Religion and Magic


Sorcery in Nippon is based on the mystical and ethical teachings of the Tao (pronounced "dow") which were originally imported from China. The world and all in it are seen as the results of interactions among the five elements: fire, water, air or wind, soil, and the void. This last element, all-encompassing and omnipresent as it is, may not be directly manipulated by magic.

The Nipponese sorcerer knows that the order of the universe is subject to rigorous metaphysical laws. Unlike the European sorcerer, he perceives control of these principles to be internal to his spirit rather than a learned, external mastery. This control is sought through austere, mystical exercises and manifests itself through command of the forces of sorcery.

Not all sorcerers are Taoists, however. Many are Confucian sages instead, who specialize in the use of the I Ching and divination. Confucian sages are in demand at all major daimyo courts for divination and discernment of propitious days. Few are so bold as to embark upon an important task without consulting the sage for a propitious day. (Still, one audacious samurai leader strictly forbade such consultations because it caused delays that might end in defeat for his army.) Some officials refused to go out of their houses on days judged inauspicious for themselves.

The practitioners of sorcery (as opposed to those who restrict themselves primarily to divination) are viewed with suspicion by most of the population and are unpopular with traditionally religious Nipponese. Fortunately for the sorcerer, it is common to separate public and private worship. He can easily hide his esoteric practices behind a public facade of religious observance.

Many folktales dealing with magical events attribute them to "sorcery." As often as not, the magic in these tales is actually spirit or divine magic.

Spirit Magic

The magic originates from the kami and the latent magic of the land itself. It is available to all who seek it. Spells may be learned at the many shrines and temples that dot Nippon, where the priests will, for an appropriate donation, teach anyone not proscribed by the deities. Alternatively, wise old hermit priests or even the kami themselves can be contacted to teach those who wish to learn.

Mythology & Religion

Religion is a system of beliefs which relates the individual to the greater world in some way. Samurai relate to the greater world through belief in kami, and other deities and spirits of varying power and importance. Religion includes reverence for these deities (expressed through sacrifice), and it assumes some return for the worship from the deity, expressed as beneficial magic.

Mythology is a body of knowledge which relates important explanations about the deities. To most modern readers mythological stories are interesting, if somewhat naive and often incomprehensible. Our knowledge of myths comes from ancient written sources based on older oral traditions. The original purpose of the tradition was to explain religion, but those facts were long lost to those writers who finally recorded the stories. Extrapolations from many sources can give us a general outline of the method of active belief. These general forms of worship can be traced back thousands of years.

The original mythologies were very different from those which were written down, because at one time the worshippers understood the true meaning of the tales. The transition of myth from meaningful revelations to half-forgotten stories is gradual and reflects a growing inability of the religion to satisfy the spiritual needs of the people. Such forces have been at work throughout Japan's history, as is amply demonstrated by the constant appearance of new religious philosophies. Yet at the same time, some elements of Japanese beliefs remained constant or were influential in what changes were made. The very existence of the Ryobu-shinto religious doctrine exemplifies this. Later, some Japanese were able to adopt portions of Christian beliefs into their faiths without seeing any contradiction among in the beliefs of Buddhism, Christianity, and Shinto.

Most Nipponese are poly-religious: they follow the tenets of more than one religion. At the same time, they do not feel bound by all of the restrictions of any one set of beliefs. With all the deities present in Nippon, a person could not live a balanced life devoted to one and ignoring the others.

This does not mean that the Nipponese do not interact with or worship the deities of Nippon. Buddhism and Shinto are important to a person's life and beliefs. Each faith caters to specific aspects of existence. A historical sect, the Tendai sect of Buddhism, formalized this approach to religion in the doctrine of Roybu-shinto or the two-fold way of Buddhism and Shinto. This religious philosophy finds correspondences between the ancient animistic deities of Shinto and the deities of Buddhism, imported from India by way of China, in these correspondences, Shinto and Buddhism are found to be one religion.

