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The Kami of Smallpox

In the midst of the impact of COVID-19, I am still visiting my local jinja every day. This is fine: it is part of my walk, and I do not get close to anyone while doing so, which means that social distance is being maintained. (I wouldn’t visit a jinja I couldn’t walk to at the moment, though.)

Today, I arrived to find that a small red gohei had been set up on the offering box. (A gohei, or heisoku, is two pieces of paper, both folded into lightning-bolt shapes, forming an inverted V-shape that hangs from the top of a wooden rod.) That is not normal; I’ve never seen it before. By chance, one of the priests was around, so I asked her what it was. (While standing outside, while she was inside, to maintain social distance.)

She told me that it was the kami of smallpox: Hōsōgami. This kami was the kami in charge of smallpox, and people propitiated it in the hope of avoiding infection themselves. Vaccination proved a more effective prevention measure, but because the kami had been propitiated for centuries, it was transferred to epidemic diseases in general.

It is important to note that this kami is not a kami of preventing smallpox: it is the kami of smallpox, and people propitiated it to get it to go away and not bother them. This is a common idea in Shinto tradition, and is not limited to diseases; the veneration of Mt Fuji may have been originally been intended to convince the volcano not to erupt, while the origin legend for Ōmiwa Jinja in Nara Prefecture, one of the oldest jinja in Japan, is quite explicit that the kami is causing a plague, and will stop it if properly venerated.

The colour of the gohei is significant. According to the priest, Hōsōgami has a red gohei, while Mizugami, a kami of water, has a blue one, and the ordinary gohei for the kami of the jinja is white. Shinto being the way it is, I have no idea whether that choice of colours is universal, part of the culture of the area around Tokyo, or just my local jinja.

The priest also mentioned that the gohei was a yorishiro; an object into which the kami had been called temporarily. (That is one reason why there is no photograph.) Apparently, there was some debate within the jinja as to whether it should be put in the main sanctuary, because it is housing a kami, but if you do that, no-one would be able to see it. It may have been moved before I go back tomorrow. While goshintai, which permanently house kami, are normally hidden from sight, temporary housings for the kami are often visible. The ofuda that are placed on household kamidana could be thought of as the most common example of this, but when a matsuri is performed outside a jinja, the kami are called into a yorishiro, often a sakaki branch or gohei, which is normally visible.

The priest said that setting up the gohei of Hōsōgami is just something that they can do to relieve stress. Small jinja are, apparently, facing the same financial pressures as small businesses, as well as the general pressure of the pandemic, and so they need the support as much as anybody.

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