Fish abuse

Sadly for a ‘nature religion’ Shinto does not have a proud record in terms of animal rights.  There has been no campaigning on the issue, and no notable record of opposing animal cruelty.  Quite the opposite in fact, as previous postings about cruelty to horses at a Shinto festival have shown (see here also for other examples).

Historically, compassion for animals is associated with Buddhism.  Shinto for example was very much meat-oriented until the proclamation by Emperor Tenmu forbidding the eating of four-legged animals:

The first law prohibiting meat eating was issued in the year 675, a little more than 100 years after the arrival of Buddhism. In the 7th and 8th centuries, when a new emperor came to the throne he would issue an Imperial edict forbidding meat consumption. This was because, according to Buddhist belief, killing animals is wrong. By around the 10th century just about everyone had stopped eating meat.

Now Japan Today carries an article about a contemporary Shinto practice that might well be viewed as animal abuse.


Shinto ceremony that involves feeding a carp alcohol criticized as ‘animal abuse’

Japan Today

Shinto ceremony that involves feeding a carp alcohol criticized as 'animal abuse'

courtesy Japan Today (for the video please see the link above)

Every year, the snow-kissed city of Tonami in Toyama Prefecture holds a ceremony wherein people feed a carp “nihonshu” (Japanese rice wine) and then release it into a river. It’s called a “Carp Releasing Exorcism” and is used to purge people of evil spirits.However, after the event was covered on a national television program recently, a backlash began online, with many calling for Tonami to end this “abusive” custom of “intoxicating the wildlife.”

Taken at face value, the concept of making a carp drink alcohol and then throwing it away probably seems odd, but there is a kind of logic behind it. In Japan, there is a widely held superstition called “yakudoshi” which are unlucky ages for each gender. As you can imagine, this isn’t an exact science, but the general consensus says that the worst year in a woman’s life will be at age 33, whereas men will want to watch their backs extra hard when they turn 42.

The years immediately before and after your yakudoshi are said to be rocky as well. For example, television personality and spokeswoman Becky will turn 33 this March and I think she would agree that things aren’t going so great at the moment. If the superstition holds true, 2017 will be a real Charlie Foxtrot for her.

To avoid such a fate, women in their early 30s and men in their early 40s will try to reverse the curse by any means necessary. This is where the Carp Releasing Exorcism comes in, where alcohol is believed to be a purifying agent and carp are regarded as gods of the river. So this ceremony is done to pay homage to the carp and hopefully earn some good karma in the process.

fish offering to the kami

■ What happens?

In the main part of the Carp Releasing Exorcism, the jinxed men and women proceed to the riverside with the guys carrying a bucket containing a live carp and the ladies holding a large bottle of nihonshu. A Shinto priest leads the way, blessing their path.

When they arrive, the men will pick up the carp and try to hold them steady while the women pour the sake into the fish’s mouth. After that, the men will toss the creature gently into the water. Then, if all goes well, they will not be embroiled in a national scandal about an extra-marital affair…or stub their toe on a sofa.

■ In the spotlight

This event was said to have begun back in 1816 but has remained largely unknown among Japanese people as it takes place in only this one location. However, every once in a while a television producer catches wind of it and creates a segment for the rest of Japan to see. When that happens, the outrage begins.

Cue Asahi TV’s “Morning Show,” which aired coverage of this year’s Carp Releasing Exorcism in which 11 men and women and four carp took part. While viewing it, one of the cast members remarked that it looked like they were “pouring a lot of alcohol” into the fish. Nevertheless, after an explanation of the ceremony and watching it, a real-time survey was conducted on the television audience with 36,000 viewers deeming it “understandable” and 8,000 feeling that “it should stop.”

On Twitter and message boards such as 2-channel, the disapproval was much more prominent, however. Comments came down on both sides of the issue but it would seem a majority were against the ceremony.

“It just seems like abuse.”
“Isn’t it alcohol harassment?”
“Why don’t they all go jump in a river drunk?”
“Is this really necessary?”
“This is a fishing tradition.”
“If we keep ending things because someone gets offended, the world is going to get really boring.”
“I don’t think they should do this anymore.”
“People are too uptight these days.”

A spokesperson for the event told news site J-Cast News that they received about 20 negative emails and phone calls but only three or four positive contacts. That stands to reason, however, as people generally don’t call in just to say everything is fine.

■ Fish are people too

Despite the criticisms, the organizers of the Carp Releasing Exorcism say that they have no intention of ending the event and are convinced that they are not harming the fish. They claim that there is a dammed lake downstream and they have never seen any dead carp wash up after a ceremony.

