The Kitchen God: A Guardian of Hearth and Home

Kamado image

In both Japanese and Chinese cultures, there is a long-standing tradition of honoring the Kitchen God, a deity associated with the hearth and home.

This article explores the significance and role of the Kitchen God in these two cultures, delving into their respective beliefs, rituals, and legends surrounding this divine figure.

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Zao Jun: The Chinese Kitchen God

Zao Jun, also known as the Stove God, is the most important of a plethora of Chinese domestic gods that protect the hearth and family.

The Kitchen God is recognized in Chinese folk religion, Chinese mythology, and Taoism.

Under different names, he is also celebrated in several other Asian religions.

The Legend of Zao Jun

According to the most popular legend, Zao Jun was originally a mortal man living on Earth whose name was Zhang Lang.

He eventually became married to a virtuous woman but ended up falling in love with a younger woman.

He left his wife to be with this younger woman and, as punishment for this adulterous act, the heavens afflicted him with ill fortune.

He became blind, and his young lover abandoned him, leaving him to resort to begging to support himself.

Once, while begging for alms, he happened to cross the house of his former wife.

Being blind, he did not recognize her.

Despite his shoddy treatment of her, she took pity on him and invited him in.

She cooked him a fabulous meal and tended to him lovingly; he then related his story to her.

As he shared his story, Zhang Lang became overwhelmed with self-pity and the pain of his error and began to weep.

Upon hearing him apologize, Zhang's former wife told him to open his eyes, and his vision was restored.

Recognizing the wife, he had abandoned, Zhang felt such shame that he threw himself into the kitchen hearth, not realizing that it was lit.

His former wife attempted to save him, but all she managed to salvage was one of his legs.

The devoted woman then created a shrine to her former husband above the fireplace, which began Zao Jun's association with the stove in Chinese homes.

To this day, a fire poker is sometimes referred to as "Zhang Lang's Leg".

The Kitchen God's Annual Report

It is believed that on the twenty-third day of the twelfth lunar month, just before Chinese New Year, the Kitchen deity returns to Heaven to report the activities of every household over the past year to Yu Huang Da Di (玉皇大帝), the Jade Emperor.

The Jade Emperor, emperor of the heavens, either rewards or punishes a family based on Zao Jun's yearly report.

To ensure a favorable report, some families try to bribe Zao Jun by offering him sweet food or burning paper money for him.

Some also smear honey or sugar on his lips or mouth to make him speak sweetly of them or keep silent.

On New Year's Eve, Zao Jun is given a new paper effigy or picture to replace the old one that was burned.

Variations in the Kitchen God's Image

The image of the Kitchen God varies across different regions in China.

In some areas, the Kitchen God is depicted as a middle-aged man with a long beard and a red robe, while in other regions, the deity is portrayed as a beautiful woman.

In the Jin Dynasty, the scholar Sima Biao described the Kitchen God as a deity with a distinct appearance, wearing a red robe and resembling a beautiful woman.

This description can be found in the book "Zhuangzi," a collection of Daoist texts.

The "Sou Shen Ji," a collection of supernatural tales from the Ming Dynasty, also includes stories featuring the Kitchen God.

Kamado-gami: The Stove God of Japan

Kamado-gami, also known as Kamado-no-kami or Kamadogami, is the Shinto god of the kitchen stove or oven.

Kamado-gami is usually worshipped at a small altar called Kamado-dana (lit. \"kitchen shelf\") that is placed above or near the stove or oven in Japanese homes.

He is also associated with Oniyo-matsuri (lit. \"fire festival\"), a ritual that is held on January 15th every year to ward off evil spirits and prevent fires.

During this festival, people light torches and bonfires and pray to Kamado-gami for safety and prosperity.

The Kitchen God in Japanese Culture

In Japan, the Kitchen God, known as "Kamado-gami" or "Kamado-kami," is revered as the god of fire and also as a protector of agriculture, livestock, and the family.

The origins of the kamado, a traditional Japanese hearth, can be traced back to the end of the early Kofun period (4th to 5th century) when it was introduced to Japan via Korean immigrants.

The introduction of the kamado brought about significant changes in cooking methods and utensils, leading to what is known as the "kitchen revolution."

