What is an Onmyōji?: Fortunetelling, Good-luck Spells, and Almanac-Making
Period Tuesday, October 3 –Sunday, December 10, 2023
Venue Special Exhibition Gallery A&B, National Museum of Japanese History
Hours 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. (entrance closed at 4:00 p.m.)
* Open hours and days are subject to change.
Closed Mondays (When Monday is a national holiday, the Museum is closed the following Tuesday.)


1) Konten-gi, Edo period, National Museum of Japanese History

What were the onmyōji? In this exhibition, we pick up on the rarely know history behind the onmyō-dō, the ways in which the onmyōji conducted their trade, and the culture that was brought forth by these mysterious dealings. The onmyō-dō was established in ancient times and its role was continuously expanded over the centuries, from the medieval to the early modern times, so that it saw different developments in the different eras. We will shine a light on these, using actual historical materials, such as tojo chant booklets, and jufu talismans.

Abeno Seimei was an actual onmyōji who lived in the Heian period, but as the onmyō-dō became a popular matter, a romantic image was added to Abeno and the onmyōji. In pursuit of this image, we try to approach the reality of the onmyō-dō. Furthermore, by looking at the calendars that the onmyōji made, their format, and how they changed over time, we can see what people were looking for in the onmyō-dō.

This exhibition is part of the research results of the project “Clarification of the Period-driven Changes in and the Interrelationships between Ancient to Modern Historical Documents on Onmyō-dō” made possible by the class C Grants-in-Aid.

Highlights of the exhibition

  • Relying on solid historical documents, such as the Kin-u gyoku-to shu (hoki), a compilation of calendar and divination knowledge, and the oldest Ōzassho in existence, we iluminate the reality of the onmyōji, who organized the sense of time and space in feudal Japan.
  • We also exhibit jufu talismans made by the onmyōji. They are footprints left by the onmyōji from the ancient to the early modern times.
  • Based on the story of the real Heian period onmyōji Abeno Seimei, we pursue his actual appearance.
  • Looking at the Konten-gi, an instrument used to create a calendar by observing the positions of celestial bodies, and the Meiji rokunen kiyū hanreki, the last document of the Tenpō lunar calendar before the latter was replaced with the Gregorian calendar, we read into the knowledge and ingenuity commited to the making of calendars.

Composition of the Exhibition

*Please note that the composition of the chapters and exhibited pieces may change. Pieces will be exchanged over the course of the exhibition.

Prologue  Investigating the Onmyōji
Chapter 1  The Footprints of the Onmyōji
        -1  The Onmyōji Appear – The Onmyō-dō of Ancient Times
        -2  The Onmyōji Spread – The Onmyō-dō of the Medieval
        -3  The Onmyōji Consolidate – The Onmyō-dō of the Early Modern Period
        -4  The Work of the Onmyōji
        -5  The Onmyō-dō and Folklore
Chapter 2  Abeno Seimei’s Story
        -1  Abeno Seimei and his Descendants
        -2  Abeno Seimei’s Rivals
        -3  The Rebirth of Abeno Seimei
Chapter 3  Calendars and their Culture
        -1  Spreading Calendars
        -2  Changing Calendars
        -3  Matching Calendars
Epilogue  What the Onmyōji Left Behind


Chapter 1 The Footprints of the Onmyōji – How they Appeared, Spread and Were Consolidated

-1 The Onmyōji Appear – The Onmyō-dō of Ancient Times

In ancient Japan, the onmyō-dō was born from knowledge and skills transmitted from China, such as the School of Yin-Yang. These were managed by the onmyō-ryō, a public office where books and tools related to calendars and astronomy were studied. The onmyō-dō was established as a technique of the ancient state, and the onmyōji were the public officers tasked with this work.

Eventually, the onmyō-dō, as a way of divination of good and bad fortune through cardinal directions and time, alongside with the various knowledges this brought forth, was used in many aspects of daily life. From the public institutions of the state to the private sphere of the nobility, the onmyō-dō began to grow in influence, and onmyōji became the people's trusted advisors in critical situations.

2) Ekikyō, Edo to Meiji period, National Museum of Japanese History

Based on the knowledge of Yin-Yang, the five elements, the I Ching, and Taoism from ancient China, the onmyō-do was shaped within the Japanese Ritsuryō system of state-formation. The onmyōji combined this knowledge from China with the Japanese daily life to create calendars and magic spells, and to practice divination. The Yoshikawa family, who were onmyōji and calendar makers in Nara, also passed down a technical book on the art of divination.