The “Morning Show” also contacted a fish expert who said that the alcohol used doesn’t really affect these fish because most of it just escapes through the gills. It’s hard to say whether this is the case here or not, though, and as the online comments reveal, many people are not convinced.

Fish can get drunk, but as you might expect it would take much less to kill them than it would a human so a few swigs from one of those large sake bottles does appear fairly hazardous. There is also the fact that the fish is already out of the water and in a panicked state which doesn’t help matters any.

Controversy aside, it is interesting to witness what appears to be a “fish rights movement” going on among people in Japan recently. Following the outrage over an ice-skating rink’s decision to implant real fish into the ice for “ambiance” and now this backlash, there are growing elements in the land of sushi and dining on still-twitching squid that appear to be changing when it comes to the welfare of fish – even the lowly carp.

Source: J-Cast News via Yahoo! News Japan


For a one-minute video showing the ceremony, see here. For a 4.30 version of the event, click here.

Comment by Cleo, a Japan Today commentator:”The fish seem to spend an awfully long time out of the water, their gills are held shut as the sake is poured in (so the claim that most of it just escapes through the gills is very dodgy) and for a fish that has just be released into the water to just sit there not moving – especially after a stressful experience, it should want to get as far away as possible as quickly as possible – is evidence that the fish are NOT ‘not harmed’.

For the folk dressed up in their best traditional togs, it seems to be less a religious experience and more a photo op.  Also the claim that they are not harming the fish because they have never seen any dead carp wash up after a ceremony is sheer self-serving hogwash. It’s OK to do anything to an animal just so long as you don’t actually see it die? The commentary in the video mentions that the carp is used because of its 強い生命力, i.e. it takes a lot to kill a carp, you can subject it to all kinds of atrocities.

That doesn’t mean it’s OK to torture the poor things. They could just symbolically release the fish into the river and drink the sake themselves, to toast them on their way. No need at all to abuse the poor things for the sake of a photo op.”

Gion Ebisu

A priest from Yasaka Jinja leads a procession of ‘fukumusume’ or happiness girls who dispense lucky charms to businesses in the centre of Kyoto

Kyoto is an extraordinarily busy place. No sooner has the busy shrine-going of New Year finished than the city is immersed in activities for Toka Ebisu (on the tenth day of the year). Ebisu is one of the most popular of the Seven Lucky Deities, and the only one native to Japan. He’s associated with business success, and those wanting to make money in the coming year are keen to get his blessing.

Previously Green Shinto has carried a description of the activities carried out at Ebisu Jinja, where an excited throng of people ask for their business activities to do well over the coming year. We’ve also carried a piece on the Sennyuji Seven Lucky Deities pilgrimage, where people walk around seven subtemples set in the woods to collect a full set of charms. This year the two events coincided with that of Toka Ebisu, meaning there were three celebrations involving the Seven Lucky Deities on the same weekend.  We are blessed indeed!

Two ‘happiness daughters’ pose with the lucky charms they are dispensing to shops and businesses

The Seven Lucky Deities are figures from folklore who are supposed to have arrived in Japan in a treasure boat.  The origins go back to the fifteenth century, but they took their present form in the Edo Era. (For an overview of who they were, see this account.  For their origins, click here.)  Ebisu is the most popular, depicted as a jolly fisherman. He’s patronised by businesses in particular.

The Gion Ebisu event consists of a procession from the Yasaka Shrine along the main shopping street of Shijo. As well as the parade of ‘fukumusume’ (above), there are four carts: one for drummers, one for the Seven Lucky Deities, one for a small statue of Ebisu, and one for the sprigs of sasa (bamboo grass) from which charms are hung.

As the procession advances, teams of three work their way along the shops on one side. The teams consist of a priest directing a pair of ‘fukumusume’ who formally hand over the charm in exchange for a prepaid coupon. The teams were running from door to door through crowds of startled shoppers, which caused some bemused expressions. It also created amusing scenes as the traditionally dressed festival participants burst into Starbucks and other stores where tourists were casually chatting.

The statue of Ebisu at the heart of the procession

At first sight I imagined the procession to be part of the celebrated Toka Ebisu events centred on the Ebisu Jinja in Gion. But it seems that historically Yasaka Jinja decided to start its own Ebisu celebration, based on one of its subtemples. The shrine has strong connections with Izumo, where the kami Okuninushi is also known as Daikoku through an alternate reading of the same Chinese characters.  (Daikoku is the father of Ebisu.)

Unsurprisingly, it was noticeable at Yasaka that the subshrine for Daikoku was packed with people seeking the deity’s blessing.  The Seven Lucky Deities spread a lot of happiness and joy in terms of folklore.  You could say they not only promote good business, but are good business for the shrines too!

