Shirahata Hachiman Daijin Festival

The annual Grand Festival of Shirahata Hachiman Daijin, our local shrine, was held last weekend. The festival itself is on the Sunday, and on the previous day, the Saturday, there is a children’s mikoshi procession. A mikoshi is a portable shrine, based on the palanquins in which the nobility were carried in Heian times (about a thousand years ago), and the processions take the kami around the area under the protection of the shrine (the parish, if you like) to see what is going on, and to be livened up by the fun of the event.

As I normally work on Saturdays, I hadn’t been to the procession before, but this year I happened to have an open slot that coincided with the procession setting out from the shrine, so I went along to see what happened. The procession is organised by the Children’s Group of the Taira Residents’ Association, rather than by the shrine, but there’s a significant overlap between the officers of the Residents’ Association and the shrine’s Ujiko, and the areas are very similar. One exception is that, although we live in the shrine’s area, we have a different Residents’ Association. This is presumably why the event is not advertised in the immediate vicinity of our flat.

The female priest purifies the mikoshi with the haraigushi

Purifying the Mikoshi

Although the organisers are not the shrine, the shrine is deeply involved. First, the event starts at the shrine, and starts with a Shinto ceremony. The adults involved in the event gathered in the shrine for a ceremony, during which the mikoshi was purified, and the kami invited to enter it. The mikoshi seemed to be purified twice, once with the harai-gushi (as shown in the picture), and once with water splashed with a twig of sakaki. In each case it was purified four times, once from each side, and the Japanese drum that would be taken around with it was also purified.

As you can see from the photograph, this ceremony was performed by the younger woman in the shrine family. I think she qualified as a priest a couple of years ago (at least, that’s when she started wearing hakama in priest’s colours for the Grand Festival), but this was the first time I’d seen her perform a ceremony. I gather that it’s not at all uncommon in local shrines for all members of the family to be ordained priests, because that means that they can all help with what is, after all, the family business. Female chief priests are still a bit unusual, though, as are female priests at larger shrines.

The mikoshi is tipped on its side to get it through the torii

Up a bit, left a bit...

After the purification, the tamagushi that had been offered in the shrine were put into the mikoshi, to be offered to the kami there, I assume. Then, the mikoshi had to be taken out of the shrine and down the steps for the procession. There was an immediate problem: the mikoshi frame was wider than the torii. The solution, of course, was to tip it on one side to make it narrower, so that it would fit through. The torii at the bottom of the steps was made even narrower because there was a takoyaki (deep fried octopus) stall next to it, so the mikoshi had to be turned vertically to get it through there. This didn’t seem to disturb anyone, and, indeed, it is traditional to shake the mikoshi in a lot of festivals, to liven the kami up. Mayuki likes that sort of thing, so I guess the kami do, too.

Everyone gathered in the car park at the base of the steps. The children were pulling the drum, which was on wheels, rather than carrying the mikoshi, as the mikoshi was probably too heavy, and one thing I noticed was that, although the adults all had the traditional festival happi coats, there were none for the children. I thought that was a bit of a shame, but checking online afterwards revealed that it would be quite pricey to get enough happi to go around, so I imagine that’s the reason.

The procession was led by two children carrying metal staves with rings in the top: Buddhist staves. Behind the mikoshi were two more with giant fans, and bringing up the rear was a truck with traditional musicians on. The procession was quite lively, and went around the area for most of the day, even after I was back at work.

The chief priest, in mask and costume, dances in the shrine

Sacred Dance

I’ve talked about the Grand Festival before, and it was, of course, more or less the same as ever. I’ll just mention the points that were different. First, the young female priest was fully involved for the first time, sitting with the other priests on the dais and participating in the ritual, rather than just reading out the order of service and instructions (although she was doing that as well). Second, I offered my tamagushi at a different place in the ritual, so I’m not at all sure how they decide the order now. The head of the Ujiko goes first, and last is someone who can represent all of the Ujiko so that they can pay their respects with him, but I’m no longer at all sure how they work things out in the middle.

Mayuki came during the ceremony, to watch the children’s sumo contest and eat shaved ice (and feed some to her toys), and she stayed for the sacred dance. She said she was frightened at first, but it wasn’t very convincing, and she was soon showing no signs at all. During the final two dances, she was dancing along with the drum beat, so I hope the kami appreciated the extra entertainment.

Once again, the festival went off successfully, but maybe with small changes to adapt to modern conditions.

Thinking About the Report

This session of the Kawasaki Foreigners’ Assembly is coming to an end. We still have about six months to go, but that’s only four normal meetings, so we have to get started on deciding our final report and suggestions to the city government.