-2 The Onmyōji Spread – The Onmyō-dō of the Medieval

Not only the nobility, but the samurai as well adopted the onmyō-dō as they established the shogunate and conducted politics, so that the judgment of the onmyōji increasingly gained influence in politics. Onmyōji were in charge of the rituals surrounding emperors and shoguns, and their knowledge and judgment were considered important. Beyond this, the onmyō-dō spread to people other than the onmyōji serving the imperial court, and so developed in overlap with Buddhism and Shintoism.

3) Ōchō ninen kanagoyomi, Ōchō period year 1 (1311), National Museum of Japanese History

A calendar of the second year of Ōchō (1312), written in kana (phonetic alphabet). Written in phonetics, the zodiacs and daily fortune forecasts were easy-to-understand. Since it also contained memos on events of the day, its use also resembled that of a diary. It may have been used in temples, as the reverse side shows a sutra and corresponding study notes.

4) Senjutsu Rekichū zassho, early to mid-16th century, National Museum of Japanese History

The onmyōji wrote down various pieces of knowledge about fortune-telling and calendars on all kinds of occasions. Within the onmyō-dō, such books are often called zassho (miscellanous writings). This piece was found to be written on the back side of a document related to a shugo daimyo (military governor feudal lord) of the Muromachi period. The document might have been reused as to preserve precious paper.


-3 The Onmyōji Consolidate - The Onmyō-dō of the Early Modern Period

Entering the early modern period, Abeno Seimei’s descendants, the Tsuchimikado-ke, regulated and organized the onmyōji around their lineage as their central institution. There were also attempts to organize fortune tellers under the name onmyō-dō. While serving to support the authority of emperors, shoguns, and feudal lords, onmyōji also performed divination and festivals, and prayed for the well-being of their patrons, distributing talismans and charms. Within this, the diversified knowledges and approaches to the onmyō-dō eventually were also conveyed to people who weren’t onmyōji, or even widely spread for being written down in books.

5) Tensōchi fusai-zu, An’ei period year 10 (1781), National Museum of Japanese History
*During the second half of the exhibition period (Nov. 7 – Dec. 10), a different piece with the same name will be displayed.

A piece from the Yoshikawa calendar maker family of Nara. It shows a schematic diagram of the Tensō chifu festival, which was performed by onmyōji during the Edo period on the occasion of the accession of the Emperor or the proclamation of the Shogun. It is a specific record of the festival site, used for the preperations of the festival on its next occasion.


-4 The Work of the Onmyōji

With the change of times, the rank and task of the onmyōji also changed. On the other hand, there are also many tasks that the onmyōji steadily fulfilled at all times. Besides the creation of calendars, judgements on good and bad fortunes through date and cardinal direction, the devising of ways to ward off calamities, and the own festivals of the onmyō-dō were all part of society and carried a weight that could not be ignored in everyday life. These show that the onmyō-dō is an important piece of Japanese culture.

6) Chintaku-sai shidai, Edo period, National Museum of Japanese History

A jufu talisman made by an onmyōji. A piece from the Yoshikawa calendar maker family of Nara. The jufu has the names of the onmyō-dō gods Hasshōshin, Toshitokujin, Konjin, and Hyōbishin inscribed. It also includes depictions of dolls and incantations used for secchin (toilets).


-5 The Onmyō-dō and Folklore

The onmyō-dō that had developed in the daily lives of the nobility and samurai families eventually also spread to the commoners. Starting with kitchen gods, daily life festivals were held on various occasions, and particular emphasis was placed on rituals concerning epidemics and the spirits believed to be responsible for them. In the Edo period, magic chants and divination that had originated in the onmyō-dō were written down and published, leading to their wide-spread use.

7) Ōzassho, Kan’ei period year 8 (1631), National Museum of Japanese History

The oldest Ōzassho in existence. (Kan’ei period year 8 edition). The Ōzassho was a compilation of various calendars and divination knowledge and was written in an easy-to-read manner. Therefore, it was repeatedly republished throughout the early modern era, constantly incorporating new elements and becoming an encyclopedia of daily life. This indicates that knowledge of the onmyō-dō has been widely welcomed, once it began to be recorded in books.


The Doyō Days as Seen from the Onmyō-dō

Nowadays, the Doyō period is known as the days of the Ox in summer, on which to eat eels. But originally, each of the four seasons had its own Doyō, and these were deemed days on which to avoid touching earth. The origins of this thought have been handed down in the form of stories, including an ancient collection of tales called the Chuu-kosen. The story is as follows: When the Great King Banko, the creator of the universe, died, he divided the four seasons of spring, summer, autumn, and winter among his four princes. However, a fifth prince was born later and also demanded his share. The five brothers were unable to find a compromise and fought fiercely over the time they would be in control of the world, until Master Monzen, the alter ego of an onmyōji, presented an arbitration plan. The plan was to share 18 days of each of the four seasons ruled by the four elder brothers with the fifth prince. Thus, during the Doyō, when the temperamental fifth prince ruled, the people were to take rest from work in order not to touch earth.

