Japan from the inside out

Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Ichigen koji (266)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, December 21, 2012

– A person who has something to say about everything

I’m quickly putting together a paper on the Japanese population in South Korea. The more I conduct research, the more it appears that the presence of the Unification Church is the decisive factor. If what I’ve heard can be believed, there are roughly 7,000 Japanese women now living in South Korea. About 30% of that total, and 70% of all international marriages (with Japanese) are related to the Unification Church.

– Kimura Kan, Kobe University professor

Posted in International relations, Quotations, Religion, South Korea | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

All you have to do is look (127)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A group of 33 figurines of the Buddha in Ushizu, Saga, dating from the Edo period. I could not find an explanation for the bibs.

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All you have to do is look (121)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The annual cleaning of the Great Buddha of Takaoka, in Takaoka, Toyama. It is one of the three great Buddha statues in Japan, and required 25 men to clean.

Posted in Photographs and videos, Religion, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

They’re not happy unless they’re not happy

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 29, 2012

Today I happened to be talking to a former senior official with the Foreign Ministry about President Lee’s demand for an apology from the Emperor. He said, “Until now, we’ve been considerate of South Korea, and handled them with reserve, but South Korea has crossed the line. We now know just what the South Korean conservatives are like. This is a good opportunity for both countries to establish normal bilateral relations.”

There is now a consensus in political, bureaucratic, and media circles throughout Japan, however, that we’ve stopped putting up with whiny brats like the South Koreans and will just brush them off.

– Abiru Rui

SOME years ago, when the bloodletting in the region had subsided to a relative trickle, a geopolitical think tank reminded the readers of its website that “peace in the Middle East” was a mirage. Conditions in the region would always slide along a scale ranging from simmering animosity to outright warfare, and that the state of simmering animosity was the best anyone could hope for.

The behavior of the South Korean government and news media for the past two months suggests that the same observation can be made about bilateral relations between Korea and Japan. That is not to say there will be bloodletting and open warfare between the two countries. Rather, it is to say that the Korean view of Japan will always slide along a scale ranging from simmering animosity to outright hysteria, fueled by the permanent South Korean wildcat strike against reality.

Japan can do nothing to change that, because that’s how South Korea wants it.

This was confirmed by the most unlikely of sources: A column by Donald Kirk in the Korea Times. That’s the English-language arm of the Hankook Ilbo, a major South Korean daily. The column itself is remarkable only for exposing how little Kirk knows about Japan, though he once worked here and occasionally visits. He’s become marinated in the Korean weltanschauung after spending many years there, so refuting his shallow, inaccurate, and ill-tempered exercise in disinformation is a waste of time.

Reading one small part of it, however, was like reaching into muck and pulling out a diamond.

The article is called The Japanese Just Don’t Get It, and includes passages such as these:

Japanese have trouble understanding. Why do all the countries surrounding Japan seem so hostile? What is it the Japanese have done to incur the wrath of the Chinese, the Koreans, and the Russians? The sense here is that of Japan encircled, the odd power out, the pariah at the party.

Now someone`s saying the Japanese emperor, Akihito, should apologize. So what? As if that would make a difference…Not that the Japanese could not make amends. Compensation for comfort women? Abandonment of the claim to Dokdo? Revision of textbook accounts of Japanese imperial history and World War II? Forget it. The Japanese don’t get it. They’re not going to do any of these things. They’d rather fret and fume over “why Japan is not liked” than do anything substantive to repair the image, much less redress wrongs.

It makes no difference whether Kirk made all that up about “the sense here” because he likes the sound of it, or convinced himself that his alternate universe is real. It still constitutes journalistic malpractice. The Japanese attitude toward South Korea today is as expressed in the quotation at the top of the page. If someone in the country has fretted and fumed over why the Japan of the Kirkian imagination is not liked, it has been hidden very well in the daily, weekly, and monthly news media and the blogosphere. Mr. Abiru, a newspaperman, captures the tone of that commentary. Does Kirk access enough of that information in the original Japanese to say otherwise? I think not.

His piece also contains overwritten cheap shots more suitable for a ragged street corner pamphleteer:

So, aside from the economy, stupid, what`s grabbing headlines here? Nothing like a fracas with China to charge the atmosphere with memories of old times, of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s when Japanese troops rampaged over the Chinese mainland.

Yet despite having us forfeit irrecoverable minutes from our lives to read the column, he does say something of value:

The bitterness is a permanent condition. It won’t go away.

He even knows why, too, but gets it out of sequence.

The wounds, the sense of Hahn, go too deep into the Korean national sub-conscience.


An understanding of han is critical to an understanding the people on the Korean Peninsula. Indeed, people often speak of the “han culture of Korea”. Kirk chooses to capitalize the word and add a second h, but it’s most often spelled han in English. (It is 한 in Korean).

The word is derived from the Chinese character 恨, which the Japanese are familiar with and use in 恨み (urami). It can be translated as grudge, hatred, or rancor. In Korea, however, the word has several other dimensions.

Translator D. Bannon quoted a Korean source to provide an explanation:

Han is frequently translated as sorrow, spite, rancor, regret, resentment or grief, among many other attempts to explain a concept that has no English equivalent (Dong-A 1982: 1975). Han is an inherent characteristic of the Korean character and as such finds expression, implied or explicit, in nearly every aspect of Korean life and culture.

Han is sorrow caused by heavy suffering, injustice or persecution, a dull lingering ache in the soul. It is a blend of lifelong sorrow and resentment, neither more powerful than the other. Han is imbued with resignation, bitter acceptance and a grim determination to wait until vengeance can at last be achieved.

Han is passive. It yearns for vengeance, but does not seek it. Han is held close to the heart, hoping and patient but never aggressive. It becomes part of the blood and breath of a person. There is a sense of lamentation and even of reproach toward the destiny that led to such misery. (Ahn 1987).”

The theologian Suh Nam-dong describes han as:

“…a feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined.”

The extreme intensity of the feeling is self-evident.

Having observed the Koreans at close range for more than a millennium, the Japanese have their own explanations. Not being directly involved, they have no need to romanticize or glorify the phenomenon. Tsukuba University Prof. Furuta Hiroshi, a specialist in East Asian political thought, explains han in Korean culture as:

“…(arising) from a traditional framework, based on circumstances for which the responsibility can’t be imposed on someone else. It is the accumulation of dissatisfaction at the lower level in the hierarchical order, and the wish for its resolution.”

He also notes that longing and sadness are elements in the mixture, and cites as the origin “long years of oppression, both external and internal, by the ruling elites”.

Here’s another Japanese source. Note the last sentence:

Han is a sense of intoxication due to grief and self-pity as the sufferers of the Korean people for their history and hardships as an ethnic group. It arises as a shared feeling that transcends time and space, and is an emotional adhesive. For Koreans, one’s pain is identical to another’s pain, and your pain in the present is the same as the pain of your ancestors in the past.

Han accumulates over time, and its elimination can be expected if there is an interval, but the method for that elimination is revenge. Also, because han accumulates only among the sufferers of the Korean people, their racial memory of gratitude does not remain.”