In Sunday’s session, the Life and Society Subcommittee did manage to get started on that, but first we discussed the participation of foreign residents in society. It’s obviously very easy for foreigners to get isolated; it’s common to arrive knowing no-one, and there’s often a language barrier as well. There are a lot of ways for foreign residents to get involved in life in Kawasaki, such as committees run by the city, and the local organisations called Jichikai and Chonaikai. As far as the secretariat could discover, there are no city committees that exclude foreigners from membership, and the local organisations certainly don’t. However, the problem is how foreigners who have newly arrived in the city can find out about these organisations, and, once they’ve found out, how they can make the first approach. One representative suggested that the children’s groups that most of the local organisations run are a good way to start, and that’s certainly true for people who have children. Not everyone does, of course. The city probably can’t give information about newly resident foreigners to the organisations, because that would be a privacy violation, but it might be possible to tell new residents about the organisation; since the city knows your address, it can tell you exactly who to contact in your area.

Once people are involved in society, a lot of other problems get solved, not least the problem of a sense of isolation, and it can help with a lot of the problems of information flow. Once a foreigner has Japanese friends, then even if they don’t read Japanese, they have people they can ask to find out about things. Equally important, a foreigner who is involved in local society can make positive contributions to it. Of course, easier integration would also help Japanese people moving into the area, and there are quite a lot of them in Kawasaki, so if we do take this to the final report, I would definitely want to think about approaches that would be useful to both Japanese and foreign residents.

After that discussion, we went on to talk about what we would like to see in the report. We can make two, or just possibly three, recommendations. (The Education Subcommittee also gets to make the same number of recommendations.) On Sunday, we only got as far as everyone saying which subjects they would like to make recommendations about, and saying why. Everyone contributed, and I didn’t even have to encourage them too hard. Quite a lot of people wanted to address participation in society, some sort of survey of foreign residents, and the general flow of information to foreign residents. The residence conditions for parents, support for finding good accommodation, and the pensions issue were also raised.

So, the last thing we agreed on was how we would start the next session. First, we will vote on whether to have two or three recommendations. (I think we should go for two, because deciding on three in four sessions strikes me as very ambitious.) Then, we’ll vote for the issues. Everyone will vote for the same number of issues as there will be in the report, the lowest-scoring issue will be eliminated, we’ll all vote again, and so on until the right number is left. Since we are only going to vote, not discuss the issues, I think we should be able to get through that in about fifteen minutes, which will leave most of the session for discussing concrete content for the recommendations.

I thought the last session went very smoothly, a sentiment that was echoed by one of the other representatives. It’s a bit of a shame that we’ve got good at working together at the end of our term, but it’s also not really surprising. I am, at least, optimistic that we’ll be able to produce recommendations that we all support.

Visit Tohoku! Aizu

I’ve been to Tohoku again, this time on a family trip in the middle of July. We spent two nights and three days in the Aizu region of Fukushima Prefecture. Yes, that is the Fukushima Prefecture that has the broken nuclear power station. However, it’s one of the largest prefectures in Japan, and the Aizu region is at the other side, a hundred kilometres or so from the nuclear power plant. In terms of radiation, it’s safe, as evidenced by the fact that this is where a lot of the people who used to live near the power station have been evacuated to.

The Aizu region is in the mountains of southern Tohoku, and apparently gets a lot of snow in the winter. While we were there, the temperature was generally pleasant, although there were occasional showers that held our sightseeing back a bit. On the up side, the train ride from Koriyama (where we got off the shinkansen) to Aizu Wakamatsu (where we were staying) was very pleasant, winding its way along mountain valleys, and through occasional tunnels. Mayuki certainly enjoyed herself, but I don’t think that was primarily the scenery; she was having much more fun climbing all over us.

Yuriko and Mayuki in front of the Aizu mascot, a stylised red cow

At Aizu Wakamatsu station, in front of the Aizu mascot

The original plan was to get the bus from the station to the ryokan where we were staying, but that left us about 45 minutes to kill at the station. Fortunately, there was a festival/market being held just outside the station, and Mayuki decided that she wanted to go there, and eat shaved ice and fried noodles. This is hardly a local speciality, being standard festival food in Tokyo, but that is presumably why Mayuki wanted to eat it. Since she was enjoying it, and we were on holiday, I decided that we would get a taxi to the ryokan, so that we didn’t have to worry about the times. We left the festival as they were starting to clear up, and got in the taxi just as it started raining, so the timing was perfect there.

The ryokan where we were staying, Kutsurogijuku Shintaki, is in Higasiyama Onsen, on the edge of the town, and the area is very pretty, in a steep-sided forested valley, with most of the ryokan along the river. Quite a bit of the ryokan was accommodating evacuees, so the number of tourists was fairly small. That meant that we could book the open-air bath by the river on both nights of our stay, and go in as a family. Mayuki really enjoyed that, and since no-one else was there, she could play without Yuriko getting worried, or having to avoid bothering other people.

Me, Yuriko and Mayuki, with a samurai.

People in samurai costume walk round the town and pose with tourists for photographs, free.

We spent our full day looking around the town of Aizu Wakamatsu. This was the centre of one of the important domains of feudal (Edo-period) Japan, and is famous as the site of one of the important battles around the Meiji Restoration, in the late 1860s. There is a very well-known tragic story associated with it, as well. The domain had a number of groups of samurai, divided by age, and the White Tiger Group was made up of boys aged 16 to 17. When the domain was attacked, they were sent to relieve one part of the army, and attacked unexpectedly. Many of them managed to escape through a tunnel to a hill overlooking the town, but when they got there they saw the castle wreathed in smoke, and thought that it had already fallen. All but one of them committed suicide. The castle had not fallen, however. As a result of this, Aizu Wakamatsu is strongly associated with samurai.

It’s also associated with a number of traditional crafts, and we spent quite a lot of our time looking at those. One is lacquer ware, and we visited a shop with centuries of history, full of beautiful items. Another tradition is a particular style of cotton, while a final one is the manufacture of candles with lovely pictures of flowers on. We did quite a lot of shopping, partly to support the local economy, and partly to get presents for the people we would be visiting in the UK.

Apart from the samurai, the region’s other claim to fame is that it was where Hideyo Noguchi was born and raised. He was a famous Japanese scientist (a bacteriologist), and is the face on the current 1000 yen note, so he’s become very well known. He trained as a doctor in Aizu Wakamatsu, and we had a break at a cafe in the building that used to house the hospital where he pursued his initial studies.

Around that time, Mayuki fell asleep on me, and I was also getting a bit tired, so we debated going straight back to the ryokan. Yuriko, however, wanted to go to see the collection of Edo period houses, which were on the way back, so we did, getting there just before closing time. They were very interesting, in part because these were houses for more ordinary samurai. One was, admittedly, the former house of a chief retainer, but the chief retainer to a domain lord is a long way down from the shogun. One interesting point was that the toilet reserved for the head of the household had no ceiling, so that assassins could not hide between the ceiling and the roof.

I really like the traditional Japanese architecture, from an aesthetic viewpoint. From a practical standpoint, I’m not good enough at sitting on the floor to really be comfortable living in a house that was all Japanese style, and I’d need to find somewhere to put my books, but if I can ever afford an actual house somewhere in Japan, I’d like to have a Japanese-style section, not just a Japanese room.

Yuriko and Mayuki taking up a lot of space in the upper deck lounge of the tourist boat

Away From The Crowds

On our final day we went to Inawashiro, a small town on one of the larger lakes in Japan, Lake Inawashiro. The first thing we did was go out on the lake on the tourist cruise. We were the only passengers on the boat, so we went to the upstairs lounge and took it easy, enjoying the scenery and the commentary. The fact that we were there on a weekday outside high season probably partly accounts for how quiet it was, but I fear that the nuclear accident may also have been scaring people away.

From the boat, we went to a late nineteenth/early twentieth century house that was built for a member of the Imperial family. Yuriko finds these really interesting; I find them very similar to a lot of houses in the UK. Indeed, the main difference between this house and my friend’s house that we stayed at in the summer is that my friend’s house is bigger… After we’d looked around, Mayuki enjoyed watching the ants hunting for food in the lawns outside the house, before we got a taxi to our lunch stop.

Yuriko and Mayuki inside a reconstructed farmer's house

The cones are not historic

This was also on the shore of the lake, and as well as the restaurant it had several museums and similar. One was the Aizu Folk Museum, where several houses from the region had been reconstructed. These were farmers’ houses, so they were smaller than the samurai houses, and much more practical. Most only had one tatami room, with earth floors elsewhere, but they had upper floors, both for living and storage. Mayuki really liked one of the houses, and went round it three times. There was a route marked out, so that at busy times people would keep flowing, but Mayuki was able to go in whichever direction she wanted.

The other museum was the Hideyo Noguchi museum, because this is where he was born. If I understood the explanations correctly, it is literally where he was born; one feature of the museum is that house, and there was no indication that it has been moved and reconstructed. A famous part of Nogushi’s story is that, when he was eighteen months old, he fell into the hearth at home and burned himself very badly, so badly that the fingers of one hand fused together. Because the house is in the museum, you can see that hearth, and the story made a really big impression on Mayuki. She kept wanting to see the hearth again, and asking about the accident. When we got home, we bought her a picture book biography of Noguchi, and she still asks for it to be read. When Noguchi was in his early teens, his friends got together to pay for an operation on his hand, which was a success, and that is what set him on the path to studying medicine.

After we’d seen the museums, we still had a bit of time before our train, so we went to the big glass shop across the road and had a drink in their coffee shop. While Yuriko looked around, Mayuki and I “painted” the milk and syrup pots using the paper on the end of the straws. When we’d finished, we put everything back the way it had been, and Mayuki didn’t even need much prompting.

Mayuki fell asleep on the train back, but woke up when we got on the shinkansen, and immediately started crying that she didn’t have a packed meal like Yuriko and me. So I took her to find the lady with the trolley, where I bought her a drink and a box of chocolate almonds. That cheered her up, and she happily took bits from our meals to eat, in between dozing a bit.

It was a very nice part of Japan, and apparently it’s glorious in autumn, when the leaves on the mountains all change colour and get reflected in the lake. I’d like to go back, but I don’t know whether we’ll get round to it; there are so many new places to go. In any case, I can recommend it to people visiting Japan.

