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A Brief History of Magic in Japan

Hello, book witches! For our Mythology & Folklore March, we're welcoming guest writer Natalie Anna Jacobsen to talk about the history of magic in Japan!

A Brief History of Magic in Japan Natalie Anna Jacobsen

Hello! It’s great to have you here. I’m Natalie Anna Jacobsen, former journalist, current marketer in the government and nonprofit sectors, and soon-to-be debut author of Ghost Train. After growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I spent several years in Japan before moving to Virginia and settling in Washington, DC, with my husband.


I connected with Jordan and Kori of Coffee, Book & Candle, who generously offered me the opportunity to share with you a brief overview of the concept of magic and magical systems in Japan.


Ghost Train is my debut novel coming September 2024: a Historical Fantasy that weaves true events with the mystical. Set in 1877 during the early years of Japan’s Meiji Restoration, a samurai’s daughter is confronted by ghosts—and a mystery of disappearing women and girls in her city. As summer drones on, she needs to decide whether to trust a Kitsune, a talking and shape-shifting fox spirit, in order to save Kyoto from a changing landscape and a rampaging demon, or risk becoming a victim herself. At its core, it is a ghost story set against a historical backdrop that analyzes the societal and economic effects Emperor Meiji influenced in his early years of rule. The story draws from real places and the imagined lives of people who may have existed during these events. As the main character takes on demons, ghosts, and the emperor, it challenges the reader to decide what is real and what isn’t.


The story also happens to have a bit of magic in it.


During my years in Japan, I had the honor of writing for magazines, digital news sites, corporate and technical firms, and travel companies. These projects granted me the chance to explore parts of Japan and meet people I would not have been able to otherwise. They included monks, priests, fortune tellers, historians, educators, and art curators who imparted their philosophies, mindsets, and ways of life that contributed to this article and to Ghost Train. Each offered their unique perspective on belief systems and religious practices long-upheld through Japan’s history. Here, I am thrilled to share a few takeaways on the spiritual and magical.


Western vs Eastern Concept of Magic

What comes to mind when you think of magic? That answer likely depends on where you grew up and the environmental, familial, and cultural customs you adopted throughout your life. If you are located in North America or Europe, a wand or a cauldron may come to mind. If you associate magic with nature, maybe you imagine a group of people in a forest, or bonfires. Some may associate it with Halloween decor, and others with vehement skepticism or fear. In some parts of the world, a mention of witchcraft or magic can still condemn a person to exile or death.


But magic in Japan and other East Asian countries has different connotations rooted in history and pragmatic traditions. The image that may be conjured by “magic” in Japan is that of protecting homes and healing people, studying the stars, or charting a life in lucky numbers. Though the overlap between Western and Eastern beliefs around magic are limited, there are similar tropes: star-gazing, searching for meaning in the unexplainable, and harnessing the power of the metaphysical to turn the tides of one’s fortune.


The differences are also stark. First, we must understand Japan’s religious roots and have a solid foundation of their philosophies before delving into the mystical. It’s here we can unravel the beliefs and start from the beginning of it all.


Brief Overview of Shintoism and Buddhism

Japan presents an interesting conundrum when it comes to religion. It defies belief systems established elsewhere in the world. In surveys on religion, Japan ranks as “most religious,” with over 90% of the population identifying as Shinto, the national and indigenous Japanese practice. The remaining 10% is mostly Buddhist, but again, with Japanese nuance. Despite a population of 123 million, 180 million practice Buddhism and Shintoism, indicating overlap. These figures make Japan one of the most religious countries in the world.


However, if you ask Japanese persons if they are religious, most (70% surveyed) will say they aren’t. Why is that?


Worldwide, religion is believed to be something one regularly practices. Routines, rituals, and visiting places of worship all contribute to a religious devotion. The regularity differs religion to religion; some require multiple prayers and meditations a day, while others call for visits to a place of worship once a week. Most help develop a community of those who follow the same practice.


