Shinto Traditions Course — Tenjin

This week’s Shinto Traditions lecture at Kokugakuin University was on Tenjin. Tenjin is, these days, best known as the kami of passing entrance exams, but originally he was Sugawara no Michizane, a scholar and politician of the late ninth and early tenth century.

The Sugawara family were mid-ranking aristocrats in Heian Japan, with hereditary jobs in the university, and in preparing drafts of official documents. Michizane was recognised as being exceptionally talented early on, and was promoted quite quickly. At the age of 42 he was appointed governor of Sanuki, part of Shikoku, and unlike many such governors he actually went to his region, where he was reputedly responsible for many improvements to irrigation and other agricultural systems. (Obviously, at the distance of a thousand years and with the legends that have grown up around him, it’s hard to be sure.) He returned to the capital when his term as a governor expired, and continued his rise through the ranks. When he was 53 his eldest daughter entered the imperial court, and became the wife of one of the sons of the emperor. Soon after that emperor abdicated, in favour of another of his sons, Michizane was, at the age of 55, appointed Minister of the Right, the second-highest actual post in the government. (In theory, the third highest under the emperor, but the nominal highest post, the Prime Minister, was vacant at this point.)

Alongside his political career, he was a significant scholar. He edited a volume of the official history of Japan, and produced several collections of poetry, in both Chinese and Japanese, along with other writings. He was also famed for the quality of his calligraphy.

Two years after that, early in 901, a rumour spread that he was plotting to put his son-in-law on the throne. He was appointed assistant head of Dazaifu, the main governmental centre in Kyushu, and sent from the capital. This was, effectively, the end of his political career; it was a way of punishing him without having to formally decide that he had done anything wrong. These days, the consensus seems to be that the charges were made up by the Fujiwara, the highest aristocrat family, who had almost succeeded in taking control of the government by ensuring that all the emperors were married to Fujiwara daughters. Michizane’s rise was a threat to their dominance, which was not yet secure. With his defeat, it became secure, so that for the next 150 years or so the Fujiwara effectively ruled Japan, with the emperors as little more than figureheads. (Figurehead emperors are the normal state in Japanese history; the actual authority that the emperors had from the Meiji Emperor to the end of the Second World War was unusual. The power behind the throne has changed quite a lot, however.)

Michizane died in Kyushu in 903, and when his body was taken for burial, the ox drawing the cart stopped at one point, and refused to move any further. This was taken as a sign that he should be buried on that spot, and so he was, directly under what is now the sanctum of Dazaifu Tenmangu, the big Tenjin shrine in Kyushu.

A couple of years later the Fujiwara responsible for Michizane’s exile, Fujiwara no Tokihira, died, and this was attributed to Michizane’s curse. Lightning struck the palace, and in the mid 920s two crown princes died in quick succession, which was also attributed to Michizane’s curse. He was restored to Minister of the Right, and his court rank was increased. In the end, he was appointed Prime Minister (after his death), and raised to the First Rank. Buddhist rites were also performed to calm his spirit. This sort of thing was fairly normal at the time; it’s called Onryo Belief. However, Michizane was different in an important way.

Most dead people suspected of cursing the living were calmed with Buddhist rites. Michizane, however, came to be worshipped with Shinto rites, as Tenjin, or Jizaitenjin, a title originally used for the version of the Hindu god Shiva that made it to Japan. According to Professor Okada, he was the first human to be worshipped as a kami. (There is a possible exception, in that Hachiman was said to be Emperor Ojin, but since Emperor Ojin was mythical in the first place, and the association with Hachiman came after the Hachiman tradition was established, it isn’t the same sort of thing.) The question is why. In Kyushu, a Buddhist temple, Anrakuji, was established around his grave to pray for his soul, which was normal. However, in Kyoto a shrine was established, which wasn’t.

The details are difficult to put together at this distance, but several key points can be noted. In 939 Taira no Masakado, a rebel in the region around Tokyo, received an oracle purportedly from Hachiman and Michizane saying that he should be the emperor. This rebellion really frightened the central government, so oracles associated with it were well known. A few years later, in 942, a girl living in Kyoto received an oracle that she should worship Michizane, and set up a small shrine. In 945, a mikoshi carrying Michizane, as Jizaitenjin, was among a group that came from Kyushu to the capital (I think; the details of this got skipped over a bit). In 947, the son of a priest near Kyoto received an oracle telling him to build a shrine on Kitano, a plain to the northwest of the capital which was used for many Shinto-related ceremonies, and in 959 the Fujiwara started contributing to building the shrine there. Fairly soon it became a major target of Fujiwara patronage, and also of imperial patronage, becoming one of the 22 shrines that received special imperial attention.

The popular spread of the Tenjin tradition was probably partly due to the fact that Tenjin was a thunder kami, and thus associated with rain and agriculture. To become popular in that period, an association with agriculture was basically essential, as that was what most people did. However, due to his scholarship in life, he became associated with scholarship by the late Heian period, the late twelfth century, at the latest. In the Edo period, from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, Tenjin was closely associated with the local schools for townsmen, the terakoya, and this cemented his association with scholarship, and particularly with school studies. When entrance exams became important, particularly after the Second World War, he became known as a kami of entrance exams, and the major Tenjin shrines in Tokyo are very, very busy around exam season (December/January).

