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First the caveats: I don’t read even modern Japanese, far less 7th C Japanese, far less ancient Chinese, so my sources are all at one remove. I have tried to find ones that are not obviously biased in their translations and interpretations. Since this is a web essay, I have also tried to refer to web-sources, where I could find ones that seem reputable or are backed up from reputable paper sources. Nevertheless, this is a bit of a jigsaw puzzle, and there are places where I had to make assumptions and guesses. Do not take this essay’s conclusion as an attested source, because it isn’t.


The Twelve Divine Commanders (Juuni Shinshou) who appear as the shikigami of Abe no Seimei and his alternates in current popular literature such as Yami no Matsuei and Shounen Onmyouji seem to have started life as a group of tutelary deities or personifications in the five element system, settling into twelve figures with elemental powers based on the ten heavenly stems and the twelve earthly branches.

History of the Art

First some background.

Chinese astrology is one of the arts heavily influenced and defined by the yin-yang/five-elements (in-yo go-gyo) system.1 In-yo go-gyo is, as the name suggests, the confluence of two philosophical systems. One of the most well-known manifestations of yin-yang philosophy is probably the Book of Changes (I Ching) and the eight trigrams, each composed of three lines, either whole (yang) or broken (yin).2 By applying yin and yang to the five Taoist elements (wood, fire, earth, metal and water), so that we have yin metal and yang metal, yin wood and yang wood, etc., we get the ten heavenly stems.3 It is worth noting, here, that nearly every source on the subject mentions that "elements" is an inadequate translation of the actual word used and that "phases" or "states" come closer. The ten stems are a cosmological map of creation and everything in it, as people, things, and moments move in and out of the conditions described by each "element". You may, then, understand the heavy use of the ten stems in philosophy and divination.

The five elements are also used to categorize the cardinal directions, not to mention a bunch of other things. Chinese astrology aligns the five visible planets with seasons, directions and elements as follows: Wood/east/spring, Fire/south/summer, Earth/center/all and none Metal/west/autumn, and Water/north/winter. In addition, a particular celestial beast is associated with each direction, the blue/green dragon, the red bird, the yellow quilin/dragon/unicorn, the white tiger, and the black tortoise/warrior respectively.4 The four beasts, minus the central one, evolved from four major constellations used to mark out sections of the sky, one to each direction and season. They are each comprised of seven sub-constellations which mark seven of the twenty-eight lunar mansions; together the four super-constellations account for all twenty-eight.5 These constellations/creatures will be significant later.

The twelve celestial stems also began as an astronomical, calendrical system, which is based on the movement of Jupiter around the sky over a period of twelve solar years.6 7 The twelve year-sections of the sky through which Jupiter moves are what came to be identified with the twelve zodiac animals (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep (ram or goat), monkey, rooster, dog, and boar).

When run alongside each other, these twelve and ten make up a cycle of sixty, the span it takes for the two to synchronize. The use of this cycle to mark days dates from at least the Shang Dynasty (1600-1100 BCE), and its use to mark years starts to appear in documents around the 4th C BCE.8 There is evidence from the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) that the ten and twelve also were written out in balance with each other, as a series of twenty-four, two of the stems being repeated to match the number of the branches.9 This will also be significant later.

The stems and branches first began to be used in individual fortune telling around the 3rd to 6th centuries.10 This was also the period in which in-yo go-gyo and Chinese astrology in general were imported into Japan, where they became the yin-yang arts (onmyoudou).11

Onmyou and Shikigami

In-yo go-gyo is, by and large, a Taoist system, employing dualism and the five elements as Taoism does, for all that the arts it informs are often equally influenced by Buddhism. Onmyoudou, on the other hand, involved just as much of Shinto. The Japanese art developed different primary concerns than the Chinese one, such as determination of auspicious and inauspicious days for major events, and practices specific to Japan, such as avoidance of inauspicious directions (katatagae) and the belief in bound spirits (shikigami).12

The most famous practitioner of onmyoudou, of course, is Abe no Seimei, whose legend first began to accumulate in the Heian period short story collections, the Konjaku Monogatari-shuu and the Uji Shuui Monogatari. In these, however, his shikigami are not named; we are merely told that he has great power over them, even to the extent that they do his household chores.13

The Small Gap

It seems likely, however, that the twelve we know existed for a long time before Abe no Seimei or, indeed, onmyoudou itself. Consider the following.

One of the things that was imported from China in stable form, was the divination board known as a shih in China and a chokuban in Japan. The best example recovered by archeologists has a square base, marked with four layers containing seasonal and directional characters, including the twenty-eight lunar mansions, and trigrams in eight directions. It also has a round or domed center, marked in the middle with the Plough (Ursa Major), surrounded by a ring of "twelve celestial deities", surrounded by a ring of twenty-four characters which are, in fact, the matched set of stems and branches mentioned above.14 A chokuban is shown in the intro to Shounen Onmyouji, and, in the first episode, the characters of a shikigami's name are shown on the first ring. Since the board shown in the episode faithfully fulfills all the specifications of the above description, it appears that the "twelve celestial deities" and the Twelve Divine Commanders of Shounen Onmyouji, Yami no Matsuei, and other manga and anime are indeed one and the same.15

I have not been able to determine when, exactly, Abe no Seimei's generic plethora of shikigami became identified with the Twelve Divine Commanders specifically. Given their relation with the astrological practices and tools of onmyoudou, however, it is not unreasonable that these twelve should be the ones used when someone came to want names for the bound spirits of the greatest practitioner ever.

