Introducing the Japanese Imperial System

japanese imperial system banner NippakuOn (long overdue) request of my good friend Seppe, I wanted to talk to you about the imperial system in Japan this time. And by “the imperial system”, I do not mean the confusing and ridiculous measurement units that some countries are still using today (metric system fan over here); no, in this post I attempt to make you aware of the amazing fact that almost the entire Japanese history is marked by the presence of an emperor (tennō 天皇, “heavenly sovereign”, introduced as a Japanese counterpart for the Chinese term). The Japanese emperor, occupying the Chrysanthemum Throne, fulfills a symbolic role as ceremonial head of the state and is “boss” of the Shintō religion (神道).

Today, Japan is the only country with an emperor in the world – and even more impressive, it has always been the same imperial family! The first Japanese emperor, Jinmu 神武, allegedly came to power in the 7th century BC, and although it is difficult to prove that the current emperor is related to this mythical figure, we know almost for sure that since 500 AD the same family has reigned. I keep finding it very difficult to wrap my head around this unbroken chain of hereditary monarchy, that unlike European royalty, did not lead to extreme cases of family illness, deformities and other royal genetic disorders due to intermarriage. Of course, the Japanese imperial family has its fair share of inherited diseases (e.g. “mad” emperors), but none are as far-going as the hemophilia in queen Victoria’s bloodline or the Habsburg jaw as exemplified by Charles II, among others. A possible explanation is that the Japanese imperial family is not an unbroken chain of blood relatives: indeed, the emperor’s wife was often supplied by a powerful family such as the Fujiwara’s in the Heian period, and was not necessarily related to the imperial family (not to mention the many concubines, with the system of concubinage only abolished in 1924).


The Meiji emperor and his family (not really looking all that human but let’s blame the painter and not genetics for that)


Emperor Akihito

Recently, the 125th Japanese emperor, Akihito明仁, has been receiving a lot of media attention because of his request to abdicate and to install his eldest son Naruhito徳仁 on the throne. Emperor Akihito, who is 83, fears that his advanced age and health problems will prevent him from performing his imperial duties in the future. This is quite a unique situation since the last time this happened was two centuries ago. It is also slightly problematic because in 1889 a law was passed that demands emperors to reign until their death. Hence, a legal change was made by the parliament last June: the new legislation, however, is only applicable to emperor Akihito and in case of more abdication plans from future emperors, the parliament will have to pass a new law.

But let’s start from the beginning. As I said before, Jinmu 神武 (real name: Kan’yamato Iwarebiko, born 711) is mentioned as Japan’s first emperor in the country’s oldest, 8th-century historical records “Records of Ancient Matters” (kojiki 古事記) and “the Chronicles of Japan” (nihonshoki 日本書紀). Jinmu came to power around 660 BC. According to legend, Jinmu is related to Amaterasu 天照, the sun goddess, born to the deities Izanagi 伊邪那岐 and Izanami 伊邪那美who created Japan. In short, Amaterasu’s grandson, Ninigi no mikoto, fathered Jinmu’s grandfather. Jinmu and his brother battled their way from Southern Kyūshū up to other domains, eventually reaching Yamato (an area located in nowadays Nara prefecture). There, Jinmu ascended the throne and became the ruler of the first united Japan – which he named the Dragonfly Islands (akitsushima 秋津島). The legend also claims that Jinmu died at the advanced age of 126. Other parts of the story that are difficult to believe are the date of Jinmu’s ascension, assumed by historians to have happened at least a couple of centuries later.

Emperor_Jimmu by Yoshitoshi

Emperor Jinmu

Jinmu is remarkably unremarkable when it comes to his veneration, save for the period in Japanese history between the Meiji period and the end of World War II. During its transformation into a modern nation-state, Japan restored imperial rule in order to maintain control over the country. The role of the emperor, for example, was central to the Meiji Constitution promulgated in 1889 (translation here).


Emperor Hirohito – A controversial figure: was he a war criminal?

In the year 1940, the 2600th anniversary of Jinmu’s ascension, and thus the founding of Japan, was celebrated all over the country. The Japanese often claimed during wartime that their superiority was due to this long-standing (yet probably fictitious) tradition. The renewed attention for emperor Jinmu and the extravagant festivities can be interpreted as a sign of “reactionary modernism”, similar to what had inspired the Meiji revolution. But after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed, the imperial fun was over: emperor Hirohito 裕仁 declared on 1 January 1946 that he was not a “deity in human form” (akitsumikami 現つ御神) but a human being like everyone else. His son, Akihito, the current emperor, is the first to have fulfilled his imperial duty as a human being, not as a descendent of the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu.


Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess

Despite securing their divine status through a female ancestor, the list of female emperors in Japanese history is woefully short. The list of excuses for this fact, on the other hand, is unsurprisingly long. Apart from the good old patriarchical explanations, another reason is that becoming an emperor is actually a sexual thing, symbolizing the – heterosexual – intercourse between the emperor-to-be and Amaterasu in his ascension ritual (nothing beats a little incest).

The Imperial Household Law from 1947, drawing inspiration from the 1889 Meiji Constitution, clearly stipulates that only men can become emperor. When Prime Minister Koizumi proposed a change pro female succession a decade ago, more than 170 lawmakers opposed. When princess Nagako, Hirohito’s wife, gave birth to 4 girls in a row before delivering Akihito, there was a serious debate going on about whether or not to bring back the concubinage system instead of opting for a female heir to the throne (we’re talking about the 1920s). Moreover, when female members marry someone outside the family, they lose their status until this day. There are, however, rumors that the new legislation that will cover Akihito’s abdication, could also include a resolution to allow female members of the imperial family to retain their status after marrying a commoner. In short, even today, the Japanese still believe that the idea of a woman on the imperial throne is ludicrous.


Empress Jingu in Korea

This was, however, not always the case. Throughout history, there were 9 reigning empresses, two of them ruling twice. The first one, Empress Jingū 神功 (3rd century AD), is a legendary figure of whom not much is known, not even if she really was a reigning empress. In the picture above, she is depicted invading Korea, the invasion is itself being a controversial topic as well, although there is some historical proof of Japanese influence in Korea around the 4th century. It is also believed by some researchers that Western Japan during that time was characterized by a matriarchical society, as Korean and Chinese sources referred to the area as “Queen Country”. Others identify Jingū as Himiko 卑弥呼, the legendary shaman queen of Yamatai.


Empress Suiko

But let’s move on to one of the female rulers of whom we know for sure that they existed and fulfilled the role of Empress during their lifetime: Empress Suiko 推古, for example. At the end of the Kofun period (3rd to 6th century) and start of the Asuka period (538 – 710), Yamato was ruled by a handful of powerful clans like the Mononobe, Nakatomi and Soga. The Soga clan wanted to gain more power, started a feud over the imperial succession, destroyed the other two clans and installed their own man on the throne. The latter was, however, not as obedient as expected and they got him assassinated. He was replaced by Suiko, a remarkable choice in that time (Japan was no longer a “Queen Country”). The Soga were huge fans of Buddhism and everything else Chinese, and Suiko was the first to adopt Buddhism as the state religion instead of Shintō. Together with her nephew, (semi-legendary) regent Prince Shōtoku 聖徳太子, she also imported many cultural elements from oversees, for example the Chinese calender, the bureaucratic system and Chinese artistry. She reigned for 35 years.

I sense that the length of this post – like many of my previous posts – could already be testing the attention span of my dear readers, so I will leave it there for now. But since there is  so much more to say about Japan’s emperors in my opinion, please look out for a sequel to this post on Nippaku!

Fun Facts 

  • The emperor’s birthday is a national holiday. Yay!
  • Akihito is the first Emperor to have married a commoner. He met Empress Michiko on a tennis court, which lead to a boom in the popularity of tennis in Japan. Unfortunately, Michiko was bullied by the media and allegedly by her stepmother for lacking imperial ancestry. The stress that caused her resulted in health problems.
  • As a splendid example of a sunekajiri すねかじり (“sponger”), Naruhito lived with his parents until he was 30 years old.
  • The Japanese imperial family members do not have a surname. I once heard that someone related to the emperor (Prince Mikasa, I believe) got a job as a university professor, which posed a lot of difficulties regarding how students should address him (teachers are always addressed by their last name) and some administrative troubles as well, I guess.
  • There is a specific vocabulary to talk about the Emperor. There is a word for the Emperor’s face (ryūgan 龍顔) and voice (gyokuon玉音), his feelings (shinkin 宸襟), the trips he makes (= junkō 巡幸), and his death (= hōgyo 崩御) [Read more here]. Moreover, the Emperor is never called by his name like I do in this blog post (I’m so rude). While foreign newspaper report about “Emperor Akihito”, the Japanese call him very politely “His Imperial Majesty the Emperor” (tennō heika 天皇陛下) or, more objectively “The current emperor” (kinjō tennō 今上天皇).


  • New York Times 
  • Ruoff, Kenneth J. Imperial Japan at Its Zenith: The Wartime Celebration of the Empire’s 2,600th Anniversary. Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University. Ithaca ; London: Cornell University Press, 2010.
  • Facts and Details 
  • Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Wikipedia
  • All pictures are from Wikimedia Commons

A History of Hansen’s Disease in Japan: the Isolation Policy as a Violation of Human Rights

leprosybannerSome months ago, I wrote a paper for Culture and Disability, an elective course in my Anthropology program. I took this course because, as you all know, I am very interested in the history of medicine (and in medical anthropology as a whole), in particular in the Japanese history of psychiatry and its relation to culture. One series that I publish here regularly is the history of mental health stigma in Japan (see part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). While researching this topic, I noticed that it bears many similarities with how Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) patients were treated throughout Japanese history: some sources on mental health I read perceived both types of patients as similar victims of medical injustice. In this post, I will focus on the Isolation Policy, a law that prescribed the forced segregation of Hansen’s Disease patients in Japan and was only recently abolished. I selected the parts from my paper that I believe could be of interest to you and skipped my theoretical analysis, so this post is only a very general introduction to the topic of leprosy in Japan.

In May 2016, an extraordinary thing happened: the Japanese Supreme Court Chief Justice apologized for the discriminatory practices towards leprosy patients the court had engaged in (Japan Times, 2016). The apology was a reaction to the findings of an investigation, requested by former leprosy patients in 2014. Between 1948 and 1972, special courts were established at facilities for leprosy patients, based on the wrong assumption that Hansen’s disease is highly contagious. In trying leprosy patients outside of standard courtrooms, the Constitution’s principle of equality was violated and discrimination was fostered. The fact that news on leprosy in Japan is still featured on a regular basis, points toward the significant role played by policy stipulating the treatment of Hansen’s disease patients. But what exactly is Hansen’s disease or leprosy?


Leprosy is a chronic, infectious disease caused by the bacilli Mycobacterium leprae. Also named ‘Hansen’s disease’ after the Norwegian doctor Gerhard Armauer Hansen who discovered and identified this specific bacterium as the cause of leprosy in 1873, both the terms ‘leprosy’ (raibyō 癩病[1] ) and ‘Hansen’s disease’ (hansenbyō ハンセン病) have been used in Japan, although the latter is strongly preferred in today’s discourse because of its neutrality[2]. In the long term, Hansen’s disease results in the formation of granulomas, or collections of immune cells, called macrophages. This is manifested in the growth and expansion of nodules, or lumps, and patches, or macules, on the skin and eyes, and eventually weakness, deformities and paralysis. The bacterium further affects internal functions such as the respiratory tracts and peripheral nerves. Patients experience a loss of sensation due to the weakening of the nervous system, and may damage their limbs.

leprosy who

From World Health Organisation, Global Leprosy Strategy
2016–2020 (p. 3)

One of the misconceptions concerning leprosy is that the disease itself causes the loss of body parts, while it is actually the result of lacking the necessary motor functions and the sensation of pain, due to which the patient fails to notice injuries or infections (, 2014). Another, more serious common misunderstanding of the disease concerns the need for the isolation of the patient once he or she is diagnosed. Contrary to popular belief, a historical remain that was disproved by scientific discoveries in the twentieth century but is still prevalent today, leprosy is not highly contagious and relatively easy to cure with free multidrug therapy. Hence, isolation is in fact not necessary. Since the year 2000 globally, and in most countries from 2005, Hansen’s disease is no longer considered a public health problem. Yearly, thousands of patients have been treated back to health and over the past twenty years, this number has exceeded sixteen million around the world (WHO, 2016). Japan counts around 1,500 institutionalized patients and this figure continues to decrease (Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, 2016).