I’d like to mention three other points of interest. First, the dates of Michizane’s birth, exile, and death were all the 25th of the month, although in different months. Thus, the 25th is Tenjin’s “day”, and the shrines are particularly busy on that day. December 25th and January 25th, falling in exam season, are the busiest. So, if you want a Shinto substitute for Christmas, you can study for exams. I can’t really see this catching on.

The second point is that, although the historical records are quite clear that Michizane’s father was Sugawara no Koreyoshi, the legends that had grown up around him by the thirteenth century were clear that this was not the case. In one collection, preserved in an important Tenjin shrine in Yamaguchi prefecture, in western Japan, it is stated that Koreyoshi found a young boy playing in his garden, and the boy claimed to have no mother or father, so he was adopted by Koreyoshi. This is thought to be because it was still not easy for people to think that an ordinary person could become a kami, so Michizane needed some sort of supernatural origin.

Finally, there is a Japanese poem said to be by Michizane that goes roughly as follows:

If you follow the true path, the kami will protect you even though you never pray.

The first record of this poem dates from 1377, so its attribution to Michizane is rather shaky, but Professor Okada has found late medieval references to it from Mt Koya, the centre of Shingon Buddhism, and from court nobles, indicating that it had some spread. It is interesting that even within Shinto, which places such importance on ritual practice, also includes traditions that say ritual does not matter.

Finally, Real Discussions

I’m afraid this post is a week or so late, but on the 26th September we had another meeting of the Kawasaki City Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents. This was the fifth meeting of the assembly, and we finally got on to actually discussing issues, at least in the Life and Society subcommittee. As you may remember, at the end of our last exciting meeting, we still had to decide the order in which we would discuss the topics that we thought would take some time, so that was what we started last week’s session with. Fortunately, this proved to be almost completely uncontroversial, and it took about ten minutes to agree on an order. That meant that we could get on with discussing the topics we had chosen as not requiring too much time.

The first topic was immigration rules, and specifically the rules for family. If a foreigner has residence rights in Japan, they are allowed to bring their spouse or children over, and those family members can also get long-term visas. However, this is as far as it extends. The particular problem that people wanted to raise was that of parents. First, several of the women on the committee said that they wanted their mothers to come over when they gave birth, to help with the baby, but they could only come on tourist visas, which are limited to three months. Obviously, that’s not really long enough to help with a baby. The other major issue was that people wanted their parents to come live with them, as their parents were getting old. It seems that, if your parents have no other relatives in their home country, or cannot live by themselves, it is possible to get special permission for them to stay in Japan long-term, but this is rather limited. It might be better to spend time as a family before your parents lose their independence, for example, or you might be the best able to look after them, even though there are other children back in their home country.

Looking at other countries, South Korea is similar to Japan, while Canada is much more generous, admitting parents, siblings, and unmarried partners. Thus, we decided that we wanted to ask Kawasaki to ask the government to broaden the family category, to allow parents, at least, to come and live in Japan with their children. However, we also want to note that the availability of special permission is a good thing, so we are going to return to the issue next time, after our secretariat has looked into the details of when it might be available. We really don’t want to formally ask for something that already exists. However, that’s just the details of the proposal; the broad outline has been fixed.

The second topic was the availability of City Hall services on the weekend. There are a number of things that you have to do at the ward offices, but they are normally only open during weekday working hours, which can be difficult if you work. However, the material provided by the secretariat revealed that Kawasaki offices are already open two Saturday mornings a month, and that you can do almost all of the paperwork then. (The big exception is tax-related paperwork.) In particular, you can do foreigner registration. A lot of the representatives didn’t know about this at all, and although I knew the offices opened, I didn’t think you could do foreigner registration, or most of the other things. In addition, the comparative information the secretariat provided showed that Kawasaki has the most generous opening hours of any of the “shireitoshi”; large cities with a special form of government that makes them largely independent of the prefecture. As a result, we decided that we didn’t want to ask for any improvement of the services, but rather to ask for better publicity. However, that sort of topic is the purview of the other subcommittee, so we’re going to talk about passing it over when we have the next Chairpersons’ Meeting.

That took about an hour, for both together. I really hadn’t expected the topics to take so little time to discuss. It’s not a bad thing, but we were at a bit of a loose end. We decided what information we wanted the secretariat to prepare for the next meeting, and then talked about experiences of being foreign in Japan, such as being stopped by the police and asked for ID. This has never happened to me, but it has happened to a lot of the other representatives. This is a tricky topic, because most of it falls outside the jurisdiction of the city, but it is clearly very important to foreigners living in Japan. We’re planning to discuss something related to it later (surveying foreign residents to find out what the problems are), but it’s not clear what we can do about it directly.

Overall, then, the meeting went very well. We might even be able to get through the three remaining short topics next time, which would be great, as it would leave us plenty of time to discuss the complicated issues. The discussion as a whole went well, with only one representative saying nothing until asked directly for an opinion. Obviously, some people are more proactive than others, but everyone is participating, and, so far, we have reached unanimous agreement on what we want to say about the topics. Long may this continue.

Shinto Traditions Course — Inari

Today, the Shinto course at Kokugakuin University started again after the summer break. Of course, I’ve not posted any reports of the course in English since the very first lecture, way back in April, due to not having enough time, but I’m going to try to cover the last four lectures, because they cover the four most important and widespread traditions in Shinto.

