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|24 Parallels between Old Japan and Ancient Israel:
Based on the work of Oyabe Zenichirou
by Mark A. Riddle
The purpose of this essay is to review twenty-four parallels, points of similarity, between ancient Japan and ancient Israel.
+From Oyabe Zenichirou, Nihon oyobi Nihon Kokumin no Kigen: Kodai Nihonjin wa Heburaijin Nari
(Tokyo: Honoo Shobou, reprint, 1982; first published by Kouseikaku in 1929)
1. Misogi – Ritual Ablutions: Purification of the Ritual Impurities of the Body (kegare) by Washing in
In official Japanese mythology (of the Kojiki, redacted 712 AD), Izanagi, the male of the Japanese Primal Couple, ascends from Yomi, the nether-world, and bathes in a river in order to cleanse his body from the pollution he has brought on himself by his descent into the realm of the dead. For centuries the practice of Shinto priests has been to emulate Izanagi by performing misogi, ritual ablutions, often in a river, before engaging in ritual service. And the practice is memorialized in place names—for example, another name for the Miyagawa at the Ise Grand Shrine is Misogigawa (river of purification).
Requirements for abstinence and purification prior to engaging in shrine services include observation of special restrictions for periods of one day, three days, or a month.
Oyabe compares these Japanese customs to the regulations for ritual cleansing found in Numbers 19 (vv.7-8, 12, 19).
2. Origin of the Torii, the Gate at the Entrance to Shinto Shrines
There are many styles of torii in Japan, but one primitive form is the Jinmei style—two perpendicular round pillars joined by a rounded straight cross-piece parallel with the ground. The oldest form is the
Waraza style of torii, with a thick straw rope, shimenawa, joining the tops of two pillars. This original form of the torii could still be seen in older shrines in Oyabe’s day, a century ago, and he cites examples. (The author has observed many examples of modifications of this original form—a straw rope running along with the cross-piece joining the two pillars—see, e.g., Kyoto’s Matsuo Shrine.)
Oyabe compares the original form of the torii to the twin pillars, Jachin and Boaz, at the entry to Solomon’s Temple (II Chron 3:17; I Kings 7:15-22; the latter passage refers to a “cord” [KJV “line”], meaning and configuration uncertain, in connection with the pillars).
3. Temple and Shrine Structure
Like Solomon’s Temple, the Shinto shrine has both an outer area for general worship and an inner sanctum, into which only the highest priest may enter. In the inner sanctum lie the shrine’s sacred relics.
Near the entrance to the outer worship area is a fountain of running water where priests and worshippers purify their hands and mouths. The shrine precinct is surrounded by a mizugaki, a fence made out of wood.
4. Lions and the Lion Dance
Oyabe points out the fact that whereas lions are not and have never been native to Japan, every Shinto shrine in Japan has a pair of (stylized) lion sculptures at its entrance. Lions appear as a motif in Shinto art, and lion dances performed using lion masks have long been an important part of Shinto performing art (he sites the Echigo Jishi, for example, an ancient folk dance [satokagura] of the old Echigo Province).
This Oyabe compares these to the use of the lion to symbolize Judah (apparently based on Gen 49:9) and the use of sculptured lions in the temple (I Kings 7:29, 36) and at Solomon’s throne (I Kings 10:19-20 and II Chron 9:18-19; the lions evidently were arrayed in pairs on either side of Solomon’s throne and its approaching stairway).
A Shinto priest purifies spaces and things by sprinkling water on them using a branch of a masakaki, one of 23 varieties of the sakaki shrub (Camellia or Thea japonica) extant in Japan. Oyabe compares this to the branch of the hyssop used to paint the blood of the Passover lamb upon the lintel and doorposts (Ex 12:22), used for general purification (Ps 51:7), for cleansing from leprosy (Lev 14:6). Numbers 19:18 describes the use of the hyssop branch just as the sakaki is used in Japan—“take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle it on the...”
The Japanese shimenawa is a rope (nawa) used to demarcate (shime) a sacred area. It is always braided counter-clockwise of three, five, or seven strands. Oyabe compares the shimenawa to the “cords” or “lines” possibly demarcating sacred space in Solomon’s temple (see I Kings 7:15, 23). Japanese OT has ‘nawa’ in both passages, but the parallel is uncertain. What is clear is the appearance in both Israel and Japan of rope at the entranceway—the cord on the temple’s two pillars (v.15) and the use of the shimenawa as an accessory to the shrine’s torii.