A wife and her leprose husband

Not much is known about how leprosy first came to Japan, but the disease appears to have been around since the eighth century. Already then, leprosy was regarded as “transmittable to those nearby (Kikuchi, 1997:629)” [3]. During the middle ages, ‘lepers’ were forced to live outside the community, sometimes creating their own leprosy colonies (Sato & Narita, 2003), and to beg for food at places of worship. This was morally justified by a common perception of hereditary ‘impurity (kegare穢れ)’ (Encyclopedia Nipponica, 2001). Leprosy was also regarded as a punishment in the next life for those who did not respect Buddhist sutras. Christian missionaries from Europe took an interest in leprosy patients, pitying their neglected and discriminated position as ‘discarded people’ in society, but were soon suppressed by the Edo government after it had banned Christianity in 1620. Hansen’s disease patients were even sentenced to death because of their religious affiliation with their benefactors (Yamamoto, 1993).

At the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912) there were more than 30,000 leprosy patients in Japan. Statistical surveys published numbers going between 23,660 leprosy patients in 1897 to 30,359 patients in 1900 (Goto, 2011: 99), although these numbers are probably underestimated since statistical methodology was still in its infancy at that time (Kikuchi, 1997). A 1898 report on the situation in Japan, written by the United States Consulate, further specifies: “We learn that it is almost universally recognized by the medical authorities that leprosy is a contagious disease, and that the terrible disease is most prevalent where fish is most freely used as an article of food (Gowey, 1898:211)”. Ascribing the overconsumption of fish as a cause, on the one hand, is related to the belief that eating too much would result in leprosy. According to Burns (2012), “[a]lmost every text on leprosy included a lengthy list of foods to be avoided (p. 302)”. The presumed contagiousness of leprosy, on the other hand, corresponded with the ‘resolutions’ of the First International Conference about Leprosy, held in Berlin in 1897 (Pandya, 2003). This encouraged the Japanese attendees to pursue a segregation policy.

First Steps towards an Institutionalization of Leprosy Patients

leprosy hannah riddell

Patients at the hospital established by Hannah Riddell. Picture from Anglican History

Around the end of the nineteenth century, European missionaries, motivated by the same Christian values as their predecessors, began to establish facilities for leprosy patients in Japan. Father Testevuide from France was the first to open a relief center for Hansen’s disease patients in 1889, which he transformed three years later into Japan’s first leprosarium. Significant for Japan’s leprosy history is Hannah Riddell, an English missionary who established a hospital for Hansen’s disease patients in 1895. Yet, the movement towards institutionalized treatment was not limited to the endeavors of foreign missionaries. Leprosy had become a topic of medical discussions in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Japan, informed by western medicine. Already in 1874, esteemed doctor Gotō Masafumi had petitioned for the public funding of future leprosaria (Burns, 2012). Gotō claimed that the water therapy he had discovered was the best cure for leprosy. He founded a private hospital in 1872 to perform his leprosy treatment, but inspired by European examples (he suggested that European states had eradicated leprosy by establishing public leprosaria), he aimed for a similar system on a national scale. Eventually, Gotō received funding and his hospital in Tokyo officially became a ‘leprosy ward’.

This is surprising, since the doctor could not show much evidence of the effectiveness of his treatment. It is, however, explicable with the Japanese political situation in mind: after more than two centuries of isolation from mainstream society, the Meiji revolution marked the beginning of a new era. Being forced to open up its borders by the western powerful states and to sign unequal treaties, Japan was desperate to present itself as a modern, strong and civilized nation and prove to the world that it had left its ‘barbarian’ past behind. To succeed in this, it promoted western knowledge, including medicine[4], and European policies, such as the establishment of leprosy hospitals[5]. Additionally, the Japanese press responded to the desire for progress and compassion by painting Gotō as a heroic Samaritan. Hence, to solve the problem of Hansen’s disease, ‘a national shame’ in comparison to an almost leprosy-free West, the government only became actively involved in the treatment, or rather containment, of the disease when it believed its future prospects were being threatened by leprosy patients and other ‘dangers’: “Public health and medical policy, it was argued, by linking individual health to the economic well-being and political security of the nation valorized the vitality and productivity of the citizenry and rendered the poor, the weak, and the sick as dangerous “others” who threatened the Japanese nation and empire (Burns, 2012: 298)”.

The Leprosy Prevention Law

In other words, the Japanese government at first did not show much interest in tackling leprosy between 1868, when Japan opened up its borders and underwent a process of modernization, and 1902. Due to a convergence of interests of both the Japanese government and certain physicians, the 1907 law concerning the prevention of leprosy (rai yobō ni kansuru ken癩予防ニ関スル件) was passed that ordered the creation of five publicly funded leprosaria to confine the ‘lepers’ starting from 1909. It must be noted, however, that it targeted especially leprosy patients roaming the streets and the poor, thus not those who were cared for at home, and whose supervision was the task of the police (Hirokawa in Wittner & Brown, 2015). Public safety was still prioritized over welfare: around the leprosaria were walls and gates, and two of the leprosaria were built on small islands. Pictures below show the leprosaria Tamazenshoen in Tokyo and Aiseien in Nagasaki (many more interesting pictures of Hansen’s disease hospitals today on

From the 1930s on, scientists started to doubt the necessity of compulsory segregation, since the mortality rate, infectiousness and chance of a sudden outbreak turned out to be lower than estimated. Nevertheless, the Japanese government strengthened its approach of isolation in legal terms: the Leprosy Prevention Law (rai yobō hō 癩予防法) of 1931 stipulated the forced segregation of leprosy patients. Between 1929 and 1934, a movement called ‘No Leprosy in our Prefecture’ (muraiken undō無癩県運動) and funded by the government, aimed to collect money for the establishment of leprosaria in each prefecture. This movement had laid the foundations for the 1931 law. The Hygienic Bureau of the Ministry of Home Affairs wrote in 1930 in a pamphlet titled Measure for the Eradication of Leprosy that “Japanese citizens are exposed to the extreme danger of leprosy infection” to justify their policy of absolute segregation. This time, the law was applicable to all patients, regardless of their financial status (Goto, 2011). Consequently, people who had previously been nursed at home, were now forced to move into a designated leprosarium.

While abroad isolation policies quickly came to be questioned due to scientific developments such as chemotherapy in the 1940s and epidemiological studies, Japan maintained its policy of strict segregation for decades (Sato, 2002). During the occupation of the Korean peninsula (1910-1945), the Japanese also enforced this policy among the occupied population (Sase e.a., 2004). The Leprosy Prevention Law was revised in 1953, but maintained its policy on leprosy: mandatory segregation, prohibition to leave the institution and punishment – often imprisonment – for those who disturbed the peace (Yamamoto, 1997).

Maintaining Forced Segregation

Why did Japan persist in its policy of segregation, even when it became openly criticized during international conventions from the 1950s on? It has been suggested that since the number of leprosy patients in Japan and its colonies was relatively small (compared to the one million tuberculosis patients at that time), obligatory confinement was introduced simply because it was possible (Goto, 2011). It was maintained, then, to avoid policy changes. Since more than 90 percent of leprosy patients was hospitalized without the possibility for rehabilitation by the 1960s, the switch towards outpatient services was deemed too difficult and had low priority (Sato & Narita, 2003). The revision of the Leprosy Prevention Law in 1953 was based on the expert advice of three leprosarium directors, who – unsurprisingly, and despite patients’ protest – attested in favor of compulsory isolation (Sato, 2002).

leprosy promin

Promin medicine – Picture from Ehime Prefecture site

Moreover, segregation from healthy Japanese people was still prioritized over the well-being of the patients in question: mainly poor people such as farmers on the countryside suffered from Hansen’s disease, and they could not afford treatment at the few university hospitals located in the big cities (Goto, 2011). The spread of leprosy medicine, especially Promin at that time, was also lagging behind in Japan. Furthermore, patients who had been hospitalized for most of their lives ended up as depending on their institutionalization, since they had nowhere to go outside of the leprosarium: outpatient treatment or other services were very scarce to informal – not to mention the stigmatization patients would experience from the Japanese people they had been hidden from. In short, because Hansen’s disease patients had been rendered invisible for many years, there was no need and much reluctance to change or undo the established isolation policies.

The Abolition of the Isolation Policy

In the years after the revision of the Leprosy Prevention Law, the strict rules of the isolation policy were slightly loosened[6], but the law remained in force until its abolition in 1996. In the process towards an abolition of the law that had forcibly separated them for decades, leprosy patients, united in the Federation of National Leprosarium Patients (zenkoku kokuritsu rairyōyōjo kanja kyōgikai 全国国立ライ療養所患者協議会), played an important role. The federation requested a revision of the law, based on the scientific knowledge that Hansen’s disease did not require compulsory segregation, which was a violation of their human rights and fostered stigmatization in Japanese society.


A Hansen’s Disease patient reads braille with his tongue due to a lost sense of touch in the fingertips – Book with Pictures called “90 Years of Segregation” by Tada Junichi

Nevertheless, Sato (2002) points out that the patients’ voices were divided over the existence of the Leprosy Prevention Law: on the one hand they perceived themselves as victims of the law, on the other hand they did not want to lose the care and housing the government was legally bound to provide them with due to that same law. Hence, the federation decided to lobby in favor of an improvement, not an abolition. The leprosarium directors as well as the Ministry of Health and Welfare were reluctant to put an abrupt end to the law because of the reasons mentioned above: the directors feared for their hospitals, and the ministry saw the transformation of leprosaria into rehabilitation centers as financially unfeasible.

One central figure in the abolition of the Leprosy Prevention law was Fujio Ōtani, chairman of the Tofu Society (Tōfū  Kyōkai藤楓協会[7]). In 1990, he started the establishment of a National Hansen’s Disease Museum, which was completed by 1993  and organized public symposia that attracted media attention. With the abolition of the law in mind, Ōtani also created a study committee and started to meet patients. He took their wish to continue living at the leprosaria into consideration. Based on the committee’s report, it was publicly acknowledged in 1995 by the Japanese Leprosy Association, the Federation of National Leprosarium Patients and the Federation of Leprosarium Directors that leprosy did not request compulsory segregation and that the law fostered stigma. One year later, the law was terminated, without endangering the existing services leprosaria offered. Patients could stay as long as they wished[8]. The minister of Health, Labor and Welfare officially apologized for the delayed abolishment. The same year, the Federation of National Leprosarium Patients changed its name to the Federation of National Hansen Disease Sanatorium Patients, since it was argued that the term for leprosy (rai) triggered social stigma.

leprosy 5

“We won the lawsuit” – the isolation policy was abolished in 1996

After thirteen patients had sued the government for its unconstitutional policy in 1998, a law was introduced in 2001 that made it possible for Hansen’s disease patients to receive compensation for their suffering. In that same year, the prime minister apologized for the continued violation of leprosy patients’ human rights. The most recent legislation on Hansen’s disease dates back from 2008:  the Law for the Acceleration of a Solution of the Hansen’s Disease Problem (Hansenbyō mondai no kaiketsu no sokushin ni kansuru hōritsu ハンセン病問題の解決の促進に関する法律) stipulated that national leprosaria a) could not discharge patients against their will b) should provide the necessary treatment and facilities and c) should share the use of their land, buildings and services with the local community. Moreover, the state should take measures to restore the honor of leprosy patients, establish and maintain the national Hansen’s Disease Museum and historical buildings, and promote the spread of correct knowledge on Hansen’s disease and Japan’s policy history in order to honor deceased patients.