Prof. Furuta explains one way that relates to Japan:

“Korean independence was achieved not as the result of their own efforts, but because of the Japanese defeat in the war. That becomes a source of han for later generations. Sports are now a substitute for the victory they were unable to achieve then.”

There’s the reason for the Dokdo is Our Land sign on the pitch at the London Olympics. There’s the reason Koreans became so defensive about the criticism they received for it, they concocted the story about the rising sun flag on Japanese gymnastics uniforms.

Oshima Hiroshi wrote a book published as a trade paperback with short explanatory articles comparing and contrasting the Koreans and Japanese in their daily lives and culture. One article focuses on han. Mr. Oshima presents a review of a movie to help explain.

The film is titled Seopyeonje, and a photo from the DVD cover is shown at the top of the post. In Chinese characters, that’s 西便制, and it’s the name of one style in the traditional music of pansori, performed by a vocalist and a drummer. The style was developed by a master of the late 19th century, Bak Yu-jeon. The film was shown in Japan under the title, Kaze no Oka wo Koete.

Here’s the plot. Orphans Dong-ho and his sister Song-hwa were raised by the pansori singer Yu-bong, who treats them harshly and imposes a strict training regimen in his attempts to make serious artists of them. Yu-bong feels that a truly great pansori artist must suffer. The training is so difficult that Dong-ho runs away, but his sister stays behind. The singer gives Song-hwa some Chinese herbal concoction that causes her to go blind. His objective was to implant in her the concept of han, which would enable her to become a pansori singer.

On his deathbed, Yu-bong says, “Do not be buried by han, overcome han.” Later, the brother looks for his sister. After he finds her, she sings, and they part once again.

Writes Oshima:

Han is harsh and difficult, but nothing can be done about it. It refers to the emotion buried in the heart. The heart filled with the emotion of han is han itself. Yu-bong causes Song-hwa’s blindness to implant that emotion. It does not take root, however, because she remembers the father who reared her.”

He also notes that Dong-ho and Song-hwa have feelings of love for each other. Because they are not relatives, they could get married, but feel they cannot because they were raised as brother and sister. Some have pointed out that this also creates han.

“Grudges in Japan can be eliminated by revenge, but han cannot be immediately eliminated by one act. It is deeper than that.”

This reviewer called it “perhaps the definitive work of Korean cinema.” It was a cultural phenomenon in South Korea. In the age of multi-screen film debuts, it was shown first at only one theater, and later at three. It was the first Korean movie to sell one million tickets in Seoul alone, and roughly a million more people saw it throughout the country. The Dong-a Ilbo cited director Im Kwon-taek as the Man of the Year. Im has continued to explore han in the other films of his career.

More from the reviewer:

“Some critics have stated that this movie glorifies the father’s patriarchal power as he seeks to limit his daughter’s sexuality. [6] But most believe that the pansori singer is symbolic for (South) Korea, transcending a history of suffering to achieve greatness…

“Many Koreans commented on how the film represented the purest portrayal of Han they had yet to see on screen. ..To quote Chungmoo Choi, Han basically entails “the sentiment that one develops when one cannot or is not allowed to express feelings of oppression, alienation, or exploitation because one is trapped in an unequal power relationship”.”

Here’s a trailer for the film:

There’s also an expression in Korean for “resolving han”. South Korea’s feelings about Japan are unresolved han.

The following are excerpts of articles and op-eds that appeared in South Korean newspapers over the past two months. Reading them in the context of the foregoing might offer a new perspective on bilateral relations. Remember that the Japan-Korean merger lasted only 35 years, it ended 67 years ago, and the treaty between the two countries that legally resolved everything was signed 47 years ago.

“If Japan is to truly understand the han of the people of the Republic of Korea and seek our forgiveness, it must begin with the recognition that Dokdo is the territory of the Republic of Korea.”

– Jeong Ui-hwa, Saenuri Party, former deputy speaker of the national assembly, quoted in Yonhap

“Only the truth will make the Japanese king kneel. The South Korean government must investigate the truth and condemn those who committed the vicious crimes.”

– Ahn Byon-ok, Daegu University professor

“The piteous suffering inflicted on us by the Japanese has not changed for their descendants, 100 years ago or today.”

– Yuk Cheol-su, Seoul Shinmun, 29 August

According to a government spokesman, Takeshima for South Koreans “is sacred and inviolable land that is a symbol of our sovereignty and independence….Japan took it from us temporarily, but it is recovered Korean land. Now, Japan is finding a pretext to create a quarrel and trying to take it from us again.”

– Jiji news agency, Seoul, 26 August

“Here and there, the form of Japan is changing from that in the recent past. A particularly gruesome surge is evident. This is a typical Japanese political pattern of dispersing their accumulated domestic dissatisfaction through a policy of attack directed outwardly. In particular, the ulterior motive of putting South Korea on the cutting board instead of China or Russia is obvious.”

– Chosun Online, 25 August

“Tactics are the technique of warfare. Strategy is the means for understanding the entire battle, and for fighting resolutely. Tactics alone will result in defeat in a great battle.

“Victory in battle depends on a search in a greater dimension. The search involves what part of the enemy to avoid, and is a very important part of strategy. We think it is a mistake to expand this battle. We must conduct a strategic search to determine how to fight effectively while accurately observing the enemy as it fights.

“This battle with Japan is by no means an exception.”

– Joongang Ilbo Sunday

The Dong-a Ilbo interviewed Saenuri presidential candidate Bak Geun-hye, who said Japan must abandon its territorial claims to resolve Korean dissatisfaction. If not:

“It will harm all our interaction: economic, security cooperation, cultural exchange, the interaction between future generations. Both countries have much to lose…If Japan recognizes Dokdo as South Korean territory, this will be easily resolved.”

That won’t resolve it, and she knows it, but let’s continue:

In an interview with The Associated Press on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan said: “We are victims of Japanese colonial rule.”

Kim said Seoul wants to expand relations with Japan, including in military cooperation, but only if South Korean public sentiment allows it. In June, they put on hold an intelligence sharing pact after it provoked an outcry in South Korea.

“We have to try to overcome these differences. It’s up to the Japanese attitude. While they maintain their attitude … there should be some limit on the scope of cooperation,” he said.

Last week, there was a training exercise for the Proliferation Security Initiative to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, held near southern part of South Korea by Japan, the United States, Australia, and South Korea. A Japanese escort ship was to call on Busan, as one did in 2010, but the South Koreans refused to allow it to dock. Their pretext was a concern about demonstrations, but a Japanese official at the embassy said, “This is extremely rude for the host nation of a multilateral training exercise.” (They know. That’s why they did it.) Japan thought of backing out of the exercise, but the US rearranged the plans so a trip to Busan was not necessary.

And this:

“Of 1,493 Japanese companies that mobilized Koreans into forced labor during the 1910-45 Japanese colonial rule, 299 still exist, according to an investigation committee under the Prime Minister’s Office that published its findings Wednesday.”