The parade was small by Kyoto standards, put on by the same shrine which organises the month-long Gion Festival in July. ‘Shobai hanjou sasa motte koi’ rang out from participants (May your business thrive, come and collect your bamboo grass lucky charm)

The float carrying the Seven Lucky Deities. In the middle is Ebisu holding a fish. To the right is Bishamonten, Benten and Fukurokuju. To the left with his back turned is Daikoku wielding a lucky mallet.

The priest indicates where the ‘happiness daughters’ should go next to present the charms

Bows are exchanged on both sides.

Priest emerging from a shop

The event coincided with Coming of Age Day, with the middle of town full of young girls in their best kimono.

Costumes competing with costumes…

After their hectic outing through the holiday shoppers, the procession returned to Yasaka Jinja sparkling in the sunshine

The whole group paid respects to the kami before retiring for naorai (after-feast)

Meanwhile, at the Daikoku subshrine a miko waved a mallet in blessing over worshippers (the lucky mallet is a symbol of Daikoku)

Hatsumode in pics

All dressed up in comely kimono to welcome a new year, that of the Fire Rooster.

Every year Green Shinto likes to visit our local shrine of Shimogamo Jinja, here in Kyoto.  It’s a World Heritage shrine known for its green surrounds featuring streams running through the Tadasu no mori wood.  Every year the shrine seems to market new features designed to add to its attractiveness as a place to visit.  This year the enmusubi subshrine, which promotes love connections, had been adorned with a pair of love statues….

Male and female in a true lover’s knot

The miko were kept busy with sales of good luck charms (above),  and with signing books which act as a record of shrines visited (left).









One of the good things about Shimogamo Shrine is that there are subshrines for the Chinese zodiac, so that you can pray to your guardian animal.  Here I’m at the shrine for the Ox, together with my protective arrow to ward off evil spirits through the coming year.  You could say I feel blessed.

In recent years Shimogamo has opened up areas that were previously kept off-limits. Now you get to see through to the most sacred areas of the shrine, including this charming subshrine in the inner sanctuary.

There are a variety of things on offer for after one’s paid respects. Unfortunately they had run out of my favourite ginger-laced saké so I had to make do with plum and seaweed tea instead.

The beginning of a new year seems like a perfect opportunity to get your fortune told. This couple were engrossed in finding out what is in store with them, and they seemed pretty pleased with the result. Let’s hope they have a great year!

For last year’s Shimogamo visit, please click here. For the 2015 Hatsumode in the snow, please see here. For Hatsumode at Kamigamo Shrine see here, and for Hatsumode at Ujigami Shrine see here.

Cannabis cultivation denied

For ordinary use shimenawa is made of rice rope. For special use hemp may be used.

Mie gov’t rejects cannabis cultivation request for Shinto rituals

The Mie prefectural government said Friday it has rejected a request from a group of shrines to cultivate cannabis for hemp “shimenawa” rope used for Shinto rituals, citing the danger of theft and misuse.

The prefectural government in central Japan said it notified the Ise-based group that sufficient measures, such as installing a security camera, had not been planned to be implemented and hemp shimenawa rope can be made with imported cannabis.

Shimenawa rope is always hung with the thin end to the left

In recent years, Japan has imported around 90 percent of its cannabis for hemp shimenawa rope from China, according to the group. Most domestic cannabis is produced in Tochigi Prefecture in eastern Japan.

Ise, in Mie Prefecture, is known for the Ise Shrine, which dates back around 2,000 years and is dedicated to the ancestral deities of the Japanese imperial family.

In Japan, a law prohibits the possession and transfer of marijuana, but cultivation of cannabis is permitted under strict conditions with prefectural permission. The prefectural government would allow production of cannabis under adequate management control if it is deemed socially and culturally important or indispensable for people’s lives. However, the prefecture said there is no precedent for such a decision.

The group of shrines applied for permission in November. It planned to cultivate a species of cannabis that contains little to no psychoactive compounds, if permitted.

The local government decision came after a guilty verdict in late December on the 37-year-old president of a company, licensed by Tottori Prefecture in western Japan to process cannabis, on suspicion of possessing marijuana.


There are different types of cannabis plant, some of which are low in the psychoactive compound necessary for marijuana use. To learn about the use of cannabis in Japanese culture, please see here or here.  For its use in Shinto, please check here.  For an article on Japan’s draconian attitude towards marijuana, see here.

Shimogamo priestess with headband made of hemp

A priest holding the ‘purification wand’ – a branch of sakaki with some hemp string attached


Shrine folklore and Confucianism

Shrines and temples offer contact with Japan’s superb folk spirituality (by Kevin Short)

By Kevin Short / Special to The Japan News  

As readers of this column know all too well, I am a great fan and proponent of small, local Japanese shrines and temples.These little sacred spots are often totally unknown outside their own very limited parish area, but they are deeply loved and almost always well taken care of by the people. They offer a great chance for direct, base-level contact not only with the wildlife and old trees of the sacred groves, but with Japan’s superb folk spirituality.

In my research on local shrines and temples I use field notes, simple illustrations and photographs to document the natural and cultural treasures. One immense pleasure is mapping and measuring the big trees in the sacred groves that surround the main buildings. For each tree record species and trunk circumference, which by custom is always measured at about chest height.

For example, in the sacred grove of one tiny local shrine, I recorded two sudajii chinquapins (Castanopsis sieboldii) with circumferences of 300 and 220-centimeter, a 230-centimeter kusunoki camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora), a 240-centimeter kaya (Torreya nucifera), and a 190-centimeter akagashi ring-cupped oak (Quercus acuta).

Each shrine or temple is not just a single building devoted to one main deity; but instead an intricate and complicated web of sacred space, filled with huge trees and also with numerous subshrines and carved stones dedicated to all sorts of minor and local spirits. In some cases the old wooden buildings are decorated with superb wooden carvings that depict scenes from well-known Japanese and Chinese folklore.

The shrine I am now studying boasts three carvings on the sides and back of the main building. One of these depicts an exciting episode from the life of Minamoto Yoshitsune, Japan’s most popular folk hero. The scene is set in the Kurama Mountains just north of Kyoto, where the young Yoshitsune, at this time still known by his boyhood name Ushiwakamaru, learns the secrets of movement and swordsmanship from mysterious long-nosed mountain creatures known as Tengu.

We tend to think of Japanese spirituality as an integration of Shinto and Buddhist beliefs, but the remaining two carvings at this shrine, as well as those at many others nearby, are actually designed as parables in Confucian social morality. These scenes derive from Chinese folklore, and celebrate people who have been especially loyal and kind to their parents.

In one scene the boy Yoko risks his own life to chase away a tiger that has threatened his father. In the other, the filial young wife Mrs. Tang breastfeeds her aged mother-in-law, who is too sick to swallow solid food. At her feet the family baby looks on worriedly.

A strong Confucian social morality, which exhorts people to be loyal and obedient to their parents, and by extension to the national and local rulers, may have been ideally suited to Japan’s strict feudal socio-political system during the Edo Period (1603-1867).


The following overview of Confucianism in Japan is extracted from Japanese Culture by Roger J. Davies…

In Confucian society, the family stands at the centre and serves as a bridge between the individual and the state, and the properly cultivated man is educated in preparation for regulating the family, then the state itself.

Confucian texts were brought to Japan by the Korean envoy and scholar Wani in the fifth century AD. Elements of classical Confucianism initially entered Japan with many other aspects of Chinese civilization in the first great wave of influence that resulted from the wholesale adoption of Buddhist practices from the 6th to the 9th centuries.

When the Chinese writing system was introduced, much of its Confucian content came with it, and Confucian ethics, political institutions, and educational values were thus inseparably linked with the study of the Chinese language.

At first, Confucianism was overshadowed by Buddhist beliefs and practices, and as a result its greatest impact was not felt until much later, starting with a second wave of influence in the form of Neo-Confucianism in medieval times. During this period, from the 12th to the 17th centuries, Confucian learning became the sole ingredient of an intellectual education in Japan, and was spread throughout the country by Zen Buddhist monks.

The emergence of the Tokugawa shogunate in the 17th century, with its emphasis on law and order, unquestioning obedience, and governmental control of the populace, marked the beginning of a third period of influence. Neo-Confucianism gradually replaced Buddhism, and Confucian schools of philosophy dominated Japanese thought. Confucian values and ethics were institutionalized at all levels of Japanese social and political life during the Edo period, until by the 19th century “the Japanese had become as thoroughly Confucian as their Chinese and Korean counterparts, despite their very non-Confucian feudal political system” (Reischauer, 1988, p. 204).

The present-day emphasis in Japanese life on education, diligence, and historical precedent (i.e., accumulated knowledge from the past as opposed to intellectual debate) all owe much to Confucian influences. Nevertheless, as with other imported traditions, the Japanese adopted Confucian ideals and institutions selectively; thus, “loyalty” in the Confucian sense became synonymous with loyalty to the emperor, and civil service exams, although widely implemented, were restricted to the aristocracy. Confucianism was, however, able to co-exist relatively easily with Shinto and Buddhism, illustrating once again the Japanese preference for synthesis and consensus formation rather than the assertion of one belief system over another (Sansom, 1976).

