Archaeology and the Kogoshui — Shinto Texts Course

Yesterday we had the third Shinto texts course, this time looking at the Kogoshui and the archaeological background. The Kogoshui may not be familiar even to people who know a bit about Shinto, so I’ll say a bit about it first, as the lecturer, Professor Sasao, did.

The Kogoshui was written in 807 by Inbe Hironari, who was eighty years old at the time, and, in the preface, famously complains that young people today (in 807) don’t pay attention to the wisdom of the past. The work is polemical, and has its origins in a dispute over family rights at the imperial court. In the Yamato court, three families were responsible for the rituals to serve the kami: the Inbe, the Sarume, and the Nakatomi. Each family claimed descent from one of the kami responsible for the ritual that lured Amaterasu out of the cave in heaven: the Inbe from Futodama, the Nakatomi from Amenokoyane, and the Sarume from Amenouzume. (It seems quite likely that those three kami play important roles in the legend because they were the ancestral kami of the ritualist families.) However, a member of the Nakatomi, Nakatomi Kamatari, played an important role in the coup in which Emperor Tenji seized power in the mid seventh century, and was granted the new name “Fujiwara”. The Fujiwara became extremely influential, eclipsing the emperor in actual power, and so their relatives, the Nakatomi, became more dominant in ritual. In 806, things came to head in a debate over which family should supply the emissaries who carried imperial offerings to shrines around Japan. The emperor initially solved it by saying that both families should supply emissaries, but asked the Inbe for an account of their traditional rights. That account it is Kogoshui.

It is not very long, but it covers quite a bit of ground. The lineage and origins of the Inbe are, of course, central, and the other kami led by Futodama also play an important role. There is a detailed discussion of the legend of Amaterasu in the cave, and of the roles of the kami associated with Futodama in providing the offerings for the kami. In addition, the history of the Inbe is brought down to the end of the eighth century. Throughout the whole work, there are also criticisms of the Nakatomi, and the Kogoshui contains a number of legends that are not found in the Kojiki or Nihonshoki. All of these factors make it a very valuable resource, telling the early legends of Shinto from a slightly different perspective from the official histories.

As Professor Sasao said, the main point of the work was to criticise the Nakatomi, so if we don’t say something about them, it’s a bit rude to the author. Essentially, Hironari complained that the Nakatomi were monopolising the ritual roles. He said that the other two families had been excluded from the chief priest’s position at the Grand Shrines of Ise, and that all the offerings from the regional shrines to the imperial court were being funnelled to the Nakatomi. He also said that, in forming the system of shrines venerated by the court, any shrine connected to the Nakatomi, no matter how small, was being listed, while shrines with no connection to them, no matter how big, were being ignored. It’s now very difficult to confirm this, because there is no independent evidence for the size of shrines that were ignored by the court; to the best of my knowledge there are no contemporary shrines that are known to have been important in the eighth century but to have been ignored by the court.

Professor Sasao picked up three points to illustrate the light that archaeology and the text can shed on each other.

The first concerns the imperial store rooms. According to the Kogoshui, Emperor Jinmu put the Inbe in charge of the imperial storehouse, called the “imi no kura”. In later years, when tribute started to come in from the Korean peninsular, a second storehouse, called the “uchi no kura” was established, and its administration entrusted to people who had come from the Korean peninsular themselves. Somewhat later, in the fifth century, a third storehouse, the “ohkura”, was established, and put under the administration of another family of immigrants (the Hata, who founded the Inari cult). The imi no kura housed ritual items and treasures of the kami, while the others housed imperial property.

Archaeology backs up the substance of this account, although it greatly compresses the timescale. The remains of storehouses have been excavated near ritual sites from various places in Japan (Chiba, Shizuoka, and Nara prefectures), dating from the fifth century. This suggests that it was not at all uncommon for storehouses to be associated with rituals. In addition, the Grand Shrines of Ise include storehouses, rebuilt every twenty years, and the designs are very, very similar to those reconstructed from the archaeological remains. Similarly, in the same period, remains of large storehouses have been found associated with imperial palaces.