Not in the English version: These are termed “War Crime Companies”, and efforts are being made to prevent them from bidding on public works projects. Here’s a photo of a politico-led demonstration:

Now compare all of that with this excerpt from the Chosun Ilbo:

“24 August marks the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and South Korea. South Korea fought China during the 50s in the Korean War, and opposed them as an ally of North Korea during the Cold War. This changed, however, after the end of the Cold War. Now, we are important trading partners, and have a political relationship based on a partnership of strategic cooperation. Unlike the Japan-South Korea and Japan-China relationships, clouded by the Takeshima and Senkakus disputes, our relationship is stable.”

China is the reason the Korean Peninsula is still divided into two countries. China is the reason the repellent regime north of the 38th parallel exists, and China is the only reason it continues to exist. It is possible to view North Korea as a contemporary vassal state of China, which the entire Korean nation once was.

China is directly responsible for the brutality suffered — right now — by those Koreans who happened to be northerners. China is causing Koreans to be killed or die — right now — in unspeakable ways.

The South Koreans seem to have a highly flexible set of standards for deciding who becomes the object of their feelings of han.

None of this is to suggest there is something intrinsically wrong about han. Were it not effective in some way as a survival strategy, han itself would not have survived, much less have been exalted.

The problem — both for Koreans and for others — is that they expect other people to arrange their lives to suit an emotional orientation that exists only for themselves. That they consider it a matter of cultural identity to stew in their own juices, and rather enjoy the stewing, is their business. It is not the business of the Japanese, who in any event no longer care.

Korean solipsism expects the Japanese nation today to hold itself responsible for behavior it isn’t responsible for. The responsibility for the past behavior of the Japanese nation would have been considered resolved for most people long ago. The Koreans are railing at the Japanese in a room full of mirrors, and most Japanese have left the room.

That is why bilateral relations between the two countries will never improve. The Koreans don’t want relations to improve. They’re not happy unless they’re not happy, and it’s become an imperative of cultural identity to keep it that way.


* Donald Kirk is a member of the Institute for Corean-American Studies. Years ago, Korea was sometimes spelled with a C in the Anglosphere until they settled on the K as standard. Some Koreans think the standardization of the K spelling was a Japanese plot to have them precede Korea in alphabetical order. The C spelling, they believe, restores the Korean nation to the alphabetical supremacy that is rightfully theirs.

When they start using it for cimchee and Cim Jong-eun, then I’ll think about using it.

* Kirk has received many awards and commendations from the journalistic guild. It should now be apparent that those encomiums are not a reflection of his accuracy or professional integrity, but rather the low standards of the guild itself.

Consider, for example, the photographs the AP and Reuters chose to publish of Benjamin Netanyahu at the UN last week from among the many shots which they could have selected.

* The root of 恨, or han, is deemed to be one of the earthly passions according to Buddhist teaching. It arises concomitantly with anger, and is considered variously a poison, an unwholesome root, or an unwholesome mental factor. Attachment to it will lead to perpetual disquiet in one’s life, and mistaken thoughts in the Buddhist sense. The Buddhist ideal is to disassociate from these phenomena — which are empty — but Koreans choose to indulge this one.

Buddhism was the state religion for the four centuries of the Goryeo period of Korean history. That ended in the late 14th century when Confucianism was forcibly imposed from the top down and Buddhism oppressed.

That’s another reason the Koreans are less likely to be antagonistic to the Chinese than to the Japanese. It’s part of a larger concept that Japanese scholars refer to as Small Sinocentric Culturalism.


Posted in History, International relations, Religion, South Korea | Tagged: | 49 Comments »

Ichigen koji (179)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 22, 2012

– A person who has something to say about everything

The Ministry of Education doesn’t conduct these hair-splitting investigations of other schools for foreigners the way they do for Chongryon schools. It’s just sophistry for them to keep saying they’re still conducting an investigation. We’ve been liberated from Japanese colonial rule for more than 60 years, but they deny us our schools. We will not permit the repudiation of our children as Koreans.

– The head of the liaison group for the mothers’ associations of Chongryon schools in Japan. Chongryon is The General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, and it is affiliated with North Korea. They operate schools in Japan with pictures of the Kim family dynasty on the walls and a curriculum that glorifies the juche system.

They’re complaining because they don’t receive the same financial subsidies from the Japanese government that other schools do.

The mothers’ associations are called omoni-kai. Kai is the Japanese word for an association, while omoni is the Korean word for mother.

Speaking of omoni, in April this year the Chinese wax museum honoring great persons in history and the CCP donated a wax statute of Kim Jong-suk, the Great Mother (of Kim Jong-il), to North Korea’s International Friendship Exhibition House. The wax figure of the Great Mother is wearing a uniform of the anti-Japanese guerilla army and is placed next to azaleas with Mt. Paektu in the background.

In this video, the director of the Chinese museum, Zhang Molei, gave a speech in which he “bitterly grieved over the demise of leader Kim Jong Il, saying it was their wish to successfully represent the wax replica of Kim Jong Suk so they could please leader Kim Jong Il. Expressing the will to do more things to contribute to the building of thriving socialist nation in the DPRK, he expressed belief that the Korean people would overcome difficulties and win great victory under the leadership of the dear respected Kim Jong Un.”

The video is worth watching to see how services are conducted in the state religion. All you have to do is look.

Posted in Foreigners in Japan, North Korea, Quotations, Religion | 3 Comments »

All you have to do is look (44)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 10, 2012

Photo from the Yamagata Shimbun

A group of women beginning a four-day, Shinto-related retreat on Mt. Haguro in Tsuruoka, Yamagata. It ends today. Here’s an excellent video of that neck of the woods.

Posted in Photographs and videos, Religion, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Lanterns, lions, and Taiwanese proto-pub rock

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 25, 2012

OF the many cultural treasures in South Korea, one of the finest is the Gyeongbok Palace in northern Seoul. Built in 1394 and rebuilt in 1867, it was the main palace of the Joseon dynasty. It’s really a complex rather than a single building, and it’s also the site of the National Folk Museum and National Palace Museum. Naturally, it’s a popular destination for tourists, both foreign and domestic. One of the attractions is the hourly changing of the guards, which is more frequent that the similar ceremony at Buckingham Palace. That’s a photo of the Gyeongbok Palace gate above.

Gyeongbokgung is accessible by Line #3 on the Seoul subway, which has a station nearby. Five years ago, the officials in charge of such things came up with the idea of using models of traditional Korean lanterns to light the corridor from the subway to Exit #5.

They used a design identical to that of the stone lantern in front of the Muryangsu Hall at the Buseok Buddhist temple in Yeoungju. The temple was built in 676 and has become another well-known tourist attraction. The stone lantern out front has been designated as National Treasure 17. This is it:

And here are the six models of National Treasure 17 lining the Seoul subway corridor on Line #3.

Aren’t they an attractive addition to the underground corridor? It’s an improvement over plain tile walls. But only photos of the lanterns remain, because the lanterns themselves aren’t there anymore. They were taken out in June.

