Evidence for Ritual Development and Overseas Exchange

The sacred island of Okinoshima, situated between the Japanese archipelago and the Korean peninsula, has long attracted the devotion of the local population in the Munakata region, who possessed advanced nautical skills.
 Large-scale rituals utilizing an enormous quantity of precious votive offerings were conducted on the island to pray for safe ocean voyages from the 4th to the 9th centuries, a period of more than 500 years during which overseas exchange occurred frequently in East Asia.
 Ritual sites bearing witness to the successive phases of ancient rituals that chronicle the formation of indigenous beliefs in Japan have survived to the present almost intact, because the island of Okinoshima, as an object of worship, has been protected by established taboos strictly limiting access to the island.
Okinoshima
Okinoshima
Rituals on the island were first conducted atop gigantic rocks, then in the shadows of these rocks, and finally in flat open-air parts of the island; in the process, faith in the Three Goddesses of Munakata began to take shape.  Approximately 80,000 votive offerings including precious objects from abroad have been collectively designated as national treasures of Japan, further illuminating how these rituals underwent changes, and the nature of overseas exchange at that time.

Rituals Performed Atop Huge Rocks

Site17
Site17

By the middle of the 5th century an altar had appeared set atop a rock, with a large stone in its center, surrounded by pebbles arranged in a square conguration. Offerings of flat iron ingots that the Yamato court procured from the Korean peninsula also reflect importance of iron for Japan at that time.

Rituals were first performed atop these boulders in the late 4th century, when overseas exchanges were occurring frequently.
 Offerings were arranged neatly in small spaces between them and covered withstones.
 These artifacts are similar to many burial objects found in mounded tombs dating to that period, including bronze mirrors,iron swords and other weapons, and comma-shaped beads.
 The combination of mirrors, swords, and beads (also called "jewels"), which constitute the imperial regalia of Japanese mythology, characterize ritual offerings spanning several centuries.
Triangular-rimmed deity-and-beast mirror
Triangular-rimmed deity-and-beast mirror

Rock-shadow Rituals

From the second half of the 5th century onward, rituals were performed in the shadows of rocks. Offerings from this period include iron weapons, miniature knives and axes, and highly ornamented gilt-bronze harnesses from the Korean peninsula. A gold ring that bears a striking resemblance to those found in the royal Silla tombs and shards of Persian glass presumably brought to Japan by way of the distant Silk Road are important pieces of evidence for the active exchanges that were taking place at this time. Those who engaged in dangerous ocean voyages offered these treasures to the gods.

Gold ring
Gold ring
Many fine offerings from Silla, including a gold ring and gilt-bronze harness, were found at Site7 to the right of the boulder and at Site8 to its left.
Many fine offerings from Silla, including a gold ring and gilt-bronze harness,
were found at Site7 to the right of the rock and at Site8 to its left.

Partial rock-shadow Rituals

Site 22
Site 22

During this period the Sui unified the long-divided Chinese continent; the Tang then replaced the Sui.
 The Yamato court sent envoys to cultivate relations with the Sui and Tang rulers.
 After the Tang and Silla toppled Baekje, which had long been allied with Yamato, however, Yamato sent in troops and suffered a huge defeat by Tang-Silla allied forces in 663.
 After the loss, Yamato accelerated its efforts to establish a centralized government modeled on the Tang.

In the period characterized by rituals performed in the shadows of rocks came to an end (Site 22) and partial rock-shadow rituals (Site 5), offerings shifted from items resembling burial objects found in mounded tombs to gilt-bronze miniature spinning and weaving tools, human figurines, and other objects that crafted especially for rituals

Site 22
Site 22
Gilt-bronze dragon head
Gilt-bronze dragon head

Written records of ancient rituals in Japan appear only from the 8th century onward, so the ritual sites on Okinoshima are an essential source of information about the formative stages of indigenous faith in Japan.

Rituals on Okinoshima appear to have changed with the times.
 The ritual style that emerged in this period became the basis of indigenous Japanese ritual practices that still survive today.
 These gilt-bronze artifacts resemble the divine treasures still in use today at Ise Shrine.

Fragments of Tang-style three-colored bottle-shaped vase with long neck
Fragments of Tang-style three-colored bottle-shaped vase with long neck
Site 5.Arrangement of pottery as investigations have confirmed that it was used in rituals.
Site 5. Arrangement of pottery as investigations have confirmed that it was used in rituals.
Gilt-bronze miniature pentachord
Gilt-bronze miniature pentachord

Open-air rituals

Human-shaped steatite object
Human-shaped steatite object
Boat-shaped steatite object
Boat-shaped steatite object
Horse-shaped steatite object
Horse-shaped steatite object
Site 1
Site 1

In the 8th century rituals were first performed in flat, open areas, some distance away from the group of rocks where they had been conducted unil that time.
 Many votive offerings were deposited around the remains of a stone altar with a large rock at its center.
 Offerings consisted mainly of a wide variety of pottery, including objects perforated with holes and steatite objects in the shapes of people, horses, and ships.

Tang-style coloring techniques.
Nara-style tricolored small jar

While these offerings share some common features with those associated with the new ritual style that prevailed at that time in Japan, some ritual objects are characterized by shapes and materials unique to the Munakata region. Rituals with a local flavor were performed within the new framework of the state.

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