Crying sumo

Bawling babies face off in Japan’s ‘crying sumo’

More than 100 Japanese babies faced off Sunday in a traditional “crying sumo” ring, an annual ceremony believed to bring infants good health.

In the sumo ring at the precinct of the Kamegaike Hachimangu shrine in Sagamihara west of Tokyo, two hulking wrestlers held up toddlers wearing tiny sumo belts and aprons to try to make them bawl.

Wrestlers sometimes shake the babies gently to encourage tears.

“My boy was crying from the very beginning and I felt a little bad,” Tomoyo Watanabe, the mother of Zentaro, told AFP.

“But as I watched my baby crying, I was praying for him to grow up healthy and strong after this event.”

The “crying sumo” is held at shrines and temples nationwide, to the delight of parents and onlookers.

“The cries of babies are believed to drive out demons and protect the infants from troubles,” said priest Hiroyuki Negishi.

The ceremony is believed to date back more than 400 years.

The rules vary from region to region — in some places parents want their offspring to be the first to cry, in others the first to weep is the loser.

In the Sagamihara event, which has been running since 2011, the babies accompanied by parents and grandparents were first taken before a Shinto altar and purified by the priest.

Pairs of toddlers were then brought into the sumo ring — where most of them were bawling even before facing off against their rival.

© 2017 AFP

Zen and Shinto 20: Ryokan

There are many individuals who exemplify the close ties between Zen and Shinto in Japanese history, particularly in the period before an artificial line was drawn between Buddhism and ‘the indigenous religion’ in Meiji times.

One such person is the poet Ryokan Taigu (1758-1831).  His father was village headman, a job which would have included handling local (Shinto) rites. This was in a flourishing port called Izumozaki in Niigata, gateway for the Sado Island gold mines. Ryokan might have succeeded him but dropped out to become a Soto Zen monk. After obtaining his certificate of enlightenment, he wandered for five years before returning to live as a recluse in a hut on a hill near his hometown. Here he wrote poems, did calligraphy, and enjoyed games with the local children. He was a genial ‘big fool’ (Taigu), but a fool inspired by divine wisdom.

In 1826 at the age of 59, Ryokan felt physically incapable of continuing his life on Mt Kugami, and he moved into a Shinto shrine lower down the hill known as Otogo Jinja. He lived in a two-room hut next to the thatch-roofed Sanctuary. One can presume that in return for his lodging he looked after the shrine, sweeping the grounds and perhaps making offerings. A poem he wrote at the time reflects this:

When young, I learned literature but was too lazy to become a scholar.
Still young, I practiced Zen, but I never transmitted the dharma.
Now I live in a hermitage and guard a Shinto shrine.
I feel like half a shrine keeper and half a monk.

Reading through Ryokan with my poetry in translation study group, I can often sense a similarity with Shinto in the striving of the poet for Zen enlightenment. This is particularly evident in such matters as sincerity of purpose, identification with nature, and living in the present. It seems in many of his poems that he aspires to a state of complete selflessness, free of the ego which clouds human understanding.

kakubakari ukiyo to shiraba okuyama no kusanimo kinimo naramashi mono o

Had I known of this distressing world
I would like to have been
A blade of grass or a tree
On a remote mountain

Other of his poems are clearly inspired by Zen but have a strong Shinto element in their concern with natural purity versus the ‘pollution’ of human concerns. Zen like Shinto wishes ultimately to look into the soul-mirror and see no distorting ego (which is why both temples and shrines have mirrors on their altars).

Yamakage no iwama o tsutau kokemizu no kasukani ware wa sumiwataru kamo

Like the little stream
Making its way
Through the mossy crevices
I, too, quietly
Turn clear and transparent.

On his choice of life as a recluse, rather than living in a monkish community, he had this to say:

I don’t tell the murky world
to turn pure.
I purify myself and
check my reflection
in the water of the valley brook.

In old age Ryokan had time for reflection on having ‘idled his life away’, and his conclusion about what he will leave behind is so pure and selfless as to bring a smile to the face…

My legacy —
What will it be?
Flowers in spring,
The cuckoo in summer,
And the crimson maples
Of autumn.