In 1952, Hansen’s disease patient Matsuo Fujimoto was charged with murder and sentenced to death in a ‘special court’, since it was believed to be too dangerous to bring leprosy patients into a non-isolated court. Fujimoto’s arrest and trial was by many perceived as unfair and unconstitutional: it was one of the many forms of discrimination that patients experienced due to the long-standing isolation policy and social stigma. During the same period, leprosy patients held demonstrations against the revision of the Leprosy Prevention Law that still prescribed forced segregation. In July and August 1953, Hansen’s disease patients protested in every national leprosarium, in front of the Senate and in the corridors of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Led by the Federation of National Leprosarium Patients, voices protested against compulsory isolation, the prohibition to leave the leprosarium, disciplinary restraint, eugenic surgery, the lack of privacy, the impossibility to start or maintain a family, and the continued use of the discriminatory term ‘leprosy’ (Inaba, 2011).

leprosy special court

A special court for Leprosy patients – picture from Mainichi Shimbun

Discrimination inside the leprosaria

During the 1940s, patients were forced to work due to a shortage of staff, food and other resources (Aoyama, 2010). Residents engaged in farming, agriculture and other forms of production to supply all leprosarium patients and were also actively involved in administrative matters[9]. Before the end of the war, male and female patients had to live apart, regardless of their marital status. Later, sexual intercourse was allowed, but couples experienced a complete lack of privacy on that account. The first houses for couples were built from the 1950s on (Kikuchi, 1997). Since children from leprosy patients were perceived as a ‘burden’ to the hospital[10], birth control was implemented. Male patients often underwent a vasectomy, and abortion was exceptionally allowed by the state in case of leprosy. No permission from the patient was needed.

leprosy nurse

staff treating a patients

Human right infringements also included a lack of medical treatment: not the employees of the leprosaria but the patients themselves had to take care of each other, despite the fact that the many blind and physically impaired residents were in high need of professional assistance. It was only in 1963 that leprosaria started to employ nurses. In 1954, the Federation of National Leprosarium Patients protested heavily against this problem, abandoning their tasks at the leprosarium, demonstrating on the streets and occupying the ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare for five days. This nationwide movement eventually led to the slow transition of replacing patients’ nursing tasks by duties for personnel. Taking the aspects of life at the leprosarium mentioned here into account, it is clear that Japan’s Leprosy Prevention Law resulted in a serious infringement of the patient’s human rights.


One of the discriminatory practices Hansen’s disease patients had to endure for decades, was the application of eugenic measure, most prominent in its form as institutionalized sterilization and abortions: not only in Japan, but worldwide, “[p]erceived and ascribed disabilities of body and mind were one of the core sets of eugenics traits that provided the basis for institutionalized sterilization on eugenic grounds for the first 75 years of the twentieth-century (Wilson & St. Pierre in Devlieger e.a., 2016: 93)”. As mentioned before, forced vasectomy for male patients and abortion for female patients was the standard procedure at leprosaria. In Japan, eugenic policies became popular in the twentieth century, especially from the 1930s on, an era characterized by imperialism and national pride (Otsubo & Bartholomew, 1998).

leprosy eugenics

Japan followed the example of Germany in pursuing a eugenic policy during WWII

At first, eugenic activity targeted the racially ‘impure’, but was soon redirected towards people with mental illness, hereditary and infectious diseases. In March 1940, the National Eugenics Law (kokumin yūsei hō 国民優生法) was passed. The law encompassed both positive eugenics (encouraging healthy citizens to procreate) and negative eugenics (preventing ‘unhealthy’ people to procreate). In 1948, the National Eugenics Law was replaced by the Eugenic Protection Law (yūsei hogo hō優生保護法), which allowed abortion in certain cases, such as leprosy. This law was eventually discontinued in 1996.

Right-based activism

leprosy protest

Protest march against the discriminatory medical treatment of Hansen’s Disease patients

These forms of institutionalized discrimination sparked right-based activism in 1970s Japan (Hayashi & Okuhiro in Addlakha, 2009). The lawsuits against the government filed as a direct result of the movement in the 1990s, was clearly inspired by the early campaigns in the 1950s. Arrington (2014) indicates that this activism for the rights of (ex-)leprosy patients in Japan inspired similar right-based movements in South-Korea and Taiwan. By 2001, the number of plaintiffs in Japan had risen to almost thousand, and a network of hundred lawyers represented them. Reminiscent of the patients’ stance in the process towards an abolishment of the Leprosy Prevention Law, some patients opposed the lawsuits since they were afraid to lose the care and housing benefits provided by the state. Nevertheless, until this day, (ex-)patients and their families, with the support of thousands of Japanese people, are fighting against the human rights infringement they suffered.

Today, most patients with Hansen Disease are over eighty years old and the number of newly diagnosed patients is negligible. It is most likely that leprosy will cease to occur in Japan in the near future. Yet, attempts in the past to eradicate the existence of leprosy patients has now been reversed: the law of 2008 clearly states that the history of leprosy patients and the discriminatory policies they were subjected to, should be remembered and passed onto future generations. The establishment of the National Hansen’s Disease Museum, for example, is an indication of this objective. Another way to honor the memory of mistreated Hansen’s Disease patients is through a revaluation of leprosy literature in Japan: many patients produced literature (mostly poetry) inside the leprosarium and, doing so, created a whole new genre. But that’s something I will write about another time!


[1] Already described in Japan’s oldest history books, rai refers to a collection of skin diseases. (Weiner, 2009: 10) [2] Both terms will be used interchangeably here with no distinction between nuances. [3] Apparently, this was the first document worldwide to claim so. [4] It should be noted that western medicine was not simply copied but rather integrated into traditional Sino-Japanese medicine. Gotō, for example, subscribed to the ‘traditional’ school but his work and writings were informed by western discourse while he maintained a Sino-Japanese approach in therapy and etiology. [5] A similar case is the promulgation of institutionalization laws for mental health patients, which was based on the same impetus to show legal maturity towards the West (Suzuki, 2003: 199). [6] For example, patients were now more free to leave the institution. [7] Established in 1952, the Tofu Society was a reformation of the Leprosy Prevention Association, founded by Empress Teimei. [8] The importance of this decision is illustrated by the fact that only six patients left their leprosaria in the next two years after the abolition (Koh, 1999). [9] Aoyama (2010) argues that because patients were part of the organizational and administrative structure of the facility, they could strengthen their position in negotiations and slightly improve their living circumstances. [10] Children of leprosy patients also experienced stigmatization: In 1954, patient’s children, although not affected by Hansen’s disease, were denied schooling by the parent-teacher association.

Reference list here

Hundred Posts on Nippaku: Time for Celebration!

nippaku100While uploading my previous blog post, I noticed that it was the 99th one I posted on Nippaku. When I started this blog almost 5 years ago, just for fun, I would never have believed I would reach 100 – or even continue writing, since this is just one of the many side projects I’m keeping myself busy with! I certainly have to thank you for that, my dear followers who thought my writings were interesting enough to stick around, and the many friendly strangers who check out old and new articles everyday. If someone comments on one of my posts, it really makes my day – I received so many lovely comments on my about page! I know that I don’t post regularly, but I try to make up for it by putting a lot of effort and time in every article I write. Sometimes I switch it up a notch and go with something personal or practical, but for the most part my blog features my own research, so that’s probably what you can expect in the future as well! A short overview of the highlights thus far:

nippaku 100.1 cut

Old picture of a young me advertising my favorite blog

my first blog post To Start With Me now: *Reading what I wrote as an 18-year old and thinking “how cute”*.

the most fun post to work on For The Land of Chocolate and Beer, I actually ventured out to Bruges and interviewed Japanese tourists on the street!

your favorite blog post  Living in Japan: Pros and Cons I guess this one is a very down-to-earth description of my experiences living in Japan that appeals to those who want to know more about daily life over there.

my favorite blog post Haiku with a Cup of Tea I enjoy translating poetry or literature, showcasing my creativity and doing research, and in this post I could do all of that! I would love to do something similar in the future.

the blog post most commented upon Japanologie aan de KU Leuven: wat houdt dat nu precies in? My only post in Dutch, meant as a practical guide for students with questions about my university’s Japanese Studies program. I still receive questions about this post from time to time and am very pleased to hear that so many people are interested in studying Japanese!

The biggest surprise I had two big surprises, actually. The first time was when I reviewed a documentary on Tokaido and received a “thank you” from the director himself, the second time was when a Japanese professor whose work I had referred to throughout my master’s thesis commented under “about” on my post about Iwakura and Gheel! These comments really boosted my confidence.

insights 99

And now, time to celebrate my hundredth post! This wouldn’t be Nippaku if I didn’t write something informative about Japan, so let’s examine – very shortly, I promise – how celebrations are held over there. There exist many festivals in Japan, often rooted in religious traditions. Apart from these, the Japanese also like a good party, although a very different one from the parties I am used to at home. And then you have the “imported” stuff like Christmas, festive occasions that have been adapted by and hybridized into Japanese culture, hence developing its own unique Japanese traditions.

Traditional Festivals (Matsuri 祭り)

Some festivals have their roots in Chinese customs but were “imported” centuries ago, and underwent a lot of changes since then. Other festivals are local celebrations that developed out of religious observations and are connected to a certain town, district or even ward, always linked to a Shintoist shrine or Buddhist temple. During my time in Japan, I witnessed nationwide celebrations such as Tanabata 七夕, Obon お盆 and New Year’s Day (oshōgatsu お正月), and around three matsuri in Kobe. I took pictures, but the quality is a little crappy, so if you’re looking for some great photos with explanation of the most popular festivals in Japan, I recommend you this site.



A typical local matsuri, annually held and dedicated to the local shrine or temple, is organized by the neighborhood’s community and involves a considerable investment of time and money. Apparently, a matsuri expresses the unity of men and deities and offers a means to purify oneself, but functions at the same time as an opportunity to display power, status, friendship and a sense of community. Above all, festivals are social events: the festivities are always preceded by ritual offerings to the shrine, besides donations,  yet this part of the festival is the least frequented by the party-goers. One religious element, however, featuring as the central piece of the evening is the omikoshi お神輿, a shrine, palanquins or float, which is carried through the streets by locals dressed in a similar uniform, usually a happi coat (法被) of some kind. The shrine bearers chant wasshoi with every step they take: wasshoi actually refers to the expression wa wo shou 和を背負う, “carrying peace/harmony on one’s shoulders”. The chanting is accompanied by upbeat traditional music and synchronized dancing.


Sometimes, festivals feature parades with lots of cute mascots dancing around. For the entertainment part of the matsuri, there are food stalls as well as games for the kids (and adults with a young spirit). During summer, fireworks will – literally and figuratively – be the highlight of the evening. This type of festival actually resembles what we call “kermis” in Dutch. And of course, you cannot leave a festival without having tried lots of different foods: typical for matsuri are stalls (屋台) that sell taiyaki タイ焼き (fish-shaped fried batter stuffed with sweet bean paste, chocolate or custard), yakisoba 焼きそば (fried noodles with toppings), kakikoori かき氷(shaved ice with colorful syrup) and other yummy snacks. Look how happy I am eating a slice of pineapple covered in chocolate.


“Hybridized” festivals

Of course, the Japanese also celebrate Western holidays such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day, albeit in their own way. These celebrations are no public holidays, so people go to work or school as usual that day. But that doesn’t make these holidays less special. I have always found it fascinating how the Christmas tradition has taken shape in Japanese society (of course there is equally much debate on the true meaning of “Christmas” nowadays in the West) and I am ready to baffle you with some amusing facts on this topic. Did you know that the Japanese “traditionally” eat a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, followed by a strawberry sponge cake with whipped cream? KFC played it really smart when they launched their “Christmas Chicken” campaign back in 1974 (turkey is difficult to come by in Japan), and due to the success of their advertisements, fried chicken became the standard meal that every Japanese wants to eat on Christmas. You have to pre-order your bucket weeks in advance! Moreover, Christmas is a day to be spent with lovers. So, for taking your loved one on a date, Christmas would be the most romantic time – restaurants and hotels are fully booked as well. It is no surprise, then, that stores sell tons of expensive jewelry and clothing as Christmas gifts. This was all new for me, since there is not much romance going on during my Christmas Eve, which I spend at home with my family like many other Belgians.

kfc christmas

KFC “Party Barrels” for Christmas, now open for reservation.

So what about Valentine’s Day, the day people in the West consider to be the most romantic one of all days? The Japanese celebrate it with a lot of chocolate. Not only do they buy or make chocolate for friends and family, they also give giri choko 義理チョコ(“obligatory chocolate”) to co-workers and bosses. But careful! On Valentine’s Day, only women give chocolate to men. Among school girls, there is also a tradition of “confessing one’s love” (告白 kokuhaku) – everyone who has ever read or watched anime/manga will probably be familiar with this phenomenon. Men can reciprocate with a present a month after that, on White Day, but this is not necessarily white chocolate (anything white and girly will do, even lingerie). The introduction of Valentine’s Day and its male counterpart White Day should be understood against the backdrop of succesful commercial attempts to increase sales in post-War Japan: Feb 14th was promoted by a chocolate manufacturer, White Day (originally called “Marshmallow Day”, but this name didn’t catch on) was introduced by the National Confectionery Industry Association. Hence, “extravagant consumption” and gift-giving is a good way to describe Japanese people’s activities during these holidays.

japan valentine day chocolate

the Belgian chocolate brand Godiva is extremely popular in Japan. – picture from The Japan Times


On a more personal level, you have the birthday celebrations, welcome and goodbye parties and so on. I must confess that I was not a huge fan of the big parties I attended, despite all the organization that went into it (sorry, my Japanese friends). In the first place, these parties start really early, around 5pm (I am used to parties that start from 10pm or later), but there is also food (not only snacks!), so it could be something like an early dinner party. You are expected to come at 5pm sharp and not just drop in at whatever time you like, and when the schedule says the party is over (for example around 8pm), then it’s really over and everyone just starts to clean up. The problem was that when I had some alcoholic drinks, I would be pretty worthless and unproductive for the rest of the evening so I would have preferred to go out after I had finished my daily tasks (I usually study until late at night). Playing games was fun, though.