In a later section, Hironari claims that an Inbe was the head of the bureau of divinities in the mid seventh century, and that the practice of using turtle shells to divine the health of the emperor was introduced at that time. The official histories claim that a Nakatomi held the post, but the Kogoshui appears to preserve the seventh century name for the post, and thus may be more accurate. In any case, archaeology shows that, in the mid seventh century, the court started building imperial palaces on a far larger scale than before. Thus, this seems to have been an important point in the introduction of the classical Ritsuryo system, and thus a reasonable time for a divinatory ritual to start. In addition, the first evidence of turtle shell divination in Japan is from the late sixth century, and after a peak in the seventh, it declines sharply in the eighth. The Nihonshoki records the import of books on many subjects, including divination, from the Korean peninsular in the sixth century, so this form of divination may have been introduced to Japan at that point. In that case, the most advanced form of divination was used to discover the emperor’s condition.

Finally, the Kogoshui attributes the development of the Boso peninsular in modern Chiba prefecture to a kami associated with Futodama, Amenotomi. It records the foundation of Awa Shrine in the south of the peninsular, and this shrine, along with Kashima and Katori shrines, had dedicated villages to support it, indicating its importance. Archaeology in the shrine precincts turned up items from the fifth century, suggesting that rituals on the site may go back that far. An earlier ritual site, from the fourth to fifth century, was found to the south of the shrine, at the extreme of the peninsular, so the rituals may have moved in the fifth century.

Once again, the evidence suggests that a lot of recognisably Shinto elements, and worship at contemporary shrine sites, can be traced back to the fifth century, reinforcing that as a strong candidate for the date when Shinto began. In addition, the reminder that there are other legends not found in the Kojiki or Nihonshoki once more brings the diversity of Shinto to the fore. This course is continuing to be extremely interesting.


Last Sunday was the first meeting of the Kawasaki Representative Assembly of Foreign Residents of this fiscal year. The first meeting should have been in April, but after the earthquake quite a few of the representatives were temporarily out of Japan, and the city authorities had a lot of other things to organise, so it was postponed. One of the things we had to decide on Sunday was when to have an additional meeting to make up the numbers; fortunately, that was quite easy.

In the Life and Society subcommittee, we were discussing work and pensions. This is the first of the deeper topics we are looking at, and the discussion went well. We first looked at the support available to foreigners looking for work, and that didn’t take too long, because the support available seems quite good. There are centres aimed at providing advice to foreigners in various positions: those on visas like spousal visas, which don’t restrict their jobs; those on specialist visas; and students looking for part-time work. They are also willing to go slightly beyond their official remit, to cover foreigners who are in effectively the same position, even if the reason is different. (For example, people accompanying another foreigner on a family visa have about the same restrictions on work as students, so the centre that deals with students looking for part-time work will also help them.) As normal, the problem was whether the people who need to know about the support do, and how we could make sure that the information gets to them. However, this is not, strictly, part of our subcommittee’s remit, so we left that and moved on to pensions.

The question here is “how, exactly, do pensions work for foreigners in Japan?”. The basic answer is simple: exactly the same way they work for Japanese people in Japan. Foreigners in Japan aged between 20 and 59 are legally required to join the national pension scheme, either independently or through their company, and they are entitled to pensions under the same conditions as Japanese citizens: if you have contributed for at least 25 years, you get a pro-rata pension based on the number of years for which you paid in.

The devil really is in the details. If you arrive in Japan over the age of 40, you do not have to join the scheme, since even with a voluntary extension of payments to 65 there is no way you can get 25 years. If you leave Japan before paying in for 25 years, you are not allowed to continue paying, but you do get some money back. Unfortunately, if you’ve paid in for more than three years, you get about 18 months’ worth back, even if you’ve been paying in for 20 years. This is a well-known problem. On the other hand, if you pay in for 25 years, you get a pension, even if you leave Japan. There are also treaties with several countries, and more under negotiation, that allow you to count years paying into either country’s pension scheme towards your basic entitlement, so that 10 years in Japan plus 15 years in your home country would entitle you to 10 years worth of Japanese pension (one quarter of the full amount).

We had a lot of questions. If you leave Japan, how, exactly, is the pension paid? Bank transfer fees can be quite high. What about company pension schemes? What if you’ve paid into pension schemes in two other countries, both of which have treaties with Japan? How long does it take for a treaty to be negotiated? (Particularly relevant to the representative from a country with no treaty yet, but where negotiations have started.) And so on. The people from the secretariat are not pension specialists, so they were frequently at a loss for an answer. In the end, we decided to ask someone from the city’s pensions department to come and explain things to us; the ordinances establishing the assembly give it the power to ask people to come. Next time, we’ll put our questions to an expert, and I hope that things will become clear. I still don’t know whether we’ll actually make a direct request about pensions in the final report; there may be nothing that the city can do, in which case it’s a bit of a waste of space. We might well want to say something about it in the newsletter, however, for the information of other foreigners in the city.

I think the session went very well, and the deputy chair of the subcommittee agreed. Everyone contributed with questions and opinions, and I think we asked all the questions we wanted to, even if we didn’t get answers. Since the questions will be given to the pensions specialist in advance, there’s a very good chance that we’ll get the answers at the next session.

Shinto Texts Course — The Kojiki and National Learning

Yesterday we had the second lecture in the Shinto texts course, and it was also about the Kojiki, this time from the perspective of National Learning, and more specifically from the perspective of Norinaga Motoori. Norinaga Motoori was one of the four great scholars of National Learning, a scholarly movement in the Edo period that aimed to recover genuinely Japanese ways of thinking from behind the accumulation of foreign influences, such as Buddhism and Confucianism. Obviously, their basic project is treated with significant suspicion these days, given that most scholars no longer believe that any country has a “genuine way of thinking” uncontaminated by foreign influences, but their scholarship is still respected, particularly in philology. National Learning had a very strong influence on the structure of the post-Meiji Japanese state, and an even stronger influence on post-Meiji Shinto. Indeed, it is thanks to National Learning, and Norinaga in particular, that the Kojiki is now important enough to get two of the ten lectures on this course.

Incidentally, Norinaga is normally referred to by that name. It’s not quite as straightforward as saying that this was his personal name, because Edo period Japanese naming conventions were complicated, and I don’t fully understand them, but it seems to be generally agreed that, if you want a short version, “Norinaga” is it.

Norinaga lived from 1730 to 1801, near Ise, in what is now Mie Prefecture. His father was a merchant, but Norinaga had no talent for that, so his mother sent him to Kyoto to learn to be a doctor. He did become a doctor, and that’s how he made much of his living, but he also discovered National Learning. Another National Learning scholar encouraged him to make a thorough study of the Kojiki, and Norinaga made it his life’s work, the 44-volume commentary finally being published in full after his death.

The Kojiki is the oldest surviving substantial work of Japanese literature. It is a history of Japan, from the beginning to the early seventh century, and it was completed in 712. It is actually written in Japanese, using unique conventions to write it in kanji; in contrast, the Nihonshoki, a similar history of Japan completed in 720, is basically written in Chinese. (The Japanese wrote in a form called “kanbun”, which, I believe, is almost Chinese but not quite; I don’t know the details, however.) The Kojiki’s age, concern with Japanese beliefs about the world and their place in it, and language all made it very interesting to National Learning scholars, and Norinaga made it interesting to everyone else.

Most of the lecture was taken up with discussing Norinaga’s interpretation of the Kojiki. The lecturer, Professor Nishioka, pointed out that, although Norinaga thought he was discovering the worldview of the ancient Japanese, modern scholarship is much more sceptical about that, so it is better to see Norinaga’s interpretation as just that. Since Norinaga wanted to promote a return to “true Japanese” thinking, he generally agreed with the positions he found in the Kojiki. Incidentally, if Norinaga’s philosophy sounds a bit racial supremacist, that’s because it was. As far as I’m aware, he wasn’t particularly aggressive in his belief that the Japanese were superior; it seems to have been similar to the beliefs about American superiority held today by the typical American. However, that strand in his thought did get amplified by his successors, and was one of the legacies of National Learning for modern Japan.

Professor Nishioka drew attention to two points in Norinaga’s interpretation that were quite distinctive. First, Norinaga did have a theory about life after death. However, his theory was that, after death, everyone’s body remained on earth, while everyone’s soul went to Yomi. It didn’t matter whether you were good or evil, rich or poor, emperor or slave; everyone went to Yomi, and that was it. In addition, Yomi was not a pleasant place, so you really didn’t want to go there any earlier than necessary, and death was, according to Norinaga, the saddest thing that could happen, so it was entirely proper to cry when someone close to you died. Thus, although he thought there was an afterlife, he didn’t think that your behaviour in this life had any influence on what happened to you afterwards, and he thought that avoiding going to the afterlife was the best plan. The end result, then, was a very strong emphasis on the current life, something that seems to have been a characteristic of Shinto throughout much of its history.

The second point was Norinaga’s view of the kami. Norinaga’s definition of “kami”, found early in his commentary on the Kojiki, is extremely famous, and is the standard definition used these days. Paraphrased into English, it is this. “Kami refers not only to the kami who appear in the ancient legends, but also, of course, to the kami venerated at shrines, but also to people, animals and plants, and other natural phenomena that are seen to have some sort of power or attainment that goes beyond the norm. It does not matter whether the kami are worthy of respect or not, whether they are strong or weak, whether they are good or evil. They are all kami, and all venerated.”

It is obvious from this that “god” is a really bad translation of “kami”, as something “evil, weak, and not worthy of respect” is not a god. This is, of course, why I don’t translate “kami”. (Some people use “spirit”, which is better, but on Norinaga’s definition Mount Fuji, the actual mountain, counts as a kami, and Mount Fuji is not a spirit. Most people these days insist that the mountain itself is not the kami, but I think that’s a debatable point within Shinto, so I don’t want to prejudge it by my translation.) Norinaga also claimed that there were no kami that were purely good, and equally none that were entirely evil.

For example, when discussing the birth of the Three Great Children from Izanagi’s purification, he said that Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi, being born from the clean eyes, were good kami, and that Susano-o, born from the dirty nose, was an evil kami. Certainly, in the legends, Susano-o goes to Takamagahara and causes a lot of trouble, but then, after he is thrown out of heaven, he kills the Yamata no Orochi, a great eight-headed serpent, and saves the life of Kushinada. Thus, the earlier interpretation was that the purification Susano-o received when he was thrown out of heaven turned him into a good kami. Norinaga disagreed, pointing out that in a later legend Susano-o tries several times to murder Okuninushi. Norinaga insisted that Susano-o was always an evil kami, but that the defeat of the Yamata no Orochi was indeed a good act, showing that even evil kami do the right thing sometimes.

Professor Nishioka pointed out an interesting consequence of that. Amaterasu’s son, the ancestor of the imperial line, was born when Susano-o crushed Amaterasu’s jewellery to prove that he wasn’t trying to conquer Takamagahara (it’s complicated), which means that the imperial line was born from both a good kami and an evil kami. This particular aspect of Norinaga’s philosophy was not so influential on State Shinto.

Going beyond the kami, Norinaga said that there was always good and evil in the world. Right at the beginning, things were good, as Izanagi and Izanami had sex so that Izananmi could give birth to the islands and kami of Japan. Even then, though, they made a mistake when Izanami addressed Izanagi first, and had to do it again. The birth of the fire kami and Izanami’s death marked a decline into an evil situation, which began to recover when Izanagi purified himself after his return from Yomi. Norinaga thought that this sort of cycle would continue, although he also said that good would ultimately win. That doesn’t strike me as particularly consistent with everything else he said, so maybe his students were getting a bit too depressed by his approach.

Because Norinaga believed that good and evil were irrevocably mixed in the world, he thought that you could never guarantee a good reaction. Even if you behaved perfectly virtuously, other people might still behave badly to you. Thus, there would always be tragedies in the world. According to Professor Nishioka, this was an important source of Norinaga’s belief in “mono no aware”, often translated as “the pity of things”, as a central part of the Japanese worldview.

One final point, mentioned in passing. Norinaga did not believe that stoicism, and hiding your emotions, was the true Japanese way. Real Japanese men, he thought, cried when they thought their fathers didn’t love them (Yamato Takeru no Mikoto does this in the Kojiki), and expressed their love and hate openly. This is one aspect of his interpretation of the Kojiki that seems to have had approximately zero influence on modern Japan, which is a shame. I can’t help thinking that it would have been a more positive influence than his belief in the inherent superiority of the Yamato race.

Hair Brush

Mayuki’s hair brush was finally delivered a couple of weeks ago. This isn’t a brush for Mayuki’s hair. It’s a brush made from Mayuki’s hair.

A red lacquer writing brush box, with a wild boar design and writing in gold

The box for the brush

These brushes are a Japanese custom. Apparently, many years ago, the best writing brushes were made from the first hair cut from babies. This was because the hair was of the right fineness, and, because it had never been cut before, all the ends had a natural taper, rather than being cut off sharply. At some point, certainly long before our time, this stopped being a practical issue, and a writing brush made with your child’s hair became a standard commemorative item with which to celebrate a birth. Ours was paid for by us and Mayuki’s non-Japanese grandparents, who may just about remember agreeing to that. Obviously, it took us quite a long time, but there are good reasons for that.

The box, however, is not one of the good reasons. The Japanese writing says “Birth Commemoration Writing Brush”, and the image of a boar is because Mayuki was born in the year of the boar. It didn’t take long to decide on those details. It did, however, take a little while to decide on the overall design of the brush, because they had a lot of options. The most expensive were entirely gilded, but those looked too gaudy, so we went for this option instead. It had quite a few options inside the box, and they did take some time.

The open box. The brush, also red lacquered, is visible, as is the inside of the lid

The brush and the lid of the box

The first problem is getting the hair for the brush. As you can see, you need quite a lot of hair to make the brush, and it takes a while for a baby to grow enough hair for you to cut that much off without leaving a bald baby. (Many years ago, babies were shaved bald in Japan, which probably meant that you could make the brush a bit sooner. Not any more, however.)

Then there are the things on the inside. First, the design above the brush is our family mon, or mark. This is a Japanese tradition, a bit like coats of arms, except that it was never official or regulated. Any family could have a mon, if they wanted it, and could choose anything they liked, as long as it hadn’t already been taken, and didn’t look too much like a very famous and important mon. Most Japanese families have one, although there is a default one, two crossed feathers, that is used in the absence of anything else.

Obviously, the Chart family does not have a traditional mon, and the dictionaries of “mon by family name” that you can buy in most shops don’t include “Chart” as one of the options. That meant that I had to design our mon from scratch. It is made up of three “musubi-fumi”, arranged so that they form a hexagon. A musubi-fumi is a folded and tied piece of paper, as used for writing notes and poems in classical Japan. “Musubi”, which means “tied”, is also used for relationships between people. Finally, three musubi-fumi could, in Japanese, be described as “mimusubi”, which, with different characters, is also the term for the power of life and growth. A nice bonus is that I think the design looks very nice, and the musubi-fumi was not, apparently, used in many traditional family mon (although the element appears in the dictionaries; that’s where I found it), so ours should be distinctive. Incidentally, most Japanese mon are in the public domain, because they’re old. I designed this one a couple of years ago, so it isn’t. So that took a bit of time.

Then there’s the writing inside the box. Most of this is fairly standard: Mayuki’s name, our names, and her birth date. That didn’t take much thought. However, there are two other things. First, there are eight characters, a short message, on the shaft of the brush. The catalogue provides a number of possibilities for people who don’t want to come up with their own, but I did, of course, want to come up with my own. It says “芯の愛が包まれる”, which means “The heartwood’s love is enfolded”. 芯 is the character used for the heart of a tree, or a brush, and includes the character for “heart”, as in emotions.

Inside the lid, you get twenty characters, and again there are options. This one really took time, because I wanted to write a tanka for it. A tanka is a traditional Japanese poem, often described as thirty-one characters. However, if you write it with kanji, you can get the number of characters down a bit, because many kanji stand for more than one syllable in some words, and it is the syllables that you actually count. It’s not easy to get it down to twenty, but I managed it. The final tanka is “筆先が命の道を画いたら真心以て自由と歓喜”, which is read “Fudesaki ga inochi no michi o egaitara, Magokoro mochite jiyuu to kanki”, and translates as “As the brush traces the path of your life, From devotion, freedom and joy”. The tanka starts with the character for “writing brush”, and the second part (the shimonoku, as it is traditionally called) includes all three kanji from Mayuki’s name, in order. (It starts with the first, finishes with the last, and the middle one is… a bit after the middle. There are limits.)

Writing those also took quite a bit of time.

The last bit that took time, and delayed this blog entry, was getting the photograph of Mayuki into it. You do that yourself, and it wasn’t hard, but I only got around to it today.

So, this is our new family treasure. We showed it to Mayuki, of course, and she wanted us to take it out of the box so that she could paint with it. No, Mayuki. It is your brush, true, but you’ll understand when you’re older.