Ryokan’s grave (courtesy Wikicommons)

Ancient worship spots for W.H. status?

Asahi Shinbun carries an exciting report today about possible Unesco recognition of Okinoshima as a World Heritage site in July. Though I’ve never been there, that sure is one place I’d love to get to one day.  The photo shows you why….  (It’s timely too for me personally, since I’ve just been asked by Tuttle to do an update to my Japan’s World Heritage Sites book.)

Okinoshima island off the north coast of Kyushu (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

By YOHEI GOTO/ Staff Writer.  May 6, 2017

A remote island in southwestern Japan that is deemed so sacred that women are not allowed to set foot on it has been recommended for World Heritage status by a UNESCO advisory panel, but with conditions. The streamlined listing would exclude shrines and a series of ancient burial tombs.

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee will hold meetings in Poland from July 2 at which a final decision will be made on inclusion to the list.

Okinoshima island off the coast of the Fukuoka Prefecture cities of Munakata and Fukutsu is home to Munakata Taisha Okitsumiya shrine, which honors a goddess of the sea who is mentioned in “Nihon Shoki” (The Chronicles of Japan), one of Japan’s oldest official histories dating to the eighth century.

Because of the large number of artifacts uncovered, the island has been called the “Shosoin of the sea,” after the repository in Nara Prefecture erected to store the imperial family’s treasures as far back as the Heian Period (794-1185).

The recommendation, which reached the Japanese government on May 5, was compiled by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), an advisory panel to UNESCO.

However, the recommendation said four other sites that the Japanese government included when it recommended the area to UNESCO be excluded.

Ancient religious taboos persist in Okinoshima, one of them being that no woman should ever step foot on the island. Access to the island is restricted, and visitors are not permitted to disclose details of their trip or bring back anything, not even a flower or a blade of grass as a keepsake.

Those are issues that will have to be dealt with if the listing goes ahead and steps are taken to develop the tourist potential and the local economy.

The sites that have been targeted for omission are the Okitsumiya Yohaisho and the Nakatsumiya shrine on Oshima island, which is located about 11 kilometers off the coast of Fukuoka Prefecture, as well as the Hetsumiya shrine and the Shinbaru-Nuyama mounded tomb group located in Munakata and Fukutsu cities, according to the Cultural Affairs Agency.

The ICOMOS report said those sites did not have the global value necessary for inclusion in the World Heritage List and also recommended that the candidate site name be changed to only mention Okinoshima.

An official with the Cultural Affairs Agency told reporters early May 6: “The archaeological value that was focused on ancient religious rites was the only factor positively appraised, but there was no appraisal of the fact that such religious belief has continued until the present day. To be honest, the report is a very severe assessment.”

Cultural Affairs Agency officials will consult with local authorities about the sites that were recommended for omission before deciding whether to petition for them to be included during the World Heritage Committee meeting in Poland.

The Council for Cultural Affairs, an advisory body to the Cultural Affairs Agency, recommended the entire site for inclusion in the UNESCO list in 2015.

Okinoshima lies about 60 kilometers off the coast of Fukuoka Prefecture and has a perimeter of about four kilometers. Three other small islets near Okinoshima have been included in the ICOMOS recommendation as they are considered strongly associated with Okinoshima.

Between the fourth and ninth centuries, important religious rituals hosted by the state were held on the rocky contours of Okinoshima to pray for safe passage of ships and good relations with the Korean Peninsula and China. Excavations carried out on the island after World War II turned up 80,000 artifacts.

These designated national treasures include copper mirrors, a gold ring, horse ornaments from the Korean Peninsula and glass beads that reached Japan via the Silk Road trade route that connected the Eurasian landmass with the far reaches of Asia.

For more about the men-only controversy, see this article suggesting priestly reservations about the W.H. status.