Today’s lecture covered the fourth largest tradition, Inari. Now, if you’ve read about Shinto you may have heard that there are more Inari shrines in Japan than any other kind, up to around 30,000. However, according to Professor Okada there is no basis for that statement. The analysis that they did at Kokugakuin of a survey conducted by the Association of Shinto Shrines suggests that there are only a few thousand Inari shrines, and that it is the fourth largest tradition. However, as he pointed out, that survey was based on the names of the shrines, so it only reflects the primary kami. If you go to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura, it’s a Hachiman shrine, but it has three Inari shrines in the precincts. So, if you count all of the sub-shrines, and the shrines on the roofs of department stores (which are not part of the Association of Shinto Shrines), and the shrines in people’s gardens, then it might get up to 30,000. However, nobody has counted them, so there is no real evidence for the large number. Thus, Inari is a large Shinto tradition, but maybe not the largest.

The central shrine of the Inari tradition is Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto. According to the shrine tradition, it was founded in 711 by the Hata family, who were immigrants from the Korean peninsular. The story is that one of them, Irogu, became rich from rice farming, and made a rice cake, and then set it up as a target for archery. However, it turned into a white bird and flew away, and where it landed lots of rice sprang up. It landed in a cedar tree, and Irogu took one of the branches as a lucky charm. The shrine was founded where the bird landed, and branches from the tree remained lucky charms. It is said that if you plant one and it flourishes, you will be rich, but if it withers, you won’t be.

The name “Inari” is written with the characters for “burden of rice”, but it was originally written with those for “growing rice”. The most common kami at Inari shrines (it isn’t always the same one) is Ukanomitama no Mikoto, and his (or her) name is sometimes written with the characters for “rice granary”. It is, as you might guess, uncontroversial that Inari was originally an agricultural kami. Many kami were, of course, so this is hardly unusual.

So, the question is why Inari’s cult spread so much. Professor Okada suggested several reasons. First, in the ninth century Fushimi Inari became associated with the Imperial court. The emperor fell ill, and he despatched a messenger to make offerings at the shrine, because the illness was judged to be due to the kami’s curse. One of the causes was that Kukai (Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism) had chopped down trees on Mount Inari to build Toji, his large temple in Kyoto. This incident seems to have created a link between Inari and Shingon, as well as with the imperial court. In the later Heian period, Fushimi Inari became one of the 22 shrines that received special attention from the imperial court, which helped it to become more popular. In addition, its association with Shingon meant that it spread as Shingon temples spread across Japan.

Another reason for Inari’s popularity was that women were allowed to worship there. Most Buddhist temples, particularly the ones with sacred mountains, forbade entry to women. This was true until the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century, and I believe there is still one place that maintains the tradition today. This was, obviously, a problem for women who wanted to visit sacred places. However, Fushimi Inari allowed women to visit all parts of the shrine, and it was quite close to the capital, so it became a popular destination for pilgrimages. It features in quite a few works of literature from the later Heian period (from about 950 to 1100), generally in the context of women visiting the mountain. This factor seems to have increased its popularity with ordinary people; indeed, Fushimi Inari may well have been one of the first shrines that people in general visited for personal worship.

A further reason is Fushimi Inari’s attitude to distributing divided spirits of the kami. Basically, this is what you need to found a new shrine; it’s a kami to enshrine there. Fushimi Inari would, basically, give one to anyone who made an appropriate offering. That meant that, if you wanted to establish a shrine to look after your new house, it was easiest to establish an Inari shrine.

A final reason is connected to Inari’s current area of influence. These days, Inari is seen mainly as a kami of commercial prosperity. Professor Okada suggested that this started because the people living in the area of Kyoto that was taken to be under Fushimi Inari’s protection were mostly craftsmen (particularly metalworkers) and tradesmen. Thus, Inari became associated with business success and when, in the Edo period, people founded businesses in the towns that grew up around the castles of the samurai, they established Inari shrines as well.

As a result, Inari spread widely, but if you tabulate the shrines by region, there is a noticeable bias towards eastern Japan. The reasons for this are not entirely clear.

To prepare for this lecture, Professor Okada visited Fushimi Inari, for the first time in about twenty years. He said that the famous tunnel of red torii, set up by people making offerings to the kami, has got longer, and now covers most of the main path up and around the mountain. At the top, there are areas full of torii erected in the Heisei period, which means since 1989. Thus, this practice is still current. He also mentioned that there are, along the tunnel, signs giving a price list for the torii. The smallest one is 500,000 yen, or about $6000 (at the moment), and for the largest ones you can expect to pay a few million yen. Not exactly an impulse purchase, but within the budget of ordinary individuals.

One shrine on the mountain is called “White Fox Shrine”, and it enshrines a white fox who serves Inari. The association of foxes with Inari is very strong, and very famous, but its origin is also very obscure. There is one theory that says that Inari was associated with a Shingon Buddhist deity called Dakiniten, and that, as Dakiniten rode a white fox, the fox became associated with Inari. Another theory, however, says that Inari was associated with Dakiniten because they were both associated with foxes. This is a mystery, but everyone knows about Inari and foxes, if only because the guardian statues at an Inari shrine are invariably foxes rather than the koma-inu that most shrines have.

At the end of the lecture, Professor Okada told us an extra story, nothing to do with Inari. Over the summer, he went to Tsushima, an island near Korea, and found an interesting shrine. It isn’t very big, and looks like any other small shrine, but the kami is Maria Konishi, the wife of a lord at the beginning of the Edo period. As you might guess from her name, she was a Christian. While Christianity was forbidden in Japan, the hidden Christians used the shrine as a way to worship, but now it is an ordinary Shinto shrine, as the Christians have churches. Professor Okada commented that he wasn’t sure how Maria Konishi herself felt about becoming a Shinto kami, but it shows how ready Shinto is to accept and incorporate outside influences, of various sorts.

