Suwa clan

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Suwa clan
Japanese crest Suwa Kajinoha(Black background).svg
The emblem (mon) of the Suwa clan
Home province Suwa region (modern Chino, Okaya, Suwa and Shimosuwa), Shinano
Parent house Kanasashi clan?
Founder Unknown; see 'Ancestry'
Cadet branches Suwa clan (諏方氏) (defunct)
Takatoo clan (高遠氏)
Hoshina clan (保科氏)
Chino clan (千野氏)

The Suwa clan (諏訪氏 Suwa-shi), also known as the Miwa clan (神氏 Miwa-shi; also read as Jin or Shin) was a Japanese clan hailing from the area encompassing Lake Suwa in Shinano Province (modern-day Nagano Prefecture). Originally a family of priests who served at the Suwa Grand Shrine,[1] by the Kamakura period the clan - now named 'Suwa' - thrived as a prominent warrior clan with close ties to the shogunate.

Managing to survive the fall of both the Kamakura shogunate and the Southern Imperial Court which it supported, its feud with local rival clans, and frequent clashes with its neighbor in Kai, the Takeda clan, during the Sengoku period (which ended in the extinction of the main family), the clan split into two branches by the Edo period: one ruling the Suwa Domain of Shinano as daimyō, with the other continuing to serve as priests of Suwa Grand Shrine.


The clan's origins are shrouded in mystery, with a number of competing claims as to the ancestor of the clan in existence.

One legend claims that the clan is descended from the god of Suwa Grand Shrine, Suwa-myōjin, most often identified with Takeminakata of the Kojiki, who was driven to exile in Suwa after his defeat at the hands of Takemikazuchi, a messenger sent by the gods of heaven to claim the land held by his father Ōkuninushi in the name of the goddess Amaterasu.[2][3][4]

According to local tradition, Suwa-myōjin, a god who came from outside Suwa, fought against local gods who resisted his entry into the region such as Moreya. Upon their defeat and submission, Suwa-myōjin/Takeminakata then became the new chief god of Suwa,[5][6] enshrined with his consort Yasakatome in Suwa Grand Shrine, a complex of four shrines grouped into two sites: the Upper Shrine or Kamisha (上社) located south of Lake Suwa, and the Lower Shrine or Shimosha (下社) on the northern side of the lake. Both Moreya and Suwa-myōjin are said to have subsequently become the ancestors of two locally-prominent clans which served as priests of the Kamisha, the Moriya (守矢氏) and the Suwa clans, respectively.[7][8]

Other claimed ancestors of the clan include the Emperor Kanmu - via a supposed son named Arikazu who became the priest of Suwa-myōjin (see 'As ōhōri' section below) - or the Seiwa Genji via Minamoto no Mitsuyasu (one of the sons of Minamoto no Tsunemoto).[9][10]

A more historical hypothesis is that the Suwa share a common origin with the Kanasashi clan (金刺氏), which in turn branched out from the clan of the provincial governors or kuni-no-miyatsuko of Shinano Province, who were supposed descendants of Kamuyaimimi-no-mikoto (神八井耳命), a son of the Emperor Jimmu.[11] As per this theory, the Kanasashi was originally set up by the Yamato court under the ritsuryō system both as the secular and religious authorities of the region, as kuni-no-miyatsuko (and later, kōri-no-suke (評督) or gunji) and as priest (ōhōri) of the shrine(s) at Suwa, respectively. By the Heian period, the secular branch of the clan also came to assume religious duties, leading to the local shrines being grouped into two distinct entities: the Kamisha (presided by the ōhōri line - what would become the Suwa/Miwa clan) and the Shimosha (presided by the formerly secular gunji line, which continued to use the Kanasashi name).[12]

In support of this theory, it has been noted that while 'Kanasashi' is already attested in sources from the Nara and Heian periods, the names 'Suwa' or 'Miwa' do not appear in written records until the Kamakura period, around the same time the distinction between the Suwa Kamisha and the Shimosha became complete.[9][13] In addition, the genealogical record of the Aso clan (阿蘇氏) of Aso Shrine (said to be related to the Kanasashi) depicts the Suwa and the Kanasashi as each being descended from the two sons of kuni-no-miyatsuko Mase-no-kimi (麻背君), also named Iotari-no-kimi (五百足君), son of courtier Kaneyumi-no-kimi (金弓君), who received the name 'Kanasashi-no-toneri(-no-atai)' (金刺舎人(直)) from the Emperor Kinmei (reigned 539-571) after his palace, the Kanasashi-no-miya (金刺宮) in modern-day Sakurai City, Nara Prefecture.[14][15][16] Furthermore, there are two instances from Kamakura period documents where two members of the Suwa clan are recorded under the surname Kanasashi.[17]

As ōhōri[edit]

In antiquity, one member of the clan served as ōhōri (大祝 'great priest', old orthography: おほはふり ohohafuri; also rendered as ōhafuri) of the Kamisha, considered to be the visible embodiment of Suwa-myōjin himself and as such, a living god (arahitogami) and an object of worship in his own right.[18][19] (Meanwhile, one member of the Kanasashi clan served as the Shimosha's ōhōri.)