A group of citizen-activists with the provisional name of The Search for the Location of Cultural Treasures (the actual name is clumsier) decided to get upset about the lantern installation five years after it happened because it reminded them of the stone lanterns that line the main pathway to Shinto shrines in Japan. Therefore, in South Korea, they fall under the category of ilje janjeh (日帝残滓), literally “detritus from the Japanese Empire”. The term is commonly used in the country’s news media.

The head of the group, a Buddhist priest named Hyemun, added that the Gyeongbok Palace is more closely associated with Confucianism than with Buddhism, so it was inappropriate to have Buddhist lanterns in the subway nearby.

The company operating the subway wanted to leave them in the corridor, but then the mass media got involved. That settled that. The company is wholly-owned by the city of Seoul, so they thought their only choice was to bend to public opinion. They weren’t happy about it, however, because the lanterns had to be dismantled by hand to be removed.

Others recalled that the same type of traditional Korean lantern which reminded some people of the detritus of the Japanese Empire also stood in front of the Changdeok Palace in Seoul. That’s another one of the Joseon Dynasty palaces, and this one dates from 1412. The lantern there stood outside, so it was easier to remove in February. At last report, the traditional Korean lantern Japanese Empire detritus at the Cheongwadae, or Blue House, the office and residence of the South Korean head of state, is still there.


Still, the Koreans had it a lot easier than the Japanese would if the same bee were to buzz in their bonnets. The latest expample of purifying their line of sight of the imperial detritus of centuries worth of Korean tradition involved only the removal of six elaborate light fixtures in the Seoul subway and a cultural relic at a palace. So far.

But Japan has more than 88,000 Shinto shrines nationwide, ranging from large facilities with more than a million visitors a year to plain neighborhood wooden structures smaller than the average house. Large or small, almost all of them have a pair of lion-like statues standing guard to ward off evil from the premises. Here’s a photo of one.

They’re called koma-inu, and the name literally means “Korean dog”. The word koma was used in ancient times for the Korean Peninsula.

The Japanese think they were of Indian Buddhist origin, but the models they used came from China through the Korean Peninsula. If Japan were to be seized by a detritus disposal spasm, it would take years to remove these Buddhist images at Shinto facilities that have Korea in their name. Their associations are closer to the unclean than the Korean lanterns.

Not all of the statuary at the 88,000 shrines would be removed. Some of them have foxes instead of koma-inu. And the Mimeguri Shinto shrine, in Tokyo’s Kuroda Ward, has the statue of a real lion.

No one knows when the Mimeguri shrine was founded, but it was definitely there in 1693. The tutelary deity of the shrine is Mitsui Takatoshi, the founder of the Tokyo store in 1673 that later became the Mitsukoshi department store. It was called Echigoya in those days, and it’s shown on the left in this Hiroshige print.

The modern Mitsukoshi was modeled after Harrods in London, and their main store in Tokyo has a statue of the same sort of lion on the first floor. That lion was copied from the beasts that surround the statue of Nelson in Trafalgar Square. The British Empire detritus at the Mimeguri shrine was once on the first floor of Mitsukoshi’s Ikebukuro store. The shrine asked for it when the store closed.

That’s not the only oddity at the shrine. Shinto shrines have a gate with two columns at the entrance called a torii. This shrine has a tori with three columns arranged in a triangular shape.

It was modeled after the torii at the Konoshima Shinto shrine in Kyoto, which has one of a handful of triple toriis in the country. The idea is that the third column connects the shrine to another shrine on the next lot. This one came from the Mitsui estate. In fact, the shrine’s name in Japanese (三囲) can also be read as Mitsui.

There are also stone lanterns of the traditional Japanese Empire detritus variety on the grounds, without any visible connection to the Mitsui family business.

They do look a bit like Korean National Treasure 17, but then the statue of the beast at the main gate of Gyeongbokgung also looks a bit like some of the Korean lions at Shinto shrines. Except those are really Chinese.

Isn’t East Asia fun?

And because it isn’t possible to have too much East Asian fun, let’s have some more! The Taiwanese duo in the video below was known as the King of Kinmen, and the style of music they’re playing is called nakashi. Here’s an explanation of its origin:

(A)ccording to Tsan Yi-cheng (詹益城), who was once one of Taiwan’s most recognized faces on the nakashi scene, the most credible of these stories gives credit to Japanese sailors during the early 1900s for inventing this primitive form of pub rock.

“Nakashi originated in port towns such Tamsui and Keelung. Japanese sailors would come ashore and, being sailors, frequent bars. Of course there were no tape or CD players, so the sailors had to make their own entertainment,” Tsan said. “So they performed music which took on aspects of enka, or Japanese country music and filled it with lyrics about roaming the world and having a girl in every port.”

According to Tsan, the result of this odd musical coupling was unlike anything people in Taiwan had ever seen or heard before. Until the Japanese sailors came along, local pub and teahouse bands were still using traditional Chinese classical instruments rather than western ones.

“With their guitars, accordions and appetite for good times, Japanese sailors revolutionized bar and teahouse music in Taiwan,” the Peitou-based nakashi star said. “They enthralled crowds in teahouses and bars and, of course, drove the women wild with their contemporary musical style.” As Japan’s colonization of Taiwan continued, nakashi slowly became the music of choice for both the occupying forces as well as the Taiwanese.

As more locals began to pick up accordions and guitars, however, nakashi slowly became localized. Instead of drawing on enka for inspiration, Taiwan’s nakashi players added elements of Fujienese and Taiwanese folk to the tunes.

Instead of forming disposal squads of purity inspectors, the Taiwanese turned their detritus of Imperial Japan into a golden good time.

Nagashi with a g, by the way, is the word for the practice in Japan of singers and musicians going from bar to bar at night to perform for tips. That’s probably the origin of the Taiwanese term. When I first arrived in Japan, I knew one old nagashi singer who accompanied himself with an acoustic guitar, but I haven’t seen him or anyone else do it in quite a while.

Here’s what it looked and sounded like in Taiwan during a nagashi renaissance.

Posted in Arts, History, Music, Popular culture, Religion, Shrines and Temples, South Korea, Traditions, Travel | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

What I did during summer vacation

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 4, 2012

SUMMER vacation for kids in Japan can be the same lazy season it is anywhere else — they hang out with their friends, or hang out at home and watch television while putting off their homework. Some kids — or their parents — find other things to do. Some kids go to private schools for extra study.

And some become Buddhist priests.

The photo above shows the ordination ceremony on the third for new Buddhist priests at the Higashihongan-ji Buddhist temple in Kyoto. That’s the headquarters temple for the Shinshu Otani sect, which has 8,900 affiliated institutions nationwide.

The sect allows children as young as nine years old to become priests, because that’s the age at which the sect’s founder Shinran (1173-1263) entered the priesthood.

Participating in the ceremony were 152 children on their summer vacation, most of them primary school students. Of that total, 68 were nine years old.

During the special ceremony, they had their hair cut, received a surplice, and were given a Buddhist name for use as priests.

And their parents might have taken some of them for ice cream and cake to celebrate when the ceremony was over!

There’s no video of the ceremony, but here’s one of the temple itself.