7. Construction of Altars of Unhewn Stones
Though admitting a failure to find in Shinto texts a written prohibition against the use of hewn stone, Oyabe recognizes an actual practice of using only whole stones in Shinto shrine construction. This he compares to the explicit injunctions of Exodus 20:25, Deut 27:5-6 and Joshua 8:31.
Early Japanese worhip of the Shinto gods, before the era of shrine buildings, followed the pattern set by the first emperor of the divine lineage, Jimmu, who built a stone altar at the foot of Mount Tomi soon after he arrived in the Yamato area. Oyabe says a nusa (‘a liturgical object,’ ‘a ritual purification wand’) set up on stone at the foot of, or upon, a mountain is the earliest Shinto worship site and compares this to the “high places” (Heb. bamah) of Israel (I Kings 3:2) which both preceded the building of the temple (II Chron 1:1-13) and continued thereafter (II Chron 33:17).
8. Erection of Stones to Worship God
Oyabe cites the kaname-ishi (omphalos stone) at the Kashima Shrine of Ibaraki Prefecture as an example of the natural worship sites which preceded the building of Shinto shrines. In the same region there is an old (mentioned in an early record, Seiwa Jitsuroku, 861 AD) shrine at which the shintai (the locus of the divine presence) is a stone. In Tokura, in the same region, on the summit of Mt. Yatsukame is a small shrine building in front of a boulder which has been a shintai since ancient times.
At the Kashima Shrine, the kaname-ishi derives its significance from the claim that the shrine deity had actually appeared and sat upon it after descending from heaven (K, 439). But in Japan, as in Israel, the transition from using stones in worship to making stones an object of worship was never difficult. But to speak of an “animistic” Shinto worship of stones would be misleading because the stone is not considered to be a deity; rather it is a locus of divine presence. The same distinction is likely important in considering idolatrous worship in ancient Israel (see in Isaiah 57:6 the violation of Lev 26:1).
Oyabe cites many examples of ishi-jinja, shrines which center on a stone, and traces this practice of centering worship on a stone back to the account of Emperor Keikou (third of the Suujin line of kings, possibly r. 280 to 316 AD), who prayed for the triumph of forces led by his son, Prince Yamato-takeru, over the native peoples of Eastern Japan, at a place in Kashio where there were many great stones, an event Oyabe compares to Jacob’s Bethel (Genesis 28:10-22). Oyabe equates Jacob’s anointing of a stone pillar with oil and drink offering (Gen 35:14) to the Shinto practice of offering miki (sake drink offering) to the gods at a stone shintai (a stone considered to be a locus of divine presence).
9. Origin of the Use of the Word ‘Hashira’ [Pillar] as a Counter for Deities
The word used as ‘counter’ for deities in Japan is the word hashira (pillar). And wooden pillars are important to the worship of Shinto gods; Oyabe cites as examples of this the shin-no-mihashira (central axis pillar) of the Grand Shrine at Izumo and the four pillars which stand at the four corners of the worship area of the Suwa Shrine in Nagano Prefecture, which pillars are re-erected every seven years. The shintai of the Kanbashira Shrine in Kyushu is a wooden pillar.
Oyabe connects the Japanese use of the word for ‘pillar’ as a counter for gods to the use of ‘pillar’ in the Old Testament accounts of God’s presence in a “pillar of a cloud” by day and a “pillar of fire” by night (Exodus 13:21-22; compare 14:19, 33:9-10; Numbers 12:5, 14:14; Deut 31:15), long-remembered by Israel (see Psalms 99:7, Nehemiah 9:12, 19).
10. Association of God’s Presence with a Cloud
When the gods of Shinto are depicted they are shown with a cloud beneath them. Oyabe says we can find the origin of this depiction in the association of clouds with the divine presence seen in Numbers 9:5, II Chron 5:13, Isaiah 19:1 and Ezekiel 10:3.
11. Custom of Priests Not Cutting Hair or Beard
According to the Kojiki (redacted 712 AD), the deity Susa-no-o grew a beard down as far as his bosom but was forced to cut the beard as a punishment. Oyabe claims to have been informed that the Emperors of Japan from ancient times followed the custom of not applying a razor to the head. He points out that even after the samurai began (in the latter half of the 15th century) to shave their heads and beards in the sakayaki style (in order to more easily accommodate the armored helmet), even in this time, the emperor and his court, the nobility and shrine priests continued the old ways as if following an unwritten law, and continued to do so (even as the commercial and artisan classes adopted the style in the 17th century) until the Meiji Reforms (beginning in 1868) spread throughout the country—evidence Oyabe says, of the astonishing authority of ancient customs in Japan.