The lucky and unlucky periods of time and the role of the onmyōji presiding over them have been skillfully melted into legends that then were passed on.


Chapter 2 Abeno Seimei’s Story

Abeno Seimei was an actual onmyōji who lived in the Heian period. Both the Abe and Kamo clans inherited the onmyō-dō, but the achievements of one of the Abe family’s ancestors, Seimei, received such great attention that they became symbolic of the onmyō-dō in legends and stories.

There were many other onmyōji than Seimei, and they had been active since ancient times. While serving the onmyō-ryō, they were involved in the private rituals of aristocrats and samurai families, and exerted their power in rituals and rites. Many onmyōji were on par with Seimei, and not few of them had followed his example. By taking collective account of them and Seimei, we can get an idea of what was expected of the onmyōji.

Further, rumors arose that Abeno Seimei's mother was a fox, or that he was able to understand the crowing of ravens. Not only have those rumors developed richly as legends and in the performing arts, but even today they are popular topics in novels, manga, movies, and other forms of entertainment.

8) Tōhoku-in shokunin uta-awase “Onmyōji”, Muromachi period, transcript, National Museum of Japanese History
*During the second half of the exhibition period (Nov. 7 – Dec. 10), the displayed piece will be a replica.

This artisanal poetry contest depicts people of various professions competing in waka poetry in the medieval era. The onmyōji is paired with the doctor, depicted praying at an altar. It is believed that the image of the onmyōji of the time was expressed in paintings.

9) Kin-u gyoku-to shu (hoki), Tensho period year 12 (1584), transcript, National Museum of Japanese History
*During the second half of the exhibition period (Nov. 7 – Dec. 10), the displayed piece will be a replica.

This book compiles the knowledge of the onmyō-dō established in the medieval era. The work consists of five volumes and was provisionally entrusted to Abeno Seimei. What can be seen here is a transcript from Tensho period year 12 (1584). At the beginning of the book, the onmyō-dō and the calendar are explained in connection with the stories of gods such as Gozutenno and Bango-O. The book is also said to have been passed down from Monju Bosatsu to Abeno Seimei via Hakudo Shōnin.

10) Onmyōji with shikigami and gedō restored model, National Museum of Japanese History

A diorama of a scene from the Nakifudo engi. An onmyōji reads a ritual text from an altar, and the shikigami and gedō sit around him.


Chapter 3 Calendars and their Culture

Among the most important tasks of the onmyōji was the making and distributing of calendars. In the society of ancient and medieval Japan, the calendar was designed around the imperial court, and the onmyōji were the ones entrusted with this line of work. In the early modern era, the shogunate also got involved in the production of calendars, and maintaining their accuracy became an important issue.
Here, we will specifically depict the activities of the Yoshikawa family, who were calendar makers and onmyōji in the Nara of the early modern period. We will also consider what was required of the calendar by exploring the background of the Jōkyō calendar and other early modern calendars newly created by Shibukawa Harumi and his colleagues. Furthermore, the calendars face the proposition of how to express time as an invisible concept. To address this point we also want to look at the ideas and improvements of the calendar makers.

When the solar calendar was adopted in 1873, exactly 150 years ago, this meant a major change for the concept of "time" on the Japanese archipelago. It was not only a change of calendar systems, but a major alteration in the rhythm of the people’s daily lives and habits. By looking closely at the drama that occurred there, and by viewing "modern Japan" from the perspective of "time," we would like to reconsider what "time" means to us. From this viewpoint, we will then look at the modern calendar in light of this history and think about the cultural aspects of calendars.

1) Konten-gi, Edo period, National Museum of Japanese History

From the Akioka Takejiro Kochizu Collection. In modern times used to explain the movements of the sun and moon, this instrument was originally used to observe the positions of celestial bodies to create calendars. It is designed to show the apparent motion of celestial objects in three dimensions. The earth is placed in the center with the rings around it symbolizing astronomic features, such as the celestial equator, the ecliptic, and the byakudō, which indicates the orbit of the moon.

11) Meiji rokunen kiyu hanreki, Meiji period year 5 (1872), National Museum of Japanese History

Last calendar of the old system. A piece from the Yoshikawa calendar maker family of Nara. The Meiji government decided to abolish the Tenpō calendar used at the time and adopt the Gregorian calendar, reappointing December 3, 1872 (Meiji 5), as January 1, 1873 (Meiji 6). The calendar for the 6th year of Meiji had already been prepared according to the Tenpō calendar (the so-called old calendar), but it was never used. These first pages of the calendar show such historical changes.