Japanese Prime Ministers

I’m sorry it’s been so long since I updated this blog; we went to the UK in the summer, and that ate up a lot of time. I have a bunch of things to post, and I’ve started working on them, so I’ll keep this entry short, just to bring some life back to the blog, and get on with writing more substantial articles.

As you probably know, Yoshihiko Noda has just become the new Prime Minister of Japan. He is the sixth person to hold that post in Mayuki’s lifetime. Mayuki is still three years old.

By way of comparison, there have been eight Prime Ministers of the UK in my lifetime. I am thirteen times Mayuki’s age.

It’s not entirely fair to describe Japan’s political system as “unstable”, but it certainly doesn’t encourage long-lived Prime Ministers. According to a news article I read a few days ago, the longest-serving post-war Japanese Prime Minister did not serve for as long as the average tenure of post-war German Chancellors. I’m just waiting for the Japanese people to take inspiration from the Arab spring and pour onto the streets of Tokyo waving banners saying “We don’t want regime change!” and “We demand that the Prime Minister doesn’t resign!”.

Visit Tohoku! Sendai and Shiogama

According to a recent article in the Guardian, the number of tourists coming to Japan has fallen sharply. This is, perhaps, because they imagine that Japan is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, glowing with radioactivity and, quite possibly, roamed by gangs of mutant bikers. And Godzilla.

Obviously, this is not the case. There is no problem with radioactivity in Tokyo. Mayuki’s kindergarten is keeping an eye on the readings from Kawasaki, and so far they haven’t felt the need to change their activities at all; we all went to dig up and then eat potatoes for Fathers’ Day, for example. Areas west and south of Tokyo barely felt the earthquake at the time, and weren’t affected by the tsunami.

However, what about Tohoku? As you may have guessed from the title of this article, it’s even an exaggeration in that case. There are still 110,000 people living in evacuation shelters, and less than half the rubble has been cleared even as far as temporary storage areas, but Tohoku is a large area, and there are quite a lot of places it is safe, and fun, to visit.

Yesterday, I went on a day trip to Shiogama Shrine, near Sendai, in Miyagi Prefecture, on the coast and in the heart of the area affected by the disaster. I decided a while ago that something useful I could do for the affected area was to go there and spend money, so I looked for things that I wanted to do. Shiogama Shrine is one of the Ichi no Miya (Number One Shrines), a system that dates back to the twelfth century, and designates some of the most important Shinto shrines in the country. I’ve had a plan to visit all of them for some time, but previously I’d only managed to visit one, so this seemed like a good opportunity to extend the list a bit. As the shrine is close to Sendai, which is a stop on the Tohoku Shinkansen, it’s possible to visit the shrine on a day trip, without a ridiculously early start or late finish. What’s more, JR East Japan has been running a campaign for a one-day pass for the whole region, for 10,000 yen. That’s less than half what it would normally cost to go to and from Shiogama, which decided it.

Of course, I was a little nervous before I went. I had confirmed that the shrine was still there, and still operating more-or-less as normal, and checking the town’s tourist information page, in Japanese, showed that they were planning to hold a festival next week. So, it sounded as though I could go and do tourism things. Of course, I was still a bit worried about what the people in the town would think. The idea was to support their recovery, so if they felt I was getting in the way, or just coming to look at “the victims”, then that wouldn’t be any good at all. Still, that wasn’t a good enough reason to do nothing, so off I went.

I went by myself, and so part of the enjoyment was the shinkansen ride. I really like riding the express trains, watching Japan’s scenery go past, and just relaxing. Obviously, it’s not quite the same when Yuriko and Mayuki are there, so yesterday was a rare chance.

The main purpose of my trip was to visit the shrine. The old “kuni” were very big in northern Japan, so Shiogama Shrine was the Ichi no Miya for current Aoyama, Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima prefectures, which is almost all the regions seriously affected by the disaster. (Ibaraki and Chiba were also seriously hit, although to a lesser extent.) Thus, in a sense Shiogama Shrine is the tutelary shrine for the regions affected by the disaster, and I planned to go and have a ceremony done to ask for the fast recovery of the stricken areas. Even if you believe that those ceremonies have a supernatural effect (and I’m not convinced), one more from me wouldn’t make much difference, given that the people who live there are presumably making similar requests quite a lot. However, it did strike me as a good way to leave money in the area, which was another of my main purposes.

However, I was a bit nervous about it, for a couple of reasons. First, it is very unusual to make such general requests at a shrine. It might be normal to pray for disaster victims in a church, but it’s not what you normally do at a shrine. You normally go to a shrine to make personal requests. Thus, I was a bit worried that it might be out of order in general. Even if it wasn’t, I was concerned that it might not be appropriate for an ordinary person from outside the region to just turn up and do it, and that it might seem arrogant and condescending. Still, again, these were not good enough reasons to do nothing, so I went from the station to the shrine, as planned.

