A lesson in the importance of not disturbing spirits

Otemachi, the district that sits between Tokyo Station and the Otemon gate of the Imperial Palace has long been one of Tokyo’s main business centers.  Over the last 20 years it has seen incredible architectural changes bringing a new vibrancy to the area as old buildings are pulled down to make way for new office towers containing restaurants, shopping and even hotels in addition to the office facilities.  Just as one new complex comes on line it seems another is under construction.  The construction takes place behind tall white barriers–so as not to inconvenience passers-by with the unsightliness of a construction site–making it difficult to know what’s coming.

Currently there’s a very curious construction site just a block north of the Otemon gate.  An entire block–6,000 square meters–is surrounded by white barriers…except for one small square in the middle of the block’s southern border.  Viewed from above (outlined in red below), it looks like an open mouth with a single bottom tooth.

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Viewed from street level, the small square is a slightly elevated space that is home to several trees–a small green space surrounded by a high white wall and with construction cranes as its backdrop.

In fact, it is a shrine, and the final resting place of the head of a samurai who led an insurrection against the emperor at the end of the first millenium.

To our modern sensibilities, it seems a shame to waste such valuable real estate on what is fundamentally a grave.  But people in this area have learned the hard way that leaving this plot to the spirit of Taira no Masakado is not a waste at all.

To appreciate the lesson, we have to go right back to March of 940 when Masakado was the leader of a short-lived revolt that culminated in his death and beheading, some say on this very spot.  In keeping with the tradition of the time his head was taken to Kyoto and presented to the emperor as a trophy.  According to legend, the head was displeased with this treatment and literally flew back to the place where it was separated from its body.  Local villagers were so impressed with this feat that they washed and buried the head, marking the location and eventually making a shrine of it.

The shrine was (and still is) considered part of a larger nearby shrine known as Kanda Myojin, which was removed to a site about a kilometer due north of here in 1616 by the Tokugawas during the construction of Edo Castle.  But at that time, people knew enough not to even think about trying to displace the spirit of Masakado.

After the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 leveled most of Tokyo, the Ministry of Finance decided to use this land, which was adjacent to one of its office buildings, to build a temporary office building.  To do so, the shrine, of course, was completely destroyed.  Inside of two years, the Minister of Finance and 14 ministry employees had died of illness or by accident, while a number of others suffered leg and foot injuries.

Concluding that the land was cursed, the Ministry gave up on its temporary building and instead re-erected a shrine to Masakado in 1927.  It even went so far as to sponsor a annual Shinto ritual to appease Masakado’s spirit and, in 1940–the 1,000th anniversary of Masakado’s death–, erected the current stone marker and arranged for a major commemoration.

The area around Masakado’s tomb has continued to be troubled.  The American Occupation Forces attempted to bulldoze the site to building a parking lot, but the bulldozer overturned, killing the driver.  The plan was scrapped.  Then the Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan built an office next-door including on land that had once been an approach to the shrine.  People with desks in the general vicinity of the former shrine approach started falling ill. It was said that desks were reoriented so that people sat facing the shrine, rather than turning their backs to it, it an effort to keep Masakado’s spirit happy.

Is it any wonder, then, that the site of the shrine is being left alone while the current development proceeds around it?  The plan for the site is two office towers, one 30 stories and one 41 stories with a hotel on the upper levels.  The area to the east of the shrine will be the driveway, while the area to the west of the shrine and wrapping around the tower facing the Imperial Palace will be green space.  It’s all scheduled to be finished by 2019.

In the meantime, Masakado no Kubizuka is a very busy and popular shrine.  I have passed it many times, at various times of day and have never had the place to myself.  There’s always someone there offering a prayer.  And there are almost always fresh flowers and other offerings to the god as well.

One interesting feature of the shrine is the figures of frogs that can be seen there.  The Japanese word for frog–kaeru–is a homonym for the Japanese verb “to return”–kaeru.  Just as Masakado’s head has returned to this spot, those desirous of a safe return–travelers, businesspeople going for overseas assignment or a business trip, or even the family of runaways or kidnapping victims–find comfort in offering their prayers here.

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Masakado no Kubizuka isn’t necessarily a spot to go out of your way to see (the story is probably more interesting than the space), but if you’re planning a visit to the East Garden of the Imperial Palace, it’s worth the 10 minute detour, even if just to ask the spirit of Masakado to see you safely return home.

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