Notice the name tag and the front desk in the left corner?

About this “schedule” I mentioned, I mean that there was some kind of program that was announced beforehand: something like 5pm arrival and speeches / 5.15pm conversation game / 6pm dance choreography / 6.30pm bingo / 7.30pm group picture / 8pm clean up and leave. The problem I had with these kind of Japanese parties is that it did not allow for being spontaneous. You were forced to get to know other people (there was some kind of game) and enjoy yourselves through these organized activities, as if you wouldn’t manage to do so otherwise.


Group picture at a Halloween Party (you can see a poster with the “timetable” of the evening)

But maybe I’m just a little picky when it comes to partying, because not all parties were like that. I remember one “wine party” with the research department, apparently a tradition of the faculty to celebrate the Beaujoulais Nouveau  Day in Japan. We could casually converse, eat and – above all – drink wine, without keeping to a schedule which was really fun! When somebody burst out into a dance, it was a spontaneous move (yes that happened). It was also nice to have some parties in the international dormitory where I lived. We had our Christmas party there, birthday parties and my goodbye party.

goodbye party

Another type of party is nomikai 飲み会 (“drinking party”) or konpa in a university context. Nomikai do not always celebrate something, but are often held at the end of the semester, for example, in an izakaya (Japanese pub) with an “all you can drink and eat” formula, and exist for the sake of deepening friendship bonds or strengthening work relations. I had several nomikai with the Shorinji Martial Arts Club that I joined, with co-workers and with friends. You could say that for me, it was more like a tabekai (“eating party”) since my love for food has no boundaries and I wasn’t a big fan of getting myself so drunk that I couldn’t walk properly anymore (sadly, many Japanese students are in this state after a nomikai). Anyway, I hope that I have proven to you that Japanese people like to party and celebrate! Let’s do this again when I have written my 200th post.

Mad Monks & Medieval Medicine

 20160623_193100This blog post covers another part of my thesis, the fifth post already in this series of “mental health in Japan”. For those who have missed the previous posts, it is not too late to catch up: an introduction to the topic focussing on mental health stigma can be found here, and posts dedicated to ancient records of “madness” in Japan here and here. Today, we go back to medieval times to discover how “madness” was perceived in a Buddhist context, as well as in relation to the newly developing study of medicine.

Buddhist Notions of “Madness”

During the Kamakura and Muromachi period, Buddhism played a prominent role, which is reflected in the literature of that time[1]. One representative example is An Account of My Hut (Hōjōki方丈記, 1212) by Kamo no Chōmei. The essence of this short story, “the world is a hard place to live”, corresponds with the Buddhist concept of impermanence. The following two fragments contain a reference to “madness”.

Yes, take it for all in all, this world is a hard place to live, and both we and our dwellings are fragile and impermanent, as these events reveal. And besides, there are the countless occasions when situation or circumstance cause us anguish. (…) Dependence on others puts you in their power, while care for others will snare you in the worldly attachments of affection. Follow the social rules, and they hem you in; fail to do so, and you are thought as good as crazy.[2]

“Chomei, (…) while trying to become a pure monk, your heart remains tainted by impurity. By living in a ten-foot hut in imitation of the Jomyo Buddhist layman Yuima, even if you are given the benefit of the doubt, you have not realized the practice of Shuri Handoku. When you perhaps do by chance, doesn’t your karma’s punishment worry you? Or again, by reckless judgment, not becoming more intelligent you grow worse by this, grow crazy. What do you think?”[3]


Kamo no Chomei

“To be(come) crazy” is a translation of the verb kyō suru 狂する. It should not surprise that the Chinese reading of 狂 is employed here, as Buddhism was imported from China via Korea. Although this “new” religion differentiated from the traditional folk belief and Shintoism primordially present in Japan, we can discern a pattern of hare and ke here (for a concise explanation of these concepts, see this post).

Living in this world brings many hardships. For example, if you did not follow the conventions, you were believed to be “mad”. In other words, behaving abnormally on days this was not allowed (ke days) was perceived as “madness”. On the other hand, eccentricity was also thought to be a suiting characteristic of a monk in seclusion: Chōmei strives towards reaching a state of nirvana by isolating himself in a tiny hut in the mountains, following in the footsteps of other Buddhist monks. To break all ties with society is an unconventional decision indeed, but this Buddhist practice (the hare element) was regarded as a way to reach spiritual awakening in medieval Japan. The result for Chōmei, however, turns out differently. He fails to attain enlightenment, and the only state achieved is one of mental derangement, or “madness”.

Comparable to talented artists, monks or other religiously engaged people had a special status connected with hare and were, therefore, permitted to express a certain degree of “madness”. This privilege allowed them to manipulate the actions of others. For example, the Buddhist scholar Zōga-hijiri 増賀聖 could not stand the secularism of his sect and escaped the monastery unpunished by pretending he was insane[4]. Another problem that urged for fabricated madness was the immense popularity famous monks enjoyed. It was strictly forbidden in Buddhism to express any form of arrogance or pride based on an elevated status, learning or wealth[5], which forced some distinguished monks to act like madmen in order to keep the many admirers away.



A famous example from the Nara period is Gyōki 行基, who, according to various sources, “appears as a wandering shamanic figure who used his superhuman powers to instruct peasants and unlicensed monks” but displayed “suspicious behavior”[6]. As feigning madness appears to have been an effective means to isolate oneself, a state of mental derangement was perhaps tolerated among monks, but others were certainly not exempt from certain forms of stigmatization.

The impact of Buddhism on the treatment of individuals with a mental disorder was not limited to written suggestions alone. Omata Waichirō points out that during the medieval period, a handful of religious institutions, Buddhist temples as well Shintoist shrines, offered provisions for the mentally disordered, such as Chinese herbal medicines treatment and moxibustion in the former, and incantations and exorcism sessions in the latter[7]. As a result, people with a mental disorder undertook pilgrimages to “places of healing” such as Iwakura (see pictures below) that provided specialized treatment. Nevertheless, Hashimoto argues that such provisions were still exceptional in medieval Japan, and that most temples and shrines started to develop facilities for the mentally ill only late in the Edo period or at the beginning of the Meiji period[8]. Important here is that people with a mental disorder were, just like those afflicted with physical illness, gradually being regarded as subjects of treatment. Moreover, it appears that religion and the first attempts towards psychiatric care are significantly entangled, as will be explained in the part below.

Footnotes and references

[1] Sekiguchi, Tadao 関口忠男. “The Tale of the Heike and Buddhist Thought”平家物語と仏教思想 (Heike Monogatari to bukkyō shisō), Records of Lectures on Buddhist Culture 仏教文化講演会記 (Bukkyō bunka kōenkai ki), Ryūkoku University, Kyoto (2007):287-301, p. 287 [2] McKinney, Meredith, Kenkō Yoshida, and Chōmei Kamo. Essays in Idleness and Hōjōki, 2013.  [3] Washburn University.  [4] Hori, Ichirō, Joseph M. Kitagawa, and Alan L. Miller. Folk Religion in Japan: Continuity and Change. Paperback ed., 4. Haskell Lectures on History of Religions, N.S., 1. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 19, p. 103. [5] Arrogance, or Sanskr.: Māna慢, is mentioned as one of the “ten modes of contemplation” in Mahayana Practice of Cessation and Contemplation (Makashikan摩訶止観), a Buddhist work on meditation compiled in China around 594 that influenced Buddhism in Japan immensely. [6] Augustine, Jonathan Morris. Buddhist Hagiography in Early Japan: Images of Compassion in the Gyoki Tradition. Routledge Studies in Asian Religion. London: Routledge, 2012, p. 3 and 11. [7] In 1278, a corner of the Gokurakuji temple 極楽寺 in Kamakura was reserved for lepers, next to a general sanatorium. In 1394, treatment focusing on those suffering from mental disorders was started at the main temple of the Jōdoshin sect, the Kōmeisanjuninji 光明山順因寺 in Okazaki. The oldest therapy recorded is the waterfall treatment at Daiunji temple 大雲寺 in Iwakura, Kyoto during the Heian period. From the Kamakura period on, treatment as practiced in Iwakura lost its magical and supernatural character and was mainly concerned with natural therapy. Omata, Waichirō 小俣和一郎. The History of Psychiatry 精神医学の歴史 (Seishin igaku no rekishi). Tokyo: Daisan Bunmeisha, 2005, p. 82-83. [8] Hashimoto, Akira橋本明. “The History of Psychiatric Care in Places of Treatment – From ‘Places of Healing’ towards ‘Generalized Places’”治療の場をめぐる精神医療史―「癒しの場」から「普遍化された場」へ」(Chiryō no ba wo meguru seishin iryōshi – ‘iyashi no ba’ kara ‘fuhenka sareta ba’ he) in “Madness” the Time Produces時代がつくる「狂気」(Jidai ga tsukuru “kyōki”), edited by Serizawa, Kazuya芹沢一也. Psychiatric Care and Society series no. 825, 49-84. Tokyo: Asahi Shimbun Publishing Co., 2007,  p. 55.

A Change in “Madness” Perception Due to Secularization

Although a religious interpretation remained the major driving force behind daily life, the secularization of the Japanese medieval society was imminent. This secularization was further enhanced by the appearance of medicine studies[9]. It is too early to speak of a medical science, since medical treatment for mental disorders as was first developed in Japan was either based on Chinese herbal medicine or yin yang theories.


Mono no ke of Lady Aoi in The Tale of Genji

Remarkable is the fact that traditional phenomena such as mono no ke and spirit possessions continued to exist under the form of monotsuki 物憑きand were integrated in practical medicine. Among the various categories of monotsuki, possession by a fox spirit (kitsunetsuki 狐憑き)[10] became by far the prevailing explanation for deviant behavior of commoners from the Edo period on. Hyōdō illustrates the co-existence of medicine and traditional notions of “madness” by giving examples of doctors and yin yang masters who were arrested on grounds of their alleged manipulation of fox spirits to possess others[11]. She argues that all those who studied medicine were believed to hold the power to exorcise evil spirits as well, and were, therefore, also thought capable of having people possessed. Consequently, medical disorders, regarded as “diseases” caused by spiritual forces, were now treated with herbal medicines.



An early work illustrating that “madness” in its new form of fox possession was no longer evidently regarded as a sacred and ritual phenomenon, is Jottings of a Fool (Gukanshō愚管抄, 1220). The writer, Buddhist priest Jien, argues that the wife of servant Nakakuni is not possessed by the spirit of the deceased Go-Shirakawa but by an evil fox[12]:

Certainly there have been many such cases [of shrines being built to pacify a vengeful soul]. But has Go-Shirakawa’s soul become vengeful because of something done by Retired Emperor Go-Toba? And should the deceased Go-Shirakawa’s soul be considered a manifestation of the Great Hachiman Bodhisattva and honored as an ancestral Kami of the Imperial House? Have there been signs of miraculous power? Have not such things occurred because people have believed what persons-possessed only by foxes (yakan) and demons (tengu)-have said? (…) If Nakakuni and his wife have said what was in their own hearts without being at all possessed by foxes and badgers, they should of course be punished, even with exile. But we should not conclude that they have done this simply because they are strange. [13]

Jien further advocates that “the wife of Nakakuni has attuned herself to the words of mad people such as miko, mediums, dancers, sarugaku players, even coppersmiths and the fellow,” and that, since she was simply ill, the couple should “not be listened to and should be put in isolation to drive out the fox spirit”[14]. Jien attributes the wife’s “madness” to fox or badger possession (tanukitsuki 狸憑き) but denies its connection with hare, as opposed to the eccentricity of those called “the mad”, people involved with spirituality and arts[15]. Nakakuni and his wife are not explicitly punished due to the acknowledged mental condition, but a rejection of their “madness” as an expression of hare contributes to a stigmatizing attitude of isolation, as is visible in Jien’s suggestions.