Oyabe compares this old custom of Japan with the directives found in Lev 19:27 and 21:5 (compare Ezekiel 44:20). We can add to Oyabe’s observations another comparison—of the punishment meted out to David’s envoys by the Ammonite King Hanun (II Sam 10:4) with that imposed upon Susa-no-o. And a mention of the Nazirite vow taken by Sampson (Numbers 6:5) seems appropriate in this context, as well.
One could very well cite at this point, as an additional parallel between the Japanese and the Jews, the ability of both groups to remember and to retain ancient customs, religious conservatism in general. The Jews are renowned for their fastidious and conscious replication of traditions and beliefs across a variety of times and spaces, but the Japanese are equally tenacious with regard to tradition, even while demonstrating extraordinary cultural flexibility. Nothing illustrates this better than these long traditions of both groups regarding facial hair.
13. Special Status of the Color White
Shinto priests may be seen today wearing white cerermonial robes, just as did the Levites at the dedication of Solomon’s temple (KJV, II Chron 5:12).
14. Origin of Spreading Salt
In Japan it is the custom to spread salt at a place where people come and go, in order purify and prevent pollution, especially that from a dead body. At Shinto shrines salt is spread in purification rituals and a dish of salt is included among offerings made. Japanese restaurants and diners of all kinds it is the custom to place a small pile of salt at the entrance for good luck, to attract customers. Oyabe asserts that these customs have their origin in customs of ancient Israel: the salt offerings (Lev 2:13); salt for purification (Judges 9:45, II Kings 2:19-22, Ezekiel 43:24). Ezekiel 16:4 implies a custom of rubbing a newborn child’s body with salt; Oyabe tells of a Japanese custom of putting a pinch of salt in a newborn’s bathwater.
15. Avoidance of Contact with the Dead
Cleanliness is an essential value of Japanese culture, and purity is especially important in Shinto—those who officiate at or participate in ceremonies are required to observe prohibitions and ritually purify themselves. The regulations of the Engishiki (of 927 AD) specifies that a person is ritually impure for thirty days after having contact with the dead body of a person and for five days following contact with a dead animal. Those who attend a funeral or visit the sick are not impure, but are still barred from engaging in ceremonial functions on the day of their attendance or visit.
Israelite restrictions on contact with the dead were similarly strict—a Nazirite was never permitted to have such contact (Numb 6:6) and even incidental contact with a dead body, or a grave, caused ritual impurity for a week (Numb 19:11-20).
16. Mezuzah and Mamori-fuda
Oyabe next cites the Mezuzah—a box affixed to the upper right doorpost at the entrance of a home, which contains a parchment, on which a prayer (Dent 6:4-9) has been written by a scribe, a custom still important to Jews today. The corresponding Japanese custom is the mamori-fuda, an amulet obtained from a shrine and affixed to or hung at the entrance of a home; on it is written the name of a tutelary deity. In some areas, Oyabe reports, the o-mamori are put in a box hung from the entrance. And we must update Oyabe’s account by adding that today a mamori-fuda from one’s favorite or local shrine is hung from the rear-view mirror of the automobile.
17. Hand-washing Lavers
Near the entrance of the Shinto shrine one finds a facility with running water, where pilgrims may cleanse their mouths and hands before proceeding to the place of worship. Oyabe compares this to the basin of water set by Moses between the tent of meeting and the altar, where Aaron and his sons washed their hands and feet before approaching the altar (Ex 40:30-32).
18. Offering Boxes
When King Joash of Judah (r. from 837 BC; II Chron 24) decided to restore the temple, he directed the priests and Levites to raise the necessary funds (v.5). When they failed to comply, he had instead a chest made and set outside the temple gate; then the king proclaimed that the tax on the people levied by Moses was to be paid into this chest, and (v.10) “all the people rejoiced and brought their tax and dropped it into the chest until it was full” of money, which the king used to hire workmen to restore and furnish the temple (v.12ff).
The chest used to collect the temple tax corresponds to the saisenbako, coin offerings chest, seen at every Shinto shrine.
19. Miki—Drink Offerings
Oyabe traces the custom of offering sake to the gods back to legendary accounts of such offerings made by the Empress Jinguu, who is said to have been the mother of Oujin, the first of the line of proto-historical kings who reigned from the Kawachi area in the 5th century AD. This he compares to the wine used by Israelites for drink offerings (Ex 20:40-1, Lev 23:13, Numb 15:5). Oyabe further notes the “festivals” appointed of the Lord, times of mandated rest from occupations, times of “holy convocations” (Lev 23, passim). He compares these to the similar matsuri, festival days, mentioned in Azuma-kagami, (a history of the Kamakura Shogunate, 1180-1267) and to the Sanou (Mountain King) Festival of old Edo (Tokyo prior to 1868).