One thing that this series of lectures has made clear is the variety found within Shinto. Inari might be very popular, but the Inari shrines are noticeably different from other shrines, with their red torii and foxes. The diversity of Shinto is, for me, one of the most appealing things about it.

Hikawa Shrine

A red-and-white two storey gate, with copper roof, at Hikawa Shrine

The entrance to the main shrine compound at Hikawa Shrine.

A few weeks ago, I visited Hikawa Shrine, the Ichi-no-Miya of Musashi-no-Kuni.

That sentence probably needs a bit of explanation. “Hikawa Shrine” is the name of the Shinto shrine I visited; there are several other shrines called that, but this is the main one, and it is located in Saitama City, the capital of Saitama Prefecture, just north of Tokyo. Musashi-no-Kuni is one of the old (dating back to the seventh century or so) administrative divisions of Japan. They were all called “kuni”, using the Chinese character that is normally used for countries, and Musashi-no-Kuni covered the area of Tokyo, Saitama, and part of Kanagawa. The place where we live is within the boundaries of Musashi-no-Kuni.

“Ichi-no-Miya” means “Number One Shrine”. In the late Heian period (around the eleventh to twelfth centuries), the administrators of the kuni started formalising their duty to visit the shrines of their region. The most important shrine in the kuni became the Ichi-no-Miya, which was visited first, followed by the Ni-no-Miya (number two shrine), San-no-Miya (number three shrine), and so on. I’m not sure how low the numbers went, and it may well have varied by kuni, because this was not a centrally administrated system.

As a result of this devolution, there is some controversy in some areas over which shrine was actually the Ichi-no-Miya. Musashi is, in fact, one of the slightly controversial kuni, because at the “General Shrine”, where the kami from the main shrines were gathered to make things easy for the administrator, Hikawa Shrine is not the ichi-no-miya. However, the consensus is that Hikawa Shrine was the actual Ichi-no-Miya for the kuni.

A red-and-green open corridor, along the side of the main shrine complex at Hikawa Shrine

The cloister around the main shrine buildings

Visiting Hikawa Shrine was the first step in my plan to visit all of the Ichi-no-Miya in Japan. There were 68 kuni, so obviously this is a long-term plan. However, if I manage it, it will take me all over Japan, as well as exposing me to a wide variety of shrines. There were two reasons to start with Hikawa Shrine. The first is that, as noted above, it is the Ichi-no-Miya for the kuni where I live. The second, related to that, is that it is easy to get to. It was a short day trip, and the railway station, which is called “Big Shrine”, is close to the shrine.

The main shrine enshrines Susano-o, Inada-hime, his wife, and Ohnamuchi, his descendant (by how much depends on the legend) and the kami responsible for putting the finishing touches to Japan in legend. These kami are all originally from the Izumo area of western Japan, and it is thought that the name of the shrine comes from the Hi river (Hikawa) in that area, although it is not written with the same characters today.

I went on a Sunday, and the main shrine complex was quite busy, with lots of people having ceremonies done. I saw a lot of families with babies, doing their Hatsumiyamairi, and one wedding party. People who wanted ceremonies gave their names, and the nature of the ceremony, at the shrine office, and then waited until there were enough people to do a ceremony. Then everyone went into the hall of worship, and all the ceremonies were done at once.

I have to say that I much prefer the atmosphere at Shirahata-san, where you get an individual ceremony rather than having to share with lots of people, some of whom are having completely different prayers said. On the other hand, Hikawa Shrine is a famous shrine, and a lot of people want to have their ceremonies done at such a place. I suppose that’s a matter of taste. Of course, for some people Hikawa Shrine is their local shrine.

Like most large shrines, there are several shrines in the grounds, dedicated to various kami. These are divided into Sessha and Massha. Sessha enshrine kami who have some sort of close relationship with the main kami, while Massha enshrine those without such a relationship, at least in general. The Sessha at Hikawa Shrine enshrine Inada-hime’s parents, Susano-o’s daughters, and Sukunahikona, who is, in a sense that is rather obscure, a part of Ohnamuchi. The Massha include an Inari shrine, a shrine to Amaterasu, and a shrine to Sugawara no Michizane, all kami with no real connection to the main kami.

However, one of the Massha enshrines Ohnamuchi and Sukunahikona. This is a little peculiar; you would have thought that that qualified as a close relationship. I don’t know what the reason is, but I can offer an hypothesis. The shrine in question is “Mitake Jinja” (or possibly “Ontake”; both readings are used). This is a completely separate Shinto tradition from Hikawa, centring on a mountain in the Japan Alps. I’m pretty sure that it was heavily influenced by Buddhism, and the nature of the Shinto kami may not have been properly defined before the Meiji period. Thus, the shrine might have been established as a Massha at a time when the kami were not thought to be connected to the main kami of Hikawa, and then, when its status was fixed, the kami were changed to actually be one of the main kami. This is only a guess, however.

It was an interesting visit, and the normal rules applied. The main shrine compound was very busy, but if you wandered around to visit the other shrines in the precincts, things were much quieter. The shrine grounds are quite nice, with several ponds and, of course, a lot of trees, but they aren’t extensive enough to find anywhere really quiet, at least not on a pleasant Sunday.

