Culture

Death notes: Traditional rituals associated with curses persist in 21st-century Japan

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

It’s a scorching summer afternoon with temperatures crawling toward 37 degrees Celsius. Kadota Inari Shrine is empty except for a chorus of screeching cicadas and the smooth stone statues of foxes guarding its entrance.

Hanging on either side of the shrine are hundreds of small wooden plaques known as ema (picture horses) baking beneath the sun.

A ritual tracing its roots to the Nara Period (710-794) when those who couldn’t afford to donate horses to the gods for good favor began substituting them with cheaper materials, the fastening of these votive tablets inscribed with worshippers’ hopes and prayers can now be found in shrines and temples across the nation.

But at Kadota Inari Shrine, located in the suburbs of Ashikaga, a city in Tochigi Prefecture some 90 minutes by train from Tokyo, visitors won’t find plaques with light-hearted wishes asking for good luck and rosy relationships.

“I’m completely exhausted dealing with K.S., the selfish devil in disguise who looks down on me, shouts at me and complains about each and everything I do. I hate you … I hate you … I hate you from the bottom of my heart, and I pray that you disappear from this world as soon as possible,” one of the plaques reads.

“I pray that my relationship with Hitomi, who betrayed me and wasted a year of my life, is completely severed” reads another. “She must be distanced from all paths leading to happiness. I will never let you become happy. May you suffer for the rest of your life to atone for my tears and agony. Mariko.”

Some wishes are more direct: “I pray that Okabe dies in an accident.”

Others are desperate pleas for help: “I pray that my family’s ties with depression and bipolar disorder come to an end.”

These are fervent, even violent expressions of raw, personal emotions rarely shown in public, and physical evidence of how traditional rituals associated with cursing are well and alive in 21st-century Japan.

The Enoki Inari Shrine, also known as Enkiri Enoki, is considered one of Japan’s three major enkiri (tie cutting) shrines. Situated on a tiny plot of land in Itabashi Ward, Tokyo, the shrine is visited by worshipers wishing to be rid of bad relationships and illnesses. | ALEX MARTIN
The Enoki Inari Shrine, also known as Enkiri Enoki, is considered one of Japan’s three major enkiri (tie cutting) shrines. Situated on a tiny plot of land in Itabashi Ward, Tokyo, the shrine is visited by worshipers wishing to be rid of bad relationships and illnesses. | ALEX MARTIN

Ominous origins

Kadota Inari Shrine is considered one of Japan’s three major enkiri, or “tie-cutting” shrines, in addition to Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Taisha and Enkiri Enoki in Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward. However, occult writer Yuki Yoshida says Kadota Inari Shrine stands out in terms of the sheer number of plaques being offered and the level of animosity on display.

“A normal person may become sick of reading so many negative messages left on the plaques, but it’s an opportunity to observe the dark side of the human mind,” Yoshida says. “In fact, a number of dedicated fans visit Kadota Inari Shrine routinely to check the plaques hanging there. While Japan is often considered a secular society, it’s worth learning how there are still many people who seriously indulge in the act of cursing others.”

That said, Yoshida says regardless of how cruel wishes may be, revealing one’s darkest secrets in such fashion and letting off some steam is a healthier alternative to taking physical action.

“It’s an entirely different matter compared to unleashing one’s vented stress in the form of violence,” he says.

That’s what happened on Dec. 7, 2017, when the term “tatari,” or curse, appeared in stories describing a murder-suicide that took place at Tomioka Hachimangu, a well-known shrine in Tokyo’s Koto Ward.

Fifty-eight-year-old Nagako Tomioka, head priestess of the nearly 400-year-old shrine, was ambushed as she got out of a car on the grounds of the shrine and slashed to death by her samurai sword-wielding younger brother, Shigenaga Tomioka, who then stabbed and killed his wife, Mariko, and himself.

Wooden plaques filled with worshippers’ prayers hang at Kadota Inari Shrine in the city of Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture. | ALEX MARTIN
Wooden plaques filled with worshippers’ prayers hang at Kadota Inari Shrine in the city of Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture. | ALEX MARTIN

Shigenaga became head priest of Tomioka Hachimangu in 1995 but lost his job over money-related troubles.

He held a long-standing grudge against his sister who had taken over his role, and earlier on the day of the incident, asked an acquaintance to drop around 2,800 letters into a post box addressed to parishioners’ businesses and other shrines across the nation.

Reports said the eight-page letter demanded that his sister be banished from the shrine and his son be anointed head priest instead.

“If these demands aren’t met, I shall remain in this world after my death as an onryō (malevolent spirit) and forever exact vengeance against responsible board members and their descendants,” the letter read.

The bizarre case drew widespread attention due to the prominence of the shrine and ominous choice of vocabulary Shigenaga used in his parting message. It also showed how tenaciously the superstition in curses lingered in the modern age.

