Tatari (祟り)

Tatari refers to a condition wherein a god, Buddha, or a soul of human being causes a calamitous condition for human beings, or a supernatural force that works within that condition. Although a word "noroi" has a similar meaning to tatari, the latter mainly indicates a punishment by Shinto and Buddhist deities whereas the former mainly originates from human resentment.

Or, as in an expression 'muri ga tatatte' (overwork torments a person), the word "tataru" is used to express the principle of indirect causality in which an indirect impact of a cause works adversely, rather than a direct damage done by the cause.


Japanese gods innately haunt people or places. The word 'tatari' is said to be a corrupted form of 'tachiari,' meaning the manifestation of god. Infectious diseases, famine, natural disaster, and other calamities are the manifestation of god, and a theory states that religious services in shrines started in awe of god to quell and seal these disasters and enshrine gods.

Today, it is generally believed that the power of god will punish human beings for their violation of divine will, transgressions, malice, or neglect of religious duties. When a calamity or epidemic occurred, people recognized tatari through bokusen (divination) or takusen (an oracle) that revealed which divine spirit was causing the disaster and for what reason. It was also believed that by correcting the error or transgression, tatari could be quelled. After the syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism, people believed that the Buddha, who was supposed to give salvation, also caused tatari as other divine spirits of the Shinto did. It was believed that such tatari could also be quelled by enshrining the Buddha. This is just a folk belief or opinion, however; the original Buddhism view had no indication that the Buddha would cause any calamity or punishment.

Tatari by Vengeful Ghost
Later, when Goryo-shinko (a folk religious belief of avenging spirits) developed, ghosts of dead and living human were also considered able to curse and harm people. Human spirits with malevolence or malice causing tatari are called onryo (vengeful ghost). The famous case is tatari caused by SUGAWARA no Michizane (Tenjin) who died in despair. It was strongly believed that Michizane's tatari caused Seiryo-Den (an imperial summer palace) thunderbolt striking incident and the death of the Emperor Daigo. Court nobles at the time were frightened to death so they enshrined with great care the spirit of Michizane in the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine to let the tatari spirit ascend to be a guardian god. This method to transform a tatari spirit to a guardian god by enshrinement seems to be common practice in Japan since the introduction of Buddhism. In the most primitive concept of religion in Japan was, as the proverb says, "Sawaranu Kami ni Tatari nashi" (If you don't touch the god, the god won't haunt you), people probably only scared and sealed the mausoleums not to bother the divine spirits that were enshrined in the quiet solitude in the depth of the mausoleums.

Another well-known vengeful spirit is TAIRA no Masakado, and it is said that cataclysms occurred frequently in the vicinity of his tomb "Masakado Zuka" and they were believed to be caused by Masakado's tatari. Masakado was deified by Shinkyo, a traveling monk of Jishu school, and enshrined in Kanda-Myojin Shrine in 1309. There is also a rumor that every time the transfer of Masakado's kubi-zuka (burial mound for heads) in Otemachi, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo was scheduled, an accident occurred.

Various forms of Tatari
Belief in 'Tatari-chi (place of tatari)' found throughout Japan can be a reflection of primitive religious concept. Tatari-chi is a particular mountain, woods, or fields that is feared to cause a tatari. It is believed that if people cut trees or own the land, their family members would die.
In Tokai region, such places are called 'Kuse-chi' or 'Kuse-yama.'
Tatari-chi also has local names such as 'Otoroshi-tokoro,' 'Bachi-yama,' or 'Irazu-yama.'
Places such as these generally have an ominous legend that they used to be an execution ground, for instance. There is an interesting opinion that these places are actually ancient sacred places for religious services, but only people's fear for divine punishment remained as a tatari tradition without religious beliefs.

Another widespread belief is that tatari are caused by divine trees or spiritual trees. Belief in huge trees survived since ancient times and elderly trees still remain in Japan today, and so do tatari folk traditions about elderly trees. In Shinshu region, for instance, there is a tradition of a pine tree that shed blood when it was cut with an ax. Many regions across the country have similar traditions.

It is also believed that the 'spirits of animals' cause tatari.
The spirits of cats is feared in particular, as the phrase says, 'Killing a cat will torment the family for seven generations.'

Animals that have been believed to cause tatari since ancient times
Foxes are worshipped as divine servants in the Inari faith, and snakes are the embodiment of god in the Miwa-yama faith. Therefore, it is believed that if people do harm to these animals, they will be punished.

Aside from these, the tales of the supernatural, include a cat with nine tails, nekomata (cat monster) and ghost cat, suggest the widespread belief of folk tradition that fox and cats have the power to torment people. Many instances of jinx on cats can be found in the Western countries as well.

[Original Japanese]