One thing that I realised again on this visit is that I’m still working out what I want to know about the shrines I visit. That’s another reason for visiting Hikawa Shrine early in my program of visiting the Ichi-no-Miya; I can go back when I’ve worked out what I’m doing.

Negative Evidence

If you look around on the net, you can find a lot of anecdotes about how the Japanese exclude foreigners, along with generalised statements that don’t even include anecdotes to back them up. I’d like to provide some anecdotes on the other side. They’re still just anecdotes, and the vast majority are only significant because of the prevalence of the opposite anecdote, but they were notable inversions of the common story. I’ve been in Japan for nearly seven years now, and while that’s not long enough to become an expert on Japanese culture, it is quite long enough for the novelty to wear off.

Japanese People Won’t Speak Japanese to Foreigners

I’ve had to go to the dentist recently. At my first appointment, the dentist asked me, in Japanese, “Are you OK with Japanese?”. When I said yes, he replied, “That’s a relief. I’d hate to have to rely on my English; it’s really rusty,” still in Japanese, and then went on talking to me in Japanese. He did use a couple of English words, to translate Japanese dentistry terms into English for me, so he clearly could have tried to speak English to me. Nevertheless, he spoke Japanese to me, and judging from what I could hear through the partitions, in exactly the same way as he spoke to Japanese patients.

Japanese People Won’t Sit Next to Foreigners on Crowded Trains

On my way to Shiobara a few weeks ago, the train was quite crowded. Someone got off soon after I got on, and there were about one and a half seats in front of me. I offered the seat to a Japanese lady standing next to me, and she took it, and then tried to make space for me to sit down. I thanked her, but told her it was too narrow. Some time later, the (Japanese) person sitting wide at the end of the seat got off. She moved up, and once again invited me to sit down next to her. By now the train was emptying out a bit, so I did. We didn’t talk on the train, but she did nod good bye as she got off.

Japanese People Don’t Like Foreigners in Their Hot Springs

At Shiobara, I went to quite a few hot springs, that being one of the main points of the area. The first time I went to the outside spring by the river, I was debating whether to go in. I’d only realised on getting there that the facilities consisted of just some shelves with a roof for your clothes, and that the towel I’d brought was not nearly large enough to dry myself efficiently. The Japanese people already in the pool, however, were enthusiastic about inviting me in, and when I explained about the towel problem, they told me not to worry about it; they lent me one at the end. Possibly notable is the fact that this was a mixed spring, and it was one of the women who was most enthusiastic about inviting me in, although it was one of the men who lent me a towel.

Japanese People Never Really Accept Foreigners

Today was the Summer Festival at Shirahata Hachiman, our local shrine, and the one I go to quite a lot. There are quite a few earlier entries about it, both in this blog and in my Japan Diary. It’s where we did Mayuki’s Hatsumiyamairi, and where I did the ceremony for my permanent residence. The main “event” part of the festival is the Negi Mai, a traditional masked dance performed by the chief priest of the shrine. The dance has reputedly been passed down in his family for about 400 years. However, before that there is a standard Shinto ceremony, where offerings are made to the kami and a norito is recited. Although the general public are invited into the haiden for the dance, only the shrine’s ujiko (a bit like the elders of an English church, I guess) are invited into the shrine for the preceding ceremony. I’ve been to four of the Summer Festivals (I think I’ve missed one since I’ve been in Kawasaki), and I try to turn up in time for the ceremony as well as the dance. Obviously, I stand outside during the ceremony.

Except that today the shrine’s priest came over to tell me that the chief priest had consulted with the head ujiko, and they had agreed to invite me to join the ujiko inside, and to offer a tamagushi (a sakaki branch with paper strips on it, the standard symbolic offering in a Shinto ceremony) during the ceremony. Most of the ujiko do not offer a tamagushi. In fact, only the chief priest and the officers of the ujiko (four people) normally do so; most of the ujiko bow and clap with the last of them to do so, but those who have offered tamagushi themselves do not. So, the chief ujiko, the sodai, led me in with the ujiko, and showed me to a seat near the centre of the front row. I was quite nervous when it was my turn to offer a tamagushi, but I managed it without any serious mistakes that I can remember. Certainly everyone was too polite to point them out if there were any.

Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, I was second to last to offer my tamagushi. You offer tamagushi in order of status, normally, and I’m not one of the leaders of the ujiko, so I went later. On the other hand, I couldn’t go last, because all the ujiko need to bow and clap with the last person, so he needs to be representing them, and thus has to be one of the ujiko leaders. So, I guess, I was slipped in to the most sensible point in the ordering.

It is important to understand the significance of this festival. This is not a private ceremony, like the ones I have had before. It is one of the three main festivals in the shrine’s ritual year.

What’s more, the plan is for this to not be a one-off. The priest said that they would like me to offer a tamagushi at both the summer and main festivals from now on. (Presumably unless I do something to horribly upset them. I have no plans to do that, though.) One of the ujiko invited me to the ujiko gathering after the dance, as well, but Mayuki was impatient to go home, so I had to decline. I should try to organise around the main festival in September so that I can say yes if I get invited again.

