japanese tree lore
Updated: Dec 17, 2022
Trees have been revered and worshipped by indigenous cultures the world over. I have been researching the role of trees in the spiritual lives of different cultures for my upcoming workshop at Sanctuary Mountain ‘Indigenous Plant and Tree Lore’ and am excited to share some of these findings with you over the coming weeks.
Today I will spotlight some of the tree lore from the Shinto culture of Japan but before I do that, let’s look at an overview of tree worship from around the world.
Regardless of any metaphysical connections, there exists a special relationship between trees and humans, as we both produce the gasses that enable the other to exist: They produce the oxygen that we need to breathe, and we produce carbon dioxide which trees breathe. Tree worship (dendrolatry) refers to the tendency of societies throughout history to worship or otherwise mythologise trees. Trees have played an important role in many of the world's mythologies and religions, and have been given deep and sacred meanings throughout the ages. Human beings, observing the growth and death of trees, the elasticity of their branches, the sensitivity and the annual decay and revival of their foliage, see them as powerful symbols of growth, decay and resurrection. In folk religion and folklore, trees are often said to be the homes of tree spirits. Historical Druidism as well as Germanic paganism appear to have involved cultic practice in sacred groves, especially the oak. The most ancient cross-cultural symbolic representation of the universes construction is the world tree.
Ancient peoples viewed the Tree of Life as an axis Mundi or World Tree - a cosmic pillar that upholds the universe. A Sumerian cup from the 2nd millennium BC is dedicated to the Lord of the tree of truth - long before genesis described the Tree of Knowledge in the garden of Eden. In India, Buddha sat beneath the Bodhi tree to gain enlightenment. Trees were worshipped in north and south america by the mayan, aztec and first nations peoples in Europe by the Norse and Celtic peoples and also in Asia, Siberia and Iran. All these cultures believed in some aspect of the world tree, a giant tree that held together the universe as they experienced it.
The shinto religion of Japan has some particularly fascinating folklore about trees. Interestingly, Japan is the home of Shinrin Yoku or Forest Bathing which has become so popular in recent times. Japan has the highest density of forest in the world at 67%, while New Zealand has around 32% and the world average is only 29%, so its makes sense that Japan would have a rich and vibrant relationship to their tree friends.
In shintoism there are many yokai, which are spirits or entities that exist everywhere, including within trees. Some are harmless, while others can be devious or even dangerous. Here is an overview of some of the most well known:
The kodama are Japanese tree spirits that reside in special trees in ancient forests. They can be both a blessing or a curse to people, depending on how they’ve been treated. Cutting down trees that house kodamas can bring misfortune whereas protecting such trees and treating them with respect can bring blessings. This belief has played a major role in how the Japanese protect their forests, harvest their timber and treat their trees.
Known as tree spirits, the kodama yokai are best described as the animated souls of the most ancient trees in Japanese forests. Each individual kodama is connected to its tree and usually lives in it but can also travel around the forest.
Most well known representation of Kodama from the film Princess Mononoke:
The kodama reside in the deepest nooks of the oldest forests and rarely allow themselves to be seen by people. The few who claim to have seen a kodama describe these yokai as small, flying balls of light or wisps. Some also say that within the ball of light there’s a little humanoid figure like a tree fairy. More often than not, however, people can just hear the kodama as the prolonged groans of old forests, lingering in the air. These noises are usually interpreted as the death of a kodama and its tree, or as a prophecy of an upcoming tragedy. Sometimes, the noises simply indicate the continued work of the kodama yokai whose main charge is to tend to their forests.
The kodama move around the mountains as they wish. They can sometimes shapeshift, and can appear as animals, humans and lights. One myth tells the story of a kodama that fell in love with a human and so transformed itself into a human also.
According to folklore, this vampire tree appears in former battlefields where many people have died and its appearance does not differ that much from ordinary trees. The Jubokko becomes a yōkai tree
by sucking up large quantities of blood from the dead and it lives on human blood. When a human being happens to pass by, it supposedly captures the victim and, changing its branches into the shape of a tube, sucks the blood out of the victim. A Jubokko that sucks life out of human beings in such a way is said to always maintain a fresh appearance. When a Jubokko is cut, blood trickles out. It is said that a Jubokko branch could heal and decontaminate an injured person.
In Japanese folklore there is a tree known as ninmenju. It has flowers that look like human heads. If you laugh at the tree the heads will laugh back. However, if you make them laugh too much, they will wilt and fall off before bearing their face-shaped fruit.
In Japanese folklore when the tsubaki tree (Japanese camilia) reaches old age (usually about 100 years old) it develops a spirit and becomes a yokai. It is then able to detach from the host tree and use its mysterious powers to bewitch humans.
In folklore, the tsubaki is associated with death and old age because rather than dropping its flowers gradually, they all drop at once. As a result, it is considered taboo to give camelia flowers as gifts to anyone sick or in hospital.
Hoko are nature spirits inhabiting 1000 year old trees. They look like black dogs with no tail and a human-ish face. There are tales of woodcutters chopping into trees with an axe and blood to oozing out due to the hoko living within.
Bashonosei are spirits of Japanase banana trees, native to Okinawa. They take delight in startling people by appearing as a human face amongst the leaves. Sometimes they're more sinister and impregnate girls with demon babies.
If you're interested in finding out more about Indigenous Tree lore, then come along to the stunning nature wonderland that is Sanctuary Mountain near Cambridge.
Link to my upcoming Tree Lore events here: