Onmyōdō [note 1] is based on the Chinese philosophies of yin-yang and the Five Elements, introduced into Japan at the beginning of the 6th century along with Buddhism and Confucianism. These practices were later influenced further by Taoism, Buddhism and Shintoism, and evolved into the first formal onmyōdō system around the late 7th century.
At that time onmyōdō was a mixture of natural science and occultism, mainly recognisable by the practitioners’ fortune telling ‘abilities’; by judging auspicious of harmful signs present in nature, some Buddhist monks presented themselves as able to predict good or bad fortune for the human world. At that time, the general activities carried out by the practitioners of the primitive onmyōdō were: astronomy, calendar-making, time-measurement, divination, studies based on observation of nature, prayer and spirit-appeasing. Many of the practitioners were Buddhist monks – usually able to read and write Chinese.
The 7th century saw how members of the Imperial Court started believing that divination might be helpful in the process of decision making and in the 8th century the first Bureau of Onmyōdō was formed. The Bureau of Onmyō was responsible for overseeing the divinations of Onmyōdō, astrological observations, and the creation of calendars, as well as preventing ordinary monks to practice astrology and fortune-telling.
Onmyōji [note 2] was one of the classifications of civil servants belonging to the Bureau of Onmyō in ancient Japan’s political and economic system. They were the professional practitioners of onmyōdō, usually specialists in magic and divination. Their court responsibilities ranged from tasks such as keeping track of the calendar, to mystical duties such as divination and protection of the capital from evil spirits. They could divine auspicious or harmful influences in the earth, and were instrumental in financial transaction.
During the Heian period Japan came across the first unworldly imbalance. It is believed that yōkai [note 3] enter the human world through cracks caused in reality by earthquakes, so the cause might have been the Great Jogan earthquake of 869. It is also known that many yōkai feed on human fears, and that those shape their forms. It became the onmyōji’s duties to fight the yōkai, thus limiting the practitioning to those with mystic power. A new specialised onmyōji figure emerged – those in charge of rituals to placate the souls of the dead to prevent or fight yūrei and onryō [note 4] and fighting yōkai.
In the 10th century Kamo no Tadayuki and his son Kamo no Yasunori made great advancements in onmyōdō, astronomy and calendar science, and tutored Abe no Seimei, who is believed to have been the most powerful onmyōji of all times. Among Abe’s feats we find introducing the use of shikigami into the art, his ability to imprison and control yōkai for different purposes, and the writing of several books, among them the ‘Senji Ryakketsu’ [note 5].
Following the decline of the Imperial Society, halfway through the 19th century, Onmyōdō was officially forbidden as a superstition and the current Onmyōdō Affairs Bureau (OABu) was formed, as one of the Secret Departments under the Service of Japan. In a modern world that can predict weather, measure time, and that has proven that divination and foreseeing techniques are not reliable, Onmyōji’s tasks are focused in yōkai and yūrei/onryō control, as well as investigating any non-channeled or accidental explosion mystic power explosion. It is also part of the OABu’s duties to study the old text and separate legend from fact regarding yōkai, legends, folk tales and accurate historical texts.
With the raise of technology, Japan has seen a decline on those able to practice Onmyōdō, while at the same time a rise on accidents caused by uncontrolled power getting out of hand – lack of belief leads to lack of knowledge, not lack of power. Furthermore, the Great Earthquakes that have hit the country in the last twenty years seem to have made the number of yōkai increase. The OABu, thus, is seriously understaffed.
At the moment, the Director of the Onmyōdō Affairs Bureau is Fujimoto Satoshi. He, and all the men and women that serve under him, are committed to keep Japan safe from any unworldly or supernatural threat.
Current logo of the OABu
Note 1: 陰陽道 ‘The Way of Yin and Yang’ [back]
Note 2: 陰陽師 [back]
Note 3: 妖怪 ‘ghost, phantom, strange apparition’: supernatural monsters in Japanese folklore. The word yōkai is made up of the kanji for “otherworldly” and “weird”. Japanese folklorists and historians use yōkai as “supernatural or unaccountable phenomena to their informants” [back]
Note 4: Ghosts [back]
Note 5:占事略决’The Summary to Judgements of Divinations’ [back]
Disclaimer: The Onmyōdō Affairs Bureau is a fictional Japanese entity created for my story Hyakki Yagyo. Historical notes created with the ever helpful Wikipedia [link]. Likewise, Fujimoto Satoshi is a fictional character.