Beyond a torii, a steep flight of stone steps climbs a hill to between tall trees

The entrance to Shiogama Shrine

Arriving at the main entrance, the reason why the shrine had not suffered from the tsunami was immediately obvious. Indeed, since it is very common for shrines to be on hills, they have, apparently, suffered relatively little in the disaster. The older shrines, in particular, were built on firm ground, and above the reach of the tsunami. That’s not to say that no shrines were damaged, far from it, but, on average, they have not been major victims.

I managed to get all the way up to the shrine, and soon found the reception desk for ceremonies; there was a big sign just to the left of the entrance. There was hardly anyone in the shrine, but there was a group of people there when I arrived. By the time I had filled in my request form, they had gone to the waiting room, so when I handed over the request, and the money in the formal envelope, there was no-one else there. The priest on the desk didn’t react much, but then I hadn’t expected to be told I couldn’t have the ceremony done. He just told me that I would have to wait for the other group to finish, and directed me to the waiting area, which was quite large. I took my jacket out of my rucksack while I was waiting, because while you should dress formally, with a jacket and tie, for a formal ceremony, I wasn’t about to walk around in a jacket for any longer than necessary.

I had offered enough for a ceremony with kagura, sacred dance, because I wasn’t there to save money, and while I waited I could see the miko taking a koto and other equipment into the worship hall of the shrine. After about twenty minutes, a priest came to collect me. He was fairly senior (he had purple hakama on), but not the chief priest (who would have had white patterns on purple hakama, at least). I’d guess he was the senior priest on duty yesterday. I put my jacket on, and followed him across.

The buildings at Shiogama Shrine are over three hundred years old, so I had to take my shoes off at the bottom of the steps into the worship hall. Fortunately, I had anticipated this possibility, and worn new socks with no holes. Inside the shrine, there were no chairs, so I knelt on the tatami mats. Practising formal kneeling pays off for me repeatedly. I knelt to one side of the worship hall, while on the other side there were four of the shrine staff: two priests, and two miko. The miko were in their full kagura regalia. First, the junior priest purified us all, as normal, and then the senior priest went to the main sanctuary to read the norito. The sanctuary is a separate building from the worship hall at Shiogama Shrine, so disappeared from view. However, they have set up a system to allow you to hear your norito.

That was the point when I largely stopped worrying, because the norito was specially written to ask for recovery from the disaster. Now, I suppose that a priest with a lot of experience and talent could have written a norito in that twenty minute slot, as well as getting his ritual clothes on, but it’s not very likely. What that indicated to me was that other people had been making similar requests, enough to justify writing a norito for it, and so it was not strange at all.

During the norito, you bow your head, and when I looked up there were another two miko on the other side of the room. I’m pretty sure they weren’t there to start with, but they might have been sitting back a bit. One was sitting at the koto, the other at the drum. Next was the kagura, a dance called Ichi no Mori. Two of the miko danced, holding kagura-suzu, with lots of small bells and trailing ribbons, while one played the koto and the other beat the drum and sang.

Finally, I had to offer my tamagushi (sakaki branch), and I was briefly confused because there were two tables in front of me. Fortunately, a questioning glance at the priests elicited the information that I should put it on the smaller table. Then I returned to my place, and the senior priest brought my o-fuda, which also had “Recovery Ceremony” apparently printed on the paper; clearly not unusual. He also brought a really big bottle of o-miki, sacred sake, as part of the offerings that you always receive after a ceremony. That’s a bit of a shame, since neither Yuriko nor I drinks sake, but refusing it would have been very inappropriate. We will find a good use for it, somehow. (It will probably end up being offered on our kamidana.)

Me, the senior priest, and the two miko who danced

Spot the Foreigner

Then he asked me where I was from, and how long I’d been in Japan, and thanked me for having the ceremony. That set my mind at ease. The priests do not normally thank you, so it obviously meant that he was pleased that I had asked for the ceremony. Indeed, once we had left the worship hall he offered to have a photograph taken of me with him and the two miko who danced. For once, I remembered to ask for permission to put it online, so here it is.

After that, the priest stayed with me for a bit, explaining a bit about the shrine and some of the historic items in the grounds. There are a couple of very old iron lanterns, one of which is spectacularly elaborate. He said that originally there were four of them, but in the last war the government demanded three of them for the iron. He also said that all the lanterns fell over in the earthquake, although they have now been repaired. I got some o-mamori amulets, and the Scarlet Seal (go-shuin) of the shrine, and then took a lot of photographs.

By that time it was getting towards two pm, so I headed down into the town to get something to eat. It seemed that none of the traffic lights in the centre were working, so obviously recovery is still continuing, but the sushi restaurant I had chosen from the guidebook was open, and very nice, if not very busy. The sushi chef asked me why I was there, and when I explained he thanked me for coming all that way to support them. After a very nice lunch, I went to buy some o-miyage (food, so not exactly souvenirs), and the shop had a sign in the window announcing that they had restarted selling their most famous product, which is made with fresh cream. I bought four of those, but they had to be well wrapped-up to survive the journey home. (They did; they were very nice.)

