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.

Permanent Residence Notification

Today I received a postcard from immigration, telling me that I had to go there to be told the result of my application for permanent residence. Oh, and to make sure to take my passport and the $90 fee for a permanent residence visa. I wonder what the result might be?

Of course, this postcard is the one to indicate that your application has been approved. I’ll have to go to immigration on Monday to pick my visa up.

Discussing What To Discuss

It’s nearly two weeks since we had the second meeting of the Foreigners’ Assembly, and I’ve still not written about it. So, I’d better rectify that. (There are quite a few things I ought to write about on this blog but haven’t yet, I’m afraid.)

As I predicted last time, we did not finish early. In fact, we had to extend the meeting by fifteen minutes to get everything done. Somewhat surprisingly, however, it wasn’t the discussion of topics for discussion that held us up. We split into two groups for that, and in our group we first went round the room, with everyone getting five minutes to say what they wanted to discuss. Everyone had topics to bring up, and everyone stayed within the allotted time, and on point while they were speaking. I was impressed; with twelve or so people in the room, I’d expected at least one person to not be good at meetings. We then had a short discussion, which gave me an idea of who the talkative people are. I’m going to have to be assertive if I want to get a word in edgeways. (Unusually, the most assertive and vocal people were all women.)

I raised three issues. First, I’d like to see the city conduct a formal survey of foreign residents’ experiences of discrimination, ideally using the same format as EU-MIDIS, so that we get comparative data. At the moment, we’re working with purely anecdotal data, so we don’t have a good idea of what the problems are. Second, although the assembly has discussed Japanese language education provision for children many times, it has never formally discussed provision for adults, and I think that would be a good idea. Finally, I’d like to talk about ways to help foreign residents get involved in local society, both to prevent them from becoming isolated, and to give Japanese residents more experience of their foreign neighbours. In the long term, I think it would help with a lot of the problems that foreigners seem to face.

There was some overlap with the points raised by other people, but points about children’s education came up a lot again. I just want to pick up on a few of the suggestions.

First, several people suggested that the city should help with providing education for children in their foreign parent’s (or parents’) language. They talked about “native language”, but the problem is that these children’s native language is Japanese, because that’s what they speak most of the time. Actually, I don’t think this is the city’s responsibility. I agree that it’s important — I’m trying to make sure that Mayuki can speak English, after all — but I think it’s something that we should do for ourselves. The city arguably has a responsibility to make it easy for foreigners to integrate into local society, but I don’t think that extends to supporting foreign language education.

Second, it seems that people are still having significant problems renting property. One problem is that landlords apparently often require a contact who is either a Japanese citizen or, at least, a permanent resident. This is obviously tricky for new immigrants. Another is that many landlords will apparently still not rent to foreigners. This is a problem that the assembly raised more than a decade ago, and Kawasaki passed an ordinance saying that landlords should rent to foreigners (and the disabled, and old people), and establishing a system that provides guarantors for such people. However, it would seem that that ordinance has not had as much effect as might have been hoped. (This is a place where proper statistics would be a really big help, but we don’t have them.) So, I think that we should discuss this issue again, and make a new recommendation. Perhaps the city should pass an ordinance with a penalty attached; I’m pretty sure Kawasaki has the authority to do that. (It’s a special city, with most of the powers of a prefecture; the largest cities in Japan all have this status, apart from Tokyo, which has a unique governmental structure.)

Anyway, that went very smoothly, and both groups reported back to the main meeting. Our secretariat will prepare an organised summary of the points for the next meeting, when we will actually pick topics.

The next bit took a bit longer. We had to decide whether to participate in city events (we did), and then split the members up between the committees that would plan our participation. I joined the editorial committee for the newsletter; it seemed like the obvious home for me.

So, we made some concrete progress this time, and the flow of the meeting boded very well for the future. My impression from the earlier meetings, that this would be a good group, was confirmed.

I hope that we can actually achieve something. We’ll have to work hard, and together.

Delayed Doll Festival

A hina doll display under a kamidana

So I was a bit late.

