirits across the Japanese islands, they also helped produce recurring social crises related to the rapid movement of pathogenic microbes that could devastate local populations with little biological resistance. Perhaps not surprisingly, by the second half of the 8th century the roadways of Japan had emerged as alternate foci for propitiating the disease bearing spirits that were believed to be roaming the land.
In contrast to traditional narratives depicting a static, enduring continuity of imperial rituals and deities during this period, in this paper I shall argue for the development of an alternative vision characterized by disruption, improvisation and motion. Specifically, I will argue that as the roadways of Japan came to be used as major sites for ritual practice, they stimulated new forms of cultic activity involving new deities associated with movement, continental culture, and danger. That is to say, the roadways of ancient Japan did not merely serve as alternate sites of pre-existing ritual forms; rather, they helped call into being new modes of ritual engagement with a host of hitherto-unknown spirits. I will further suggest that one remarkable by-product of this process was that the deities of the imperial pantheon were literally pushed to the margins of the cultic life of the newly-constituted urban elite, even as a host of “stowaway” spirits and demons permeated the streets and households of the denizens of the capital itself.
Michael Como is the Tōshū Fukami Associate Professor of Shinto Studies at Columbia University. His research focuses on the religious history of the Japanese islands from the Asuka through the early Heian periods, with a particular focus upon the Chinese and Korean deities, rites and technological systems that were transmitted to the Japanese islands during this time. He is currently working on a new monograph that focuses upon urbanization and the materiality of Japanese ritual performance and interpretation in the eighth and ninth centuries.