Tamatsukuri (Hot spring of myths)

Tamatsukuri Onsen is a charming hot spring resort either side of a small stream and boasting ‘the biggest magatama in Japan’

Just outside Matsue City in Shimane Prefecture is the hot spring resort of Tamatsukuri Onsen.  Tamatsukuri translates as Making Jewels, for it was at this place in ancient times that magatama were made.  An actual site has been excavated with evidence of magatama production going back to Yayoi times, based on the agate in the surrounding hills.

The significance of the magatama is not well-known, though there are several theories about the jewellery beads. Some say it is a symbolic part of the yin-yang pairing, others that it represents strength through being shaped after a wild boar’s or mountain tiger’s tooth.  My archaeological colleague at university was adamant it was a kind of hook for catching good luck.

Looking to exploit its magatama connections, the resort has adopted the theme of Izumo myths in order to provide interest to those who stroll along the small river. Statues illustrating ancient myths are placed at various points, and as well as celebrated Kojiki episodes such as Okuninushi and the Inaba Hare, there are lesser known local legends, to which noticeboards helpfully provide explanations.

Magatama is the theme of the small resort, here featured in a magatama water basin


Susanoo no mikoto’s struggle with the fearsome eight-headed Orochi monster is one of the more familiar of the myths depicted in the hot spring resort.  Susanoo’s victory enabled him to marry a local princess and take dominion of the land, presenting the sword he found in the monster’s tale to Amaterasu as a sign of fealty.


Okuninushi and the Inaba hare that he befriended is another well-known myth. Okuninushi took pity on the hare which had been bullied by his brothers by being told to bathe its flayed skin in the salt water of the sea.


Not so well known is the tale of the shark which fell in love with the beautiful princess, Tamahime no mikoto, who put up a barrier of rocks in order to prevent his advances.


Once when Okuninushi had died and gone to the underworld of Ne no kuni, his mother interceded on his behalf and a couple of shell princesses, Kisagaihime and Umugaihime, brought him back to life.


There were other myths to ‘soak in’, but by now the hot springs were calling and it was time to sweat over the deeper significance before taking a leisurely dinner-feast. Outside the magatama bridge spoke to the endlessly flowing sense of time and the deep connection one still feels in the Izumo region between ancient times and now.

Hearn 13): Matsue Revisited

Hearn’s beloved garden, kept as it was over a hundred years ago

Some years ago I visited Lafcadio Hearn’s house in Matsue City, which is preserved just as when he lived in it. It’s an attractive former samurai house next to the moat around Matsue Castle. The garden he described in his writing is still the same, and one can appreciate the joy he must have felt in living in such harmony and closeness with nature, in such an aesthetically pleasing setting.  (You can read all about the house and garden here.}

This time I wanted to explore some other places associated with Hearn to see what inspired his affinity with Shinto.  Already on his journey to the Matsue area he had noticed that the region did not embrace Buddhism so tightly as other regions, meaning that it retained more of a traditional character.  For Hearn it was the true Province of the Gods.

Shoko Koizumi, married to Hearn’s great grandson, at the Jozan Inari Shrine

Two of the author’s favourite shrines, Yaegaki and Kumaso, are in the countryside around Matsue, and these were reported on in an earlier post. This time I visited Hearn’s favourite Inari shrine, close to his house.  Escorting me was the wife of Hearn’s great-grandson, Koizumi Shoko, and I was lucky enough to join the pair for dinner in the evening.

Hearn used to visit Jozan Inari Shrine in the castle grounds on his way to go and teach at the High School. He was particularly fond of the foxes at the shrine, especially the big stone figure in front of the shrine gate (the original is now at the Hearn Memorial Museum). In Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan he wrote:

Prayer for the good health of a child not to cry at night and be plagued by ‘bugs’

Upon almost every door there is one ofuda (charm) especially particularly likely to attract the attention of a stranger. These ofuda are from the great Inari shrine of the Castle Hill and are charms against fire. They represent, indeed, the only form of assurance against fire yet known in Matsue – so far, at least, as wooden dwellings are concerned.

Another shrine Hearn was fond of was Komori Inari Jinja, specialist in blessings for children. He was particularly interested in the drawings and prayers that were pinned up on pieces of paper. Still today you find children playing in the yard next to the shrine and prayers from mothers displayed on the outside of the building.

