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.
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