Hatsumode (First Visit)

2017 rings in across Japan as shrine, temple throngs pray for good year

Japan Times Jan 1, 2017  Staff report

As people across Japan celebrated the turn of the year, they flocked to shrines and temples Sunday morning for their traditional hatsumode pilgrimage to make a fresh start on New Year’s Day.

Meaning “the first prayer of the year,” hatsumode witnesses hundred of thousands of wish-makers visiting Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples during the first three days of the year.

Major destinations, including shrines Meiji Jingu in Tokyo, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, and Ise Jungu in Mie Prefecture, were crowded with visitors wishing to make a fresh start.

“I wished good health for all my family members,” a woman at Meiji Jingu was quoted as telling NHK. “And also wished my children would study hard.”

Immediately after the New Year’s countdown, people at the shrine started throwing saisen coin offerings into an area equivalent to 400 tatami mats. At major establishments, those monetary offerings amount to hundreds of millions of yen during the first three days of the new year.

In Kamakura, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine was also thronged with worshipers. Visited by roughly 2.5 million visitors every year during New Year’s, the shrine is the third-most popular in Kanagawa and the fifth-most visited in the Kanto region.

“I wished for all of my family members to stay healthy. I’ve lived my life considering good health as the priority, so I’d like to continue doing so,” said a 65 year-old housewife who provided her last name, Tanaka, as she visited Kamakura from nearby Chigasaki that day with her daughter.

“We usually visit the shrine near our house, but decided to come to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu this year because I’ll be turning 40 this year,” said the daughter, a dispatch worker, adding that the omikuji paper fortune she acquired at the shrine was not necessary good but waking up early for hatsumode made her feel refreshed.

Aika Miyaji, 15, and Ryotaro Okamoto, 16, a couple attending a junior-high school in Yokohama, said they are looking forward to attending the same high school starting in April.

“Our wish is passing the entrance exam,” said Okamoto, adding that it was his first hatsumode at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu accompanied by Miyaji, who visits the shrine every year. “The examination is in February,” said Miyaji. Okamoto added: “We’ve studied so hard for this.”

Tsurugaoka Hachimangu was established in 1063 by Minamoto Yoriyoshi (988-1075), and traces its origins to Yoriyoshi’s descendant, Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199). It is the geographical and cultural center of Kamakura, and is one of the most popular tourist spots in the city alongside the historic Hasedera Temple and Kotoku-in Temple, where the Great Buddha is located.

In Kumamoto, where massive earthquakes devastated many homes as well as the prefecture’s iconic Kumamoto Castle last April, people wished for a quick recovery for their homeland. “I wish this year will be a peaceful one,” a 69-year-old woman was quoted as telling the Asahi Shimbun at Aso Shrine in the city of Aso, one of the hardest-hit areas.

People also took in the New Year’s Day sunrise at the top of the Roppongi Hills highrise in central Tokyo. Thanks to the fine weather, the special viewing event ended in success, its organizer said.

Apart from traditional shrine and temple visits to celebrate the turn of the year, many younger generations joined New Year’s countdown events for more excitement.

In Tokyo’s bustling Shibuya district, the iconic scramble crossing in front of Shibuya Station became pedestrian-only between late Saturday night and early Sunday morning. It was the first experiment by Tokyo police for better crowd control, as every year the crossing had become extremely congested, raising the risk of accidents and other trouble.


For a personal account of a Hatsumode in the snow in 2015, please see here.

A participant at the 2015 hatsumode


A Happy New Year

New Year beginnings
The way Shinto and Buddhism complement each other is never more clearly seen than on the night of Dec. 31. Buddhism is other-worldly, concerned with individual salvation. Shinto is this-worldly, concerned with rites of passage and social well-being. At New Year the two religions come together like yin and yang, either side of midnight. Buddhism sees out the death of the old; Shinto celebrates the birth of the new.

In the dying minutes of the year, people line up at a Buddhist temple to hear the bell riing, or to ring it themselves. By tradition it is rung 108 times, once for every attachment that plagues the human condition. The atmosphere is solemn, and in the darkness the booming of the large bell carries with it a mournful feel that is carried for miles in all directions.

Once midnight strikes, by way of contrast, it’s time to head for a shrine to pick up arrow and amulets for protection through the coming year. The contemplative pre-midnight atmosphere is now replaced by a celebratory mood. Suddenly there are laughing voices, bright kimono, and gaudy lights. Stalls with wannabe yakuza sell candy floss and goldfish. Here all is jollity and smiles.

