The term "yorishiro" refers to an object that divine spirits are drawn or summoned to, and it denotes a shintai (an object believed to contain the spirit of a deity) or sometimes a shrine precincts.
Folk beliefs which were the origin of Ancient Shinto and Shinto were based on the concept of nature worship, and this had an animistic element that regarded every object as occupied by a spiritual entity such as a god (deity), a spirit, or a soul. In that sense, all things in nature can be yorishiro, and it is said they originated in the worship of iwakura (large rocks where kami dwell) and himorogi (a temporarily erected sacred space or "altar" used as the locus of worship). Things from the natural world which bring blessings to humans, such as the sun (referred to in Japanese using the respectful term 'ohisama'), mountains, rivers, forests, and oceans, became the objects of worship, with people enshrining things they were familiar with, such as huge stones, rocks, and big trees and today, shimenawa (sacred rice-straw ropes) are still hung to indicate yorishiro.
In addition, the same idea underlay the enshrinement of humanized divinities (gods in human form or captured while human) who appeared in the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) and the Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan) as gods, and people thought that a god's power resided in something related to or symbolic of that god, and they even believed that a god could influence people by embodying himself or herself in such things. The yorishiro for the sun god (also called ohisama or nichirin) are the sun (hi) and a mirror, which is a symbol of the sun.
Although terms such as 'kotodama' (soul or power of language) and 'ibuki' (literally 'a breath', and its derived meanings are feeling, vitality, energy and so on) are not explicitly referred to as yorishiro, these terms imply that people believe spirits and gods are also drawn to people's feelings and attitudes to life.
Yorishiro are called okishiro by the people who welcome the spirits.
The term "yorishiro" is a fairly new word. It is said Shinobu ORIKUCHI used this term first, along with other terms such as "okishiro" and "shimeyama" (a mountain or place targeted by gods), in his paper titled 'Higeko no hanashi' (a Story of the Beard-box) published in the magazine "Kyodo-Kenkyu" (Hometown Research) in April, 1915, (it is also said that Kunio YANAGIDA hardly used the word because it was coined by ORIKUCHI).
However, current Shrine Shinto (Shintoism based on government-organized shrines) uses the terms "mitamashiro" (an object that is honored in place of a person's soul or a deity's sprit) and "kannagi" (a female spiritual medium), which are basically the same as yorishiro but are more restrictive because not all objects from the natural world are considered to be shintai or an objects where gods reside. Also, traditions and research into the historical background of holy precincts called kannabi (places such as a mountain or a forest where a divine soul resides), which had been regarded as shintai since before the time of Emperor Kanmu, a period known as Jodai, mean the origins of modern Shrine Shinto are well-understood and anything whose concept is different is referred to by the word "kamishiro". The term yorishiro was needed because there were no words to denote what was called "kami-oroshi" (possession by a kami, "god") of various objects in Ancient Shinto and Japanese folk beliefs.
From Ancient Shinto to Shrine Shinto
Formalities and rituals have slowly become fixed in the long history since the time of the Ancient Shinto, and most current yorishiro are worshipped as shintai (the object of worship is not the yorishiro itself but the god who possesses it). There are simple types of yorishiro such as a kamidana and a hokora (a small shrine) in the home, as well as buildings for religious services at shrines, such as a yashiro (a small house or an altar where a god is present at) and the shinden (the main shrine building).
The yashiro of most of these shrines are at places that were worshipped in Ancient Shinto, such as the top of a mountain and called iwakura or himorogi, and they usually function as the shrine's yorishiro. In such places, a shimenawa is hung and for rituals people use evergreen broad-leaved trees with thick, glossy leaves such as nagi trees (a species of conifer), as typified by the sakaki (a kind of camellia), instead of a himorogi (sacred tree), as the yorishiro. On special occasions such as festivals, yorishiro can be moved from mountains and shrines so that people can be closer to the divine spirits. For example, mikoshi (portable shrines carried in a festival) and dashi (festival floats) are familiar to ordinary people.
Many of the major gods enshrined at yashiro can be traced back to the Ancient Shinto and appear in Japanese myths in human form, with a number of such gods enshrined at a single shrine. Some creatures (including foxes and imaginary creatures such as a water goblin called a kappa, a legendary Chinese animal with a single horn called a kirin, and a winged mountain spirit with a long nose called a tengu) are also enshrined as secondary deities along with old sacred trees and holy stones, functioning as a yorishiro of the primary god or the guardian god of the area.
Human yorishiro, Kannagi
Kannagi, written with the Chinese character "巫", can also be written "神和ぎ", which literally means 'appeasing the god', and when a human being is a yorishiro, the term 'yorimashi' is used. This term's history is even longer than that of 'yorishiro', and a book named "Shochusho", written at the end of the Heian period, mentions 'call a possessed person yorimashi'.
Yorimashi can be written with the Chinese characters for 'corpse' and 'child' and, as such, often implies a child. In addition, kannagi can be either female or male, and even today there are a few cases of men or children being yorimashi, although most have been shrine maidens. The origins of Shinto priests and shrine maidens lie in the fact that yorimashi became yorimashi and professional oracles delivered divine will or divine messages from yorishiro to ordinary people. They had a shamanistic element, and Himiko (a legendary queen of Yamatai, an ancient country in Japan) was said to be a shrine maiden who worked as a shaman. In addition, practitioners of Onmyodo (a form of divination), while influenced by Taoism, yin and yang, and the Five Elements of Chinese cosmology, are classified as Shinto and can function as yorishiro and conduits for prayer.
Besides priests, fukuotoko (the luckiest man); fukumusume (the luckiest girl); people involved in Shinto rituals (such as the arrow gatherer of a bow and arrow performance at a festival); performers and promoters at a festival (including sumo wrestlers, daikagura lion dance performers, and stall keepers) as well as their sources (such as the medieval sarugaku form of theater and kugutsu puppet theater) are all 'kannagi' and have long been thought to have special power to bring good luck.
Tsukumogami and mounds - consoling the spirits of the dead and thanksgiving
In Japan, the concept that gods and souls reside in all natural objects led people to feel 'awe and respect' for many things, which in turn led them to feel gratitude for things, taking good care of them and using and eating them with care and, as a result, they enshrined many objects as yorishiro.
The term "tsukumogami" refers to long-lived creatures and long-used tools which, possessed by a soul or a god, become yorishiro. It is believed they bring happiness when they are in comfort but bring trouble if they get angry; they are often also called yokai (supernatural beings). Tools which can become tsukumogami cover everything people need in their everyday life such as umbrellas, inkstones and wells, and some creatures such as foxes, cats and weasels are also thought to be able to become tsukumogami. Refer to Tsukumogami for further details.
Artificial mounds (excluding ant mounds and dunghills) were made to prevent the gods that resided in various creatures and tools from becoming violent and to enshrine them so that they would become kannagi (peaceful gods) and bring happiness (some artificial mounds except for ancient tombs are objects of worship). Specific examples include mounds for man-made items such as ningyo-zuka (a doll tomb), hocho-zuka (a kitchen knife tomb), and dogu-zuka (a tool tomb); mounds for creatures such as kujira-zuka (a whale tomb) and uo-zuka (a fish tomb); and mounds for the people killed in war, disasters, or other accidents and the things belonging to them, for example moko-zuka (a tomb for Mongol warriors), kubi-zuka (a grave of the executed), and katana-zuka (a mound for Japanese swords).