Yesterday, I put Mayuki’s Hina Dolls up. You’re supposed to put them up some time in February, and take them down by March 3rd. However, regular readers of this blog may be able to remember why that wasn’t a very good time for us to put the dolls up. What’s more, there wasn’t really space in the old flat; we had to move the electric piano and television. So, they stayed in their boxes for a while.

However, I didn’t think it was a good idea for them to stay in the boxes all year round. For a start, it’s a real shame to not get them out; they only come out once a year in any case. Added to that, I don’t think it would be good for them to be in the boxes for two years. The damp could well get to them; last year the dolls had a bit of mould on their hair, so I took the box out and aired them three times over the course of the year, which seems to have worked. So, they’re out so that we can enjoy them, and so that they will stay in good condition.

I’ve put them up in the Japanese room, under the kamidana, and it’s a nice combination. Very, very Japanese, don’t you think. According to Japanese superstition, if you don’t put the dolls away by March 3rd, your daughter will marry late. I don’t know what this lateness means.

Japanese Room

The Japanese room in our flat is finally complete. This room had the most thorough refurbishment, with a new floor (well, new tatami mats), completely redone walls, and a new ceiling. It was delayed because stripping the old wallpaper turned out to be a much bigger job than anticipated.

The light fitting and cupboard doors in the Japanese room

New light on a new room

The walls are white, but painted with a substance that mimics the look of Japanese paper, so that they are very slightly rough, and harmonise well with the other colours. The doors, both to the cupboard and to the living room, are covered in paper, with no borders on the cupboard doors. This was a deliberate plan to make the impression lighter and cleaner, because the wooden frame between the doors is still quite heavy, so a dark frame in addition would have been a bit too much.

Originally, the room had a light hanging from the middle of the ceiling, but that’s been replaced with two strip lights set along the wall, in a wooden setting, providing indirect lighting for the room. It’s still quite bright, but the light is gentler, and picks out the texture of the wall and the ceiling.

The woven cedar veneer ceiling

The woven veneer is actually on separate panels, even though it looks continuous

The ceiling was also changed, with a completely new ceiling put in. The surface is woven strips of cedar veneer, which looks and smells very nice. The whole impression of the room is very Japanese, and very calming. It’s going to be the guest room, so guests will be getting the nicest room in the flat. Of course, we plan to use it for other things when we don’t have guests; it will probably be where we eat, as well.

Room by room, the new flat is slowly getting sorted out.

Formally Representative

On Sunday, we had the first formal meeting of the Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents. The program was simple, but all of it was important, and all of it got done.

First, we all received our formal notices of appointment from the deputy mayor of Kawasaki. This was when we officially became representatives, with a term of office lasting until the end of March 2012. The deputy mayor then made a short speech welcoming us to the assembly and encouraging us to contribute to the city. He said that, when Kawasaki was founded in 1924, it had only 50,000 residents. It now has 1.41 million, is the eighth largest city in Japan, and is the fastest growing. Considering that the name means nothing more than motorbikes to most people outside the country, that’s pretty impressive. He also said that direct flights between Haneda and London will start this summer, which will be helpful for us; Haneda is right next to Kawasaki, unlike Narita, which is on the far side of Tokyo.

Second, we had to choose a chair and deputy chair. Ms Elok was elected as the chair, the first female chair that the Assembly has had in its fourteen-year history. (It’s had seven male chairs.) She’s from Indonesia, and was the deputy chair of the last assembly. Mr Opango was elected as the deputy chair; he’s from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and was the deputy chair a few assemblies ago.

The election went smoothly, although the election for chair was fiercely contested, in the sense that the two candidates were neck-and-neck with twenty two of twenty six votes counted.

Finally, we confirmed the schedule for this year.

We finished an hour early. Apparently the elections have taken a lot longer in the past, with people arguing about the voting methods, so I think time was allowed for that. However, the secretariat seem to have learned from those experiences, because the voting system they proposed was simple but reasonable. People could nominate themselves or others; those nominated by others could then withdraw. If there was only one candidate, which didn’t happen, there would be a show of hands to confirm it, and if that didn’t reach half of the representatives nominations would be reopened. With multiple candidates, there was a secret ballot; if the candidate with most votes did not have a majority, the top two candidates would enter a run-off election. However, while there were ballots for both posts, there was no need for a run-off, so it took less than an hour.