Posted in Religion, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Ecumenism and equanimity

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, July 28, 2012

THE scene in the photograph above contains what today are incongruous elements, as Japanese will immediately recognize. But in another sense, the scene is neither new nor incongruous at all.

At the upper right are Shinto priests from the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu shrine in Kamakura, Kanagawa, conducting a Shinto service in front of the Great Buddha in the Todai-ji Buddhist temple in Nara. Todai-ji dates from 728, while the Tsurugaoka shrine is the junior institution, having been founded in 1063.

The story of the relationship between the indigenous proto-religion Shinto and the continental import Buddhism is too long and complex to examine here. Relatively speaking, they are separate and equal, but were more closely connected at times in the past, with some buildings used as both shrines and temples. The Meiji-era government ended all that by decree.

They came together again to conduct a joint Buddhist-Shinto ceremony at Todai-ji on the 21st to pray for the souls of those who died in the Tohoku disaster and for the recovery of the area. It began at 6:30 a.m. with a Buddhist memorial service in which 300 people participated. Monks read from 600 scrolls of the Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra.

The delegation from the Kamakura shrine included about 100 people, and their part of the service started with a Shinto prayer. Shrine maidens (miko) performed a kagura (Shinto dance) to pray for peaceful seas. There were eight dancers in the group, a larger number than usual, and this is what it looked like. (Again, the image of miko in front of the Great Buddha is an incongruous sight nowadays.)

Finally, the Junior Chorus Ensemble, consisting of 20 junior high and high school girls from Minamisoma, Fukushima, performed the well-loved classic Furusato, or Home Town. It was composed in 1914 for children to sing in school.

The two institutions also have a long relationship. The tutelary deity of the shrine is one of the early shoguns, Minamoto no Yoritomo. He provided assistance to the temple after it was destroyed during the Siege of Nara in 1180. The smaller Taira army overwhelmed a larger group of warrior monks in established defensive positions in Nara to burn down much of the city, including all but one of the Buddhist temples. The Heike Monogatari describes the original Great Buddha statue at Todai-ji melting in the heat of the fire.

The performance of Furusato probably sounded something like this.

Here’s an excerpt of the kagura dance, Urayasu no Mai. It’s not as old as you might think. This dance was created in 1940 as part of the national celebrations commemorating the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of the Imperial line.

Could one of the reasons the Japanese were not overcome by hysteria during the Tohoku disaster be a certain perspective and equanimity inculcated over many centuries as a result of the vicissitudes of history, snippets of which are described above?

Do I read too much into it all? Perhaps.


* That’s an unfortunate choice of words in the book review at the link:

…(L)ike Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, (Japan) embraced reactionary modernism.

Nothing “reactionary” about them at all, unless you were a Stalinist. Fascism was a progressive movement, as even the progressives — such as FDR — recognized. The term was coined in 1984 by Jeffrey Herf.

* My sister gave me a print of this illustration of Minamoto no Yoritomo as a gift not long before I started studying Japanese. She had no idea who it was, but she said it reminded her of me.

Posted in Festivals, History, Music, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Females, food, and fertility rites: Is there a finer combination?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 17, 2012

SCANNING the back pages and far corners of local Japanese newspapers, either in print or online, has been a delight for the past month. It’s rice-planting time in Japan, and that means hundreds, if not thousands, of ceremonies are held throughout the nation honoring the tradition of wet paddy cultivation, each one a spectacular in miniature.

The priests of the proto-religions in some cultures sacrificed their young virgins to appease the volcano gods and other sullen spirits. Man, that’s just screwy, and I’ll bet it didn’t make the gods any happier than it made the young men of the tribe. In Japan, they keep those precious young virgins alive for more productive endeavors. One of those activities is to serve as miko (Shinto shrine maidens), who dress in colorful costumes, sing, dance, get barefoot, and snork rice seedlings into the mud by hand. They’re sometimes accompanied by the Shinto priests, who get down and get dirty right alongside them.

If you want to know what it looks like without getting out of your chair, you’ve come to the right place.

The local branch of the national agricultural cooperative pitched in to help plant a sacred paddy at the Dewa Sanzan Shrine in Tsuruoka, Yamagata, shown in the first picture. (That shrine link is in English, by the way.) The ceremony is held in supplication for a good harvest, which in this case will be turned over to the shrine itself. It started with a procession of 70 people to the site and continued with a Shinto ceremony conducted by the priests. That was followed by a dance performed by the miko and the planting itself in a 17-are paddy. (An are = 100 square meters or 0.0247 acres, and 100 ares = a hectare)

The home in the background is that of the Wada family in Ogi-machi, Shirakawa-mura, Gifu, and has been designated an important cultural property of the nation. It’s one of a settlement of homes that constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site: The Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama.  The name for the architectural style translates as “prayer hands”, which is particularly effective for dealing with the area’s heavy snows. The houses were home to extended families on several floors, who usually worked in the sericulture industry.

Reports say that the 20 girls at the Wada family paddy were singing while they worked, which makes me wonder if I should have been a farmer instead.

Yeah, they grow rice in Tokyo too — technically in Chofu, a municipality within the Tokyo Metro District. This ceremony was conducted at Jindai-ji, a Buddhist temple, which is not surprising considering the mix-and-match approach of the Japanese to religion. There’s been a temple on this site since at least 733. The ceremony was conducted jointly with their sister city in Kijimadaira-mura, Nagano.

In addition to planting the seedlings in this paddy, the seven farmerettes passed out some to the spectators to grow at home. One later said, “It was a lot of fun to be able to experience something I don’t normally do.” If you think she was just being polite, look at that sweet smile in the photo above. Girls who are ready for a new experience, even if it means manual labor while sloshing around in the mud, will always find shelter from the storms of life at my place.

This short video of the temple grounds is well done, by the way.

One intriguing aspect of a country with nearly two millennia of traditions is the frequency with which some of those traditions disappear and then reappear. For example, the folks associated with the Izumo Daijingu Shinto shrine in Kameoka, Kyoto, haven’t conducted this ceremony in 84 years. It was last held to coincide with the ceremony marking the formal installment of the Showa Tenno. Last spring, the shrine recovered some land it had leased out, so they decided to use it this year to put in some sacred rice. Sixty people in all participated, including the high school girls who served as the miko in the 500-square-meter plot. There was also a gagaku dance performance, which goes together with these events as well as peaches and cream. Gagaku is the music associated with the Imperial household, as are shrines with the –jingu suffix.

This shrine knows a lot about tradition, too. It dates from 709. They think.

The rice planting festival conducted by the Mikami Shinto shrine website in Yasu, Shiga, was also held every year to coincide with the Showa Tenno ceremony in 1928, but they skipped it last year due to a shortage of participants. The Shigans decided not to let that happen again, so a woman who’s been involved in the event for more than 20 years organized a group of 50 to take care of business this time. There was singing and dancing and planting in time to the beat of the taiko drums. When it was done, the woman said her hips hurt, but it was worth it. Try this website for more photos, including some black and white shots from a more pastoral age.

