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Silk for Amaterasu Ōmikami

The autumn issue of The Imperial Family included an article on the preparation of silk for a matsuri held at Jingū twice a year, the Kanmisosai. “Kan” is another reading of the “kami” kanji, “miso” means “clothing” here (I haven’t come across this reading anywhere else, although the kanji are standard), and “sai” is matsuri. This matsuri is very unusual at Jingū in that it is only held at the two jinja enshrining Amaterasu Ōmikami: the Goshōgū (main sanctuary) of the Inner Sanctuary, which enshrines her nigimitama, and Aramatsuri no Miya, the most important subsidiary jinja of the Inner Sanctuary, which enshrines her aramitama. It is not performed at the Outer Sanctuary at all, nor at any of the other subsidiary jinja.

As you might guess from the name “kami clothing matsuri”, it involves offering clothing to the kami, although I believe that the cloth offered today is not made into clothes. There are two cloth offerings, one of silk and one of hemp, and this article was about the preparation of the silk thread. While many of the offerings for the matsuri at Jingū are prepared around Jingū itself, the silk thread is prepared across Isë Bay, in Aichi Prefecture. The bay is very narrow at this point, and so the area has long had a close connection with Jingū. Historically, this was where the silk for the Kanmisosai came from, but that custom fell into abeyance, and was restored in the late nineteenth century by an energetic local man. It apparently took him some time to convince the Meiji authorities that an area that wasn’t under the direct control of the Imperial household should contribute offerings to Jingū, but history was on his side.

The silk is now prepared at the last silk farm in the area. The man who was running it died a couple of years ago at the age of 92, and there was some concern that it would shut down, but members of his family and other local residents stepped in to keep up one crop of silk per year, to supply Jingū and a few other major jinja. The article describes the process of raising silkworms in considerable detail, and it sounds like quite a lot of work. I’m not surprised that it is no longer economically viable to do it that way.

The silk is then spun into thread at a special hall about 50 km away, nearer the sea. This hall is a repurposed building from Jingū, and has an attached jinja that is from the same source. I suspect that the spinning hall was not originally a sanctuary, but rather one of the ancillary buildings — the jinja probably was a sanctuary. (I have no evidence for this at all, just a sense of what people are likely to think is an appropriate reuse of the buildings.) These structures were donated in 1934, after one of the Grand Renewals.

The spinning is done by two women called “kuritomë”. They wear special white outfits, and both they and the whole building are purified before the spinning starts. The machine used is Meiji vintage, and they said that they had to learn to use it by trial and error. They’ve now been doing the spinning for 25 years, so they have become quite skilled. The silk thread is very white, but it is called “Akahikiito”, which means “red pulled thread”. In this case, I think that “aka” (“red”) is used to indicate purity, a use found quite often in early Shinto and in a few expressions in modern Japanese.

Once the thread has been prepared, it is placed in a wooden chest, which is covered in a brocade cloth with the chrysanthemum badge of the Imperial family embroidered in gold. The chest is purified again before it is taken onto a ferry, which makes a special trip to transport it. The ferry flies a flag showing that it is in the service of Jingū, and the chest is placed in a first class seat of its own, because it can’t be treated like normal luggage. A few dozen representatives of the area that prepares the silk, including everyone directly involved, normally accompany it, although numbers were reduced during the pandemic.

The group stay overnight just outside Jingū, and then take the chest to the Inner Sanctuary in a procession. This is led by the flag from the ferry, and then a wooden board saying that this is the silk for the Kanmisosai, followed by the chest with the silk in. Behind the chest come five flags in the five standard colours: purple, red, white, yellow, and green. The kuritomë follow, and then the other people associated with the process. After the silk has been handed over, they pay their respects at the sanctuary.

This does appear to be an ancient custom at Jingū, which was revived, and has just survived another crisis. It looks as though it will be safe for another couple of decades, but they will need to find another generation to keep it going. In that, it is similar to many other Shinto customs across Japan.

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4 thoughts on “Silk for Amaterasu Ōmikami”

    1. Immediately, I think it is left in the main sanctuary for the kami. After that, though, I don’t know at all. I know what happens to the Shikinen Sengū treasures now (they are kept in a different sacred store room at Jingū for another twenty years, and then go to museums), but I don’t know what happens to this. The treasures used to be burned or buried, so maybe that is what happens to the silk.

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