Inari Sect 稲荷信仰
It is probably not an exaggeration to say that Inari shrines are ubiquitous in Japan and the true number is much higher than the 32,000 cited by Kamata: Kawaguchi's guess is 50,000. With the exception of the 32,000 number the numbers in the table to the right come from my database.
The formal name of the Inari kami is Inari-Daimyõjin: he is colloquially referred to as Inari-sama but also goes under several other names. Probably the most important of these is Uka-no-mitama-kami (“Spirit of the Rice Warehouse.”) and it is under this name, which reflects his role as protector of the five grains (gokoku) (wheat, rice, beans, and two species of millet), that he is the main kami enshrined at Fushimi Inari Taisha.
As well as being the main kami at many shrines, many houses have small shrines in their gardens where Inari is enshrined as the yashiki-kami (“God of the Estate”), what I call the nook and cranny jinja: in other houses there wil be small shrines inside the house, usually small alcoves, sometimes just a small shelf, dedicated to Inari. How many of these there are can only be guessed at.
Inari and the Fox, Fire and Vermilion
Walk into many Inari Jinja and rather than koma-inu you will see koma-kitsune (fox). So close is the connection between Inari and the fox, which has its own deep roots in Japanese culture, that they are often thought to be identical, but strictly speaking this is not correct. The fox is the messenger for, or a dependent of, Inari. Many of the koma-kitsune have representations of one of four things in their mouths, a head of rice (inaho), a scroll, a key, or jewels. The head of rice again represents the close connection between Inari and agriculture. The scroll symbolizes wisdom, while the key is seen as the tool to open the way to the "marvelous virtue" (reitoku) of Inari, which the jewels represent. Another interpretation of the jewels is that they are jewels of fire, the vermilion colour of Inari Jinja torii also represents fire.
The following is largely based on a Japanese book about the Inari faith edited by Yamaori Tetsuo.(16 in Japanese bibliography).
Origin of the Inari name
The Inari story begins with a certain Hata-no-kimi-iroko, a distant ancestor of the Hata family, one of Japan's oldest.
Legend has that one day Hata-no-kimi-iroki was using a rice cake (mochi) for target practice with a bow and arrow of which he was inordinately proud when the rice cake was transformed into a white bird which immediately flew to a nearby mountain peak. The Yamashirokuni-fudoki says that at the place where the bird landed on the mountain peak rice (ine) started to grow. Unfortunately this text no longer exists and we just have reference to in a postscript to a book published in 1503. It seems that a shrine called Inari was built on the spot.
We are told in the Nihon Shoki:
"The Emperor Kimmei was the rightful heir of the Emperor Keitai ..... The Emperor loved him, and kept him constantly by his side. When the Emperor was young he had a dream, in which a man appeared to him, saying:--"If thou makest a favourite of a man called Hada no Ohotsuchi, thou wilt surely possess the Empire when thou dost attain to manhood. " When he awoke, he sent messengers to search everywhere. They got from the province of Yamashiro, the district of Kii, and the township of Fukakusa (the present Fushimi-ku in Kyōto), a man whose name and surname were actually as in the dream. Upon this joy pervaded his whole frame. "A dream without precedent!" he exclaimed, and addressed him, saying:—“Has anything happened there?” He answered and said:—“Nothing. Only, when thy servant was on his way back from Ise, whether he had gone to trade, he fell in with two wolves on a mountain who were fighting with one another, and were defiled with blood. Thy servant got down from his horse, and, having rinsed his mouth and hands, made prayer to them, saying:—“Ye are august deities, and yet ye take delight in violence. If ye were to fill in with a hunter, very speedily ye should be taken.’ So thy servant restrained them from fighting together, and having wiped them and cleansed their blood-stained hair, eventually let them go, thus saving both their lives.” The Emperor said:—“This is undoubtedly your reward. So he made him serve near his own person, and treated him with a favour which was daily renewed, so that he arrived at the height of great wealth. When the Emperor came to the throne, he appointed him to the Treasury.