As the field of medicine in Japan was substantially based on an already established tradition of Chinese medicine, new terminology and perceptions of “madness” emerging in Japan were heavily influenced by theoretical literature on medicine imported from the Chinese mainland. The Chinese vision on mental disorders is reflected in Japan’s first medical book, Ishinpō 医心方 (984) by Tamba Yasuyori 丹波康頼. In chapter three, Tamba theorizes about mental disorders, referring to them as chūfūtenbyō 中風癲病. A mental disorder is defined as an illness transmitted by a cold (chūfū 中風) causing a corruption of either yin or yang in the body[16]. The same theory is presented in Dongui Bogam 東医宝鑑 (1613), an influential Korean work[17] by Heo Jun, which proves that chūfūtenbyō remained the dominant theory until well into the 17th century. Significant for research on stigmatization is the fact that the early medical explanation for mental disorders bears striking similarities with the traditional notion of possession, in the sense that both interpretations consider the cause of the disorder to be external.



Chūfū or Fubyō 風病 is somewhere else exemplified by “the Man with a Cold” (Fubyō no otoko 風病の男) on the Scroll of Illnesses (Yamai no Sōshi 病草紙, 12th century). The scroll contains drawings of various diseases and anomalies, accompanied by a description or entertaining anecdote. This particular painting depicts a man who is playing go with two ladies, but suddenly catches a “cold” (fubyō), upon which his eyeballs and limbs start to shake. His face is contorted, he is not able to sit properly and appears not capable to articulate properly, which is an amusing sight for the two ladies[18]. A suggestion is that the man suffers from cerebral apoplexy.

Left: Anonymous, “The Man with a Cold” in The Scroll of Illnesses, 26.0 x 30.9 cm, 12th century, Kyoto National Museum. Right: detail of the same work. – source: “Yamai No Soshi (Diseases and Deformities)” – eKokuhou.

The fact that the two women start to laugh reveals their discriminating attitude, although it must be said that throughout the Scroll of Illnesses more ailments and deformities are depicted  – as ridiculed by other people. Another point worth mentioning is that mental disorders[19] are actually incorporated in this work, which proves that they were also regarded as illnesses, albeit somewhat peculiar. Furthermore, the word fubyō, “cold” is used, referring to the theory explained above. The idea that afflictions of the brain were caused by external forces would last till the Edo period, when mental disorders were contrarily viewed as internal problems[20].

Additionally, throughout the scroll, not one supernatural explanation is given. There is an obvious breach with the traditional linkage of “insanity” to religion or spirituality. Instead, the drawings show scenes of daily life, of common people suffering from diseases and anomalies, and of other people’s reaction on the afflictions depicted. In other words, the absence of a hare connection and the strong presence of ke elements suggest “impurity” or kegare. This enhances stigma, as can be seen in the reaction of the two ladies on the seizure of the go player. That’s it for today! In a next blog post, we will look at how “madness” was portrayed in the performing arts of medieval Japan and how this is again linked to the concepts of hare and ke.

Footnotes and references

[9] Omata, History of Psychiatry, p. 35, 56-57. [10] The first description of kitsunetsuki in Tales of Times Now Past (Konjaku Monogatari今昔物語), dates back to the late Heian period. [11] Hyōdō, Akiko 兵頭晶子. Mental Disease and Japanese Modernity: From the Possessed Mind/Body to the Diseased Mind/Body精神病の日本近代―憑く心身から病む心身へ (Seishinbyō no nihon kindai – tsuku shinshin kara yamu shinshin he), Trans-boundary Modern Times 越境する近代 (Ekkyō suru kindai) nr. 6. Tokyo: Seikyūsha, 2008, p. 71. Hyōdō refers to Nishiyama, Masaru西山克. “The Middle Ages of Mediators – Emperial Authority during the Muromachi Period and Fox Handlers”媒介者たちの中世―室町時代の王権と狐使い (Baikaitachi no chūsei – muromachi jidai no ōken to kitsunedukai) in Cities and Professionals都市と職能民 (Toshi to shokunōmin), edited by the Study Group on Medieval cities中世都市研究会 (Chūsei toshi kenkyūkai), Vol. 8. Tokyo: Shinjinbutsu ōraisha, 2001. [12] Bathgate, Michael. The Fox’s Craft in Japanese Religion and Folklore: Shapeshifters, Transformations, and Duplicities. Religion in History, Society & Culture 7. New York, NY: Routledge, 2004, p. 98. [13] Jien, Delmer Myers Brown, and Ichirō Ishida. The Future and the Past: A Translation and Study of the Gukanshō, an Interpretative History of Japan Written in 1219. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979, p. 169-70. [14] Own translation. [15] Hosokawa, Ryōichi細川涼一. The Japanese Middle Ages of Deviance – Madness, Perversity and the Demon World 逸脱の日本中世―狂気・倒錯・魔の世界 (Itsudatsu no nihon chūsei – kyōki・tōsaku・ma no sekai) Tokyo: JICC Press, 1993, p. 18. [16] Two types of mental disorders are distinguished: a corruption of yin leads to ten illness (tenbyō 癲病), an attack on yang causes kyō illness (狂病). Nishimaru, Shikata 西丸四方. Reading Classics on Psychiatry 精神医学の古典を読む (Seishin igaku no koten wo yomu). Tokyo: Misuzu Shobo Co., 1989, p. 59. [17] This work was written in Chinese characters and thus understandable in China as well in Japan, where it was published and read in its original form. [18] The inserted orginal passage reads: ちかごろ、男ありけり。風病によりて、ひとみつねにゆるぎけり。厳寒にはだかにてゐたる人の、ふるひわななくやうになむありける. [19] Other examples are “The Insomnious Woman” (Fumin no onna 不眠の女) and “The Woman with Eyes for the Birds” (torime no onna鳥眼の女), depicting a schizophrenic or neurotic woman who lets crows peck her eyes. [20] Tatsukawa, Shōji 立川昭二. “Fūbyō, chūbyō and apoplexy – “The Man with a Cold” in Scroll of Ilnesses” 風病・中風・脳卒中―「風病の男」『病草紙』(Fūbyō・chūbyō・nōsotsuchū – “fūbyō no otoko” Yamai no sōshi) Emergency Life-saving救急救命 (kyūkyū kyūmei), Life and Cultural History 18, May 2007, p. 18-19.

Throwback Time

Time flies! It’s already been over a year since I came back from my one-year stay in Japan. I’ve grown pretty nostalgic these days, thinking back to all the good stuff, and maybe forgetting a little bit about the things I liked less. I am planning to go back soon to do fieldwork for my research, but in the meantime I have saved some eye candy for you from my last trip, showing you what exactly I can’t wait to go back to. Now, let’s begin our stroll down memory lane.

The nature

Many people who have travelled to Japan will tell you that excursions outside the vibrant cities are certainly worth the trip. Especially for this journey, my family brought a nice camera – spot my brother in action among the sunflowers. As you can also see from the pictures below, we travelled around Japan during summertime. Being totally surrounded by nature was overwhelming, in particular because we Belgians aren’t really used to that much green (and the weather was also extremely hot for our standards).

The Japanese island is for 70% mountainous and for over 60% covered with forests, which results in sparse low-leveled, but densely populated areas popping up in between vast woods, rivers and mountain ranges. Lots of nature to explore, in other words. Below you see some of the “99 island” (Kujukushima 九十九島), a bamboo forest, a view of Kyushu’s countryside and colorful koi fish.

But even in metropolis centres, you can find quiet, green spots among the many touristic attractions. Below are two pictures from Kobe (the ropeway up to Rokko Mountain and the Nunobiki waterfalls) and two from Kyoto, displaying a magnificent temple garden and a proud heron in the garden of Nijo castle.

The culture

Well, isn’t this my favorite part about Japan! Living in Kobe, I was situated close to the cultural and historical heart of Japan. You probably know that I am more into (let’s call it) the ‘traditional’ stuff. Hence, the tourist in me is more drawn towards castles, temples, medieval art and so on. That doesn’t mean I don’t value modern cultural phenomena – on the contrary, I think they’re fascinating research material! Since this post is trying to be as visual as possible, the pictures below can seem a little cliché in that sense, since they depict mostly ‘the classics’. For the reason that I’m into ‘traditional’ stuff, I actually never visited Tokyo during my round trip (oh, the shame). Of course I would recommend it to everyone, but personally I do not really feel attracted to the hyper-modern, current capital of Japan (the previous ones I love, though – Nara, Kyoto, you name it). But one day, I’ll go to Tokyo, for sure! *pinky swear*

Besides the extraordinary craftsmanship, I love the abundance of colors, yet at the same time serenity of temples and palaces. Kyoto was great (how many temples can you visit in one day?) and as a Buddhist geek, I thoroughly enjoyed all the religious references in Japanese culture such as the many Buddha statues. During our journey, we often stumbled across unplanned festivals and other celebrations, for example the Gozan fire festival. On the other pictures, you can see the beautiful white Himeji castle and the ‘floating’ torii of the Itsukushima shrine on Miyajima island.

Typical for smaller Japanese towns is that they specialize in a certain product which then attracts a lot of shopping tourists. That is the case, for example, in Uji, a town close to Kyoto and  famous for its matcha – but also known for its prominence in The Tale of Genji and its stunning Byodo-in temple. Another example is Arita, famed for its ceramics and pottery. Also, when nature and culture come together, great stuff happens. Like, deer in Nara. Or the Korakuen garden in Okayama.

Japanese architecture, traditional or modern, keeps fascinating people. Take for example the huge main temple in Nara (with my parents posing in front of it), the innovative water architecture of Osaka city station, the golden pavilion in Kyoto or the modern office constructions you see everywhere in big cities.

And last but not least, let’s talk arts. Japan is known worldwide for its origami, ikebana, kimono designs and performing arts such as puppet theater, kabuki and noh. These arts are constantly developing and modernizing, yet maintain their ‘traditional’ character. In Hiroshima, we saw ‘1000 folded cranes’ and a Kagura performance. On Shikoku, I was so lucky to watch puppet theater (they were so kind to pose with us for a picture), and kimonos were a common sight in Kyoto.

The Food

Apart from culture and history, food is also a big interest of mine. The Japanese cuisine is very different from the Belgian one, and this also influenced my taste palette and culinary preferences. I have been a vegetarian for some time now, so there are lots of Japanese dishes out there that I never tried – I had to make an exception for the unavoidable dashi (fish stock), though. Yet, I was often surprised about the availability of vegetarian dishes, and the willingness of the chefs to adapt to the (vegetarian) customer’s needs. Japanese people eat a lot of vegetables, tofu is everywhere and I enjoyed some great vegetarian meals, like the ones below. On one or two occasions, I had a fancy vegetarian set meal, and the Buddhist, vegetarian food on mount Koya was also a pleasant experience.

Okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake with a filling of choice, proved to be the perfect alternative for pizza. Back in Belgium, I also had to get used to the idea that there is no concept such as izakaya here: places where you can drink alcohol and order lots of food at the same time. You could say I mostly went to izakaya together with friends or colleagues to drink, but I always ended up stuffing my face with delicious foods. Not that I didn’t drink at all – sake was love at first sight.

Sushi is, of course, always a good choice. Try kaiten-zushi (conveyer belt sushi) for a lot of fun and a full stomach! If I didn’t have time to prepare a lunch box on a busy school day, I used to buy onigiri (rice triangles) or inarizushi (seasoned rice in a marinated tofu skin) at the supermarket. Other standard meals I often ordered in restaurants include udon noodles with tofu or don (rice) dishes with egg. From time to time, I treated myself to some curry: I like the Japanese ones with vegetables as well as the curry set menus at Indian restaurants.

An example of how my taste buds adapted to Japanese flavors, is the fact that I started prefering Japanese sweets over western, much sweeter and sugary desserts. There have been many days lately that I crave mochi! Also, matcha is a gift from the gods – I love all kinds of desserts stuffed with it (don’t the phoenix matcha pancakes from Uji look amazing?). Another favorite snack of mine is red bean paste, especially in manju, like the ones from Miyajima shaped like leaves on the left. I also cannot express enough how tasty mitarashi dango are (am I the only who feels like this?): Japanese rice dumplings with sweet soy sauce. Yummy!