Japan’s Niiname-sai is the official first-fruits festival of the imperial court, now held annually on November 23. Together with the local, folk equivalent, O-hatsuho, these are the ancient ways of expressing thanks to the gods for the harvest by offerings to them the first grain, vegetables and fruits harvested.
Israel was instructed to bring to the house of the Lord the first fruits of the harvest (Ex 34:26; compare the post-exilic Nehemiah 10:35).
21. Bowing in Worship
Shinto priests bow before the gods, as do worshippers at Shino shrines. Bowing in worship might be a universal. What’s unique in Japan is that bowing has been extended from the religious and political realms into everyday life—in Japan, even old friends and neighbors bow to each other. Oyabe points to Exodus 34:8 (where Moses bows in worship), Psalms 95:6 (where David invites us to bow in worship) and II Chron 7:3 (where the congregation of Israel bows in worship at the dedication of Solomon’s temple) as parallel to the practice of Shinto priests. And Oyabe cites Genesis 43:28 (where Joseph’s brothers bow before the viceroy of Egypt) as evidence of an OT culture of bowing, but the merit of this parallel is judged uncertain on the grounds that bowing in worship may be universal.
22. Festivals and the Mikoshi
Of all the parallels between contemporary Japan and ancient Israel, by far the most striking is that between the parading of the portable shrine, the mikoshi, in Japanese festivals seen everywhere in Japan today, and Old Testament accounts of the Ark of the Covenant. Oyabe cites the account in I Chronicles 15:15 of the Levites carrying the Ark on their shoulders, with poles. (The Law of Moses specified this method of carrying the Ark—see Numbers 7:9.) Besides the obvious similarities in the way the Ark was carried and the way the mikoshi is carried today, other elements of the Japanese festival remind one of the account in Chronicles—the chanting and the “loud sounds of joy...shouting...loud music” (I Chron 15:16, 28). Oyabe points to shrine distribution of mochi cakes and confections as the equivalent of David’s reward to his people (I Chron 16:3).
23. Kagura: Music and Dance in the Worship of God
Kagura (lit. ‘god-music’) is the oldest music and dance art form in Japan. The old kagura of the Ise Grand Shrine is also called koseki-kamiasobi (‘ancient gods visit’) and dates from well before the historical period. Kagura is always performed at night, to the accompaniment of the Japanese harp (an ancient koto), flute, hichikiri (a reed flute) and wooden clapper. The legendary accounts of the dance performances of Uzume-no-mikoto and Emperor Jimmu, and of the harp music of Empress Jinguu show that the genre was developed long before the historical period.
Oyabe compares this ancient Japanese music and dance tradition with the tambourine dance of Miriam and the Israelite women described in Exodus 15, and with David and his men who “danced before the Lord with all their might,” to musical accompaniment (II Sam 6:5). Oyabe points out one very interesting parallel: just as Solomon’s musicians took their place to the east of the altar of the temple (II Chron 5:12), so too the musicians providing the musical accompaniment for kagura performances always sit to the east of the stage.
24. Sun Worship
These twenty-three parallels between Shinto and Old Testament practice combine to suggest a common origin for Shinto and Judaism. A final point of comparison will enable us to date propose a chronology for the divergence of Shinto and Judaism.
Japan is the land of the sun goddess Amaterasu, head of all the gods, ancestor of the Emperor, and founder of the nation. She is worshipped at the Grand Shrine of Ise, the highest-ranking Shinto shrine. In the official, nationalistic Shinto of the pre-war period the emperor was considered by some to actually embody the divine presence of Amaterasu. It is this “divinity” which the Emperor is said to have renounced after the war.
The connection of solar worship with the Old Testament is not as well known. For our account of solar Yahwism, we turn to J. Glenn Taylor, whose Yahweh and the Sun (1993) provides abundant evidence of the existence in pre-exilic Israel, Israelite practice before the reforms of Josiah, a cult of the sun and of its connection with the king.
Taylor argues that the entire constellation of elements familiar in Japan—the notion of the king as the son of the sun deity, or even as the deity himself—is found in ancient Israel and in Judah prior to Josiah.
