A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

As We Get into the Year of the Horse: a Bit on Horses in Japanese History and Culture


A set of ETO figurines

For the Year of the Horse- a set of all 12 Japanese zodiac animal figurines with the horse in the middle.

By Avi Landau


I have have made it a custom at the beginning of each year to write about the role, in Japanese culture and history, of the animal (out of a cycle of 12) which according to the Japanese Zodiac (Ju-nishi,十二支) represents that particular year.

I started 4 years ago with the tiger, and then proceeded with the rabbit and dragon- last year there was the snake. Even more than  usual,  I RELISHED researching those articles (links below), as it involved delving into two of my most favorite topics: traditional Japanese culture- and animals. If you do go ahead and read (or reread) those past posts, I am almost certain that like me, you will find (or re-find) many surprises in the way the Japanese have viewed, used, and represented (in the arts), each of these animals.


And though finding an image of a HORSE, a  near universal symbol of strength, speed and beauty, on the NENGA JO (Japanese New Year`s Cards) you received this year might seem perfectly natural (and appropriately auspicious) to a Westerner, and certainly less exotic than last year`s SNAKES – or the DRAGONS from the year before, the horse`s place in Japanese culture and history is not limited to the vital role it has played in agriculture, transport, and war.


A Haniwa clay figurine depicting a horse. Such figurines were used to decorate the outsides of many of the  ancient tumuli created in Japan between the 4th and 7th centuries. Horse-trappings (sometimes very elaborate) and even the remains of real horses have been found in many of these tombs (called KOFUN). The sudden appearance of these tumuli and their spread across Japan has led to exposition of the Horse-Rider Theory, suggesting that Japan was invaded by warriors from the continent who helped form and expand the early Japanese state..

In fact, horses lie at the very heart of the debate on the origins of Japanese state- and the interpretation of horse-related archaeological  evidence play a major part in these discussions.

Let me try to sum up the controversy. The first time the Japanese Islands are mentioned in the historical record is by a 3rd century Chinese writer in the WEI ZHI- what the Japanese call the GISHI-WAJIN-DEN (魏志倭人伝)- which is part of the Record of Three Kingdoms. A country called YAMATAI is described, ruled by a shamaness-like figure called HIMIKO. Most Japanese feel that what is written about in that ancient Chinese chronicle is the nucleus of the future Japanese state.


One point emphasized by the writer of the GISHI-WAJIN-DEN is  that there were no horses in the Land of YAMATAI.

This becomes problematical when we look at the archaeological record- which reveals that suddenly, from the 4th to 8th centuries, as the Japanese state was in fact beginning to emerge, a new custom arose which eventually spread across Japan- the construction of large tumuli, in which local elite were buried.Starting from the 5th century, these tumuli often contained elaborate horse-trappings ( bits,stirrups,bells, and other decorations of bronze or gold) and even the remains of the horses themselves. The outsides of these tombs were decorated with clay cylinders and figurines, prominent among which were detailed depictions of horses- among other animals and objects. Horses were obviously very precious to the people interred in these tombs.

This has led to the proposal of what is called the Horse-Rider Theory (KIBA MINZOKU SETSU, 騎馬民族説), most famously put forth in a presentation by Tokyo University Professor Egami Namio in 1948. The basic gist of his paper was that a group of foreign invaders, master horsemen, had invaded Japan and then conquered it and formed what would become the unified YAMATO State. This notion was (and is) obviously anathema to anyone who believes the old spiel that Japan is the land of the gods and its people and culture generated independantly in the Japanese Isles (and that is a lot of people).

To counter Dr. Enami`s ideas, one argument  put forth was that the  the remains of horses HAD in fact been discovered at ancient shell mounds- some dating back thousands of years. This surely indicates, it is argued, that the horse-riding culture must have arisen from within Japan with native horses .

Stone horse uneathed in Tottori Prefecture

A rare stone horse unearthed at a tumulus site in Tottori Prefecture. Because of the obvious importance of horses to the ruling class of the Kofun Period horses came to be associated with power- and the gods themselves

The problem with this point of view, however, is that according to archaeologists (I specifically refer to the Dictionary of the Archaeology of Humans and Animals, by Toyohiro Nishimoto and Michiko Niimi) the bones found at the ancient shell mound (kaizuka) sites are actually from MUCH more recent times- within the past few centuries, and that in fact the OLDEST confirmed horse remains discovered in Japan to date were those found in Yamansahi Prefecture- and these go back only to the late 4th century.