The last place I’d like to mention here is a temple rather than a Shinto shrine, but typically syncretic in Edo-era style.  Hearn loved it, and so did I.  Gessho-ji has one of the most striking atmospheres I’ve come across in Japan, enhanced by the accompanying rain and moist surfaces.  In fact Hearn loved it so much he longed to be buried there, though there was little chance of that. Gessho-ji is the burial place of the Matsudaira, the local daimyo (feudal lords),

Wandering around the graveyard I mused on the use of torii in this Pure Land temple. There’s not only the oddity of the marker of sacred space in a Buddhist sect not normally friendly to Shinto tradition, but there’s the anomaly of a Shinto symbol before a grave when every book you read says that Shinto shuns death.

The Gessho-ji cemetery for the local daimyo of Matsue, with torii standing in front of a grave

One is used to torii marking the burial mounds of imperial ancestors, given their supposedly divine descent.  But daimyo?  These are mere mortals, who happen to have temporal power. On the other hand, if one thinks in terms of an ancestral religion and the way that family dead become kamisama as well as buddhist hotoke. The more power a person has in this world, the more powerful their spirit after death. It’s a shamanic trait, nowhere more evident than in the great Mongol deity, Ghengis Khan.

One of the main sights of Gessho-ji is the Great Tortoise that features in a folk story and which particularly took Hearn’s fancy.  Just as the ghost tales of Matsue sparked his imagination, so the giant tortoise loomed large in his fancy. Animals and insects feature prominently in his writing, and his sympathy with them was tied to a belief in the oneness of all beings.

The giant tortoise is positioned in front of the sixth Matsudaira lord, and according to tradition rubbing the its head guarantees longevity. Folklore also claims that the tortoise moves at night to drink water from the pond and wanders through the city. This fascinated Hearn, who wrote a piece about how certain artistic creations had a secret nocturnal life:

But the most unpleasant customer of all this uncanny fraternity to have encountered after dark was certainly the monster tortoise of Gesshoji temple in Matsue….This stone colossus is almost seventeen feet in length and lifts its head six feet from the ground…. Fancy…this mortuary incubus staggering abroad at midnight, and its hideous attempts to swim in the neighbouring lotus-pond!

Hearn not only had a strong attachment to animals, but was something of an animal rightist. He was vehemently opposed to hunting for recreation, and his description of the torture undergone by a terrified cow in the slaughter house of Cincinnati is stomach churning. Once when he saw a cat being tortured by the side of the road, he pulled out a pistol and shot it in the direction of the perpetrator.

‘Toads, butterflys, ants, spiders, cicadas, bamboo-sprouts, and sunsets were among Papa-san’s best friends,’ said his wife Setsuko in her Reminiscences. Based on such evidence, leading scholar Sukehiro Hirakawa wrote, ‘ I believe that the principal reason for Hearn’s appeal to the Japanese derives from Hearn’s sympathetic understanding of Japanese animism.’  The strong sense of Oneness he felt was fostered in the shrines of Matsue and the environment of his own back garden.

The tokonoma in Hearn’s house, where the objects on display are changed with the seasons. The aesthetic appeal and harmony with nature were part of why Hearn fell in love with Matsue.


It was just before March 3, Dolls Day, on the day of my visit, and the hanging scroll a male and female pair beneath plum blossom.


A window shutter in town featured the Chaplin-like drawing of Hearn when he left the US for Japan in 1890, done by a commissioned illustrator who accompanied him on the journey. Hearn soon cut his ties to the magazine that had nominally (but not financially) sponsored his trip.

Jozan Inari Jinja, near Hearn’s house, was a particular favourite of his


Hearn was particularly fond of the stone fox figures at the shrine


This guardian fox figure has an unusual shimenawa neckband


The Hearn trail around Matsue features 16 places in all, including the Kodomo no Inari Jinja (Children’s Inari Shrine), where Hearn was fascinated by the prayers pinned by mothers on the side of the shrine



Dragon detail at the entrance to Kodomo no Inari Shrine


The wonderfully atmospheric Gessho-ji, where Hearn wanted to be buried

Hearn was particularly struck by this enormous creature in the graveyard of Gessho-ji, and so was I! The giant turtle features in one of the eerie tales that feature in Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan.


An Edo-era hand print of the famous sumo wrestler, Raiden

Hasegawa Yoko, deputy head of the Shusse Inari Shrine close to Ryusho-ji temple where Hearn went to see the splendid Jizo statues

Yomegashima was one of Hearn’s favourite sites in Matsue – small wonder given that it is dedicated to the ‘Goddess of Eloquence and Beauty’. It’s  particularly alluring at sunset when deep reds and crimson spread over the far side of Lake Shinji (see Hearn’s description below).