The religious path in Nippon is one of balance: male and female, good and evil, active and passive. Indeed, the kami are said to have two "souls", one kindly and one inimical, reflecting the duality of the forces of nature. Two deities were needed to create the islands of Nippon, Izanagi (the male who invites) and Izanami (the female who invites). All things have a place in the natural order and harmony is obtained by maintaining the natural order in society and one's personal life.

Thus, to be born Japanese, (that is, in Nippon and of the Japanese race) is to be raised as a lay member of Shinto and a lay member of Buddhism as well. Foreigners may not partake of the benefits of Nipponese poly-religious orientation. They may still, however, join Nipponese cults which are friendly and compatible with their own native or adopted cults.

Most samurai retain this orientation throughout their lives. It leaves them free to partake of the spirit magic of either religion and free also of the strictures of behavior and perils of pollution or sin laid upon initiates and priests.

Still, in Nippon there are those who are dedicated to a single path. Persons electing such a path are strictly bound by the tenets of their chosen faith.

In Nippon, a person may have both a public religion and a private one. Many people profess either Shinto or Buddhism as the faith of their family or clan while professing contrary, complementary, or no beliefs in private. Many samurai, while privately poly-religious (as is only prudent), will profess a public adherence either to Shinto or Buddhism.


Shinto is a pantheistic religion. Worship, or at least reverence, is given to all things and phenomena in nature. Shintoists believe that all things, animate and inanimate, have their own kami.

Shinto have no written doctrine or laws. Its beliefs are passed down by word of mout. Shinto emphasizes cleanliness of body, mind, and spirit, and promotes fertility. Practitioners revere the kami, transmit their ancestors' teachings concerning the essence of the kami, and promote human welfare. Shinto is a positive faith fostering harmony, well-being and a constructive approach to the world.

Kami are worshiped at shrines (jingu). These range in size from a simple rock of unusual shape, venerated for its kami, to the large, multi- building compound of the Grand Shrine at Ise. Only the largest shrines have a full-time staff of clerics.

Shrines generally face to the east, never to the west or north. The entrance is marked by a distinctive archway called a torii. This consists of two upright posts and two horizontal crosspieces at the top. Additional torii may be present at a large shrine or an exceptional small shrine. These torii are often put up by lay worshipers at their own expense to try and win divine favor. Some confused locations even have these multiple torii in front of Buddhist temples!

Beyond the gate, a place is set aside for purification rituals, where a worshiper may be cleansed or, if technically pure, wash his hands and rinse his mouth before communicating with the kami. Groves of the sacred sakaki trees are common. The buildings, constructed of hinoki (Japanese cypress) wood, are of simple and austere design. Furnishings are almost non-existent and no images of the kami will be found in the inner shrine. The shrines of "cult" kami have distinctive styles of roof and torii construction.

True Shinto priests are rare. Most Shinto "priests" are only acolytes or lay priests. They are part-time officials who perform weddings and purification ceremonies. They never perform funerals or birth rites because such are impure, and hence Buddhist activities. They also keep up local shrines. They are awarded no special status due to their priestly profession.

All new buildings are purified by the local Shinto lay priest to make it safe for entry. In a sense, the priest is introducing the kami of the site to the new structure. Family homes receive the protection of the ancestral kami in this fashion. Such rites do not actually protect the house against misfortune, but it does install the ancestral kami in place, who then can be called upon for aid.

Shinto acolytes and priests must avoid becoming ritually impure. In such a state, they are considered inactive, but not sacrilegious. A Shintoist is rendered impure by the touch of blood, the presence of death, illness, the birth or death of a close family member, and the practice of sorcery. To regain purity, a Shintoist must remove the polluting presence (either physically, as for blood, or through time, as for a mourning period after a death) and perform a purification ritual. Ritual pollution is visible in the aura of the polluted person.


The Buddhist religion's ultimate goal is to attain enlightenment. An enlightened one (a Buddha) is spiritually free and has full understanding of the relationship between man and the cosmos. This divine state of release from physical woes (nirvana) is achievable through correct living and self-discipline.