Earlier the same year, on Jan. 25, a 51-year-old man was arrested in Gunma Prefecture for intimidation. The man had left a straw effigy with a nail thrust through it in the parking lot of an amusement arcade. With red paint, the name of the female owner of the arcade was written on the chest of the doll, along with what appeared to be eyes and a mouth.

The man, a regular at the arcade, had apparently developed unrequited feelings toward the owner that led him to conduct a bare-bones version of one of the most dreaded curse rituals in Japan: ushi no koku mairi, or ushi no toki mairi, which literally means “shrine visit at the hour of the ox.”

According to a book published more than a century ago by U.S. orientalist and lecturer William Elliot Griffis titled “The Religions of Japan From the Dawn of History to the Era of Meiji,” women betrayed by their lovers typically performed this religious act of vengeance at the hour of the ox, which is between 1 and 3 a.m.

“First making an image or manikin of straw, she set out on her errand of revenge, with nails held in her mouth and with hammer in one hand and straw figure in the other, sometimes also having on her head a reversed tripod in which were stuck three lighted candles,” he wrote. “Arriving at the shrine she selected a tree dedicated to a god, and then nailed the straw simulacrum of her betrayer to the trunk, invoking the kami (god) to curse and annihilate the destroyer of her peace.”

Griffis wrote that he had seen rusted nails and pieces of straw struck on trees on multiple occasions.

 a straw effigy, nails and candles are some of the objects used in the ushi no koku mairi cursing ritual. | © NIHON JUJUTSU KENKYU JUKIKAI
a straw effigy, nails and candles are some of the objects used in the ushi no koku mairi cursing ritual. | © NIHON JUJUTSU KENKYU JUKIKAI

Straw effigies

Rituals involving straw effigies, or wara ningyō, remain a potent image in popular culture, and its roots can be traced back to the earliest era of recorded history in Japan.

At the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties is an eighth-century doll made of wood with an iron nail shoved through its chest. From the Tatecho archaeological site in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, a wooden tag was discovered that had a drawing of a woman and holes left from wooden nails driven through her right breast and chest.

During the Heian Period (794-1185), straw effigies were crafted during plagues to dispel the sickness, while official shamans known as onmyōji practiced onmyōdō, a form of Japanese cosmology and divination based on the Chinese philosophies of Wu Xing and yin and yang that also utilized paper mannequins as shikigami — beings conjured to exercise tasks ordered by their masters.

While onmyōdō is no longer practiced, Kazuhiko Komatsu, a renowned ethnologist, discovered through his fieldwork in Kochi Prefecture that a faction of onmyodo survived as Izanagi-ryu (the Izanagi school) in the mountainous village of Monobe, where priests still perform exorcisms and cursing rituals.

ILLUSTRATION BY CHUAN MING ONG
ILLUSTRATION BY CHUAN MING ONG

The practice of ushi no koku mairi goes back to the legend of Hashihime, a character that first appeared in Heian literature that depicted her as a lonely woman waiting for her lover to return, with later accounts transforming her into a jealous demon.

Her story was later adapted into “Kanawa” (“The Iron Crown”), the noh play by Zeami Motokiyo about a beautiful woman visiting Kifune Shrine in Kyoto at the hour of the ox every night to pray for vengeance against her ex-husband who left her for a different woman.

The play depicts her changing into a rage-filled demon who wears an iron tripod as a crown that holds three burning candles.

Her ex, who fears for his life, seeks the help of master onmyōji Abe no Seimei, who prepares two life-sized straw effigies to diffuse the demon’s wrath.

The symbolic relevance of the wara ningyō as a powerful cursing tool remains intact, and Kifune Shrine is still considered the mecca for the ushi no koku mairi ritual, although it is unclear how many still actively partake in the practice.

Kohei Kikuchi, an adjunct lecturer at Waseda University, uses straw effigies in some of his classes. | ALEX MARTIN
Kohei Kikuchi, an adjunct lecturer at Waseda University, uses straw effigies in some of his classes. | ALEX MARTIN

Kohei Kikuchi, an expert on dolls and an adjunct lecturer at Waseda University, uses these effigies in a different manner, introducing them as a prop in one of his classes.

He sources wara ningyō online, where they can be bought for as cheap as a few hundred yen from e-commerce platforms such as Amazon, Yahoo Auctions and Mercari.

Upon purchasing one, Kikuchi brings it into his classroom and introduces it to students as a “special guest,” drawing nervous laughter. He then nonchalantly throws it to the floor or toward his students from the podium, often generating a few screams.

“I start my lecture by asking my students why they react the way they do,” he says. “The object will have no relevance for a small child. But while growing up, we are exposed to the symbolism of the wara ningyō through various movies, books and television shows that imprint us with the notion that it is something dreadful.”

