Masakado's Mound

Extracted from "Tokyo Now and Then" by Paul Waley.

Many are the shrines and holy places in the eight provinces of the east connected in some way with Taira no Masakado, who rose in revolt in 935 and declared himself emperor. Whatever his motives and methods, he became a hero to the poor farmers and fishermen of the east, and he spawned a host of legends. During his last battle against Tawara Touta (Fujiwara no Hidesato), leader of the imperial forces from Kyoto, seven different Masakados appeared to confront his foe. Eventually, Tawara Touta discovered which of the seven cast a shadow, and that one he shot, so bringing down and end to the life of one redoubtable rebel and six no less redoubtable replicas. Masakado's last battle took place in the province of Shimousa (north Chiba), but his head flew on the wings of wrath to the village of Shibasaki at the top of the Hibiya Inlet. Here a mound was built over the spot where the head was buried, and a headstone placed before the mound. Masakado was worshiped at the shrine here, Kanda Myoujin, which stands now on Yushima hill.

At the beginning of the thirteenth century, a temple belonging to the powerful Tendai sect was built next door to the shrine, and it seems to have subsumed the shrine. This was a great insult to the spirit of Masakado and the people of the area were stricken by plague and natural calamities as a concequence. A century or so later, along came a priest from one of the Amidist sects, a popular sect concerned with the salvation of the people and not with hierarchy and esoteric rites like the Tendai sect. He built a nembutsu (invocation) hall here and tended the shrine ot Masakado, whose anger was thus assuaged.

In the Edo period, Kanda Myojin was moved away from here to make room for the mansions of the feudal lords. Masakado's shrine was moved too, but the mound and the headstone was left behind in the garden of one of the mansions. When the Meiji government's Finance Ministry was built here in 1869, the mound and headstone were left unmolested. The Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 had other thoughts, however. The mound was destroyed and the stone badly charred and disfigured. For a while, Masakado was again forgotten. But then Masakado's rancor made itself felt. There was a spate of suicides among the managers of big companies that had their head offices hearby. The headstone was restored, and the suicides ceased.

At the end fo the Second World War, the Finance Ministry was moved to Kasumigaseki. Masakado's headstone now stands behind the offices of Mitsui Bussan on a site still known as Masakado's mound, even though the mound exists no longer. The headstone, in fact a stone lantern, is hidden behind a commemorative slab dated 1307 and guarded on either side by some highly kitsch frogs. Fresh flowers and incense are invariable in place. The site is clean and green, and Masakado's spirit is in good cheer. The sake and the businessmen, the flowers and the incense, the kitsch frogs and the stones, the forest of little signs among the greater forest of the office buildings - there is still so much inimitably of Tokyo about the "mound" to the man who is, as it was, the patron saint of the city.

Paul Waley