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Home » 5. Rites and Festivals » Types of Rituals
Chōtei saishi (Imperial Court Rituals)
Imperial Court Rituals (chōtei saishi) refer to official government rituals in which the emperor and the nobility participated. The rituals prescribed by the Ritsuryō Code of the ancient period and the rituals of the subsequent Heian period (794- ca. 1185) formed the basis of the Imperial Court Rituals and were continued until the late medieval period. The early modern period saw a revival of part of this set of court rituals. This category includes a wide variety of observances, starting with the public rituals of the Ritsuryō State and rituals connected to imperial succession as well as prayers conducted by the emperor himself.
       Chōtei saishi can be divided into 1.) rituals performed at the Outer Court (gaitei) where the administrative functions of state were conducted, 2.) rituals performed at the Inner Court (naitei), 3.) rituals performed with the participation of imperial government officials, 4.) Shinto rituals conducted by the emperor, and 5.) rituals involving the dispatching of imperial messengers. The characteristics of each of these rituals differ based on the background of their formation and their meaning. During the Heian period court rituals underwent a major transition and changes occurred throughout other phases of history, but within the imperial court there continually existed a shared consciousness regarding the transmission and original meaning of these rituals.

Observances of the Ritsuryō State
The Harvest Festival (niinamesai) was performed by the emperor from ancient times onwards. Archaeological evidence also suggests the existence of other rituals during such early times. However, the formation and establishment of an established ritual system occurred during the times of the emperor Tenmu (r.673-686) and empress Jitō (r.690-697) and saw completion through the promulgation of the Taihō Code (Taihō ritsuryō) in 702. The thirteen types of ritsuryō-prescribed state rituals performed on nineteen occasions throughout the year were laid out in the section on kami-related matters in the Yōrō Code (Yōrō jingiryō), issued in 757, and many of their names can be traced back to the Taihō Code or even the earlier Asukakiyomihara Code (Asukakiyomiryō) of 689. The prototypical form of the Spring Festival (kinensai) can be already discerned during the early days of the reign of emperor Tenmu. During the same time, first fruits rituals also grew in scale and became established as an annual observance in the form of the Daijō observance performed by a newly crowned emperor.
       Among the ritsuryō-rituals regulated by the section on kami-related matters in the Yōrō Code, in particular the four annual ritual ocasions of the kinensai, the tsukinamisai (celebrated in the sixth and twelfth month of the lunar calendar), and the niinamesai were deemed important. These four observances formed the system in which offerings (heihaku) were dispatched from the Department of Divinities (Jingikan) to shrines throughout the country, and alongside the thanksgiving celebration (kannamesai) they constituted the middle observances (chūshi).
       According to the Engishiki (The Codes of Engi) the kinensai involved worshipping three-thousand one-hundred thirty-two deities (saijin) at two-thousand eight-hundred and one shrines, and this observance in particular was thus the largest ritual ceremony in the Ritsuryō State. Furthermore, other observances in the category of ritsuryō-prescribed rituals included the ainamesai (this observance involved offering fresh grain from the new harvest at designated shrines) and the chinkonsai, which occurred on the day preceding the niinamesai (at the time of its origination it was called the daijōsai). These two observances focused on old shrines in the Yamato area. Under the control of the Department of Divinities, rituals such as the chinkasai and the michiae no matsuri were performed twice a year, once in the sixth month and once in the twelfth month. Regarding shrine observances, imperial offerings were presented at the following ceremonies at six designated shrines: 1.) the chinkasai which was performed at both the Ōmiwa Shrine and the Sai Shrine, 2.) the kanmisosai which was performed at the Grand Shrines of Ise, 3.) the ōimi no matsuri which was performed at the Hirose Shrine, 4.) the kazakami no matsuri which was performed at the Tatsuta Shrine, 5.) the saigusa no matsuri which was performed at the Isagawa Shrine, and 6.) the niinamesai which was performed at the Grand Shrines of Ise. With the exception of the Grand Shrines of Ise, the courts involvement in observances at the old shrines of the Yamato area, and in particular those of the Ōmiwa Shrine and its branch shrines, was prominent. These thirteen types of shrine rituals described above were considered the foundation for the ritual system of the centralized administration. The state administration based on the twin institutions of the Council of State (Daijōkan) and the Department of Divinities took ritual observances and kami-related matters as the guiding principles of its activities.
       As for the performance of ceremonial offerings at three of the annual observances mentioned above – the tsukinamisai during the sixth and the twelfth month (except for the kinensai) and the niinamesai in the eleventh month and excluding the kinensai – this practice originated in two instances of the ritual intake of food by the emperor alongside the deity (kyōshoku girei): the jinkonjiki performed at midnight on the occasion of the tsukinamisai and the first fruits observance (niinamesai). These rituals were acts of ancestor worship in which the imperial ancestral kami Amaterasu Ōmikami was invited to the imperial palace and regaled by the emperor himself who, as the descendand of the deity, was the only person to have the right to carry out these rituals. However, these rituals were not always treated as ritsuryō-prescribed observances of the Outer Court. In the Ritsuryō State, rituals personally conducted by the emperor were classified as Inner Court observances. Looking at the historical relationship between the court, the emperor and the Grand Shrines of Ise, it is possible to discern that the rituals performed by the emperor himself actually corresponded to the three great observances at Ise, the tsukinamisai in the sixth and the twelfth months and the kannamsesai in the ninth month (the date differs from that for the niinamesai, but at Ise the kannamesai celebrates the first fruits while the niinamesai is a ritual that expresses thanks to Amatersu at the time of harvesting a late maturing form of rice and the end of the agricultural calendar and is performed in anticipation of future benefits around the time of winter solstice). In fact, the two sets of observances represented two sides of the same coin. The daijōsai, which took the scale of these observances to a grander scale and was performed once on the occasion of the enthronement of a new emperor, and the shikinen sengū, the ritual reconstruction of the Grand Shrines of Ise every twenty years which became established around the time of the enthronement of empress Jitō, can be said to have been the two largest court observances.

