Japan from the inside out

Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category


Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 3, 2011

EVERYONE associates saunas with the Scandinavian and Baltic countries, particularly Finland, and the bathing culture with the Japanese. But when baths in private dwellings became commonplace in Japan after in the postwar period, many of the sento, or bathhouses, installed saunas to attract customers. Now a good public bath in Japan combines the best of both worlds.

Less well known, however, is that the Japanese have had saunas of their own for quite some time — in fact, since at least the 8th century. That’s when the Empress Komyo, a devout Buddhist, had the Hokkei-ji temple built in Nara as a convent with a bath and a steam sauna. It’s a big enough deal to have been designated an important tangible cultural asset of the nation.

The sauna in its current form dates from the Edo period, and consists of two chambers of 2.5 square meters walled with Japanese cypress. Water is boiled in an adjoining room and passed through the floor. After the temple was repaired in 2003, the priests have opened the temple’s sauna to the public once a year. This summer, 30 people showed up to sweat out the sinfulness. No temperature readings were provided for the interior heat, but the 30-minute limit for individual bathers is about twice as long as I stay in a modern sauna. Then again, a young female grad student from Kyoto compared her perspiration volume to the flow after a hot yoga practice (such as Bikram yoga), so it must get steamy enough.

The Empress Komyo had several temples built, including at least three others in Nara. She is also said to have employed the same sauna mechanism for 1,000 people in a bath. Hey, cleanliness is next to godliness, right?

Special Buddhist memorial services are held every 50 years on the anniversary of a person’s death, and here’s a video of bugaku (Court music and dance) being performed at Hokke-ji in May 2010 to commemorate the 1,250th year of the empress’s death. Because it is associated with the Imperial Court, bugaku is more closely connected with Shinto than with Buddhism, but this is Japan — the world champs at mixing and matching.

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Posted in History, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Death be not proud

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 15, 2011

JAPANESE festivals can be more fun that a barrel of monkeys ripped on fermented fruit, but a Taiwanese folk custom, explained by anthropologist Marc Moskowitz, outdoes them all. The website Digital Dying interviewed the professor, and here’s the first question and answer:

What does a Taiwan stripper funeral look like?

Women sing and dance as a truck with blinking neon lights follows a funeral procession through the streets. The trucks are called Electric Flower Cars, or EFCs. Vendors sell things alongside and there is some really fabulous singing and a whole range of performances, taking off clothes is just one part. Often there’s a host, a middle aged man or woman who tells jokes and interviews performers between events. Usually the strippers wear bikinis, or an outfit like you might see at a nightclub.

Usually, but not always, as he explains in the interview.

Now that’s my idea of a going away party!

Of course it’s on You Tube. One caveat — the actual scenes from the documentary were filmed at a temple rather than a funeral. But as one of the commenters notes (Taiwan resident Dan Bloom, who knows what he’s talking about), the performances are the same.

Heck, if that’s what goes on at Taiwanese temples, I think I might have found religion.

There’s a more detailed interview at the io9 site with another trailer from the film. (It’s worth watching for the song’s subtitles alone.) And here’s Prof. Moskowitz’s site.

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Posted in Festivals, I couldn't make this up if I tried, Popular culture, Religion, Taiwan, Traditions | Leave a Comment »

The plant party

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 13, 2011

THE Nagata-cho Deep Throat column in the 13 August edition of the weekly Shukan Gendai reports that Prime Minister Kan Naoto spoke at a meeting with the bureaucrats from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in late July and said the following:

By all means, I will see through the cleanup of the nuclear accident and the recovery. I also want to form a new political party. It will be called the Plant Party. (植物党)

That story’s got to be true if only because no one would dare make something like that up and try to fob it off on anybody. One staff member in the Kantei said no one had any idea what the Plant Party was about, but suggested the concept might be based on coexistence with nature and sustainable energy.

The anonymous author of the column (there are probably several) speculated that Mr. Kan was spinning a scenario in which he would leave the DPJ after they ousted him from the party presidency and supported a successful no-confidence motion to remove him from the premiership. The idea seems to be that he would then dissolve the Diet and call a general election. Mr. Kan assumed he would have to form a new party because the DPJ might not officially support him in that election.

One DPJ Diet member affiliated with the Hatoyama group told the magazine the following:

The prime minister has recently immersed himself in the books of environmental activist C.W. Nicol (originally Welsh but now a Japanese citizen). He’s also been spending a lot of time talking to Tama University Professor Tasaka Hiroshi, a Cabinet Secretariat advisor who is somehow involved with religion. The idea for a Plant Party probably came from that.

The columnist concludes the article by suggesting that the prime minister’s animal instincts function only during a political crisis when his position is at stake.

I’ve been comparing Kan Naoto with Barack Obama lately, but perhaps Al Gore is the better comp after factoring in the element of the whacked-out sidewalk preacher warning that the end of the world is nigh.

If anyone thought I was off base with The Barstool Philosopher post, maybe it’s time you thought again.

Incidentally, Prof. Tasaka’s academic specialty is something called social entrepreneurship, and I’m sure you can identify the contours of that UFO long before it enters earth orbit. A social entrepreneur is defined on the Web as “someone who recognizes a social problem and uses entrepreneurial principles to organize, create, and manage a venture to make social change…(they) assess their success in terms of the impact they have on society. While social entrepreneurs often work through nonprofits and citizen groups, many work in the private and governmental sectors.”

Yes, he has a blog. Yes, I looked at it. Wild horses couldn’t have dragged me away.

Prof. Tasaka likes to write in short sentences that he probably thinks are poetic. I translated one of his entries and kept as many of the original line breaks as possible.

On the evening of 27 March
A turning point came in my life.

The Fukushima nuclear accident
Was caused by the Tohoku earthquake.

I was asked to give advice to the government
As a nuclear power specialist, for measures to deal with the accident.

When I received the prime minister’s request to be an advisor to the Cabinet Secretariat
What I heard, as always
Was “The Voice of Heaven”.

If that doesn’t go a long way toward explaining the dysfunction of the Kan Cabinet and their inability to get cracking on the Tohoku cleanup, you can dip me in chocolate and feed me to the hyenas.

And speaking of plants, where are all those killer tomatoes now that we really need them?

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Posted in Environmentalism, I couldn't make this up if I tried, Politics, Religion | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

What to do with the gods

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 21, 2011

THE SURVIVORS of the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami, as well as those residents near the Fukushima power plant forced to evacuate, must deal with the most basic of problems: securing food, clothing, and shelter. The immediate but temporary short-term solution to those problems is a matter of logistics. Resolving those problems will be difficult, but the difficulties lie in execution rather than conception.

The disaster has also created more subtle problems that do not admit of easy answers. The degree of logistical efficiency is irrelevant, and there are no satisfactory short-term solutions, either temporary or permanent. Those problems are not one of the physical survival of people, but rather the survival of the physical symbols of cultural identity.

Residents within a 30-kilometer radius of the Fukushima power plant have been evacuated from the area for an indefinite time. The people affiliated with and responsible for Shinto shrines in the evacuation zone are unsure whether they should take with them the physical objects representing the divinities in the shrines, known as shintai.

This isn’t a trivial issue for the people involved. They believe the spirit of the divinity at the shrine resides in the physical object, and they also think those divinities have protected the area for many years. In the Japanese perspective, “many years” usually means “several centuries” and often means more than a millennium.

The Association of Shinto Shrines, which represents more than 8,000 institutions, said:

“Shrines have been protected by the people of the community for many years. When the people who have been evacuated return, shrines, if they function, will become the spiritual center of life in the community through ceremonies and events.”

The association would prefer that the shintai not be moved. They understand that the evacuation could be for a long time, however, so say that preference must be given to local circumstances.

Another factor is Article 81 of the law governing religious corporations, which applies to the entities responsible for both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. That law states the corporations are subject to dissolution if their facilities have been destroyed and they are unable to replace them for more than two years, unless there are extenuating circumstances.

Common sense says that the extenuating circumstances are as plain as the nose on your face, but government bureaucracies are filled with people who develop visual impairments as a means to justify their existence. The Agency of Cultural Affairs, which has jurisdiction in the matter, says the extenuating circumstances clause could apply, but want to wait to make a final determination until after they conduct a survey. The local people say that’s unreasonable, and they want their institutions to be removed from consideration for dissolution now.

The ramifications of this law could have an effect not only on the shrines and temples in the evacuation zone near Fukushima, but also on those in Iwate and Miyagi unaffected by the radiation because they (and the priests) disappeared in the tsunami.

The problem at hand for the shrines near Fukushima involves the shintai, however. Some people think it would be best to have them stay and keep watch over the land while they’re away (they use the phrase rusuban in Japanese), but others think they should be evacuated with the population for use in festivals and other ceremonies. In some cases, the priests have taken custody of the physical objects themselves, but that’s not always possible. Some shintai are large, heavy rocks that can’t be moved without equipment.

There are 14 Shinto shrines within a 20-kilometer radius of the Fukushima plant and four more in the 20-30 kilometer belt. The situation is more difficult for those in the former group. Some priests left with just the clothes on their back, so they have no idea what shape the shrine itself is in, and some of them died or are still missing in the tsunami. Even those who were allowed to briefly return to their homes can’t go to the shrines because entry is restricted to residences.

Okada Masashi is the chief priest at the Naraha Hachiman shrine within the 20-kilometer radius. He said:

“All the officers among the parishioners at all the shrines will discuss whether to evacuate the objects before making a decision, but everyone is troubled by the options.”

The tutelary deity at the Naraha Hachiman shrine is the spirit of the Ojin Tenno, an emperor whose reign is said to have lasted from the late 3rd to the early 4th century. (He may or may not have existed, and it’s possible he has been confused with a different tenno now generally considered to have been a real person instead of a legend.) About 1,000 families are in the shrine’s district, but people from only 50 have stayed, all of whom are working at the plant. So has Mr. Okada:

“My role is to protect the tradition that has been handed down in this place. I will continue to wait until everyone returns.”