Hata-no-kimi-iroki and Hada no Ohotsuchi are seen as being of the same bloodline. The kanji used for Hata is the same as that of the Chinese Qin Dynasty and it is quite probable that the ancestors of the Hata family came to Japan from China through Korea sometime in the Kofun Period (250-538 A.D.) There is a shrine in Kyōto, the Konoshima Jinja, which was founded by the Hata family. It is also known as the Kaiko-no-Sha ("kaiko" means silkworm), as well as for its unusual three-pillar torii.
Rapid Rise in Ranking
At the beginning of 827 the Emperor Junna's health was deteriorating and a soothsayer whose aid he sought told him that he was being punished for the cutting down of a tree in the grounds of the Inari Sha. No matter that there was a perfectly valid reason for this--the tree in question was to be used in the construction of the Five-story pagoda at the Tō-ji Temple--Junna immediately sent a high-level official to the shrine and a ranking of Ju-go-i (Juniour 5th rank) was accorded to it.
The first record of rankings being bestowed on kami is in the Nihon Shoki for the year 673: "When the war (the Jinshin Civil War) was over, the Generals reported the monitions of these three gods to the Emperor (Temmu) who straightaway commanded that the three gods be raised in rank and worshipped accordingly." (Aston p.318). In 851 it was decreed that the kami of all shrines nationwide be given the ranking of Shō-roku-i (Senior 6th Rank) or higher. In total there were 15 rankings, from Shō-roku-i to Shō-ichi-i (Senior 1st rank).
Following the initial ranking the Inari stock rose rapidly. In 843 it became Ju-yon-i-ge (Junior Fourth Rank, Lower Grade), seven years later it was given upper Grade at the same rank Senior Grade. In 874 three Inari Jinja in Yamashiro Province, which by this time had attained Shō-yon-i-jō (Senior 4th Rank Upper Grade), were raised to Junior 3rd Grade. In 942 Shō-ichi-i was bestowed, possibly in return for services rendered during the Tengyō War of 939.
Inari Sanshin (Three Kami)
The expression Inari Sanshin is often used to refer to Inari shrines. Implicit in the expression is the Jō-Chū-Ge (Upper, Middle, Lower) concept and different kami are often enshrined in each of the three jinja in question. These kami can also change with the passing of time. One of the Three Kami combinations places Izanami-no-mikoto in the upper shrine, Ninigi-no-mikoto in the middle shrine, and Waka-ukame-no-kami in the lower shrine. Another has Ōichi-hime, Susa-no-mikoto, and Uka-no-mitama, and the currently most widely accepted combination is Uka-no-mitama-Ōkami, Sata-hiko-Ōkami, and Ōmiya-me-Ōkami.
Inari in Edo
The ascendance of the Tokugawa Bakufu brought an end to centuries of large- and small-scale civil war and the new capital they built, Edo, grew rapidly. Tokugawa Ieyasu took up residence in 1590 and by 1644 the city had grown to one of 300 neighbourhoods. The government was keen to foster continuing growth and with its mercantile economy growing by leaps and bounds the city could boast of 672 neighbourhoods by 1662. Its rapid economic growth and role as the country’s new administrative locus caused many merchants from the old Kansai centres of Ōsaka, Kyōto and Ise to relocate their businesses there. By this time Inari had become the kami of commerce as well as agriculture and along with their businesses the new arrivals from Kansai, those from Ise in particular, brought with them their decorative Inari-based noren shop curtains. There were seemingly so many of these new arrivals that there was a saying “There are (Inari-noren) in all the eight hundred neighbourhoods of Edo:” This was based on a proverb comparing the huge sizes of Edo and Ōsaka “The 808 neighbourhoods of Edo, the 808 bridges of Ōsaka.” (江戸は八百八町、大坂は八百八橋): the upstart Edo though soon left Ōsaka behind, by 1712 the number of neighbourhoods had risen to 933 (Tokyo Metropolitan Archive (Japanese) http://www.soumu.metro.tokyo.jp/01soumu/archives/0712edo_hanni.htm)
Another popular expression of the early Edo Period referring to the arrivals from Ise and the spreading popularity of Inari was “江戸名物、伊勢屋、稲荷に犬の糞.” This loosely translates as “walk around Edo and you will see famous Edo products, Ise shop curtains, Inari-jinja, and everywhere dog shit.”