That means that those who insist on there having been horses in Japan MUCH earlier than the KOFUN PERIOD are merely fudging the archaeological evidence in an attempt to prove their point (that there were no armies of foreign invaders on horseback.

The fact is, however, that the magnificent horse-trappings and the very detailed horse figurines found in connection with the KOFUN tumuli do show a cultural connection to the continent- as do the TYPE of horse which were buried in them- a small variety derived from the Mongolian horse.

Picture odf a horse in a shrine

Picture of a horse hanging in a shrine. While live horses were once considered the ultimate offering to a shrine (they would be the best messenger to carry your wish to the deity of your choice) it later became the custom to make a wish with the offering of a PICTURE OF A HORSE. These were called EMA (絵馬). The custom continues today and anyone who visits a major shrine can find wooden tablets with wishes written on them hung up on special racks. Those these days the pictures on them might not be of a horse, they are still called PICTURE-HORSES (EMA)

No matter where the horses had come from, one thing is certain- they became strongly associated with POWER- not only that of the ruling class, but with the gods themselves. In a society in which the elite prized horses above all, what greater offering could there have been than a horse. Or in another sense, what better vehicle to speed ones prayers and wishes to a particular deity than a horse?

Giving horses to shrines DID, in fact, become customary (with the most famous recorded record of this being the traditional of having horses donated to the Ise Grand Shrine each year)- though obviously very few could afford such an offerings- and few shrines could afford to keep them!.  So what happened was that instead of  real horses, it became popular to write ones prayers on or accompany ones prayers with a PICTURE OF A HORSE donated to the shrine (or temple) ! Over the centuries these pictures have come in all shapes and sizes using various materials. They were called EMA (絵馬)- Picture Horses. Eventually, the picture on them did not have to be a horse- it could be anything connected with the shrine at which the prayers were offered or with the actual prayer itself. EMA today, often have the zodiac animal of a particular year painted on them. That means that most of this years- the Year of the Horse`s EMA are TRUE EMA……. that is…. PICTURE HORSES with pictures of horses on them !  Today you can find these rustic votive tablets- usually made of wood, hanging from special racks at major shrines. If you read the prayers on the back you will find they are most commonly for good health, passing entrance examinations- or finding a life partner.


Interestingly, though, in past ages  horses and horse images were often involved in prayers and ceremonies for rain. It was customary for farmers in many parts of Japan to bury the teeth and bones of old horses, or wooden images of horses at the corner edges of paddy fields as prayers for sufficient rain.

Shinme at Kashima Grand Shrine

Many shrines still keep sacred horses ( shinme) This is on of the horses which are GAZED AT every January 7th at the Kashima Grand Shrine. This is one of the instances of ancient Chinese customs, long extinct in their own country, which lives on in Japan. According Chinese Yin-Yang Theory, the horse is extremely YANG- full of positive, male energies

While we usually imagine European kings and Emperors mounted on  impressive steeds, the Japanese emperors were usually transported by ox-drawn cart (check out the elaborate hina doll sets which most often has one- along with a palanquin!). So horses were never a symbol of the emperors or aristocracy. The emperors did make sure, however, to view a BLUE HORSE ( which actually had an off-white coat) on the 6th day of every new year. This was a custom adopted from the Tang Court in China. According to Yin-Yang Theory such a horse was very rich in YANG energies- the male, positive force. This must have been because of the horses speed and power and also because baby horses- foals, which are born in spring, can stand up almost right after birth and can follow their mothers within a few hours after leaving the womb. Thes custom of viewing the white horses has completely died in China- but can still be experience at certain locations in Japan- including the Kashima Grand Shrine in Ibaraki Prefecture!

I have written about this ceremony in detail here: http://blog.alientimes.org/2014/01/the-seven-herbs-of-spring-%e4%b8%83%e8%8d%89-in-rice-porridge-on-jan-7th%e3%80%80-revisited/


(Of course there were horses present at the court as well for military and ceremonial purposes- I remember once, many years ago, in Kyoto- I was watching a procession when one of the horses broke away and bolted down the avenue. I later saw on the news that it had soon been hit by a car and had to be euthanized.)


