Shinto Texts Course — The Kojiki and Archaeology

The Open College course on Shinto at Kokugakuin University has started again today, and the theme for this year is Shinto texts. They are working through in roughly chronological order, and thus starting with the Kojiki, which was completed in 712 (so next year is the 1300th anniversary). The last lectures will cover important twentieth-century figures, like Kunio Yanagita, so this promises to be another interesting year. Of course, given the emphasis that Shinto places on not putting things into words, there is a certain irony in basing a course on texts, but then this is a lecture course, so words are rather unavoidable.

Unlike the previous two years, the lectures this year are being given by various staff at Kokugakuin, and today’s was given by Professor Sasao, whose speciality is the archaeology of religion. Thus, “The Kojiki and Archaeology” was the theme of the lecture. While the Kojiki is not a very long text, it’s still far too long to cover in its entirety in a 90 minute lecture, so he focused on one incident: Ame no Iwayato, when Amaterasu hides in a cave and the other kami have to entice her out.

His initial description of the Kojiki was interesting, though. He said that it tells us what people in the early 8th century thought about the origins of the world, the birth and activities of the kami, and history up to Suiko Tenno. That is, the Kojiki does not tell us what actually happened in any of those categories. The context here is important. Kokugakuin is one of the two Shinto universities in the country, and this course is about Shinto. So, a western equivalent would be a public lecture on the Bible at a Catholic university that started by saying that the Bible tells us what people in the early 1st century thought about things. There is thus one clear respect in which Shinto is not about words, then: the Kojiki is not believed to report the truth.

So, back to the Ame no Iwayato legend. On my Japanese blog, I could assume that people knew the story, but I’d better not here. This is the very abbreviated version.

Susano-o, the younger brother of Amaterasu, the sun goddess, went to her home in Takamagahara. Once he got there, after promising to behave himself, he started breaking down the banks and filling in the ditches of the rice paddies, and scattered shit around the hall for the harvest ceremony. Amaterasu excused him, saying that he was drunk, and maybe trying to enlarge the paddies. However, he then made a big hole in the roof of the hall where the sacred clothes for the kami were woven, and threw in a horse that had been half-skinned backwards. This surprised the weaving woman so much that she stabbed herself in the vagina with the shuttle, and died.

At this, Amaterasu lost her temper, and went to hide in the Ame no Iwayato, a cave. When she did so, both Takamagahara and this world were plunged into darkness, a lot of kami made trouble, and everyone was at a loss as to what to do. All the kami gathered on the banks of the Amenoyasu river, and asked Omoikane what they should do. He told them to find a cockerel and make it crow, then get iron from Amakana Mountain, make a curved jewel and a mirror, and hang them all from a sakaki tree outside the cave. Amenotajikarao, a strong kami, hid beside the cave’s entrance. Then Amenokoyane and Futodama used a deer’s shoulder blade to divine the will of the kami, and the ceremony began.

Amenouzume danced outside the cave, becoming possessed by the kami, so that she opened her clothes, exposing her breasts and vagina, and all the kami laughed and cheered. Hearing this, Amaterasu became very confused.

“I’m hiding in this cave, so it must be really dark out there. How come everyone’s having so much fun?” she asked.

“An even greater kami than you has come,” Amenouzume replied, “so we are having a party to welcome her.”

Amaterasu wasn’t sure whether she believed that, so she pushed the rock at the cave’s mouth open a little. When she did so, Amenokoyane and Futodama pushed the mirror forwards, so that Amaterasu saw her reflection. Thinking it was another, greater, kami, Amaterasu couldn’t resist coming a little further out. As soon as she did so, Amenotajikarao grabbed her and pulled her out the rest of the way, and in that moment Futodama slipped in behind her and put a rope across the entrance to the cave, telling Amaterasu that she couldn’t go back in now, because the way was blocked. And so light was returned to the world.

As central myths go, this has some odd elements. For example, lying to the kami of the sun is a central part of restoring the order of the universe, and the kami of the sun can’t tell the difference between her own reflection and another kami. However, there are a couple of points that, taken literally, make no sense at all. First, Amenokoyane and Futodama perform divination to learn the will of the kami. This is a bit peculiar, as all the kami are right there, at the council, and they could just ask them. Second, Amenouzume is possessed by the kami when she dances. Which kami, exactly? Wouldn’t it rather be Amenouzume who did the possessing? These elements suggest that this scene is actually a description of a Shinto ritual, moved to Takamagahara, and that is how it is usually interpreted. It’s also how Professor Sasao interpreted it, so now we can get back to the content of the lecture.

Archaeology can tell us something about the rituals and social background at various periods in history, and thus help us to place the origins of the story. So, what does it have to say about this legend?