A sculpture entitled The Open Mind of Lafcadio Hearn captures the sunset in a heart-mind shape, beautifully expressing the animist embrace of nature

Hearn’s description of Yomegashima in Lake Shinji (see above), with characteristic attention to the morbid legend concerning its name and origin:

The vapors have vanished, sharply revealing a beautiful little islet in the lake, lying scarcely half a mile away, – a low, narrow strip of of land with a Shinto shrine upon it, shadowed by giant pines; not pines like ours, but huge gnarled, shaggy, torturous shapes, vast-reaching like ancient oaks. Through a glass one can easily discern a torii, and before it two symbolic lions of stone (Kara-shishi), one with its head broken off, doubtless by its having been overturned and dashed about by heavy waves during some great storm. This islet is sacred to Benten, the Goddess of Eloquence and Beauty, wherefore it is called Ben-ten-no-shima. But it is more commonly called Yome-ga-shima, or ‘The Island of the Young Wife,’ by reason of a legend. It is said that it arose in one night, noiselessly as a dream, bearing up from the depths of the lake the body of a drowned woman who had been very lovely, very pious, and very unhappy. The people, deeming this a sign from heaven, consecrated the isle to Benten, and thereon built a shrine unto her, planted trees about it, set a torii before it, and made a rampart about it with great curiously-shaped stones; and there they buried the drowned woman.

Hearn 12): Fairies

Kami or fairy? Japanese myth and folklore is full of little creatures.

The trailblazing Megan Manson has written of the similarity of fairies and kami on her Shinto Pagan website. She writes excellent book reviews, and one of her top recommendations of books in 2016 was on Fairycraft. ‘It is my belief that kami and fairies are very much one and the same thing in essence,’ she writes, ‘and some of the ideas expressed in Fairycraft supported this idea, to my delight.’

The pioneering Megan Manson, forging a brand of Pagan-Shinto in the UK

Megan Manson and her pioneering Shinto-Paganism seems very much a contemporary phenomenon, yet it so happens that dear old Lafcadio Hearn had been down a fairy path himself over a hundred years ago.  It is just another example of how extraordinarily ahead of his times the transgressive author was.

Look at this remarkable piece of prose from ‘A Living God’ in which he has the audacity to switch the first person narrative from shrine visitor to kami. (For Hearn’s view of shrines as ‘ghost-houses’, see here.)

As for myself, whenever I am alone in the presence of a Shinto shrine, I have the sensation of being haunted; and I cannot help thinking about the possible apperceptions of the haunter. And this tempts me to fancy how I should feel if I myself were a god – dwelling in some old Izumo shrine on the summit of a hill, guarded by stone lions and shadowed by a holy grove.

Elfishly small my habitation might be, but never too small, because I should have neither size nor form…  As air to the bird, as water to the fish, so would all substance be permeable to the essence of me.  I should pass at will through the walls of my dwelling to swim in the long gold bath of a sunbeam, to thrill in the heart of a flower, to ride on the neck of a dragon-fly…

From the dusk of my ghost-house I should look for the coming of sandaled feet, and watch brown supple fingers weaving to my bars the knotted papers which are records of vows and observe the motion of the lips of my worshipers making prayer…

Kumaso Jinja, one of the favourite ‘ghost-houses’ of Hearn (and myself).

A kami riding on the neck of a dragon-fly?  Tinkerbell springs to mind. As Masaru Toda points out in ‘Hearn’s Romantic Representation of Shinto’, the image is nothing to do with kami but has a lot to do with Irish fairies. Hearn of course grew up in Dublin, and in a letter to W.B. Yeats he wrote of having a nanny from Connaught who used to tell him folk tales. It seems then he was conflating images from his youth with supernatural notions of kami.

For Masaru Toda there is a further fault in the passage to do with the concept of nature.  According to Hearn, the kami’s progression is akin to flying in the air like a bird, swimming in the water like a fish, thrilling in the heart of a flower like a butterfly etc. ‘But nature thus represented is romantically idealized nature in the modern Western mind, which has nothing to do with terrible awe-inspiring nature in the old traditional Shinto faith,’ writes Toda. This becomes evident in the next part of Hearn’s writing, in which he describes kami for his readers in a way that begins in a highly romantic way but ends in unexpected fashion.

They are lovers of Nature; they haunt her fairest solitudes, and enter into the life of her trees, and speak in her waters, and hover in her winds. Once upon the earth they lived as men; and the people of the land are their posterity. Even as divine ghosts, they remain very human and of many dispositions… Of course such representations vary greatly.  But were you to ask what is the ordinary traditional aspect of a Kami, I should answer: ‘An ancient smiling man of wondrously gentle countenance, having a long white beard, and all robed in white with a white girdle.’

