In Japanese religion, Yahata (八幡神, ancient Shinto pronunciation) formerly in Shinto and later commonly known as Hachiman (八幡神, Japanese Buddhist pronunciation) is the syncretic divinity of archery and war, incorporating elements from both Shinto and Buddhism.
Although often called the god of war, he is more strictly defined as the tutelary god of warriors. He is also the divine protector of Japan, the Japanese people and the Imperial House.
Hachiman, also called Hachiman-jin or Yahata no kami, is a special deity as he combines elements from both Shintoism and Japanese Buddhism. His name translates to God of Eight Banners which is a reference to the legend of the birth of the divine Emperor Ōjin and the eight banners in the sky that signaled it.
Hachiman is commonly viewed as a Japanese god of war but he’s mostly worshiped as a patron kami of warriors and archery, and not of war itself. The archer kami was initially worshiped near-exclusively by warriors and samurai but his popularity eventually extended to all people in Japan and now he’s also viewed as the patron kami of agriculture and fishing as well.
Over the years, Hachiman became much more than a samurai’s kami. His popularity grew among all the people of Japan and he started being worshiped by farmers and fishermen alike. Today, there are over 25,000 shrines dedicated to Hachiman across Japan, the second-highest number of Shinto shrines behind the shrines of the kami Inari – the protector deity of rice cultivation.
The most likely reason for the spread of Hachiman’s popularity is the intrinsic respect Japanese people have for their royalty and leaders. The Minamoto clan was loved as defenders of Japan and therefore Hachiman became worshiped as the Imperial patron and protector of the entire country
The fact that this kami incorporates themes and elements from both Shintoism and Buddhism also goes to show how loved he was by everyone in the island nation. In fact, Hachiman was even accepted as a Buddhist divinity in the Nara period (AD 710–784). He was called Hachiman Daibosatsu (Great Buddha-to-be) by the Buddhist and to this day they worship him as vehemently as the Shinto followers.
As a protector kami of all of Japan, Hachiman was often prayed to defend the country against its enemies. A couple of such occasions took place during attempted Mongol Chinese invasions in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333 CE) – the period when Hachiman’s popularity grew significantly.
The kami is said to have answered the prayers of his followers and sent a typhoon or a kamikaze – a “divine wind” in the sea between Japan and China, thwarting the invasion.
The two such kamikaze typhoons took place in 1274 and one in 1281. It should be said, however, that these two incidents are also often attributed to the gods of thunder and wind Raijin and Fujin.
Either way, this divine wind or kamikaze became so well-known as a “protective divine spell for Japan” that in World War II, Japanese fighter pilots screamed the word “Kamikaze!” while suicide-crashing their planes into enemy ships, in a final attempt to Japan from invasion.
Hachiman’s primary symbolism is not so much war but the patronage of warriors, samurai, and archers. He’s a protector deity, a sort of warrior-saint to all people in Japan. Because of this, Hachiman was prayed to and worshiped by everyone who wanted and needed protection.