In Shintoism, there is no regular call to worship. However, there are routines and rituals that take place in one’s home, around events and seasons, and at places of worship. By definition, Shinto sounds like a religion. It means, after all, to “follow the way of the gods.” Unlike many Western religions, Shintoism focuses on the bond within a family as opposed to a greater community, relying on the individual or family to pray and conduct rituals together, rather than in a group at a neighborhood shrine.

Shintoism is also directly related to the Imperial family; it is believed Japan’s first emperor (and their descendents ever since) have come from Amaterasu, Japan’s sun goddess, and one of the main kami of their pantheon. This relation gives them a right to the throne and encourages worship of the imperial family. Though by law they separate church and state today (a freedom of religion guaranteed after World War II), many Japanese still associate religion with imperialism—dovetailing with an idea of nationalism that feels less religious and more pragmatic or secular.

Meanwhile, Buddhism refers to practicing the way of the Buddha and achieving enlightenment. Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the sixth century and is distinct from Buddhism in India, China, or elsewhere, as it has taken on characteristics of Shintoism. There are a number of similar rituals, whether daily or in relation to life events, between the two in Japan. Buddhism connects Japanese to their ancestors, deepening their familial relations established by Shintoism.


There are believed to be as many as 280,000 active shrines and temples in Japan. By some accounts, that number could be as high as 400,000. The population of Japan is around 123 million people. Compare that to the 380,000 churches and places of worship in the United States and the estimated 340 million people residing there. While Japan has only about 36% of the population in the United States, it could have 60-120% the number of religious sites compared to the US.


But what exactly is a shrine, and what is a temple?


Architecture of Shrines and Temples

A shrine refers to a place of worship in relation to Shintoism. A temple is associated with Buddhism. Again, we are framing this from Japan’s perspective and definitions, so the understanding and imagery may differ from country to country, culture to culture, language to language. There are major architectural differences between them, as well. 

The first will be the entrance: Shinto shrines are guarded by a torii gate, typically a simple structure of two poles with one connecting slab between them, painted red. A Buddhist temple in Japan will have a sanmon gate, a much larger structure that appears as a hall held up by several columns and typically presented in a natural brown or wood. Shinto shrines usually have a bath for purification and washing before praying to the kami, and a place to hang wishes.

The second is the number of buildings. At a Shinto shrine, there are often only two buildings—a hall to hold ceremonies, then a closed-door building where the kami are said to dwell. On Buddhist temple grounds, there are several buildings: usually a pagoda, a hall for Buddha, rooms for education and worship, places for meditation, and for monks to stay. A temple will typically be accompanied by a garden.


The actual number of shrines and temples in Japan is difficult to discern due to many of them being recognized with a single, small gate or a structure no bigger than a treehouse. They are commonly found at the ends of  neighborhood streets, at footbridges, nestled in parks, or around the corner from train stations. Many have been erected by families, blessed by a priest, and seamlessly incorporated into the community without any further fanfare, save the occasional gift of an orange, a glass of sake, or a letter for an ancestor or relative. Many of these shrines won’t be registered with the local chapter nor city hall, making it difficult to calculate the true number of shrines and temples across Japan.

They will both be guarded by snarling demons (“oni”) and be a place to visit something with good powers, like a Kami. Shrines often depict art and sculptures of mythical figures, further enforcing the realism of these creatures, no matter how bizarre they appear. They become figures in history, not just literature.


Shinto and Buddhist Practices

For millennia, these shrines and temples have dictated the calendar of events in Japan. Most are inspired by deep traditions from China and passed through Korea. Many come from the oldest form of Buddhism. Only since Emperor Meiji, in 1870, has Japan adopted the Gregorian Calendar, which changed how Japanese follow the annual calendar. However, the sixteen holy days of the year are still recognized, each established through Shintoism or Buddhism.