The people

Japanese people and me went along pretty well! I always felt at ease because they would try to make me feel welcome as much as possible, be considerate and show me the utmost respect. It was a reassurance that the Japanese would never make fun of me or embarrass me – at least not in my face. Most conversations are pretty predictable (no sarcastic remarks or surprises from people you don’t know very well) which also helps you to follow and respond better by anticipating the rest of the conversation. One thing that is not supposed to be annoying but actually is when you live there for a while, is the complimenting: hearing time and time again how good your Japanese is and how baffled they are by your knowledge about Japan (“Even I as a Japanese didn’t know that!” – but then again I am the one majoring in Japanese studies and not you, and I am not an expert in Belgian history either, is what I would have liked to reply), can get a little tiring.

They often say that Japanese people do not have a sense of humor, but I don’t think that’s true. Of course, the slapstick on Japanese television doesn’t crack me up either, but contextual jokes and puns were as funny in Japan as anywhere else. Another pro is that politeness is prioritized over personality – being rude doesn’t make you cool. And with people you want to befriend, you can discover a whole new personality behind this polite “façade” (tatemae). I believe I’m not a very warm person and a little distant myself when I don’t know another person very well, so I could relate.

In general, Japanese people were kind and always willing to help me. I experienced this while studying and researching at uni, as well as in the Shorinji martial arts club I was a member of. From my first day in Japan, I received a lot of help and friendship from the Japanese at my faculty. The professors, unlike in Belgium sometimes, were supportive and respectful towards their students. During shorinji training as well, I  was never left on my own. The more experienced “fighters” taught the newbies, and I learnt a lot from practicing together. Because I was mainly focused on my research, I wasn’t the most social one in the group but I had a lot of fun in my free time.

I could go on and list up many other experiences I had during my stay there, but I think it’s best to go back to Japan and make more memories! In the meantime, I will write a couple of new blog posts with a more academic content. Feel free to share your memories in the comment section below!

How to Meditate Like a Pro

wp-image-692359758jpg.jpgBuddhism is cool. That is not only my personal opinion, it can also be observed in Western popular culture, where Buddhist ideas are being commercialized and transformed into products such as mandala coloring books, Buddha bowls, Zen soap and so on. Mindfulness, yoga and numerous forms of meditation, allegedly based on Buddhist practice, have become immensely popular as antidotes to our stressful lives. Yet, we must wonder, in what sense is this ‘mutant’ practice still Buddhist, regardless of the benefits it may have?

While I have critically written about the Western interpretation of Buddhism on this blog (on ‘Zen’, for example), meditation is something I was not familiar with until recently. During my summer school at UC Berkeley where I studied Tibetan Buddhism, I read ancient texts describing a series of very complex tantric meditation exercises you (or rather: a trained Buddhist) should do in order to reach enlightenment. And, let me warn you, it’s not easy.

When I decided to start meditating myself on a daily basis a month ago, it was impossible not to notice the enormous difference between what I had read and what those YouTube videos told me to do. Meditation nowadays is advertised as something everyone can do everywhere, for 5 minutes or for an hour, and of which the underlying idea is emptying your mind. Apart from the fact that I still struggle with not thinking (I also fell asleep once during a 30-minutes guided session), I was slightly disappointed that it did not involve the visualization of buddhas, bodhisattvas and deities, of royal palaces and Buddha’s life, as I had seen in class. So, when I noticed that there was an exhibition on the topic at the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS), I took the train to Antwerp and visited “Buddha & Mind” on a grey Wednesday afternoon. A heads up for my loyal readers: this post and the exhibition are not about Japan, although Tantric Buddhism plays an important role in Japanese religion, and the buddha the meditation is dedicated to, Vairocana, is of crucial importance in Shingon Buddhism.

The museum framed its choice for this topic as following: “In our hectic lives we seek peace and tranquillity more intensely than ever. Growing numbers of us are taking up yoga and meditation to prevent stress. In the East, people have been using these methods for centuries, and above all to attain a greater sense of reality. You too will be immersed in meditation with this unique series of Buddhist miniature paintings”. Overall, I thought the main pieces of the collection, 54 Chinese paintings from the 18th century, illustrating the Buddhist meditation process, were impressive and neatly explained in the provided catalogue (online available here). They were a gift to a Mongolian prince, who used them as a meditation guide: this exercise is a ritual performed after someone’s death. The paintings are not only of rare quality, the fact that they exist is exceptional in itself: Tantric meditation techniques are secret (esoteric) and usually not depicted. They are also unique as multicultural artworks: the inspiration and content is Tibetan, yet the painting style is Chinese and the cultural background is Mongolian. The paintings were brought here by a Belgian missionary.

In Buddhism, there are three vehicles, or ways to reach enlightenment: the great vehicle (Mahayana), the smaller vehicle (Hinayana or Theravada) and the diamond or thunderbolt vehicle (Vajrayana), the main Buddhist current in Tibet. The paintings depicted below belong to the latter. The whole visualization revolves around Vairocana, the dharmakaya or “truth body”, a manifestation of the historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama. In Vajrayana, Vairocana is the most important Buddha. Similar to Mahayana Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhists’ goal is to become a bodhisattva, an enlightened being that benevolently helps other people in the world (and eventually, to become a buddha).  Vajrayana is more or less the ‘hardcore’ way to attain buddhahood: since we already have a potential Buddha-nature from birth, it is possible to get there in one lifetime, this life. Why wait longer? Mahayana, on the other hand, takes it easy and helps you getting there over several rebirths. In short, the Diamond way is, literally, for the diehards. The exercise explained below, is proof of that. If you’re interested in some more ‘extreme’ tantric practices, check out my blog post on the Japanese tachikawa-ryu! Now, I will guide you through every phase of the meditation exercise by means of some snapshots I took at the exhibition.

1. Preparing your meditation

20170222_194001.jpgThe first step for success – not only in attaining nirvana – is a good preparation. First, you pay your respect to the three jewels (the Buddha, his teachings and the Buddhist community) and ask your teacher to be initiated. Then, as is illustrated on the painting on the left, you use the ritual objects that lie in front of you to purify yourself, while making gestures with your hands (mudras) and reciting mantras. The three clouds depicted here, symbolize whose guidance you are calling upon: the bodhisattva Vajrasattva (the “diamond being”), Buddha and your teacher.

20170222_194052.jpgNow it’s time for a first visualization: one of a huge moon disk that symbolizes ‘truth’, or dharma (visible behind the mountain and streams depicted). Imagine that the light of this moon is absorbed in a large lotus, which produces a vajra (“thunderbolt weapon”) and another, smaller lotus in its turn. Inside the vajra, the seed syllable Hum हूं is written. The “thunderbolt weapon” also emits colorful rays of light. Starting from these elements, you start your meditation. The moon disk now represents emptiness (sunyata), a very important concept in Buddhism. The rainbow light, now imagined as circling in a mandala shape, symbolizes Vairocana. Not depicted here are a mantra and white palace steps, the former indicating bodhisattva Vajrasattva and the latter referring to a later visualization of Vairocana’s palace, or the cosmos.

Further visualized against the backdrop of the moon disk are the five Meditation or Wisdom Buddha’s, each of them with their attributed color and female counterpart: of course we have Vairocana as the dharma (in white), Aksobhya for reflection (blue), Ratnasambhava for equanimity (yellow), Amitabha for perception (red) and Amoghasiddhi for perfect practice (green). After this, Vairocana becomes again the main object of your meditation, but now as a four-headed Buddha. Last but not least, you should bring several offerings. Are you still following? Yes? Good, because we haven’t even started yet.

2. Building the palace

Step two involves the mental construction of a mandala, symbolizing Vairocana’s palace (this was announced earlier by the white palace steps). First, you think again of a large, blue lotus with the seed syllable hum written on it. Feel the lotus entering your body and transforming you in the blue and angry Trailokyavijaya, the “King of Knowledge”. Trailokyavijaya is born from hum and has eight arms and four faces. With these extra limbs, he is able to carry around many weapons, adornments and other objects. By identifying yourself with the wrathful king, you grow as mentally and physically strong as him.


Next up is a series of mantras and mudras. Pronounce the sixteen syllables here depicted in two circles around two seed syllables: hum and ah आः. By doing so, you will start visualizing the palace of Vairocana. The mudras will result in manifestations of the five  Meditation Buddhas in their respective colors. Their consorts are missing (you should replace them with eight goddesses), but they have their own symbols (jewel, vajra,  wheel, lotus etc.) with them. At the same time, you visualize  room by room the construction of the palace in which they live. Now you have laid the fundamentals for the main visualization.

3. Becoming Vairocana

20170222_194304.jpgFor this visualization, you imagine yourself sitting on a lotus in the middle of the ocean, a standard metaphor for the cycle of suffering, or samsara. Vairocana appears again in a cloud above your head, and you start honoring him by reciting the mantra “oṃ vairocana hūṃ”. The instruments here displayed are of Chinese and Tibetan origin and emphasize the musicality of your mantra. As the sound of your mental voice grows stronger and stronger, the whole world is filled with “oṃ vairocana hūṃ” and resonates in your mind, producing a partial visualization of the white palace. Again, you imagine yourself as Vairocana and take on his outer appearance, richly decorated with jewelry. Now, you reflect on Buddha’s teachings and the nature of your existence. In Buddhist doctrine, our existence is marked by impermanence, suffering and non-self.

20170222_194401.jpgConsequently, you contemplate on the three ‘poisons’ that hinder you in achieving nirvana and result in continuous reincarnation. These are ignorance, aversion and greed. Another obstacle to enlightenment is bad karma: you can improve your karma by meditating on the image of the angry god Trailokyavijaya we encountered earlier. In the circle depicted here on the left, you can read his mantra. At te same time, you finish the first construction phase Vairocana’s palace, the outer circle of the mandala. The cotton candy-colored clouds with pictures of vajra and the palace are proof of that. But your palace is not yet safe: demons and other foul creatures try to distract you in your meditation. Get rid of them by imagining the protective god Vajrapani.

20170222_194453.jpgNow we go back to our five Wisdom Buddhas and their female consorts. While forming mudras, imagine them in yab-yum position, or sexual union. This symbolizes the unity of wisdom and compassion. You start radiating the strength of unity as rainbow-colored rays of light all around you, thus creating a protective barrier, enclosed with vajra, around the mind palace. First, you build a pavilion like the one here depicted on the palace terrain. From your hands emerge two rays of light, symbolizing the two epistemological truths: the conventional  or relative way, and the ultimate truth.

A20170222_194532.jpgt last, the palace is finished. It is an enormous building with many rooms and pavilions. You, imagined as the four-headed Buddha Vairocana, are situated in the middle, or the core of the mandala. You are sitting on a lotus, just like Vajrasattva at his right side and his female partner at his left side. Over the palace hangs the moon, symbol of the ultimate truth of emptiness. You continue emitting light and reciting mantras, reaching beyond this world to the hell realm. By doing so, you save those that are doomed to continue living.

4. Contemplating Buddha’s life

olivelle buddhacarita bookThe next step is visualizing the life of the historical Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha. Buddha’s life is relayed in terms of ‘twelve acts’: 1. descending from the heaven Tushita 2. entering the womb 3. being born 4. training in the arts and sciences 5. enjoying life at the palace 6. becoming a monk 7. practicing asceticism 8. sitting under the bodhi tree 9. defeating Mara 10. attaining full enlightenment 11. turning the Dharma wheel 12. dying. Unfortunately, not all stages were depicted; I put the acts shown in the paintings, in bold.

So this is how the story goes: Siddhartha’s mother, queen Maya, dreams of a white elephant entering her womb. Depending on the Buddhist current to which you belong, the future Buddha is seated on this elephant (e.g. in the Chinese tradition), or the elephant enters Maya’s body (in the Tibetan tradition or like written down in biographies such as the Buddhacarita). This predicts the extraordinary birth of Siddhartha some 10 months later. He is born from the right side of his mother, and immediately starts walking and talking. Growing up, he quickly masters all there is to learn. Unfortunately, his pampered life at the palace leads to luxurious excesses and sensual adventures with many consorts.

One day, he takes a tour around the city and is confronted with ‘the four sights’: he sees an old man, a sick man, a corpse and a monk. Being shielded from such sights at the palace, he suddenly realizes that life is full of suffering. Inspired by the monk, he renounces his worldly life, flees the palace and takes up monkshood. For six years, he lives in extreme asceticism under guidance of Brahmic teachers and later together with five companions. Nevertheless, Siddhartha feels like he has not yet found exactly what he was looking for. He starts doing things differently: for example, he now sufficiently nourishes himself to gain full strength, which was frowned upon by his companions.