My last visit was to O-Kama Shrine. A “kama” is an iron cauldron, used for cooking and similar, and this shrine literally enshrines four iron cauldrons. The shrine itself is a separate building, but the cauldrons are in an area marked off with shimenawa as a sacred space, and labelled as “Kami Kama”. I made the nominal offering required to get to see them, and the shrine priest explained that one is thought to be about a thousand years old, while the other three are maybe eight hundred years old. The cauldrons were all used for making salt. “Shiogama” means “salt cauldron”, and the kami of the shrine is supposed to have taught people how to make salt. The cauldrons are used once a year, at the beginning of July (so just before I went), to make salt the old-fashioned way, and I was given a packet of the salt as an amulet when I left. Following the priest’s lead, I paid my respects to the cauldrons with the standard double bow, double clap, single bow.

Then I had to head back to Sendai to get the shinkansen home. I took a different line, and the station in Shiogama, which is right down near the harbour, was still clearly damaged and being repaired, but it was also operating more-or-less normally.

Since Shiogama is right next to Matsushima, one of the most beautiful spots in Japan, I suspect that Matsushima is in a similar situation. Certainly, the trains are running between Sendai and Matsushima, and the tourist information web site for Matsushima looks like they are open for business as usual. So, I can recommend Sendai, Shiogama, and possibly Matsushima as places to visit. Normally, now would be a bit late to book for the summer, but this year I suspect you could find somewhere. I recommend it.

Ōharaikotoba — Shinto Texts Course

Yesterday we had the fourth of this year’s Shinto lectures at Kokugakuin. The lecturer was Professor Okada, and the theme was the ÅŒharaikotoba. The ÅŒharaikotoba is a purification prayer, and one of the most important norito (ritual prayer) in Shinto. Indeed, it is almost certainly the most important single norito, which is why it earned a whole lecture to itself on the course. It’s about 900 characters long, so probably around 500 words in English. If it’s recited at a stately pace, it takes about ten minutes, which is why it isn’t a standard part of Shinto ceremonies, although purification certainly is.

“Kotoba” just means “words”, although with the kanji used in this case it means “specially composed words”. “Harai” is purification, and the “ÅŒ” prefix indicates a public and official purification. The norito was originally used at the twice-yearly ÅŒharai in the capital, where all the government officials and palace staff would gather outside the main gate, the Suzaku gate, of the imperial palace to be purified of everything that had built up over the past half year. The prayer was read out by a member of the Nakatomi family, so it is also known as the Nakatomi Harai. The earliest ÅŒharai referred to in historical records was in 676. (There are earlier ones, but they are said to have happened under emperors who didn’t actually exist, and so the records are not believed to be trustworthy.) This was an exceptional one, held in the eighth month, as opposed to the ones that later became standard, in the sixth and twelfth months. The first reference to those is in 702, when the record states that the ÅŒharai was not held in the capital, although the corresponding regional ceremonies were. Since it only makes sense to say that something was not held if there was an expectation that it would be, the regular system must have been set up before that. A new set of Chinese-style laws was introduced in Japan in 701, so it is thought that the ÅŒharai was instituted at the same time.

In the past it was quite common for Japanese people to know the ÅŒharaikotoba by heart, but that’s much less common today. Professor Okada commented that all the students in the Department of Shinto Studies knew it by heart by their third or fourth year, but they didn’t understand it. That is hardly surprising; it’s in archaic Japanese, and as he went through Professor Okada commented on some points for which the interpretation is still unclear.

The norito starts by telling the story of the descent of Ninigi (the ancestor of the imperial line) to earth. At the beginning it mentions the male and female ancestor kami of the imperial line, but it does not say, specifically, which kami it means. The most common interpretation seems to be Takamimusubi and Amaterasu, respectively, and that fits pretty well with the Kojiki and Nihonshoki. However, some people apparently replace Amaterasu with Kamumusubi. The norito also talks about gathering kami from across Japan, thus emphasising that Japan and Takamagahara, the High Plain of Heaven, are not separated. It then describes Ninigi’s descent, and the construction of an imperial palace.

Next, there is a list of the things that cause pollution. This is split into two groups, the Ama tsu Tsumi, or “Crimes of Heaven”, and the Kuni tsu Tsumi, or “Crimes of Earth”. As the norito is used today, the crimes are not explicitly listed, although they were in the original version. Professor Okada’s explanation for this was that it is inappropriate to say such things in a shrine; they are words that should be avoided. Originally, the norito was not read in a shrine, so it was fine, but the situation changed.

All of the Ama tsu Tsumi are connected to rice agriculture. They include breaking down the banks between fields, filling in irrigation ditches, sowing extra seeds, and something to do with excrement. If you look at the legend of Susano-o in Takamagahara, the Ama tsu Tsumi are basically all the things he is reported to have done, which suggests that the last one, written with two characters, for “excrement” and “door” or “village” in the Japanese, refers to desecrating ritual sites with excrement.