The Suwa ōhōri, who traditionally assumed the position at a young age, was assisted by five priests headed by the jinchōkan (神長官), a position occupied by the Moriya clan. Among the jinchōkan's roles were overseeing the Kamisha's rites and ceremonies in general, as well as summoning Mishaguji (a god or gods worshipped in Suwa since ancient times who is/are sometimes conflated with Takeminakata/Suwa-myōjin) to possess chosen individuals or inhabit inanimate objects during ceremonies when the presence of the god was called for.[20][21]

According to a medieval legend, the very first priest - a boy by the age of eight - was chosen by Suwa-myōjin himself in a vision. The god, declaring that since he (the god) has no tangible physical form his priest (hōri) shall be worshipped instead as his embodiment, took off his robe and made the boy wear it, thus conferring both priesthood and divinity to him. Since then, the boy and his descendants who assumed the same office became known as misogi-no-hōri (御衣着祝 'priest (who) wears the sacred garment'), the precursor to the title of ōhōri.

The boy in the story has variously been identified with two semi-legendary individuals: Otoei (乙頴, also 'Otsuei'), also known as Kumako (神子 or 熊子), the younger of Mase-no-kimi's two sons who supposedly lived around the time of Emperor Yōmei (585-587),[13][22][23] and Arikazu (有員), claimed to have lived during the reign of Emperor Kanmu around the 9th century and sometimes even purported to be a son of said emperor.[24][25][26][27] (Arikazu is sometimes portrayed instead as Otoei's descendant and the first to bear the title of ōhōri instead of misogi-no-hōri.)

It has been observed that the religious atmosphere of Suwa is a syncretism of ancient indigenous beliefs and practices (e.g. the worship of Mishaguji) reorganized under a Yamato framework (i.e. Suwa-myōjin/Takeminakata and the ōhōri), but with the local element still predominant. Though officially the chief priest of the Kamisha and as incarnate deity, an object of worship, the Suwa ōhōri had little, if any, actual power, which rested in the hands of the Moriya jinchōkan, with his unique ability to hear Mishaguji and call upon the god(s) to descend upon people or objects and his knowledge of special rituals, which were closely guarded secrets traditionally passed down via word of mouth only to the heir to the office.[28] In fact, it was by being possessed by Mishaguji (summoned by the jinchōkan) during his investiture into the office that the Suwa ōhōri officially became a living deity.[29][30] It was also forbidden for the ōhōri to ever leave Suwa; breaking this ban was thought to incur Mishaguji's wrath.[31]

Investiture ceremony[edit]

The full rite of investiture into the office of ōhōri as practiced in the late medieval period originally involved the candidate - a boy from the Suwa clan between the age of eight to fifteen - being brought before a maple (kaede) or holly (hiiragi) tree west of the Gōdono (神殿), the ōhōri's residence during his term located in the precincts of one of the Kamisha's two component shrines, the Maemiya (前宮 'old shrine'). Under the tree, known as Keikansha (鶏冠社) or Tosaka-no-miya (とさかの宮) among other names such as Kaede-no-miya (楓の宮) or Hiiragi-no-miya (柊の宮), was a flat rock known as the kaname-ishi (要石 'keystone'). During the ceremony, the Moriya jinchōkan led the candidate to the rock (then surrounded by a makeshift enclosure or hut), on which was laid a mat of reeds for the boy to sit on.