The next meeting, in May, is for deciding what we are going to investigate over the next couple of years. Obviously, the details will develop over time, but we have to set the broad topics first. I suspect that the next meeting will not finish early.

I’m looking forward to it.

Kiyoharai Shiki

Last Sunday, the evening before we moved in to the new flat, I asked the priest of the local shrine (Shirahata Hachiman Daijin) to come to perform a purification ritual for us. The Japanese name is “Kiyoharai Shiki”, which means, roughly “Cleansing Purification Ritual”. People who read Tamao will remember that Akiko and Shiraishi did quite a lot of these at people’s houses, but when I wrote that I’d never actually seen one done. It’s rather a relief to discover that I didn’t get anything seriously wrong. They were doing a rather more abbreviated ceremony than we had performed, but, on the other hand, they also charged rather less, so obviously that’s just their shrine’s custom. The priest did drive over in his vestments, just like Akiko and Shiraishi.

He arrived about twenty minutes before the ceremony was due to start, to set up the portable altar. I took a photograph before the ceremony started.

The altar is formed from two tables, with the sanpo stands on the upper shelf, and the ohnusa on the lower

The purification altar

The altar was set up in our living room (you couldn’t do it now…), facing south. In the middle of the top shelf are two o-fuda, shrine tablets. The one in front is for Shirahata Hachiman, the kami of the shrine, while the one behind is for Kojin, a kami responsible for fire, and keeping it under control. To either side of the o-fuda are two sanpo, the trays on which things are typically offered to the kami. The one to the right has the offerings on; the tall jars contain sake, while the small round one in front of them contains water. The rice and salt plates aren’t really visible in the picture. The one on the left has a small plate of rice, a small plate of salt, and a small bowl of sake, with a sakaki leaf. These are purification tools for the ceremony. On the lower shelf, there is a large sakaki branch with shide (strips of white paper folded into lightning shapes) on it. This is another purification tool. At the extreme left of the top shelf is a box, which contains small sakaki branches with shide on, called tamagushi. These were also used later in the ceremony.

Yuriko’s parents were here on Sunday, so we all gathered in front of the altar, lined up with me in the middle, since I am the head of the household being purified. We had to kneel on the floor, with no cushions, and that got a bit uncomfortable towards the end, particularly when Mayuki decided to climb onto my knees.

The ceremony started, as always, with purification. First, the priest knelt in front of the altar and recited the purification prayer. He then took the large sakaki branch from the lower shelf and waved it over the altar and the tamagushi to purify them. That is normal. Next, however, he purified the whole flat, and we went with him. He started in the entrance hall, purifying the threshold (with the door open), and then he did every room, including the toilet, specially purifying the shelf installed in the Japanese room for the kamidana. The last room to be purified was the kitchen, and that was part of the ceremony, because he mentioned doing it last. Then, we all knelt back in front of the altar, and we were purified.

After purification, it was time to invite the kami to descend into the o-fuda and be present at the ceremony. The priest knelt in front of the altar again, and said the norito to call the kami. He said it very quietly, far too quietly to be heard, and then performed the keihitsu, a long “o” sound, during which the kami are supposed to take up residence in the o-fuda.

Once the kami were present, the offerings were formally presented. Sometimes this actually involves putting them in front of the altar, but it is quite common, as in this case, to simply take the lids off the jars.

The next stage was the norito, the formal prayer. The priest knelt in front of the altar again, and then recited it. First, the kami are invoked by name. There were several, including kami with traditional connections to the home, as well as Shirahata Hachiman and Kojin. Most of the norito was recited in a strong voice, but there was one phrase of two or three words near the beginning that the priest recited very quietly. The content of the norito was a request for safety and prosperity for the new home.

After the norito (I think; it was a week ago, so I may have got a bit of the order switched), the priest picked up the sanpo with the rice, salt, and sake from the upper level of the altar, and we all went to purify the flat again. He purified the threshold, the kitchen (particularly the cooker), and the kamidana, scattering rice, salt, and sake at each point. The amounts he used were tiny; it may have been a single grain of rice. This form of purification is very traditional, but the need to clean up after purifying seems to have reduced the amounts involved.