Transformation of the ritsuryō-observances
From the sixth and seventh centuries onwards the belief in ancestral spirits and belief in the productive and creative powers (musuhi) of rice spirits existed as a unified notion. This composite belief was integrated into court ritual and made part of a coherent system. However, this had not been intentional. It only reflected the emergence of the ritsuryō ritual system as part of the general rise of the bureaucratic state in the sixth and seventh centuries, which was complicated by the division into Outer Court and Inner Court and their corresponding ritual systems. But this matter was not something that was limited to kami-related rituals; it was a problem concerning the entire structural organization of the ritsuryō-system. For that reason, in the late Nara period (710-794), a change occurred regarding the enforcement of the ritsuryō-system that problematized the ritual practice of kinensai offerings. In a similar way, from the beginning of the early Heian period, the limitation for the system of nationwide offerings became an important issue. A differentiation between imperial shrines (kanpeisha) and provincial shrines (kokuheisha) was implemented in order to alleviate the burden on those shrine representatives who had to come to the capital from far-away places. Although regulations for the established kami-related observances, chief among them the kinensai, were also laid out in the Engishiki (The Codes of Engi) and despite the fact that they were minutely determined alongside the special observances of the imperial court, the essence of these observances was subject to change. The carrying out of the nation's largest observance, the kinensai, also could no longer be performed at all shrines throughout the nation and became performed as a scaled-down, self-contained ritual by the Department of Divinities. On the occasion of the kinensai, an imperial messenger was dispatched only to the Grand Shrines of Ise to make offerings (hōhei). Because of this arrangement, the identification of the Grand Shrines with imperial observances strengthened during the period of the cloistered emperors from the eleventh to the twelfth century and caused a major change in the way the ki'nensai was perceived. While the system of observances regulated by the Ritsuryō Code was adapted to changing times and increasingly became hollowed out, many of its observances survived until the late Muromachi period.