Oldest shrine

Most people assume Ise Jingu is Japan’s oldest shrine. Mythical and archaeological evidence however says that it is Izumo Taisha. It was once the country’s most prestigious shrine, being supplanted by the propagandists of Yamato who incorporated it into the imperial mythology of the Kojiki (712).

In ‘The Infrastrurcture of the Gods’, a paper for Japan Review (no 29, 2016), Richard Torrance lays out the evidence available for the former supremacy of Izumo, which was for centuries an independent kingdom. The big question is when and how did it become subordinate to the Yamato kingdom?

Bronze mirror, symbol of authority, found in Shimane and exhibited in the Izumo museum

The paper argues that Izumo remained independent through the sixth and early seventh centuries. If this is true, then it would have fallen under Yamato power some hundred years before Kojiki was written.  This makes good sense, in that the mythology is clearly an attempt to justify the Yamato emperor’s right to rule. It would explain too why the Izumo cycle occupies such a large chunk of the book, for there would have been a need to justify the subjugation of such powerful gods and traditions.

Recent times have seen remarkable finds that have enhanced the reputation of Izumo as a cultural and political powerhouse.  In 1984 at Kojindani, 358 Yayoi-era bronze swords were unearthed, a staggering figure for one site considering that up to that point the total number found in the whole country was 300.

Afterwards further bronze objects were discovered, including in 1996 at Kamo Iwakura 39 bronze bells. In addition, burial sites of powerful figures with links to the continent were brought to light at Nishidani, where there is evidence of successive generations of chieftains.

The conclusion Torrance comes to is that an Izumo identity was formed in the second century which lasted for four or five centuries. This may not have been a political so much as a cultural realm, based on links with Silla. Chieftains and priests within this cultural realm may have at times acted as ‘kings’, or ruled in alliance with others, or been vassals. How and when the region became subservient to Yamato remains unclear, but Torrance suggests it may have been incremental rather than a single event.


Concerning Izumo’s longevity compared to Ise, Wikipedia has this so say (adapted version):

“At one time, the Japanese islands were controlled from Izumo, according to Shinto myths. Izumo’s main structure was originally constructed to glorify the great achievement of Ōkuninushi, considered the creator of Japan. Ōkuninushi was devoted to the building of the nation, in which he shared many joys and sorrows with the ancestors of the land. In addition, Ōkuninushi is considered the god of happiness, as well as the god who establishes good relationships.

Scale model reconstruction of ancient Izumo shrine, based on large pillars found near the area

According to the Nihon Shoki, the sun goddess Amaterasu said, “From now on, my descendants shall administer the affairs of state. You shall cast a spell of establishing good relationship over people to lead them a happy life. I will build your residence with colossal columns and thick and broad planks in the same architectural style as mine and name it Amenohisu-no-miya.” The other gods were gathered and ordered by Amaterasu to build the grand palace at the foot of Mt. Uga.

There is no knowledge of exactly when Izumo Shrine was built, but a record compiled around 950 (Heian period) describes it as the highest building, reaching approximately 48 meters, which exceeds in height the 45 meter-tall temple that enshrined the Great Image of Buddha, Tōdai-ji. This was due to early Shinto cosmology, when the people believed the gods (kami) were above the human world and belonged to the most majestic parts of nature. Therefore, Izumo-taisha could have been an attempt to create a place for the kami that would be above humans.

Evidence of the original Grand Shrine has been found, for example part of one of the pillars for the structure, consisting of three cedar trees with a three-meter diameter at its base. It is on display near the shrine.”

Okuninushi, once lord and master of the land – until the Yamato emperors overwrote his story with descent from high heaven and a sun goddess

Zen and Shinto 19: Architecture

The following is taken from Wikipedia, indicating how Buddhism and Shinto overlapped architecturally.  The similarities are particularly acute in Zen, which lays great emphasis on the kind of exactitude and purity of form found in Shinto.  One thinks for instance of dry landscape gardens and the use of plain gravel for shrine entrances, or the use of rocks as spiritual and symbolic features.


