Human Sacrifice

Hear about these forms of sacrifice on Episodes 17A and 17B of our Podcast, the Japan Archives.

Human Sacrifice

Human Sacrifice was a practise that was said to have been carried out in ancient Japan. Though it is dubious whether this actually occoured or not.


Hitobashira (人柱 – Human Pillar) was the practise of emtombing a person at the base of a structure/pillar with the belief that in doing so it would ensure the safety and durability of the building.

One example of this is that of the Matsue Ohashi Bridge. Legends say a man known as Gensuke was sacrificed here in 1608. Attempts were being made to construct a bridge over the Ohashi river here, however, the pillars kept being washed away. A sacrifice was chosen (this being the next soul to walk passed the construction site) and so Gensuke was taken and sacrificed. After this the construction went ahead with no more problems.1

Burial of Retainers

During his reign of Emperor Sujin the Kojiki states that the practise of human sacrifice was started after Yamatohiko’s death.

‘in the time of this King a hedge of men was the first time set in the mausoleum.’

However the Nihongi says the practise is abolished soon after (see below). Scholars have tried to reconcile these statements by supposing human sacrifice was a long standing tradition already but that the burial of live people during the internment of Yamatohiko was increased to a much larger degree than before which is why it is noted upon in the Kojiki.45

Emperor Suinin
Emperor Suinin

According to the Nihongi, when the wife of of Emperor Suinin (Empress Hibasuhime) died Suinin asked what should be done, his ministers saying they should follow the old traditions of burying retainers alongside her as had been done upon the death of Yamatohiko.

However a man known as Nomi no Sukune stepped in with another idea saying human sacrifice was contrary to a benevolent government. And so he took 300 potters and made images in clay. The Emperor liked what had been created, dubbing them haniwa and this became the replacement of human sacrifice. For his work he was given the name of Haji ‘master potter’ and was put incharge of pottery workers (Haji Be) and funerary rites. The substitution for haniwa, may have been an invention by the Haji as their origins were forgotten but they were still very prevelant in funerary rites.

There is, however, little archaeological evidence of the mass burying of peoples retainers.2

Ponsonby states that this practise was called junshi, and that voluntary junshi was carried out until modern times.6

Sacrifice to the Kami

Human Sacrifice

We can see this form of sacrifice in the Folktale Shippeitaro. In the story, every year a young maiden is placed into a cage and left as a sacrifice for the kami of the Mountain. In the end the ‘kami’ turns out to be a large cat who is killed by a warrior, thus freeing the village from its need for a yearly sacrifrice.3


1. Yoda, H & Alt, M. (2012) “Yurei Attack: The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide” Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing.
2. Borgen, R. (1975) “The Origins of the Sugawara. A History of the Haji Family”. Monumenta Nipponica. Vol.30 No.4 pp.405-422
3. Davis, F. H. (1992) “Myths and Legends of Japan.” New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
4. Yasumaro. O, translated by Gustav Heldt. (2014) “Kojiki. An Account of Ancient Matters”. New York: Columbia University Press.
5. Chamberlain, B. H. (1932) “Translation of the Kojiki.” Kobe: J.L. Thompson & Co.
6. Ponsonby, F. (1959) “The Imperial House of Japan.” Kyoto: Ponsonby Memorial Society.

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