Dina Grib: Kishōmon—written pledges—in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333)

Kishōmon—written pledges—in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333)

by Dina Grib
Talk given at the Dec. 8-9, 2010 Conference

The theme of my research is written pledges, kishōmon, in the Kamakura Period. In my presentation today I would like to briefly introduce the special features of this type of document, its history, and the main types of medieval kishōmon. I also want to share my thoughts concerning the contents of the so-called “punishment section” in these pledges.

Kishōmon as a document type has ancient roots, with the deity being both the witness and recipient of the pledge. The typical kishōmon consists of two parts. It begins with a description of the terms of the pledge, called a "preface" (zensho). That is followed by what is called either the "sacred pledge" (shinmon) or "punishment article" (batsubun), which lists the Shinto and Buddhist deities in which the pledging party or parties have faith. It also states that if the pledge is broken, the violating party will not object to being punished by the deities. A kishōmon is therefore a testament to the authority of the deities.

As a document type, the kishōmon is supposed to have appeared in the early 12th century, and it is thought to have been utilized throughout the Kamakura, Muromachi, and Edo shogunates, up to the later nineteenth century. From the 13th century onward, kishōmon were written on the back surface of a paper "talisman" stamped with the "Goō Jewel Seal" (Goō hōin) as an expression of the firm will of the pledging parties. In the late medieval period, blood-stamped written oaths of allegiance became a common practice—after writing a pledge, warriors signed and sealed it with their blood.

Of the several kinds of kishōmon in medieval Japan, the best known are those made by warriors, bushi, who swore loyalty to their lord. But kishōmon were also composed by officials, especially provincial governors who swore to be honest and obey laws and Buddhist restrictions while fulfilling their duties. Buddhist monks also wrote kishōmon in order to swear their obedience to religious restrictions and temple rules. And peasants composed kishōmon when they asked for tribute reduction, to prove that they were not lying when they said that the harvest had been destroyed by fire or insects. Finally those involved in a trial by ordeal—either the defendant or the suitor—wrote kishōmon to prove their innocence and uprightness.

One of the most interesting features of Japanese written oaths is their so-called "punishment section." It might say, for instance, “Should I break this pledge, I am ready to be punished by all the Japanese gods, mighty and lesser, including Fuji, Hakusan, Tenman Tenjin, Hachiman Bosatsu, and Atago.” The list of deity names differs from region to region, and it may consist of as many as a hundred names. Often the batsubun not only states the readiness of the initiator of the pledge to be punished; it also lists examples of “heavenly punishment,” such as “falling into the pits of hell,” being stricken with Hansen`s disease (Mycobacterium leprae), falling into poverty, never attaining enlightenment, loosing the respect of society,” and so on. Such pledges give us good opportunities to investigate the worldviews and cosmologies of medieval people.

Presentation PDF (in Japanese)