In Japan, Buddhist temples co-exist with Shinto shrines, and both share the basic features of Japanese traditional architecture. Not only can torii, the gates usually associated only with Shinto, be found at both, but the entrance to a shrine can be marked by a rōmon, a gate which is Buddhist in origin and can therefore very often be found also at temples.

Some shrines, for example Iwashimizu Hachiman-gū, have a Buddhist-style main gate called sōmon. Many temples have a temizuya and komainu, like a shrine. Conversely, some shrines make use of incense or have a shōrō belltower. Others – for example, Tanzan Jinja in Nara – may even have a pagoda.

Honden of the Zennyo Ryūō shrine, inside a Shingon temple in Kyoto

Similarities between temples and shrines are also functional. Like a shrine, a Buddhist temple is not primarily a place of worship: its most important buildings are used for the safekeeping of sacred objects (the honzon, equivalent to a shrine’s shintai), and are not accessible to worshipers. Unlike a Christian church, a temple is also a monastery. There are specialized buildings for certain rites, but these are usually open only to a limited number of participants. Religious mass gatherings do not take place with regularity as with Christian religions, and are in any event not held inside the temple. If many people are involved in a ceremony, it will assume a festive character and will be held outdoors.

The reason for the great structural resemblances between the two lies in their common history. It is in fact normal for a temple to have been also a shrine, and in architectural terms, obvious differences between the two are therefore few, so much so that often only a specialist can see them.

Shrines enshrining local kami existed long before the arrival of Buddhism, but they consisted either of demarcated land areas without any building or of temporary shrines, erected when needed. With the arrival of Buddhism in Japan in the 6th century, shrines were subjected to its influence and adopted both the concept of permanent structures and the architecture of Buddhist temples.

A Buddhist-style gate (karamon) at Iwashimizu Hachiman-gū

The successive development of shinbutsu-shūgō (syncretism of Buddhism and kami worship) and of the honji suijaku theory brought to the almost complete fusion of kami worship and Buddhism. It became normal for shrines to be accompanied by temples in mixed complexes called jingū-ji (神宮寺 lit. shrine temple) or miyadera (宮寺 lit. shrine temple).The opposite was also common: most temples had at least a small shrine dedicated to its tutelary kami, and were therefore called jisha (寺社 temple shrines?). The Meiji era’s eliminated most jingūji, but left jisha intact, so much so that even today most temples have at least one, sometimes very large, shrine on their premises and Buddhist goddess Benzaiten is often worshiped at Shinto shrines.

As a consequence, for centuries shrines and temples had a symbiotic relationship where each influenced the other. Shrines took from Buddhism its gates (Mon), the use of a hall for lay worshipers, the use of vermilion-colored wood and more, while Chinese Buddhist architecture was adapted to Japanese tastes with more asymmetrical layouts, greater use of natural materials, and an adaptation of the monastery to the pre-existing natural environment.

The clear separation between Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, which today is the norm, emerges only as a result of the shinbutsu bunri (“separation of kami and Buddhas”) law of 1868. This separation was mandated by law, and many shrine-temples were forced to become just shrines, among them famous ones like Usa Hachiman-gū and Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū.

Because mixing the two religions was now forbidden, jingūji had to give away some of their properties or dismantle some of their buildings, thus damaging the integrity of their cultural heritage and decreasing the historical and economic value of their properties. For example, Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū’s giant Niō (the two wooden wardens usually found at the sides of a temple’s entrance), being objects of Buddhist worship and therefore illegal where they were, were sold to Jufuku-ji, where they still are. The shrine-temple also had to destroy Buddhism-related buildings.


Carp and animal rights

As Shinto spreads in the West, one hears more and more about it being a religion that prizes nature and is ecological in essence.  Unfortunately that is far from the case in Japan, where the ancestral element in Shinto leads to tradition trumping environmental issues.

One such instance to come to light recently is in the abuse of animal rights at a Shinto ceremony involving carp. This was highlighted in an article in the UK’s Daily Mail (hardly noted as an environmental campaigner, one hastens to add).  For Shintoists in Japan keeping up the ways of their ancestors is far more important than compassion for animals. It’s a pattern one sees again and again, serving as a reminder that Shinto is far from being simply a nature-loving religion.