The shrine’s spring festival was held on April 19, but he was the only person to celebrate it. He said he prayed for everyone to return as quickly as possible.

Let’s hope his prayers are answered.

Naraha Hachiman Shrine

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


Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 2, 2011

COMING to Japan from the United States, it sometimes seems as if the people of the former have a more relaxed approach to their many traditions than do the people of the latter about their fewer traditions. That’s to the extent that people in either country take an active interest in tradition at all.

Here’s another example I discovered recently. Nakashima Biniiru Kako in Hitachi, Ibaraki, manufactures torii for Shinto shrines using polyvinyl chloride pipe. That’s a good idea when you think about it—the material is cheap, durable, light, easy to replace, impervious to water or ultraviolet rays, and if it’s red, most people won’t notice the difference anyway.

Company President Nakashima Masayoshi came up with the idea to use PVC pipe as a replacement for the usual stone, steel, or wood about 17 years ago. (There are also a few made of porcelain, including one at a shrine in the ceramics center of Arita.) Mr. Nakashima says he receives orders for about 20 in a good month, so there might be more of them around than anyone realizes. In fact, he does well enough to have a website for them, which you can see here. (Japanese only, of course) His company has another clever product, by the way: folding, portable storage containers for garbage. Keeping the magpies away until the garbage trucks show up can be a problem.

No one has come up with a satisfactory theory on the origin of torii, which mark the entrances to the shrine’s sacred space, and have become the symbol of shrines themselves. A few of the oldest ones have doors, including those at secondary shrines at Ise, so they probably were real gates at one time. Now the gates are all doorless, which means anyone can come and go as they please. “Straight is the gate and narrow is the path” isn’t an idea that would have originated in Shinto, but then the Japanese have a relaxed approach to religion, too. Try this torii and shrine combo in Okayama City for another example.

None of this should be surprising. After all, no one is able to agree whether Shinto is a “religion” to begin with.

Here’s something that is a bit of a surprise, however: Eighteen-year-old Terakubo Erena holding her own with some very heavy hitters.

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Posted in New products, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

Good news, bad news, and no news at all

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 2, 2011

HERE’S SOME good news: More South Koreans are ignoring their jingoist news media and taking the initiative to forge positive ties with Japan. The latest example is the Daejeon Development Research Institute, which signed a research exchange agreement with the Fukuoka Asia Urban Research Center in January. That’s not news for the Fukuoka center, however—it’s their third agreement with an institution from another country. Both cities are located on high-speed rail lines, and the institute in Daegeon wants to conduct joint studies of the use of high-speed rail to promote industry and urban development.

Speaking of high-speed rail, the Kyushu leg of the Shinkansen will be fully operational in a fortnight, and the Kyushuans are getting ready for an influx of tourists from both South Korea and China. Folks everywhere like the hot springs and the potential for year-round golf. The Nishinippon Shimbun of Fukuoka and the Tokyo Chizu Publishing Co. recently published a guidebook of Kyushu tourist destinations in Korean and Chinese for distribution at local airports and hotels throughout the region and at travel agencies overseas. The first print run was 100,000 copies each.

To make sure that those guidebooks get read, the mayors of Fukuoka City, Kagoshima City, and Kumamoto City visited Seoul last month to talk up their cities as tourist destinations. The three mayors spoke at a conference at which about 100 people in the Seoul travel industry attended.

Here’s more good news, if the premise is correct: Eamonn Fingleton uses his own site and borrows James Fallows’s blog space to claim that the conventional wisdom of Japan’s lost decades is a myth and to challenge 10 public intellectuals pushing the stagnant Japan line to debate that subject. While Mr. Fingleton’s posts offer a couple of dubious assertions to go with some excellent points, it’s always good news to see someone challenge conventional wisdom, especially since wisdom is seldom present when the Western bien pensants hold forth on Japan.

What he says that people need to know:

* “(M)uch of what is reported (about Japan) in America’s major newspapers — and even more so on American television — is appalling.”

Repeat play city! If what you know about Japan you learned from the English-language media, then everything you know is wrong.

* “Japan’s surplus is up more than five-fold since 1990, and the Japanese yen has actually boasted the strongest rise of any major currency in the last two decades.”

* “Since the 1980s…the Japanese people have enjoyed one of the biggest improvements in living standards of any major First World nation in the interim.”

* “A story of extraordinary progress by Japanese manufacturing”:

“The reason you don’t hear much about Japanese manufacturers these days is that the best of them have moved from making consumer goods to concentrate on so-called producers’ goods — items that though invisible to the consumer happen to be critical to the world economy. Such goods include the highly miniaturized components, advanced materials, and super-precise machines that less sophisticated nations such as China need to make final consumer goods. The label on everything from cell phones to laptop computers may say “Made in China” but actually, via producers’ goods, highly capital-intensive and knowhow-intensive manufacturers in Japan have quietly done much of the most technologically demanding work.

“America’s current account deficit multiplied five-fold in the 20 years to 2010 and the reason in large measure is because American corporations have exited the producers’ goods business.”

He doesn’t mention that Americans have also abandoned the robotics sector, while the Japanese are one of the world’s leaders, if not the world’s leader in that industry. The only thing most Americans know about Japan and robots is that the Japanese love ‘em and Japanese robot stories provide snicker filler for their newspapers and blogs.

Mr. Fingleton shouldn’t be holding his breath waiting for the Japan hands to accept the challenge of a debate. For one thing, they’re Somebodies and he’s not. For another, having to defend themselves in a debate would expose their ignorance on the subject.

Still, give the man credit for treating them with deference. For example, on his own site he writes:

“I appeal to you — in the interests…of your own reputation for intellectual honesty…”

One of the men he’s calling out is Paul Krugman. The suggestion that Krugman retains any intellectual honesty should result in thick mucous dripping from computer monitors worldwide after the explosion of derisive snorts.

Mr. Fingleton’s post has begotten more good news. Economics professor Mark Perry has two posts with charts on his blog. In one, he notes:

“(W)ith economic growth in Germany and Italy and many other European countries that is comparable to Japan’s growth, we never hear about the “lost decades” in Germany or Italy or the U.K.”

In the other, he writes:

“Compared to 1980, Japan’s real GDP per capita in 2010 was nearly 70% higher, vs. a 66% increase for US real GDP per capita over the last 30 years. Japan had higher economic growth than the U.S. during the 1980s, slightly lower growth during the 1990s, about the same growth during the 2000s, and slightly higher overall growth during the entire 30-year period from 1980 to 2010.”

And here’s some late-breaking good news from the United States:

Consumer Reports has named Honda Motor Co., Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. (Subaru) and Toyota Motors Corp. as the best all-around automakers for the third year in a row in its annual auto issue…Chrysler Group LLC had the worst ranking. Mercedes-Benz, BMW and General Motors were also near the bottom…Toyota, which has dealt with massive safety recalls, fared well in the magazine’s top picks for 2011 across 10 different vehicle segments. Toyota had the most with three picks (the RAV4 small sport utility vehicle, Sienna minivan and Prius hybrid).

Chrysler and GM at the bottom, and Toyota near the top? If you can’t lick ’em, slime ’em in the media and sit on government reports absolving them of any blame.

Be that as it may, Mr. Fingleton should be careful about treading on thin ice himself. First, he tends to talk about “Japan” as if it were a monolithic entity. While that’s unavoidable to a certain extent, it only works if one is discussing international diplomacy. In every other context, however, this thing people call “Japan” doesn’t exist. That’s too facile a formulation for the breadth of diversity on these islands, and someone who’s been here as long as he has should know that.

More serious, however is his suggestion that the Japanese government is deliberately underestimating national economic growth to avoid foreign retribution for their trade surpluses. Worse, he offers no concrete evidence—it’s just a feeling he has.

If his assertion is true, it means that everyone in the Japanese government and media are party to history’s largest conspiratorial deception. Not only have they fooled overseas governments—whose experts can analyze economic and production statistics as well as Prof. Perry—they’ve also fooled the rest of the Japanese nation. The entire range of public debate among government officials, the political class, and the commentariat inside media and out is based on the premise of lost decades of low growth. His idea contains echoes of the Western conspiracists of the 80s and 90s who warned that the samurai Japanese businessmen were going to wreak economic revenge on the world for having been defeated in the war.

Speaking of what passes for reporting on Japan and East Asia, Michael Turton at The View from Taiwan takes the AFP news agency to task for its “ethnocentric crap”.

Superstition Still Widespread Across High-tech Asia, AFP reported today in article appearing in the Taipei Times. This tiresome feature reporting has been around ever since westerners first reported on Asia”:

(Quoting the article)
The services of witch doctors remain popular in multicultural Malaysia, while in hi-tech Japan, Shinto priests hold purification rites for new bullet trains and many entrepreneurs are said to seek the advice of palm readers and star gazers.

“Why is this a load of ethnocentric crap? Because you will never ever see a piece from AFP that writes about the west in a vein similar to the paragraph above:

The services of Christian faith healers remain popular in multicultural America, while in hi-tech Britain, Anglican priests bless new stadiums and many movie stars and politicians in both countries are said to seek the advice of astrologers.”

Mr. Turton’s observation is on the mark, but I’ll take it one step further. The F in AFP stands for France, where the news agency is headquartered. We’ll never see the AFP, or any other Western news outlet for that matter, write with such casual disparagement about the beliefs of the Muslims in that country, including the Shari’a punishments for theft, homosexuality, and (for the victim and not the offenders) for rape. Those media outlets won’t even say that Muslims are responsible for what has become an annual automotive auto-da-fe in France. They’ll only go so far as to call the perpetrators “youths”.