In Hearn’s vivid imagination, sympathetic as he was to animistic notions, the fairy-like nature of the kami ends up as a kind of Merlin figure, like something out of Lord of the Rings. It may seem risible, yet was Hearn so very wrong?  People often forget that Shinto is as much ancestral as animist, and when you look at the pictures on ema (votive plaques) displayed at shrines, what you find as often as not is depictions of kami as Yayoi chieftains all dressed in white or figures like Sarutahiko with a long white beard. Surprise, surprise, what do we find in Celtic cultures but a traditional association of fairies with ancestors, prominent amongst whom would have been Druids in long white robes (as Pliny described them).

Hearn’s description of kami was certainly not orthodox (he was after all noted for his unconventional ways and reworkings of tradition), yet in the end the conflation with fairies may not have been so wide of the mark after all. Masaru Toda thinks he got his representation of Shinto wrong.  Personally I think he struck a higher truth, one that resides in the realm of the imagination.

The meeting of Uzume and Sarutahiko as depicted on an ema at Tsubaki Jinja

Big rock hunter

A pair of Meoto rocks at Nobeno Jinja

I happened to come across a Japanese book the other day that very much took my fancy.  It was called Ishigami san o tazunete (Visiting Stone Kami) and was produced by the editorial staff of a local publisher in the Matsue area, Sanin Chuo Shinposha. It featured photographs of Shimane Prefecture’s sacred rocks together with an introduction by ‘Big Rock Hunter’ Suda Gunji.

It seems that Suda Gunji shares my own fascination with sacred rocks. Even before coming to Japan, I was fascinated by the standing stones of the Avebury stone circle and pondered what had driven ancient Britons to move these megaliths such long distances. For me, sacred rocks are the heart of Shinto, yet they are sorely overlooked by the post-Meiji fixation with emperors and imperial ancestors.  Some apparently see the rocks as belonging to an ancient and mysterious past which is no longer relevant.  The downplaying (even removal) of phallic and vulvic rocks is a classic example. By contrast contemporary Shinto emphasises the ancestral side of the religion.

Big rocks impress, they don’t change or age like humans, says Suda Gunji in his introduction. We respect them because of their monumental nature. He then goes on to identify four basic types:

  1. those with myths attached to them
  2. those that formed the origin of a shrine
  3. those into which kami descended
  4. those with a special shape that became part of local folklore

Personally this strikes me as a rather strange classification system. There are after all plenty of rocks into which kami descended which then became the origin of shrines. There are rocks with myths about kami descending into them, and there are rocks with a special shape to which myths accrue. In short, many if not most rocks fall into more than one of the groups. Rather than shedding light the classification seems rather to create false borders.

The book contains a map of Shimane Prefecture showing the sites of some hundred special rocks.  I’ve always been impressed by the number of sacred rocks along the Inland Sea coast, seeing them as the legacy of Korean shamanism spread by traders and emigrants on the main trading route between the continent and the seat of the Japanese government. The prevalence of sacred rocks in the Shimane area may be due to a similar link with Korean shamanism in the Silla origins of the Izumo clan.

Of the 100 sacred rocks in Shimane, Suda Gunji has inspected 44 of them (he’s been photographing rocks for over 20 years). He can sense the energy given off by rocks, and the most powerful he’s come across is Izumo-shi Tateishi Jinja (Standing Rock Shrine in Izumo City). It stands in a forest amidst a group of rocks, the entrance to which is marked by gohei.  It reminded him of an Okinawan utaki, he writes. Since the shrine is for a rain god, it gives him a sense of antiqueness, as if stretching back to the primitive rain practices of Jomon times.

Modern people think rocks are silent, notes Suda Gunji, but Norito prayers from the past show that people in ancient times had a sense of them talking. Native Americans also think rocks communicate spiritual power (interestingly, they may have been racially and culturally linked to ancient Japanese).

For Suda Gunji rocks have mystical import and a sense of presence. His photographs back up his assertions. Once numinous rocks with awe-inspiring qualities were the only shrines people needed for their nature worship.  Now however they have come to occupy a peripheral or subsidiary position away from the Sanctuary, hidden in the woods or housed in an Okunoin (back shrine).

For ‘Big Rock Hunters’ like myself, however, these sacred rocks are central to the religion, for they resonate with the energy of the universe.  Mighty and magnificent, they stand in sobering contrast to the transience of human life.  There is, after all, good reason why kami descend into them!