Eventually, he sits under a tree and starts to meditate alone, vowing that he will not stop until he has reached enlightenment. He goes through four stages of meditating, gains the three ‘knowledges’ and realizes the four ‘noble truths’ – that all is suffering, the cause of this suffering, the fact that it can be ceased and the way that leads to its cessation. An evil being, Mara, ‘the bringer of death’, is not happy with Siddhartha’s succesful attempt and tries to boycott his meditation. He sends an army, his daughters and a storm, but all in vain. Siddhartha is immovable and defeats Mara in a heartbeat. At the same time, he attains full enlightenment.

20170222_194710.jpgAs a Buddha (including the external features such as long ear lobes and a lump on the head), he now returns to his old friends and teaches them and many others the Dharma, and they became enlightened as well (this is called ‘the turning of the wheel of Dharma‘). He performs a couple of miracles and converts many people to this new religion. On the left, you see Buddha seated in the middle on a lotus, surrounded by his disciples, bodhisattvas and gods. He teaches them the dharma, symbolized by the books in the rays of light here depicted. The moon represents again the ultimate truth of emptiness, and the teacher is important for the guidance of meditation. Once a disciple attains nirvana, he becomes an arhat (buddhahood is very rare and there can only be one buddha at the same time). Being enlightened entails that you will no longer reincarnate. Dying, then, is  a different experience. The Buddha falls sick at the age of 81 and reaches parinirvana: he dies ‘beyond nirvana’, the end of all suffering.

5. Becoming Vajrasattva

20170222_194819.jpgAfter this spectacular life story of the historical Buddha, we are ready to move onto another deity visualization. This time, you identify as Vajrasattva (remember him?). This bodhisattva will help you realize enlightenment. First, you carry out purification rituals and have Vajrasattva appear by reciting his mantra. While identifying yourself with him, again call upon the Five Wisdom Buddhas. Their symbolic objects are depicted here as a wheel, a vajra, a jewel, a lotus and a double vajra. This time, Vairocana is visualized not as yourself, but as seated in front of you. You can invite him and the other Buddhas residing in the mandala palace by means of a rainbow light containing the seed syllables, a golden vajra and special mudras and mantras. Continue meditating on the Buddhas, their syllables, objects and counterparts (this time, visualize male counterparts). Then, focus on Vairocana, being illuminated beyond the realms, hence freeing all beings from reincarnation.

6. Performing a death ritual

This last part is specifically meant for purifying the bad karma of the deceased. You visualize being seated at the southern entrance of the mandala palace. Again, Vajrasattva emerges from the syllable hum, embedded in a blue lotus on a golden vajra. If you do it right, the other deities will help you with the purification by sending their blessings in a ray of light. Now, you start the ritual by reciting mantras while holding a vajra and a bell, and offering valuable objects such as jewels and vases. The five Wisdom Buddhas will reemerge. Don’t forget to call upon wrathful, armed deities: they will smooth the path of the deceased towards a good reincarnation. It is also a good idea to express your appreciation towards the Buddhas, deities and other helpful creatures. Continue the ritual by reciting Vairocana and Vajrasattva’s mantra for a long time. If you succeed in all of this, the deceased will be purified from the bad karma that has been building up throughout his or her life.

20170222_194909.jpgIt’s highly unlikely that you will perform this meditation perfectly if you’re not a true pro. No problem! There’s a way to be pardoned for your rookie mistakes. Simply keep reciting Vajrasattva’s mantra, written here in full. Once you have provided the deceased with a good future existence, you can broaden your scope to all living beings. Visualize them as being freed from hell by the benevolent Vairocana, or even from reincarnation in general. At last, it is time to party (in your mind): the death ritual is concluded by a grand Thanksgiving feast, complete with music and offerings.

Our meditation exercise is finished, you can open your eyes now. Do you feel enlightened yet? As expected, ‘traditional’ meditation exercises, especially the vajrayana ones, are extremely complicated and not at all comparable to the popular meditation sessions of today. Of course, the goal is different too: if you’re just looking to relax a little, then there’s no need to go for full enlightenment. As a final note: aren’t these temple altar and the sand mandala stunning?



Dramatic Fashion

I confess: I love to write academic stuff, but sometimes I just want to share something personal with you such as what I enjoy doing in my free time, except for writing this blog of course (spoiler: watching series and dressing up). In the past, I have written about Japanese drama a few times, here and here. I am still watching it although not very consistently (I have those binge-watching moments, especially during exam periods and in the weekends) but I can enjoy an episode now and then. It’s also a good exercise for brushing up my Japanese now that I am studying something completely different.


Legal High: so funny

It should be said, however, that I am very picky; I prefer detective and crime drama (the Japanese are Mystery Masters) and slice-of-life drama with a strong sense of humor (I can even tolerate some romance). On the other hand, I am more than fed up with (mostly Korean) dramas that are complete misrepresentations of society, reinforce gender roles like it were the 19th century and feature the same storyline over and over again. Please stop showing me another handsome but arrogant chaebol son, a poor but oh so kind orphaned girl with the latest phone or a so-called “ugly” woman who becomes pretty the moment she takes off her glasses and puts on some make-up. I stopped watching stuff dramas like that, although I am sure that there are still some not so mainstream series out there worth watching.

But this is not what I wanted to write about. So, here we go: I have noticed that, personally, my fashion style corresponds with a specific style in Japanese fashion as recently featured on Japanese television. During my one-year stay in Japan, I often  received the comment that I dress “oshare” (おしゃれ, stylish) as opposed to “kawaii” (可愛い, cute), that other, more typical way of dressing Japanese are famous for. It is true that I like certain elements of Japanese clothes and styling: layering, covering shoulders and cleavage, wearing almost always feminine skirts, flower patterns, putting on accessories, high but comfy heels AND always wearing matching socks, especially in sandals (socks are everything – I have them in around 50 different colors and patterns). Besides, I also adore traditional kimono. It really is a egg-or-chicken question: do I like Japanese fashion because I dress similarly or am I being influenced by it? Yet, some of the things about my appearance are not Japanese at all, such as my make-up, and – let’s be honest – the shape of my body. Below are some outfits I approve of from two dramas I like(d) to watch (there are probably more but I can’t remember. So feel free to recommend a drama with some great fashion in it!).

  1.  Jimi ni Sugoi! Kōetsu Garu Kōno Etsuko 地味にスゴイ! 校閲ガール・河野悦子 (Simpleness is Great! Proofreading Girl Kono Etsuko). I recently finished watching this drama and I really liked it. The ambitious and fashionable Etsuko finally gets in the publishing company of her dreams, albeit in the gloomy proofreading section. I identify with Etsuko’s outgoing personality as well as with her wardrobe: I enjoy wearing scarfs (around the neck and in my hair), midi high-waisted skirts, lots of colors, flowers and socks, and I like to try out a new hairstyle now and then. There is also a vintage feeling about these outfits. As a keen vintage collector (I only buy secondhand clothing) I especially appreciate the 70s Bohemian vibe and the 50s silhouette Etsuko incorporates in her fashion style.

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  2. A few years back, I watched Okitegami Kyoko no Biboroku 掟上今日子の備忘録 (The Memorandum of Kyoko Okitegami). I’m not a huge fan of this quirky detective’s silver bob, but I admire the way she effortlessly mixes and matches colors and patterns. Her clothes are not tight-fitted yet timelessly elegant. I especially like the color-blocking. Plus, adding a beret is always a good idea. It also makes me realize I should wear tartan more often. By the way, it’s obvious that glasses make you more stylish (don’t believe Kdrama makeovers, kids). That’s it for today! I will be back soon with a new post (you can expect something academic).

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wp-image-1575460682jpg.jpgAt this moment, my university (KU Leuven in Belgium) and other institutions are commemorating Thomas More’s Utopia. This work, written in Latin and edited by Erasmus, was published by Dirk Martens in Leuven, the city where I study, exactly 500 years ago. (Okay, I started working on this post in 2016, so it’s 501 years ago now.) Utopia is a frame story about a fictitious island. The title, a neologism invented by More’s good friend Erasmus but derived from the Greek language, means “no place”, not to be confused with eutopia, “good place”. Nevertheless, More gives the impression that Utopia really existed, providing the reader not only with a detailed description of the island, but also inserting several letters to his own friends such as Peter Giles, town clerk of Antwerp, who plays a role in the story too. Additionally, the book was furnished with a map of the island, the Utopian alphabet (designed by Peter Giles) and two poems in the Utopian language with translation.

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The work itself consists out of two books: the first book covers discussions and criticism on the “real” society while the second book goes into details about the unknown island of Utopia. A character called More (a surrogate for the author) is introduced by his friend Peter Giles to Raphael Hythloday, the Portuguese explorer that discovered Utopia. They discuss the current political situation in Europe, ethical issues in serving at court, social abuse that leads to theft and other topics. In the second book, Hythloday recounts his journey to Utopia. During his stay of 5 years, he familiarized himself with the remarkable Utopian customs. A description of these customs would take more than one post, so check out this summary if you are interested.

Utopia paved the way for a whole new genre of literature. The ideas the humanist and statesman More (1478-1535) put forward in his book, are still relevant and inspiring today (for example the 6-hour working day Sweden has been experimenting with), and some ideas have even come true. However, not all of the Utopian customs would be considered OK nowadays. Slavery, for example, was still a thing. Moreover, it is wrong to think that Utopia represents the perfect society because this was not More’s intention at all – the difference between “eutopia” and “utopia” is really important here. On the contrary, the author distances himself from some of the Utopian ideals and principles. Therefore, Utopia should be read as a criticism of the society More lived in. Not an easy task, by the way: the danger of critiquing society directly is illustrated by the fact that More was later beheaded because he did not go along with Henry VIII’s plan for the establishment of a Church of England.

Climbing the Utopia-themed stairs to the Japanese collection at the University Library

You are probably wondering what this has to do with Japan. Well, I was curious whether, traditionally speaking, Japanese literature also covers a genre of utopian writings. This has been a question often addressed by scholars, and the usual answer is: no, not in the Western sense of the word (not so strange because the genre was named after More’s Utopia), but yes, Japanese literature includes utopian-ish texts, especially works written during the Meiji period (1868-1912). Apparently, utopian works in the West are characterized by a constant shift in position between reality and the imaginary world. The difficulties the reader is faced with in trying to distinguish between what is fictional and what is real, is precisely the level of ambiguity utopian literature aims for.

It is argued that in Japanese works, this ambiguity is not very present. However, the differences between Western utopias and Japanese literature on a similar topic do not indicate that Japanese works are ‘underdeveloped’ or lacking what their western counterpart have: this would be measuring with a Western yardstick. Imagine if a pasta dish was critically evaluated based on its similarity to ramen, Japanese noodle soup (both are tasty in their own way, right?). Moreover, in the manga, anime and Japanese drama of today, a utopian setting is often used. This has certainly been influenced by the popularity of western science fiction from the postwar period on, but apparently utopian-ish genres date back to the Edo period or even earlier. The length of this post will convince you that comparing both literary traditions is more complex than is often assumed.


Example of a “kibyoshi” from 1809 –

Burton (2007) points out that in mid-Edo times, a genre of fantastic travel narratives existed that was also used to critique contemporary society: kibyōshi 黄表紙 “yellow cover books”, the first comic books for adults. Because Japan was isolated from the rest of the world due to a policy of seclusion (sakoku 鎖国) at that time, the Japanese became fascinated by these booklets with their yellow covers that illustrated in words and (lots of) pictures the (imaginative) travels to far, exotic countries and their curious inhabitants. Burton further argues that the Japanese travel narratives were highly influenced by much older Chinese sources, often rooted in Taoist and Buddhist iconography. Such fantastic tales were regularly set in a different time period, to completely mask the fact that they were actually criticism on contemporary society. By doing so, authors could address political or other “forbidden” themes in a satirical way that would be censored otherwise. Although kibyōshi did not stand the test of time and popular authors soon disappeared into oblivion, the idea of a hypothetical world inspired Japanese writers in the centuries afterwards. 


Japanese translation of More’s Utopia

More highbrow alternatives for  kibyōshi  are Ihara Saikaku’s  “Island of Women” (女護島 nyogonoshima) in which the author criticizes gender inequality, and Yoshitsune’s trip to fantastic islands with half-human, half-animals creatures  in the classic  The Tale of the Heike (平家物語 Heike monogatari). Once Japan’s borders opened up for foreign literature in the second half of the 19th century, the Japanese public became fascinated by Western utopias. For example, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was translated and published in 1880, More’s Utopia the year after that. Moichi (1999) argues that the Japanese imported Western novels as a type of Western technology that had a political purpose. As a result, Japanese utopian-style texts inspired by this Western literature mainly promoted a modern ideology, which they hoped would result in political change in Japan’s near future. Coincidently, the Japanese public gained an enormous interest in writings on the future – eutopian or dystopian (the latter was slightly favored because it could shock the readers more).