After dressing the boy in full ritual attire - traditional makeup (oshiroi, ohaguro, beni and mayuzumi), a dull yellow-green sokutai, a hakama, and a crown (kanmuri) - the jinchōkan summoned Mishaguji (who as a nature spirit was believed to inhabit rocks and trees[20]) to the kaname-ishi with a secret incantation. Through the rock, Mishaguji was then believed to enter the child's body, thereby turning him into a god and installing him into the office.[32][33][32][34]

As time went on the ritual became increasingly simplified and later, was supposedly even omitted altogether, with the ōhōri simply assuming the position without any ceremony.[35]


During his term of office, the ōhōri originally resided in a building near the Suwa Maemiya known as the Gōdono (神殿). Reflecting its being the residence of the ōhōri (considered a god incarnate), the Maemiya area and its vicinity was known during the Middle Ages as the Gōbara (神原), the 'god's field'.[36]

Not much is known of the ōhōri's daily routine outside of ceremonies save that he sat upon a deer hide (an animal sacred to Suwa-myōjin as a god of hunting) and observed taboos, avoiding contact with death and other causes of impurity.[36] Should the ōhōri die while in office, his corpse was immediately brought to the presence of Suwa-myōjin (i.e. the shrine) where he was first ceremonially retired from office before being taken out of the shrine's precincts through a gate reserved solely for the purpose, the "unopened gate" (不明門 akazu-no-mon) and buried in his clothes, with hair and beard unshaven - or later, as per Buddhist custom, cremated.[37]

By the early 17th century, the ōhōri's residence was moved from the Maemiya to a place in what is now Nakasu, Suwa City.


From the Heian period to the Sengoku period[edit]

In the meantime, other male members of the clan aside from the ōhōri - who cannot step outside the boundaries of the region, as well as come into contact with sources of impurity such as the flesh and blood of men or horses - began to pursue military careers.

One of the first recorded warriors from the clan was Tamenaka (為仲), a son of then ōhōri Tamenobu (為信). Tamenaka served under Minamoto no Yoshiie during the Zenkunen War (1051-1063) under the orders of his father, who could not participate himself due to his priestly status. He then also served again under Yoshiie in the later Gosannen War of the 1080s, this time despite opposition from his family due to him already inheriting the position of ōhōri from Tamenobu in the interim between the two wars. Tamenaka's eventual suicide out of shame after his subordinates had a violent quarrel with Minamoto no Yoshimitsu's men during a feast held by the latter was considered to be divine punishment for his violation of the ban.[38][39][40]

Due to the circumstances of his father's death, Tamenaka's son, Tamemori (為盛) did not inherit the office of ōhōri, it instead passing in succession to Tamenaka's three younger brothers, two of whom died within mere days of their investiture. It would be the youngest brother, Tamesada (為貞), who would turn out to successfully pass down the priesthood to his progeny.

By the Kamakura period, the clan - now renowned as being both a priestly and a warrior clan - rose to national prominence as vassals (gokenin) of the shogunate and later, flourished greatly under the patronage of the Hōjō clan. The clan's fortunes waned with the fall of the Kamakura shogunate and the defeat of the Southern Imperial Court (which the clan supported) during the Nanboku-chō period.

During the Muromachi period, the Suwa were involved both in a feud with the Kanasashi clan of the Shimosha which supported the Northern Court, and interclan strife between the head family (惣領家 sōryō-ke) and the ōhōri-ke (大祝家), a branch of the clan that had come to assume the priestly duties. With the defeat of the Kanasashi and the head family's reattainment of the position of ōhori, the clan became a regional power, clashing with the Takeda clan - originally their allies - during the Sengoku period. The clan again suffered a setback with Suwa Yorishige's defeat in the hands of Takeda Shingen (who was, ironically, a staunch devotee of Suwa-myōjin) in 1542 and with his suicide in 1544, the extinction of the main family; his cousin Yoritada (諏訪頼忠, 1536-1606), who succeeded Yorishige's younger brother Yoritaka (諏訪頼高, 1528-1542) as ōhōri, was spared. After the Takeda was destroyed by an alliance of Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu, Yoritada allied himself with the latter, who eventually reinstated Yoritada in his family domain in 1601.[9][10]

Edo period onwards[edit]

The graves of various Suwa ōhōri within the Moriya clan's estate grounds in Chino City, Nagano.

Yoritada's eldest son, Yorimizu (頼水, 1571-1641) became the first daimyō to rule Suwa Domain, with the office of ōhōri passing down to his fourth son, Yorihiro (頼広). With this, the clan effectively split into two branches: the daimyō line and the ōhōri line. To distinguish themselves from the daimyō line, the priestly line altered one of the Chinese characters of their surname (from 諏 to 諏).

All in all, ten generations served as daimyō of Suwa Domain until the abolition of the han system during the Meiji period.[41]

Meanwhile, the establishment of State Shinto abolished the tradition of hereditary succession among Shinto priesthood, including that of Suwa Grand Shrine. Local clans such as the Suwa lost control of the shrine's traditional priestly offices (which in turn became defunct) as government appointees began to manage the shrine, which passed under state control.