He drinks like a fish! Call to ban traditional Japanese ceremony where a carp is plied with wine in a bid to banish evil spirits

  • Ceremony is conducted every year in the city of Tonami, western Japan
  • It is due to superstition that women are unlucky at age of 33 and men at 42
  • Custom has been criticised after it was shown on television programme 

Campaigners have called for a ban on a traditional Japanese ceremony in which a carp is made to drink wine in a bid to banish evil spirits.

The ceremony is conducted every year in the city of Tonami, western Japan, due to a superstition that women are unlucky at the age of 33, while men are unlucky at 42 – with participants desperate to reverse the ‘curse’.

However, the custom has now been slammed online for being ‘abusive’, after a television programme showing the ceremony taking place was aired in Japan.

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Campaigners have called for a ban on a traditional Japanese ceremony in which a carp is made to drink wine in a bid to banish evil spirits 

Campaigners have called for a ban on a traditional Japanese ceremony in which a carp is made to drink wine in a bid to banish evil spirits

The ceremony is conducted every year in the city of Tonami, western Japan, due to a superstition that women are unlucky at the age of 33, while men are unlucky at 42

The ceremony is conducted every year in the city of Tonami, western Japan, due to a superstition that women are unlucky at the age of 33, while men are unlucky at 42

During the ceremony, the men carry a live carp in a bucket to the river, while the women carry a bottle of Japanese rice wine, led by a Shinto priest, Rocket News 24 reported.

When they get to the riverside, the men hold the fish still while the women pour the wine, called nihonshu, into their mouths.

At the end of the ceremony, the carp are released back into the water.

It is believed that alcohol has a purifying effect on the carp, believed to be the god of the river

A poll conducted afterwards found that 8,000 viewers believe the custom should stop. Many took to social media to slam the ceremony, arguing that it was ‘unnecessary’ and a form of ‘abuse’.

An expert who appeared on the Morning Show suggested the alcohol does not have much impact on the fish, as the majority of it escapes through the gills.  However, a study in 2014 found that giving a zebrafish ethanol did have a significant impact – doubling its swimming speed.

The tradition is thought to have begun in 1816. At the end of the ceremony, the carp are released back into the water

The tradition is thought to have begun in 1816. At the end of the ceremony, the carp are released back into the water

Miyakojima revisited

Incense lies on the beach after a ritual for Ryugu, the sea deity. Here nature is worshipped directly, without the need for shrines.

Last year I took the direct flight to the island of Miyakojima in Okinawa for a few days spring sunshine.  It was so wonderful that I decided to go again, but this time instead of touring the island by rented car I decided to stay in a resort and enjoy the amenities.  Since March is just before ‘the season’ starts, the small white sand beaches were mercifully empty.  It meant I could inspect the surrounds at leisure.

In my previous posting on Miyakojima, I explored the distinctive religious heritage of the island. The two pillars of East Asian spirituality, animist and ancestral worship, were soon apparent even within five minutes walk from the resort. On the one hand were small shrines facing the sea where offerings were made to Ryugu, the ocean deity. On the other there were the characteristic tomb buildings in the nearby village where gatherings are held in honour of family ancestors.

A typical family tomb, set amidst a sugar cane field

This time I was able to spend time chatting to a local woman who was picking herbs amongst the coral-like rocks.  She told me of how women gathered for rituals according to the old calendar, and how these were dying out as the new generation moves away and shows little interest.The Ryukyu language that she spoke at home was dying out too, and she recalled being punished for using it at school where standard Japanese was the only language allowed.

The villager told me too of the shamanic practices conducted at funerals, when the spirit of the dead person enters into the medium. She spoke of how one could easily tell if it was genuine or fake. As she described the event, I couldn’t help recalling very similar practices I’d witnessed in Korea. As there, the shamanic tradition in Miyakojima is very female-driven.