Before the time of Solomon, the center of the solar cult was the bamah at Gibeon, directed by the Zadokite priests (I Chron 16:39-40, 21:29). There was “a high degree of continuity between the high place at Gibeon and the temple of Jerusalem” (Taylor, p.128). Taylor links symbols important also in Japan—the pillars and griffins at the temple entrance (see ‘2. Torii’ and ‘4. Lions’ above) with the sun cult (op. cit. p.34) and asserts that “solar Yahwism was a feature of royal religion” (pp.257ff., emphasis added), just as the cult of the sun in Japan is primarily an imperial, as opposed to popular, cult.
An assumption of a relationship between the royal sun cult of Israel and the imperial sun worship of Japan implies a divergence of the lineage which influenced Shinto from Israel before the reforms of Josiah (ca. 628 BC; see II Chron 34), when solar Yahwism was purged from the Kingdom of Judah.
Conclusion: the Author’s View
Even considered separately, three of the parallels between Japan and Israel cited in this paper—the resemblances of (1) the mikoshi to the Ark of the Covenant and (2) the Japanese mamori-fuda to the mezuzah; and (3) the similarities between Japan’s imperial sun cult and the solar Yahwism of the kings of Israel and Judah—would demand immediate attention as possible evidence for an historical connection. (1) and (2) are features unique to each tradition but showing remarkable similarities. Solar cults are widespread, but the importance of the royal connection demands attention here. Other suggested parallels—ritual ablutions, the use of stones for worship, temple structures—could be considered to be nearly universal patterns evidencing a possible common origin but not a direct connection. Still others might be dismissed as coincidence. But, taken together they constitute a persuasive argument.
Oyabe Zenichirou (1867-1941) studied in the US 1888-1898; received the doctorate (DD) atYale U. in 1898; and lectured in the Institute of Japanese Classics, Kokugakuin University. For additional biographical details see Goodman and Miyazawa, Jews in the Japanese Mind (2000) pp.167ff.
The author can recommend only Chapter 8 of Oyabe’s work; other chapters are tainted by his ultra-nationalism, and there are errors in Ch.8—for example, his incorrect etymology for the word ‘Jordan,’ his equation of Shiloh with Japanese shiro (fortress), his acceptance of hinoki for “cedar” in passages such as II Samuel 5:11 (more recent Japanese OT translations have kouka, a “fragrant oak”) and so forth. And the author judged one suggested parallel (the clapping of hands as a part of Japanese worship) to be not supported by the evidence Oyabe presented. Otherwise, his list of Shinto-Old Testament parallels is very useful and his attestation of various old Japanese customs and traditions is a valuable contribution.
OT quotes are from the RSV wherever the KJV is not specifically cited. Definitions of Japanese terms are taken from a standard reference, the Koujien (1955), which is also cited, as ‘K.’
For more on temple structure, see my “Temple Patterns in Ancient Japan” (2008), available from the author.
For more on stones in Shinto and Old Testament worship and culture, see my “A Ritual Ascent of Mt. Miwa” (2007), available from the author.
J. Glenn Taylor, Yahweh and the Sun: Biblical and Archaeological Evidence for Sun Worship in Ancient Israel (Sheffield Academic Press, 1993) J. Glen Taylor is Assistant Professor of Old Testament and Dean of Students at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. This 24th point of comparison was not suggested by Oyabe. However, a connection between Japanese and Israelite sun worship was asserted by another Japanese scholar, Okino Iwasaburou (1876-1956); see pp.126-9 of his Nihon Jinja Kou: Nihon Shuukyoushi no Yomikata (1952), photocopy in possession of the author.
A list of persons so persuaded would include Japanese Christian scholars, Western missionaries who have lived and served in Japan, Jewish rabbis and scholars, and a host of Japanese authors who yearly produce more books to fuel popular interest in this topic in Japan. Ch. 8 of Oyabe’s work was serialized in the Japanese LDS publication Seito no Michi by long-time Japanese LDS translator and patriarch Watabe Masao, Aug-Dec 1961. The late LDS comparative religionist Dr. Spencer Palmer, of Brigham Young University, was another who was persuaded by much, if not all, of this evidence.
It is important to remember that (1) there are many other parallels between Japan and Israel not mentioned in this paper; for example, the parallels between the Japanese yamabushi and the “companies of prophets” of Israel’s high places (see, e.g., I Samuel 10:10). And (2) in addition to the kind of evidence provided here, there are other kinds of evidence linking ancient Japan and ancient Israel, for which see my “Shinto and the Number 8,” a paper presented at the Western Conference of the Association for Asian Studies in Claremont CA (October 1994) and cited by other scholars, and my “The Hata Clan: Israelites and Christians in Old Japan” (2009), both available from the author
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