Japan from the inside out

Bon voyage and fare-thee-well

Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 3, 2008

SUZUKI ICHIRO of the Seattle Mariners, now established as one of the most important men ever to play the game, has an intriguing approach to the primary tool of his trade–the bat. Baseball players usually store their bats in the narrow rectangular spaces in the bat racks kept in the dugout. Suzuki, however, has placed small pieces of wood inside the space where the bat is kept, so that his bats rest on a small improvised stand within the rack.

This admirable display of respect by a craftsman for his tools is not unusual in Japan. Suzuki himself has not, as far as I know, explained his reasons. But there might be a connection to one of the core beliefs in Shinto, Japan’s folk religion: all objects, animate and inanimate, have a spirit.

Another inanimate object traditionally believed to contain a spirit is a puppet or doll. This page discussing karakuri, or mechanized puppets, includes the following passage:

The Japanese Ningyo (doll) represented and embodied what was believed to be divine forces. Japan has a long history of ritual and dramatic use of puppets and dolls. The puppets represented an awareness of the relationship between the material and the spiritual, becoming vessels for visiting spiritual forces….Until the late nineteenth century, puppets were not thrown away or recycled, but buried in a cemetery, indicating the respect accorded to them. “The practice of burying these images carved ‘in the shape of the human’ suggests an awareness that while matter and spirit may appear to be separate orders, once spirit has encountered a material form, the latter cannot return to mere matter set apart. A dilapidated puppet – a head, arms, perhaps a costume, rattles, flutes, masks – will never again be merely a sum of parts. Today, they are put in museums or glass cases, a practice that worries many older puppeteers. “

Today, 3 March, is the date of the Hina Matsuri in Japan, or the Doll Festival. In this festival for girls, tiered platforms are erected in the home to display a set of dolls. The figurines in the set include an emperor, empress, attendants, and musicians, all of which are in ancient court dress. The display of these dolls started sometime during the Edo period (1603-1867).

As with all decorations used by families in the home for special occasions, there comes a time when the decorations are no longer used. And when that time comes, it is not so easy for some people to simply toss the dolls out in the trash. They were treasured objects in the home for many years, and the belief that they possess a spirit still lingers. What to do with them?

The Awashima Shinto shrine in Wakayama City, Wakayama, has traditionally provided a solution for that problem. People throughout the country send them the dolls instead of throwing them away. This year, they have collected about 36,000—the most ever—and have placed them in the main hall of the shrine, as the photo shows.

At noon on Monday, they will be blessed by Shinto priests, loaded onto boats, and taken for a final ride out to the sea.

This page is in Japanese, but you don’t need to understand a word of the language to figure out what is happening in the four pictures. By all means take a look. Perhaps you will find it as strangely touching as I did.

5 Responses to “Bon voyage and fare-thee-well”

  1. Overthinker said

    They have special burial rituals for old needles as well, which aren’t remotely humaniform.

  2. ampontan said

    Yeah, I know, but those are Buddhist ceremonies, and I was going on about Shinto, and to incorporate that would mean more paragraphs…

  3. Overthinker said

    Fair enough. Be interesting to see an analysis of Shinto vs Buddhist imagery of the human form (in terms of the sacred).

  4. bender said

    Harikuyo is also done in Shinto shrines:

    It’s difficult to separate Japanese religious customs as either Buddhist or Shinto. However, I think taking human form has much to do with dolls receiving religious respect in Japan.

  5. Rue said

    so they are going to dump 36000 dolls into the ocean? There is already japanese trash washing up on the shore in West Coast USA… so now dolls?

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