This is, therefore, extremely good evidence that the people associated with Shirahata-san want me to be involved with the shrine. Obviously, I’m very happy about this, because I also want to be more involved with the shrine. I suppose the best way of putting it is this: Today’s invitation was a formal and public acknowledgement that they want me to be involved, and accepting it was similarly a formal and public acknowledgement that I want to be involved. It’s just another stage in a relationship that’s been developing over years, albeit a significant one. The only practical difference it will make in itself, I think, is that I’ll have to be careful not to be late for future festivals…

Yet More Preliminaries

Today we had another meeting of the Kawasaki Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents. We are still working on the preliminaries, but we have, at least nearly finished.

Today’s job was to choose the topics we will discuss in detail over the rest of our term. My goal for my subcommittee was to have the whole list and order fixed, so that we could start actual discussions next time (which is not until September). We very, very nearly got there, deciding on the whole list and on the topics we would discuss first. Thus, next time, we will decide on the rest of the order at the beginning of the meeting, and then move on to proper discussions. I am optimistic that we will be able to decide on the order within thirty minutes, which should leave a substantial amount of time for real discussion.

As I proposed, we split the topics into things we could cover quickly, and things that would take longer. We decided on the order for the things we can cover quickly, and on the first of the longer topics, so there are only four longer topics to put in order. This is made a little more difficult by the fact that we almost certainly won’t get to the last of the longer topics, so that putting something down the order is equivalent to abandoning it. However, I think that the subcommittee will be amenable to deciding things within a relatively short space of time.

One thing I realised while we were discussing potential topics was that a lot of important topics are really about the national level. Immigration, pensions, rules on family names, voting rights: these are all important topics to foreign residents, but the amount the city of Kawasaki can do is very limited. I am trying to encourage the subcommittee to concentrate on topics that fall within the city’s competence, because that’s probably where we can achieve the most. If the national government has to deal with it, we can get Kawasaki to push for a particular decision, but that’s all. On the other hand, if it’s within Kawasaki’s competence, we can actually get it fixed.

For example, of the two short themes we are hoping to look at next time, one concerns immigration. Foreign residents of Japan can’t bring their parents over as dependents, and for people from a lot of cultures, that is a problem. I’d also like to be able to offer my mother accommodation in her old age, when she gets there, although whether she’d want to come to Japan is a different question. However, this is a matter for immigration law. All we can ask the city to do is to petition the central government.

On the other hand, the other one concerns the ability to carry out administrative procedures at the weekend. Kawasaki already provides facilities for Japanese residents to do the paperwork for moving in and out of Kawasaki at weekends, but foreign residents cannot. We will discuss what we’d like the city to do about that. And, of course, the city can actually take action on what we recommend, because making administrative services available on weekends is something the city can decide to do all by itself.

Thus, if we decide to make recommendations on both issues, I would expect to see results on the second much more quickly than on the first, and so I think that, as far as possible, it is better to spend our time discussing issues of the second sort.

Even more fundamental than that, however, is that we actually start spending our time discussing. I really hope that we can get the rest of the topics into order quickly next time.

Welcome to Japan

Yesterday, the three of us went to Shirahata Hachiman Daijin, our local shrine, to have a ceremony performed to mark my getting permanent resident status. I wanted to mark it in some way, because otherwise it would just be a matter of going and getting the sticker in my passport, and it really ought to be more significant than that. So, I booked it a week ago, for 9:30 in the morning, as there were other ceremonies booked from 10. We managed to get dressed up in smart clothes and get there by 9:40, but that was fine. With it being a local shrine, they don’t work to tightly regulated schedules aimed to get hundreds of people through.

The shrine family had obviously decided that getting permanent residence was a big deal, which it is. After all, that’s why I wanted to mark it.

First, the chief priest’s wife had written a norito (Shinto prayer) especially for the occasion. The basic collection of example norito issued by the Association of Shinto Shrines doesn’t have one for permanent residence, and I suspect that the large collections of norito written by famous National Learning scholars also fail to cover this possibility. So, she wrote one for us, and it was very good, at least as far as I could judge. It asked the kami that I become friendly with the people of “Taira, Miyamae-ku, Kawasaki, Kanagawa, and Japan”, thus working out in size of regions, and included Yuriko and Mayuki’s names as well, praying for health and prosperity for all of us. (As I may have mentioned before, she wrote a good norito for when I joined the Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents, as well.)

Then, there were the items we received after the ceremony. You always get stuff after a formal shrine visit: typically an o-fuda (shrine tablet), some sake, and some food. The food is normally dried bonito flakes, but this time we got a very nice baumkuchen. O-fuda also come in various sizes, and at most shrines you get a bigger o-fuda when you offer more money. Shirahata-san is normally the same; you can receive larger o-fuda for larger offerings at New Year’s. However, I got a bigger o-fuda than normal at this ceremony, and since at the point they were making it they probably guessed, correctly, that I was going to offer the normal 5,000 yen (that’s the starting price for a ceremony), the size has to reflect their judgement of the significance of the occasion.

Finally, the chief priest, who wasn’t doing the ceremony, came to the waiting room beforehand to congratulate us. At that point, he gave us a noshi-bukuro with “O-Iwai”, “Congratulations”, written on it. Noshi-bukuro are exclusively used for gifts of money, so that was a real surprise. It was even more of a surprise when I got home and opened it. (It’s rude to open it on the spot.) The envelope contained 10,000 yen. Not only that, but it was a Shotoku Taishi 10,000 yen note. (The lower picture on this page.) I’d never seen a real one before, although I’d seen pictures, and if I read the Bank of Japan site correctly, they stopped circulating them in January 1986. (The successor note went into circulation in November 1984, so they probably stopped printing them then.) Notwithstanding that, the note was in new condition. This is normal for these sorts of gifts, and with current notes you can just go to a bank and ask for new notes. However, with one that’s been out of circulation for 25 years, I imagine you really have to have kept a stock of them. Obviously, I have no plans to actually spend this note.

