1.      “Sacrifice” and “Gisei”

In Japanese, the English word “sacrifice” is also expressed with a classical Chinese word “gisei (犠牲).” These words are a perfect match. It is because “犠gi” which is composed “牛 (cow) + 羊 (sheep as the most common offering) + 我(jagged spear to kill the offering)” means “a cow killed with a jagged spear as an offering to the Divine”, and then “牲sei” which is composed “牛 (cow) +生 (live)” means “a living cow for offering to the Divine.” It can be said that “gisei” is truly an appropriate word to translate“sacrifice.”

写真,素材,無料,フリー,フォト,クリエイティブ・コモンズ,風景,壁紙,古代中国の青銅器, 武器, 鈎型兵器, 我型兵器, 鼎

“我” shape spear(1)

However, in contemporary Japanese, “gisei” means not only “sacrifice” but also “victim.” This usage, which differs from the original meaning, appeared at the end of the nineteenth century. For example, when a Japanese newspaper reported that the Chinese emperor sent a personal telegraph to the German emperor to grieve over the death of a German minster who had fallen a victim to the daggers of the Boxers (義和団) the year before, the article used “gisei” for “victim.”(2)

It is clear that this “gisei” was not an offering dedicated to a divinity. In this way, its primary meaning in modern Japanese, which is different from the original meaning as “a sacred offering” to something great, is “the unfortunate death” of the blameless.

2.     The birth of the modernized “gisei”


The hall of worship in Yasukuni-jinja Shrine

GOSEDA, Hōryū “March-off of the General Prince Ninnaji”(3)

One of the reasons the meaning of “gisei” changed essentially was due to the inundation of “gisei” in modern Japan. It could be called “the transformation of quantity into quality” (F. Engels)(4). Modern Japan suffered numerous civil wars and foreign invasions, such as the following: the Boshin civil war (1868 – 1869) between the pro-Shogunate army and the imperial New-government army, the Satsuma Rebellion (1877) which was the greatest and last civil war of the shizoku (the former samurai class), and several armed conflicts with China in Taiwan and Korea which resulted in the First Sino-Japanese war (1894 – 1895). These wars caused a number of casualties such as Japan had never experienced in the previous two centuries. Subsequently, fallen soldiers were regarded as brave men who had offered their lives on the altar of their country, and their spirits were enshrined together as a “Divine”(5) in Tokyo’s Shōkon-sha (東京招魂社) shrine (currently Yasukuni-jinja [靖国神社] shrine) by the Meiji State (1868 – 1945). They were literally “gisei” or “sacrifice” for the nation.

FUKUBA Bisei(6)
However, in reality, the Meiji State had no firm code of religious principle regarding this tutelary deity of the Empire of Japan. Not only Meiji statesmen but also Shinto priests had no concrete image of what this Divine was or what power it had. Furthermore, many Japanese intellectuals who had meritoriously contributed to establish the Meiji State were skeptical of religion, or firm atheists. The new tendency appeared among Shinto priests. For example, the priest Bisei Fukuba (福羽美静: 1831 – 1907), who had erected the first shrine (currently Kyoto Ryōzen Gokoku-jinja [京都霊山護国神社] shrine) for the spirits of loyalists in 1862, was involved in the following episode.

Inner Ise Shrine(7)

In 1868 when Emperor Meiji moved out of Kyoto to Tokyo, imperial families, nobles, and citizens of Kyoto were mostly opposed to this campaign. However, Fukuba strongly asserted a supporting argument, because he thought that the Emperor had to leave this old Capital to establish a new state. One evening, he received a letter from Ise-jingū (伊勢神宮) Shrine (enshrining Amaterasu-ōkami [天照大神] or the Divine ancestor of the Imperial Family) via Jingi-kan (神祇官: Department of Divinities), which read as follows: “the head of a torii (鳥居: an archway of Shinto shrine) in front of Inner Ise Shrine (内宮: Naikū) fell down. I [a priest of Ise-jingū] believe that this may be a sign because it happened just before the departure of His Majesty.” Because Fukuba guessed that it was a protest by adversaries, he disregarded this letter and said “essentially, there is no need to be afraid of the torii’s head falling. It was only an accident!”(8) What he was afraid of was not incurring Amaterasu’s displeasure due to having carried out this campaign but the disturbance of the people due to the suspension. He was quintessentially political.

