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Home » 5. Rites and Festivals » Types of Rituals
Kodai saishi (Ancient Rituals)
"Ancient rituals" can be divided broadly into those religious rituals that involve natural objects such as mountains and streams, rocks, and trees and rituals related to burial services. Gradually, with the advent of agriculture, we also find rituals concerned with grain deities relevant to the cyclic activity of agricultural life and with the formation of blood kinship groups, rituals concerned with the worship ancestral deities emerged.

Rituals of the Jōmon and Yayoi periods
As objects of very early religious activity, there are etched stones from the Paleolithic period with what are believed to be representations of female deities. The number of ancient sites so far discovered is limited but a typical example would be the Kamikuroiwa Iwakage remains in Ehime Prefecture. There has been and increase in recent years in the discovery and excavation of archeological sites for communal rituals dating to the Jōmon period. Circles of rocks in the circular formations at Ōyu, Akita Prefecture, have been identified as grave sites. They are thought to have been thus positioned during the burial ceremonies. At the southern end of a standing-stone circle site in Koshono, Iwate Prefecture, is an arch-shaped mound. Within this arch are numerous lamps, and a generous collection of various earthenware, stoneware, earthen goods, stone implements, fur, bone, and plant seeds. There are also larger scale sites such as the one at Teranohigashi, Tochigi Prefecture, and we are gradually learning more about rituals in Jōmon settlements. Also, there are enormous upright pillars found primarily in the Hokuriku districts and though it is unclear what kind of structure was attached to their top, it has been suggested that a common ritual protocol might have existed in various geographic regions. On the one hand, the tens of thousands of objects such as the clay and stone figurines that have been discovered seem to have been magical objects and have had a ritual function. However, these rituals seem to differ from the communal rituals of the aforementioned settlements and the magical objects are usually discovered in different locations.
       It is believed that in the Yayoi period bell-shaped bronze vessels were used in rituals. However, while such objects have indeed been found, they are only seldom unearthed at verified ritual sites. Researchers try to imagine the role and appearance of spirit mediums (fugeki) based on depictions found on earthenware and ponder the nature of waterside rituals taking images found on bronze vessels as evidence. However, conclusive evidence has yet to be found. In recent years wooden swords, musical instruments and other items that seem to be ritual objects have been unearthed from peat sites and these should help in reconstructing communal rituals. The funeral rites accompanying burial in a jar-shaped burial vessel (kamekanbo) employed special trapezoid-shaped earthenware and red-and-black earthenware and were of particularly large scale among rituals performed at grave sites.