The Large Gap

Now, however, we come to the real problem. I have found no verifiable source in which the twelve deities in question are named or their origins given. They appear on the divination board, yes. But who are they, and how did they come to be on the board? I can really only speculate, based on what information is available in English.

Initial confusion arises because the group most commonly called by the collective title of Juuni Shinshou are the guardians of the Medicine Buddha and have no points of commonality with the shikigami we know. Their names certainly do not match in any permutation of the languages or characters I have found. This group is, however, associated with the twelve zodiac animals over time, as indicated in sculptural iconography.16 So it isn't entirely out of the question that they may have mutated further, once in contact with the astrological system. It seems more likely, though, that, once this group was identified with the zodiac animals, they were simply further elided with the twelve astrological deities named on the divination board, and contributed their title to the resulting hybrid (or confusion).

I suspect this in part because the online Encyclopedia of Shinto, sponsored by Kokugakuin University, suggests that the very idea of shikigami, in Japan, "originated in the twelve monthly tutelary deities (Chōmei, Kakai, Jūkai, Densō, Shōkichi, Shōsen, Taiichi, Tenkō, Daishō, Kōsō, Daikichi, and Shinkō) found on the circular cosmographic divination board."17 Again, the names do not match, but I only have the romanizations to work with here; it is possible that the actual kanji would match, given the reference to a divination board. In any event, the Buddhist group above does not appear to be associated with the months at all, arguing for separate genesis and later conflation.

Shounen Onmyouji's Masahiro refers to the shikigami as the gogyo taigi, in the very first episode, which I suspect may be written as "the great spirits of the five elements". This, in itself, would point to a connection to the ten stems, which may be the source of the twelve's elemental associations. The only place I have found another reference to gogyo taigi it is to a book which is not, alas, translated. The context of the citation, however, is very suggestive; it mentions
the Six Spirits (Liu shen) identified in the Wuxing dayi (Nakamura Shohachi, Gogyo taigi [Tokyo: Meitoku, 1973], PP. 187-88), which include the astral animals of the four directions—the green dragon (east), the white tiger (west), the vermilion sparrow (south), and the turtle-snake "murky warrior" (xuan wu; north)—plus the constellation Climbing Snake (teng she Chinese characters), which rules over aquatic reptiles and other water creatures...and the Hooked Array (Gou chen), which denotes either the central, northern polar region of the heavens generally, or a specific asterism corresponding to the handle of the Little Dipper.18

The characters given for the Climbing Snake in the above quote are the same as those given for Touda's name in Yami no Matsuei and Shounen Onmyouji both (see SO and YnM).19 This suggests that the twelve may have originated quite early on, as an extension of or addition to the four/five celestial creatures of the cardinal directions. Certainly one of the few solid connections I have is that the four celestial animals, Seiryuu, Suzaku, Byakko and Genbu, are among the twelve shikigami.

The Flying Leap

So how did they develop from four or five or six spirits to twelve? And how did the serpent who rules over aquatic reptiles come to breathe fire? Here is where the elemental directions tie back into the ten stems and twelve branches.

One of the pieces of astrological information that shows up everywhere on astrology sites, but that I have not been able to find a scholarly source for, suggests that, in addition to the sixty term cycle in which the elements and animals rotate through each other, each of the twelve branches/animals also has a "fixed element" from the ten stems. The arrangement cited is that each of the four cardinal element rules three animals with the central element of Earth additionally influencing one from each of the other four. The four elements are, as usual, lined up with the divine beasts mentioned above: the blue dragon, the red bird, the white tiger and the black tortoise/warrior, and each divine beast associated with a zodiac animal that is ruled by that element.20

While this does not come from a reliable source the four divine beasts are certainly prominent in astrology. Thus it seems possible, albeit not in any way confirmed, that the twelve branches/animals and ten stems/elements were associated or intertwined with the four divine beasts early on enough to influence the nature and number of the twelve deities in question. If the names of the four beasts appear among the twelve listed on the divination board, this would be strong evidence for such an association, but I have not been able to locate a clear enough copy of the chokuban's first ring to identify the characters; some are suggestive but that is all I can say at this point.

The association of the twelve animals with the ten elements, at least, may be supported by a discussion thread from Animesuki's Shounen Onmyouji forum. Two posters suggested similar conflations, one from the starting point of the I Ching and one from the starting point of the elements.21 The latter poster, additionally, drew some information from Japanese Wikipedia on the characters' elemental alignments as stated in the light novels. Neither poster cites attested sources, but the first appears to have some background in studies of the I Ching and her/his account of the stem/branch matching involves a repetition of yin earth and yang earth which marches well with the description Cammann gives from the divination board. The second poster could offer some translations from Wikipedia, which most likely has accurate information on the contemporary series at least, and suggests that the shikigami have definite associations with the five elements.22 While I am hesitant to trust this as a source without further confirmation, which I have been unable to locate, I think we can probably count it as a little more weight on the side of "the twelve deities, and hence the shikigami, number twelve and have elemental powers because the stems and branches were matched up".


