The God the Samurai Worshipped
Also known as Yahata no kami, the name Hachiman can be traced back to a prehistoric place in Kyushu. It means “God of Eight Banners”. These heavenly banners signaled the birth of the 15th emperor of Japan, Emperor Ōjin.
Moreover, Hachiman is the syncretic divinity of war and archery. For this, he is often called the god of war. This is although he is more appropriately defined as the god of warriors. As a syncretic divinity, he incorporates elements from Shinto and Buddhism as well. Hence, he is one of the country’s most popular Shinto deities.
Interestingly, he is the first divinity who obtained the title Daibosatsu. This made him a significant figure in Japanese mythology.
Furthermore, he is the divine protector of Japan. Specifically, he protects the Japanese people, the Imperial House, the Minamoto clan, and the Samurai. He earned this title after sending the Kamikaze or “divine wind” to disperse the Mongolian invaders. This incident had Mongol ruler Kublai Khan leading the invading fleets in the 13th century CE.
However, the Japanese, seldom worship him alone. In fact, Hachiman shrines often include his mother Empress Jingō and the goddess Hime-gami in every dedication. In line with this, three different families, Usa, Karajima, and Ōga, practiced the worship of Hachiman. Therefore, the ancestor deity did not come from one specific Uji lineage like other shrine deities.
Rise to Prominence
We can trace Hachiman’s history back to his hometown Kyushu. Currently Japan’s third largest island, it used to be the point of entrance to the empire of Japan. In many aspects as well, it set the trend for the entire country.
However, several conflicts characterized this homeland. Threats from Korea and uprisings by local ethnic groups prevailed. In addition, there was this devastating plague of 735-737. All these turned the island into one of the most politically vulnerable regions of the ancient empire of Japan.
During this time, Hachiman began to rise in prominence as a deity. Shoku Nihongi, an ancient Japanese historical account, tells of an important incident. In 720, the Hayato tribe from the south of Kyushu killed a local governor. The chronicle provided no information about how the government dealt with this.
However, passages relating to Hachiman give mention to his military campaign. He established this to fight against Hayato. Hence, it paved the way to his remarkable success. Indeed, it became a vital part of the standard Hachiman literature.
In addition, Shoku Nihongi reports another military achievement of Hachiman. He belonged to the three shrines the imperial court rewarded for support against the Korean archenemy. This archenemy was the kingdom of Silla in 737. Also, he joined a military enterprise the central government spearheaded to quell Fujiwara Hirotsugu’s rebellion.
Shōmu was Nara’s most energetic emperor. Hachiman and he had been friends for quite a long time. However, only in 746 did their relationship come to a meaningful and decisive turning point. Particularly, the emperor recovered from an illness and attributed his healing to Hachiman. As such, he rewarded the deity with special ranks and estates.
Their relationship became more intimate during the Daibutsu Project. This project was particularly the construction of Daibutsu or the Great Buddha. It was an embodiment of the emperor’s ambition to govern the country based on the Buddhist doctrine.
In the context of this project, edicts issued in 749 mentioned Hachiman. These writings featured the discovery of gold in northern Japan. In one of these, the emperor appealed to non-Buddhist divine forces to realize state Buddhism. Surprisingly, both Buddhas and Kami responded and granted help.
Hachiman also played a role in the emperor’s divine aids. In the eleventh month, he announced his coming to Nara. This first spontaneous act of speaking made him remarkable in the Japanese chronicle Shoku Nihongi.
Also, the reunion of Hachiman and the imperial family is a highlight. The festival took place at the temple grounds of Tōdaiji. However, Hachiman instead of Daibutsu was the subject. Anyway, an official inauguration would take place two years later for Great Buddha. Particularly, this occasion celebrated Hachiman and Himegami’s promotion to high ranks.
Definitely, Hachiman’s promotion to higher ranks dignified his divinity even more. For instance, Shōmu had this project of building the statue of Roshana Buddha. He could have directed his prayers to the Buddha. However, he addressed it to Hachiman. Amazingly as well, all Buddhas, Kami, and imperial spirits the emperor invoked put their trust on the deity.
When Shōmu stepped down from his position in 749, Hachiman’s influence declined. Meanwhile, Nakamaro of the Fujiwara lineage rose to power. He had Kōmyō, Shōmu’s queen-consort, as his support. Their administration went well even after the former emperor’s death on 756.
However, Nakamaro’s rise negatively affected the infant stage of Hachimanism. In 754, the government accused two Hachiman priests of using sorcery against it. Later on, Hachiman ordered through an oracle to restore to the court all estates he received.
Severe pressure from Dazaifu desperately brought about this demand. Unfortunately, it resulted in a severe economic setback for Usa. Also, Hachiman’s efforts to draw Otomaro into his camp did not work out.
Eventually, Nakamaro fell into the hands of Empress Abe and her supporters. The empress resumed the imperial dignity under the name Shōtoku Tennō. Fortunately, Hachiman regained his economic supply. Also, the empress reestablished the status quo of Usa.
Certainly, Hachiman had an important role in the well-known Dōkyō incident. This incident concerned the rise and fall of Dōkyō, Abe’s most important advisor. In 769, the advisor advanced as head of the Council of State. This ambition got its inspiration from Hachiman’s order for him to become the emperor. However, this was merely a fabricated pronouncement. To confirm it from Usa, the empress sent out Kiyomaro as an emissary.
Unfortunately, this resulted in the emissary’s exile. Shortly after the death of the empress, Dōkyō also found himself exiled. Eventually, Kiyomaro set himself free. Then, he advanced as a trusted member of the new regime. Kanmu Tennō took over Empress Abe’s throne.
People celebrated Hachiman and Kiyomaro for their successful opposition to Dōkyō. Here, Hachiman obtained the title Bodhisattva and identification with Emperor Ōjin. Truly enough, these attributions became apparent in the early Heian period.
However, another imperial family took over the regime. The descendants of Emperor Tenji replaced the dynasty of Shōmu. This shift of power caused a subsequent transfer of capital under Kanmu. This did not mean a total setback for Buddhism. However, it signified an end to Shōmu’s Buddhocratic policies. Hachiman was once part of this. Hence, Hachimanism abruptly concluded here.
Reasons for Hachiman’s Success
Apparently, Hachiman succeeded in all his missions. He deserves worship from the Samurai and the rest of Japan who. Indeed, he is the protector of the Japanese people.
Meanwhile, his success can be attributed to two major reasons.
First, Hachiman was relatively independent. He did not belong to the existing network of aristocratic ancestor deities. As an outsider as well, complicated matters of the court did not affect him.
Second, Shōmu became interested in him during the Daibutsu Project. He intended this politico-religious government to be independent of Dazaifu. Obviously, his independent aims made Hachiman the perfect complement.