Returning to the altar, we knelt again, and then offered the tamagushi. This is also a standard part of a Shinto ceremony. First, the priest offered his, and then it was my turn. You take the tamagushi in both hands, raise it upright, then rotate it so that you place it on the table with the bottom of the stem towards the kami. Then you bow twice, clap twice, and bow once. Yuriko did it after me, and her parents bowed and clapped with her. Mayuki bowed and clapped with everyone, but you’re only supposed to do it when someone is offering a tamagushi on your behalf, and at the beginning and end of some ceremonies, when you bow once, with the presiding priest.

The kami were then dismissed (don’t want them hanging around the house) with another keihitsu, and the ceremony was over. We are supposed to keep the wooden o-fuda on the kamidana for a year (but I’ll probably hang on to it; I tend not to return the ones associated with significant events), and the paper one for Kojin over the stove. It’s paper, and in a plastic bag, so that you can stick it on the wall without it becoming dirty from oil and grease. The tamagushi should also be kept on the kamidana until we feel that we are properly settled in the new flat, at which point we should return them to the shrine. I have no idea how long that will take, so it’s a good job the priest told us it was no problem if the sakaki dried out.

I don’t know whether it has anything to do with the ceremony, but things are going well in the new flat. Not only did we have three days of good weather for the move itself, but living here is working out as we’d hoped, at least so far.

Shinto Traditions Course — Kasuga

The Japanese academic year starts in April, and with it the Kokugakuin Open College courses also start again. Once again, they are offering a Shinto course, and once again I’m taking it. The number of people taking the course has increased every year, and this year there are over 180 students. The lecture room is about three-quarters full, and they make about 360,000 yen (about $4,000) for every 90 minute lecture. This may not be entirely unconnected with their decision to continue offering the course, although the fact that Professor Okada enjoys giving it is probably also an important factor.

Anyway, this year he chose Shinto traditions as his theme. “Traditions” is the way I have chosen to translate “shinkou”, which would more normally be translated as “cults” or “religions”. However, those have misleading overtones. Shinto encompasses the worship of many different kami, and there are some shrines to kami that are worshipped nowhere else. There are also shrines that are all connected to the same kami, and back to one or two major shrines. A few years ago, Professor Okada led a project to analyse the data for the shrines affiliated with the Organisation of Shinto Shrines, and look at the size and distribution of the various affiliations. For this course, he is planning to spend one lecture on each of the top ten affiliation groups. I’ve decided to call these affiliation groups “traditions”, because that seems to be the least misleading way to describe them.

In fact, he decided not to talk about the tenth largest tradition, that of “mountain kami”. This is because most of the shrines are very small, and they don’t tie back to a central shrine. There may not, in fact, be any unified tradition to talk about, as all the cults may be local. In any case, I suspect that it was also more work than he wanted to put into a single 90-minute lecture, even if it would earn the university $4000. So, instead, he chose to talk about the eleventh tradition, that of Kasuga. Since he is starting at the bottom, and working up to the biggest tradition (Hachiman), this week’s lecture was the one about Kasuga.

The Kasuga tradition is based at Kasuga Shrine in Nara. This shrine is closely connected to the Fujiwara family, who provided the wives of the Emperors for several centuries in the Heian period, and effectively ruled Japan for much of that time, and their patronage and that of Emperors born to Fujiwara mothers is why the shrine is so significant. The prefecture with the largest number of shrines in the Kasuga tradition is Nara, unsurprisingly, but the second highest number is found in Fukui, in southern Tohoku. I suspect that this is because an important branch of the Fujiwara had its headquarters in this area.

Most of the lecture was about the origins of the shrine. That wasn’t the original plan (it was point one of six), but it’s clearly something that interests Professor Okada, so he got a little involved in it. In addition, the origins of the shrine are intrinsically interesting.

In the Engishiki, the early tenth-century collection of court rituals that provides a lot of information on early Shinto, most shrines are referred to as “jinja”. There are a handful of exceptions; Izumo is “taisha”, and Ise, Kashima, and Katori are “jingu”. Kasuga is also an exception. It is referred to as “matsuru kami”, which means “worship the kami”. Why is this?