An old EMA (PICTURE HORSE) inside a shrine


EMA (絵馬)

There are different types of EMA (絵馬)- this one is on paper

Still, since the times of the HORSE-RIDERS of the KOFUN PERIOD, Japan`s warrior class highly valued fine horses. The fact that the warriors actually RULED Japan pretty much straight through from 1185 to 1868 meant that MILTARY HORSES were extremely important in Japan. In military chronicles such as the Heike Story, numerous famous horses are referred to by name. Eastern Japan became horse-breeding territory ( until modern times farmers in eastern used horses for plowing the fields while in western Japan it was about half horses and half oxen). Many great horsemen grew up in the east, far from the capital (in Kyoto). Precious horses were protected (it was believed) from harm by monkeys which were tethered to their stalls (the pracitce of protecting horses with monkeys conitnued up to the late 19th century). Mounted archery events were also an important part of warrior life (apparently when these competitions were first held anyone who missed the target had to commit ritual suicide!) and YABUSAME, as the practice is called, can still be seen, most appropriately in the first warrior capital of Kamakura. Another way for warriors of the Kamakura Period to practice mounted archery was in great Dog Shooting Events called INUOUMONO.

Since at least the Kamakura Period mounted archery (YABUSAME) has been an important ritual for warriors

During the Kamakura Period (1885-1333) mounted archery (YABUSAME) was an important training ritual for warriors which can still be seen today


A depiction of the 10th century rebel Taira no Masakado- a patron saint of sorts for the subsequent warriors (all skilled horsemen) who rule rule Japan fro the 13th through thr 19th century

A depiction of the 10th century rebel Taira no Masakado- a patron saint of sorts for the subsequent warriors (all skilled horsemen) who would rule Japan from the end of the 12th century up till 1868

A detail from the Kokuo- Jinja Shrine at which the spirit of Taira no masakado is enshrined (about one our from Tsukuba in Bando City)

A detail from the Kokuo- Jinja Shrine at which the spirit of Taira no masakado is enshrined (about one our from Tsukuba in Bando City)

Many schools (RYUHA) of riding for warriors developed over the centuries. One of the famous areas for raising war-horses in Japan has been Soma in Fukushima Prefecture. They have maintained many of the old horse-breeding and training traditions and have kept up some very interesting festivals and events using the smaller Japanese breeds and unique traditional trappings (despite their area being hard hit by the Tsunami of 2011). Here is a UTUBE clip of their most famous event (held every July)- the Soma No-ma oi http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=it5BGS0Gt-s or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHR4tnG3-yo

EMA (絵馬)

Peeking into a shrine I spy a wall-full of EMA (絵馬, many with horse images on them).

From 1600 to 1868 Japan came under the rule of the Tokugawa family- who through a wide-range of draconian rules were able to maintain 250 years of peace and stability. One of these rules was the fact that no one- even those who owned them- could ride horses, except for members of the warrior class. For the common folk and the merchants and artisans it was walking beside your horse- even if you owned one! Farmers Horses were used for farmwork and for carrying loads. In eastern Japan, and especially the north-eastern Tohoku region, the people were extremely fond of their horses. In what is now Iwate Prefecture, the houses (called MAGARIYA) were built so that the stables were actually in the house. Families lived with their horses.

Horse paintings on sale at a shrine

Horse paintings on sale at a shrine

In the Tsukuba area, it is still common to see sacred stones in every village which have the name BATTO KANON (Horse-Headed God of Mercy) inscribed on them. These were placed atop horse graves or at spots where horses were tethered. They were placed their as signs of affection for horses and as prayers for their good health and safety. They were also erected to console the spirits of horses who had passed on- in the hope that they would help intervene favorably on behalf of anyone who made offerings or supplications. You can sometimes see carrots placed in front of these stones.