Now for the bad news—Foreign Minister Maehara Seiji held forth in Tokyo for some institutional investors, and everything that came out of his mouth should have stayed inside it.

According to the Kyodo report:

“Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara vowed Monday that Japan will carry out fundamental agricultural reforms modeled after the European system of direct payments to farmers to help strengthen the local farm sector’s competitiveness and promote trade liberalization.”

What is this use of the word “reform” to describe pork (or a wealth redistribution scheme) for farmers? Were he serious about improving competitiveness and promoting trade liberalization, he would instead encourage agribusiness to replace the country’s dwindling number of people who farm exclusively for a living.

But then he couldn’t do that—when the LDP took a step in that direction with the Koizumi/Abe reforms, Mr. Maehara’s DPJ used as an election weapon the excessive representation given to rural areas in the Diet by promising to repeal those measures and provide subsidies to individual farming households instead.

What will he propose next—subsidies for every exporting manufacturer in the country to facilitate the import of competing overseas products?

“He pointed out that the direct payment system in the 27-nation regional bloc has “succeeded in achieving two goals at once: bringing benefits to the consumer by reducing high tariffs and making producers more competitive.””

Ben Franklin should have added a third certainty in life to go with death and taxes—a perpetual stream of drivel from politicos. Farm subsidies make farmers less competitive, not more. That system allows farmers to stay in business, but at the cost of reducing the purchasing power of every non-farming taxpayer, which is most of us. Imported agricultural products may be cheaper, but lavishing public funds on farmers means the city consumers will be able to buy fewer of them. As we’ve seen before, the companies in Japan who would operate agribusinesses believe they can be competitive internationally.

“Maehara said Japan needs to study accepting more foreign nurses and caregivers under free trade agreements.

More than a thousand Indonesian and Filipino nurses and caregivers have come to Japan since 2008 under bilateral FTAs, but only a few of them have passed the Japanese national qualification examinations to continue working beyond the initially set length of stay.”

Mr. Maehara seems to think Japan needs healthcare personnel incapable of effective communication with either physicians or the patients in their care, in places where the patients’ lives or quality of life are at stake.

As for a nursing shortage, that isn’t a problem in “Japan”, but rather in a few big cities in Japan. That’s the claim of my family physician, who should know. He’s the chairman of the prefectural medical association this year.

If Mr. Maehara is so concerned about a nursing shortage in the cities and so anxious to use public funds to fix it, he might take a hint from the ROTC program in the United States. The American government foots the bill for the university education of qualified high school students if they spend four years as a military officer after graduation.

Other than a lack of common sense, what’s to prevent the Japanese government from offering free rides to Japanese high school graduates for nursing school on the condition that they work for a certain number of years in medical institutions after finishing school? Everybody wins, and no one has to worry about the language barrier causing a medical accident.

The worst part of the news story is the implication that Mr. Maehara is presenting himself as a future prime minister. That won’t be news to the Japanese: He’s a failed former president of the DPJ, and the failed former Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito is thought to be grooming him for the job to succeed the failed Prime Minister Kan Naoto. If the party continues to mimic the worst aspects of the old LDP without its redeeming qualities and has Mr. Maehara replace Mr. Kan without an election, it would represent another failure of the DPJ to bring about the change in the conduct of politics they promised.

It also isn’t news that a political party which is doing its damndest to turn itself into a fictional entity would install another lightweight in the Kantei doomed to failure as prime minister.

More bad news: Japan’s lower house passed the FY 2011 budget this morning, albeit with a few defections from the ruling party. That makes two years in power, two record-high budgets for the DPJ.

What happened to all those journos who kept telling us that Mr. Kan was a “fiscal hawk”?

Speaking of Mr. Kan, it will be no news to people who pay attention that he loosed on the public yet another absurdity that calls into question his daytime sobriety. This time he said he’d always doubted the feasibility of what passes for his party’s signature accomplishment—the removal of tax deductions for families with children from 0-15 and their replacement with direct cash subsidies from the government.

After all, a month or so ago he claimed that the adoption of the same policy was “epochal”. A year or so ago, Mr. Fiscal Hawk argued in the Diet as Finance Minister for the inclusion of that budget buster—JPY 5.5 trillion this year alone–in what was then Japan’s highest-ever budget. It was obvious to everyone they couldn’t find the money to pay for it when they stole the idea from New Komeito, and that finally seems to have dawned on even them. DPJ Secretary-General Okada Katsuya on the 28th said the allowance, which expires at the end of the current fiscal year, wasn’t permanent, and that the party might give it up altogether.

Now that’s good news.

Finally, here’s the best news of all: I’ve gotten a handle on a post that I’ve been working on for two weeks. Look for it soon!

This might be good news for beginning and intermediate students of Japanese. I received a note asking that I bring to your attention a website presenting Japanese-language study aids, as well as other observations. Here it is.

There’s no better way to celebrate the circulation of all this good news than by putting the party in the hands of Chico Trujillo, Mr. Popular Music of Chile. Who knew that horn band cumbia and surf guitar would go together as well as green tea and ice cream? Chico knew!

And just wait until you see the man dance!

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Posted in Agriculture, Business, finance and the economy, Foreigners in Japan, Government, International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, Mass media, Politics, Religion | Tagged: , , , | 8 Comments »

Women in the priesthood–of Shinto

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 3, 2010

AN IMPORTANT ELEMENT in Shinto is the insistence on purity and cleanliness. The divinities will not descend into an impure space.

That’s one of the reasons Moriyama Mayumi, the first female chief cabinet secretary, was asked to refrain from presenting the Prime Minister’s Cup to a sumo tournament winner inside the ring in 1990—an incident that sparked a national debate. A decade later, then-Osaka Governor Ota Fusae, Japan’s first female governor, was eventually talked out of her request to make the same presentation after the annual official tournament there.

Shinto and sumo are closely linked, and the ring is purified to allow the descent of the divinities. (That’s why the rikishi toss salt into the ring before they enter during a match.) The belief that women were impure was not uncommon in proto-religions throughout the world, and it was grounded in the biological fact of menstruation. One might logically assume, therefore, that Shinto has no female priests—but that assumption would be wrong. That was the case for several decades during the State Shinto period, but it wasn’t true before that, and it isn’t true today. Females were again allowed to enter the Shinto priesthood in 1948, and as of the end of December 2008, 2,899 of the country’s 21,674 priests were women–13% of the total.

Odaira Mika, a priest at the Tenso Shinto shrine in Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward, wondered how it was decided that women were not pure enough to be priests, as reported by the vernacular edition of the Mainichi Shimbun. Mrs. Odaira is also a part-time lecturer at her alma mater, Gakushuin University, formerly a school for children of the Imperial court, later for bluebloods, and now for anyone. She is the author of Josei Shinshoku no Kindai (Female Priests in the Modern Era), and has received an award from an association for Shinto religious studies.

An 1871 government decree prohibited woment from entering the priesthood, and State Shinto (different from the original Shrine Shinto) became the established religion a few years later. Female priests disappeared in just three years, except for a few in Okinawa, where there has been a long tradition of female shamans.

Mrs. Odaira’s university degree is in philosophy, but she has the instincts of a historian. She knew that women had an important role in Shinto until the Meiji Era, so she began researching how their status came to be changed. She examined contemporary public documents and finally discovered the one that contained an explanation of the reason. It read:

“Shinto priests are public officials. Men serve as public officials. If female priests are recognized, it is possible that women will be allowed to become the heads of households, and husbands their spouses (haigusha). This would debase public morality.”

Mrs. Odaira observes:

“The interval from the Meiji Era until the end of the war was an exception. Female priests were inappropriate for the family system the government wanted to institute, in which males were the head of the household. It was an extremely political reason.”

As often happens in Japanese families, she’s a chip off the old block—her father and grandfather were also Shinto priests. After being graduated from Gakushuin, she worked as a clerk at a life insurance company and later returned to university to conduct research. Her father told her she didn’t have to continue the family tradition, but she still chose the Shinto priesthood. She has now attained the rank of negi. “I’ve helped dress miko (shrine maidens) since childhood. It certainly seems as if I’ve taken after my father.”

In her role as negi, Mrs. Odaira conducted the O-Harae (Great Purification Ritual) at the Tenso shrine on 30 December, with 50 parishioners from the neighborhood. (If women were really considered to be impure, how likely is it they’d be allowed to preside over that rite?)

She also performs on the wagon, a six-stringed zither, to accompany miko dances. One of the other musicians is her husband Toru, a bank employee, who plays the taiko drum. When they got married he said he would “absolutely not help” in her work, but he’s not the first man to have been changed by married life. He’s since become a qualified priest with the rank of gonnegi—a negi’s assistant—and plans to leave his job shortly to become a full-time priest.

A century ago, Mr. Odaira would have been considered a haigusha and a threat to public morality. Now he’s going to enter her world, and from a position subordinate to her. No one seems to have a problem with it, least of all Toru.

Concludes the female priest:

“How the Japanese have come into contact with the divinity is reflected in each of the ceremonies. It is a world of depth.”


Her book 「女性神職の近代」(ぺりかん社)is available on Amazon Japan. It’s just the sort of thing I’d snap up, but it’s JPY 5,000 yen plus for a skoche more than 200 pages, so I’ll have to figure out how to fit it in my book-buying schedule.

The resistance to women entering the sumo ring seems at this point to be based entirely on tradition; i.e., this is how we’ve done it for centuries, so we can’t change now. The prohibition requires the maintenance of several logical fallacies, however, including the fact that according to belief the divinities will have departed the ring by the time a female politician enters to present a trophy. Another is that men are allowed to enter wearing business suits, though that clothing is not ritually pure. Also, the amateur sumo association has sponsored women’s matches for some years now.