It seems most likely that the Twelve Divine Commanders had their start in the celestial beasts of the five-element system, and were elaborated upon as time went on. Their current form may well have been determined by related aspects of astrology, which gave us the twelve beasts and ten elemental associations among them. Upon import into Japan, the resulting twelve deities became, perhaps, the inspiration for the idea of shikigami. If this is true, it makes a great deal of sense that the growing legend of Abe no Seimei would incorporate the source of that inspiration as the greatest of the bound spirits, proof of Seimei's own greatness.

This appears to be the form in which these twelve were employed by the authors of current manga, novels and anime, who have, of course, taken their own artistic license.


1. Shigeru Nakayama, "Characteristics of Chinese Astrology," Isis, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Winter, 1966): 442-454. 447-8

2. Wilheml Hellmut ed., Carl F. Baynes trans., The I Ching or Book of Changes, (Princeton NJ: Princeton UP, 1967).

3. Nakayama, 448.

4. Stephen R. Bokenkamp, Early Daoist Scriptures, (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1999, c1997), 19. Bokenkamp writes that, in early texts, the beast representing the center is the Ascending Snake. I cannot compare the name characters in this case, as they are not given, but this may be the same figure that eventually became Touda; see "The Large Gap" section for details.

5. Steve Renshawand Saori Ihara, "Star Charts and Moon Stations," http://www2.gol.com/users/stever/charts.htm.

6. Homer Dubs, "The Beginnings of Chinese Astronomy," Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 78, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1958): 295-300. 298

7. It's actually a lot more complicated than that, and involves imaginary twin planets. But basically it's predicated on Jupiter's movement and the demarcation of one section of sky per year. This was also not the only astronomical calendar system, by far, but it is the one most pertinent to the current sketch. If you are interested in the full story of Chinese astronomy, I recommend searching for it in the JSTOR article database.

8. Dubs, 296

9. Schuyler V. R. Camman, "The Eight Trigrams: Variants and Their Uses," History of Religions, Vol. 29, No. 4 (May, 1990): 301-317. 305

10. Nakayama, 448

11. Lee Butler, "The Way of Yin and Yang: A Tradition Revived, Sold, Adopted," Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 51, No. 2 (Summer, 1996): 189-217. 191

12. Butler, 191.

13. The stories of how Seimei helped his teacher avoid demons; how Seimei took control of the shikigami of another onmyouji who came to challenge him; and how Seimei killed a toad at the behest of careless nobles can be found translated in Robert Hopkins Brower, The Konzyaku Monogatarisyu: An Historical and Critical Introduction, With Annotated Translations of Seventy-eight Tales, (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1952), 541-5. The story of how Seimei saved both a monk and the one who volunteered to die in his place can be found translated in Marian Ury, Tales of Times Now Past, (Berkeley: U of California P, 1979), 124-6. Further tales of Seimei are translated in D.E. Mills, A Collection of Tales from Uji, (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1970).

14. Cammann, 304-5

15. Alert viewers may note that the chokuban in the intro appears to have only two squares of characters in the base instead of the specified four. In fact, all the characters are present; the first and second square simply do not have a line drawn between them and the empty third square is not present. You can compare the characters with Tsutomu Seki's photo of this replica to see. I do not know whether this is an historical variation in how the boards were inscribed or not, but it is not due to ignorance on the artists' part; the chokuban diagram shown on Masahiro's wall has the standard four squares drawn.

16. Mark Schumacher, "Juuni Shinsho," A to Z Photo Dictionary: Japanese Buddhist Statuary, http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/12-generals.shtml. Also "Zodiac Lore," http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/12-zodiac.shtml.

17. Satoshi Itou, "Kami", Encyclopedia of Shinto, http://eos.kokugakuin.ac.jp/modules/xwords/entry.php?entryID=198

18. Bokenkamp, 267.

19. I would like to thank Phaeton for providing these images from her holdings.

20. Lau Theodora, The Handbook of Chinese Horoscopes, (New York: Souvenir Press, 2005). For examples, see "Chinese Astrology," Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_Zodiac#Five_elements or Richard R. Wertz, "Zodiac Animals," Exploring Chinese History, http://www.ibiblio.org/chinesehistory/contents/08fea/c06s04.htm.

21. Kenagalaz and SnEptUne, Post #214, Shounen Onmyouji thread, Anime Discussion Forum, Animesuki Forums, March 21, 2007, http://forums.animesuki.com/showpost.php?s=92f91927fe424b6976b1cab7a8e8c709&p=870506&postcount=214.

22. It is worth noting that the translated information on the Shounen Onmyouji characters' elemental alignments shows signs that the novel author has mixed the two five-element systems, Air-Fire-Water-Earth-Void on the one hand and Wood-Fire-Earth-Metal-Water on the other, winding up with Wind-Fire-Water-Earth-Wood.

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