For previous entries about rocks, please see Shigemori Mirei and the power of rocks, or this one on Alan Watts, or an extract from The Stones Cry Out, or the awesomeness of Okayama rocks, or even The Dao of Rock.

Kogakkan and Ise study tour

Last November, thanks to Christopher Mayo, Green Shinto carried news of a study programme taking place at Kogakkan University this year in Feb-March.  Now I’m delighted to say that one of our readers has posted news that not only is she attending but she’s writing a blog about the experience.  It’s very informative, and gives a real sense of the day-to-day activities. Because of the promptness of reporting, there’s a feeling of immediacy about the accounts, and this together with some of the insider information makes it great reading for those interested in Shinto and Ise Jingu in particular.

Please take a look at the blog site at https://philoinise.wordpress.com/.  The poster Philo Ouweleen also suggests looking at some of the sites being maintained by her fellow students by googling for their blogs under ‘kogakkan study program 2017’.

Meanwhile, our thanks to Philo Ouweleen for the chance to experience the study programme with her! It’s a prime example of the way in which Shinto in recent years is seeking to ‘internationalise’ by making itself better known to the outside world.

The 2014 multifaith Arc Conference held at Ise Jingu to raise consider Shinto’s connections with nature

Abe’s plans for Shinto

An article in the Japan Times today by leading writer, Michael Hoffmann, tells of how the seemingly innocuous activities of prime minister Shinzo Abe mask a reactionary agenda which seeks to undo the Bunce Directive of 1945 severing Shinto’s ties with the State.  Under the present administration, steps are underway toward reintroduction of the prewar situation by which Shinto was used as ideological underpinning for those in power.  An alternative vision, which is taking hold overseas, is to see Shinto as a religion of the people, community based and environmentally oriented, a religion that looks to nature rather than the emperor as its guiding principle.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits the Grand Shrines of Ise in Mie Prefecture on Jan. 4.  (photo courtesy Kyodo)

Is Abe attempting to fuse the church and state?

by Michael Hoffmann, Japan Times, Feb 25 2017

It was morning in the land of the gods. “The mountains and the waters serve our sovereign,” wrote a seventh-century poet.“ And she (Empress Jito), a goddess, is out on her pleasure-barge upon the foaming rapids.” Lovely times those must have been. If only they could have lasted. But morning dew evaporates, children grow up, nations shed their divinity and “our sovereign” commands “the mountains and the waters,” if at all, in vain.

Japan’s monarchy claims the oldest royal lineage in the world. The reigning Emperor is, theoretically and maybe even historically, Empress Jito’s descendant. So tangible a link to so remote a past is no doubt a factor in a deeply conservative strain in the national character.

“This year, too, the economy comes first,” declared Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Jan. 3 in the course of his first news conference of 2017. That’s the way things are nowadays. Prose rules, not poetry. The Imperial pleasure-barge is gone. In its place, the economy. Empress Jito, her ministers and her court poets might have been shocked had they glimpsed such a future. To them, the way we live, our preoccupations, would have represented the decay into utter ruin of everything good, beautiful and sacred in life.

Ise buildings project a lush nature-loving and peaceful image

If Abe’s reaffirmed commitment to the economy would have left them cold, something else about the occasion — its venue — might have heartened them. The deep resonance of the backdrop seems almost clangorously at odds with the prosaic prime ministerial boilerplate. The Grand Shrines of Ise in Ise City, Mie Prefecture, comprise Shinto’s holiest site, dedicated to the worship of Japan’s most revered deity, the sun goddess Amaterasu — divine ancestress, mythologically speaking, of the Imperial house.

Abe’s New Year’s visit to Ise drew little comment. The Grand Shrines of Ise, unlike Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, enshrine no war criminals, only gods. It’s beautifully innocent, innocently beautiful and very ancient, its founding dating back to Empress Jito’s time. So lacking is it in the dark associations that haunt Yasukuni that when Abe chose to host the Group of Seven summit in Ise last May, that also passed with little comment.

The gods and goddesses of Japanese myth are playful, child-like deities, neither awesome nor overpowering, and the Grand Shrines of Ise, with their architectural simplicity and lush natural setting, seem just what Abe said they were as he welcomed world leaders, high on whose summit agenda in May 2016 were global terrorism, global warming and similar threats to life as we know it. Ise, said Abe, is richly symbolic of “the beautiful nature and rich culture and traditions of Japan.”