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Posted in History, Religion, Social trends | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Bagging beans to beat the devil

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, February 4, 2010

SOME AMERICAN TELEVANGELISTS want you believe you have to send in money—right away!—to beat the devil, but the Japanese have a more inexpensive way to send Beelzebub packing. They scatter beans at Shinto shrines and households once a year.

Today was the day the demons took it on the lam, as 3 February is known as setsubun in Japan. Several traditional ceremonies are held to dispatch Old Scratch, and the magical rite of scattering beans (usually roasted soybeans) is one of those.

After a process of cultural evolution, the practice of setsubun was applied to New Year’s Eve in the ancient solar calendar, which is the traditional beginning of spring. Note that Chinese New Year, which is a moveable holiday, falls around this time of year. In traditional Chinese culture, lichun—or risshun in Japanese—is a solar period or term marking the start of spring, which occurs around February 4.

The connection with New Year’s led to associations of the ritual purification and exorcism thought essential for the coming year and the spring planting season.

Yet another connection was made with the tsuina rite, or zhuinuo in Chinese, another ceremony for driving out demons that originated in the Zho dynasty (1027 BC-256 BC). In those days, when men were men, the Chinese wore bear skins and masks and carried sharp weapons when they stalked the evil spirits. The practice was later adopted in some form in Japan, became an annual Imperial court event by the 9th century (hence the association with shrines), and had turned into a bean scattering rite by the Muromachi period (1333-1568).

The ceremony can be conducted at home, but nowadays most folks head for a Shinto shrine to snatch a bean bag tossed by the priests. One incentive is that some of the bags contain gift certificates for items which can range from stationery to consumer electronics products. In addition, toshi otoko, men born under the Chinese zodiac sign for that year, help toss out the beans, and some shrines bring in the famous or celebrities from the area to juice up the PR value.

The visitors to the larger shrines can number in the thousands, and somebody’s got to put those beans into the lucky bags. When it comes to performing such menial chores at a shrine, the lot usually falls to miko, or shrine maidens, the Shinto equivalent of altar boys.

The first photo shows three miko at the Ikuta Shinto shrine in Kobe, Hyogo, using a masu, a traditional measuring box, to scoop up the beans and put them into the lucky bags. On one side of each is the kanji for kotobuki, which means long life, while the illustration on the side of the masu is of a cute little devil. They put about 120 grams of beans into each bag, making them quarter-pounders, and they filled 3,000 bags, which the shrine sold for JPY 300 (about $US 3.30) apiece. Send in your money to beat the devil!

Some shrines put in certificates for different sorts of gifts. One of them is the Kirishima-jingu in Kirishima, Kagoshima. This year, among the lucky slips were those for 240 bottles of shochu donated by 41 Kagoshima distillers.

The Japanese have no problem at all mixing hooch and holiness, and many Shinto festivals involve the brewing of sacred sake. The Kagoshimanians down south, however, much prefer shochu to sake, so while it’s unusual to offer booze in the bean bags, none of this staggers the imagination, either. The only staggering is done by the shochu drinkers.

The shrine asked the distillers for donations at the end of last year in a transaction that contains an element of the marketplace in addition to the mystical. In return for offering prayers for safety for the distillers, the Kirishima shrine put up labels of their product as PR on the shrine grounds. Each of the distillers ponied up six bottles each, as you can see from the second photo. Starting at 4:00 p.m. today, the priests started tossing about 5,000 beanbags, of which 1,000 contained gift certificates. Among the lucky recipients, 240 are going to get righteously high.

Here’s a setsubun scene from the Kirishima shrine in the past.


The toshi otoko who was the main attraction at the Ikuta shrine in Kobe this year was Hasegawa Hozumi, the current WBC world bantamweight champion. He’s the only Japanese boxer to have defended a world bantamweight title more than four times.

This article on the fighters of the year for 2009 says Hasegawa “might be the best fighter boxing fans haven’t heard of”.

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

Less than zero

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 24, 2010

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW what’s happening in Japan, don’t go looking for the answers in the news media. Here’s yet another example, this time from CNN, which now–understandably–is the least watched of the four American cable TV news networks.

Their latest story on Japan starts with this headline:

“Japanese monks serve up alcohol and hip hop music to lure in followers”

How many monks? Read the story and you’ll find out they cite one who serves alcohol and one who performs sutra raps, for a total of two—the threshold needed to permit CNN’s use of the plural.

To put it another way, more men bit dogs in the greater Atlanta area last year.

“The Buddhist religion has largely remained the same over the past few centuries, but a group of monks in Japan are spicing things up by turning to alcohol and rap music to lure in followers.”

Suddenly, the number “two” has now taken on the meaning of a “group”.

Kansho Tagai…a Buddhist monk, believes it’s time to change for the future and doesn’t mind if it means dropping the chants and bringing on the rap music.
Tagai also prefers to go by his street name — Mr. Happiness.

Some questions for Mr. Tagai:

1. What will you do when rap music loses its image of hipness and becomes a thing of the past? It won’t be too much longer now.

2. Just what is this thing referred to as a “street name”, and how many people—if any—actually call you Mr. Happiness?

“Getting the young people back to religion is key to Buddhism’s survival,” Tagai told CNN. “In Japan, it’s a religion in crisis.”

What CNN doesn’t tell you is that you are unlikely to see any Japanese person at a traditional Buddhist temple, other than the monk or his family, for anything other than a funeral service. (When people have a religious or semi-religious wedding ceremony, they usually choose Shinto.)

All of my residences in Japan during the nearly 26 years I’ve been here have been across the street from a Buddhist temple. I could throw a rock from the front yard of my house into the graveyard of a Buddhist temple across the street, were I so inclined. I could also have pitched one underhand into the entrance of another temple from the front steps of my previous apartment. The only people I’ve seen visiting those temples for a reason other than to attend a memorial service were there to clean and pray at the family gravesite.

“Each year, hundreds of temples close in Japan and it’s a similar struggle seen by other religions around the world.”

What CNN doesn’t tell you is that Buddhist temples are even more neighborhood-based than churches in the U.S., and that temples sometimes close for reasons other than a lack of religious faith. Temples in rural areas that have lost population to the cities are not going to survive. Neither are some temples in urban areas that have become primarily business or commercial districts.

Nevertheless, there were roughly 76,000 Buddhist temples of all sects in Japan as of last year to serve a population of 127 million. Meanwhile, there were roughly 68,000 Christian churches of all denominations in the United States three years ago to serve a population of more than 300 million.

Of Japan’s 127 million people, 96 million identify as Buddhist. Those numbers, however, don’t translate into regular traditional religious practices, and haven’t for some time.

“Another idea that monks hope will help get more young people involved is mixing faith with fun at something called the Monk Bar. This modern day bar serves up alcoholic drinks while teaching the Buddhist mantra, according to Zenshin Fujioka. ‘This is closer to what Buddhism was intended to be,’ Zenshin said.”

One of the Five Moral Precepts of traditional Buddhism was the prohibition of intoxicants, so Mr. Fujioka’s conception of what Buddhism was intended to be may not be the consensus opinion. It might instead be just a clever way for Mr. Fujioka to indulge his favorite recreational pastime. I was once shown a very small, exclusive drinking establishment set back from the other shops on a narrow side street. My guide told me the prices were so high only doctors and Buddhist priests could afford to drink there.

“While many traditionalists may criticize both the Monk Bar and hip hop rapping styles, it seems their ideas are paying off. ‘Twice as many people, especially the young, are now visiting the temple,’ Tagai said.”

Zero doubled is still zero, though Mr. Tagai likely gets a few more visitors, if only out of curiosity to see a rapping monk once or twice.

Really, this is past the point of absurdity. The network is wasting its enormous resources to generate for its dwindling number of viewers a story that is a waste of time to watch. If anyone thinks they’re learning something about Japan by following any print or broadcast media outlet, I honestly feel sorry for them.

The tragedy in today’s Wiki-age is that such vapid ignorance is the standard rather than the exception.

For example, a Google search will occasionally throw up such detritus as the website that claims to offer the general reader basic information. Here’s what it says about religion in Japan:

“In Japan, Shinto and Buddhist practices are combined into a single religion, with Buddhist temples being built at the sites of important Shinto shrines.”

Here’s what it should say:

“In Japan, Shinto and Buddhist practices are not combined into a single religion, and Buddhist temples have been prohibited from occupying the same building as Shinto shrines by government order since March 1868. The contiguity on some sites does not mean they are syncretic in function.”

The most puzzling aspect of these misleading news reports and websites peddling inanity instead of knowledge is why they exist at all. Discovering the truth is so easy to do.

But being this stupid is difficult. People have to go out of their way and work at it.

Afterwords: A Japanese woman in her mid-60s once told me that she was married in a Buddhist temple wearing a Western-style wedding dress, which is an unlikely combination even for this country. I asked her how that happened, and the other Japanese in the group were just as interested in her answer as I was. Unfortunately, she just laughed and said it was a long story. I’ll bet!

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

Beers in heaven

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 25, 2009

In Heaven there is no beer
That’s why we drink it here
And when we’re all gone from here
Our friends will be drinking all the beer.
– “In Heaven There Is No Beer”, Ernst Neubach and Ralph Maria Siegel (translated from the original German)

FRANKIE YANKOVIC and his Polka Kings once had a hit with the song, In Heaven There is No Beer, but he might have changed his tune had he known about the new microbrew on the market in Oita.

Showa-en, a Beppu, Oita-based company that operates ryokan (Japanese inns), is also involved in microbrewing. They’ve announced the sale of two new beers made with brown rice using a manufacturing method that attempts to utilize the yeast bouquet to the fullest extent possible. The method involves putting the yeast into a state of suspended animation through a three-step, low-temperature pasteurization process for which the brewer has received a patent. Company President Mochinaga (given name not confirmable) says, “Nowadays, everybody’s talking about costs, costs, and that’s why I wanted to make something authentic. I want to take this product nationwide.”

