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HIJIRI are Japanese lay ascetics and influential antagonists of priests and monks. The role of the hijiri in Japanese folk religion is far more important than that of the ministers of the official religions (priests and monks in Shintō and Buddhism, respectively). The hijiri is in many ways the spokesman of the common man. Hijiri are the forerunners of the lay leaders of modern Japanese sects, who are considered to embody the spirit of that traditional role. The concept of hijiri dates back to the earliest known period of Japanese history, when the hijiri (lit., "he who knows the sun") determined and appointed the years, months, and days, and must have been connected with an unofficial and spontaneous cult of the sun goddess Amaterasu. The hijiri gradually came to be considered a sage, the one who, like the sun, let the light of his knowledge shine on others. He must have been a charismatic leader, endowed, like a shaman, with supernatural powers and natural skills.

The transmission of Daoism and Confucianism to Japan expanded the meaning of hijiri to include the Chinese ideas of the xian, the mountain ascetic and hermit, the shengxian, the virtuous hermit, and the shengren, the holy one or "ultimate man." As the one who is believed to reconcile in himself the opposites of mu and wu, of nonbeing and being, life and death, male and female, the hijiri was considered to live in happiness in the hereafter.

The introduction of Buddhism into Japan in 538 added still other meanings to the notion of hijiri. In Buddhism a hijiri became in the eyes of the laity the sacred and highly respected antagonist of its official ministers, the monks in their hierarchical ranks. He was believed to be the ideal ubasoku (Skt., upāsaka, "layman"). In the Nihonshoki, one of the oldest Japanese chronicles, two prominent Buddhist lay leaders, the Korean king Song (sixth century) and the Japanese prince regent Shōtoku Taishi (574622), are depicted as hijiri. After Shōtoku Taishi's death the monk Eji cried, "He was verily a great hijiri " (Kamstra, 1967, p. 424). As hijiri, these leaders combined the old Japanese idea of the wise man and the Chinese ideas of the virtuous, ascetic, and ultimate man with that of the holy upāsaka.

A few decades later, people who showed special skill also came to be called hijiri. One finds go no hijiri, experts in go; waka no hijiri, experts in waka (Japanese poems); and sake no hijiri, experts in producing sake (rice wine). From the eighth century on, the hijiri gradually became protectors of the common people against the goryōshin, the angry spirits of those who did not die like decent people. In doing so, they followed patterns of life different from those of monks and priests: they did not settle down, but wandered in the mountains and from village to village and city to city. They followed one of three kinds of religious and magical practices: nembutsu (invocation of the name of the Buddha Amida), Shugendō (mountain asceticism based on Tantrism and Shintō shamanism), and yin-yang magic. The most prominent of these three groups were without any doubt the nembutsu-hijiri. They served not only to protect against the threat of angry spirits but also performed memorial rites to the spirits of the dead consisting of the recitation of the most powerful sūtras. Sometimes they chanted these texts while dancing the nembutsu dance. Hijiri who gave up their wandering life and settled down lost claim to the title. Some fell to the lowest classes and became producers of bamboo wares, stage actors, or puppet performers. From the fourteenth century onward, the name hijiri was also applied to laymen who performed special tasks in Buddhist temples or monasteries. Some of these lay hijiri (zoku hijiri ) served as bell ringers, gardeners, Buddha hall keepers, pagoda keepers, and grave keepers.

See Also

Nianfo; Onmyodo; Shugendō.


Two works by Hori Ichiro are recommended: "On the Concept of Hijiri (Holy Man)," Numen 5 (April 1958): 128160, (September 1958): 199232; and Folk Religion in Japan, edited and translated by Joseph M. Kitagawa and Alan Miller (Chicago, 1968). Although historical data on the early history of Japan, on the introduction of Buddhism, and on the role of Shōtoku Taishi are inaccurate in Hori's works, they are the best available publications on the hijiri not only in English, but also in Japanese. Many authors on this subject, for example Nakamura Hajime, rely on Hori's writings. See also the discussion of hijiri in my book Encounter or Syncretism (Leiden, 1967).

J. H. Kamstra (1987)

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