Can a sinister issue be lurking here, beneath the serene surface? Sophia University religious scholar Susumu Shimazono raised that possibility in a discussion with the Asahi Shimbun earlier this month. Article 20 of Japan’s Constitution reads, in part: “The State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.” The official attention Abe lavishes on the Grand Shrines of Ise may, Shimazono suspects, violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

Amaterasu, sun goddess and putative ancestor of the present emperor

Abe’s feelings regarding the Constitution are no secret. “Revising the Constitution,” he told reporters covering his party’s electoral victory in 2014, “has always been an objective since the Liberal Democratic Party was launched.” That was in 1955. The Constitution was then barely eight years old. Its roots in the postwar U.S. Occupation, and its largely American authorship, were an irritant to conservatives to whom imported notions of freedom and rights were less important than, if not inimical to, the native concept of Japan as “the land of the gods.”

As myth, the concept is charming; as fact, less so. Japanese militarism and the Pacific War show the extremes to which it can lead. Other questions aside, it seems grossly out of keeping with the modern spirit — and yet it was the great modernizing leaders of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) who drafted and enacted the Constitution of 1890, whose Article 3 gave new life amid a headlong plunge into industrialization, commercialization and (to paraphrase Abe) the economy coming first, to the “sacred and inviolable” nature of the Emperor.

Shimazono explains: “In building a modern state after the collapse of the shogunate” — the collapse, indeed, of the only world the isolated and dangerously out-of-touch early Meiji Japanese knew — “the political leadership needed a pillar around which to unify the nation. The pillar they erected was that of reverence for the Emperor” — the “sacred and inviolable” sovereign.

The postwar Constitution was intended in part as a hedge against any such idea ever again rearing its head in Japan to lead the nation into the amoral militarism whose wounds fester to this day.

“The Emperor shall be the symbol of the State and of the unity of the People,” declared Article 1, “deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.” No more imperial divinity. Japan was no longer “the land of the gods.”

It was a steep demotion and not everyone was reconciled to it. Conservatives bided their time. Economic drift, coupled with increasing international hammering at Japan’s war guilt, played into their hands. Japan, they said, emasculated by a “foreign” constitution, had lost its soul. Has the time come to regain it? Is that what’s going on under cover of “the economy coming first”?

Shimazono expresses alarm at Abe’s brisk reversal of Japan’s postwar pacifism. His argument is not military but constitutional. New, hastily passed legislation permitting “collective self-defense” required a reinterpretation of war-renouncing Article 9 that many experts declare untenable. If Article 9 is vulnerable, Shimazono asks, might not Article 20, guaranteeing religious freedom and barring the state from “any religious activity,” be equally so?

This column last week discussed a package of articles in the March issue of Sapio magazine that snapped what seems a rose-tinted photograph of Japan as the best of countries, if it could only regain the lost confidence to see itself that way. One contributor called Japan “the world’s No. 1 paradise.” Another invoked the Meiji modernization as an inspiration to turn to. Meiji was indeed a confident era, and there have been few more so. It was, among other things, the era that made modern Japan a “land of the gods.” It’s more ominous than it sounds.


‘First Shinto elementary school’?!

Japan Today carries a worrying article about an elementary school linked to the ultra-right with a curriculum that harks back to prewar militarism. Why worrying? Because it concerns what has been called the ‘first Shinto elementary school’. Unfortunately it has already been the cause of ‘hate speech’ and the centre of controversy.  And it hasn’t even opened.

Unsurprisingly for the murky world of the ultra-right, there are links with prime minister Abe, his wife and the Nippon Kaigi. Yet again the latent intentions of the extreme right have been laid bare, featuring the reinstatement of State Shinto with all its worst trappings. The more this is exposed, the greater the chance of stamping out the unpleasant stink that accompanies such developments.


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Friday that his wife Akie has resigned as honorary principal of a soon-to-open elementary school whose nationalist operator bought state-owned land at far below appraised value.

Abe made the announcement as he faced Diet questioning over the land sale to Moritomo Gakuen, which plans to open what it calls Japan’s “first Shinto elementary school” in April in Osaka Prefecture, western Japan.

Shortly before the announcement, a message from Akie Abe was removed from the school’s website. Abe also said he has lodged a protest with the operator for calling the school “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe memorial elementary school” as it sought donations.

“I accepted the offer to be the honorary principal, impressed by Mr Kagoike’s passion for education,” Akie Abe had said in her message on the school website, in reference to Moritomo Gakuen’s president and the school’s principal, Yasunori Kagoike.

The school “will nurture children who have pride as Japanese and a hard core, based on its excellent moral education,” she also said.


