Hojoe (ritual of releasing captive animals) (放生会)

Hojoe is a religious ritual in which captive animals are released into the wild to admonish against the taking of life. Buddhism is based on the precept 'forbidding the taking of life,' and this was adopted by Shinto as a result of the syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism in Japan. The ritual encompasses harvest festivals and thanksgiving festivals, and is conducted in spring and autumn in Buddhist temples and Hachimanshin (God of War) throughout Japan. Particularly the Hojoe (Also known in Fukuoka as 'Hojo-ya') held at Hakozaki-gu Shrine in Fukuoka Prefecture is counted as one of the three great festivals of Hakata, and those conducted by Iwashimizu Hachiman-gu Shrine in Kyoto City and Usa-jingu Shrine in Oita Prefecture are known as major events that draw large numbers of tourists.

In Rusui choja (sresthin "Flowing Water") chapter of the "Konkomyo-kyo Sutra" (Golden Light Sutra), there is a Jataka tale (Buddhist Tale) that tells how when Sakyamuni Buddha's previous incarnation, Rusui choja, helped countless fish that faced death when a large lake dried up and released them to safety, the fish were reincarnated into the Heaven of the Thirty-three Celestials and repaid Rusui choja for his kindness. The "Bonmo-kyo" (Sutra of Brahma's Net) also contains this narrative and origin.

Hojoe as a Buddhist ritual is believed to have began with Chinese Tendai Sect founder Zhiyi who, in light of the story of Rusui choja was saddened by the sight of fishermen discarding small fish, sold his possessions to buy these fish and set them free. In addition, the passage 'Release life on lunar New Year's Day to show your gratitude' in 'Liezi' (Taoism book) is the basis of conducting Hojoe at Buddhist temples.

The practice in Shinto began in 676 when Emperor Tenmu issued a decree for the release of caged animals, and came to be carried out at times of natural disaster and during religious festivals. The first Hojoe ritual is thought to have been that held at Usa-jingu Shrine in 720 as a reparation for the deeds that took the lives of numerous soldiers in the conflicts up to that time (it is written in the history of Usa-jingu Shrine that this was conducted as a ritual to repose the souls of the Hayato people who were massacred by the Yamato Sovereignty during the subjugation of Kyushu). The ritual was first conducted at Iwashimizu Hachiman-gu Shrine in 863, and became an event attended by an imperial envoy in 948. The use of the Buddhist deity name Hachiman Daibosatsu was prohibited by the Meiji government in 1868 as a result of the separation of Buddhism and Shinto, leading Iwashimizu Hachiman-gu Shrine and Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine to conduct Mid-autumn festivals instead of Hojoe.

Hojoe Throughout Japan
Kofuku-ji Temple
Held every April 17th. Animals are released into Sarusawa-no-ike Pond at the south of the temple. Kofuku-ji Temple also participates in the Hojoe of Iwashimizu Hachiman-gu Shrine but the spring ritual of the temple and the autumn ritual of the shrine are remnants from the syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism.

Hosho-ji Temple (Shinjuku-ku Ward, Tokyo Prefecture)
The name of Hosho-ji Temple (Shinjuku-ku Ward, Tokyo Prefecture) in Waseda, Tokyo, consists of the 'Hojo' characters of Hojoe.

It is said that the temple was given the temple's name 'Hosho-ji' by Iemitsu TOKUGAWA, 3rd Tokugawa Shogun, in 1649 as it had been deeply revered by the Tokugawa shogun family since the time of its founding.
(the hollyhock crest of the Tokugawa family was also permitted to be used as the temple crest)

The Hojoe ceremony is said to have been conducted at the temple since the time of its founding.

A 'Hojo Kuyo Hoyo' is held every year on Health and Sports Day, which is the ritual event that fish are released into the pond within the precinct in order to give thanks to the animals that are eaten on a daily basis.

It is often said that services for pets are conducted at Hosho-ji Temple (Shinjuku-ku Ward, Tokyo Prefecture) but this is not true.

Usa-jingu Shrine
Formally held on August 15 of the old calendar but is now held over three days ending with Health and Sports Day (from Saturday to Monday). The name of the ceremony has been changed to 'Chushu-sai' (Mid-autumn Festival) but is referred to as 'Hojoe' by all involved with the exceptions of the media and tourists.

The ceremony at this shrine is thought to be the origin of the Hojoe in Shinto but is unique in several ways.

The animals released during the Hojoe are Terebralia palustris snails (whereas ordinarily fish and birds are used for a more dramatic effect).

Several shrines in Northern Kyushu come together to participate in the procession, with the holy bronze mirror in which the god is thought to reside being offered by Komiya Hachiman-gu Shrine.

The event coincides with the 'Rinji Chokushi Hoei-sai' (the festival of provisional hohei (offering a wand with hemp and paper streamers to a Shinto god) by Imperial envoy) once every ten years. The next ceremony will take place in 2015.

Iwashimizu Hachiman-gu Shrine
Held every September 15 as part of the Iwashimizu Festival.

The Hojoe at the shrine dates from roughly the same period when the Hachimanshin was transferred from Usa-jingu Shrine, and became an event attended by an imperial envoy in 948 as well as being one of the most important annual festivals in Kyoto. Although it was prohibited as a result of the separation of Buddhism and Shinto during the Meiji period, it carries on as the Iwashimizu Festival but many of the traditions have been lost.

After an absence of 137 years, the "Iwashimizu Hachiman-gu Shrine Hojo Taikai" was revived in 2004 by volunteers in its original joint Buddhist and Shinto form, and is conducted in a fashion reminiscent of ancient Hojoe.

Hakozaki-gu Shrine
Held from September 12 -18 every year and is one of the three great festivals of Hakata.
It is thought of as a typically autumn festival as some say 'pears and persimmons are sold at hojoe.'

Other Information
Hojoe served as entertainment for the masses during the Edo period, and it was recorded that the number of visitors who assembled for Hojoe at Tomioka Hachiman-gu Shrine was so great that their weight caused the Eidai-bashi bridge to collapse in 1807.

[Original Japanese]