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1 May 2004 Trees, Forests and Religion in Japan
Hiroshi Omura
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According to an ancient Shinto belief, a god descended to a high pine on an elegant mountain, to exist in a large or old tree. Sacred places, despite occupying only 0.55% of Japanese territory, have been marked by shrines for many years. The precinct of a shrine is distinguished by special trees. Twigs with leaves of Cleyra japonica or Illicium religiosum are offered to a god or the soul of a dead person. More than 15 species in Japan have been identified for religious use. Because sacred forests and trees have significant roles, preserving a solemn atmosphere as well as the natural environment, they should be protected and conserved as a heritage for citizens.


Animism was a primitive religion in ancient Japan. “There are gods in everything, not only living creatures but also surrounding all things” (Sugawara 1989). According to Shinto belief, a god descended to a high pine on an elegantly shaped volcanic mountain, to exist in a large or old tree. The Japanese word “mori” means the forest in the precinct of a Shinto shrine (Honda 2002). Such sacred forests have been conserved and managed by shrines for some centuries. The precinct of any shrine or temple is distinguished by special trees, and their twigs and leaves are offered to a god or the soul of a dead person (Tujii 1995). People today are apt to forget the original meaning of religious trees.

Trees and religion in Japan

There are more than 15 species (Tujii 1995) historically related to Shinto or Buddhism in Japan. Most occur in southwestern Japan. The Ogatama-noki tree, Michelia compressa, should be mentioned first, as the name “Ogatama” means “inviting soul.” People believed that the tree has a special power to invite a god's soul, so they planted it at the front gate, or precinct of a shrine (Figure 1).

In Japan, pine trees (Pinus thunbergii and Pinus densiflora) are called “Mastu,” which means “waiting for a god's soul to descend from heaven.” For example, there is a legend in Kudamastu city, Yamaguchi prefecture, that the god of the polestar had come down into this tree in the precinct of a shrine, and shone for 7 nights. The shrine is called Kudamastu-jinjya. “Kudamastu” means “the pine tree to which the god descended.”

It is a custom to plant pine trees in the precincts of shrines and temples, and to set twigs of pine at the gates of houses in every new year to wait for a blessing by the god. Because pine is a typical pioneer plant at a sunny place after cutting or forest fire, people expect recovery of pine forest. Pollen chronology has revealed that 72% of original forest had disappeared by 1500 BP and been replaced by second growth pines. The timing might correspond with the establishment of many shrines.

The Sakaki tree (Cleyra japonica), the original name of which was “Sakai,” meaning “a boundary,” has been used to purify areas and distinguish holy places for Shinto gods. Twigs with leaves are offered to gods in shrines (Figure 2). The Sakaki is a low tree, but a pioneer plant, the same as pine.

Bamboo (Phyllostachys bambusoides) often designates holy places. For example, when erecting a high bamboo called “the holy tree” on a paddy field, farmers customarily prayed to a god for a good rice harvest. Bamboo is noteworthy for rapid growth, in which people sense the mystery of strong life (Muroi 1987). During the star festival, which was introduced from China, a cut bamboo tied with letters is used to convey wishes to stars. In rural districts of Nepal bamboo is used for reincarnation ceremonies.

As memorials to Gautama Buddha (the historical Buddha), Shorea robusta and Ficus religiosa, followed by Tiliaceae, are common at temples in Buddhist countries. Michelia compressa and Illicium religiosum both belong to the family of Magnoliaceae, the flower of which resembles a water lily linked with the Buddha. In Japan, Buddhism absorbed Shinto beliefs based on animism.

In India a small temple is set at the foot of a sacred tree (Kawasaki 1987). In Nepal some trees linked with the Buddha are distinguished by painting on the bark of stems. Villagers have a custom of praying for prosperity to such trees at full moon. In Tibet, Lama Buddhists distinguished sacred trees by tying pieces of cloth around twigs (Ueyama 1969).

The peach tree (Prunus persica) was believed to have a special power that can drive away devils or thunder. This idea may have originated from Tao in China. Ueyama (1969) discussed Japanese religious beliefs connected with broad-leaved evergreen forest, comparing it with mountain villagers' customs in southeastern Asia. Owing to migration on the Eurasian continent, similar use of religious trees, the common significance of lime trees, and spatial distribution of religious trees in Japan, it is possible that the religious meaning and use of trees in Japan were transferred from the Eurasian continent. Before World War II, the Japanese people believed the special use of trees based on Shinto was unique to Japan's cultural identity. But today it is important to recognize that some foreign countries have similar religious concepts. A systematic comparison of examples can illustrate basic similarities and differences.

Giant trees

The Japanese word “Kodama” means “a tree's soul and its echo.” The word “Hashira” means “the soul of a person of high rank,” and “wooden poles taken from a large or old tree in which a god exists.” In contemporary Japan there are still some large trees at places like steep mountains and sacred precincts of shrines that have been difficult to access. Yagishita (1986) has taken many fine photos of big trees all over Japan, and explained 47 typical examples. Among these, 21 examples are located in precincts of shrines and 13 in the precincts of temples.

A sacred straw festoon is often stretched around the bole of a big tree, and the gate of the Shinto shrine is built. People who wish to obtain the power of a long life often pray and touch the bark. Cutting down a large or old tree could provoke a curse from a god. On a camphor tree, ranked as the 5th largest in all Japan, a statue of Kannon, the god of mercy, was carved on a big knot at its bole by a priest called Gyo-ki in the Nara era.

The Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) and the camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora) can grow very tall. Yagishita (1986) cites 9 examples of holy cedar and 6 examples of holy camphor. Some of them are conserved as natural monuments designated by the national government or prefectural governments.