First, paddy fields separated by banks and supplied with water by ditches were found all across Japan by the late Yayoi period, about two thousand years ago, so Susano-o’s actions make sense in that context. Such damage would have caused serious disruption to agriculture. As for his desecrations, shit is always available, but horses only came to Japan in the 5th century AD, so that part of the story cannot date any further back than that. What’s more, miniature looms have been excavated from ritual sites dating from the 5th century in Shizuoka prefecture, and are still found in sites dating from the 7th century elsewhere in the country.

The inclusion of a cockerel in the story also relates to archaeological discoveries. Burial mounds from the 4th century on sometimes have clay models of cockerels set around them, among other things, which suggests that cockerels were a part of rituals by that point. On the other hand, if we go back a hundred years or so, we find that cranes are depicted instead, which tends to date the legend to the period after the 4th century.

Next, let us look at the items gathered for the ceremony. First, the kami are told to gather iron. Iron implements are found in 5th century ritual sites in Ehime Prefecture (on Shikoku) and in Chiba Prefecture (just east of Tokyo), along with iron ingots. In the 5th century, iron was not mined and refined in Japan; rather, ingots were imported from Korea, and made into tools and weapons in Japan, which is why the ingots are also important. Curved beads are also a common find in 5th century ritual sites, again from all over Japan. Mirrors go back a bit further, becoming important in the 3rd century, when they were made in China, although they were, later, made in Japan, following Chinese models. In the 5th century there was a vogue for making mirrors modelled after Chinese mirrors from the 3rd century, and they were commonly included in grave goods in the burial mounds. Thus, the ritual significance of mirrors in this period is also clear. Finally, the mirrors, including stone mock-mirrors, and curved jewels recovered from sites of this period very often have small holes drilled through them, so that they could be hung from something. It seems very likely that they were hung from trees, although I don’t think there’s any direct evidence of that.

If we now turn to the divination, this was performed using the shoulder-bones of deer. The excavated evidence of this form of divination suggests that holes were burned through the bones with hot needles, and the resulting cracks analysed. The dates are significant here, because divination using deer bones seems to have started in around the 2nd century BC, and continued until the 5th century AD. From the 6th century, divination shifted to using turtle shells, or cow bones if there were no turtle shells available.

Amenouzume’s naked dance is also supported by archaeological evidence. The clay figures from burial mounds of the 5th and 6th centuries include naked dancing figures, both male and female.

Putting all the evidence together, the conclusion is clear. This legend describes a 5th century ritual. The horse could not have been involved any earlier, deer-bone divination would not have been used any later, and all the other elements correspond to items found in 5th century ritual sites. The 5th century is also the period in which the unification of Japan got seriously underway, and the first period in which there is conclusive evidence for the use of writing by people who understood it. Thus, the 5th century also seems to have been the period of a very significant change in ritual practice, because when people came to record a ritual 250 years later, it was a ritual from that period that they described.

Now we go back to my editorialising. It is very hard to say when Shinto started, because there is no clear foundation event. However, we can say that there is a point at which it becomes useful to talk about the religious practices as “Shinto”, and start looking at the changes in Shinto, rather than at the practices that preceded it. I think that point is the 5th century, and I thought that before I heard this lecture and thus knew about the connection of the Kojiki myth to that period. There is also good evidence at Omiwa Shrine and Munakata Shrine that rituals that show strong continuity with contemporary Shinto started around the 5th century.

Of course, there have been significant changes. Deer bone divination had vanished by the sixth century, and naked dancing is no longer a prominent part of the overwhelming majority of Shinto rituals. (Shinto being Shinto, however, I’m sure it still happens somewhere, although it is quite likely to be a secret ceremony.) More subtly, although mirrors and sakaki are still important parts of Shinto ritual, mirrors are not usually offered to the kami, and offerings are not normally hung from sakaki branches.

However, I think that the common features mean that, if we are going to accept that Shinto has changed over time, the best time to start calling the rituals “Shinto” is the 5th century. That makes Shinto a fairly young religion, as religions go; Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism are all significantly older.

This lecture was extremely interesting, so if the rest are going to be like that, this is going to be a very good year.

2:46: Aftershocks

I just found out about this book via the Guardian, and I’ve already bought my copy. As the page will tell you, it’s a collection of personal reactions to the March 11th quake from people across the world with some connection to Japan. Most of them were in Japan at the time, and a fair few of them are Japanese, although, as the book is in English, the majority are foreigners in the country. All of the money from it is going to the Red Cross for earthquake relief; even Amazon has agreed not to take its cut.

I’ve read about half of the book, and it’s an interesting window into people’s reactions in the immediate aftermath. I found myself sympathising with the person who said he was in a very modern building and so didn’t feel much; there are also accounts from people who were much closer to the epicentre, making me very glad I wasn’t. Most of the book was written between one and two weeks after the quake, and a number of people comment on the continuing aftershocks. They still haven’t stopped; according to my student in Fukushima, they can hear the earth grumbling almost all the time, even when they can’t feel anything.

From what I’ve read, this book is a good way to both contribute to the recovery and find out more about what it was like, from multiple perspectives.

