From protector of the imperial house, to protector of the Minamoto military house, to protector of the nation.
Nara period (710-794)
Hachiman was established as the protector of the imperial house through several key events in the Nara period. One of the most formative was Hachiman’s role in the construction of the huge Buddha statue (daibutsu) in Nara. At the time, Emperor Shōmu (701-756) issued an edict to build state-sponsored Buddhist temples in each province in Japan in order to protect the realm. The most important of these was the temple in the capital of Nara, Tōdai-ji, the upmost symbol of national unity and imperial rule. Through an oracle, Hachiman promised the discovery of copper and gold for the casting of the huge Buddha statue that would be housed there. With the successful completion of the project, Hachiman was honored for his invaluable help with first court rank. In this way, Hachiman became a protector of the imperial house.
Heian period (794-1185)
One of the innovations in Hachiman belief in the Heian period was Hachiman’s identification with Emperor Ōjin (r. 270-310). Emperor Ōjin was the son of Empress Jingū (r. 201-269?), who—according to legend—led an invasion of the Korean kingdoms while pregnant with the future emperor. In an oracle delivered by a three-year-old child, Hachiman declared himself to be “the sixteenth emperor of Japan, Ōjin.” Ross Bender (1978, pg. 167) explains this development as “an attempt to integrate the god more closely with the imperial institution by making him an imperial ancestor.”
Also during the Heian period, Hachiman became the protector of the Minamoto military house when the clan adopted Hachiman as their clan deity (ujigami). Key to this process were Minamoto Yoriyoshi (988-1075), who built a Hachiman Shrine in gratitude for a military victory, and his son, Yoshiie (1039-1106), who was nicknamed Hachiman Tarō for his courage in battle. The latter was subsequently believed to be the incarnation of Hachiman himself. It would be a descendant of Hachiman Tarō, Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199), who would defeat the Taira clan in the Gempei Wars (1180-1185), a victory that was attributed in no small part to Hachiman’s divine protection. The appropriation of Hachiman by the Minamoto clan is seen in multiple instances in the Japanese war epic that describes the Gempei War, Tales of Heike.
The Kamakura period (1185-1333) and beyond
After the Gempei Wars, Hachiman’s characterization as a God of War was bolstered by the successful thwarting of Mongol invasions in 1274 and 1281. Both times the Mongols were stopped by powerful typhoons, which the Japanese called kamikaze (divine wind), believed to have been sent by Hachiman to protect the nation from foreign invaders.
After the Mongol invasions, the creation of stories and picture scrolls depicting the origins of Hachiman (Hachiman engi emaki) became increasingly popular. Hachiman worship had been the prerogative of elites; however, the attribution of Hachiman as defender of Japan against the Mongols led to a broader and more popular basis of belief. New narratives such as Hachiman Gudōkun (a Hachiman myth dating back to the beginning of the 14th century) and accompanying imagery appeared, as well as numerous Hachiman shrines built across the Japanese archipelago. The Hachiman Scrolls owned by Smith College were produced in the early Edo period (mid-seventeenth century) by the highly acclaimed Tosa School, attesting to the continued popularity of stories about Hachiman.
Today, at least one-third of Shintō shrines are dedicated to Hachiman.
This background was created by Joannah Peterson, Lecturer in Japanese, East Asian Languages and Literature, Smith College.