The curse of Masakado

Masakado’s grave

Let me tell of the story of  an early samurai known as Taira no Masakado. Or more specifically the legend of his ghost.

During the Heian period of Japanese history, Masakado raised a rebellion against the central government in Kyoto, which back then was the capital of Japan, along with declaring himself “Shinno” (New Emperor). As a response, a bounty was placed on his head by the central government. He was eventually killed by Fujiwara no Hidesato and Taira no Sadamori, his own cousin, in the Battle of Kojima east of Kanto, after which his head was brought to Kyoto, and then Edo (which would later be known as Tokyo), where he would soon be buried.

Legends of his exploits beyond this life soon followed, and not only do people in Edo believe his ghost exists, but that the condition of the shrine affects the fortune of the metropolis of Tokyo. If his shrine was disrepected or neglected, then natural disasters and other inexplicable misfortunes are said to follow.

The story goes that Masakado’s head was infuriated at the fact that it had been decapitated, and frantically quested to find its body in order to become whole and fight another day. The head searched far and wide, but to no avail. Finally, growing weary of his fruitless efforts, the head crashed from the sky to rest on a plot of land that would come to be forever known as Masakado-no-Kubizuka (“The Hill of Masakado’s Head”).

This woodblock shows people cowering in fear of Masakado’s head. Terrified villagers washed the head, buried it, and erected a memorial stone to appease him.

About 1,000 years later, and what was once Edo is now Tokyo, and Masakado’s shrine shares space with many skyscrapers, and stands next to the Mitsui Bussan building, just a few minutes from Otemachi station. Government leaders have tried to remove the shrine from its spot, but each time to no avail. According to legend, the shrine is untouchable, thanks to the age-old curse of Masakado.

After the 1923 Kanto earthquake destroyed much of the city, the Ministry of Finance in Tokyo took an opportunity to level the land where Masakado was buried and enshrined and filled the pond where his head was washed, in order to erect a temporary office building there. Within two years, the minister and 14 other employess had died from accidents, illnesses, and other misfortunes, and afterwards many more inexplicable injuries broke out among the other employees, and people began to fear treading on the cursed ground. Realizing this, officials razed the office building, and rebuilt the hill after holding a Shinto ritual to appease Masakado’s angry spirit. After this, the government held a small service every year in its honour. That is until the outbreak of World War II, when government’s attention would, naturally, be diverted to other matters, and ceremonies eventually stopped.

Then, in 1940, the Ministry of Finance was struck by lightning, which set off a fire that destroyed much of the structure that was adjacent to Masakado’s hill. To appease the angry spirit once again, and on no less than the thousand-year anniversary of his death, the Minister of Finance sponsored an extravagant ceremony and erected a stone memorial on the site which stands to this day. But the legend of the angry ghost of Masakado doesn’t end here. After the war, when US occupying forces took control of Japan, they tried to demolish the shrine in order to build a motor pool for American military vehicles. While they were attempting to level it, a bulldozer flipped over, killing the driver inside. After a string of other accidents coupled with the pleas of local officials, the Americans cancelled the project, thus Masakado’s shrine is once again undisturbed.

And there are stories concerning his body too, not just his head. It’s said the body went looking for its head and eventually fell on the site of what is now Kanda Shrine, or Kanda Myojin.

The gate of Kanda-Myojin (Kanda Shrine)

Over the centuries, Masakado came to be regarded as a hero, and even a god or demigod, and even though he was a traitor to Kyoto, he was a hero to Tokyo, and to this day Masakado is said to stand watch over the city, though it is still believed that he is an angry spirit who needed to be appeased in order to satiate his fury. Even today, his shrine is well maintained, and occupies what is currently some of the most expensive land in the world in Tokyo’s financial district, not far from the Imperial Palace. He is also considered a god in Kanda Shrine (as pictured above), which is located in Kanda.

And so goes the story, legend, and legacy of Taira no Masakado, the rebel warlord who, in death, became a legend, a hero, and a god, still honoured in Tokyo even to this day.


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