At an altitude of 1000 m on Yakushima Island, some giant Japanese cedar trees attain heights of about 30 m and are over 2000 years old. They, too, have holy significance. A small shrine gate is set on the stump at the maximum diameter, 4.39 m, at breast height (Tagawa 1994). The surrounding primary forest was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1993. In Kyoto, Japan, the poles on the main stage of the Kiyomizu-ji temple were made of large zelcova trees, about 70 cm in diameter and 700 years old. In Kathmandu, Nepal, there is a 3-storey Hindu temple, Kastamandap, built of a single large Shorea robusta, the diameter and height of which were estimated at 1.5 m and 40 m, respectively. Large high poles are effective in preserving a solemn atmosphere.

According to Tsai Chih Chung (1992), in ancient China, Ailanthus altissima, called the “tree of heaven,” was not cut due to the uselessness of its timber, and was left to become a high tree. People could rest and meditate under the shade of the crown, and deified it as the god tree in a village. This tree illustrated the Tao idea of “the importance of uselessness.”

A large old tree has significance as a landmark, in terms of the spiritual pride in its high peculiar shape, as a recorder of climate history in its annual rings, as an indicator of species that suit a region's environment, and as a guide, with accompanying plants, to ecological rehabilitation of the surrounding area. Recently the Japanese people have recognized the importance of these large trees, and attempts are made to conserve them for citizens as natural monuments or a heritage designated by the national or regional government. There are many special doctors who can take care of old weak trees by means of soil physical or biochemical treatments.

Forest at a typical shrine

Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples have historically managed their forests, which total 208,000 ha, corresponding to 0.55% of Japan's territory. The number of individual forests managed is roughly 34,000. The average size is estimated as 6.1 ha, which is often larger than a private forest. These forests are mainly composed of broad-leaved evergreen trees mixed with Japanese cedar—the dominant species in the warm temperate climate of southwestern Japan, which is affected by the monsoons common in southeastern Asia.

The Kasuga-taisha shrine was established in AD 710 by the Fujiwara, who were high-ranking members of the government. Since then, Mt Mikasayama has been considered a sacred place where gods came down to pine and cedar trees from heaven. Since AD 841 timber cutting and hunting have been prohibited in the 300-ha forest of Mikasayama. The ecosystem of this primary forest has kept its dynamic nature, shows the climax phase, and includes a pure Podocarpus nagi forest. The importance of this forest was recognized by its designation as a natural monument in 1924, as a special natural monument in 1956, and as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1998. Many deer in its precinct are protected as messengers from gods. This is different from European management of forests for hunting (Kawasaki 1987).

Nippon Shoki, the Ise-jingu Shinto shrine, is documented as having been established in 3 BC, and is the oldest of all the shrines in Japan. This shrine has a large forest, but it deteriorated due to overcutting of timber used for firewood by people who came to the shrine as tourists. The government carried out revegetation in the devastated areas to stabilize slopes in the 1950s. Today a forest of broad-leaved trees mixed with Chamaecyparis obtusa, the Hinoki tree, has been established. The Ise-jingu shrine has a custom of rebuilding every 20 years. Many big Hinoki trees have been used as architectural materials at this shrine.

In memory of the Meiji Emperor, the Government built the Meiji-jingu shrine, surrounded by planted forest, in Tokyo in 1920. Trees were contributed from all over Japan. Silviculture works were carried out in accordance with ecological concepts, taking account of species and composition. Today trees rich in diversity are adjusted to regional conditions and have the appearance of a natural forest, which also mitigates thermal conditions in the surrounding area during severe summers.

In the center of Nagoya city, the Astuta-jingu shrine is located at a legendary place known as “Ho-rai,” which means “eternal immortality.” At the front gate of this shrine Michelia compressa trees, also known as Ogatamanoki, are planted to invite gods from heaven. The precinct is covered by thick broad-leaved forest, which supplies a tranquil space for citizens and mitigates thermal conditions in the surrounding area.

The Usa-jingu shrine is located on northeastern Kyushu Island. In ancient times people from advanced cultures landed there from the Korean peninsula. This shrine influenced the government's political decisions. After Shinto became associated with Buddhist beliefs, the Samurai and Genji who governed Japan in the Kamakura era deified the gods at this shrine. Many Cyclobalanopsis trees are distributed near the central part of its precinct. The fruit of this species was a staple food for ancient people in southwestern Japan.

Shinto gave a spiritual basis to the cultural identity of the Japanese people, particularly before World War II. Today the Japanese have a tendency to think that science looks on religion as superstition, and can easily control nature. The idea that science can be used to manage forests has led to timber cutting and tree planting in areas that were formerly natural forests (Shidei 1985). Yet religious forests preserved from commercial cutting for centuries have played a significant role, both in preserving a holy and solemn atmosphere, as well as in regional environmental conservation. Such forests should continue to be conserved as natural monuments.


In Japan more than 15 tree species are related to the Shinto and Buddhist religions. Some large old trees in which gods are said to exist are located in shrines or temples. These religious uses of special trees, to summon the gods and identify sacred areas, are also found in other countries. It is important to understand that these uses are common rather than distinct to Japan. Shinto shrines have managed their sacred forests for many centuries. Because such forests and large trees have preserved a solemn atmosphere and also conserved parts of the natural environment, they should continue to be protected and conserved as natural monuments.



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Ogatamanoki, Michelia compressa Sarg., at Aso-jingu shrine in Kumamoto prefecture, Japan. (Photo by author)



Sakaki or Cleyra japonica prepared as an offering for a god. (Photo by author)

Hiroshi Omura "Trees, Forests and Religion in Japan," Mountain Research and Development 24(2), 179-182, (1 May 2004).[0179:TFARIJ]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 May 2004
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