This is actually only one new beer brand with two varieties. The brand name is Namban Okoku Mugishu, which translates to “Barbarian Kingdom Beer”. In this case, however, namban means Christian—namban bungaku, or barbarian literature, was the term used for Christian literature centuries ago. The Christian appellation fits, as we’ll see in a second, but it’s not because Belgian monks are involved. Mugishu is what the Japanese used to call beer. The same Chinese characters for that word were used to create the Korean term mekju when the Japanese introduced Koreans to the delights of the beverage early last century. The word mugishu means “barley alcoholic beverage”, and yes, that is an odd name for a beer made with brown rice.

The first variety of the Namban Okoku Mugishi is named Don Otomo Sorin after a 16th Christian warlord who was the daimyo of the Bungo domain in what is now Oita. His original name was Otomo Yoshishige. Sorin was the name he took in 1562 when he became a Buddhist monk, which was after he met the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier in 1551 and before he converted to Christianity in 1578.

During his days as daimyo, Sorin controlled most of Kyushu and was referred to as the King of Bungo in Jesuit records. His wife rather disliked Christianity, and they divorced. She is known in the same Jesuit records as Jezebel, which will come as no surprise. To grab this post by the collar and get it back on track, platinum powder is added to the beer during the finishing process. It sells for JPY 670 (about $US 7.55) for a 330-milliliter bottle (0.7 pint) and JPY 870 for a 500-milliliter bottle.

The second variety is a dark beer named Don Xavier—after Francis, of course—to which gold powder is added during the finishing process. The two sizes cost JPY 650 and JPY 860 respectively.

President Mochinaga said he devised the suspended animation yeast method five years ago after taking over the operation of the Yamaga Kirara microbrewery, which, by the way, is a public-private sector partnership. In Japan, these are called third sector companies, and they were quite the rage among local governments for a time. Nationwide, roughly 70% of the third sector companies are in the red, which will also come as no surprise, but there I go digressing again.

Most beers are pasteurized at a temperature of 60º C (140º F) for 20 minutes, but that kills the yeast. If the yeast is kept alive, however, its aroma constantly changes, and it’s difficult to maintain that for long periods of time. Mr. Mochinaga’s idea was to divide the pasteurization into three periods: two minutes at 55º C, one minute at 40º C, and two minutes at 40º C again. When the beer is shipped, the yeast is in a state of suspended animation, but after it is opened and drunk, it is resurrected, as Francis Xavier might say, inside the consumer’s body. The brewer claims this provides the drinker with amino acids. How many other beverages do you know of that build you up and tear you down at the same time?

Brewmaster Fukuda Rikiya thinks this is the first time anyone anywhere has tried to brew a beer using this method, and I’m inclined to believe him. He added there were many failures before they got the production line operating the way they wanted. Said President Mochinaga, “There are countless microbrews around the world, but few are commercially successful. I didn’t want to imitate the big brewers. I thought it was essential to create a new method of brewing from scratch,” and you can say that again. He is willing to talk about technology-sharing deals if other companies in Oita want to make a similar beer.

Namban Okoku Mugishu is sold at department stores, ryokan, and the prefecture’s airport. In combination with its other four brands—I don’t want to know—the company expects to produce 300,000 bottles a year.

Now tell the truth: Did you ever expect to read some of these words, expressions, and concepts in the same place at the same time?

So, who’s up for a beer run to Oita?

Afterwords: I dare you to click on that link to the song title!

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Food, New products, Religion | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Crossing over the cloth bridge to paradise

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 24, 2009

HERE WAS THE PROBLEM: How were women to be allowed to reach the Sukhavati paradise, the pure land of bliss in the Jodo sect—enlightenment, in other words—when it was forbidden for them to enter Buddhism’s most sacred sites? Leave it to the Japanese to come up with a solution in a visually stunning ceremony whose elements seem as much artistic as religious, and which is still reenacted today.

The harsh restrictions for women in ancient Buddhism did not apply in this country when the religion crossed over from the Continent. Records indicate there was not an extreme imbalance in the number of male monks and female nuns, and the latter were allowed to have public duties. Some theorize that the example of Japanese female shamans was still fresh. Women in those days also held administrative positions at court.

But the view of women that prevailed in Buddhism in other lands eventually became the theological standard several centuries later, and females became subject to what was termed the Five Obstacles to rebirth. The Big Five are said to originate in the Vinaya, or monastic regulations, and include rebirth as the god Brahma, the god Sakra, Mara, a universal monarch, and as a Buddha. As did many ancients, the Buddhists considered women impure because they bled during menstruation and childbirth. (That’s also the reason they aren’t allowed inside sumo rings, but let’s not stray from the path.)

That meant women couldn’t make the pilgrimage to Toyama to climb Tateyama, one of the three sacred mountains of the Edo Period (1603-1868), for dhyaana (intense meditation; it is also the seventh of Pataanjali’s eight limbs of yoga). But because the Buddhist establishment encouraged the pilgrimages—which also generated income through donations—a way was found to allow women to participate.

The solution was a ceremony called the Nunobashi Kanjoe, literally the Cloth Bridge Sacrament, and it was held during the autumn equinox. The women dressed in white robes, symbolizing shrouds for the dead, and gathered in a hall where they were condemned by the Lord of Hell. (At this point, married men might be forgiven for thinking turnabout is fair play.) They were then blindfolded and led to a bridge, over which they crossed on three strips of white cloth (nuno). The side from which they started represented confusion, and the far side represented enlightenment.

The view of the Tateyama Hell Valley below the bridge and the nearby mountain Tsurugi-dake was supposed to represent…well, hell. In addition, there’s a pond in Hell Valley with a reddish color due to the iron sulfide content. That’s the science, anyway. According to the story told by the male Buddhists, women fell into the pond during childbirth or menstruation, so the color came from their blood. Crossing over the bridge blindfolded allowed them to pass over to paradise while bypassing hell. The expiation of their sins was a bonus.

To make sure they didn’t go astray on the path, or heaven forbid, fall into the bloody Hell Valley pond, they were escorted by priests from the nearby Ashikura temple. To create the proper mood, they listened to music with Buddhist scripture set to verse, called shomyo. They also heard gagaku, the traditional music of Japan’s Imperial house, and which is therefore more associated with Shinto than with Buddhism. With forebears so nonchalant about the extensive intermingling of Shinto and Buddhism, it’s no wonder the religious attitude of many Japanese is anything goes–as long as it doesn’t turn into devil-may-care.

Safely across the bridge and cleansed of their sins, the ladies were led to another hall where their blindfolds were removed in pitch darkness. The shades covering the large windows were lifted, enabling them to see the sacred mountain, which by all accounts is an impressive sight. The experience, they say, is ineffable.

For the return trip over the bridge, they removed their headwear and left their blindfolds behind.

Buddhism fell into disfavor in the early Meiji period, and the last Nunobashi Kanjoe of that era was conducted in 1872. Tateyama was no longer considered a sacred mountain, and women could finally come and go as they pleased.

But it seems that ceremonies can be reincarnated as well as people, because this one came back to life almost 130 years later for the National Cultural Festival in 1996. Three years ago it was held as a “healing ceremony” for the current Heisei period. And this year on 27 September, 71 blindfolded women crossed the Nunobashi once again.

The organizing committee invited women from different parts of the country to come to Tateyama for a modern pilgrimage, and musicians were brought from Tokyo for the shomyo gig. An estimated 3,000 people watched the ceremony, and another 120 people crossed the bridge behind the women, though without the costume or the blindfolds.

The nature of any illumination received by the monks allowed to enter the innermost sacred area of the mountain may be unfathomable to most of us today, but the description of the Nunobashi Kanjoe makes me wonder if the women staked out a plot of their own on the Higher Ground of the Pure Land despite the Five Obstacles—and they didn’t have to become ascetics to do it!

Posted in History, Religion, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Thoughts on Buddhahood, alliances, and polite fictions

Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 20, 2009

“At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”

BY NOW, the world knows that Ozawa Ichiro, Secretary-General of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, beclowned himself last week when he held forth on global cultural and religious matters to reporters after a meeting with Matsunaga Yukei, chairman of the Japan Buddhist Federation in Wakayama.

Mr. Ozawa asserted that Christianity is “exclusive and self-righteous” and that Western society is “stuck in a dead end” (or “has reached an impasse”, depending on the translation.) He added that “Islamism is also exclusive, although it’s somewhat better than Christianity”.

That the man who controls both the Japanese government’s ruling party and the Diet seems to know so little about the world outside East Asia is disquieting. Did he not learn that America exists because it was originally a haven of religious freedom? Does he not realize how secularized Western society has become? Is he unaware that the continued Islamification of Europe will alter the face of that continent within a generation?

And where did he get the idea that Islamism is less exclusive than Christianity? It isn’t the Christians who treat non-believers as infidels to be given the choice of death or dhimmitude if they don’t convert. It isn’t the courtrooms in Christian countries that give more weight by law to the testimony of believers.

This is not to defend Mr. Ozawa—ignorance is ignorance, after all—but his is not an isolated example. More than a few politicians from the Liberal Democratic Party also exposed their breeches after their climb to the top of the greasy pole. But it’s rare for the politico in any country to have more than a rudimentary knowledge of people and events overseas. U.S. President Barack Obama, for example, thinks the people of Austria speak a language he refers to as “Austrian”. We should have learned by now that the political class devotes its time and energy to schmoozing and outsources the rest to their aides, speechwriters, or the Foreign Service.

The infotainment media worldwide bears a heavy responsibility for this ignorance. The Japanese media’s presentation of conditions overseas is kiddie-pool shallow and usually consists of little more than the superficial translation of a few newspaper or television reports. Meanwhile, the overseas media’s offerings on Japan are filled with enough bologna to launch an international chain of delicatessens.