The Role of Kamado-gami in Kitchen Worship

Alongside the adoption of the kamado, the culture of worshipping the deity associated with it also spread, with examples such as the inclusion of stone replicas of the deity in the construction materials of kamados (e.g., the Yazakiyama site in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture) and the practice of placing broken pottery bottom, Haji pottery in old kamados during their demolition that is called "kamado-shizume"(e.g., the Korokutanidai site in Katori City, Chiba Prefecture).

These findings suggest that the kamado was not only a practical tool but also an object of worship.

Rituals and Offerings

In Japanese households, it is common to have a small Shinto shrine called "kamidana" near the kamado or fireplace, where offerings such as "gohei" (strips of paper used in Shinto rituals) and "ofuda" are placed to honor the Kitchen God.

The specific forms of worship vary from region to region.

In the northern part of the Tohoku region (including the northern part of Miyagi Prefecture and the southern part of Iwate Prefecture) that was under the control of the Sendai domain, people often worship clay or wooden masks known as "Kama-gami" or "Kama-otoko" on the pillars near the kamado, facing the entrance or outdoors.

These masks, made from leftover materials by carpenters who built houses, have fierce expressions and are characterized by the inclusion of teeth made of pottery shards or abalone shells.

Variations in Kamado-gami Worship

In the Shinetsu region, the "Kama-gami" is a pair of wooden figurines about one foot tall, while in Kagoshima Prefecture, paper amulets in the shape of dolls are worshipped.

Some regions also place "gohei" and "ofuda" on pillars or shelves near the kamado, as well as on the "jizai-kagi" (swinging hooks) or "gotoku" (trivets) of the fireplace.

The Shimane Prefecture city of Yasugi is famous for the "Yasugi-bushi" folk song, which is said to symbolize the fire god.

In Okinawa and the Amami Islands, the Kitchen God is known as "Hinukan" and is considered a familiar deity that protects households.

Buddhist Influence and the Kitchen God

Buddhism in Japan also recognizes the Kitchen God in the form of statues known as the "Sanbōkōjin," which are enshrined alongside the kamado.

These statues are believed to have originated from the concept of a god who promotes purity and expels impurities.

In the Kinki and Chugoku regions, the deity "Dokōjin" is worshipped as the Kitchen God in Onmyōdō.

According to this tradition, the Dokōjin moves from the kamado to the gate in summer, the well in autumn, and the garden in winter, symbolizing the changing of seasons.

The Kitchen God in Literature and Customs

The Kitchen God's role extends beyond folklore and religion and has found its way into various literary works and customs.

In the "Analects of Confucius," an ancient Chinese text, there is a mention of the Kitchen God in a conversation between Confucius and Wangsun Jia.

This conversation highlights the importance of treating the Kitchen God with respect and reverence.

In the "Sou Shen Ji," a collection of supernatural tales from the Ming Dynasty, there is a story about a man named Yin Zi who encounters the Kitchen God.

This encounter leads to a series of events that test Yin Zi's character and ultimately bring about his transformation.

The Kitchen God is also associated with the practice of Feng Shui, an ancient Chinese system of harmonizing individuals with their environment.

In Feng Shui, the kitchen holds great significance as it represents the prosperity and well-being of the family.

Placing the kitchen in an auspicious location and following certain guidelines for its design and arrangement are believed to attract positive energy and good fortune.

The Kitchen God is also featured in some modern literary works, such as "The Kitchen God" by Hiromi Kawakami, a Japanese writer.

This short story explores the relationship between a woman and the Kitchen God who lives in her apartment.

Another example is "The Kitchen God's Wife" by Amy Tan, a Chinese American writer.

This novel tells the story of a mother and daughter who reveal their secrets and struggles through the legend of the Kitchen God and his wife.


The Kitchen God holds a special place in both Japanese and Chinese cultures, representing the guardian of the hearth and home.

The worship and reverence of this deity reflect the importance of the kitchen as the heart of the household.

From religious rituals and folklore to literature and customs, the Kitchen God continues to be a symbol of prosperity, protection, and harmony in these rich and diverse cultures.

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