Each of these days hold significance to Japanese culture—some dictate the coming-of-age of youth into adulthood; others usher in a new season. There are the all-important New Year traditions, then those designed to chase away demons and refresh the streets, homes, and cities—a “spring cleaning,” if you will. Nearly the entire country will have these days off and take part in traditions. Most involve dances and gatherings in the streets, coming together in celebration. There are exact rituals to follow and advice on dress and customs, down to the colors worn and food eaten each holiday. 


Though many may read through this and come away saying Shintoism and Buddhism are religions and Japanese are deeply religious, that is simply not the way Japanese see it. In interviews, journals, and literature, there is a common discussion and agreement among Japanese in how they view it more as a spirituality and mindfulness. As for the shrines and temples? They’re a place for relaxation, to focus and return to the peace only found in solitude, where one can hear their thoughts without the pressures of the world and societal demands. Nevermind the family shrines inside their homes, often with a small Buddha statue, where they can place gifts and incense to send a message to ancestors or loved ones who have passed.

More recently, with the numbers of those regularly visiting shrines and temples dropping, monks and priests have had to get creative to incentivize Japanese to return to holy grounds. Many have started to offer collectible charms (omamori) for various prayers of protection; at each shrine, there are differing designs symbolizing the region, season, or kami that resides there. Some temples offer a distinct stamp to inspire Japanese to visit many temples and collect a unique stamp in a special book. These are designed to reconnect Japanese with their traditional practices, indigenous to their culture and land. Though the youth, similar to other parts of the world, are diminishing the importance of religion overall, some are finding a renewed interest in shrines and temples for a break from the busy working world.


It's perhaps that peace, brought by the tranquility of shrouded trees and tended gardens, rippling brooks and gentle chirping of birds against the wind chimes, that one can almost believe in magic.


Magical Realism

Knowing Shintoism transcends religion in the traditional sense, we now know the supernatural world and spiritual realm is intricately intertwined with the moral and living. In Shintoism, they believe every object is inhabited by a small spirit or god—a kami. Rocks, trees, animals—they each hold the sacred life of a kami. Mortals and immortals live side-by-side, not necessarily as equals, but in a shared existence. Combine that with Buddhism and the idea of seeking enlightenment so one may be reincarnated, and that is how the two form a cohesive practice in Japan.


Magical Realism is a concept coined by Latin American culture, which shares similar beliefs to Japan: that spirits and death are as active and alive as the living. The living and dead stay together in respect and practice, bound by routines and rituals that keep their channel of communication open.

In this sense, they create a dichotomy of their world, which insists on a mutual respect in order to coexist.

Magical realism in Japan isn’t a new concept. The terminology has only recently been introduced, but the idea is nestled deep in its history. Some of Japan’s most famous authors, Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto, write in a blended genre that mirrors a great deal of magical realism in Latin American literature. Though there is little other similarity between the stories, Murakami and Yoshimoto rely on the usage of daydreaming to escape to another world, ghosts to discover the past and resolve ancestral conflict, and visions of demons to confront their inner selves.

Just how children in the United States may imagine Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy visiting them at night, children in Japan are taught to call to a creature known as “Baku” if they are having a bad dream. The creature, a mythical being that looks similar to an anteater, will come and eat it up, so the child may return to sleep peacefully. Though Santa and the Tooth Fairy both reward a child for good behavior, Baku has a more transactional relationship with children. If children call on Baku too much, they are warned Baku could eat their good dreams, too. Santa and the Tooth Fairy are rarely associated with such a downside. But is seeing Baku psychosomatic? It may be safe to attribute waking from a nightmare and ridding oneself of those images to a placebo effect. But there is an ongoing, accepted belief that Baku exists. Unlike the U.S., children in Japan are rarely told Baku isn’t real. It continues to exist, its tradition carrying well into adulthood.