They didn’t have any problem finding enough women to carry the mikoshi in May 2010 at that same shrine’s Hyozu festival, however. The festival features a parade of at least 35 mikoshi (portable shrines transporting the shrine deity), two of which are carried by women only. This one’s called the Ayame, or iris. How can anybody not love sweaty shouting girls with cool clothes and hair?

Another intriguing aspect of a country with nearly two millennia of traditions is how relaxed people can be about those traditions. Look at those costumes: Centuries worth of convention from their hairstyles to their ankles. Below that, they’ve wisely updated to sports shoes.

The Takase shrine in Nanto, Toyama, goes out of its way to plant koshihikari seedlings, reputed to be the best variety of rice in the country. Five girls from ages 14 to 20 got 500 of the seedlings started on a 25-meter-square paddy. After the rice is harvested in mid-September, some will be given to the Takase shrine, and some to the Ise-jingu, also associated with the Imperial household.

The Tozawa shrine in Shinjo, Yamagata, doesn’t have the tradition of other institutions — it’s been around only since 1893. They talked 13 girls into planting the rice here, and they certainly seem to be enjoying themselves. The same ceremony is conducted in turn by 11 branches of the shrine in the region that are members of the Association of Shinto Shrines, and you really ought to click on this link to see their headquarters building in Tokyo.  The reports didn’t say what they’d do with the rice harvested in late September or early October, but somebody somewhere is going to eat it.

For a rural extravaganza, try the Mibu no Hanadaue in Kitahiroshima-cho, Hiroshima, which is both an important intangible cultural property of the nation and registered as a UNESCO intangible cultural property.  Two groups of 74 musicians jam while the miko sing and plant rice on an 87-are plot, assisted by 14 bulls.

Did you think I was exaggerating when I said extravaganza?

What the heck, one more update. This ceremony was held on the grounds of the Sumiyoshi Shinto shrine in Fukuoka City’s Hakata Ward, which means it’s one of those downtown paddies. They only had room for 280 seedlings in the nine-meter-square paddy, planted by 10 miko and shrine parishioners after a procession that consisted of 20 people. They expect three kilograms of rice later on this fall. Said 18-year-old Tachibana Yui, who became a miko in April, “I was nervous because it was a religious ceremony, but I’m looking forward to the fall harvest.”

Washing all that rice down requires some sort of beverage, and the finest beverage for that is green tea, which is now in picking instead of planting season.

This tea was planted on a 10-are plot during an event conducted by the Kumano shrine in Tanabe, Wakayama, with prayers for better quality product and the prosperity of the industry.

Wouldn’t you know it? This shrine is also a UNESCO world heritage site.

Last month, two miko and five members of the shrine’s women’s association harvested the first batch of otonashi tea, which was sent to the area from Kyoto about a thousand years ago during the Heian period.  The district has 40 households growing tea on seven hectares, and they produce about 18 tons a year.

The first batch went to the Imperial household, and the second will be picked at the end of this month.


I eat rice nearly every day, and 95% of it is brown.

Posted in Festivals, History, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

The masters of multiculti

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 29, 2011

IN a recent post, I mentioned a survey which broke down the national population by religious affiliation and found that the statistically average Japanese would consider himself a believer in 2.7 religions. While religious purists might find that appalling, the Japanese, perhaps the most naturally syncretic people on earth, wouldn’t even blink at the news. For example, I once worked with a young Japanese woman who was a such a serious Roman Catholic that she kept an illustration of Christ under the clear vinyl covering on her desk. Yet, for extra income (and probably because she enjoyed it), she also served as a miko, or Shinto shrine maiden, on weekends to assist priests during wedding ceremonies. No one thought this was unusual at all, including, I suspect, the Shinto priests.

One reason for the laissez-faire approach is the partial syncretism that has existed between the proto-religion of Shinto and the latecomer Buddhism, which showed up in the archipelago in the sixth century. The partnership got off to a rough start in 698 when a Shingon sect established a temple near the Ise shrines because they thought the Shinto deities required the Buddha’s spiritual guidance. That demonstrated some serious Shingon sack, because one of the enshrined deities at Ise is Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun and the universe and the progenitrix of the Imperial line.

They paid for the blasphemy, however, as the damage from a typhoon in 772 caused the shrine to be temporarily dismantled. The typhoon was said to be a sign of divine displeasure at the presence of Buddhist symbols so close to the most important Shinto place of worship.

But proselytizers everywhere are relentless, and the Japanese Buddhists kept plugging away throughout the Heian period (794-1185) to promote a synthesis. Their efforts culminated with the development of the Ryobu Shinto (Dual Shinto) school, one of the main tenets of which held that Amaterasu was the manifestation of Dainichi Nyorai (Mahavairocana), or the Great Sun Buddha. Ryobu Shinto lasted for centuries, influenced straight Shinto thought, and allowed Buddhist temples to take control of Shinto shrines. Sites with both temples and shrines were common in Japan for close to a millennium. That arrangement ended in 1868 when the government ordered their separation as part of the program to establish State Shinto.

Exceptions remain, however, as can be seen in the photograph, which shows a Shinto shrine in front of Nigatsu-do at the Buddhist temple Todai-ji in Nara. That temple is known for housing the largest bronze statue of the Buddha in Japan, as well as being the largest wooden building in the world. It dates from the 8th century, but is affiliated with the Kegon sect rather than Shingon.

An estimated 99.39 million of the 127 million Japanese visited a shrine or temple (usually the former) during the three-day New Year period in 2009, so the Nara collocation makes it a convenient holiday stop.

In fact, ceremonies from the two traditions are combined here at an annual Buddhist rite called the Shunie, which is a gathering of priests for prayer and purification in February under the old calendar. (Nigatsu-do translates as February Hall.) Nowadays it starts on 1 March and continues for 14 days. The ritual at Todai-ji is one astonishing combination of elements that could happen only in Japan: disease-curing water magically traveling 175 kilometers, an archery demonstration, sake drinking, frenzied dancing with torches lit by sacred fire by Buddhist priests on retreat for exorcism and to pray for world peace while eating only one partial meal a day, and thousands of people who come to watch and hope that the sacred sparks fall on them. It was started by a Buddhist priest in 752 out of atonement for going fishing instead of going to a prayer meeting. (Read all about it at this previous post.)

Before the priestly procession holes up at Nigatsu-do, they stop off at the Shinto shrine and say a prayer to the tutelary deity. The procession is then blessed and purified with a gohei, a wooden wand with cloth streamers called shide that is used in Shinto rituals. (Here’s a Japanese site with a simple video and diagrams of how to make ’em, including a photo of the finished product.)

Some of the too-cool-for-school rational secularists out there could learn a few things from the Japanese.

Here’s a 30-second commercial for JR Nara showing Todai-ji and featuring scenes of the torch ceremony. The background music is Stranger in Paradise.

See what I mean?

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Posted in Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

Holy mother

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 28, 2011

MOTHERHOOD is an integral part of the narrative that religions present, whether the mother is the Aztec earth goddess, Mary in the Roman Catholic tradition, or Kim Jong-suk in the religion of Juche. For you unbelievers, Kim Jong-suk was Kim Il-sung’s wife and Kim Jong-il’s sainted mother. Her portrait is placed on walls in the home and worshipped in the same way as those of her husband and son.