My last day on the island happened to be Doll’s Day by the old pre-Meiji calendar, and the custom is for the island women to purify themselves in the sea. With its pleasant blue water and pristine white sand, the beach spoke invitingly of immersion in nature.  Here, you could sense, was a true communion of human and spirit world.  But when the typhoons blow later in the summer, you can be sure the other aspect of the gods will be all too evident!

For the first of a series of four postings on Okinawan religion, please click here. For Okinawan ancestral worship, see here. For shrines and rituals, see here. For the wonderful chief Okinawan shrine, Seifa Utaki, please see here.

Purification in the sea is traditional on Dolls Day by the old calendar

A typical small worship place, with space for incense and offerings. It’s usual to leave behind the food and tin foil, cans and packets etc.  In olden times these would have been bio-degradable.

Family tomb with open doors. Inside is a cavernous space in which urns are put. In previous times it would have been strewn with bones, in one composite ancestral mix.

An opened packet of salt is left as purification in front of a family tomb

Hearn 17): First Shrine Visit (cherry blossom time)

Hearn’s first shrine visit came in cherry blossom time in Yokohama, fresh after his arrival there by ship from Vancouver. It was in Hearn’s honeymoon period, when he was elated with being ‘in fairyland’ where everything was enchanting, elfish and curious. His writing conveys all the thrill of the new and exotic, when travellers ride a high of constant discovery.

In a way Hearn had been prepared for Shinto by his attachment to the pagan polytheism of ancient Greece. While still a schoolboy he had turned away from what he saw as the oppressive monotheism of Christianity, and influenced no doubt by the Greek heritage of his idolised mother he had been enraptured by picture books of Greek myth. While in Japan, Hearn was to take on Christian missionaries as an enemy propagating an unattractive Western modernism.  Whereas they ridiculed the worship of trees and snakes and rocks, Hearn had an instinctive understanding of how humans were intricately related to the environment around them.

At the time Hearn was writing there was no clear distinction as yet between (Buddhist) temple and (Shinto) shrine. The terms were sometimes used interchangeably.  In the passage below Hearn had asked to visit another ‘temple’, but gets taken instead by his rickshaw man nicknamed Cha to a shrine.

There is a lofty flight of steps here also, and before them a structure which I know is both a gate and a symbol, imposing, yet in no manner resembling the great Buddhist gateway seen before.  Astonishingly simple all the lines f it are: it has no carving, no coloring, no lettering upon it; yet it has a weird solemnity, an enigmatic beauty. It is a torii.

Miya,’ observes Cha. Not a tera this time, but a shrine of the gods of the more ancient faith of the land, – a miya.

I am standing before a Shinto symbol. I see for the fist time, out of a picture at least, a torii. How describe a torii to those who have never seen one looked at one even in a photograph or engraving? Two lofty columns, like gate pillars, supporting horizontally two cross-beams, the lower and the lighter beam having its ends fitted into the columns a little below their summits; the uppermost and larger beam supported upon the tops of the columns, and projecting well beyond them to right and left. That is a torii: the construction varying little in design, whether made of stone, wood or metal. But this description can give no correct idea of the appearance of a torii, of its majestic aspect, or its mystical suggestiveness as a gateway. The first time you see a noble one, you will imagine, perhaps, that you see the colossal model of some beautiful Chinese letter towering against the sky; for all the lines of the thing have the grace of an animated ideograph, – have the bold angles and curves of characters made with four sweeps of a master-brush.


Passing the torii I ascend a flight of perhaps one hundred stone steps, and find at their summit a second torii, from whose lower cross-beam hangs festooned the mystic shimenawa. It is in this case a hempen rope of perhaps two inches in diameter through its greater length, but tapering off at either end like a snake. Sometimes the shimenawa is made of bronze, when the torii itself is of bronze; but according to tradition it should be made of straw, and most commonly is. For it represents the straw rope which the deity Funo-tama-no-mikoto stretched behind the Sun goddess, Heavenly-handstrength-god, had pulled her out, as is told in that ancient myth of Shinto which Professor Chamberlain has translated. And the shimenawa, in its commoner and simpler form, has pendent tufts of straw along its entire length, at regular intervals, because originally made, tradition declares, of grass pulled up by the roots which protruded from the twist of it.