However, there are warnings about living negatively, or bad things happening in life, that can lead to a reincarnation or an immortal form that takes an ugly shape and harms others. These mythical creatures often seek revenge, or hunger over something or someone that wronged them in life, desiring a karmic rebalance. In associating with the beliefs in the balance between yin and yang and the Five Elements, these creatures and mythical beings are thrown off balance, or focused on one Element, and need a restoration to have peace.

While most kami are peaceful, natural beings that reside in nature and objects, every now and then one goes rogue and creates a ghost story, superstition, or lore. These are comparable to figures from fairy tales, parables, and fables in the West. Each typically offers a lesson imparted to youth and serves as a reminder of morals to adults.

There are several scorned wives, for example, who were abused by husband while living and now haunt the places of their abuse as a ghost (their name may be associated with a season, like Yuki-onna, which means “Snow Woman” and is among the most feared ghosts), scaring men at night and threatening lives to gain something they missed while alive. Others, like a woman who had her child stolen from her, wander the streets at night, wailing and causing grief among those who can hear her cries. There are also sirens, like the ones from Greek mythology, who lure victims into boiling pools, oceans, and waterfalls to drown. Some are children who never grew up but are faceless and enjoy the harmless prank of scaring the living, simply because they are children being silly. If the spirit is a previous noble, they have a whole class of their own and can be found in palaces and shrines.

There are also the spirits and kami who exist in harmless manners and can be found in daylight. These are Amabie, a mermaid-like creature off the coasts of Japan, or Kappa, a frog-like creature that hides out in swamps and under lilies. When a candle flickers, it’s said to be a little boy licking the oil. When the floorboards creak, it’s just Yanari sneaking around. If you see a light in a dark field, don’t follow it, or a demon will snatch you. The kami and spirits range from the small and simple creatures to the grand beings with powers that can affect the living.

Then there are the other goddesses, including Amaterasu, who rule aspects of life. There is a goddess for rice, a god for the moon and tides, a god for nature, and a Creator who oversees all life and kami.

The most fascinating part is that the Japanese will be divided when you ask whether or not they believe they exist; many will say they do, and others will shrug and say it makes no difference to them. But they still take precautions just in case.

Shrines and Temples will be dedicated to each of these kami, so visitors are likely to see themed shrines and temples, enforcing the idea that each kami needs specific worship and rituals to be pleased and continue to support humankind. Even today, many make annual pilgrimages to honor the kami and appease the gods, lest they interrupt their rituals and suffer unforeseen circumstances.

Everywhere, a fear of the unknown will make people practice or believe in anything. That is not unique to Japan.

If you’re interested in learning more about types of mythical beings and various kami, I invite you to follow me on Threads where I discuss all of these further, or check out my rolling blog on this very subject, Japanese Folklore, which is updated every Friday.

Magic and Magical Practices

That leads us to the practice of magic itself and what it means within Japan. We know elements of it exist in Japan if there are kami and spirits capable of harming others, flying, moving through walls, producing fire without a match, and transforming as they please.Yet those beings aren’t seen as “magical,” but rather in association with their Shinto teachings, which is why we rely on the term “Magical Realism” to describe these mythical figures. In that sense, we acknowledge they are mystical and possess powers mortals do not, but we also respect that these figures are seen as real beings from history and lore.

Japanese history also includes Onmyodo, the practice of magic as a mortal. 

Onmyodo (Onmyoji for the practitioner) is a type of divination and magic harnessing that was employed almost exclusively by nobles: emperors, shogun, and generals.

Onmyoji were well versed in the art of the yin and yang, how to utilize the Five Elements, astrological calendars, and folklore. They used their knowledge to give advice that Japanese leaders relied on for battle strategies, when to haggle in trades or make political decisions, and whom to marry. These practices coalesced into a Western idea of divination, but again, that term is likely not equated by Japanese. To them, especially historically, this was yet another tool to assess their options in the name of progress and power.

Emperors and leaders would consult Onmyoji on when it was best to travel between residences and how to travel. They asked which directions would be most favorable; it was up to the Onmyoji to follow the path of the sun, analyze the season, and understand the folklore of the road ahead to best advise which roads to take on which days.

