Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
If there was ever a popularity contest for deities in Japan, the contestants would be three: the “saints” Kanon Bosatsu and Jizo Bosatsu from Buddhism and O-Inari-Sama (お稲荷様) from Shinto; once again, the separation between Buddhism and Shinto is figural rather than substantial since the two religions have been so much intermingled that for most people they are just two different ways to understand the same thing. O-Inari-Sama’s case is perhaps the most characteristic: the particular deity enjoys so big popularity and has been related to so many different things that its shrines are, literally, everywhere –often even within the premises of Buddhist temples or in the gardens of private homes. During the Edo period there was even a saying that the three things in abundance in the great city were shops by Ise merchants, Inari shrines and dog excrement.
Once again, responsible for this popularity is rice: given its importance for people’s lives, it needed its own deity and through a fermentation process about which less is known from history and ethnography and more from mythology, the distillate of this need was O-Inari-Sama, “he who carries the rice” as is one rendering of the characters making up his name. And if O-Inari-Sama can guarantee that rice plants will bear fruit and that the crop will be good, what he really guarantees is that life will go on; hence it is no wonder that with time he was to be associated with prosperity at large and with all kinds of financial gains: he was thought of as a patron saint of, among others, farmers, sword-makers merchants, actors and the prostitutes and courtesans of Yoshiwara.
O-Inari-Sama’s shrines are probably the most easily recognizable among Japan’s temples: their tori gate is always vermillion or bright orange and they are always guarded by a pair of stone foxes; the fox or “kitsune” (狐) is the god’s messenger, a magical creature that can change shape and form and can help, destroy, deceive or advise both other animals and humans. Tradition holds that the fox’s favorite food is fried tofu (“abura-age”/油揚げ or “atsu-age”/厚揚げ) so a pouch of this tofu filled with sushi rice is called “inari-zushi” (稲荷寿司) or “o-inari-san”; the concept of Holy Communion doesn’t really exist in Japan but given the popularity of O-Inari-Sama and of the particular dish, one so inclined could easily argue (and not entirely inaccurately) that with every bite of inari-zushi, people consume a deity of vital significance.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.