Advancing beyond this torii, I find myself in a sort of park or pleasure-ground on the summit of the hill. There is a small temple on the right; it is all closed up; and I have read so much about the disappointing vacuity of Shinto temples that I do not regret the absence of its guardian. And I see before me what is infinitely more interesting – a grove of cherry trees covered with something unutterably beautiful, – a dazzling mist of snowy blossoms clinging like cloud-fleece about every branch and twig; and the ground beneath them, and the path before me, is white with the soft, thick, odorous snow of fallen petals.

Beyond this loveliness are flower-pots surrounding tiny shrines; and marvelous grotto-work, full of monsters, – dragons and mythologic beings chiseled in the rock; and miniature landscape work with tiny groves of dwarf trees and liliputian lakes, and microscopic brooks and bridges and cascades. Here, also, are swings for children. And here are belvederes perched on the verge of the hill, wherefrom the whole fair city, and the whole smooth bay speckled with fishing-sails no bigger than pin-heads, and far faint high promontories reaching into the sea, are all visible in one delicious view, – blue-penciled in a beauty of ghostly haze indescribable.

Hearn 16): Family worship

Hearn was an agnostic, but he had a sympathetic interest in Buddhism and Shinto as his writings attest.  In an 1893 letter to his friend, Basil Hall Chamberlain, he wrote once of the daily cycle of life in his extended family (along with his wife, Setsuko, the author at one time supported as many as nine people including children, relatives and servants).

Buddhism and Shinto were formally severed by the Meiji government of 1868, though it’s evident that in people’s hearts the religions continued to be fused as one. This is clear too from the daily reverence to buddhas and kami shown in Hearn’s household, and it’s notable how integral the religious worship was to his family life. One striking feature is that particular attention is paid to hotoke in the morning and kami in the evening (though one might have expected the opposite). What’s interesting too is the localised nature, whereas the Meiji government was all about imposing centralisation and regularisation.

The following extract is taken from Wandering Ghost by Jonathan Cott, p. 316.  (Curved brackets are Hearn’s words), [square brackets are mine].


Morning 6am – The little alarm clock rings…   The servants enter, prostrate themselves, and say good morning to the danna-sama [master], and proceed to open the to [door]. Meanwhile, in the other chambers the little oil lamps have been lighted before the tablets of the ancestors, and the buddhist (not the Shinto) deities – and prayers are being said, and offerings to the ancestors made. (Spirits are not supposed to eat the food offered them, – only to absorb some of its living essence, therefore the offerings are very small.) Already the old men are in the garden, saluting the rising sun, and clapping their hands, and murmuring the Izumo prayers.

[Description of his daily life follows, leaving for work, then lunch, bath hour, supper.]

As evening wanes, the turn of the Kami-sama comes. During the day, they receive their usual offerings, but it is at night the special prayers are made. The little lamps are lighted, and each of the family in turn, except myself, say the prayers and pay reverence. These prayers are always said standing, but those to the hotoke [Buddhist dead] are said kneeling. Some of the prayers are said for me. I was never asked to pay but once – when there was grief in the house; and then I prayed to the Gods, repeating the Japanese words one by one as they were told to me. The little lamps of the Kami are left to burn themselves out. All wait for me to give the signal of bed-time, – unless I am so absorbed in writing as to forget the hour…

Imperial Rescript of 1890

There are moves in certain ruling circles to reintroduce the Imperial Rescript on Education of 1890, which became one of the pillars of State Shinto before the war. It’s a complex issue, and Green Shinto friend Shaun O’Dwyer recently wrote an article for the Japan Times explaining the historical background. The following is an abridged version of the original article.

(Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the School of Languages and Cultures, Kyushu University, and is completing a book on the prospects for modern Confucianism.)

