April 16, 2008
by Akari Mori; Chisato Yuzawa
What is Shoki-san?
When you find traditional wooden buildings called “machiya” in Kyoto, please look up at the roof above the eaves of the entrance. There, you will often see a small sculpture, made of kawara roof tile clay, standing in a stately manner. This is the very figure called “Shoki-san.”
Although there are a variety of designs, most are 20~30 centimeters in height and a rather stout figure. Each and every one of them has a short sword in his right hand, and clothes that are trailing in the wind. In addition, you’ll see a heavy beard and eyes that are staring at the sky with a penetrating gaze.
What is Shoki’s identity, and why has he settled on the roofs of so many homes and shops in Kyoto?
Legend of Shoki
In the early Tang Dynasty in China, there was a boy whose name was Shoki (in Chinese, Zhongkui or Chung Kuei). He lived in the south of Shanxi Province. Shoki hoped to become a high official so he left for the capital. There he studied very hard. He took the examinations and completely passed. Normally he would have been recognized for this achievement at the palace by being awarded the high degree “jo-gen.” Unfortunately, however, being an evil-looking man with a heavy mustache and beard and a big hulking body, Shoki found that his degree was rejected by the emperor, Xuan Zung.
Shoki was shocked and ashamed. He committed suicide out of despair, in the presence of the emperor himself.
Then one day, the emperor Xuan Zung was stricken with malaria. Delirious with fever, he dreamed that a giant ogre helped him, from among the devil ogres that surrounded him. The emperor wondered why the giant ogre had helped him and asked, “Who are you?” The giant ogre replied, “I’m Shoki.”
Xuan Zung was so surprised. In the dream, Shoki continued, “I was refused the ‘jo-gen’ so I killed myself. But since I was buried with great care, I’d like to repay the person’s kindness and pray to take away national misfortune.” Xuan Zung awoke from the dream, and he recovered completely from the illness. He deeply regretted his imprudence and he called for an artist to draw Shoki’s picture according to his description. Xuan Zung then worshiped Shoki, who had saved his life, as a god.
After that, Shoki was also worshiped by those taking an entrance examination and also for getting rid of plague in China.
Origin of Shoki’s fame in Kyoto
According to a document which was written in Japan’s Edo period, the beginning of the custom of placing Shoki-san on the roofs in Kyoto occurred as below:
“In the summer in 1805, a pharmacist on Sanjo-street built a new house and put an onigawara (a demon face roof tile), on the roof as a talisman. After a while, the wife of a house across the street got a sudden sickness. She took many kinds of medicine, but none of them worked. Her doctor worried very much, and then he noticed the existence of the onigawara on the opposite house. He regarded her illness as a misfortune of the opposite house which had befallen her owing to the power of its onigawara talisman. He asked the husband of the opposite house to remove the onigawara, but the neighbor did not grant the doctor’s request. Then, the doctor discovered that there was a legend in China which claimed that Shoki is stronger than demons. He got a kawara roof tile factory in Fushimi (southern Kyoto) to make a figure of Shoki and put it on the roof of her house face to face with the onigawara. Thereupon, the wife recovered from the illness.”
Thereafter, Shoki spread like wildfire in Kyoto. People followed the doctor’s example and put the figure of Shoki on each house’s roof facing the onigawara as a talisman; this was especially for protecting themselves and their loved one from diseases ascribed to demons. The people of Kyoto worshiped Shoki the demon queller and even added to his name the honorific suffix “san” — which is why he is known as “Shoki-san” in Japan’s ancient capital.