Japanese & Hebrew similarities – sacred traditions

Ontohsai and the Story of Isaac

In Nagano prefecture, Japan, there is a large Shinto shrine named “Suwa-Taisha” (Shinto is the traditional religion peculiar to Japan.) At Suwa-Taisha, the traditional festival called “Ontohsai” is held on April 15 every year.

This festival illustrates the story of Isaac in chapter 22 of Genesis in the Bible, that is, the story that Abraham was about to sacrifice his own son Isaac. The festival “Ontohsai” has been held since ancient days and has been thought of as the most important festival of “Suwa-Taisha.”

Next to the shrine “Suwa-Taisha,” there is a mountain called Mt. Moriya (“Moriya-san” in Japanese). And the people from the Suwa area call the god of Mt. Moriya “Moriya no kami” which means “the god of Moriya.” At the festival, a boy is tied up by a rope to a wooden pillar, and placed on a bamboo carpet. A Shinto priest comes to him preparing a knife, but then a messenger (another priest) comes there, and the boy is released. It reminds us of the story that Isaac was released after an angel comes to Abraham.


At this festival, animal sacrifices are also offered. 75 deer are sacrificed, but among them it is believed that there is a deer with its ears split. The deer is believed to be the one God prepared. It may have some connection with the ram that God prepared and was sacrificed after Isaac was released. Even in historic times, people thought that this custom of deer sacrifice was strange, because animal sacrifice is not a Shinto tradition.

People call this festival “the festival for Misakuchi-god.” “Misakuchi” might be “mi-isaku-chi.” “Mi” means “great,” “isaku” is probably Isaac (the Hebrew word “Yitzhak”), and “chi” is something for the end of the word. It seems that the people of Suwa made Isaac a god, probably by the influence of idol worshipers.

Today, people use stuffed animals instead of performing a real animal sacrifice. Tying a boy along with animal sacrifice was regarded as savage by people of the Meiji-era (about 100 years ago), and those customs were discontinued. But the festival itself still remains today.

The custom of the boy had been maintained until the beginning of Meiji era. Masumi Sugae, who was a Japanese scholar and a travel writer in the Edo era (about 200 years ago), wrote a record of his travels and noted what he saw at Suwa. The record shows the details of “Ontohsai.” It tells that the custom of the boy about to be sacrificed and his ultimate release, as well as animal sacrifices, existed in those days. His records are kept at the museum near Suwa-Taisha.

The festival of “Ontohsai” has been maintained by the Moriya family ever since ancient times. The Moriya family think of “Moriya-no-kami” (god of Moriya) as their ancestor’s god. And they think of “Mt. Moriya” as their holy place. The name “Moriya” may have come from “Moriah” (the Hebrew word “Moriyyah”) of Genesis 22:2.

Tora No Maki and Scroll of the Torah


In Japan, there is the legend of “tengu” who lives on a mountain and has the figure of a “yamabushi.” He has a pronounced nose and supernatural capabilities.

A “Ninja”, who was an agent or spy in the old days while working for his lord, goes to “tengu” at the mountain to get from him supernatural abilities. “Tengu” gives him a “tora-no-maki” (a scroll of the “tora”) after giving him additional powers.

This “scroll of the tora” is regarded as a very important book which is helpful for any crisis. We Japanese use this word sometimes in our daily life even today.

We do not have any knowledge that a real scroll of a Jewish Torah was ever found in a Japanese historical site. But I can’t help but think that this “scroll of the tora” is a usage of the holy book called “Torah,” used by Jews to this day.

Purification rituals

Japanese culture is based on the concept of clean/unclean, a distinction which can also be related to holiness and sin. For instance, an unholy act in Judaic religions is considered a sin, but in Japan it may be considered unclean.

Japanese culture uses the following three means of purification: salt offering, water, and wave offering. All of these can also be found in the Hebrew, Levitical laws.

shubatsu - sumo

Salt is used by the Sumo wrestlers when entering the wrestling ring; they sprinkle the salt on the wrestling floor before starting the competition. They also use salt for attendees when they return home after a funeral service, and some traditional restaurants sprinkle salt when an unwanted guest leaves the restaurant.

Also, in the Old Testament, salt was used to clean the unclean waters, land, cities, etc., just as the Japanese use it to purify places.


Water is another means of purification. Bathing is essential for the Japanese. The Japanese bath is very famous; traditional bathhouses are well-known all over the world. Thus washing away anything unclean with clean running water is the second method of cleansing and purification.

Shinto priests washed their hands and feet before they entered the holy place in the temple, similar to Jewish and Islamic traditions. In fact, as mentioned earlier, outside the Shinto shrine there is a place called Temizuya, (from the word tem-izu, which, in Persian, means cleaning). The Old Testament states that, “Aaron and his sons are to wash their hands and feet with water from it. Whenever they enter the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die.


The Japanese also have the Oh-harai, which literally means purifying, and is similar to the Jewish wave offering. They use Oh-harai for cleansing and purification at the Grand Purification Ceremony. This custom has been used since ancient times to obtain purification from sins and offenses committed during the first half of the lunar year.

The Shinto priests wave the Sakaki, the evergreen branches, and often prior to waving them, they dip it into salty water; and through this, they intend to clean people from sin and uncleanness. Compare this to the practices of the Jewish priests who wave the branches of the hyssop tree for purification purposes.

The Japanese Oh-harai is performed twice a year, on June 30th and December 31st, at shrines and at the Imperial House of Japan.

Ancient Japanese people thought that they could not come into a new year without atoning for their sins. The Jews actually have two New Year’s Days in their calendar: One is the first day of the seventh month, and the other is the first day of the first month— like the Oh-harai ceremony.

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Sources of text:
Rediscovering Japan, Reintroducing Christendom – Lee Samuel