The kami enshrined at Kasuga are the clan kami of the Fujiwara. These are Amenokoyane, their ancestral kami, who is originally enshrined in Hiraoka shrine in Osaka, Takemikazuchi, enshrined in Kashima Shrine in Ibaraki, Futsunushi, enshrined in Katori Shrine in Chiba, and Himegami, originally thought to be the bride of Amenokoyane. The precise nature of the connection between the Fujiwara and the two shrines in the region just east of Tokyo (Kashima and Katori) is unclear; some stories say that the first Fujiwara, Kamatari, was born in the area. In any case, they greatly revered the kami of those shrines.

In 710, the capital of Japan was moved to Nara, called Heijokyo at the time. (They are celebrating the 1300th anniversary this year.) This moved the Fujiwara away from the shrines to their clan deities, and it is thought that Kasuga Shrine was initially established as a place from which to worship those shrines from afar. A map of the area around Nara survives from 756, and it shows a number of important buildings. On Mt Mikasa, the small mountain on which Kasuga Shrine is built, however, there is no indication of a building. Instead, there is a square marked, with “ground of the kami” written in it. The characters are written so that they are the right way up if you are facing east, which, judging from the characters for surviving buildings, means that the front of the area was in the west. The square is about the same size, and in about the same place, as the current inner sanctum at Kasuga, and so almost certainly indicates its forerunner.

If you are in Nara, Kashima and Katori Shrines are to the east, so if you want to worship them remotely, you should face that way. However, it is very unusual for shrines to face west, and the main sanctuaries at Kasuga (there are four separate ones, one for each kami) do not. This dates back to their original construction, in 768. According to the records, the Emperor Shotoku (the daughter of Emperor Shomu, who built the Great Buddha of Nara, and Empress Komyo, who was a daughter of the Fujiwara) had a divine vision in which she was instructed to construct shrine buildings, facing south. The fact that the records explicitly mention the direction, which is the normal direction for shrines to face, suggests that they didn’t originally face that way.

So, it seems most likely that Kasuga Shrine originated as a sacred enclosure, without buildings, for worshipping the kami of distant shrines.

Professor Okada then moved on to tell us a bit more about the history of the tradition. He was running out of time, so some of these points were covered rather briefly. The first point concerns two of the minor shrines in the precincts of Kasuga Shrine, Verdant Sakaki Shrine and Withered Sakaki Shrine. Sakaki is the evergreen tree that features in most Shinto rituals, and which grows around Kasuga Shrine. But why are there shrines to these two states of the tree?

The forests around Kasuga Shrine are unusual in the present day, as they are virgin forest in the middle of a city. This is because it has been explicitly forbidden to hunt or cut wood in them since 841, and they were probably untouched before that, since they became sacred at the same time as people moved to the area in any significant numbers. Shinto has always valued trees, and shrines still need the permission of the Association of Shinto Shrines to cut down trees in their precincts. However, the trees at Kasuga were particularly important to the shrine.

First, they were thought to warn of the anger of the kami. If the trees on the Kasuga hills became brown and dead, this was a sign that the kami was displeased about something, and had withdrawn from the area. The number of brown trees indicated the severity of his anger, so the exact number was recorded; it could be several thousand. The Fujiwara would then perform ceremonies to placate the kami, and wait for things to improve.

The second point relates to the attempts of the shrine (and the associated Buddhist temple, Kofukuji) to browbeat the government into doing what it wanted. When the shrine was unhappy with the government, it used to send its men (lots of them) to the capital with a sacred tree, threatening the Emperor with divine displeasure. The men would all carry withered sakaki branches, to show that the kami was angry, and they went to the imperial palace to make their demands. If these demands were not met, they threw the withered sakaki branches into the compound, symbolically throwing the kami’s curse in as well. On the other hand, if the government caved in, they would come back with green sakaki, indicating that the kami was happy now.