What he also said

But the spitballers and peashooters missed several comments by Mr. Ozawa that are even more worthy of interest. For example, he also said this at his Wakayama press conference: “Modern society has forgotten or lost sight of the spirit of the Japanese people.” And most interesting of all: “Buddhism teaches you how humans should live and how the conditions of the mind should be from a fundamental standpoint.”

People also seem to be overlooking more of the Ozawa Analects delivered at a press conference on Monday this week, and at another meeting last week on the 11th. None of those bon mots seem to be in wide circulation in English, perhaps because they offer no diversion for the coffeehousers.

During his Monday press conference, Mr. Ozawa not only refused to apologize for or retract his comments, he also gave us further insight into his personal philosophy:

“The Eastern view is that humankind is one of the workings of eternal nature, while Western civilization believes that human beings are of the highest order as primates.”


“(In the Buddhist worldview) people can become Buddhas during their lifetime, and when they die, everyone achieves Buddhahood. Do any other religions allow for everyone to become divinities? I expressed the basic differences in religion, philosophy, and view of life.”

He also quoted Sir Edmund Hillary, the man who gave as his reason for climbing Everest, “Because it was there”:

“Western civilization believes that (everything) exists for human beings, even nature. But Everest is worshipped as a sacred mountain by the people in the region where it is located. Most Asians do not have the idea of trying to conquer it.”

He concluded:

“Both you and I can attain Buddhahood when we die.”

Who knew that the master practitioner of Chicago-style politics in Japan was such a spiritual being at heart?

To be fair, this is nothing new for Shadow Shogun V.2. He has spoken in the past about the importance of symbiosis (kyosei) between person and person, country and country, and people and nature. There seems to be a streak of Buddhism in Mr. Ozawa that informs his views on government, and it ranges from foreign affairs to environmentalism.

In fact, it makes one wonder if he and Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio are political and religious soul mates of a sort. We already know about Mr. Hatoyama’s family heirloom philosophy of yuai. Indeed, the man whose ideas were the inspiration for yuai once wrote (emphasis mine):

“The chaos of modern politics will only…find its end when a spiritual aristocracy seizes the means of power of society: (gun)powder, gold, ink, and uses them for the blessing of the general public.”

Here’s the latter day spiritual aristocrat explaining his support of suffrage for foreigners with permanent resident status:

“The Japanese archipelago is not only a Japanese possession. The Japanese are more infused with the Buddhist spirit than anyone else in the world, so why do we not allow foreigners to participate in local elections?”

Giving expression to that Buddhist spirit, he added:

“The earth is for all people who live with gusto. The same is true for the Japanese archipelago. It is not just for all human beings. It is the possession of animals, plants, and all creatures.”

Is there any other government among the world’s economically advanced nations in which the two most important figures talk this way? Had George W. Bush used his Christian beliefs to justify or elaborate the reasons for his policy decisions while head of government, he would have been pilloried in the U.S. for mixing church and state. That would have been followed by a global epidemic of tongue-swallowing. Meanwhile, the Japanese merely roll their eyes over yet another mention of yuai and say, “That’s Yukio.” Mr. Ozawa’s observations are considered unremarkable.

That brings us to another underreported Ozawa comment. The day after his Wakayama press conference, Mr. Ozawa addressed the closing assembly of the third Japan-China Exchange and Discussion Mechanism in Tokyo, of which he is the chair. The top-ranking representative from China was Wang Jiarui, the Chinese Communist Party International Department Minister.

He got all cosmic on us then, too:

“I am convinced that both countries can cooperate and work together in the 21st century to achieve an epochal partnership in the history of humankind in both political and economic terms, as well as in terms of culture and civilization and the global environment. This will enable the world to prosper in peace and stability, and human beings to live together and coexist with each other.”

Mr. Ozawa was not just whistling Dixie for his Chinese guest. He has long been open about his pro-Chinese sentiments while coming as close to anti-Americanism as any mainstream Japanese politician who wishes to hold power dares.

The DPJ Secretary-General has been the leader of a citizen exchange group called the Great Wall Project since 1986, when he was still a member of the LDP. He plans to lead a delegation of the group to visit China again this year. It will be their 16th trip, though this one is being conducted under the auspices of the DPJ. During a visit in late 2007, he was so obsequious to his hosts it even angered some members of his party. (They have since split.) At about the same time, he purposely kept then-American ambassador Thomas Schieffer waiting for 30 minutes before deigning to meet with him and discuss his party’s approach for global anti-terrorism efforts. China was the first country he visited after being named head of the DPJ for the second time in 2006.

Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Wang go back a long way. Their last meeting was in Tokyo in February, when Mr. Ozawa created a minor stir by telling him that he has always had a “special feeling of closeness with China”. As he was then still head of the DPJ and in line to become prime minister after the next lower house election, he promised Mr. Wang that relations with China would be given a special emphasis in a DPJ government. That same month Mr. Ozawa made his more publicized observation that the Seventh Fleet was the only American military force that needed to stay in Japan, and that the country should instead focus on closer ties with China and South Korea to deal with regional issues.

He met with Mr. Wang for 75 minutes during the latter’s February visit, but could spare only a half an hour for American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, Mr. Wang’s meeting with then-Prime Minister Aso Taro lasted 60 minutes.

Ozawa The Sinophile

Mr. Ozawa comes by his Sinophilia honestly. At the start of his national political career, he became attached to Tanaka Kakuei, who was the Big Enchilada of Japanese politics for the better part of two decades even when he wasn’t serving a term as prime minister. It was Mr. Tanaka who spearheaded the drive to recognize mainland China when the nation’s political class was split 50-50 on the issue, achieving his objective in 1972. He long worked to improve Japanese-Sino relations and formed close personal ties with members of the Chinese ruling class.

For their part, the Chinese always considered Mr. Tanaka a friend, and that friendship extends to his daughter Makiko, who briefly served as Foreign Minister in the first Koizumi Jun’ichiro Cabinet. A chip off the old block, Ms. Tanaka followed her father’s line during her term in office by urging a stronger relationship with China and South Korea and less dependence on the United States. She also disagreed with U.S. policy on Taiwan and tried to steer the Japanese position on that issue on a course independent of the Americans.

Whenever he meets with the Chinese, Ozawa Ichiro insists that he is simply following the lead of Tanaka Kakuei. He likes to quote former Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai on the subject, saying that the people who drink the water of a well should always remember the people who dug it.

While perhaps not as blatantly pro-Chinese as Mr. Ozawa, Mr. Hatoyama is clearly intent on steering Japan on a course closer to Asia than the United States (the emphasis is mine again):

The one important thing now is the spirit of yuai in foreign relations, which I have devoted the most attention to since becoming party president. That is to say, the yuai spirit elevated France and Germany, which constantly fought each other, into the EU, which does not have wars. I think that is by no means impossible to achieve in East Asia. First, cooperation between Japan and South Korea is extremely important, and then we can add China. If necessary, we can have the Americans join. I’m saying that an East Asian entity, the concept of an Asia-Pacific mechanism, is important. That’s why I said the early creation of a free trade agreement between Japan and South Korea is critical.

That’s Yukio!

Try this on for size: If Buddhism indeed informs the perspective of both Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Hatoyama, might it be one factor underlying DPJ positions regarding political circumstances in Japan, East Asia, and the alliance with America?

Japanese-Korean nationals

For example, both men strongly support suffrage in local elections for foreign nationals who are permanent residents. In practice, that means the people born and raised in Japan of Korean ancestry who have chosen to retain Korean citizenship. Supporters of the measure hide behind the euphemism of “permanent residents”, but their meaning is clear. Openly advocating the vote for that particular group would ensure focused opposition because the zainichi could easily obtain Japanese citizenship, and because of the size and outspokenness of Chongryun, the pro-North Korean organization in Japan.

Is it possible that their position is a statement of East Asian solidarity based on their expressed cultural and religious perspectives?


Certainly some, if not most, members of the Liberal Democratic Party understand and share these Buddhist sentiments. It is also certain that somewhere in both the Ozawa and Hatoyama homes there is a kamidana, a small Shinto altar/shrine (usually on a shelf) to honor the family guardian deities.

Yet one seldom hears the LDP politicos express such explicitly Buddhist sentiments. They are more likely to talk of Shinto, and that offers an intriguing contrast between the parties. Explaining the relationship between Shinto and the Japanese would be like trying to explain the relationship between fish and water, but to put it briefly, it consists of two strains. One involves community-based customs and attitudes that have existed as long as there have been Japanese, and the other resembles an organized religion associated with the imperial line. These strains have repeatedly interacted and diverged over the centuries, but when today’s politicians speak of Shinto, it is not tantamount to a referral to the state-established variety that lasted from the Meiji Restoration in 1868 to 1945. That was just one chapter of a much longer history.

On the other hand, despite its immense impact on the country, Buddhism is an import that arrived from China via the Korean Peninsula. In fact, it was subjected to attack at the beginning of the Meiji Restoration just for this foreignness.

Thus, the visits of prime ministers Suzuki, Nakasone, and Koizumi to the Yasukuni shrine, and the visits of prime ministers Mori and Abe to the Meiji shrine, might be viewed mainly as an expression of national identity. The invocation of Buddhism by Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Hatoyama, in contrast, would therefore seem to be expressions of regional identity.

Some in the media compared Mr. Ozawa’s observation about Buddhism and Western religions to former Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro’s controversial statement to a Shinto group that Japan is a “kami no kuni”, centered on the Tenno (Emperor). That Japanese sentence is impossible to translate in a meaningful way in English, however. Without background knowledge, the Western conception of “divinity” will prevent those in the West from understanding the meaning when they read the commonly used translation of “Japan is a divine country.”.

It might be that Mr. Ozawa’s claim that “Modern society has forgotten or lost sight of the spirit of the Japanese people” sprang from a similar source within. It’s just that Mr. Mori’s approach was from a Shinto perspective, while that of Mr. Ozawa is from a Buddhist perspective.