The Kuni tsu Tsumi are much more varied, falling into five categories. The first two concern wounding people, either so that they die, or so that they don’t. The next two are illnesses. Being white is apparently a Kuni tsu Tsumi; in Japanese, it’s written as “white person”. However, it means a skin disease, like leprosy in the Bible. Then there is a group concerning sexual behaviour. Incest and bestiality apparently cause impurity. The next group concern disasters happening to you: attacks by insects, lightning strikes, and problems with birds. The possibility of birds and insects destroying the rice crop are, I take it, obvious. The last one is a form of sorcery.

“Tsumi” is normally translated “sin” or “crime”, but the reason I’ve been avoiding that should be obvious; having a disease or being struck by lightning is hardly a sin. They are, however, things that disrupt the community, and therefore need to be purified so that the community can rebuild. The emphasis of the norito is on these impurities being washed away and destroyed, and the way in which that can be done, not on punishing the people responsible. Indeed, punishment is not mentioned at all.

The reference to “washing away” is not metaphorical. People would transfer their impurity to a small, stylised doll, wooden and first, but paper by the twelfth century, and the doll would then be cast into a river to flow away to the sea. (This custom has had to be abandoned in many places now, because there are enough dolls to damage the environment.) The last section of the norito describes four kami who are responsible for this purification. The first, Seoritsuhime, is a female kami who dwells in the swift current of rivers. The second, Hayaakitsume, is another female kami, who dwells in the mouths of rivers, where they enter the sea. The third, Ibukitonushi, is a male kami who lives out to sea, and the fourth, Hayasasurahime, is another female kami, who dwells in the underworld. These kami are not mentioned in any other classical sources, but the association of rivers and the sea with purification is a very widespread motif in Shinto.

There were quite a few points in the norito that Professor Okada did not have time to go into, and as interpretation of the ÅŒharaikotoba was extremely popular in the middle ages, several books could be written about its position in the history of Shinto. However, a 90 minute lecture can still give a useful introduction.

A Wedding and The Grand Shrines of Ise

Last weekend we went on a little trip. One of Yuriko’s cousins was getting married in Gifu (near Nagoya), so we went to that, and then extended the trip a bit to go to Ise and visit the shrines. The wedding was on Sunday, so Yuriko and Mayuki went to Nagoya on Saturday to stay with Yuriko’s parents. I was, as usual, teaching on Saturday, so I got the shinkansen early in the morning, getting up at half past five. Apart from that, however, the journey went very smoothly.

Mayuki in a blue dress and tiara

I'm a Princess!

The wedding itself was very nice. Mayuki was all dressed up in the dress she picked out for herself, and informed me on several occasions that she was a princess. She was quite lively when I arrived, but was happy to go into the ceremony. That was Shinto style, in a shrine room inside the wedding complex. Mayuki started getting a bit sleepy during it, and climbed on my knee. Then, while the miko were dancing, she fell asleep. She stayed sound asleep to the end of the ceremony, and all through the group photograph, and as we made our way to the reception hall, and sat at our table. Then the staff brought a bed for her, and as I went to put her in it, she woke up. Of course.

Her first reaction was surprise. “It’s not the kami’s place anyone. It’s turned into a restaurant!” She got into the restaurant aspect, eating quite a lot of her dinner, and using the bed as a place to play, and dance when there was music. At a Japanese wedding reception, there are very often performances by some of the guests, and this one was no exception. One of the first was an event at which the children (elementary school and under) would help. The staff came round to tell us in advance, so I was able to warn Mayuki in advance, and get her to agree to help.

What she had to do was help burst a balloon that contained a lot of heart-shaped balloons. Before they did that, though, the MC asked all of them questions, and she asked Mayuki how old she was. “I’m three!” she said, very loudly and clearly. Obviously, she hasn’t quite got around to being shy yet. Mayuki was very taken with the balloons that came out, and spent the rest of the reception playing with them. Towards the end, when all the emotional and sentimental speeches got going, I decided it was time to take her out of the reception hall, and go and play with the balloons in the corridor. I have no idea where she gets all her energy from, but there was a lot of playing involved.

We all spent that night at Yuriko’s parents, where Mayuki made the most of the fact that it’s a house, not a flat, so she can run and jump up and down on the floor without Yuriko getting stressed or annoyed.

On the Monday, we set out for Ise. The second typhoon of the season had gone over during the night, and it was still wet and windy, but Yuriko’s parents gave us a lift to the underground station, so we had no problem. The train to Ise, however, was delayed en route by about an hour, because the winds were too strong for it to travel. By the time we arrived at Ise, shortly after one, the wind had gone down quite a bit, and the sun was out.

The Grand Shrines of Ise comprise 125 shrines in total, of which two, the Outer Shrine and the Inner Shrine, are the most important. The long-established custom is that you visit both, but visit the Outer Shrine first. Conveniently, the Outer Shrine is about five minutes’ walk from the railway station, so there was little problem doing that.

