The Usa Shrine, an Early Example of Shinto and Buddhist Syncretism

This article is part of the Uni Series which consists of some essays that I have been writing for my bachelor degree in Japan in East Asia studies at the University of Tokyo. This one is about the first shrine devoted to the god Hachiman and also explains why the two main religions of Japan, Shinto and Buddhism, are so connected.

Before Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the middle of the 6th century by Korean monks, Japanese had already developed spiritual native beliefs, put together under the name of Shinto. This primal spirituality consisted in believing in kami 神, a sort of presence in some particular places or things, and practicing rituals for those kami (Bowring, 2008, 39). As for Buddhism, it originated in India around the 5th century BCE and then crossed and matured in China and Korea before reaching Japan. Buddhism brought new concepts of karma, reincarnation and Nirvana explaining the afterlife and ideas on how to live as well. Soon Japanese native beliefs and imported Buddhism started cohabiting as much physically, with temples and shrines built around Japan, as in the people’s mind. As this process went on, a syncretism, or a union of those two beliefs occurred. One, if not the first, example of syncretism was the construction of the Usa Jingû (or Usa shrine) in modern Ôita Prefecture, Kyûshû, where the kami Hachiman was enshrined in the early 8th century. This paper aims to analyze the early times of the Usa shrine through multiple angles in order to use it as a case study of early syncretism between Shinto and Buddhism.

Let us begin by discussing the construction of the shrine itself. Situated in Northern Kyûshû, the shrine is situated in one of the first area of Japan to have received Buddhist monks. Indeed, those came from Korea to Kyûshû and then to the rest of Japan. This explains why one of the earliest example of syncretism happened there as early as in the beginning of the 8th century. Bowring (2008, 92–93) wrote:

“It is highly likely that the first buildings at Usa were Buddhist, for we have a record of a temple called Mirokuji 彌勒寺 being built there as early as 725. (…) [After 740,] the court presented Usa with copies of two sûtras and ten Buddhist priests and ordered that a pagoda be built; [Hachiman] was already a composite deity for whom Buddhist gifts were not considered out of place.”

It thus seems that Usa was first home to Buddhism with the construction of the Mirokuji temple, and then about fifteen years later built a pagoda, another Buddhist construction. It is not clear in Bowring’s text what form if any had the shrine for Hachiman in Usa. In any case, by the 740s, Usa had thus become a place where Buddhism and Shinto met, commonly called a shrine temple complex or Jingû-ji 神宮寺. Different sources however dates the creation of the shrine anterior to the temple, arguing that the Mirokuji temple was built next to the shrine later on in the 8th century (Brown, 1993, 357). In any case, temple, pagoda and shrine stood there together by the end of the 8th century.

Let us now move on to an architectural analysis of the shrine. Further essays may want to analyze how Buddhist architecture evolved through its contact with Japanese culture, but for the scope of this essay we decided to focus on the Buddhist influence on Shinto shrines. the Usa shrine, also called Usa Hachiman shrine, was built using the Hachiman-zukuri 八幡造りstyle. The Usa Shrine, which is the main shrine of Hachiman’s cult, is also the most representative example of this type of architecture. The basics of this style can be described in this way:

“A style of shrine architecture characterized by a structure which from the side-view gives the impression of two separate buildings with parallel ridges placed one behind the other, each with its own gable roof kirizuma yane 切妻屋根. A rain gutter toi 樋, joins the eaves of the two roofs” (JAANUS, 2011).

Image 1. The exterior and interior aspects of the Hachiman-zukuri architectural style.

As we see on the image above, the two buildings are truly one, connected by a door inside. The biggest room, front of the temple is the gein 外院 and the smaller room, accessible from the gein is the naiin 内院. Those two halls, or narabidô 双堂, echo the Buddhist style architecture with two rooms as well: the shôdô 正堂 and the raidô 礼堂, with the particularity that the halls of Hachiman-zukuri shrined are reserved to the kami (JAANUS, 2001). We can doubt whether this architectural style was used to build the first shrine dedicated Hachiman, the Usa Shrine. Indeed, the shrine was rebuilt many times since then and despite our research we have not been able to find first hand paintings depicting the original shrine. They might have never existed. Some sources (What-myhome) claim however that the Hachiman-zukuri style was invented in mid-Nara period for the Usa shrine. Further studies would be required to confirm this affirmation, but if indeed this architecture can be traced back to the creation of the Usa shrine, then we can confirm that in terms of architecture the Usa shrine borrow to Buddhism in terms of style. Indeed, the two halls constituting Hachiman’s earthly dwelling seem inspired from Buddhist architecture.

We have seen therefore that the Usa temple shrine complex not only comprised buildings from both Buddhism and Shinto, but also that the Shinto Hachiman-zukuri style shrine was inspired by Buddhist architecture. The syncretism of the two beliefs thus did not simply result in a cohabitation, but Buddhism inspired the architectural traditions of Shinto.

In terms of beliefs themselves, Hachiman, the god enshrined in the Usa shrine is associated both with Shinto and Buddhism. Let us first describe his Shinto characteristics. Hachiman is essentially a kami. He has, like other kami, an animal messenger (or form depending on the beliefs), the dove (Tyler, 1992, 72). In the Kojiki and the Nihongi written respectively in 712 and 720, Hachiman is said to be the kami of Emperor Ôjin who lived from 270 to 312 (Tyles, 1992, 78). These books, pillars of Japanese history and mythology, describe with some level of accuracy but also with many fantastic invention, the early history of Japan, tracing back the ancestry of their contemporary Emperor to the very first one, Emperor Jimmu, and from him up to Amaterasu, the Goddess of the sun. We can note here that while the concept of kami was spread all over Japan through local beliefs, some of those divinities have also been identified as important persons and have probably been used by the Imperial court in order to legitimize spiritually its rule. These remarks aim to demonstrate the complexity and political issues at stake with Shinto.

As it is believed that he helped in 740 the court against a rebellion, Hachiman became the kami of war at this time (2008, 93) and later became worshipped by many people and especially by samurai in the more than 25000 shrines dedicated to him (2006, 202). The Usa shrine remains to this day the central shrine of this network and is one of the major shrines of Japan, along with the Ise and Kasuga shrines. Hachiman is thus clearly a Shinto divinity, and is even a very popular one probably known even now by most of Japanese people. Besides, its cult must not be regarded simply as a popular practice, but also be understood for its implications with politics.

However, this is only half of Hachiman’s identity, as the latter is also a Buddhist figure. Indeed, Hachiman was given a Buddhist title, Daibosatsu 大菩薩 in 798 (Bowring, 2008, 92) just like Amaterasu and other important Shinto kami. Why was it so? The monks coming from China and Korea, or the returning Japanese scholars like Kûkai, were trying to legitimize Buddhism, to make it part of Japan. By explaining that some major kami had, through oracle, requested to be given Buddhist titles, Buddhist monks convinced efficiently that Buddhism was not opposed with Shinto but actually incorporated it. As a result, Hachiman became adored also by Buddhist monks. He became for example the protector of Tôdaiji and Yakushiji in Nara (Grapard, 1992, 80). He was even invited to Nara where 5000 Buddhist monks chanted sutras for him (Tyler, 1992, 86–87). A more visual example of the Buddhist aspect of Hachiman is his representation.

Image 2. Hachiman portrayed as a Buddhist monk

On the painting, Hachiman is represented with the typical symbols of Buddhism: the clothing style, the lotus flower he is sitting in, the halo, the bold hairstyle… In fact, Shinto did not have anthropomorphic representation for their kami, so the simple fact that Hachiman is depicted as a man is a Buddhist feature. These representations of Hachiman are believed to have been made from the 9th century (Kanda, 1985, 46).

From a kami to a Buddha, Hachiman thus got adopted by Buddhism throughout this syncretic dynamic which shook Japanese beliefs. More, he professed in an oracle in 749 that he wanted to move to Nara, which he did and became a protector of Buddhism (Bowring, 2008, 93). Shinto kami thus became incorporated within the realm of Buddhism, or to look at it in the other way around one can say that Buddhism received the protection of Shinto divinities… The two beliefs quickly became closer, not simply cohabitating but mixing, yet not making one either. Just like two living species living in symbiosis like the famous example of the clownfish and the anemone, Shinto and Buddhism reinforced each other through their interactions. Syncretism, the mixing of Shinto and Buddhism beliefs and traditions as we have seen through the example of Hachiman, was a way to avoid competition and thus legitimize the relevance of both beliefs simultaneously.

To conclude this paper, with the arrival of Buddhism, Shinto, the native beliefs on Japan got transformed. The Shinto shrines started cohabiting with Buddhist temples in shrine temple or jingû-ji complexes, and their architecture itself changed, inspired by Buddhist architecture from China. The spirituality of Japanese people also changed. Indeed, Buddhist monks managed to justify the legitimacy of their religion through syncretism with Shinto. By proving that the two beliefs could coexist and interact with harmony, bringing advantages (protection, worship) to each other, then neither Shinto priests nor Japanese people could reject Buddhism. Just like Shinto got transformed, Buddhism did not either stay just as it was when it arrived, but got tained by Japanese culture. The Usa shrine is a perfect example of this syncretism as it represents one of the earliest and most important shrine temple complex. Hachiman, the kami enshrined there, is a figure that cannot be said to be simply Shinto, or Buddhist.

This syncretism kept on going until the Meiji Period when the government produced a separation order. In Usa, the Buddhist temple, which may have been there even before the Shinto one, got destroyed as a result of this separation. But Shinto and Buddhism have been mixed for so long, starting before extensive writings were produced in Japan, that it seems hard nowadays to understand exactly what was Shinto before Buddhism, what was Shinto without Buddhism. In other terms, Shinto nowadays most probably contains Buddhist elements, reminiscences from this millennium of syncretism. Besides and as a final note, although now Shinto and Buddhism are officially and in practical terms mostly separated, the millennium of syncretism for sure left a deep mark on each belief and on Japanese people. This surely explain partly, along with the relative absence of religious education in Japan and other reasons, why it is so often difficult for Japanese people to explain the precise differences between Shinto and Buddhism.


Image 1: Kotobank. Available: Last accessed: 9 Dec 2016.

Image 2: Wikipedia. Available:


Bowring, R. (2008). The Religious Traditions of Japan, 500–1600. Cambridge University Press.

Brown, D.M. (1993). The Cambridge History of Japan, Vol. 1: Ancient Japan. Cambridge University Press.

Deal, W.E. (2006). Handbook to Life in Medieval and Early Modern Japan. Infobase Publishing.

Grapard, A.G. (1992). The Protocol of the Gods. University of California Press.

JAANUS (Japanese Architecture and Art Net Users System). (2001). “Hachiman-zukuri 八幡造.” Available: Last accessed: 9 Dec 2016.

Kanda, C.G. (1985). Shinzō: Hachiman Imagery and Its Development. Harvard University Press.

Tyler, S.C. (1992). The Cult of Kasuga seen through its Art. University of Michigan.

What-myhome. “八幡造り” Available: Last accessed: 9 Dec 2016.

Liberal Art Master student, I write my small answers to the big issues that obsess me in politics, development, literature, art, LGBTQ, …