Therefore—speaking very broadly and generally—could the emphasis on Buddhism as opposed to Shintoism by the two DPJ leaders be one way they differentiate themselves from the LDP, intentionally or not?

New Komeito

The New Komeito political party is widely assumed to be the political arm of the Soka Gakkai lay Buddhist organization. An enigma for many Japanese was their willingness to form a coalition government with the center-right LDP, despite a center-left outlook that includes pacifist tendencies and a program calling for more social welfare benefits. A relatively high percentage of the Soka Gakkai membership consists of Japanese-born Korean citizens, most of whom would welcome the chance to vote in local elections, a policy the LDP opposes. It would seem that New Komeito and the DPJ would be natural allies.

Yet Ozawa Ichiro is known for an intense dislike of New Komeito that dates back at least to his days as head of the Liberal Party, when they were in a coalition government headed by the LDP under Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo. No one seems to be able to explain it, or at least they aren’t trying to explain it in public.

Is it possible that Mr. Ozawa’s dislike of New Komeito stems from a belief that their backers represent a divergent sect of Buddhism whose beliefs have been used for nationalist aims in the past? (Soka Gakkai claims it is based on the teachings of Nichiren. See this previous post for a brief discussion of the influence of Nichirenists on early 20th century Japan.)

Polite fictions

The factual or interpretive accuracy of the Ozawa/Hatoyama cosmology is not the point in any of these matters. Nor is it important whether Buddhism was their point of departure for reaching the political position of regional identity, or whether they started from an awareness of regional identity and then employed Buddhism as a justification. What is important is whether they sincerely believe it, and whether they act on those beliefs.

But Mr. Hatoyama in particular must weigh his public statements carefully and engage in polite fictions, because telling the truth would be asking for trouble both at home and abroad. There is a long-standing debate in Japan whether it should align primarily with the West or with East Asia. Those who favor alignment with the West consist of several elements, including people who think China and the two Koreas will never take Japan’s interest into account in any regional grouping. Mr. Hatoyama’s calls for an East Asian entity are sufficient to arouse their opposition.

These folks are well aware this ground has been covered before. In a 1973 interview with Time magazine, Tanaka Kakuei felt compelled to reassure his visitors that “the U.S. comes first.” After his now notorious article in the September issue of Voice, portions of which were translated into English and published in the New York Times, Mr. Hatoyama has been similarly compelled to reassure contemporary Americans that the U.S. still comes first.

That’s what he says. In his article, Mr. Hatoyama wrote that America is waning and China is waxing. He also wrote that the U.S. is seeking to maintain its dominance, and China is seeking to attain dominance as it becomes economically powerful. He claims that an East Asian entity would be the best way to keep Chinese ambitions in check, bring order to their economic activity, and defuse nationalism in the region. It is perhaps an irony that the U.S. government pre-Obama sought to do something similar through a strategy of simultaneous engagement and balance, though more through friendship than through marriage.

Unfortunately, Mr. Hatoyama is all too sincere in these beliefs, which suggest a level of ignorance similar to that of Ozawa Ichiro’s views on international religion and culture. It is not enough to note that the Chinese naturally assume that regional dominance and hegemony is their national birthright. One has to realize the term they use for themselves is “the flower in the center of the universe”. Mr. Hatoyama is never going to change that, no matter how willing he is to share his cookies and milk.

And his view of the European Union is a mirage. The EU has had little to do with preventing another continental war, for which Europeans thankfully no longer have the stomach. Instead, it has evolved into an oppressive, top-down meddling behemoth of a bureaucracy that is a multinational Kasumigaseki times ten. Czech President Vaclav Klaus calls its governing principle “post-democracy”: “where there is no democratic accountabiity, and the decisions are made by politicians, appointed by politicians, not elected by citizens in free elections.” That sounds like just the sort of thing a spiritual aristocrat could sink his teeth into.

Japanese-American relations

Too much Hatoyama honesty causes too many problems for Japanese-American relations, but we can be frank: some contemporary Americans make too much of themselves for what their ancestors did and act as if they are owed eternal subservience.

As it is unfair to hold contemporary Japanese responsible for their ancestors’ behavior, it is just as unreasonable to remain in liege to America for its past behavior. Yes, the Japanese did what they did, and the Americans did what they did, but Imperial Japan and the U.S. of the 1940s no longer exist, and the world is a much different place. It is as if the Americans perceive a Japanese and Western European failure to pledge emotional and financial fealty as ingratitude.

Christopher Preble, writing on the Cato Institute’s blog, recently expressed this idea:

From the perspective of our allies in East Asia (chiefly the Japanese and the South Koreans), and for the Europeans tucked safely within NATO, getting the Americans to pay the costs, and assume the risks, associated with policing the world is a pretty good gig.

Mr. Preble needs to pay more attention to the details. In 2002 Japan’s contributions represented more than 60% of all allied financial contributions to the US, and covered 75% of the USFJ’s operating costs. That contribution has declined somewhat since then, but it is still substantial. He also overlooks the risks Japan faces if the American military were to use its locally based forces to intervene in a Chinese attack on Taiwan, for example. Does he think the Chinese would consider those bases in Japan to be off-limits for retaliation?

To those Americans who would complain that the Japanese are using the Peace Constitution as an excuse, it might be asked: Just whose idea was that anyway? Americans wanted to create a pacifist culture in Japan after the war, and they succeeded. The legal basis for the Japanese state does not come in a ring binder whose leaves are to be inserted or removed on the whims of politicians in another country according to the circumstances of the day.

And that brings us to the ultimate in polite fictions—unless you’re certain that the United States would come to the aid of the Japanese if the latter were attacked. There is speculation from U.S. sources now circulating in the Japanese media that an American military response would be a 50-50 proposition at best.

Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo called for an end to the post-war regime. Would it not be an irony if his political foes in the DPJ were the ones to achieve it?

But why stop there? Isn’t it high time the Americans moved on from the post-war paradigm as well? Everyone might be better off by letting the neo-Buddhists in the DPJ start the process of Japan seeking a new equilibrium on its own. Owing to its history, Japan is unlikely to ever be wholly aligned with either East or West. And owing to its history, that might be the best course for all concerned, because it’s uniquely positioned to serve as a bridge between both.

In that event, the key for the Japanese would be to remain aware that lurking in the shadows of the shining path is the resentment from both for belonging to neither.


* Some Japanese worry that the DPJ approach will cause the U.S. to move toward the Chinese at Japanese expense. Surely they are forgetting the traditional Chinese outlook toward foreign affairs and other countries. Now that the Chinese are reverting to their default attitude, it would seem that Japan doesn’t have much to worry about.

* Here’s a link to a review of the book Zen at War by Brian Victoria, which describes Zen Buddhism’s intellectual and emotional contributions to the Japanese war effort. The review is worth reading for that reason, despite the self-indulgent prose and the swallowing whole of the claims in Iris Chang’s book. The reviewer also claims the book could never have been written in Japan, and he has a point. The Japanese would not have failed to mention that the Tokugawas used the requirement for families to register with Buddhist temples as a weapon to eliminate Christianity. Nor would they have failed to mention that since the warrior class initially popularized Zen in Japan, it would have been natural for some Japanese Zen Buddhists to get behind the war in their own way. The reviewer also seems to think that “it could happen again”, which is just silly.

* The Time magazine interview with Tanaka Kakuei contains this passage:

“In the big cities, the left tends to support academic men. They usually are not very hardworking, but for some reason they appeal to people, especially since they don’t wave the red flag of their socialist and Communist sponsors but the green flag [of the fight against pollution].”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

* When I taught adult English classes years ago, I liked to do quick surveys of my students to find out what religions they professed to believe in as part of the classroom discussion. About 1% of Japanese are Christians, but historical factors boost that to about 5% in Kyushu, and a slightly higher percentage than that show up to study English on their own time and dime.

I asked students to raise their hands when I mentioned a religion. Almost no one raised their hand when I asked if they were Shinto. Almost everyone raised their hands when I asked if they were Buddhist.

* The quote at the top of the post refers to the behavior of everyone mentioned in the post itself.

Posted in China, Government, History, International relations, Religion, South Korea | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Yuta: The Japanese shamans

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, November 5, 2009

THE EXISTENCE of shamans, people said to have the ability to communicate with the spirit world and intercede with that plane on our behalf, seems to be a universal human phenomenon with many shared characteristics over different regions. Yet it’s curious that most of us shy away from acknowledging a phenomenon that is so widespread and still exists today. Perhaps that’s because they’re viewed as part of a primitive tradition that most of us would prefer to think we’ve grown beyond. Then again, perhaps it has something to do with the Siberian origins of the word, which literally means, “He who knows”. Those who know too much have always made the rest of us uncomfortable.

yuta on amami

Japan has had its own shamanistic tradition throughout the archipelago, though now it lives on the edges of our peripheral vision. But the practice still thrives in Okinawa and the Amami islands, which are part of Kagoshima Prefecture. The shamans there are called yuta, and there are an estimated 5,000 in Okinawa alone.

As is the case with shamans elsewhere, the people who become yuta did not make a conscious decision to do so. In the Ryukyus (the Amami islands are considered part of the northern Ryukyus), the yuta acquired their abilities after being selected by the divine spirits and surviving a serious illness or some other physical danger.

As is also the case in other parts of the world, the yuta in the Ryukyus sometimes serve as physicians. Indeed, there is an Okinawan saying: Half doctor, half yuta. Whether they are involved in medicine or not, however, they usually intercede on human behalf in matters of life and death, or matters that people think are critically important.

