Why Japan Made Human Sacrifices Before Building Bridges

Nov 1, 2021 0 comments

Until the 16th century in Japan, major constructions like castles and bridges began with human sacrifices, with victims buried alive within the foundation and inside pillars. This practice was known as hitobashira or da sheng zhuang. It was believed that the moving of earth during large scale construction disturbed the fengshui of the land, causing accidents during and after construction. Hence, such sacrifices were necessary to appease the gods so that the building is not destroyed by natural disasters such as floods or by enemy attacks.

The earliest written records of hitobashira can be found in the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan) which tells a story that supposedly took place in the early 300s AD. Two rivers named Kitakawa and Mamuta kept flooding and causing all sorts of damage and loss of life. The Emperor at the time, Emperor Nintoku, had a divine vision in one of his dreams that was oddly specific. He was told that there was a person named Kowakubi who lived in the province of Musashi, and another person with the name of Koromono-ko who lived in the province of Kawachi. Emperor Nintoku was told if these two people could be found and sacrificed, one to each of the river gods, then the flooding and devastation would stop.

Both Kowakubi and Koromono-ko were found and captured. The poor Kowakubi was thrown into the torrent of the Kitakawa river, with a prayer offered to the deity of the river. But Koromono-ko was clever. On the day of his sacrifice, Koromono-ko brought two gourds with him and addressed the river god directly. “I came here,” said he, “to sacrifice my life to thee, because thou art inflicting the calamity upon the people of this district. If thou dost sincerely want my life, sink these gourds so that they may not float again ; then I shall know thee as the true deity of this river and offer my body to thee. But if thou canst not sink them, thou art not the true deity, and it would be in vain for me to throw away my life.” Of course, the gourds did not sink and Koromono-ko walked free.

Another story of Hitobashira saving a village from the wrath of a river is enshrined in the memory of the people of Aihara in the province of Buzen. The parish of the Usa-hachiman shrine, in the 12th century, was governed by Yuya-danjo Motonobu and six other parish commissioners. But the people suffered every year from the inundation of the Yamakuni river. The seven commissioners offered prayers to the Hachiman shrine day and night for a whole week. When that didn’t work, they decided that an offering of human sacrifice had to be made. But they couldn't find one man willing to lay down his life. Hereupon Yuya-danjo proposed to his six comrades to take off their trousers and throw them into the river. The one whose trousers sank should offer his life to the deity. The others agreed and each threw their trousers into the water. Alas! the trousers of Yuya-danjo sank and his life was forfeited. One of Yuya-danjo’s faithful retainers had a daughter named Tsuru, who, when she heard of her master’s fate, begged to be allowed to give her life along with that of her son Ichitaro, in behalf of their master. This being refused, each of them separately offered their life to the deity. Following the sacrifices, the river banks stopped overflowing and no inundation was experienced until modern times.

Hitobashira traditions were almost always practiced in conjunction with the building of complex, dangerous, often water-related projects, such as bridges. The Yasutomi-ki, a diary from the 15th century, documents the famous tradition of “Nagara-no Hitobashira”. According to the tradition, a woman who was carrying a boy on her back was caught while she was passing along the river Nagara and was buried at the place where a large bridge was then to be built.

The Maruoka Castle was constructed with a human sacrifice. Photo: GFDL/Wikimedia Commons

The Matsue Ohashi Bridge according to legend also used a human sacrifice in its construction. When Horio Yoshiharu, the great general who became daimyō of Izumo in the Keichō era, first undertook to put a bridge over the mouth of this river, the builders labored in vain, for there appeared to be no solid bottom for the pillars of the bridge to rest upon. Millions of stones were cast into the river to no purpose, for the work constructed by day was swept away or swallowed up by night. Nevertheless, at last the bridge was built, but the pillars began to sink soon after it was finished. Then a flood carried half of it away. As often as the bridge was repaired so often it was wrecked. Then a human sacrifice was made to appease the vexed spirits of the flood. A man was buried alive in the river-bed below the place of the middle pillar, where the current was most treacherous, and thereafter the bridge remained immovable for three hundred years. The legend is so profoundly believed, that when the new bridge was being built towards the end of the 19th century, thousands of country folk were afraid to come to town, for rumors arose that a new victim was needed, who was to be chosen from among them.

Hitobashira traditions were also mentioned in connection with the crossing of the sea. The oldest record of the kind, also in the Nihon Shoki, tells of Emperor Jimmu, the founder of the Japanese Empire, who was crossing the sea on his expedition to the east, when a typhoon broke and his boat was soon adrift on the waves. Then Ina-ihi-no-mikoto sacrificed his own body to the deity of the sea, so that the emperor could proceed.

The tradition of human sacrifices is also concerned with the building of large castles. The Maruoka Castle is one of the oldest surviving castles in Japan that is rumored to have been constructed with hitobashira. When Shibata Katsutoyo, the nephew of Shibata Katsuie, was building a castle in Maruoka, the stone wall of the castle kept collapsing no matter how many times it was put up. There was one vassal who suggested that they should make someone a hitobashira. O-shizu, a one-eyed woman who had two children and lived a poor life, was selected as the Hitobashira. O-shizu demanded that one of her children be made a samurai as payment for sacrifice. O-shizu was buried under the central pillar of the castle keep, and thereafter the construction of the castle keep was successfully completed. But Katsutoyo was transferred to another province and her son was not made a samurai. Her spirit felt resentful and made the moat overflow with spring rain when the season of cutting algae came in April every year undermining the stability of the castle walls. People called it, “the rain caused by the tears of O-shizu's sorrow” and erected a small tomb to soothe her spirit.

These stories of human sacrifice appeared most numerously composed in the Tokugawa period, that is, during the last three centuries. They became rarer and rarer as the society matured. Now many Japanese societies perform mock sacrifices and elaborate ceremonies in shrines, such as those at Sakato-no shrine at Sakato-ichiba in the province of Kazusa, and Juzo shrine at Wajima-cho in the province of Noto.

# Tsuda, Noritake, Human Sacrifices in Japan, The Open Court


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