The link is an associate link, because that’s the easiest way for me to link to an Amazon book. I think that means I’ll get an Associate commission if people buy the book through the link. If it rises to a significant amount, so that it makes sense to do so, I’ll specifically donate it to the Japanese Red Cross. (They won’t take less than Â¥2,000, so that’s the lower limit.) If not, I’ve donated and will donate a lot more than that, so all my profits from it will also, in effect, be donated to the effort. If someone knows of an automatic way to channel my commission to the book’s fund raising, please let me know.

Matriculation Ceremony

Mayuki, in her uniform, looking up as she waits for Yuriko

Hurry up, Mummy!

There are a number of aspects of Japanese society that seem a little odd from a British perspective. One of them is the fact that Japanese kindergartens have matriculation ceremonies. And uniforms. Today was the matriculation ceremony for Mayuki’s kindergarten, so she had to get dressed up in her uniform for it. I took most of the day off work so that I could attend, but naturally I wore a suit. The question of what Yuriko should wear was a bit more vexed. I thought she should wear a kimono, and basically she wanted to. However, kimonos are more trouble than western-style clothes, so for a while she was undecided. Finally, at the beginning of this week, she decided that she would wear a kimono.

That meant that she needed to choose the precise outfit, and then practise putting it on, because it is a few months since she last wore a kimono. That, in turn, meant that I had to look after Mayuki and get her to bed for a couple of nights this week, so that Yuriko would have time to practise. We really do need to work on a way to get Mayuki to bed earlier, but unfortunately you really can’t force someone to go to sleep, even if you can convince them to stay in bed; it took about half an hour for Mayuki to get to sleep last night after I’d won that battle.

In any case, Yuriko got her practice, and wore a kimono today. That did mean that I was in charge of getting Mayuki into her uniform, because it takes time to put a kimono on, but fortunately kindergarten uniforms are not complicated, and I’m sure Mayuki will be able to do it by herself fairly soon. (It won’t be instant, because the skirt doesn’t just pull on.) We left the flat a couple of minutes later than planned, but we had, of course, planned for delays, so we still managed to catch the bus that takes us almost all the way to the kindergarten.

Unfortunately, on the way to the bus stop Mayuki fell over and grazed her knee, which made her less cheerful than she had been. She wasn’t at all lively on the bus, and it was obvious that she was feeling a bit sleepy. She kept demanding that I carry her, and although she was happy to walk when we got to the kindergarten, led the way to her classroom, and said good morning to her teacher, she wasn’t as happy about leaving us as she usually is. In fact, she was clinging to me and crying when it was time for the parents to go to the gym, ready for the ceremony. I had to hand her over to the teacher and then walk out on her.

Mayuki standing on the playground equipment in front of cherry blossoms.There were a lot of parents with cameras in the gymnasium, so it wasn’t really possible to see Mayuki much during the ceremony. However, I could see that she’d stopped crying, and was basically being cooperative, if not as active as she often is. The ceremony involved greetings from the chairman of the governors, singing the kindergarten song, a speech from the headteacher (“The slides are all your slides, and the picture book are all of yours as well.”), before finishing with an action song. I don’t think Mayuki did the actions, though.

After that, which took about ten minutes, the children left again, to play with their teachers while the headteacher told us a bit more about the kindergarten’s plans to deal with the aftermath of the earthquake. One point he made was that the kindergarten was happy to take children who had been evacuated from the northeast, which is good, because finding kindergarten places in Kawasaki is hard. The other points were about how the kindergarten would respond to various levels of radiation, which were eminently sensible. (“If the government is telling everyone in Kawasaki to stay inside, we will close the kindergarten”; yes, that sounds like a good idea. I really don’t think it will come to that.) After that, it was back to the classroom, for some more information from Mayuki’s class teacher. Mayuki got a bit clingy again at that point, and when we went out for the class photo, she didn’t want to leave us to sit on the front row. Fortunately, there was a low platform for the new students to stand on, and the parents were supposed to stand behind them in any case, so she was able to participate in the photograph. She then, rather more enthusiastically, went to play on the jungle gym-type equipment, which gave me a chance to take some photographs of her with the cherry blossoms in the background.

At the matriculation ceremonies for Japanese schools and kindergartens, the school puts up a sign saying that it’s that year’s ceremony, and everyone has a family photograph taken in front of it. We did that, but Mayuki wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about being involved. She was rather more enthusiastic about gatecrashing another family’s photograph, in fact. Getting her to head for the bus required promising her lunch (chips and ketchup) at the local family restaurant, but as soon as we got on the bus, she lay down on my knee and fell asleep. She remained asleep as I carried her from the bus stop to our flat, up the hill, and then woke up, wanting her chips, as soon as we put her in bed.

In any case, lunch was nice, and she ate some sweetcorn as well as the chips and ketchup, and we opened her cards from her grandparents. So, although I didn’t really get any work done today (I had one lesson in the evening), we did have a very nice family day.