Messengers of the Gods – Deer of Nara

Around 1000 AD, Kyoto (Heian-kyo), the capital of Japan at the time, enjoyed its golden age of classical culture, where the court ladies such as Sei-Shônagon and Murasaki-Shikibu made their literary masterpieces. Fujiwara Yukinari (also known as Kôzei) was a nobleman in this age, and famous for his calligraphy. He also was close to Fujiwara Michinaga, the person in power at the time, and recorded the court events in his diary called Gonki. The following quotation includes the first mention about deer of Nara.

15th day [1st month, 3rd year of the Kankô era] (February 15, 1006, Julian); At 10 o'clock AM, I departed for Kasuga [Shrine]. When I went across Kowata [present day Uji city], it began to rain. At dusk in the rain, I arrived at Ninjô’s house [in Nara; Ninjô was a monk of Kôfuku-ji Temple].
16th day; I purified myself in the early morning. Before visiting the Shrine, I took a note of my thought. At my entrance of the Shrine, a pheasant chirped. During my prayer, a crow perched on the third main shrine. Then at my exit from the Shrine, I encountered deer. These are all good omens. At 6 o'clock PM, I returned home in Kyoto.

— From Gonki by Fujiwara Yukinari

In the above description, deer are mentioned in the same term as pheasant and crow.

Deer in Nara Park and Mt. Mikasa, the sanctuary of Kasuga Shrine, among the Kasuga Hills in the background (left). More photos of deer...
Image of the Kashima deities departing to Kasuga (right), owned by the Nara National Museum.

In the following quotation from Fujiwara Munetada’s diary in 1112 AD, deer are referred to in particular.

16th day [6th month, 3rd year of the Ten-ei era] (July 11, 1112, Julian); I traveled to Nara to examine the location of the pagoda of Kasuga Shrine which the Regent [Fujiwara Tadazane] is planning to build...
17th day; At 10 o'clock AM, after dressing up, I visited Nan’en-do to offer a light and donate scriptures. Then I inspected the pagoda of the [Kofuku-ji] Temple because the planned pagoda should be modeled after this one. Having called Jakushû, the carpenter monk of the Temple, I had him take measurements of the pagoda. Accompanied by the head of the Temple, the head of the Shrine and other several people, I examined the location of the planned pagoda within the forest of the Shrine. In order to show it to the Regent, I marked on a map a few locations for the pagoda where it can be built without felling trees. During our activity, 40 or 50 deer appeared from the forest and from the direction of the Shrine, and roamed accompanying with us. Saying that this was really a very good omen and a sign of the gods, monks of the Temple showed their delights. I returned to my accommodation at 2 o'clock PM...

— From Chuyuki by Fujiwara Munetada.

Kujo (Fujiwara) Kanezane was a nobleman from the lineage of Fujiwara Regental Family. In the time he lived, government of aristocratic class in Kyoto was declining and warrior class was on the rise. His diary called Gyokuyo is famous for providing us with records of the transition from classical times to medieval times and specifically Jishô-Juei War (1180 - 1185; also known as Gempei War) fought by the Minamoto and Taira warrior clans. The following quotation from the diary in 1177 is of the two-day trip to take his daughter for her first visit to Kasuga Shrine and other temples in Nara.

26th day [2nd month, 3rd year of the Angen era] (March 27, 1177, Julian); Clear weather, then cloudy on the afternoon. Taking my daughter, we returned home [in Kyoto] at 8 o'clock PM. Today, we first visited the Shrine at 4 o'clock AM... Next, we visited Todai-ji in the same way, then we returned to the accommodation. After having a meal, we departed Nara at 10 o'clock AM. During our trip, we had no problem. Although it rained two days ago, it was clear and calm yesterday and today. Moreover, during our visit to the Shrine, many deer appeared in the morning darkness. These are all signs from the gods and good omens. People say that when one encounters deer, he or she should get out of the carriage and bow to the first one. Accordingly, the boy [probably Kanezane’s son Yoshitsune] got out of the carriage and bowed [to the deer]...

— From Gyokuyo by Kujo Kanezane.

From the above descriptions, we realize that deer inhabiting the forest around Kasuga Shrine were venerated as messengers of the gods in the 11th and 12th centuries. After Minamoto Yoritomo (the first Shogun) defeated the Taira clan in Jishô-Juei War and established the warrior government in Kamakura in 1185, Kanezane gained the highest position (i.e. Regent) in the government in Kyoto under Yoritomo’s support in 1186. As the head of the Fujiwara clan, he worked on rebuilding Kofuku-ji which had been destroyed by attack led by the Taira in 1181. The following quotation describes the event held during reconstruction of the temple.

22nd day [8th month, 5th year of the Bunji era] (October 3, 1189, Julian); Clear weather. On this day, I traveled to Nara to worship the Bodhisattva [Fuku-kensaku Kannon] of Nan’en-do, and to inspect building of the Temple. According to the precedent, the head of the clan should visit the Temple soon after the framework-raising... After entering through the western gate, I walked around passing the northeastern temporary building and the site of the middle gate. Then I visited the middle hall. At that moment, a deer appeared from inside the hall and ran westward. It was so miraculous that I cannot describe it in letters. I was momentarily bewildered, then joined my hands and bowed to the deer. Everyone attending the ritual was moved to tears. Anyone who travels to Nara to visit the Shrine considers encountering deer as a good omen. Anyone who meets with a happy event sees this sign. Generally encountering deer is confined to hills and wilderness because they tend to avoid humans. Although the precincts of the Temple were crowded by the people who prepared the ritual since yesterday, even in the crowd, even appearing from the hall, a messenger of the gods sent a lucky signal to the head of the clan. Embarrassed and delighted at the same time, I shed tears. In spite of my incompetence, I have always worshipped the Temple and the Shrine. Is it the reason why I met with this miracle?...