The Japanese too have always felt a bid edgy around the yuta. The practice was suppressed when the Satsuma domain of Kagoshima controlled the islands during the 17th century. Local newspapers in Okinawa campaigned against the practice in the late 19th century, and some scholars suggest that was because journalists were anxious to have Japan become part the modern world. It’s also true that the nature of the practice itself, which includes fortune telling, attracted charlatans. Many of the yuta (though not all) are women, and some people tended to lump them together with prostitutes. The Okinawan newspapers occasionally campaigned for a crackdown on their activities, and the sketchy surviving records indicate a handful of them were in fact placed in detention for 20-day periods. Some hold that the small number of arrests was due to the deep-rooted popular belief in the tradition and the resultant lack of public support for the campaigns. But since most of the Okinawan newspapers from that period didn’t survive World War II, it isn’t possible to piece together a clear picture of what actually happened.

Nowadays, the yuta are usually part-timers who pursue other careers for a living. Most of the female practitioners have been married and divorced. They also offer advice on personal problems, including those related to romance and work. Another traditional practice in which they are involved is a sort of exorcism that drives away evil spirits three days after a person has died, for which they are paid.

They also hold annual festivals. The photograph here shows a group of yuta a week ago in Tatsugo-cho, Amami, Kagoshima holding one of those festivals on sacred ground. The group consists of 10 men and women from different parts of the Amami islands and Kagoshima. After first purifying themselves with ocean water, they offered prayers in accordance with an old ritual to summon a goddess from across the sea. The sacred ground on which they are standing is actually a large outcropping of rocks near the ocean, and those are eulalia leaves they are using in the ceremony.

After finishing here, they hiked to a small settlement at the top of a nearby mountain to offer rice, sake, fish, and other foods to the divinities.

Are the yuta the remnants of primitive superstition, or are they actually capable of doing some of the things it is said they can do? From a scientific perspective, experiments in Japan have found the right side of the brain of yuta in a trance to be much more active than normal. From an anecdotal perspective, here’s a brief account from someone who has consulted three yuta:

A yuta was able to divine things about my family ancestry, things that I hadn’t even told my wife, and explain that as the cause of my personal concerns. I was so impressed with the accuracy of the yuta’s reading that it led to my research and ultimately writing my novel.

“He who knows”? Maybe they do know something after all—and maybe that’s why they’re still around and active in the information age.

Posted in Religion, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

Matsuri da! (107): The mikoshi marathon

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 27, 2009

A KEY ELEMENT of most Shinto festivals are the portable shrines known as mikoshi. Rites in other religions usually require the performance of strictly defined acts from which there is little or no deviation. One distinguishing feature of Shinto matsuri, however, is that there is very little from which to deviate to begin with. It’s hard to get stuffy about tradition when the founding principle seems to have been “Hey, that’s a great idea! Let’s try it and see what happens!”

yamagata hakko festival

The standard operating procedure during a festival is for the carriers to vigorously raise and lower the mikoshi while calling out shouts of self-encouragement during the procession. Meanwhile, the onlookers provide encouragement of their own from alongside the parade route, often drenching the carriers with buckets of water to cool them off—summer or winter, it makes no difference. When you’re hot and sweaty from all that work, you need to get cool!

But there are also festivals in which the mikoshi are hauled up the side of a steep mountain, run down the side of a mountain on narrow stone stairs at top speed in the middle of the night, carried under a waterfall, jumped over a blazing fire, used as a weapon in a street fight with another mikoshi-carrying group, or just smashed to pieces as a sign of devotion.

Though there are plenty of stories of how the mikoshi are used, few of those stories specifically mention how long those processions last. One exception is the story I came across for a festival last month at the Yudanosan Shinto shrine in Yamagata.

The event starts with the hakkosai ceremony, in which part of the spirit is taken from the tutelary deity at the shrine and placed in the mikoshi. Then about 150 young parishioners from a group known as the Miyuki-kai (神幸会) carry it around a six-kilometer course in Yamagata City chanting “Soiya sah!” The group does more than just go through the motions and then go home. It takes them seven hours to conduct this part of the festival. That must be one of the reasons for having 150 members in the Miyuki-kai–they have to take turns doing the heavy lifting.

That object at the top in gold leaf, by the way, is the ho’o, a type of phoenix whose myths originated in China. A mythical Chinese creature on top of a palanquin for a Shinto divinity–now how’s that for another example of Japanese syncretism? The ho’o seems to have been created from spare parts–the front was shaped like a giraffe, the rear like a deer, the head like a snake, the tail like a fish, and the back like a turtle. It’s enough to make you wonder how much hemp was cultivated in China in the old days.

The Yudonosan shrine has a history even more interesting than the festival it conducts. It’s located 1,500 meters (about 4,920 feet) above sea level, and the hike required to get there is not for the faint or weak of heart. The photo here shows the large red torii, but the shrine itself is far enough down the path and up the side of the mountain that a special bus leaving from the building at left takes visitors the rest of the way for 200 yen. It’s not possible to post a photo of the shrine itself, because photography at the site is forbidden.


Once visitors arrive, they have to remove their shoes to enter, and that, like the photo prohibition, is not a common practice at most institutions. Then again, the shrine is located in an uncommon area. The Yudonosan mountain is one of three in a group of mountains and valleys that were a site for Buddhist ascetic practices for more than a millennium. Some of the heavy hitters of Japanese Buddhism came here for meditation and enlightenment, including Kukai, the founder of the Shingon sect, and Saicho, the founder of the Tendai sect.

Their practices were uncommonly rigorous, and included vegetarian meals, daily ablutions, and Yudono no Hozen worship three times a day for 30, 50, or 1,000 consecutive days to remove their impurities. Another objective for some was to achieve Buddhahood while still in the material body, a practice called sokushinjobutsu, and at Yudonosan the preferred method was to meditate until one became “mummified”, as the explanation has it. Some of the remains of these people still exist in northern Niigata.

While in those days the site primarily attracted Buddhists, the institution itself was one of many that shared space with a Shinto shrine. When they were split up during the Meiji era reforms, the Buddhist temples relocated elsewhere. Why did they move and the shrine stay? I don’t know, but it might have been because the shrine’s shintai, the object of worship in which the divinity’s spirit dwells, was a large rock from which a natural hot spring emerges.

It has to be easier to build another temple than it is to change the course of a hot spring in the mountains!

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

A Japanese wedding bell, Shinto (and Buddhist) style

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 25, 2009

YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW what that yellow thing hanging from the post is when you first see it—I didn’t either—but the inspiration for its creation was a combination of love (or lust), religion, and commerce. That should be a dead giveaway the location of the photo is Japan. To be specific, it’s hanging near a 200-year-old Japanese linden tree (shinanoki; tilia japonica) designated as divine on the shores of Lake Chuzenji in Nikko, Tochigi.

A Nikko <i>miko</i> and a yellow bell

A Nikko miko and a yellow bell

It turns out that the yellow thing is a bell. It’s 55 centimeters long, 20 centimeters in diameter, and weighs six kilograms. Made of steel and painted yellow to attract good fortune, it’s modeled after a 10-centimeter hand bell excavated at nearby Mt. Nantai that was used by devout Buddhists to summon the spirits of the divinities.

So what’s the bell doing on a post out in the open? It’s next to a sacred tree at the Futarasan Shinto shrine, one of the Nikko shrines and Buddhist temples that are part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. Founded in 782 by Shodo Shonin—a Buddhist monk—it has two swords that are national cultural treasures. He had already established the famous Rinno-ji temple complex 16 years before. For centuries the temple and the isolated location made the site a destination for ascetics, and it became a resort area in the modern era when people began to think that asceticism was kind of a drag compared to the delights of the material world.

But more to the point in this case is that one of the tutelary deities of the Shinto facility is Daikoku-sama, the god of marriage. The Japanese linden has also been traditionally associated with connubial bliss. And nearby is a small hall in which is enshrined Aizen, the guardian (or god) of love of the esoteric Mikkyo sect.

As this excellent site explains, Aizen is the:

King of Sexual Passion, (who) converts earthly desires (love/lust) into spiritual awakening; saves people from the pain that comes with love; three faces, three eyes; six arms (typically holding weapons; often wears crown containing a shishi (magical lion); red body, symbolizing the power to purify sexual desire; often carries a bow and arrow (like Cupid).

Aizen is a Japanese Buddhist deity that is not known in India, though he was also given a Sanskrit name. This is the first I’d heard of him, but then a divinity that purifies sexual desire is even less appealing than asceticism these days.

The bell was also created to symbolize a happy marriage, and it was purposely cast to make a sound resembling “kon”. Kon is the reading for the second kanji in the word kekkon, which means marriage, and the kanji itself also has that connotation.

The whole bell idea is the brainchild of the priests at Futarasan Shrine. Tourism in the area is slumping, and they hoped the bell would become a symbol of the town, giving it the image of a romantic getaway. They thought it might entice engaged or newly married couples to visit in the hope that the good mojo would rub off on them. Purifying their sexual desires is probably the least of their cares.

So to sum up, the officials at a famous Shinto shrine created a bright yellow bell designed to look like a religious artifact found during an archaeological dig. They hung the bell next to a tree associated with marriage near a Shinto shrine whose deity is associated with marriage, and a small hall with a Buddhist deity that is the King of Sexual Passion and carries bows and arrows like Cupid. Their intention was to attract more tourists to come and ring the bell, which would result in local merchants more frequently ringing up the cash registers.

Evidently, being a part of a UNESCO World Heritage site with a history dating back more than 1,200 years in a district with the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu’s mausoleum and plenty of hot spring resorts isn’t enough to appeal to potential tourists.

Considering the integral role rice plays in Japanese culture, it’s a wonder they didn’t find a way to work in the Western custom of throwing rice at newlyweds as they leave the church after their wedding ceremony. With all those other ingredients in that gumbo, no one would think the rice was unusual at all, and some would think it made the dish even tastier.

Who knows, it might attract even more people who want to live happily ever after their unique wedding ceremony!

Posted in Archaeology, History, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »