David Chart's Japan Diary

June 6th 2006

This entry is a week late. This is because, last Tuesday, I finally received files for a book that is already nine months late, and had to check them immediately to avoid it becoming twelve months late. I managed it, but it didn't really leave any time to write a diary entry. So, now I have to try to remember what's happened over the last three weeks.

Fortunately, I don't think it's a great deal. First of all, there's been no recurrence of my asthma, so I hope that was a one-off.

We had our first meeting with our wedding co-ordinator a couple of weeks ago. The meeting lasted for about three hours, and I think the only thing we actually decided was the dates and times for the next meetings. However, we did talk about the invitations and the general structure of the reception, so although they haven't been decided in detail, we do know roughly what we are doing. It should be relatively easy to make the detailed decisions at the following meetings. At any rate, everything seems to be going well and on schedule, so nothing to worry about there.

I also had another lecture in my Shinto course, which was interesting, and about the 20-year move of the Grand Shrines at Ise. Every twenty years, they knock everything down and burn or bury it, and rebuild the whole complex from scratch. Apparently, the scale of the rebuild (as in, how many bits were redone) increased steadily until World War II, and then fell back when state support for the event ended. It still costs millions, but the shrine raises all of it privately.

Although the rebuild, which is called 'shikinen sengu', is the big event, it is not the purpose. Rather, the rebuild is carried out to prepare for the biggest festival at the shrine, which is held every twenty years. In the past, the sengu happened during the festival, but now it happens a few days earlier, probably because it has become larger and more elaborate. However, the festival has not finished until the final ceremonies are performed; it isn't over when the shintai (holy object) has been moved to the new shrine.

The reconstruction of all the buildings obviously draws the most attention, but apparently it isn't the most difficult bit. All the shrine treasures and tools are also remade, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find anyone who knows how. Apparently, for one set of boxes made from woven leaves (I think), last time they searched for years, and finally found a woman who could do it. She was getting on a bit then, so there is a risk that they won't be able to remake those items this time around. I would suggest that they institute the use of such items at other shrines, so that there's constant demand, enough to keep at least one workshop going. However, I suspect that the shapes involved may be unique to Ise; the architecture certainly is. Thus, simple copies could not be used in other shrines.

Another interesting fact was that one of the holiest things in the Ise compound is a short wooden pillar in the ground under the shrine. It does not reach the floor of the shrine, and serves no structural function; it is merely a holy object. The hypothesis is that, originally, that pillar was the item that the spirit of the kami inhabited, and that over time the shrine was built around it to cover it. Now, of course, the holiest thing is the mirror that, according to legend, came from heaven. It's so holy that, when it is moved, it is packed with silk kimonos made by the Imperial Household. However, the pole may well predate the mirror, although the actual physical pole is replaced every twenty years, along with the shrine above it. (The mirror is not replaced, merely moved. I believe that sending to heaven for a replacement is not an option, although it would be really cool if it were.)

The next lecture will also be about this event, although, I gather, from a more historical perspective.

I've also just finished reading yet another introduction to Shinto. I'm going to keep doing this, because they're all completely different. This one was particularly interesting, because it was mainly concerned with the social structures that transmit and maintain Shinto, rather than with the details of ancient legends, or history, or current practice (all things that other books have emphasised). There are a lot of very odd statistics that make the structure very interesting; I mentioned some last time. Another one I found (not in the book) is that about 25% of all Japanese people carry an o-mamori, but only about 13% think they work. The fact that Shinto appears to be primarily practised by people who do not believe in it, and say so when asked in a survey, is interesting, to say the least.

The other main events have been a few trips out with Yuriko. We've been to the cinema a couple of times, and for another walk around our area of Kawasaki. Both of the cinema trips were because I wanted to see films with Keiko Kitagawa in. Fortunately, one of them was a film that Yuriko had thought she wanted to see anyway, so not having to drag me along kicking and screaming was a bonus. The other was a more fantasy-type film, but she still enjoyed it, and definitely enjoyed going to a late show at the cinema, which she hadn't done for quite a while. Since we have established that late shows are possible, if we don't do them too often, we may go to the cinema a bit more often; Yuriko really likes it, and I have reached the stage of being able to watch a movie in Japanese with no real problems. (A major infodump of story background in the fantasy film did happen over intrusive background music, though, so I missed part of that. Although Yuriko was still asking me how everything fitted together afterwards, so there may have been one or two plot holes.)

Park The area leading up to the wetlands area at the Forest Park.

The walk was also extremely pleasant. That was this Sunday, and we had really nice weather. It was warm, but generally not too hot, and it didn't feel at all humid. This walk started in Higashi Takane Forest Park, which is close to our flat, and somewhere we have been before. However, we got to see a different bit, the wetlands area, and it was very pleasant. There were a lot of young families there, which is unsurprising as admission is free and it's a good place for children to play. I think it would be a good place to visit at multiple seasons, if we could get ourselved organised to do so. There are just so many things that we want to do, and only a limited amount of time in which to do them.

From the park, the walk took us along the top of a hill, through a lot of housing, to a park with five smallish mounds in. The mounds are fairly old (a couple of hundred years), but on top of much older remains (a few thousand years). The actual purpose of the mounds is obscure; legends say that they are grave mounds for various people, but they may also have been part of folk religious practices.

Shrine Entrance The steps and torii at the entrance to Nagao Jinja.

Next to the park is a shrine, Nagao Jinja. This is a small shrine, surrounded by lots of trees. It had a really peaceful atmosphere, and the position of the sun allowed me to take a nice picture of the steps leading up to the main torii. It felt like a small shrine should feel, at least to me; calm, somewhat separated from the everyday world, and placed within a natural environment, rather than controlling it. Yuriko also found it very congenial, so we spent quite a while looking around, and discovering the almost sheer drop at the back of the compound.

Almost next to the shrine is a Buddhist temple, Myorakuji, which is also known as 'hydrangea temple'. They weren't quite in bloom, but we could see that they would be quite spectacular when they were. This also had a very pleasant environment, although it felt rather more managed than the one around the shrine. We also went to have a look at the graveyard, where Yuriko managed to accidentally scare a sleeping cat. We saw a lot of cats on the walk, most of them probably feral. There were half a dozen who sat watching us while we had lunch in the Forest Park, one at the shrine, and then another couple at the temple. The ones in the park seemed totally unconcerned by adults trying to pet them, although they did move away when approached by small children. It seems that they have learned from experience...

After Myorakuji, the route took us through the azalea temple that we visited a month ago, and then to a very small shrine right by a main road. The atmosphere there could be politely described as 'somewhat lacking', although the steps approaching it were nice enough. The shrine, Shiboku Tenmangu, used to be in the grounds of a temple, and still has a Buddhist image within the precincts.

The rest of the walk was useful for locals, as we got a bit more of a sense of what is where, but rather uninspiring for visitors. The first part, up to coming out of Toukakuji (the azalea temple), however, is a very pleasant walk, and from the top of the hill next to Nagao Jinja you get a view out over the whole of Tokyo. We could only see as far as Shinjuku because of the haze, but we could also see Tokyo Tower. On a clear day, I would guess that you could see all the skyscraper districts.

Work has been going fairly well. I'm a bit behind on a few projects due to things with more urgent deadlines, but this morning went really well (I wrote over 3,000 words), so I'm not looking at any actual problems. I'm also just about OK for students, although a couple whom I have been teaching for about a year have just finished lessons, because he's off to the USA on a job transfer for a year. I think I may already have found replacements; I have meetings with two new students this weekend.

Talking of studies, there was an article on the Guardian website discussing the fact that girls are doing far better than boys at school. It sums this up by saying the exams seem pointless, and that girls are better at deferred gratification than boys. I think this is a sexist way of putting it. I prefer to say that boys are reluctant to do completely pointless things, while girls are happy to do as they're told, even if there doesn't seem to be any likely result. This also explains why women are more likely to do housework; it's utterly pointless, as things get messy and dirty again, but they're supposed to do it, so they do.

Of course, I don't actually have any evidence for that assertion, but it's at least as well supported by anecdotal evidence as the claim that girls are better at deferred gratification. (Shopping and chocolate being well known 'deferred gratification' things, obviously.)

This is pure rhetoric, but the rhetoric chosen makes a difference. If boys can't do deferred gratification, then the education system needs to be changed to give them some immediate gratification. If, on the other hand, they are perfectly capable of deferring gratification, as long as there is a likely result, then the system needs to be changed to teach things that will actually have a positive impact on their lives. The latter also seems like a good policy in general terms.

The general point is that I think British, and probably US, society has reached the point where we need to be careful about making sweeping negative statements about men, just as much as about women. It is acceptable to make sweeping negative statements about groups that have a secure hold on power; it's part of the process of bringing some more equality to the system. Thus, jokes about Americans really are more acceptable than jokes about Jews or Somalis, because Americans hold power at the moment. However, once a group does not have a secure hold on power, the same statements can become part of a program of oppression. That is, there is a point at which the moral status of a statement changes, although the content of the statement has not. I think that, with regard to men and women, British society has reached that point. Men and women are still not equal, but things are obviously heading that way. I think it's time to start making sure that we don't overshoot.

Incidentally, today's date is 6/6/6. Should we be out looking for the Antichrist? (No.)