— From Gyokuyo by Kujo Kanezane.

From modern point of view of the above description, we can suppose that ‘the miracle’ had been prepared by the monks of Kofuku-ji to delight their patron. It might be possible to imagine that deer of Nara had become tame by that time as they are today.


Pagoda of Kofuku-ji and deer.

Kofuku-ji was the tutelary temple of the Fujiwara clan and had influence over politics, economy and culture throughout the classical and medieval times.

Extending eastward from Nara, the Kasuga Hills have been inhabited by deer (sika deer : Cervus nippon) since prehistoric times. In the 8th century, when Nara became the capital of Japan, the Fujiwara family established Kasuga Shrine as their tutelary shrine at the foot of Mt. Mikasa among the hills. Since Shinto faith usually considers the elements of nature such as hills, rocks and trees to be sacred, the government issued the following decree in 841. As for trees, the forest covering the Kasuga Hills is known as ‘Kasugayama Primeval Forest’ which is one element of ‘Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara’ included in the world heritage list of UNESCO.

[1st day, 3rd month of 8th year of the Jôwa era] (March 27, 841, Julian); The government prohibits hunting and tree felling in the sacred hills of the Great Kasuga Gods in the Soekami County of the Yamato Province. The authority of the county should bear responsibility for enforcing this decree.

— From Shoku-Nihon-Kôki.

The history of Kasuga Shrine compiled in medieval times states that Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto, the first of the shrine’s four deities, was invited from Kashima (Ibaraki prefecture) and arrived riding a white deer in 768. Accordingly, the shrine and Kofuku-ji, an associated Buddhist Temple which exercised power over the Yamato Province, began to insist on the divinity of the deer inhabiting the Kasuga Hills. These deer were depicted on religious paintings as sacred animals on which deities are mounted. These paintings of medieval times are generally called Kasuga Mandala. Another example was a picture scroll with stories called Kasuga-Gongen-Genki-Emaki (The Miracle of the Kasuga Deity) which was offered to Kasuga Shrine in 1309. In pictures in the scroll, herds of deer gently roaming around the shrine were painted beautifully.

Subsequently, the deer of Nara have been strictly protected by the local authorities of all ages. This protection has sometimes been excessively strict, such that the penalty for killing deer was a death. Father Gaspar Vilela, a Jesuit missionary from Portugal who stayed in Japan from 1556 to 1570, wrote his report as follows.

In this kingdom of Miyako [Kyoto] there is a densely populated city called Nara which has many large and rich temples; I spent some days there and saw three outstanding things of note. One of them is a great metal idol as big as the tower of the gate of Evora... The second noteworthy thing in this place is the herd of about three or four thousand tame deer which roam through the city. Belonging to the temple, they graze in the fields and wander through the streets like dogs; they are worshipped because of their connection with the temple and the idol. Anybody killing one of these deer suffers death, his property is confiscated and his lineage is cut off. If a deer should die in the street, the people living round about are obliged to report the cause of its death; failure to do so brings down heavy punishment on them.

— Michael Cooper (1965) They Came to Japan, University of California Press, p. 282.

In the 19th century, as a government officer of the Tokugawa shogunate at Edo (present day Tokyo), Kawaji Toshiakira was famous for his diplomatic talent when Japan began to open the country to the world. From 1846 to 1851, he served as the magistrate of Nara and worked on the reform of local administration systems. He also studied ancient tumuli (kofun) around Nara because interest in ancient Imperial systems was rising in those days. One day, he was amazed to receive an indictment against young men who accidentally killed a deer. The following quotation is from his diary called Neifu-kiji (records in Nara).

30th day [7th month, 3rd year of the Kôka era] (September 20, 1846, Gregorian); Clear weather. Since deer antler-cutting ceremony will be held on the 4th day of next month, young men were gathering bucks. In the process, they accidentally killed a big buck because they had trouble in holding it down. Accordingly the prince of Ichijo-in and the monks of Kofuku-ji filed an indictment against the buck killers. The accusers behaved like an ancient Chinese tyrant. I persuaded them saying “Because bucks hurt people in mid-autumn, citizens are cutting their antlers under permission of the magistrate’s office. It might be equivalent to cutting bird’s wings or human fingers. Since we permit harming deer, we cannot punish ones for killing deer. This item cannot be treated literally to the law.” The monks accepted my persuasion. It is said that, in old times, one who killed a deer was stoned to death or beheaded near the Sarusawa Pond after being dragged around Kofuku-ji. Although it must be a custom of the Warring States times [15 - 16th centuries] or earlier, I was perplexed with their insistence that it was unchangeable rule. I have believed that rules of this sort, which made the killing of cranes or deer a capital offense, should only have existed in dramas played in theaters. It was an interesting experience to be bewildered by facing such a rule in reality.

— From Neifu-kiji by Kawaji Toshiakira.

After reviewing documents and records, Kawaji noted that the last enforcement of that law was in the 14th year of the Kan-ei era, namely 1637, and that it had never been done since (Neifu-kiji, 4th day, 8th month, 3rd year of the Kôka era; September 24, 1846, Gregorian).

During the World War II, number of deer seriously decreased because of poaching caused by food shortage. In 1946, ‘Divine Deer of Kasuga’ were renamed ‘Deer of Nara’ and effort for protection was continued. ‘Deer of Nara’ were designated as a national natural monument and entered under protection of the national government in 1957. Today about 1100 deer freely roam around hills, parks and streets in Nara. They are the symbol of the city and attract tourists from the entire country and abroad.

By Noboru Ogata, Kyoto University


Last Updated: September 26, 2017