Today is International Non-Binary Visibility Day. Here at Aquamarine, we wanted to acknowledge this day because a lot of the team members have fluid gender identities (myself included).
For this occasion, I chose to do some research on a Shinto deity which has been depicted in a broad gender spectrum, which goes against our contemporary and Westernized social binary conception of gender.
Actually, while writing this article, I found in myself the courage to begin my social transition. Today, my new identification documents are being processed. I will soon be recognized by my country by my real name and gender. I hope you can share some of the joy I feel in the lines of this post, and you can enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it. In this article I am going to explore OInari as a genderfluid Deity. This is a kami who is depicted either as female, male, androgynous, or as an energy tied to the Animal spirit of the fox. It belongs to the Shinto practice, which is an ancient spiritual philosophy which has its roots in Ancient Japan. I will just brush up some fundamental information about Shinto, OInari and many other related concepts.
Are you interested in knowing more about this? Then read on, little fox. It is time to take a break from what you are doing and jump into the meadow to have some fun reading about this ancient practice.
An Intro To Shinto
I would say that Shinto is a spiritual practice rather than a religion. Religion is a concept attached to an eurocentric perspective, and Shinto predates the expansion of European empires over the Asian territory.
People from Japan understand religion as taking part in spiritual rituals rather than following a spiritual system of beliefs. East Asia spiritual life is defined by Western scholars as lacking in imagination, but it is quite the opposite. In these lands, the focus does not lay on imagery. They rather understand there is a spiritual force which resides in daily phenomena and seemingly inanimate objects.
This force can be found in Deities. They are ancient as time itself. Other sacred spirits worshiped in Japan are the embodiment of the spirit of a recently deceased person. Both of these are equally worshiped and respected.
However, even before Europe got the chance to meddle with Asian spiritual beliefs, Buddhism arrived on Japan’s land. There, Buddhism blossomed when it formed syncretism the vast beliefs from Shinto. However, that’s a story for another time. This is just to explain that Buddhism is not the same as Shinto. In this day and age, they do share many features.
Shinto is more of a social practice, which can be performed daily, rather than a structured and ritualistic practice. There are many Shinto shrines in Japan. However, people are not required to visit them daily or at specific dates; just when they please. Shinto is an open practice. It is there for whoever is receptive to its philosophy and wishes to rely on it respectfully, regardless of their religious beliefs.
What Are the “Kami”, Exactly?
In pop culture, “kami” are usually grouped together with the “Japanese gods”. However, this definition can not quite describe this concept. “Kami” has a much broader meaning. It is associated with the concept of “upper height”. The name emphasizes a higher hierarchy of someone or a higher entity such as Amaterasu or OInari. The term can be used regardless of whether it is for mortals or the divine.
In spirituality, kami are the so-called “spiritual forces” which reside inside something. They can be found in a river that has been flowing before any human decided to settle on its coasts. It can also be found in an ancient family heirloom such as a clock.
This last example can be explained as a somehow possession: This ancient object starts working as an emblem imbued with the honor of the family. Possession gives it the power that can create a kami that resides in the heirloom. The crafted kami is not hierarchically inferior to the ancient deity. They are seen as equally powerful.
Let’s take it a step further. Kami can be defined at the same time as benevolent and malicious. It is simultaneously both and neither. How is that possible? If a river provides clear water to a village, people from there would praise it as a generous kami. If the same river is polluted downstream, people living nearby might think of the kami in the river as cruel. Yet, people from both places are aware that the kami is not good or bad, it is just their perspective on them that passes moral judgment on who they are.
O-Inari, The Provider
With some basis set, let’s unveil some information on OInari. I have already written an article where I mention them among other Deities who stand for trans rights. However, in this post I am going to dig deep on this fascinating Deity.
OInari is also called Inari. From my Japanese lessons I know that the “O-” prefix works as an honorific. It can be added to some words to emphasize its importance. I should thank my Japanese teacher for this knowledge and some other materials she so kindly provided. Thanks, Mica-sensei.
OInari is a kami strongly binded to the Animal spirit of the fox. It is also associated with kitsunes which are fox shaped youkai. Youkai is a concept that involves all spiritual creatures.
Kitsunes are also considered to be the messengers of the youkai. The fox archetype in Japan, referring to kitsunes or Inari themself, is considered a trickster and joyful creature. They are known for their pranks. These pranks can be harmless and fun or seriously life-threatening.
OInari rules over broad aspects of life, yet in early Shinto, they mainly ruled over rice. It is known that this is the main ingredient in Japanese traditional foods, and food is a cultural aspect that relates to many others.
Legend has it that OInari was married to Uke-mochi-no-kami, which is a femme presenting kami of food and fertility. Ukemochi’s death brought with it cereal and provided food for humankind. After her death, Inari took over her role as the Deity of food.
Inari is also praised for providence, wealth, and health. In early Shinto, they were worshiped by sword smiths. Many people also bid them for efficacy in their prayers.
However, these are not the only affairs OInari is involved in. They also receive appeals for many other issues such as:
- restoring stolen property,
- providing wealth and healing,
- averting pestilence,
- uniting friends.
I find it worthy of note that all of these aspects are somehow related to food. As a social activity, we are used to eating. Food is often an excuse for gathering with other members of society. We plan events and parties which involve food —picnics, birthday parties, etc. And food is also related to health. A well-fed person is, most likely, a healthy one.
OInari shrines are, nowadays, among the 10 most popular ones according to a list that was put together in 965 C.E.
Remember when I talked about ancient family heirlooms possessing a kami? Well, these objects attached to a kami are called “Shintai”. OInari’s shintai usually consists of a stone or wooden ticket with their name inscribed on it.
OInari’s festival is called Hatsuuma, which falls on the first Horse Day of the second month in the lunar year. As it is not an exact date, I would recommend you check the date online for the next Hatsuuma.
On this day, people can visit Inari’s shrine to ask for good fortune. It is an easy ritual for the people that live close to a shrine, but you can make your own way to acknowledge Inari on their day.
If you are interested in knowing about some spells dedicated to OInari, there is no “right” way to approach deities in Shinto, as it is more of a social practice. Of course, make sure whatever approach you choose is respectful.
However, there is an ancient custom to protect children from small-pox and measles. This involves offering a red monkey effigy to a Inari’s shrine and taking another left from a previous worshiper to wear as an amulet.
Worldwide Perspective On Gender
You can find a variety of images related to every kami. We know that kami do not have a specific shape other than the shintai itself. After Buddhism arrived in Japan, the idea of Bodhisattva and the representation of some kami fused to create variations.
Actually, in all these East Asian practices, appreciation falls on the core values of a person rather than the gender. If these caught your attention, I would recommend you to dedicate some time to research further into Shinto.
You can adapt Shinto practices to whichever spiritual path you already follow. Many Japanese people are part of other religions and follow Shinto practices.
Now, If you are interested in learning how cultures understood gender in ancient times, you should check our Pride Special. Aquamarine Content has already covered a broad variety of topics on its blog. And we will continue writing on many more, so come back soon for an update.
Which other deities are you interested in learning about? Do you have any deity supporting you on your personal transition? Leave a comment with your experience. I am excited to know all about it.