A monkey tethered to a horses stable- iy was believed that monkeys protected horses from injury and disease ( from the Ippen Shonin Picture Scroll of 1299)

A monkey tethered to a horses stable- iy was believed that monkeys protected horses from injury and disease ( from the Ippen Shonin Picture Scroll of 1299)

During the Edo Period, annual local horse racing events using farm horses became common at shrines and temples. These were called KUSA KEIBA and until recent decades one was held at the Hannare Kanon Temple in Yatabe, Tsukuba. It was carried out as a prayer for abundant harvests. There is a now infamous festival at the Tado Shrine in Kuwana, Mie Prefecture at which horses have been used for centuries each may to predict the outcome of the year`s harvest. The animals are amde to run up a 300 meter muddy slope. For years, animal rights groups have been battling to have this festival banned (or changed). Several participants have been successfuly prosecuted for cruelty to animals.

Have a look a that festival here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yb0fEYQ1nZE

A Horse doll on dispaly for the Hatsu Uma Festival

A Horse doll on display for the Hatsu Uma Festival: the first Day of the Horse in February- the day on which the first Inari Shrine was established in present day Kyoto back in the year 711 AD.

When Japan opened up to the world in the second half of the 19th century it was realized that Japan would have to import larger horses for its military. Various breeds: percheron, anglo-norman and arab were imported and bred. Countless horses suffered terribly and/ or gave their lives for various war-efforts. In response to this shrines around Japan set up statues of GUNBA (military horses) at which consolations to these horses spirits could be given. You can still see some of these today- most notably at the Yasukuni Shrine.

GUNBA (軍馬)

A statue of a GUNBA (軍馬) military horse inside a shrine in North-Eastern Japan. Offerings are given to console the spirits of the millions of horses that died while in use by the defunct Japanese Imperial Army. That region of Japan (called Tohoku) has been famous for centuries for the production of fine horses


Yasukuni Shrine

At the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo you can always find offering of carrots and water laid out in front of a statue of a GUNBA (military horse)


Paper mache horse in a shrine

Paper mache horse in a shrine


Large horse figurines

Large horse figurines which have been dedicated at a shrine as a way of facilitating the deities receiving one`s prayers. Horses were often dedicated for rain supplication ceremonies

SInce the end of World War II, most horses are bred for racing, while others are bred for food! One of Japan`s most important training grounds for horses and Jockeys is just a short drive from Tsukuba   in Miho-Mura . There are also a few riding schools in the Tsukuba area ( I used to be a very active member of one of them!) The Miho Training Center was established in 1978 by JRA (the Japan Racing Association) and it occupies an area equivalent to about 50 Tokyo Domes (according to their brochure). They hold regular events which they say promote a closer relationship between people and horses. You can find the dates of these events on their homepage: www.jra.go.jp/miho/index.html

An EMA votive tablet praying for success at the races (at the O-Sugi Jinja Shrine near the Miho Training Ground)

An EMA votive tablet praying for success at the races (at the O-Sugi Jinja Shrine near the Miho Training Ground). You might be surprise to learn that just as in Europe, horseshoes were believed in past ages to bring good luck.

Traditional straw foot coverings for horses- as seen in this unique perspective of Edo. From Hiroshige Ando`s set of woodblock prints of the 100 Famous Spots in Edo.

Traditional straw foot coverings for horses- as seen in this unique perspective of Edo. From Hiroshige Ando`s set of woodblock prints of the 100 Famous Spots in Edo.

If you get off at the TX Asakusa Station you might make a wrong turn on the way to the famous Senso-Ji Temple and walk past the JRA`S off-track betting facility. You can`t miss it with all the nicotine-stained stubbly faced man standing out front dreaming about their lucky break. Once, I actually went to the track- the Nakayama Race-track, which I think is in Chiba Prefecture. I was invited by an acquaintance of mine, a Japanese woman whose husband had a fondness for the horses. On the day when I him and his wife and daughter, he did not seem very pleased that I had come along. I ended up putting one bet down- and of course lost. The thouroughbreds were beautiful to watch, but it was a very strange day. And after that I did not meet my acquintance, the gambler`s wife, for a few years. Then, one day, I ran into her on the Tsukuba University Campus. She looked great. She told me that her family now lived in Shibuya, one of the more expensive arts of Tokyo (and the world )- where they had bought a condominium. You guessed it. her husband won big one day at the track !

Bakuro- arestaurant in Ebisu, Tokyo that specializesin horse-meat.

Bakuro- a restaurant in Tokyo that specializes in horse-meat cuisine.