Advisors and leaders in the Imperial Courts maintained a deep level of trust. It made Onmyoji of quality both high in demand and difficult to come by. For centuries, Japan found itself in civil wars, with spies working undercover to undermine efforts of other shogun and the palace. It made leaders wary of relying on word of mouth and letters that could have been forged. Their Onmyoji became trusted consultants, who, over years of working together, inherently knew the astrology and temperament of their leader to offer the best solutions.

Powerful Onmyoji were used to scare rivals of shogun, clans, and the palace; if an enemy knew a Onmyoji was present on the grounds, they were avoided, knowing the place was strongly protected. Onmyoji were said to empower the kami and whisper to the spirits in ways that could ward off evil, and defend the walls of their leader. They even did cleansings and extracted demons from the walls of buildings, and banished wandering ghosts off the grounds.

Should a leader wish to enter into agreement with another for business, trade, or marriage, a Onmyoji was consulted. They would study tea leaves, the date of the proposal, and the astrology of both clans to assess whether the partnership would be fruitful.

One of the best Onmyoji in history was Abe no Seimei, who lived between the 9th and 10th Century in Japan. His health and long life contributed to his legendary status, almost akin to Merlin from the King Arthur mythology, with followers certain that he lived a prosperous life by following his personal astrology and living as close to harmony with the kami as possible. He first proved his powers by transforming a box of mandarin oranges into a box of rats to chase away an adversary, winning over followers and leaders alike. His teachings and advice led Japan through a relatively peaceful period; his contribution to this era of history is well-documented and praised. He was most sought for determining the sex of unborn children and helping people meditate deeply to find objects and loved ones they had lost. At the peak of his practice, he even conducted exorcisms.

When he died, it wasn’t long before some were convinced Abe no Semei was part god, descendent of a kitsune spirit who was fond of humans, helping mankind through divine practice.

As for the worst Onmyoji? Well, you don’t really hear about them—they were likely dismissed or killed, the consequence of giving bad advice.

Propaganda, Demonization

When Emperor Meiji ascended the throne in 1858 and the shogun lost their footing in power, it was time for change. He swiftly ruled that Shinto was the national religion; that wouldn’t change until after World War II when the laws loosened and guaranteed freedom of religion, reintroducing Buddhism and allowing Christianity and other religions to become protected practices. 


Despite modern religious freedom, a series of crimes in the late 20th Century were blamed on cult religions, dissuading many Japanese from niche practices away from Shintoism and Buddhism. The fear of foreign practices remains pervasive today.


Propaganda and campaigns against religion are nothing new. Though shogun and emperors of the past relied on monks and magicians to help them know when to attack, protect their homes, and read their tea leaves, Emperor Meiji banned the practices across the board. The political standing of Onmyoji fell, eliminating many careers and ending the generational practices by several high-ranking families. Onmyoji were forced into hiding or to change their path. It became seen as a superstition rooted in foreign beliefs, similar to Buddhism. 

In an effort to return to their ancestral traditions, Emperor Meiji wanted Shintoism to be the sole practice, which dissuaded others from abandoning Buddhism and the practices of magic, astrology, and fortune-telling. Even if practitioners followed Shintoism and relied on stars to enhance their beliefs, they had to do so in secret to avoid persecution. The practices were so intertwined that it was difficult to separate them and led to sweeping, absolute changes to avoid confusion or innocent mistakes. Today, it has been restored as an allowed practice, though it is seen more for entertainment, with superstitions still on the minds of many.

Interestingly, another community that suffered greatly from the change were geisha and other entertainers. Geisha were often trained in fortune-telling prior to Emperor Meiji’s reign, then tapered off during the ban to focus more on art and music (talents they already possessed). Every year, almanacs would be written and printed by Onmyoji, which geisha and other fortune-tellers would rely on to offer appropriate, accurate advice to clients.