There are many sects in Buddhism. They interpret the Buddhist teachings in particular manners although they all agree on certain fundamental precepts. Variation can be over minor doctrinal points or even political aims. For purposes of magical benefits available, these sects may be considered the same. Do not, of course, assume that the politics of all sects are the same. There is often open hostility between sects even though they provide services to all lay members of the religion. Most disagreements between Buddhist establishments are land disputes, though some are political. These differences have more than once resulted in bloodshed. Sometimes large Shinto establishments got into the fray as well. Very little doctrinal rivalry occurs in either Buddhism or Shinto. One Buddhist sect, the Nichiren or Hokke sect, did indeed launch religious disputes, but it was exceptional, and was shunned by more conventional Buddhist sects.

Buddhists have no god in the way a westerner understands the term. Yet many spirits, which function as "deities", are connected with Buddhist beliefs. In many cases, these spirits are individuals who have achieved nirvana, yet still retain ties with the physical world out of a desire to aid others in achieving enlightenment.

An important sect has a major temple or monastery for their headquarters. These sites are staffed with many monks and priests. The more militant sects have religious warriors on call as well. The temples support themselves, usually tax free, from temple lands, farmed by tenant heimin. In many ways the temples function like samurai clans.

Buddhist temples (jiin), like Shinto shrines, vary tremendously in size. Small family "temples" (butsudan) are found in many homes, while the great temple complexes found on the sacred mountains of Nippon are often feudal demesnes in their own right. A Buddhist temple is ostentatious and showy compared to a Shinto shrine, from the tiled (as opposed to thatch or wood) roofs to the multi-story pagoda housing an inner sanctum crowded with images of the Buddhas and associated spirits. The temple grounds are always enclosed by a wall. The main gate is guarded by statues of fierce Ten, Myo-o or shishi. Larger temples consist of more than one sanctum. These are usually in separate compounds defined by walls within the outer wall.

The head of the temple is an abbot (sojo). There are various ranks of underpriests (risshi) in charge of different aspects of the temple and its holdings. Beneath them are the ordinary priests (soryo) and initiates resident at the temple. There is usually an additional transient population composed of monks from other institutions or sects, wandering priests of no particular temple or sect, and pilgrims.

The martial monks, or yamabushi, associated with various sects are men who have taken the religious vows of initiates yet continue their martial ways. Another type of war-like monks, sohei, were generally little more than mercenaries hired by the temples to protect their interests. Sohei may simply be laymen with shaved heads, though some engage in Fudo worship. Sects that believe that fighting and killing can be justified to further the religion (in practical terms usually the particular sect or temple) and alleviate the lot of the downtrodden. The monks themselves may expect full forgiveness for violent acts ordered by proper superiors or for acts which they can justify to those same superiors. Sohei are subject to all restrictions placed on Buddhists who have sinned if they commit such an act, whether it has been sanctioned by a superior or not, until they have purified themselves through a ritual of repentance.

Buddhists seek to eliminate hate, jealousy, and other violent emotions and replace them with tolerance, understanding, and love. This approach, and their belief in continued reincarnation of the soul until enlightenment is achieved, lead them to avoid all killing. Many are vegetarians to avoid the loss of animal life inherent in a more varied diet.

Buddhist beliefs lead the religion to be concerned with things spiritual rather than with the stuff of daily life. It offers rites for birth and death, areas of ritual impurity to Shinto. Its priests, through compassion and desire to ease suffering, are renowned for their aid to the sick, injured, and helpless.

Buddhist acolytes and priests are liable to sin against their beliefs. Sins include eating food from an animal source; participating in an act of violence; breaking a vow; drunkenness (or excess of any sort); killing of an animal and accidental killing of a person. While in a state of sin they are considered inactive but not sacreligious. To purify himself, the sinner must perform a ritual of repentance.

Buddhists consider rape and murder sacreligious.