Messengers of the Gods – Deer of Nara

Kujo (Fujiwara) Kanezane was a nobleman and statesman in the 12th century and, in cooperation with the first shogun at Kamakura, Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, led the government in Kyoto. Kujo is also famous for writing a diary called Gyokuyo, which provides us with precise records of those days. From the 25th day, 2nd month, 3rd year of the Angen era (March 26, 1177 by the Julian calendar) to the next day, he took his daughter for her first visit to Kasuga Shrine and other temples in Nara. In his diary, he wrote about an event during the visit as follows.

On our way to the shrine, many deer appeared in the morning darkness. This is a sign from the gods and a good omen. People say that when one encounters deer, he or she should get out of the carriage and bow to them.

— From Gyokuyo by Kujo Kanezane.

From this description, we realize that deer inhabiting the forest around Kasuga Shrine were venerated as messengers of the gods.

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.

Extending eastward from Nara, the Kasuga Hills have been inhabited by deer (sika deer : Cervus nippon) since prehistoric times. From antiquity, these hills have been considered sacred by the local people. In the 8th century, when Nara became the capital of Japan, the Fujiwara family established Kasuga-Taisha as their tutelary shrine at this location. The history of the shrine compiled in medieval times indicates 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 Kôfuku-ji, an associated Buddhist Monastery 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.

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 Luis Frois, a Jesuit missionary from Portugal, wrote in his report dated February 20, 1565 that many deer freely roamed the streets of Nara and no one harmed them because they belonged to the shrine.

Kawaji Toshiakira, a government officer of the Tokugawa shogunate at Edo (present day Tokyo) in the 19th century, was in the service of the governor of Nara from 1846 to 1851. On the 30th day, 7th month, 3rd year of the Kôka era (September 20, 1846 by the Gregorian calendar), Kawaji was amazed to receive an indictment against a young man who accidentally killed a deer. He persuaded the authority of Kofuku-ji Monastery to withdraw the indictment. He noted in his diary, known as Neifu-kiji (Records in Nara), that he had believed that these laws, which made the killing of deer a capital offence should only have existed in literary fictions. After reviewing the records preserved in the governor’s office, he also noted that the last enforcement of that law was in 1637 and that it had never been done since.

After World War II, the divinity of the deer was officially renounced. Today, about 1,200 deer inhabit the area around Nara Park in a semi-wild state. They are designated and protected as a natural treasure by the government and attract tourists from the entire country and abroad.

By Noboru Ogata, Kyoto University

Last Updated: 06/Mar/2004