Arrows in red and white, celebratory colours of vitality, to ward off evil spirits throughout the coming year

Akemashite omedeto’ (Congratulations on the New Year) is heard on every side, as people toss coins into offertory boxes over the heads of those in front. Hot saké is served spiced with ginger, while young women in kimono stand huddled over their fortune slips. With the blessing of the kami, the Year of the Rooster will surely be a good one.

Traditions and customs
New Year is a time of special food – osechi ryori – beautifully displayed in lunch boxes as only the Japanese can do. The custom originated with the Heian aristocracy, for whom New Year’s Day was one of the five seasonal festivals. Since it was taboo to cook during the three day event, food was prepared beforehand.

The New Year food is a feast for the eyes as much as the stomach, full of symbols and auspicious elements. There’s tai fish to signify ‘medetai’ (congratulations), and black beans as a wish for good health (mame can mean bean and health). Broiled fish cake (kamaboko) is laid out in red and white layers, traditional colours of celebration and suggestive of the rising sun.

Although the first shrine visit of the year (hatsumode) is supposed to be done within three days, people continue to pay respects for several days afterwards. Each year has its own auspicious direction, calculated by Chinese astrology, and the custom was to visit a shrine that lies in that direction (though few follow that these days). According to statistics, it seems the vast majority of Japanese visit a shrine at some point, though the percentage is skewed by the number of people who visit two or more shrines (for example their closest, their favourite shrine, and their ujigami).

Numbers are published and scanned with great interest, as if like GDP they reflect the well-being of the nation. Meiji Jingu invariably tops the rankings, with just over three million visitors (though one wonders who counts them). In the Kansai region Fushimi Inari comes top with over two and a half million – one reason why I’ve never dared visit it at New Year, though it’s a personal favourite.

From now on the New Year is all about firstness and freshness. There’s the first dream of the year, which if it is about Mt Fuji, a hawk or an aubergine (!) is held to be particularly auspicious. There’s the first snowfall, the first sign of spring, and the year’s first haiku…

A new year dawning:
First snow upon the mountains
Forming a fresh sheet

One interesting custom is the giving of money to children, known as toshidama. Toshi is the year, and dama is its soul or spirit – so it’s as if one is renewing the spirit of the year through the gift. No doubt the money helps give extra vigour to the young!

The traditional New Year decoration is a length of shimenawa (sacred rice rope), festooned with ferns and the stem of a bitter orange, which is hung on the door (see pic at top). For Lafcadio Hearn, the shimenawa was the true ancient symbol of Shinto, other elements such as the ofuda and the torii having come in later. The fern is an evergreen and a symbol of the lifeforce, while the bitter orange is called daidai, which can also mean ‘generation to generation’. It indicates awareness of the ancestral continuity of the household.

It’s customary at this time of year to have steamed rice cake (mochi). This was traditionally done by pounding it by hand and eating fresh, but nowadays supermarkets are filled with plastic packages containing two circular rice cakes on top of each other surmounted by a bitter orange.

A pair of kagami mochi with daidai bitter orange and urajiro leaves

Rice is a symbol of fertility, and the mochi cakes symbolise renewal of vitality through the eating of rice. Circular cakes are known as kagami mochi (mirror rice cakes). According to tradition, the sun-goddess Amaterasu presented her grandson with a circular mirror and told him to treat it as if it were her very self. It’s why mirrors are often used in shrines as the sacred ‘spirit-body’ of the kami. In this sense partaking of the round mochi is a kind of sacrament, the Japanese equivalent of communion.

The prime symbol of the New Year are the kadomatsu decorations seen in front of stores and large buildings. These can be grandiose affairs, consisting of three upright pieces of bamboo of differing length to represent the Taoist triad of heaven, earth and human.

Pine and plum branches complete the arrangement – pine not only as a symbol of constancy and vitality, but because the needles ward off evil spirits. The plum symbolises the promise of spring (before cherry blossom, the plum was Japan’s favourite tree for its early flowering amidst the austerity of winter.) Bamboo stands for persistence, a much admired trait among Japanese.

Kadomatsu in traditional style. Bamboo (for perseverance), pine (for evergreen), with nanten berries (red vitality), habotan (bad things become good) and plum (promise of spring) are the basic materials

Who’d have thought so much symbolism could be packed into a simple New Year decoration of natural elements? It’s indicative of just how important a role the New Year plays in Japan, and how much renewal, reinvigoration and revitalisation are written into the culture.

