Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

January 28, 2013

Sukunahikona Shrine and Pharmaceutical Museum, Doshomachi, Osaka

In the Edo-period, Osaka was the trading center of Japan. Not only did important wares such as rice pass through its warehouses before being distributed nationwide, Osaka was also the financial center of Japan. One of the items on which merchants from Osaka had a nationwide monopoly, was herbal medine. As initially Japanese medicine was based on Chinese herbal medicine, plants, roots, bark and other substances were imported from China (or brought from other areas in Japan), collected in the Doshomachi quarter in Osaka, checked, and then distributed nationwide.

In 1722, 124 brokers of such medicinal ingredients received official permission to act as a trade association (kabunakama) - meaning they had a monopoly on the medicine trade in exchange for taxes. Of course, a practical reason was that these traders had built up enough expert knowledge to judge the quality of the ingredients (and recognize fake ones) and see to it that they were used in a proper way.

[Entrance to the Sukunahikona Shrine and Museum]

Dealing in Chinese medicine, these traders honored the Chinese Deity of Medicine, Shennong (Shinno in Japanese). Shennong ("Divine Farmer") is a culture hero and mythical figure who has been credited as the inventor of both agriculture and medicine (in the form of herbal drugs, the therapeutic understanding of pulse measurements, acupuncture, and moxibustion). In the Huainanzi he is said to have tasted hundreds of herbs to test their medical value - and in some traditions, he finally swallowed a poisonous plant and so died for the welfare of mankind. Shennong became the patron deity of farmers, rice traders, and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture. The most famous ancient book on agriculture and medicinal plants from China has also been ascribed to Shennong: the Shennong Bencao Jing ("Shennong's Materia Medica"), although in fact this is a compilation of oral traditions made between 300 BCE and 200 CE. The book describes 365 herbs and therapeutic substances, among which ginseng, linzhi mushrooms and ginger. Tea, seen as an antidote to poisonous herbs, is also described and Shennong so is also seen as the inventor of tea - a chance discovery, as tea leaves on burning tea twigs were carried by the hot air from the fire precisely to his cauldron of boiling water.

[Ingredients in a store of traditional medicine]

Later, Shennong was coupled with the Japanese deity of medicine, Sukuna-hikona. This deity, whose name means "Renowned Little Prince" appears in the Nihongi as the helper of Onamuchi no Mikoto, in "animating" the newly created land. He also set forth methods for healing illness among humans and their livestock, as well as magical ways of averting disasters. On top of that, he came to be regarded as the deity of curative springs (Onsen). In 1789 a shrine was built in the Doshomachi quarter, in which eventually both deities were enshrined. The popular name of the shrine is still "Shinno-san;" the official name is Sukunahikona Shrine.

[The Sukunahikona Shrine]

In 1822 a cholera epidemic hit Japan, brought into the country via Nagasaki, the only international port at the time. Also in Osaka, hundreds of people were dying every day. The medicine traders created medicine from tiger's bones and also made toy tigers from papier-mache as offering to Shinno and Sukuna-hikona. Although this undoubtedly did not help against the disease, it became customary to purchase a toy tiger (hariko) at the annual shrine festival in November as a prayer for good health.

[Votive plates with on top the two deities Sukunahikona (left)
and Shinno (right) and at the bottom the tiger]

In the Meiji period (1868-1912) Western medicine was introduced, first from the Netherlands. The Doshomachi merchants again acted as importers, although the monopoly of course was gone. A new phenomenon occurred: production of medicines was also started in the area, and the Osaka Pharmaceutical School was set up here. Some of the famous pharmaceutical companies that grew up in Osaka and are still headquartered in Doshomachi are: Takeda, Fujisawa, Kobayashi, Shionogi, Tanabe and Dainippon. There are 300 pharmaceutical wholesalers and manufacturers in the district, many also carrying out research. There are also several companies producing more traditional medicines, as Kaigen.

[A rare traditional building of a pharmaceutical company surviving in the area]

In the grounds of Sukunahikona Shrine (on the 3rd floor of the building housing the shrine office), one finds the Doshomachi Pharmaceutical and Historical Museum, which shows how the Doshomachi district has developed over the centuries. The museum possesses a large collection of valuable documents, but also advertising posters. One can watch several interesting videos as well. Unfortunately, the museum is only in Japanese.

At the entrance to the shrine is a plaque with a replica of the handwriting of the novelist Tanizaki Junichiro - his novella Shunkinsho (A Portrait of Shunkin, 1933) is set in this area.

[Tanizaki's Shunkinsho manuscript]


Address: 2-1-8 Dosho-machi, Chuo-ku, Osaka. TEL: 06-6231-6958  
Hrs: 6:00 - 18:30. Both shrine and museum are free.  
Access: 2 min. walk from Kitahama St. on the Sakaisuji Subway Line