From the Guardian

Akie Abe’s links to Moritomo Gakuen, a private kindergarten in Osaka, have come under scrutiny after the media reported that the preschool had bought state-owned land at a seventh of its listed price for a primary school it plans to open in April. She stepped down as honorary principal of the primary school on Friday, soon after it had removed her message of support from its website.

In the message, she endorsed the school’s attempts to foster national pride through moral education – an approach that harks back to pre-war militarism – adding that she had been impressed by the passion shown by the Moritomo president, Yasunori Kagoike.

The issue has dominated parliamentary debate this week, with opposition MPs demanding an explanation as to why the school was allowed to buy land at such a low price.

Shinzo Abe said he had protested against the use of his name when Moritomo was seeking donations for the Abe Shinzo memorial primary school. It has since decided to call itself the Mizuho no Kuni – meaning “land of rice” – primary school. Moritomo’s curriculum is designed to instil patriotism in its pupils, who are required to bow before portraits of members of the imperial family and go on field trips to military bases. Children aged between three and five sing the national anthem every morning and memorise the 1890 imperial rescript on education, which demands loyalty to the emperor and sacrifice for one’s country. The US occupation authorities banned the rescript, believing it had fuelled pre-war militarism.


Feb 26, 2017

Things get worse.  Eric Johnston, Japan-based journalist, writes: ‘The Scandal at Moritomo Gakuen in Osaka takes a bizarre turn. A video has surfaced of kids chanting slogans like “Don’t lose to other countries; protect the Senkakus and Takeshima”,“Don’t teach lies in textbooks that Japan was evil towards China and Korea”. But the real eye-opener is that the kids also chanted `Prime Minister Abe! Gambare!”’

Shades of a personality cult taking place, alongside the increasing rhetoric of a need for a strong, military and patriotic Japan.

Hearn 11): Shinto influence on Buddhism

Lotus flower water basin at a Buddhist temple, influenced by the Shinto emphasis on purity and purification

It can prove difficult to find accounts of how Shinto shaped the nature of Buddhism in Japan, though once again it seems the pioneering Lafcadio Hearn actually covered this subject over a hundred years ago.

In his writings on Buddhism, he writes of the acceptance of the imported religion by a Japan which already had religious practices of its own (kami worship, shamanic rites, nature and ancestor worship, fertility cults, etc.).  In response, Buddhism made modifications to its worldview in order to absorb and subjugate the native ways.

Sanskrit rock in a Shinto shrine

The most obvious way in which Buddhism adapted to Japan was in the adoption of kami.  From early times Japanese kami were accepted as protective spirits, and an ideology subsequently developed in which the Shinto pantheon was integrated into the Buddhist cosmos as guardian figures with local manifestation rather than universal existence. In other words they were avatars. Another way of seeing them is as spirits of place rather than transcendental deities.

One of the salient features of pre-Buddhist Japan was the strong emphasis on ancestor worship. Hearn identified it as the bedrock of Japanese spirituality, which is evident still in today’s modernised and Westernised society.  The Shinto ‘cult of the dead’ in terms of making offerings and cultivating the well-being of the deceased was taken up by Buddhism in its concern with funeral rites and ensuring a smooth transition from this world into the next.

Another aspect was the matter of conscience, to which Shinto gave high importance.  The thinking was that since Japanese were of divine creation, they had an inbuilt notion of good and evil. Thus in Shinto there was no need for a written code of ethics.  This was so deeply rooted that Buddhism had to find a way of incorporating the notion, and this they did by emphasising the inherent Buddha nature of human beings.

Daikoku – folk deity who straddles both Shinto and Buddhism

In his first book on Japan, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894), Hearn is full of praise for the virtues of Japanese, including their tolerance, harmony and openness.  Personally I see this as stemming from polytheism, which accepts that there are different versions of reality.  It was reinforced by the extensive number of deities in the Buddhist pantheon.

Hearn is struck too by the funloving nature of religion in Japan, surely a legacy of Shinto’s life-affirming ways (as exemplified by its festivals).  Sometimes the informality is striking: I’ve seen a man at Fushimi Inari speaking on his mobile phone while bowing and paying respects at a hokora (small shrine). ‘What has most impressed me is the seeming joyousness of popular faith,’ writes Hearn. ‘I have seen nothing grim, austere or self-repressive. The people take their religion lightly and cheerfully.’ (Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, p.34). Something of that surely has rubbed off on Buddhism in the festivals it shares with Shinto, such as Setsubun.