One of the sacred white roosters in the grounds of Ise Jingu. As herald of the sunrise, the cockerel is the animal messenger of Amaterasu. With the coming of the Year of the Rooster, it makes for a good new year resolution to get up early and attend to what’s important in life! A Happy New Year to all Green Shinto readers and please continue your support in the coming year.

Hearn 7): Shinto heart

Izumo Taisha – for Hearn ‘the living centre of Shinto’

Christmas day in Japan, falling on a Sunday this year, seems an opportune time to consider the relative lack of Christianity in the country. This is despite some 150 years of Westernisation, yet only 1.5% of the population are Christian, amongst the lowest percentages in the world.

In my book on Hidden Christians I came to the conclusion that the incompatibility of Christianity with Japanese values was due to the hold of Shinto on the Japanese mind.  I didn’t realise it at the time, but Lafcadio Hearn had made more or less the same point a hundred years earlier.  It’s just one example amongst many of his renarkable perspicacity.

Following Hearn’s visit to Izumo Taisha, which greatly impressed him, he turned in his essay on the subject to speculation about the nature of Shinto and its hold on the Japanese mentality.  In so doing he identifies the ‘mudswamp’ into which missionaries stumbled, as Endo Shusaku so graphically described in his writings (from Jan. 21, Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Silence is going to hit Japanese screens.)

The following is taken from Hearn’s essay on ‘Kitsuki: The Most Ancient Shrine of Japan’ in the first of his 15 Japanese books, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894). (The paragraphing is mine.)

But to have seen Kitzuki [Izumo] as I saw it is also to have seen something much more than a single wonderful temple.  To see Kitzuki is to see the living centre of Shinto, and to feel the life-pulse of the ancient faith, throbbing as mightily in this nineteenth century as ever in that unknown past whereof the Kojiki itself, though written in a tongue no longer spoken, is but a modern record. Buddhism, changing form or slowly decaying through the centuries, might seem doomed to pass away at last from this Japan to which it came only as an alien faith; but Shinto, unchanging and vitally unchanged, still remains all dominant in the land of its birth, and only seems to gain in power and dignity with time.

Buddhism has a voluminous theology, a profound philosophy, a literature vast as the sea.  Shinto has no philosophy, no code of ethics, no metaphysics; and yet, by its very immateriality, it can resist the invasion of Occidental thought as no other Orient faith can.  Shinto extends a welcome to Western science, but remains the irresistible opponent of Western religion; and the foreign zealots who would strive against it are astounded to find the power that foils their uttermost efforts indefinable as magnetism and invulnerable as air. Indeed the best of our scholars have never been able to tell us what Shinto is. To some it appears to be merely ancestor-worship combined with nature-worship; to others again, it seems to be no religion at all; to the missionary of the more ignorant class it is the worst form of heathenism.

Doubtless the difficulty of explaining Shinto has been due simply to the fact that the sinologists have sought for the source of it in books: in the Kojiki and Nihongi, which are its histories; in the Norito, which are its prayers; in the commentaries of Motowori and Hirata, who were its greatest scholars. But the reality of Shinto lives not in books, nor in rites, nor in commandments, but in the national heart, of which it is the highest emotional religious expression, immortal and forever young.  Far underlying all the surface crop of quaint superstitions and artless myths and fantastic magic there thrills a mighty spiritual force, the whole soul of a race with all its impulses and powers and intuitions.  He who would know what Shinto is must learn to know that mysterious soul in which the sense of beauty and the power of art and the fire of heroism and magnetism of loyalty and the emotion of faith have become inherent, immanent, unconscious, instinctive.

Happy Solstice! (Rock Cave myth)

Japan’s central myth is that Amaterasu, the sun-goddess, retired to a Rock Cave after the upsetting antics of her brother, Susanoo. As a result the world was deprived of her radiant light. Some have interpreted this as a reference to a solar eclipse, but given the festivities put on to draw out the sun it seems more in line with other midwinter celebrations around the world aimed at reviving the dying earth and its waning energy.

Faced with midwinter darkness, the other gods held a festival to rouse the sun-goddess from her cave. The shamanic dance of Ame no Uzume, who exposed her breast and genitals as a sign of fecundity, instigated the process by which the sun was induced to return. In this way light and warmth returned once more.  Make merry, runs the message, and the ritual jollity will help ensure a miraculous rebirth!

Opening the door of the Rock Cave behind which Amaterasu is concealed

Kyoto today is cold, grey and the sun is hid within a heavenly rock cave of thick clouds.  But it’s a time to rejoice, for the shortest day of the year is upon us, and from here on we’ll be heading towards spring, new growth and revival.  Let us set up bright lights, feast and drink to dispel the forces of darkness.  All hail the eternal cycle of nature!!

