A-Yokai-A-Day: Hososhi

Greetings readers!

Today’s entry is a long one, but hopefully it’s an interesting one. I won’t do much in the way of introduction, so I’ll let you get right into the juicy details! Have at it!

“Minister of the Four Directions”

Toriyama Sekien’s Hōsōshi

Hōsōshi is a pretty difficult word to translate, but “Minister of the Four Directions” is the closest I can get to the idea of the word without overdoing it. A professor of Heian period court life or East Asian folk religions could probably come up with a better translation than that, but I think it will do for our purposes. In any case, I’m going to give you a further explanation:

Hōsōshi was an official government title, thus the “Minister” part, but they were also a kind of priest. Hōsō was a religious concept related to divination, the four directions, and the barriers between our world and the spiritual world. East Asian temples often have important architectural features related to the geographical directions, and of course there is a lot of symbolism related to the directions (the directions are associated with colors, seasons, various gods and Buddhas, mythical creatures, body parts, medicine, and just about anything else you can think of). The concept of hōsō was related to creating directional boundaries and barriers. This could mean something like planting trees or placing stones in the four corners, or utilizing existing features like rivers, highways, etc. to serve as boundaries. It’s sort of a way of dividing a place into a square for spiritual reasons.

The concept originated in ancient Chinese folk religion, and the hōsōshi is the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese fangxiangshi, a sort of exorcist. Folk religion eventually became mixed with Buddhism and Taosim, and then made its way to Japan. In Heian period Japan, the Hōsōshi was a priest in the imperial court whose duties included leading the coffins during funeral processions, officiated at burial ceremonies, and keeping yokai (like the corpse-eating mōryō) away from burial mounds. The Hōsōshi’s most famous duty is a specific ritual related to the end of the year purification ceremonies.

A Tsuina ceremony

Tsuina was an important purification ritual held every year on the last day of the year. This day was called Ōmisoka. The Hōsōshi performed the ritual with one servant, and a number of government officials. In China, the Hōsōshi  wore a bearskin with four eyes. In Japan, the Hōsōshi’s costume consisted of an oni mask with four golden eyes. The mask was to scare away demons, and the four eyes were so he could see in all four directions. He also wore special robes, and carried a spear in his right hand and a shield in his left hand. The Hōsōshi and his servant would chant and run around the imperial palace grounds (i.e. “the four directions”), warding the area against oni, yokai, and other evil spirits. Meanwhile the attending officials would shoot arrows into the courtyard around the Hōsōshi from the palace buildings, defending the palace against evil spirits. Other observers would play hand drums which also had ritualistic cleansing significance.

Over time, the ritual evolved even further away from its Chinese roots. The Hōsōshi became associated not with the imperial side, keeping the oni at bay, but with the oni itself. Rather than exorcising the oni, the Hōsōshi became the oni, and it was the other officials who chased away and exorcised the Hōsōshi (thus symbolically chasing the demons away too). Religious scholars believe this may have been because of changing perceptions during the Heian period about the concept of ritual purity and uncleanliness. The Hōsōshi, who was associated with funerals and dead bodies, changed from being a purifier into one who was ritually unclean. It would be inappropriate for such a person to be on the same “side” as the emperor, so he became the oni instead.

throwing beans
mamemaki at the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto; the descendant of the Tsuina ritual

If you’re familiar with Japanese holidays, you may be thinking “A winter holiday that involves chasing demons away and is tied to the four directions? That sounds like Setsubun.” And you’d be right! That ritual is the descendant of the Tsuina ritual. Today, Setsubun is celebrated in February, but in the old lunar calendar system Setsubun marked the beginning of the new year. That is why it falls so close to Chinese New Year—it used to be the same holiday! As the start of the new year, Setsubun was a very important holiday for purification rituals. Setsubun was the beginning of the year, and Ōmisoka was the last day of the year; so these holidays used to be right next to each other. With the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, New Year’s Day was observed on January first. Since Ōmisoka is last day of the year, it naturally came to be observed on December 31st. Setsubun remained attached to the traditional start of Spring in East Asia, aka Chinese New Year, which takes place around February. Today there is an entire month separating these two holidays which used to be right next to each other!


Leave a Reply