Rituals of the Kofun period
There are two categories for rituals for the Kofun period—one broad and one strict. The broader definition includes ceremonies related to grave sites while the more narrow definition does not. As expressions of grief became more elaborate in the Kofun period, burial observances also became more complex, with rituals that mark the stages of building the tomb, the internment of the corpse, the burial service, the time immediately after the service and periodic later times. The haniwa (figurines) that can be found standing in rows on the surface of these tomb mounds are commonly made out of fired earthenware, but in recent years there has been an increase in finds of wooden haniwa.
       In this period we also start to be able to see rituals not related to tombs. Remains of shrine structures within villages have also been found in places such as Nagasetakahama in Tottori Prefecture, but the majority of remains are of open-air ritual sites. These are ritual sites unrelated to rituals performed at tombs and are further usually also distinguished from sites indirectly related to rituals. They are designated as rituals sites under the strict definition.
       Ritual sites in this stricter sense are limited to those places where ritual implements have been found among structural remains. The site can all the more be identified as a genuine ritual site when there is a rock or rocky area that has been treated as an object of worship and where local legends or beliefs remain.
       Strictly ritual archeological sites are categorized as below, according to the object of worship and location of the site.
       Those sites of this period that take a mountain as their object of worship include high mountains and peaks such as Mt. Fuji, Mt. Tsukuba, Mt. Nantai at Nikkō, and Mt. Akagi. In other instances, also smaller mountains located in the vicinity of settlements such as Mount Miwa, Mount Mikama, and Mount Nakoshi were worshiped. In these cases, the ritual sites were not located deep in the mountains, but rather at the periphery to developed areas and at the mountain's base.
       Among the types of ritual sites that worship or employ rocks or rock formations, there are the so-called "stone-kami" (ishigami), iwakura, and iwasaka. There are two contrasting religious beliefs regarding the worship of rocks: those where the rocks are unchanging and unperturbed and those where it is believed that the rocks move, swell, increase in number, sweat, or change colors. There are many examples where shrines have developed around rituals where a god temporarily resides in the iwakura rock. One can see in today's shrines throughout Japan such ancient rocks that are taken as the origin of the shrines.
       It seems that rituals sites located on islands were dedicated to the deity of the island; in many cases these island deities were sea deities (umi no kami) and their worship related to maritime travel. The remains on the island Munakata Oki-no-shima are typical for this type of site, with the ritual site located at a spot where huge rocks were piled up on the slopes of a hill. The objects discovered at this site include not only real mirrors, weaponry, armor, jewelery and models/imitations of these items, but also many objects brought from the Chinese mainland, the Korean peninsula and other areas, such as a bowl made out of cut-glass from Persia. The existence of these luxury items at this site suggests that it was used for the performance of state rituals. There are also theories that connect seaside rituals sites such as the one on Kōjin Island, Kagawa Prefecture, to the production of salt. However, it is believed that most sites, including those located on promontories, were dedicated to the deities of the sea.
       Several riverside sites have also been uncovered, such as the Kotsuro remains in the lower reaches of the Shimanto River on Shikoku. Other sites have been found in Gunma Prefecture, Hiroshima Prefecture, and elsewhere.
       Sites that are thought to have had trees as their objects of worship can also be found but few remain that preserve the full tree. As an example for this type of site, one can mention the site at Miyamae River in Ehime Prefecture where some of the roots of the original tree remain.
       Sites have also been identified, where rituals where performed at a mountain pass or boundary, such as Misaka Pass and Iriyama Pass in Nagano Prefecture. Objects have been discovered indicating that religious rituals were carried out at these sites over a long period of time. Symbolic objects have been found in the remains of dwellings in the Kanto and southern Tohoku regions, showing the existence of indoor rituals.

Ritual objects of the Kofun period
Artifacts recovered from ritual sites of this period include objects of actual use such as bronze mirrors, swords, jewelery (tama), and a vast amount of earthenware with utilitarian capacity. Most, however, are symbolic objects, nearly all of which are made on a small scale using iron, copper, stone, clay and so forth. It is conjectured that wood and straw were also used but these items have not been preserved. What was symbolized varies widely including mirrors, swords, shields, spears, helmets, bows and arrows, comma-shaped beads (magatama), other gems, looms, stringed instruments, armbands (kushiro), boats, human figures, and animals such as horses.
       If we take only those symbolic objects made from stone, most seem to have been used in the fifth century. In contrast to the utilitarian knives, magatama, axes and sickles found in the tomb mounds, in the strictly ritual sites there are flat objects with holes very crudely resembling swords and mirrors, mortar-shaped objects and magatama. Based on these objects, it is clear that they reflected the specific nature of the ritual. There are later examples of stone symbolic objects being used for rituals, having been found in residential sites dating from the sixth century.
       At the same time, a unique form of magatama called komochi magatama in which small magatama were attached to a normal sized magatama appeared and spread quickly throughout the archipelago. These may have their origins in religious beliefs of rocks growing in size then increasing in number by giving birth to children.
       As we get to the seventh century, the symbolic objects that had heretofore been used in rituals gradually disappeared, replaced by new methods of ritual of the era of state administration (ritsuryō) that center around such things as sacred spikes (igushi) and large human doll figures that had not been seen before this time.

— Sugiyama Shigetsugu
"Establishment of a National Learning Institute for the Dissemination of Research on Shinto and Japanese Culture"
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