Celebration of the midwinter solstice is a worldwide phenomenon, as noted in an article in the Huffington Post:

Opening of the rock cave

“In 2011, the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere will occur on Dec. 22, 2011…. Officially the first day of winter, the winter solstice occurs when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees away from the sun. This is the longest night of the year, meaning that despite the cold winter, the days get progressively longer after the winter solstice until the summer solstice in 2012.

The winter solstice is celebrated by many people around the world as the beginning of the return of the sun, and darkness turning into light. The Talmud recognizes the winter solstice as “Tekufat Tevet.” In China, the “Dongzhi” Festival is celebrated on the Winter Solstice by families getting together and eating special festive food.

Until the 16th century, the winter months were a time of famine in northern Europe. Most cattle were slaughtered so that they wouldn’t have to be fed during the winter, making the solstice a time when fresh meat was plentiful. Most celebrations of the winter solstice in Europe involved merriment and feasting. In pre-Christian Scandinavia, the Feast of Juul, or Yule, lasted for 12 days celebrating the rebirth of the sun god and giving rise to the custom of burning a Yule log.

In ancient Rome, the winter solstice was celebrated at the Feast of Saturnalia, to honor Saturn, the god of agricultural bounty. Lasting about a week, Saturnalia was characterized by feasting, debauchery and gift-giving. With Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, many of these customs were later absorbed into Christmas celebrations.

One of the most famous celebrations of the winter solstice in the world today takes place in the ancient ruins of Stonehenge, England. Thousands of druids and pagans gather there to chant, dance and sing while waiting to see the spectacular sunrise.” (Article by )

Closing the circle: the winter solstice shows the commonality of ancient cultures


Kappa details

Detailed explanation of perhaps the most popular of the yokai, the kappa

Recently publications about yōkai are prevalent, but what are they exactly?  The answer seems to be rather vague.  Here’s Wikipedia’s answer: “a class of supernatural monsters, spirits and demons in Japanese folklore. The word yōkai is made up of the kanji for “bewitching; attractive; calamity;” and “spectre; apparition; mystery; suspicious”.

One of my Japanese students has written on the subject, and I thought it was of interest for the link of yōkai origins with Shinto and animism. Here then, with thanks to Kosei, is an excerpt from his essay:

Magatama pedant

Kosei, wearing a magatama round his neck

Yokai came from the idea of yao yorozu no kami (eight myriad gods). It means everything in nature has a god or spirit. A fleeling of worshipping existence in nature seemed to turn into the idea of animism.  In other words, Shinto seems to be related to yōkai.  Shinto is also polytheism.  Kami of Shinto comprise different kinds of gods, spirits and ideas such as worshipping great persons who died, ancestor worship and animist kami.  These kami may bless people.  On the other hand, they may also curse people.

It was thought spirits had emotions.  So there are two different kinds of soul in Shinto.  One was nigi-mitama, which is a positive side of kami such as sunlight and welcome rain.  It is a sign of the grace of kami.  The other side was aramitama, which is the negative side of kami.  It caused natural disasters, plagues and desolation of people’s hearts through war and suffering. People kept offering prayers for nigimitama to be guardian deities. The objects of prayer were ancestral spirits, nature and animals. People tried to seek repose of the souls and make the spirits benevolent by offerings in order to avoid disasters and misfortunes.  Yōkai are thought to be aramitama that were not offered prayers, worship and offerings. People forgot or neglected them.

In ancient times yōkai such as oni or daijya appeared in literature. And later yōkai were drawn in emaki scrolls in medieval times.  Each yōkai was described in detail as to how it looked. At first people feared them as terrifying monsters, but as time passed they became more familiar.  Finally because of the advance of science and rationality, people learnt to enjoy them as entertainment.

A typical kind of yōkai is the kappa.  It lives all over Japan, particularly in rivers, waterside or the sea. The appearance is wet green skin, with a shell on the back like a turtle. It has a bill and webbed hands and feet. The top of its head contains a hollow basin holding water.  In addition, it smells fishy. Kappa are very mischievous and sometimes drag people into the water.  Also it likes sumo wrestling with children. There are various theories about its origin. One possibility is that it was originally a god of water, and in some areas it is worshipped as a kami. In other areas it was simply a fearful monster which causes misfortune.

Japanese yōkai and British fairies have some similarities. They are mythical and supernatural beings. They can be mischievous, like Puck.  And like yōkai, they seem to have their origin in animism.  They are particularly well-known in Celtic culture, with its Druidic emphasis on nature spirits.

Kappa at Suwa Jinja in Nagasaki. Notice the hollow in its head where water collects.

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