Mayuki picking up stones

Stones are very interesting

The shrines are very simple, and set in natural woodland, which makes them extremely pleasant to visit. Mayuki enjoyed running around and picking up the stones and gravel on the paths, while Yuriko and I enjoyed the fact that it wasn’t very busy on a Monday. There were signs telling us to walk on the left, but not enough people to make it necessary.

The two main shrines are simple wooden buildings with thatched roofs, rebuilt every twenty years, surrounded by four layers of fence. The outermost layer is of planks, so that you cannot see through it, but the inner layers are of posts, so that you can see a bit. There is no worship hall, so most people go through the first fence and venerate the shrine in front of the gate through the second fence. However, if you’re a member of the sukeikai, as I am, you can go one layer further in.

First, you have to sign your name in the visitor book. Then a priest leads you through a small gate, and purifies you while you are still outside the second fence. At most shrines, this purification is done with an onusa, a wooden baton with many paper streamers attached. However, at the Ise shrines they do it by scattering salt from a small bowl, using a small branch of sakaki (the evergreen tree closely associated with Shinto). After the purification, the priest leads you round to a gate through the second fence (not the one that most people pay their respects at), and then to the centre of the area between the second and third fences, where you venerate the shrine from in front of a torii. Then the priest leads you out again.

Mayuki was being squirmy through all of this, and as we tried to leave, we found out why. She wanted to write her name in the visitors’ book as well. Our attempts to persuade her that it was not necessary failed, so in the end we asked the priests for permission, and they said she could. She made a definite effort to write her name; although the characters were not right, it was obvious what she was trying to write. I’m not quite sure what the next people made of her signature, though.

In addition to the main shrines, there are 123 smaller shrines, and three of these are up a hill just across from the Outer Shrine, so we visited those as well. Mayuki was in a good mood, although she wanted to be carried, but instead of clapping twice she patted her head and stomach, like a monkey. Luckily, I think the kami have a sense of humour.

We were staying at the Jingu Kaikan, which is associate with the shrines, and very close to the Inner Shrine. The room had a nice view, and the food was very good, so Yuriko and I were very happy. After going to the big bath, Mayuki discovered that a vending machine in the lobby sold her favourite blue ice cream, so she was very happy as well.

One of the services the Kaikan offers to guests is a free early morning guided visit to the Inner Shrine. That started at 6:30, so I left Yuriko and Mayuki to get more sleep. It was extremely good. The weather was perfect, not too hot, but sunny, and with the fresh air of early morning. As we arrived at the Inner Shrine before 7am, it was not very busy, although there were other people there. The guide told us quite a bit about the shrine as we went round, and while I knew quite a bit of it already, there was a lot that was new to me. For example, the next rebuilding of the shrines will happen in 2013, but the bridge over the river was rebuilt last year. This is because the first post-war rebuilding was supposed to happen in 1950, but Japan didn’t have the resources to do it then (and there was some resistance to doing it while Japan was still occupied). However, the bridge was getting unsafe, so that was rebuilt on schedule in 1950. The main rebuilding happened (obviously) in 1953, so the bridge, which was originally replaced in the same year as the main shrines, is now replaced three years earlier.

Similarly, most of the offerings to the kami at Ise are made by the shrine from the products of its own lands. The exception is the sake, which can only legally be made by a licensed sake brewer. All the shrine’s sake is bought from one brewer, Hakutaka in Kobe. Before the war, many brewers offered sake to the shrine, but as the war progressed and conditions in Japan got harder, most of them stopped. Hakutaka was the only one to keep up offerings all through the war, and now, to repay that, the shrines get all their sake from the company.

I have to say that I like these sorts of developments of tradition. You can’t work the reason out from the tradition as it currently is, so the history is important. No-one would have decided to do things this way if they were designing the tradition from scratch, so it gives the whole thing a natural feel, which is very appropriate to Shinto.

Mayuki posing at the bottom of the stone steps up to the Inner ShrineAfter breakfast, I went back to the Inner Shrine, this time with Yuriko and Mayuki, and Mayuki enjoyed collecting stones and running around again. We went to pay our respects at the Inner Shrine as well, and this time we asked the priests if Mayuki could write her name before we went in. Fortunately, they gave her permission, so she carefully wrote her name once more, and then joined us, walking into the inner area and venerating the shrine properly. For a moment, it looked like she was going to imitate a monkey again, instead of clapping properly, but she thought better of it. By many accounts the Inner Shrine of Ise is the most sacred shrine in Japan, so maybe the atmosphere suggested to her that she should not play around there.

After that, we went to the tourist trap street outside the shrine for lunch and souvenir shopping. It is a very nice tourist trap, and after lunch Mayuki stressed Yuriko by insisting on walking barefoot, but we did manage to get some nice souvenirs. While Yuriko was doing her last bit of shopping, a young woman started a taiko performance near the shop, so I took Mayuki to see it. She was rapt, turning to me once to comment that the drumming was fast. I enjoyed the performance as well, and there’s a taiko group fairly near to us, so that’s another possibility for Mayuki’s musical development.

As we headed to the station to go home, black clouds moved in and the good weather came to an end. All in all, we timed it very well.

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.