Professor Okada briefly mentioned the Kasuga Wakamiya On-matsuri. The Wakamiya enshrines the son of Amenokoyane, and the On-matsuri is its big festival. It happens once per year, and was popular with the local people, while the main festival of the main shrine was more of a government event, with official ambassadors from the Emperor (as there still are, in fact). The people would put on performances for the kami, and these performances were very important in the development of Noh. These days, Noh is still performed at the festival. However, the performances do not take place at the normal shrine. Instead, the kami is taken in procession to a temporary shrine, which is built every time, and then returned to the main shrine when the plays are over. However, he must get back within 24 hours, possibly because his father gets annoyed if he stays out too late at parties. (Or possibly because he turns into a pumpkin, although that’s less likely; Professor Okada did compare it to Cinderella, however.) The On-matsuri was first held in 1136, making it old, but significantly younger than the main shrine.

Finally, he talked about the Oracle of the Three Shrines, very briefly. This is a set of three oracles, from Ise, Hachiman, and Kasuga, which became very popular in the middle ages, and remained popular in the early modern period. Each of the three kami extols a particular virtue, and Kasuga extols compassion. Professor Okada provided a modern Japanese translation, as well as the original text, so I can provide an English translation.

Even if you purify yourself for a thousand days, I will not enter a house of malice
Even if you are mourning your father, I must enter a room of compassion

The death of your father is one of the greatest sources of ritual pollution in Shinto, close behind your own death, so the gist of this oracle is that ritual purity is much less important to the kami than compassion.

As the oracle was very important, and both the other kami are going to be covered later, I suspect we may come back to this topic.

This promises to be another extremely interesting course of lectures. I’m really looking forward to it.

Preliminary Training Session

Yesterday, there was a preliminary training session for the eighth Kawasaki Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents. As one of the new representatives, I naturally went along. The session was held in Kawasaki City Hall, in a meeting room on the fifteenth floor, which had quite a good view of the city. There were name badges and name plates for everyone, and great piles of literature in everyone’s place. I’ve not read all of it yet, but I hope I’ll be able to get to it before the first real session.

The training session started off with self-introductions; there are 26 representatives, and this time we have 17 different countries of citizenship (our Canadian is from China, and speaks better Japanese than English), representing every continent apart from Antarctica. Since there are no countries on Antarctica, that’s not really surprising. We then had a talk introducing Kawasaki, and explaining how the assembly works, before the chair of the last assembly told us a bit about it from his experience. Then there was a mock meeting, followed by a chance to chat with some of the other members. The lunch break was also good for that, so I’ve talked for some time with about half of the representatives already. I hope I’ll get chance to do that more over the next two years. We finished up with some messages of encouragement and advice from people who had been on the panel in the past.

The Assembly gets significant support from the city, as it’s established by ordinance. There’s a non-career track employee who works full time on supporting the assembly, gathering information we need, and two career-track employees who, I think, mostly work on supporting it. Having attended quite a lot of meetings last year, I know that the staff do provide a significant amount of information to the assembly, when they are asked for it, but they don’t participate in the discussions except when reporting on what they’ve found, so they really do support the assembly.

About the only thing I learned about the assembly’s procedures yesterday was that individual members are not allowed to submit materials for consideration. All documents submitted to the assembly must be prepared by the secretariat and approved by the chair and vice-chair, to ensure that they maintain neutrality. On the other hand, during the meetings the representatives can say whatever they like, so it’s not as if we’re being censored. (I imagine that people who hadn’t read two annual reports and attended five meetings last year learned more; certainly it seemed to cover all the important points.)

The mock meeting was very useful. We were split into groups of five and, after the initial diffidence, everyone in our group contributed quite enthusiastically to the discussion. We didn’t get sidetracked much, and we had a solid set of opinions to present to the full meeting. That seemed to be true of the other three groups, as well. The people who had been on the assembly in the past sat in on the groups, and they all commented that the discussion had been good, so I think everyone must have contributed. This is a very good sign; it suggests that the discussions over the two years will go well.

The first formal meeting is in two weeks. That’s when we are officially appointed, and elect the chair and vice-chair. Apparently, that will take up just about all of our time. At the second meeting, we decide, in broad terms, what we are going to discuss, and how we are going to organise the assembly; it normally splits into sub-groups, just like in the mock meeting. The real work of the assembly starts from the third meeting.

I’m looking forward to it.