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.

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.

Shinto Texts Course — The Kojiki and Archaeology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2:46: Aftershocks

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

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

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

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

Matriculation Ceremony

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

Hurry up, Mummy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delays? Sometimes

Tokyo really is almost normal now. There are still power cuts, and the trains are still running at about 70–80% capacity, but when I went in a convenience store to find Pringles for Mayuki last night, it had lots of bread, as well as still having some other empty shelves, so distribution seems to be working again.

In another sign of that, I ordered some Thomas the Tank Engine books for Mayuki (and the complete Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because it’s a modern televisual classic and worked out to about 35p an episode) from Amazon UK on the 16th. They arrived here on the 19th. I can’t help suspecting that that’s faster than they deliver within the UK. Anyway, it was very convenient, because it meant that they were here for my break while Yuriko and Mayuki went to Nagoya for the weekend, so I was able to relax while watching Buffy. It really is quite well-written, even in the first series, and I’m told it gets better. It might well take me seven years to watch it all, though.

I did another internet lesson with my student in Fukushima prefecture today, and she offered to send me batteries. Apparently, batteries are not in short supply there. I turned her down, of course; we do have enough, and the idea of people in the disaster area sending emergency supplies to those outside is just silly. But she could make the offer, because the postal service is working again, and parcel deliveries are apparently due to start today or tomorrow. As I mentioned before, she’s inland, so no tsunami damage, but some areas of Tohoku are starting to recover from the disaster.

Returning to Normal?

In a sign of the steady return of normality to this part of Japan, NHK was showing programs that weren’t news about the earthquake this morning. Tepco think they will avoid power cuts today, as well. Yesterday, Yuriko managed to buy some more milk for Mayuki, and I have three hours of lessons today. That’s a bit light for a Saturday, but none of the cancellations are due to the earthquake: there’s a sprained ankle, a painful back, a looming deadline, and a trip to the UK to do some research. Next week looks like it might be normal, so, since I’ve succeeded in finding a bit more freelancing work, I might be rather busy… I’ll cope.

According to Yuriko, the news has just shown someone from the WHO reassuring paranoid foreigners that there is no need to evacuate Tokyo, and that if you aren’t planning to visit the devastated area, you can still come on your holiday. As for the countries that are monitoring Japanese imports for radiation, he pointed out that the area around the nuclear power station was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami last week; there’s no way it’s shipping goods overseas.

So, as the paranoia level in the global press falls, and Tokyo gets back to normal, Yuriko and Mayuki are off for their planned weekend in Nagoya. We are now working on the assumption that they’ll be back on Tuesday, as originally planned. I’ll take the chance to have a break, also as originally planned, so I’m not planning to update this blog tomorrow unless something actually happens. There comes a point when “Everything is normal here” really does become boring.