Title: Two Hierarchies under the Emperor in State Shintoism

Two Hierarchies under the Emperor in State Shintoism

Such priests, who thought and acted politically, founded State Shintoism, which was one of the important pillars of the Meiji State which encompassed religion as a means of dominating the Japanese people. After all, what was honoured in the Shōkon-sha shrine was the act of dying for their country, not the person as an individual. Therefore, it served neither as comfort of the dead nor for the salvation of souls.

Because the Meiji State founded State Shintoism with a political rather than a religious consciousness, the tendency of religious apathy appeared throughout the whole of modern Japanese society. Thus, “gisei” as a common word lost its original meaning to be given a new one as an unfortunate death which was nobody’s fault.(9) However, in modern Japan, “gisei” as “sacrifice” did not fade away; there were a lot of invisible “scapegoats” to maintain the community.

3.     True “Sacrifices”

It’s the simplest thing; there is no warfare without opponents. Hence, there were fallen soldiers in hostile country, but State Shintoism in modern Japan did not worship these spirits. This was an extraordinarily exceptional phenomenon in Japanese history. Traditionally, Japanese people had worshiped any spirits from either side after wars, because they believed that these worshiped spirits would bring not evil but good from ancient times.

For instance, in 1191, Emperor Gotoba (後鳥羽) built a temple(10) to mourn the spirits of the Taira clan (平氏), who had been defeated in the Genpei War (源平合戦: 1180 – 1185)(11). Such acts could be found not only after civil wars but after foreign wars. In fact, a temple(12) was erected for the fallen soldiers of the Mongolian Amy which attacked Japan twice in the late thirteenth century.

A monument sacred to the memory of Toshizō Hijikata (erected in 1958)(13)

However, after the Boshin civil war resulting in the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, those who were enshrined were only fallen soldiers of the winning camp; the souls of defeated soldiers were ignored by the Meiji State. Several decades after the war, some memorials for these obscure spirits were erected around old battlegrounds by relatives, but these memorials were completely different from the Shōkon-sha shrine and the spirits were forced to be social outcasts in the end.

The Meiji State encouraged Japanese people to offer their lives to the Emperor by eliminating the spirits of adversaries as a warning to others. It can be said that these spirits which had been branded as “death in vain” contributed to establishing and maintaining the Meiji State in the background or literally in the underground. On this very spot, they were exactly “gisei” as scapegoat. It is through such sorting out and rejecting of spirits that the Meiji State spun a new myth as the ideology of the modern Tenō (Imperial) system.

Closing remarks

The following sentence appeared in the speech of U.S. President Barack Obama who visited Hiroshima in May, 2016.

Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima

Nations arise telling a story that binds people together in sacrifice and cooperation, allowing for remarkable feats. But those same stories have so often been used to oppress and dehumanize those who are different.(14)

There still remain countries or groups which treat the war dead as “sacrifices.” However, true “sacrifices” who are really offered to the Divinity called Nation are none other than those who are “oppressed and dehumanized” because of being “different.” The nation-state was founded on such a myth inscribed with “sacrifices” whether visible or invisible.




Engels, Friedrich. Dialektik der Natur. 1883. Marx , Karl & Friedrich Engels Werke. Berlin (DDR): Dietz Verlag, 1962. Band 20.

Tōyōbunka-kyōkai [Society of the Eastern Culture]. The eighty years’ chronicle: Bakumatsu, Meiji and Taishō Japan. Tokyo: Tōyōbunka-kyōkai, 1933-1937. in 24 volumes. (東洋文化協会『幕末・明治・大正回顧八十年史』東洋文化協会、1933-1937年、全24輯)

Yakumo, Tsuruma. An introduction of the national holidays. Osaka: Yaegaki-shoin, 1923. (八雲都留麻『大祭祝日略説』八重垣書院、1923年)


Fukuba, Bisei. “Arguments against the transfer of the capital to Tokyo.” Taiyō. Vol.4. No.9. 1898. (福羽美静「御東幸の反対論」、『太陽』4巻9号、1898年)

Newspaper articles

“Personal telegrams between the German Emperor and the Chinese Emperor” the morning edition of Asahi-shinbun. Octorber 24, 1900. (「独帝清帝の親電応酬」『朝日新聞』1900年10月24日東京朝刊)

