What is an Onmyōji? An overview of the historical diviners in Japan

Onmyōji image

The word Onmyoji refers to the diviners who were active in Japan from ancient to medieval times.

They used a technique called Onmyodo, which was based on astronomical and calendrical knowledge, to divine the auspiciousness and inauspiciousness of dates, directions, and human affairs.

They also performed magic and prayers and prayed for the removal of epidemics and disasters, and the peace of the state and the nobility.

Onmyoji adapted and developed the Yin-Yang Five Elements thought from China to suit the Japanese climate and Shintoism, but there are various theories about their origin and lineage.

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What is an Onmyoji?

An Onmyoji reads and interprets the qi of heaven and earth based on the ancient Chinese Yin-Yang Five Elements thought and performs divination and magic.

They came to Japan in the Heian period and were highly valued by the court and the nobility.

Onmyoji played a role in finding and removing the causes of calamities and epidemics by prayers and exorcisms.

They also judged the auspiciousness and inauspiciousness of directions and calendars chose good days and good directions and were involved in architecture and ceremonies.

Onmyoji had a wide range of knowledge and skills, such as astronomy, geography, calendar, astrology, divination, etc., and their secrets were passed down from generation to generation.

The origin and history of Onmyoji

The origin of Onmyoji is in China.

In China, the Yin-Yang Five Elements thought developed from ancient times and was applied to astronomy, calendar, divination, etc.

In the Han dynasty, a position called Taishi Ling was established, which was in charge of astronomy, calendar, and divination.

In the late Eastern Han period, Dong Zhongshu combined the Five Elements theory with Confucianism and made it a political theory.

In the Wei-Jin Southern and Northern Dynasties period, Taoism was established and was linked with the Yin-Yang Five Elements thought and performed prayers and magic.

In the Sui and Tang dynasties, influenced by Taoism, magicians called Fangshi were active.

In Japan, the Yin-Yang Five Elements thought, and calendar method came from China in the Asuka period.

In the Nara period, positions such as Tenmon Hakase and Reki Hakase were established, which were in charge of astronomy, calendar, and divination.

In the Heian period, magic influenced by Taoism became popular, and Tendai and Shingon sect monks also performed prayers and magic.

At this time, Abe no Seimei appeared and performed various prayers and magic at the request of the court and the nobility.

Abe no Seimei called himself an Onmyoji and had a great influence on later generations.

His descendants, the Abe clan and its branch, the Kamo clan, served in the court's Onmyoryo and prospered as Onmyoji lineages.

In the medieval period, people other than the Abe and Kamo clans also called themselves Onmyoji.

Especially, the Tsuchimikado family was favored by the Kamakura and Muromachi shogunates and was in charge of the shogunate's official events and prayers and magic for the shogun family.

The Tsuchimikado family produced many branches and disciples and spread throughout Japan.

In addition, there were famous Onmyoji such as Yamashina Noritoki and Kitano Tenmangu Shrine priests.

In the early modern period, the Edo shogunate also favored the Tsuchimikado family and made them in charge of the shogunate's official events and prayers and magic for the shogun family.

However, in the late Edo period, Western astronomy and calendar methods were introduced and the traditional Japanese astronomy, calendar, and divination were denied.

After the Meiji Restoration, Onmyodo was abolished and Onmyoji lost their positions and family status.

In modern times, Onmyoji are often talked about as historical figures, but some people claim to have inherited the tradition of Onmyodo and performed prayers and magic.

Onmyoji: Techniques and Knowledge

Onmyoji possessed a wide range of skills and knowledge, including astronomy, calendrical systems, divination, prayers, and magic.

These practices were rooted in the Yin-Yang Five Elements philosophy, aiming to understand and harmonize the universe, nature, and human destiny.

Astronomy and Calendrical Systems

  • Observing celestial movements and seasonal changes.
  • Recording and predicting auspicious and inauspicious times based on dates and directions.
  • Notably documented in works like the Kaigen Calendar and the Daming Calendar.


  • Using conditions such as astronomy, calendrical data, and directional factors.
  • Employing methods like the Nine Stars, Six Ren, and Qimen to infer hidden information and predict the future.
  • Divination helped individuals understand their fate, and compatibility, and avoid unfavorable outcomes.
  • Key texts include the Book of Changes (I Ching) and Qimen Dunjia.

Prayers and Magic

  • Interacting with deities, spirits, and souls through supplications.
  • Using spells, talismans, and rituals to influence outcomes.
  • Purposes included removing or preventing illnesses, achieving desires (such as love or wealth), and countering adversaries.
  • Relevant texts include Taoist and esoteric scriptures.

Prominent Onmyoji Figures

These individuals also appear in various creative works.

Works Inspired by Onmyoji

Onmyoji is a very appealing theme in Japanese culture, and many works have been inspired by it.

Mugenhōyō" (Dreamlike Bubble)

  • A novel series by Natsuhiko Kyogoku.
  • Features the fictional character Hagoromo Hiiragi, inspired by Abe no Seimei, solving supernatural mysteries in the capital.
  • Skillfully blends historical facts with imaginative elements.


  • A novel series by Baku Yumemakura.
  • Depicts Abe no Seimei and his friend Genkaku, an Onmyoji, battling supernatural beings like yokai and evil spirits.
  • Strong fantasy elements, including historical and fictional characters.

Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan

  • A manga and anime by Hiroshi Shiibashi.
  • Modern-day middle school student Rikuo Nura discovers his lineage as the grandson of yokai leader Nurarihyon.
  • Nurarihyon has connections to Abe no Seimei, and the story explores their interactions.

These works showcase the enduring allure of Onmyoji in Japanese culture and have captivated audiences across various media platforms.

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