On the other hand, Hearn is at pains to point out the tremendous cultural benefits that Buddhism brought with it, nowhere more evident than in the fields of art and education.  ‘The Buddhist painter opened to simple fancy the palaces of heaven, and guided hope,’ writes Hearn. (Images of kami only emerged after the arrival of Buddhism.) At the same time Buddhist temples became centres of learning, spreading even to ordinary people the ability to read and write.  It’s the educational role of Buddhism that Hearn seems to value most. while seeing Shinto as ‘the soul of Japan’.

Setsubun is usually associated with Shinto’s celebration of seasonal rites, but Buddhists and mountain ascetics have adopted it too (picture taken at Kyoto’s Senbon Shaka-do)

Hearn 10: ‘ghost-houses’

The vermilion main hall 
of Tsuwano’s Taikodani Inari Shrine (photo by Mandy Bartok)

Lafcadio Hearn had a remarkable instinctive understanding of Shinto, the first Westerner to get at the essence of the religion.  Whereas his great contemporaries like Satow, Chamberlain and Aston were much more proficient in Japanese, they looked to written accounts or documents and were disappointed. Hearn however had a feel for what Shinto meant to the ordinary populace. Here he writes evocatively of the ancestral nature of shrine buildings…

Why certain architectural forms produce in the beholder a feeling of weirdness about which I should like to theorize some day: at present I shall venture only to say that Shinto shrines evoke such a feeling. It grows with familiarity instead of weakening; and a knowledge of popular beliefs is apt to intensify it. We have no English words by which these queer shapes can be sufficiently described – much less any language able to communicate the impression which they make. Those Shinto shrines which we loosely render by the words ‘temple’ and ‘shrine’ are really untranslatable; – I mean that the Japanese ideas attaching to them cannot be conveyed by translation.  The so-called ‘august house of the Kami’ is not so much a temple, in the classic meaning of the term, as it a haunted room, a spirit-chamber, a ghost-house – ghosts of great warriors and heroes and rulers and teachers, who lived and loved and died hundreds of thousands of years ago.  I fancy that to the Western mind the word ‘ghost-house’ will convey, better than such terms as ‘shrine’ and ‘temple’, some vague notion of the strange character of the Shinto miya or yashiro – containing in its perpetual dusk nothing more substantial than symbols of tokens, the latter probably of paper. Now the emptiness behind the visored form is more suggestive than anything material could possibly be…
– Writings of Lafcadio Hearn, Vol VIII, p 4-5

Kitano Setsubun

Setsubun kicks off at Kitano with a kyogen comedy in which an oni descends on a village but is first cowed by the vitality of Otafuku and then seen off by a bean-throwing priest

Following the kyogen sketch is a dance performed by the local geisha from Kamishichiken

Maiko trainees also take the stage to perform in company with their elder sisters. Notice the gorgeous hair pieces on the lady to the left, together with the enticing nape of the neck left naked of the white make-up

After the dance performance comes the highlight of the event, the ‘mamemaki’ (bean-throwing). Catch one of the packets being thrown and you will be able to disspell your demons and have luck through the coming year.

Packets of beans were thrown right, left and centre to the packed throng, causing much jostling and excitement

While the maiko dispersed bean packets to those nearer the stage, this priest made an effort to toss his packets as far as possible

Rather more stately throwing action from this maiko…

One of the packets flew, as if fated, straight into my hands. ‘Lucky beans’ it says, together with the Kitano emblem and a design of plum blossom  (plum being the favourite of the shrine’s kami)

Afterwards there were cameramen all too eager to get up close to the year’s first blossom, already out to celebrate the traditional start of a new year

Afterwards, a mere ten minutes away, there was a Setsubun event at a Buddhist temple, Senbon Shaka-do, with yamabushi (mountain ascetics) leading the way

Behind the priests can be seen one of several oni (demons) that took part in the event. The priests paid respects to a large statue of Otafuku.

Otafuku, or Okame, plays a role in Setsubun as a symbol of fertility. With her plump cheeks, she suggests well-being and is known for her lewdness (rather like Elizabethan barmaids!). Demons don’t stand a chance. (For more about her, see http://www.greenshinto.com/wp/2012/03/25/otafuku-and-uzume/)

The event at the temple was noticeably more religious in nature than at the Kitano shrine, with chanting of the Hanya Sutra and a recital by the temple preservation society. The yamabushi also carried out a fire ritual in which prayer boards are ritually burnt.

There were demons vying for centre stage…

… and then we got the ‘mamemaki’ bean throwing – except disappointingly it wasn’t beans but peanuts in their shells!! Perhaps the Buddhist demons have a different kind of phobia than the Kitano ones.

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