Horses in Japan have not had anywhere near the same luck.  Attitudes have changed. And a people who once spurned eating the flesh of four-legged animals (except  as medicine- horse meat was believed to reduce fever) and made offerings for the consolation of the spirits of animals who had passed on have taken on western attitudes- and now horses are given little love or consideration. In fact they are given a very raw deal ! They are worked hard at riding clubs or at whatever miserable job they are given until they are too old or injured- then they are sent to the slaughterhouse and eaten. Yes, horsemeat is a delicacy in Japan now (especially common in Kumamoto Prefecture- where they like to promote this meat by claiming that Kato Kiyomasa, a renowned  historical figure learned to eat horse meat during the invasion of the Korean Peninsula under Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the 16th century). The meat is usually eaten raw and in that form it is called BASASHI (馬刺し). Horse meat can also be called by the euphemism SAKURA (which also means cherry blossoms). In fact, I saw a can of horsemeat at a supermarket yesterday labelled as SAKURA. If yo are interested, there is a restaurant in Ebisu, Tokyo called BAKURO which serves almost nothing but horsemeat- in a variety of forms. Read an English language review of that establishment here: http://www.bento.com/rev/3352.html

Straw horse used to ritually keep small pox away

Straw horse used to ritually keep small pox away. It was believed that the sprit which caused smallpox was attracted to the color red. The concept behind this amulet was that the small pox would enter the strip of red paper which would then be carried away by the horse!

To be continued……………………………….

Straw Hassku Horse

Straw Hassku Horse- It is traditional in many parts of Western Japan (especially in Fukuoka and Hiroshima Prefectures) to present a newly born boy with such a straw horse on the 1st day of the 8th month ( a special day of rest for farmers). Since horses can run and prance around a few hours after they are born, they symbolize the hope for the child`s rapid and healthy growth, There in this photo the horse has a paper rider on it and a banner bearing the name of the classical hero Yamaga Hideto.


Tono, Iwate Prefecture

A pair of Oshirasama Household Deities inTono, Iwate Prefecture. Made of mulberry wood they represent a girl and her spouse- a horse!


Festival in Tono, Iwate Prefecture

A decorated horse takes part it a festival in Tono, Iwate Prefecture which is one of Japan`s traditional horse-breeding areas


Photo of a typical Japanese horse taken in the 1860`s

Photo of a typical Japanese horse taken in the 1860`s


Bato Kanon

Bato Kanon


Bato Kanon

Large Batto Kanon stone (with inscription only) in Hojo, Tsukuba

An excavation in Tsuchiura City (next to Tsukuba) revealed the bones of this horse, which had been buried along with offerings in the Heian Period

An excavation in Tsuchiura City (next to Tsukuba) revealed the bones of this horse, which had been buried along with offerings in the Heian Period

The bones on display at the archaeology museum at Kamitakatsu, Tsuchiura

The bones on display at the archaeology museum at Kamitakatsu, Tsuchiura

Read my other writings on the zodiac animals (ju-nishi, 十二支)  in Japanese history and culture: Tigers http://blog.alientimes.org/2010/02/the-tiger-in-japanese-history-and-culture-a-brief-look/ Rabbits and hares http://blog.alientimes.org/2011/01/for-the-year-of-the-rabbit-some-musings-on-rabbits-and-hares-in-japanese-culture-and-history/ Dragons! http://blog.alientimes.org/2012/01/dragons-in-japanese-history-and-culture-strongly-connected-to-water-rainfall-and-fire-prevention-among-other-things/ and snakes http://blog.alientimes.org/2013/01/getting-ready-for-o-shogatsu/

One Comment

  • Mamoru Shimizu says:

    Avi-san Good article about Japanese culture connecting Horse!! As I am a horse-age and I like horse as livestock, I enjoyed this article very much. Also nice pictures!!
    By the way, about horse meat, Japan imports from USA and Canada, and they are also important horse meat supplier to France, Belgium etc. If French People don’t eat horse meat Japanese would be said incredible people, like whale meat eater or dolphin meat eater? We also eat frog too!! During Load Nelson time French were called “Frog eater”.
    There are several native Japanese-horse species, those are officially recognized, been kept in some local area like Okinawa, southern Kyusyu, Koso, Hokkaido. They are small but strong in severe condition.