Marebito: Japanese Visiting Deities and Spirits

Visiting deities. Mysterious visitors, often from across the seas or deep in the mountains, are a staple of many Japanese local myths. These strangers, if treated kindly, fed, and entertained, are likely to emerge as donors of important foundation gifts.

Orikuchi Shinobu (Japanese scholar and poet) defined marebito as spiritual entities that periodically visit village communities from the other world — the “everlasting world” (tokoyo) across the sea — to bring their residents happiness and good fortune. Orikuchi traced the prototype of the marebito to ancestral spirits (sorei).

Despite the dread and disdain of community residents for the marebito, their belief that the marebito bring blessings led to the development of customs for and notions of welcoming the marebito. Orikuchi theorized that the belief in the marebito forms the basis of folk religion in Japan.

Sukunabikona, the dwarf kami who assisted in the creation of the land, is one such marebito. Another is Ebisu, who in his personification as patron of fishermen is worshiped as a visiting deity. The ancestors who return to visit the household during the bon season ( Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors ) in midsummer are marebito as well.

In all cases, great importance is to be placed on treating these powerful beings with respect, offering them food, and, after they have visited for a while, sending them back to their original homes across the sea or in the mountains.

The idea of visiting deities is a reflection of the lives the peasantry led throughout much of Japan’s history and prehistory. Isolated by mountain barriers in small, steep river valleys, many farmers and other producers had little, if any, contact with the outside world.

Outside visitors were therefore regarded with a mixture of suspicion (an outsider could be a threat, a robber, or a tax gatherer) mingled with respect (outsiders were often powerful and dangerous) and a touch of hope (visiting doctors and kebozu were often the only providers of news, medicine, and emotional palliatives).

Moreover, for the peasants the changes of seasons were personalized in the form of the complementary Ta-nokami/ Yama-no-kami deities. The Ta-no-kami’s visits in the spring were solicited and eased because it was the Ta-no-kami who provided food in the fields. It was thus crucial to maintain an attitude of correctness in dealing with strangers who might be tempted otherwise to harm one.

Examples of marebito as masked and costumed deities that bring blessings to people include the Namahage of Akita Prefecture as well as the Akamata/Kuromata and Mayuganashi in Yaeyama, Okinawa Prefecture.

The myth of the visiting stranger with hidden powers emerges in the twentieth century as well. One of the longest-running television series in Japan has been Mito Komon, which tells the story of a retired elderly daimyo (lord) who travels incognito throughout Japan in the eighteenth century, dispensing justice, rewards, and punishments.

Japan’s dealings with foreigners can be viewed as an extension of the marebito myth. Foreign specialists in nineteenth-century Japan were brought to dispense gifts—western science and technology—and after having been feasted and laden with gifts, were sent back to their homeland.

Until a decade ago, many Japanese would have been horrified at the idea of foreigners settling permanently in Japan. Many corporations now practice the marabito myth in similar ways, bringing in specialists for brief periods of time, feasting them royally, then sending them back home after extracting gifts of information and knowledge. Whether this is a conscious use of the marebito myth or an unconscious echoing of a traditional cultural practice is difficult to determine.

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