FUKUOKA – The Imperial Rescript on Education, a short founding document of modern Japanese nationalism first issued to Japan’s schools by the Education Ministry in 1890 and banned from official use in 1948, has been in the news lately. There has been a scandal over Osaka school operator Moritomo Gakuen’s questionable dealings with government officials to get a sweetheart deal on state land for a new school. There were shocking revelations about the anti-Chinese and anti-Korean xenophobia of the operators. Yet for conservative nationalists like Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, the reaction to the latter revelation was “what’s so bad about the Imperial Rescript anyway?”

Reading of the Imperial Rescript at morning assembly in school

While liberal newspapers have underlined its affiliations with the pre-1945 emperor-centered State Shintoism, it is also a strikingly Confucian document. Emperor Meiji exhorts his subjects to practice the morality associated with the “five human relations” of the ancient Confucian text the “Mencius”: to be filial to parents, affectionate to siblings, true to friends, harmonious as spouses and so forth. And the Emperor speaks of his subjects “ever united in filial piety and loyalty,” two cardinal Confucian virtues. Conservatives have affirmed these homely moral elements of the rescript, arguing that the “spirit of the rescript” merely aims to make Japan a moral nation.

Historical background: ‘Kokutai’
The idea of the kokutai, or national polity, was originally developed by Mito Academy scholars in the early 19th century. Reinterpreting old Shinto myths of an unbroken, single line of emperors stretching back to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, the Mito scholars wrote of how Japan could be united in loyalty and filial piety through rites-based veneration for ancestors and for the emperor.

In such rites the emperor filially venerates his ancestors and the Sun Goddess herself, and the people filially venerate their ancestors, who had themselves loyally served and venerated the emperor’s ancestors. The kokutai was a ritual-political order in which the people united in filial piety and loyalty under the emperor without the need for force.

The Meiji Constitution, also enacted in 1890, invokes the sacredness of the emperor and his ancestors, comprising the “line of emperors, unbroken for ages eternal”. This all looks conservative and weirdly mythical, but it need not have led to fascism. To understand why, we need to introduce another Meiji era intellectual largely forgotten today, but who towered over early 20th century Japanese scholarly and educational life; Tetsujiro Inoue, a professor of philosophy at the University of Tokyo.

Tetsujiro Inoue, 1855-1944

Tetsujiro Inoue
Inoue was a competent scholar and a very able propagandist. In 1891, under the direction of the Education Ministry he wrote a highly influential school textbook commentary for the Imperial Rescript on Education, and he would write much more on behalf of the ministry in coming decades.

Inoue helped rally public opinion against dissenters who “endangered the kokutai”; a Christian school teacher who did not bow before a copy of the rescript in a school ceremony in 1890, or historians who publicly questioned the veracity of the “eternal, unbroken imperial line”, intimidating them into silence.

He helped theorize a “national morality” unique to Japan, which the rescript supposedly expressed in compressed form. This national morality was cobbled together from his notions of an indigenous bushido morality, a Japanized Confucianism, Buddhism and German philosophical ideas of “national spirit” or “volksgeist.”

Ideas like this would go on to become the common sense of the more extreme nationalism and imperialism that prevailed in the 1930s. Japan’s superior, unique national morality was believed to entitle it to a position of moral leadership over other Asian countries. As Japanese armies rampaged through China, Inoue asserted that Japan’s moral mission there was to help the Chinese recover their true national morality — Confucianism — under Japanese tutelage.

– by Shaun O’Dwyer Japan Times 20/3/2017.
[For recent moves to legitimise use of the imperial rescript in schools, see this article.]
[For examples of how the government is pushing education back to prewar indoctrination, see here.]
[For an overview of the slow legitimation of the imperial rescript, see this JT article.]
(For an article about the anger arising from Abe’s attempt to revive prewar politics, see this article.]

[Article on how Abe is leading the country towards fascism: see this link here.

‘The once-revered Imperial Rescript on Education, issued in 1890, was abolished after Japan’s World War II defeat at the hands of the U.S. over concerns it had contributed to creating a militaristic culture. It exhorted citizens to “offer yourselves courageously to the State” so as to “guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne”.’

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