“Visit to Hiroshima: the full text of [U.S.] President Obama’s statement” the morning edition of Yomiuri-shinbun. May 28, 2016. (「広島訪問 オバマ大統領の声明全文」『読売新聞』2016年5月28日東京朝刊)


  1. Photo by ©Tomo.Yun: “No.5307 A bronze ware of ancient China [China/Beijing],” http://www.yunphoto.net/jp/photobase/yp5307.html, Retrieved August 13, 2016. (back)
  2. “We are deeply grieved at the death of your Majesty’s Minister who fell a victim to a sudden uprising in China which our officers had not been able to suppress.” (“Exchanges of personal telegrams between Germany and Chinese Emperors” the morning edition of Asahi-shinbun. October 24, 1900. p. 2.) (back)
  3. Tōyōbunka-kyōkai [Society of the Eastern Culture]. The eighty years’ chronicle: Bakumatsu, Meiji and Taishō Japan. Tokyo: Tōyōbunka-kyōkai, 1934, vol.3. frontispiece 2. (back)
  4. “Des Umschlagens von Quantität in Qualität” (Friedrich Engels. Dialektik der Natur. 1883. Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels Werke. Berlin (DDR): Dietz Verlag, 1962. Band 20. S. 348.) (back)
  5. The reason why Divine is a singular form is that all their spirits were apotheosized not as a person but in one Divine. Therefore, each of their spirits is a part of a guardian deity of the country, and their personalities as individuals were effaced completely. (back)
  6. Tōyōbunka-kyōkai [Society of the Eastern Culture]. The eighty years’ chronicle: Bakumatsu, Meiji and Taishō Japan. Tokyo: Tōyōbunka-kyōkai, 1935, vol.17. p. 430. (back)
  7. Yakumo, Tsuruma. An introduction of the national holidays. Osaka: Yaegaki-shoin, 1923. p. 90. (back)
  8. Fukuba, Bisei. “Arguments against the transfer of the capital to Tokyo.” Taiyō. Vol. 4. No. 9, 1898. (back)
  9. Of course, the warfare was started by the government, especially The Constitution of the Empire of Japan (1889) prescribed in Article 13 as following; “The Emperor declares war, makes peace, and concludes treaties.” However, it was difficult for Japanese citizens to inquire into the responsibility of the government or Emperor in the Meiji State. (back)
  10. This was called Amida-ji Temple (阿弥陀寺: Shimonoseki City, Yamaguchi Prefecture), which is well-known as a stage of “Hoichi the Earless” in Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan. However, it was destroyed due to “the Ordinance Distinguishing Shinto and Buddhism” (神仏分離令: 1868), and the Meiji State built a new shrine called Akama-jongu (赤間神宮) at the same place. (back)
  11. The warfare between the Taira clan and the Minamoto clan (源氏). After that, Minamoto no Yoritomo (源頼朝) established the Kamakura Shogunate. (back)
  12. This is Engaku-ji Temple (円覚寺: Kamakura City, Kanagawa Prefecture), which was a center of the movement to modernize Zen Buddhism in Japan. For example, Shaku Sōen (釈宗演: 1859 – 1919) went to U.S. to engage in missionary work, and his disciple Suzuki Daisetsu (鈴木大拙: 1870 – 1966) wrote numerous books in English to introduce Japanese culture, including Zen Buddhism, overseas. (back)
  13. Toshizō Hijikata (土方歳三: 1835-1869) was a great swordsman, the vice-commander of Shinsen-gumi (新撰組: Guards of Kyoto in Bakumatsu Japan). He joined the pro-Shogunate army, becoming an officer ranking with the army magistrate (陸軍奉行), and fell in the battle of Hakodate, which was the last stage in the Boshin civil war. This monument was moved to its present location in 1992. (back)
  14. “Visit to Hiroshima: the full text of [U.S.] President Obama’s statement” the morning edition of Yomiuri-shinbun. May 28, 2016. p.14. Incidentally, in the Japanese version of this speech translated by this newspaper, “gisei” appeared six times, although the U.S. President had used the word “sacrifice” once. This serves to show how ambiguous “gisei” is. (back)