Sheela na Gig --- The Maternal

Jong-suk died at the age of 31 while giving birth to a stillborn daughter. She is officially known as “The Heroine of the Anti-Japanese Revolution”, and was given the posthumous title of Hero of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on 21 September 1972. Even though Jong-suk died while quite young, she is also cited as the founder of the Workers’ Party of Korea auxiliary organizations, the Korean Children’s Union, and the Korean Democratic Women’s Union. Verily, she must have been possessed by the divine spirit.

It’s natural, therefore, for theologians to turn their attention to the mother of Kim Jong-eun, the latest blessed event in that country’s continuing stream of miracles. Her name was Ko Yong-hui, and she died in 2004 after having brought forth Second Son Kim Jong-cheul (AKA The Girly Man) and Kim Jong-eun, who was known in his younger days as the “Morning Star General”. Perhaps his manger was strategically placed as part of Providence’s plan to guide the Wise Men to Pyeongyang.

Ko was one of Kim Jong-il’s mistresses rather than his wife. He had another concubine when they met, but she quickly became his favorite. Shortly before her death, the propagandists got to work and proclaimed her “The Respected Mother who is the Most Faithful and Loyal Subject to the Dear Leader Comrade Supreme Commander”. (It’s good to be king, eh?) They seem to have started the process of elevating her to the Pantheon too, but that project has now ended.

In fact, she’s lately become something of a non-person, despite being a literal non-person for seven years. The North Korean People Urgent Action Network (RENK) a Japan-based NPO, reported on the 23rd that Ko’s name has not appeared in any of the local media reports about her son following the death of The Son earlier this month. The Respected Mother, etc., no longer seems to be worthy of veneration.

That’s probably because she was born in Osaka.

RENK also reports that the mention of her birthplace and place of residence for the first 11 years of her life has been classified top secret, the mere mention of which will result in severe punishment. (RENK thinks that means concentration camps.) Thus, North Korean heretics face the real risk of Hell on Earth, even if the heresy is said to be an open secret in the country.

Juche Tower --- The Paternal

Ko was a member of a zainichi family; i.e., Japanese-born ethnic Koreans who choose to retain Korean citizenship. Her family repatriated when she was 11 under a program that was conducted from 1950 to 1984. She later became a member of a dance troupe that entertained His Holiness, who saw the light after seeing her righteous moves on the dance floor.

RENK speculates this situation might cause problems with Chongryun, the association of North Korean citizens in Japan (some members of which have seats in the North Korean national assembly). Chongryun knows all the facts too, so from the regime’s perspective, they know too much. Will that cause Pyeongyang to place some distance between themselves, despite the financial assistance the group provides? A controversy such as this could cause the Mother of all Schisms.

Here’s the problem: Though her family was ethnically Korean, Ko was born in an unclean place rather than the Pure Land, and the North Koreans are nothing if not purists. Worse, one of the principle tenets of the Church of Juche is that everyone in Japan has cloven hooves and forked tongues. Finally, it doesn’t help that her Korean ancestors were from Jeju Island, which is now part of South Korea. (The location of the family seat is a big deal in Korean culture.)

All of this brings to mind another question: When Kim Jong-eun and his brother Jong-chul visited Japan in 1991, did they swing by Osaka to see their mother’s hometown?

Kim Jong-nam at the Gates of Hell (Kitamura Toshifumi/AFP/Getty Images)

That’s right: Officials in both Japan and South Korea have confirmed that the two brothers entered the country on 12 May 1991 and stayed for 11 days. Kim Jong-eun, then eight years old, was carrying a Brazilian passport in the name of Joseph Park, and he obtained a Japanese visa in Vienna. The Japanese were tipped off that he was in the country illegally and investigated, but he had already left.

They traced a credit card used by an adult member of the traveling party and discovered that one of the places they visited was Tokyo Disneyland. That’s a favorite destination of the Kim brothers — Number One Son Kim Jong-nam was caught with his wife and kids in Tokyo on 1 May 2001 traveling on a Dominican passport. Before their deporation, he told authorities that he was taking the family to see Disneyland. It was later revealed that Jong-nam had been a frequent visitor to Tokyo. Rumor has it that he stayed in the same Shinbashi hotel and that he especially liked the public baths.

Really, Japan and the Disney Corporation should be proud of themselves. Christians make pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Lourdes, Moslems try to visit Mecca at least once in their lifetimes, and the Kim Brothers bowed at the Tokyo shrine of Mickey and Minnie.

And that brings to mind the final question: Did Kim Jong-nam and Kim Jong-eun feel a special kinship with the Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride when they swung by Fantasyland?

Update: There’s a report now in Japan from two sources, one of whom is a Chongryun official, that a crisis could erupt in North Korea as soon as February. The party and the military are trying to establish Jong-eun’s position, but any unhappiness over the division of spoils could touch off an old-fashioned Joseon dynastic struggle, they say. Battles of this sort between two sons of the king with different mothers are an old story in other parts of the world as well.

These sources suggest that Number One Son Jong-nam (who has gotten fatter since the above picture was taken) is still a factor to be accounted for. The Chongryun source says he is very personable and has maintained ties with people in the party and the military his own age. He goes so far as to say he is even quite popular among this group. The source also notes that he was the heir apparent before he got caught with his proverbial pants down in Japan.

Finally, Jong-nam himself says he urged his father to open the country and adopt reforms, and got exiled for his opinion. There is, say the sources, a reform wing of sorts in North Korea, and it is not out of the question the reformers would unite behind him.

The Sheela na Gig photo was taken by John Harding
The Kims are consecrated boys, every last one of them.

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Matsuri da! (122): The air’s apparent

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 27, 2011

THIS is going to stump everybody, including the Japanese readers: What is the object shown in the following photograph?

Here’s a hint, but it won’t help at all: Those are five-meter-square stainless steel sheets.

The answer? It’s a Shinto shrine in Asahi-machi, Yamagata.

In fact, that’s a photograph of the Kuki shrine’s main sanctuary, the site in all shrines which houses the shintai, the sacred object in which the spirit of the deity resides. The deity in Shinto is described as the yaoyorozu no kami, or the 800 myriads of divinities, which some (but not all) interpret as being different aspects of the One. Therefore, the presence of the divinity is manifest in every aspect of life.

Some deities are divinized ancestors or famous figures of the past. (That’s the point behind the often misunderstood concept of the Emperor as a “living god” until 1945, or the enshrinement of the spirits of the war dead in Yasukuni.) Natural phenomena are deities: the wind, sun, moon, water, mountains, trees, and rocks (including those that are phallic- and yonic-shaped). Man-made objects can be divinities: mirrors, swords, polished stones (tama), bells, clothes, dishes, and, after Buddhism began to exert an influence, paintings and statues. Mirrors have been used in Shinto worship since ancient times, so the creation of what is essentially a large mirror isn’t as odd as it might seem at first glance.

The deity worshipped at this shrine is air. That’s why it’s called the Air Shrine (unless you can think of a better translation for 空気神社).

