The Meaning and Creeping Loss of Holy Trees of District Shrines in the Tokyo Region

Essay, 2007

7 Pages, Grade: accepted for publcation


Abstract: In Japan, due to the nature-worship of the Shinto religion, single holy trees are still preserved at many shrine sites. Such trees often have an age of several hundreds of years. However, there seems to be a lack of knowledge and consciousness about their meaning and ecological demands. In order to contribute to their future preservation, this paper examines the actual and historical condition of holy trees at district shrines, and then discusses their loss and cultural significance. Although they take a high position within the shrine precinct, holy trees are gradually lost due to environmental changes and a lack of ecological knowledge.

Key Words: Holy trees, Shinto shrines, tree species, spatial position, loss of trees, preservation


This paper deals with holy trees of Japanese Shinto shrines (shinboku) from the perspective of landscape planning. The existence of these old trees is closely related to the worship of natural elements as part of the Shinto religion. Originally, Shinto regards nature as a creation inhabited by kami deities, dwelling in woods, mountains, rocks, or water sites (Sonoda, 2000). The main building complex (shaden) of a shrine site is usually surrounded by a deity grove (chinju no mori). In general, there is no sharp dividing line between such a deity grove and holy trees. In the document “Basic terms of Shinto”, a shinboku is defined as “A special tree or trees inside the shrine precincts. Sometimes shimenawa is strung around a tree which is regarded as sacred; and there are also many examples of worshipping a sacred tree as the symbol of the deity in the absence of any shrine buildings. Believed originally to have been a tree to which the spirit of the deity descended” (Shinto-Committee, 1958).

According to this definiton, holy trees play a very important role. However, it is spoken of trees in a singular and plural form at the same time. By contrast, another definition states two meanings; it distinguishes between a single holy tree, marked by a sacred rope (shimenawa), and all trees of a shrine site. Despite the lack of a solely valid definition, it makes sense to distinguish between the deity grove in general and a single holy tree which is marked by a sacred rope. The purpose of this study is to examine the species, spatial position and religious meaning of such single holy trees. Further, when visiting various shrine sites, the death of shinboku could be observed. Thus, there is some doubt about their real state of preservation. Therefore, a further purpose is to examine if a significant number of valuable trees really have been lost. The research questions are:

1. Is there any significant loss of holy trees, and if yes, how can they be better preserved?

2. How important are such trees from the perspective of Shinto priests?

3. Do their species and its position have any special meaning?

Looking at previous studies in the same field, one paper examines the protection of big trees and their availability for the environmental education in the elementary school (Nagatomo, 2003). Another deals with the spatial transformation of shrines in the urban area (Kato, 1983). Other recent works discuss the meaning of the deity grove and reasons for their conservation and loss (Ueda, 2000; Sonoda, 2005). A further important study investigates the spatial location of shrine sites within the natural environ­ment and its religious meaning (Ueda, 2003). How­ever, there are no studies about the meaning and condition of single holy trees in relation to district shrines.


1.1 Case study selection

The case study contains 42 district shrines (gōsha) in the Tokyo region. The reason to select these shrines is their relatively low rank, which relates to the former system of shrine order (shakaku). This system has been established by the government of the Meiji era in 1871. Though it does not have any official validity today, it has a meaning in the histori­cal context. All shrines with a lower rank than gōsha, the village shrines (sonsha), and the shrines without any rank (mukakusha), were likely to be forced to move or have been abolished after the end of Meiji era. By contrast, the gōsha represent the lowest rank of shrines within shrines keeping their histori­cal continuity until today. At the same time, their size and meaning is just appropriate to discuss the state of the environment of local communities. Such shrines are more likely to be challenged by urban environmental changes than the famous shrines. According to Meiji era sources (Meiji Era Shrine Organisation, 1912), it was possible to deter­mine 99 gōsha shrines in present Tokyo, Saitama and Chiba prefecture in an area up to 40 km from Tokyo city centre ( Nihon­bashi). The chosen borderline of 40 km corresponds to the area of highest suburbanization within the last decades (Oda, 1997). Next, with the help of maps and satellite pictures, it was checked if a grove still exists on each site, in order to study those shrines where single old trees can be found most probably. Accordingly, 42 suitable study sites in the Tokyo region have been selected. Their spatial distri­bution is shown in figure 1, and the names of all shrines can be found in table 1.

Figure 1: The case study sites in the Tokyo region

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Table 1: All investigated district shines, and number of sites with single holy trees

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1.2 Site inspections

First, all 42 case study sites have been carefully inspected. It has been checked if single holy trees (with a sacred rope) stand on a site, and if this was the case, they have been taken stock, including their size, species, and spatial position. Further, photos have been taken of these trees and of all other elements that are likely to be relevant, such as the approach road, open space, buildings, and the deity grove.

1.3 Interviews with shrine priests

Second, the author asked priests of the involved shrines ( kannushi)) about their point of view by half-structured qualitative interviews (Wengraf, 2001). The advantage of half-structured interviews is the possibility to explore surprising topics and new questions that develop in the course of the inter­view. Altogether, 20 interviews in Japanese language have been conducted and recorded. Among these interviews, 15 shrine sites possess (or possessed) shinboku. The main questions are about

- what type of green space element within a shrine precinct is most important and why;

- the meaning of a single holy tree for a shrine, and what species do exist on the respective shrine precinct;

- if the tree species and its position on the site have any special or religious meaning;

- the condition of the shrine and its trees in the first half of the 20th century;

- what is important in order to protect the trees in future from viewpoint of the priests.

- In cases where it was not possible to conduct a for­mal interview, informal talks about the shinboku have been carried out.


Excerpt out of 7 pages


The Meaning and Creeping Loss of Holy Trees of District Shrines in the Tokyo Region
University of Tokyo  (Forest Landscape Planning & Design - The University of Tokyo)
accepted for publcation
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
1983 KB
Holy trees, Shinto shrines, tree species, spatial position, loss of trees, preservation
Quote paper
Lorenz Poggendorf (Author)Ryohei Ono (Author)Akio Shimomura (Author), 2007, The Meaning and Creeping Loss of Holy Trees of District Shrines in the Tokyo Region, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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