Everything made me feel that they were really pleased that I was staying in Japan. In short, I felt very welcome. It was definitely well worth having the ceremony.

Still More Preliminary Discussions

On Sunday, we had another meeting of the representative assembly. This week, the main task was to establish sub-committees, and decide on the general topics they would discuss.

The first question was whether we would have any sub-committees at all. As the full committee has 26 members, I said that I thought it would be impossible to properly discuss issues without splitting, and other people then chimed in to agree with me. The motion to establish sub-committees was passed unanimously. Then there was the question of how many sub-committees to set up. I thought we should have three, because even 13 is a bit big for proper discussions, but this time the vote was overwhelmingly in favour of just having two committees. (It wasn’t only me in favour of three, but it wasn’t a close vote.)

So, then we had to decide what each committee would discuss. We had thirteen broad topics that the secretariat had distilled from the points we raised at the previous meeting, and the discussion got a bit complex, partly due to me misunderstanding a proposal, and partly due to a process that made it look like the rejected proposal was going to be implemented. The initial choice was between broadly splitting the sub-committees into “education” and “social issues”, and assigning each of the 13 topics individually to a group. I voted for the first, purely because I thought it would take too long to assign the topics individually, and the first option won.

Then someone pointed out that we needed to decide which topics were going to be on each committee, so that people knew which committee they wanted to be on.

Actually, that wasn’t the same as the rejected proposal, because most of the topics on the list obviously belonged to one or the other. The “education” topic, for instance, would go to the “education” sub-committee, while the “pensions” topic would go to the “society” committee. In the end, we were able to decide the broad spread quite quickly, and then people said which committee they wanted to be on. There were two absences, and we got a 14-10 split, which is close enough to half and half to not require any changes, so that stage was quick.

We then had the first sub-committee meetings, where we had to choose a chair, vice-chair, and name. I joined the society committee, and, of the people nominated, I was the only one who didn’t pull out. The chairs of the sub-committees have to attend weekday preparatory meetings, which makes it difficult for a lot of people, so in the end we didn’t have an election. Everyone just put their hands up to approve me as chair.

There was a real election for vice-chair, because the vice-chair only has to do things on the normal meeting days, so we got two candidates. Fortunately, that didn’t take long either. Choosing the committee’s name was also easy. One member proposed using the same name as last session, another member agreed, and then everyone voted in favour. Thus, we are the “Society and Lifestyle Sub-committee”.

That actually left us a few minutes to discuss what we would discuss, but we didn’t get very far. However, we did make a little bit of progress: there are “deep” issues, and “shallow” issues. A shallow issue is one where there isn’t really a lot for us to discuss or investigate, so we might be able to deal with quite a few of them, as well as with one or two deep issues. I’m certainly going to propose splitting it that way next time. In any event, next time will take us to one quarter of our term, so I really want to finish deciding the topics then.

It has taken a long time to get through the preliminaries, but I can’t really see how it could have been done much more quickly. Everything has to be done in the meetings, and the constitution of the assembly means that we have to decide just about everything for ourselves. People have to be given the chance to make their opinions heard. So, there’s probably nothing that can be done about it. Extending the assembly’s term to three years would reduce the proportion of time spent on preliminaries, but it would require revising the city ordinances, and people who could commit for two years might not be able to commit for three. In the end, I suspect that this is a necessary evil.

On the bright side, quite a few people are participating, and things are going fairly smoothly, so once we do get onto actual topics I think that we will make progress. I’ll just have to do my best to get my sub-committee there as quickly as possible.

Permission for Permanent Residence

Today, I went to the Kawasaki Immigration Office and picked up my Permission for Permanent Residence (that’s the official English title on the sticker in my passport). Unlike my previous visas, which were “signed” by the head of the Tokyo Immigration Office, this one is “signed” by the Minister of Justice. This is obviously a much bigger deal.

So, I’ve lived in Japan for just over six years and eight months, have been married to a Japanese citizen for little less than four years and seven months, and have a two-year-old Japanese (and British) daughter. The application seems to have gone through the system in the normal length of time, so it would appear that these are standard conditions for permanent residence.

One thing that stands out is how cheap the process is here. It costs $90 here, and you pay when your application is successful. By comparison, it costs $930 in the USA, about $1000 in Canada (as far as I can tell), and about $1200 in the UK, and in all cases you pay on application, and it isn’t refundable. Even if you include all the previous visas I had to have to tot up the required length of residence, it only comes to about $400, maximum. On the other hand, the required times of residence are shorter in the UK (although not by much), and Canada and the USA don’t seem to require residence at all. If you I don’t know about the decision times in other countries, but since the UK keeps your passport until they decide, I rather hope it’s less than the ten months they took here (which was normal, from what the staff in the office said to me).

The application process, as well as being cheap, was painless. The only slightly difficult bit was getting the information for all my close relatives in my complicated family, and even that only took a couple of days of waiting for the people in the appropriate countries to ask the people who knew. I went to the immigration office more often than necessary, to hand over documents in person, but I could have posted them.