On the approach to this site, one passes through monuments to earth, fire, wood, metal, and water, the five elements that created the cosmos.

As you might expect, Asahi-machi is located in a glorious natural setting — the somewhere in what city slickers would call the middle of nowhere — and the primary occupation of the residents is rice and fruit cultivation. Before he died in 1986, Shirakawa Chiyo, one of the older Asahi-machi natives, offered the opinion that the town should build a shrine in which air was the tutelary deity as a way to give thanks for the clean air that was a blessing to them all.

Nothing came of Mr. Shirakawa’s idea when he was alive, but it began to get serious consideration a year after he died in 1987, when the town launched a municipal development campaign. Because this is a religious institution, the money to build it had to come from private citizen/sector donations. Even though the Japanese are extraordinarily ecumenical, that wasn’t an easy sell. Still, they collected the money they needed and finished the shrine the following year.

Yeah, they pray there.

The idea behind the use of stainless steel for the air shrine was that it would reflect natural views of the surrounding area throughout the year from different perspectives. This would help people reflect on the existence of air.

Yeah, they have festivals there too.

The townsfolk designated 5 June as the local Air Day, which coincides with World Environment Day. They hold the Air Festival every year on the Saturday closest to Air Day. The main sanctuary is open to the public for viewing the divinity and pausing for reflections suitable for the spirit of the occasion. There’s also a performance by the miko of kagura, or Shinto Dance, which is traditional at shrine festivals. That’s shown in the photo above.

Oh yeah, there’s even a video:

And to conclude here’s a question theological but not rhetorical — Is the sound of the wind on that video the voice of the divinity?

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Posted in Environmentalism, Festivals, Religion, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Exquisite music

Posted by ampontan on Friday, October 14, 2011

MORE than 800 years ago, in 1196, the Buddhist priest Hozan Kengyo was sent from the Myo-on-ji Jorakuin temple in what is now Shiga to attend the opening of a new temple in today’s Hioki, Kagoshima. Hozan was proficient in the biwa, and he taught 12 pieces of religious music to the local priests. It was performed with eight instruments, including the biwa, flute, taiko drum, and shell horns.

The name of the new temple was the Nakashima Jorakuin, and the music Hozan brought with him was known as Myo-on Junigaku (myo-on means exquisite music). The Japanese biwa is derived from the lute by way of the Chinese pipa, but several different types have been developed in Japan since then. This temple is said to be the origin of the Satsuma biwa, which was used not only for performing music, but also for the mental and moral training of the local samurai. In the past, only blind priests could serve at this temple, and many of the chief priests were renowned for their musical talent.

Nakashima Jorakuin is affiliated with the Tendai sect, at one time the mainstream Buddhist sect in Japan and at its zenith when the temple was founded. Tendai was once associated with the Imperial court, and the Jodo and Nichiren sects are derived from it. A class of warrior-monks emerged from the sect after the 12th century, which applied pressure to the Imperial court and took sides in military and political disputes to defend what it considered to be temple interests. That ended when the warlord Oda Nobunaga almost completely destroyed their headquarters in 1571.

The main temple of Nakashima Jorakuin was moved to a location near the Kagoshima Castle in 1619. With the early Meiji-period anti-Buddhist movement to disestablish Buddhism and replace it with Shinto, and the damage suffered during American bombing missions in World War II, the temple was again moved, this time to Miyazaki. What remains on the original site in Hioki was the subsidiary temple, which has been reduced to one building and the graves of the chief priests. Kagoshima has designated it a prefectural historical site.

Kagoshima also designated the 12 pieces of myo-on junigaku music as an intangible cultural treasure of the prefecture in 1971. The repertoire was once performed by blind priests throughout southern Kyushu, but it is now heard only once a year and only at Nakashima Jorakuin, accompanied by readings of sutras unique to the temple.

That performance always falls on 12 October. Ten musician-priests came from Kagoshima and Miyazaki this year to play. Said a sixth-grade boy who attended:

“I think it’s amazing when I wonder how the people of the past, who couldn’t record music, were able to memorize a performance of nearly an hour.”

Here’s a two-minute YouTube clip from last year’s performance of music that has changed little, if at all, from a millennium ago.

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Tea party

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 10, 2011

TO outsiders, the Japanese tea ceremony can be a stiff and starchy affair that leaves some wondering why it’s been such a big deal for so long. To insiders, however, it integrates the appreciation of green tea (a fine beverage) with aspects of traditional architecture, gardening, ceramics, calligraphy, and religion. Its history is closely linked with that of Buddhism in Japan, particularly Zen.

The appreciation of tea was not always conducted in such an elegant atmosphere, however. For example, tea tournaments became popular among the aristocracy during the Muromachi period (1333 to 1568). The nominal objective of these contests was to distinguish which of the teas served was the “true tea”, i.e., that grown from seeds brought from China in the 12th century, and which were derived from newer strains. Extravagant prizes were awarded, more sake than tea was consumed, and the government banned them after they became an excuse for rowdiness.

The early master Sen no Rikyu founded his own school for the tea ceremony that branched off into three schools that survive to the present. He eventually became the tea guru for the warlords Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, receiving extensive land holdings from the latter and officiating at tea ceremonies for both, as well as for the Emperor Ogimachi. Rikyu became too successful for his own good, however; he irritated Hideyoshi for reasons that remain unclear and was forced by him to commit suicide in 1591. (Among the theories: he had a life-size statue of himself built, he refused to give his daughter to Hideyoshi as a concubine, and he charged too much money for his tea utensils.)

While the tea ceremony has become more sedate in the intervening centuries, it is still possible to catch glimpses of the past funkiness. One example is the annual Ochamori ceremony at Saidai-ji, a Buddhist temple in Nara, held this year on the 9th.

Those who visit the temple for the ceremony drink the same matcha that is consumed at other tea ceremonies. Matcha is a finely-ground, powdered, high quality form of the tea that is shade-grown. On this day, however, it is drunk not from the small, individual tea cups esteemed for their artistic value, but motherbruisers that are 40 centimeters in diameter, weigh from five to 10 kilograms, and are passed around to five or six people. In fact, the cups are so large the drinker needs help from the people on either side to handle them. (That’s where the “O” in Ochamori comes from. It isn’t the honorific but the character that means “big”.) They sometimes wind up with matcha-covered faces, which is an unlikely spectacle at a conventional tea ceremony.

The Ochamori originated more than 750 years ago in the Kamakura era with Eison, a high priest of the Shingon sect. In those days, tea was still a luxury item. During the January convocation of the monthly meeting for Buddhist instruction, he first offered the tea to the divinity, and then made sure it was passed to the parishioners and townspeople, most of whom wouldn’t have been able to afford it. The story goes that everyone wanted to drink sake instead — this is Japan, after all — but religious precepts prohibited it.

Reported a 15-year-old high school girl who came over from Hyogo for the event this year:

“It’s the first time I’ve ever drunk from a teacup this big. It was heavy!”

And to see just how heavy it was, try this brief clip from an Ochamori of the past.

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