As a consequence of Emperor Meiji’s rulings, Buddhist temples were burned or converted into Shinto Shrines—which is why even today, some temples and shrines carry similar characteristics. Families shrouded their clan symbols and decor that portrayed a non-Shinto religion, and conformed to the national belief system. Onmyodo was demonized as “witchcraft,” and practitioners were jailed, punished, or even killed. Monks and priests spread rumors to dissuade citizens from following Buddhist teachings or other foreign religions. Though it at first caused mass confusion, this nationalism and unity spurred a mindset that empowered Japan in the decades leading up to World War II.

During Emperor Meiji’s reign, medicine also Westernized, with Eastern healing practices going to the wayside. Though there wasn’t full integration until after the World Wars, this reshaped the approach to medicine and healing at the turn of the 19th Century.


Magic Today

The American and European sense of magic has, over the last century, been introduced to Japan and throughout Asia. This sense of magic includes the wand waving, Mickey Mouse ears, cauldrons, and Tarot. Children visit Disneyland and DisneySea, awe-inspired by the magic of the kingdoms. Adults dress up for Halloween and learn of the European history behind the holiday. They adopt the demons, superstitions, and silliness of the West, merging the beliefs into a modern cultural take. This is, of course, the beauty of globalization.


Divination has evolved but remained rooted in the fundamental traditions of ancient Japan and Asia. Today, you can wander bustling streets in the evening around Shibuya and Shinjuku, and see fortune tellers at small tables with two stools and a lantern. They offer palm or astrology readings, or will look into your birth chart. They can give advice on auspicious days or help you find a compatible partner as designed by the stars. Though nobody will be thrown in jail for using old star charts and pre-Gregorian calendars, you will find many consulting modern palm reader books, tarot cards, and digital star charts.

In architecture, a modern Onmyoji is often consulted to ensure a business is aligned auspiciously to encourage success; the Onmyoji will analyze the street’s direction, sun exposure, and distance to cemeteries, among other metrics, to make their assessment. Interior designers call upon feng shui masters to check that the space is welcoming and obeys rules of balance. Though masked by modern beliefs of choosing a pleasing aesthetic, these routines are rooted in Onmyodo.

People also use superstitions as bargaining chips. If your home or apartment is within view of a cemetery, or is believed to be occupied by a demon or ghost, you can negotiate a lower price and it will almost always be honored. Streets are still made in zig-zags to keep ghosts trapped by corners and unable to follow mortals trying to get home.

Shrines and Temples uphold traditional values and continue teachings as they have for centuries. Their gardens and paths are designed to please the gods and ward off demons. The palace and cities regularly conduct cleanings to chase away demons that lurk in the shadows and pesky ghosts that bang on pipes. Families put dishes of salt by their front doors to block ghosts from entering. Festivals today continue rituals that have been practiced for a thousand years (and are a spectacle to witness). These practices reinforce cultural importance and keep the kami and demons—and magic—alive. 

If you take a taxi or bus, you’ll likely see a charm hanging over the driver’s mirror, which may be a prayer for safe driving or minimal traffic. While it may not seem different from taxi drivers in the Western part of the world who have rosaries or crosses hanging from their mirrors, the nuance is in the intent—though both are asking, ultimately, for protection and guidance.

But is that magic? That is up to the individual to determine.

Want to learn more about Japanese folklore, magic, and my novel Ghost Train?Subscribe to my newsletter and stay in touch!

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Natalie Anna Jacobsen is a former journalist, current marketing director in nonprofit and government, and a debut author of GHOST TRAIN in Fall 2024. After growing up in the Pacific Northwest, she spent years living in Japan, working in media and traveling the world, before settling in Washington, DC with her husband. An advocate, avid reader, and "plant mom," when she's not writing or tending to her indoor garden, she can be found at concerts and airports. Get in touch with her on Threads, Instagram, or X, and subscribe to her newsletter here.

Natalie Anna Jacobsen

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