Observances of the Imperial Court
The myōjin observances, in which offerings were presented specific eminent deities, was one distinctive feature of the early Heian period that prospered from the time of the reign of Emperor Kanmu (r.781-806). At times of great importance to the state – such as in the case of prayers for rain, prayers to stop rain, and prayers for bountiful harvest – the emperor's messengers were sent out as his representatives in order to give offerings. On occasion, provincial officials would also perform this role. From among the offerings made to eminent deities, offerings were made irregularly to various shrines in the environs of Heiankyō. Adding the old shrines of Yamato to this number, the set of "Sixteen Shrines" to receive imperial offerings became established during the reigns of emperors Uda (r. 887-97) and Daigo (r. 897-930). On the occasion of the disturbances of the Jōhei and Tengyō eras led by Taira no Masakado and Fujiwara Sumitomo between 931 and 947, the making of offerings to the regionally prominent shrines (taisha) of the Yamashiro and Yamato regions proliferated. Furthermore, during the mid-Heian period, six poupular shrines of the time such as Kitano Tenmangū and the Yasaka Jinja in Gion were added and the system of making offerings to the "Twenty-two Shrines" (nijūnisha) came into being. Thereafter, until the time of the Ōnin war (1467-1469) during the late medieval period, the system in which personal attendants were sent in place of the emperor, became established as the foundation for imperial rituals. In the provinces, a system of ichinomiya (the highest ranking shrine in a province) and sōja (a shrine established close to the seat of the provincial government and collectively worships the kami of various shrines in the province) was established in each province under the control of the provincial officials. Although the ichinomiya fulfilled the function of protecting the provinces, the observances performed at them were thought of as an extension of court ritual.
       In addition, customary shrine observances, due to their close connection with the emperor's maternal relatives, were added to the category of public governmental rituals and were established as annual ceremonial events. Fourteen festivals, including the ujigami saishi (the worship of clan deities), the Kamo and Matsuo festivals offering protection and preservation for the capital and the ōmiwasai in the old capital of Yamato, which are all referred to as ōyake matsuri (public observances) in the Ōkagami (The Great Mirror), had gained their public status by the time of the reign of emperor Daigo at the end of the ninth century. Organs of the imperial court participated in the conduct of these observances and close attendants of the emperor or officials serving in organs of the Inner Court (such as the storehouse, the imperial guard, or the imperial stables) acted as imperial messengers. Being the archetypical example of these court observances, especially the Kamo Festival (also called Aoi Festival), which was designated as a middle rite (chūshi), symbolized the splendor of the nobility. In the late Heian period, the Kitano Festival, Nakayama Festival, the Iwashimizu hōjōe (a "releasing of life" ritual, in which captive birds and fish were released at the Iwashimizu Hachiman shrine), and the Hiyoshi Festival were added to these public rituals.
       Following the reign of Emperor Uda (887-897), personal prayers (gogan) by the emperor came to occupy a central position in imperial court rituals in the tenth century due to the expansion of the structure of the Inner Court and the loosening of the tenjō system (under which only members of the court from a certain rank upwards had access to the emperor). In addition to the official acknowledgement of annual shrine rituals, other special festivals were performed at the Kamo, Iwashimizu, and Hirano shrines. These special observances were rituals paid for out of the emperor's private funds, and while the date of their performance was originally determined irregularly, the dates of these observances came to be fixed over time. These observances nominally retained their "special" (not regularly scheduled) status, but in praxis they came to be integrated into the category of annual observances (nenchūgyōji). Following the pattern laid out by these special observances, the practice of personal visits of the emperor to specific shrines started. (The emperor did not personally proceed to the altar but an imperial messenger (chokushi) was sent in his place).
       The varied reasons for these visits where such things as giving thanks on the occasion of accession to the throne. During the reigns of emperors En'yū (969-84) and Ichijō (986-1011) imperial visits to the Iwashimizu, Kamo, Kasuga, Hirano, Oharano, Matsuo, and Kitano shrines were regularly performed. During the reign of emperor Gosanjō (1068-1072), the Hiyoshi, Inari, and Gion shrines were added to this list, and the emperor's attendance at these ten shrines became an established custom. Especially Emperor Shirakawa (r. 1072-1086) paid a visit to the Iwashimizu and Kamo shrines every year. These imperial visits to shrines can also be included in the category of court observances. However, following the reign of Emperor Gotoba (1183-1198) in the early Kamakura period, the frequency of the emperor's attendances at shrines decreased to a minimum while visits by retired emperors became the norm.

       The starting point of imperial court rituals can be seen in the opening passages of Emperor Juntoku's (r. 1210-21) Kinpishō, which states that "Regarding the laws in the palace first came kami-related observances, then other matters," and the priority given to the Grand Shrines of Ise and the Inner Sanctum (Naishidokoro, see Kashikodokoro). The daily morning greeting from the limestone platform (ishibai no dan) directed at the Grand Shrines of Ise and the Inner Sanctum in the palace, thought to have been initiated by Emperor Uda, is also a significant ritual in this context. Among imperial court rituals, there are also records which state that the emperor himself went to the Inner Sanctum at night to pray and, from the mid Heian period onwards, the Inner Sanctum, where the sacred mirror (one of the three imperial regalia) was stored, became the central place for the emperor's rituals and it became customary to have annual performances of kagura dances inside the Inner Sanctum. The customary annual observances flourished until the late Muromachi period, when they were interrupted by wars and the lack of finances. Therefore, because almost all annual observances, except for the Kasuga Festival, died out, suddenly those rituals that had been hitherto performed in the serenity of the Inner Sanctum located deep within the imperial palace gained in importance. Due to the opposition of the Shogunate, the revival of the ancient court observances did not advance after the onset of the early modern period, and the performance of rituals prayers continued to be carried out in the Inner Sanctum. From the late Muromachi period onwards, rituals performed in the Inner Sanctum were frequently recorded in the O yudono no ue no nikki, a diary compiled by the principal court ladies of the successive emperors.

Revival of Observances during the Early Modern Period
During the early modern period, a revival of a number of imperial observances occurred. In 1646, the revival of dispatching offerings to the Grand Shrines of Ise (the kannamesai) coincided with the introduction of dispatching imperial messengers with offerings (reiheishi) to the Tōshōgu Shrine in Nikkō – where Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, was enshrined – on demand of the Shogunate. After a period of nearly 200 years of interruption, the main imperial court rituals were revived, as for example the Iwashimizu hōjōe in 1679, the daijōsai in 1687, and the Kamo Festival in 1694. However, these revived observances did not necessarily reflect their original forms as in some cases the oral transmissions concerning the performance of these observances had been lost. In the late early modern period, in addition to the niinamesai, various other festivals such as the oharanosai, matsuosai, yoshidasai, gionsai, and kitanosai were revived.

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