Kikuchi says he concludes his lecture by comparing the wara ningyō to an information medium akin to newspapers.

“A wara ningyō tells us someone is trying to curse another person,” he says. However, unlike newspapers, the amount of information these straw effigies can provide is limited, he says.

“We don’t know who cursed who and with what intent,” he says. “Perhaps the wara ningyō is being used to curse someone we know, or maybe even ourselves. That ambiguity and lack of information scares us.”

Curse packages

Fire sit with me: A man wearing a mask performs a ritual in front of a fire. | © NIHON JUJUTSU KENKYU JUKIKAI
Fire sit with me: A man wearing a mask performs a ritual in front of a fire. | © NIHON JUJUTSU KENKYU JUKIKAI

For those looking to curse someone but remain wary of going through complicated rituals, there are online services that conduct curses on the client’s behalf.

Nihon Jujutsu Kenkyu Jukikai is one such service. Founded around three decades ago, the organization now staff around 30 people who undertake ushi no koku mairi and other rituals ranging in price from ¥20,000 to ¥300,000 depending on the skill set of the practitioner and the level of curse being administered, according to a spokesperson for the group.

Suzuki, who declined to reveal his first name citing privacy concerns, says prospective clients can consult Jukikai via instant messaging service Line, email and phone. Around 20 to 30 inquiries are received on an average day, he says, of which around 10 to 20 percent lead to actual contracts, the most popular being the ¥50,000 and ¥100,000 packages.

Clients are asked to provide information such as name, telephone number, address, gender, date of birth and blood type, as well as a brief description of the person they want to target, including their name, age, relationship with the client and gender.

Clients will then pay their dues upon receiving a parcel including a brochure explaining the schedule and procedures regarding the cursing ritual as well as a FAQ. “That’s all they have to do,” Suzuki says.

The ritual itself is conducted in a facility the organization owns in Nara Prefecture, and curious clients can call Jukikai any time to check up on the progress, Suzuki says.

“Contrary to what people may think, around 70 percent of the consultations we receive are romantic, while the rest involve grudges such as trouble with neighbors,” he says.

Members of JKS47 gather outside the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry in August. | ALEX MARTIN
Members of JKS47 gather outside the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry in August. | ALEX MARTIN

Meanwhile, a group of monks calling themselves JKS47, or Japan Kitou Society in English, have been gathering routinely in front of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry to protest the government for the restarting of nuclear reactors following meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011.

Formed in 2015, JKS47 — the name perhaps being a reference to the 47 ronin and popular pop-idol group AKB48 — considers itself the successor to a group of monks from the 1970s that cursed leaders of corporations responsible for environmental pollution through esoteric Buddhist rituals.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, a dozen or so members donning black robes and white sashes with the words “the dead shall judge” printed on them gathered by the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, musical instruments in hand, to recite sutras, perform music and deliver speeches.

While Buddhism and curses may not sound complimentary, “rituals for the subjugation of one’s enemies is an official category within the fourfold, or sometimes fivefold, ritual system within the esoteric Buddhist tradition,” says Eric Swanson, an assistant professor in the Theological Studies Department at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Take Heian warlord Taira no Masakado, who led a rebellion against the central government in Heian-kyo (today’s Kyoto). According to Swanson, some accounts say the Shingon monk Kancho was dispatched to deal with the unrest and established a goma (fire ritual) hall on Narita mountain where he performed a subjugation ritual.

Masakado was subsequently killed in battle and his head was sent to the ancient capital to be displayed to the public. Legend has it, however, that its eyes glared and teeth ground in anger for several months, until one day the head flew to the east.

The head of Heian warlord Taira no Masakado, known for leading a rebellion against the central government, is supposedly resting in this small plot of land in Tokyo’s Otemachi business district. Attempts to pave over the kubizuka (skull mound) have all failed due to mysterious accidents and illnesses. | ALEX MARTIN
The head of Heian warlord Taira no Masakado, known for leading a rebellion against the central government, is supposedly resting in this small plot of land in Tokyo’s Otemachi business district. Attempts to pave over the kubizuka (skull mound) have all failed due to mysterious accidents and illnesses. | ALEX MARTIN

Masakado’s kubizuka (the mound where his head is said to rest) remains tucked away in a small plot of land surrounded by skyscrapers in Tokyo’s Otemachi business district. There have been attempts to remove it in the past, but these projects all failed due to accidents and illnesses some have attributed to his angry spirit. To this day, the tiny site is visited by suit-clad office workers offering prayers seeking his divine protection.

Whether or not these rituals are effective lies in the eye of the beholder. But for some, a trip to a shrine to inscribe one’s wishes on a votive tablet may be worth the while.

“Thank you for severing the bad relationships I had at work, I think I can now start afresh,” reads one plaque hanging at Kadota Inari Shrine. “I pray that I can lead a happy life full of good relationships.”