Now, I’ve heard people describing the immigration procedure for such immigrant havens as the USA and Canada, and it sounds a lot more hassle than what I’ve had to go through. On the other hand, the chances of success don’t seem to change much; if you really are genuinely married to a US citizen, you really will get a green card, for example.

Thinking about it now, the best way to capture my impression is this. The immigration office in Japan goes out of its way to make the process easier for immigrants.

The application forms here are bilingual in English and Japanese, for example. Some of the forms are also available in other non-Japanese languages, particularly the re-entry permit forms. If the Japanese immigration office find a problem in your application, they write to ask you for additional information, or tell you to go away and gather what you need before applying. (Yes, if you go in person, the staff check that your application is complete, free of charge.) The fees aren’t payable until you’ve succeeded, and they’ve checked that everything is in order. They don’t even make you prove that you are obeying certain Japanese laws, such as the ones requiring you to join the national pension scheme and national health insurance scheme. You do have to prove you’re paying taxes, although the immigration office asks for the cheap, easy-to-get official bit of paper, unlike the bank that gave me my mortgage, who wanted the expensive, more complicated one.

A couple of concrete examples from my experience. When I applied to renew my marriage visa this time, I took in a document proving Yuriko’s income (nothing), because that’s what the website asked for. Not entirely to my surprise, the staff told me I needed the document proving my income. They told me what it was, and told me to bring it along when I came to pick the visa up. No point having me make a special journey…

Similarly, when we moved part way through my permanent residence application, they called me to check I was still living with my wife, and then sent me a letter telling me which documents to send them. I did have to send those at the time, though. (I took them personally, to be sure they made it, although post would have been acceptable.)

Based on my completely unscientific sample, I think that the Japanese immigration officers are as concerned to ensure that the people who do qualify do get the visas as they are to ensure that people who are not qualified don’t. From my perspective, this is an unalloyed good, because it meant that they have decided to let me stay for the rest of my life.

Shiobara Onsen

Last weekend (from Sunday to Wednesday) I took a trip by myself, to Shiobara Onsen. The idea was to recharge, and it seems to have worked.

Shiobara is in the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture, a little north of Tokyo. It takes about four hours on “normal” trains, but it’s not expensive, and you only have to change trains once going from our flat. It might take a while, but it’s no hassle. While Shiobara is a tourist town, drawing people to the hot springs, it’s not on the normal foreign visitor itinerary, so most of the tourists are Japanese. I did see a handful of other foreigners, but only a few.

A steep river valley in the early morning

The valley of the Hoki River in the morning, with the sunlight just touching the top of Tengu Rock, in the centre of the picture.

Shiobara has eleven hot springs, and is strung along the valley of the Hoki River, surrounded by forested mountains. Near the centre of the town, Tengu Rock rises a hundred metres from the valley floor. The hot springs are reputed to have been discovered about 1200 years ago, and the area has been a tourist attraction for centuries. As a result, it has a lot of hotels and ryokan, some old, some much newer.

I stayed at a ryokan called Myogaya, which is located on the steep sides of the gorge through which one of the tributaries of the Hoki flows. It’s a medium-size ryokan, serving standard ryokan food. The selling point is the hot spring baths. These are down ninety or so steps, at the bottom of the gorge, cut into a rock at the side of the river. While enjoying the water, you can watch and listen to the flow of the river, or enjoy the sunlight filtering through the trees. I enjoyed the baths several times, in the day, at dawn, in the evening, and at night, and it was always extremely relaxing.

I also found another very nice hot spring bath, near the Hoki River, called Fudo no Yu. In the valley of another, smaller, tributary, it sits next to a small waterfall, with views of the all around. The bath is completely open air, and the changing area only has one wall and a small roof.

Both baths are traditional Japanese hot spring baths, in that they are for both sexes, and you do not wear anything while bathing. I did see women in both, but there was a bias towards men, and towards older people. However, the latter bias is at least partly to do with the fact that I was there during the day on weekdays; most younger people were in work or school. I chatted to several people, and apparently Fudo no Yu is very full at the weekend, which I suspect does not improve the experience.

Arayufuji rising beyond a marsh

Arayufuji, which I climbed, beyond the marsh

My original plan was to spend most of my time at the ryokan, reading and taking baths. However, once I arrived and saw the scenery, I decided that would be a waste. Add to that the near-perfect walking weather, and I spent the whole of Tuesday seeing the area. First, I walked along the Shiobara “Nature Trail”. An English nature trail is aimed at children, and is an easy walk through pleasant natural scenery. The natural scenery was there. However, the trail was eight kilometres long, and went straight over the top of a mountain with a 1180m peak. If it was in Scotland, it would be a Munro.

It was a very nice walk, and, apart from around a marsh which had its own car park, I saw no-one. Large areas of Japan are not crowded at all, unlike the impression you might get if you just visit Tokyo and the main tourist destinations. The nature trail ended at another hot spring, where I was able to have another bath, which seemed to do my legs good, at least; they weren’t sore the next day.

I then walked back to the ryokan, via the main town of Shiobara. In total, I think I walked about 25km on Tuesday, including over the top of the mountain, so I was quite tired that night, but it was a good walk through gorgeous scenery. Only my body got tired.

I definitely want to go back to Shiobara, with Yuriko and Mayuki. They wouldn’t be able to do the walk, but there are plenty of places in the town I didn’t visit, so we wouldn’t be short of things to do. Now we just have to find time to do it.