The last Suwa ōhōri, the fifteenth since Yorihiro, died in 2002 with no heirs.[42]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bocking, Brian (2005). A Popular Dictionary of Shinto. Routledge. p. 142. ISBN 978-1135797393. 
  2. ^ Chamberlain, Basil (1882). A translation of the "Ko-ji-ki" or Records of Ancient Matters. 
  3. ^ J. Hackin (1932). Asiatic Mythology: A Detailed Description and Explanation of the Mythologies of All the Great Nations of Asia. Asian Educational Services. p. 395. ISBN 978-81-206-0920-4. 
  4. ^ Jean Herbert (18 October 2010). Shinto: At the Fountainhead of Japan. Routledge. p. 437. ISBN 978-1-136-90376-2. 
  5. ^ 呉清恵 (November 2011). Cosmogonical Worldview of Jomon Pottery. 株式会社 三恵社. p. 157. ISBN 978-4-88361-924-5. 
  6. ^ Michael Ashkenazi (1 January 2003). Handbook of Japanese Mythology. ABC-CLIO. pp. 267–268. ISBN 978-1-57607-467-1. 
  7. ^ Picken, Stuart D.B. Historical Dictionary of Shinto. Scarecrow Press. p. 288. ISBN 978-0810871724. 
  8. ^ "Brochure of the Jinchōkan Moriya Historical Museum (神長官守矢資料館のしおり)" (PDF).  (in Japanese)
  9. ^ a b c "諏訪氏 (Suwa-shi)". 播磨屋 (  (in Japanese)
  10. ^ a b Papinot, Edmond (1910). Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Japan, Volume 2. p. 611. 
  11. ^ Suzuki, Masanobu (2017). Clans and Genealogy in Ancient Japan: Legends of Ancestor Worship. Routledge. p. 124. ISBN 978-1351983310. 
  12. ^ Kanai, Tenbi (1982). Suwa-shinkō-shi (諏訪信仰史). Meicho Shuppan. p. 14. 
  13. ^ a b "金刺氏 (Kanasashi-shi)". 播磨屋 (  (in Japanese)
  14. ^ Rekishi REAL Henshūbu (歴史REAL編集部) (ed.) (2016). Jinja to kodai gōzoku no nazo (神社と古代豪族の謎). Yosensha. p. 40. ISBN 978-4800308924.  (in Japanese)
  15. ^ Miyasaka, Mitsuaki (1992). 諏訪大社の御柱と年中行事 (Suwa-taisha no Onbashira to nenchu-gyōji). Kyōdo shuppansha. p. 7. ISBN 978-4876631780.  (in Japanese)
  16. ^ Kanai (1982). pp. 106–109.
  17. ^ Kanai (1982). p. 106.
  18. ^ Ihara, Kesao (2008-03-31). "鎌倉期の諏訪神社関係史料にみる神道と仏道 : 中世御記文の時代的特質について (Shinto and Buddhism as Depicted in Historical Materials Related to Suwa Shrines of the Kamakura Period : Temporal Characteristics of Medieval Imperial Writings)". Bulletin of the National Museum of Japanese History. 139: 157–185.  (in Japanese)
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  21. ^ Miyasaka, Mitsuaki (1987). "Kyodai naru kami no kuni. Suwa-shinkō no tokushitsu (強大なる神の国―諏訪信仰の特質)." In Miyasaka, Mitsuaki (1987). "Kyodai naru kami no kuni. Suwa-shinkō no tokushitsu (強大なる神の国―諏訪信仰の特質)." In Ueda; Gorai; Ōbayashi; Miyasaka, M.; Miyasaka, Y. 御柱祭と諏訪大社 (Onbashira-sai to Suwa-taisha). Nagano: Chikuma Shobō. pp. 25–26. ISBN 978-4480841810.  (in Japanese)
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  32. ^ a b Miyasaka (1987). p. 28-29.
  33. ^ Miyasaka (1992). p. 53.
  34. ^ Fujimori, Akira (1991). Ōhōri sokui no keshō-dōgu (大祝即位の化粧道具). In Jinchōkan Moriya Historical Museum (Ed.). Jinchōkan Moriya Shiryōkan no shiori (神長官守矢資料館のしおり) (Rev. ed.). p. 37. (in Japanese)
  35. ^ "大祝即位式場". 八ヶ岳原人. 
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