I could devote an entire post to the well-established tradition of futurological literature in Japan, but at least an introduction is in order since both genres are often interlinked (stories about other, unfamiliar worlds regularly take place in the future). Drawing on the contents of an interesting class I took last year, I was able to trace the origins of futuristic narratives back to early Japanese history. The genre of miraiki (未来記 “record of the future”) is a literary tradition in Japanese history that has its roots in Chinese dynastic writings. At the start of every new dynasty in China (often established by means of a massacre), the new royal family had to justify why they deserved the “heavenly mandate”  (tenmei 天命) by discrediting the previous dynasty. Hence, they referred to a text that had “predicted” the rightful establishment of a new dynasty (the massacre part of the old dynasty was also slightly downplayed).


“Prince Shotoku’s secret writings “Miraiki” disclosed”

It is not difficult to guess that this text was written by the new dynasty and not by someone in the past. As a result, we can regard traditional “futuristic texts” more as writings about the past than about the future. Since Japan does not have a dynastic system, their take on futuristic texts was different: most miraiki were attributed to Prince Shōtoku (Shōtoku Taishi 聖徳太子, 574-622) who is said to be capable of predicting the future. Those texts emerged throughout the Heian period and the Japanese Middle Ages. Similar to the Chinese original, miraiki were used in political discourse for refiguring the past. So here as well, miraiki are part of a literary tradition that claims to be futurological in spirit but is actually historical. The reliance on Prince Shōtoku’s authority to introduce certain standpoints clearly indicates the political character of miraiki. 

Miraiki underwent a drastic transformation from the Edo period  (1603-1868) on: they were trivialized and appeared in the form of satiric kibyōshi for the general public (this should ring a bell for attentive readers!). In other words, the genre of kibyōshi is believed to emerge from the tradition of miraiki. Yet, these “new” miraiki differed considerably. Kibyōshi stories are not necessarily set in the future, but those that are, are seen as equally impossible as utopian-ish stories, which results in absurd and comical narratives. This changed, again, with the arrival of Western futuristic works at the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912). The future became more approachable, and speculation about it less absurd. According to Kurita (2000: 6), “Japanese during the formative years of Meiji, like the founders of the United States (…) had an unusually keen interest in proactively creating their own future.” Reminiscent of miraiki literature, it is remarkable that, once again, Japan wanted nothing more than to glorify and at the same time rewrite its past: the Meiji Restoration is characterized by a desire to go back to imperial rule and make an end to the power of the shogunate that had been overshadowing the emperor’s leadership from 1185 on. Hence, the future of Japan was envisioned with the past in mind.

anno-2065Kurita further argues that the reception of the Dutch novel Anno 2065; Een Blik in de Toekomst (“A Glimpse into the Future”, 1865) by Dr. Dioscorides aka Pieter Harting in Japan acted as the stimulus to another change in literary perception of the future. Anno 2065 appealed to the Japanese because of its “dream device”. The narrator falls asleep and wakes up in the future. According to Kurita, this inspired many Japanese authors to use  the same dream device in their miraiki. However, it should be noted that the “dream”, or rather, “the magical dream pillow” is a traditional element in Chinese, Korean and Japanese storytelling, and we should be careful to interpret the presence of it in Meiji period miraiki as a mere imitation of Western works that use a similar device. From the 1880s on, the refashioned miraiki integrated a Western notion of utopianism and futurology by not only focusing on the past, but also taking present understandings into consideration. Between 1885 and 1890, more than 100 miraiki were published.

One work in particular, Nijūsannen miraiki 二十三年未来記 (The Year 23: A Record of the Future, 1886) by Suehiro Tecchō 末広鉄腸 (writer’s name Suehiro Shigeyasu 末廣重恭), helped the miraiki genre gain a nation-wide but short-lived popularity (previously published texts, sometimes with the same title, were also influential but Suehiro’s novel was the first one able to break through successfully). The year 23 refers to Meiji 23, or 1890. Not really that far away in the future to count as futurological literature, you would think. Nevertheless, life in 1890 was imagined very differently due to a drastic change: the introduction of a Diet system. In 1881, an edict called into existence a constitution and a National Diet. Since the public was not familiar with these concepts, journalists such as Suehiro wanted to educate people about this new political system and promote it through means of the popular genre of miraiki.

The story in The Year 23 depicts a parliamentary debate in 1890. Again, miraiki mainly played a political role. Yet, they were innovative in combining a Japanese traditional genre with a futurological perspective as introduced through Western literature. They are set in the (near) future, but do also reflect contemporary society mixed with expectations and desires about how Japan should look like (hopefully to be fulfilled in the future). In that sense, these kind of miraiki have a flavor of eutopian utopias, albeit a different one than More’s work evoked in the West. After the second World War, Japanese readers became interested in American science fiction (often in a dystopian setting)  which also resulted in SF novels flooding the market. Today, utopianism is a recurring theme in modern Japanese literature. Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, for example (check one of my first posts on this book here!), or manga such as Akira and  Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Enough reading material to feel like you are living in a different world…


Old Stories of Madness

20160623_193717.jpgNext up in our “Mental Health in Japan” series is a limited selection of stories on “madness” as recorded in Japan’s classic literature of the Heian period (794-1185), with a special focus on terminology. I have already written several posts on Heian literature, partly because it was by reading these books that I became fascinated with Japanese culture. I am a huge fan of Sei Shonagon (I recommend her Pillow Book to everyone who wants to explore court life in Japan around the year 1000) and, of course, I should mention Murasaki Shikibu, creator of Japan’s biggest playboy ever. Both female writers are featured in this post. If you’re interested in the topic of “madness”, you should also check out part one, two and three of my “Mental Health” series.

Story no. 1: The Great Mirror and Mad Emperors

The Great Mirror (Ōkagami大鏡), a historical account written during the latter half of the Heian period, briefly mentions the “madness” of emperor Reizei (950-1011). Ōe Masafusa (1041-1111) describes in his diary (Gōki江記) the eccentric demeanor of the emperor at a young age: One day, he kicked a football for a whole day without minding his bleeding feet; when a fire broke out in the palace, he was singing songs with a loud voice while fleeing; in response to his father’s letter, he once sent a drawing of a phallus and so on[1]. Reizei’s fits of insanity are explained in The Great Mirror as “an affliction attributed to the angry spirits of his half-brother and disappointed rival, Murakami’s oldest son, and of the mother and grandfather of the unsuccessful Prince, all of whom had died when Reizei was about three years old[2]”. His condition is the result of a curse (tatari祟) caused by the revengeful spirits (onryō怨霊) of the relatives he had allegedly robbed from their imperial title, upon which they had died out of despair[3]. Once acceded to the throne, Reizei was forced to abdicate due to his mental instability only two years later. The curse also had repercussions for the mental health of his offspring, among whom Reizei’s son emperor Kazan is discussed in The Great Mirror as well. Another example is Reizei’s daughter Sonshi. It was rumored that she left the palace and became a nun because of a hereditary mental illness. [4].

Reizei_kyoto tomb.jpg

Emperor Reizei’s tomb in Kyoto.

Reizei’s mental disorder is referred to as 御物の怪 (o-mono no ke of which o is a honorific prefix) several times throughout The Great Mirror, a term of which the meaning is linked to religion and spirituality. Another term that is used at a certain point in the narrative, is kurui (狂ひ), which has a more negative connotation. Kurui appears in a dialogue between Minamoto no Toshikata, Minister of Popular Affairs, and the priest Fujiwara no Michinaga. Minamoto is sharing some amusing anecdotes about the eccentric behavior of emperor Kazan with Fujiwara, and attributes his mental disorder directly to his “deficient character from birth”. He adds that “Kazan’s craziness (kurui) is even more difficult to handle than his father’s, emperor Reizei”, after which they both burst out in laughter[5].


Emperor Kazan, Reizei’s son.

Unlike The Story of Splendor (Eiga Monogatari 栄花物語), in which a metaphorical approach is adopted, The Great Mirror criticizes the mental condition of emperor Reizei and his son Kazan directly[6]. Moreover, it is suggested that they bear the responsibility for their disorder themselves, despite the fact that the pathogenesis is otherwise stated as mono no ke throughout the work. Hence, The Great Mirror further comments that Emperor Kazan was said to be “looking great on the outside, but lacking on the inside[7]”, while emphasizing the latter[8]. From the context in which kurui appears, we can deduce that the two terms used to describe a mental disorder here have different connotations. Whereas mono no ke has a spiritual background and a rather positive nuance, kurui appears to be a means to enhance criticism or mockery towards the possessors of such a mental condition.

Another suggestion is that Reizei was only slightly eccentric, and that the abnormality of his behavior was grossly exaggerated by the Fujiwara clan. As a result of these rumors, Reizei as well as Kazan were forced to abdicate at a young age[9]. Even if the assumed mental disorder of both emperors would be part of  a political set-up, the criticism and mockery, or the fact that badmouthing about the opponent’s mental condition was an efficient way to eliminate them, still shows that the ancient society in Japan was, to a certain extent, prone to stigmatization against people afflicted with a mental disorder.

References: [1] Yawata, Kazuo八幡和郎. Biographies of Successive Generations of Emperors: “National History” You Want to Know as a Japanese歴代天皇列伝: 日本人なら知っておきたい「国家の歴史」(Rekidai tennō retsuden: nihonjin nara shitteokitai “kokka no rekishi”). Tokyo: PHP Research Institute, 2008, p. 895. [2] McCullough, Helen Craig, Tamenari Fujiwara, and Yoshinobu Fujiwara. Ōkagami, the Great Mirror: Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1027) and His Times : A Study and Translation, 1980, p. 346. [3] “Emperor Reizei” 冷泉天皇 (Reizei tennō) in Asahi Encyclopedia of Historical Figures in Japan 朝日日本歴史人物事典 (Asahi nihon rekishi jinbutsu jiten) Tokyo: Asahi Shimbun Printing, 1994. [4] Groner, Paul. Ryōgen and Mount Hiei: Japanese Tendai in the Tenth Century. Studies in East Asian Buddhism 15. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2002, p. 266. [5] For original text and translation in modern Japanese see appendix 3. [6] Satō, Asano佐藤あさの. “Emperor Reizei in The Great Mirror”『大鏡』冷泉天皇 (“Ōkagami” Reizei tennō) summary graduation thesis, Hokkaido university of Education, Association for National language and literature, Sapporo National Language Research, 17 (2012): 103. [7] Original text: その帝をば内劣りの外めでたとぞ、世の人申し. [8] Tsuji, Kazuyoshi辻和良. “The Appearance of Kazan: Narrative in The Great Mirror”花山の姿 : 大鏡の<カタル>方法 (Kazan no sugata: Ōkagami no ‘kataru’ hōhō) Journal of Nagoya Women’s University, Humanities and Social Sciences, 36 (1990): 304–297, p. 303. [9] Hattori, Toshiyoshi服部敏良. Research Tidbits on the History Medicine in Japan日本医学史研究余話 (Nihon igakushi kenkyū yowa) Kagakushoin, 1981, p. 299.

Story no. 2: The Pillow Book and  Mono no Ke


Writer Sei Shonagon

Mono no ke is a returning concept in Heian literature, represented in The Diary of Lady Murasaki, The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book, all works written by women. It originated in 8th century China and became a popular term among the Japanese aristocracy during the 9th century. Mono no ke is composed out of the characters物 (mono, meaning “thing”, a substitute out of superstition for writing or saying the word “demon”鬼) and ke 怪, related to気 (spirit) and literally means “the spirit of an evil ghost[10]. It refers to the curse cast either by the ghost of a deceased person or by the vengeful spirit of a living creature. Such a curse took concrete shape in physical or mental illness. Sei Shonagon records in her diary The Pillow Book (Makura no Sōshi枕草子, 1002) under “hateful things” the following item:

Someone has suddenly fallen ill and one summons the exorcist. Since he is not at home, one has to send messengers to look for him. After one has had a long, fretful wait, the exorcist finally arrives, and with a sigh of relief one asks him to start his incantations. But perhaps he has been exorcizing too many evil spirits [=mono no ke] recently; for hardly has he installed himself and begun praying when his voice becomes drowsy. Oh, how hateful![11]

Doctors in the Heian period were called genza 験者, practitioners of esoteric Buddhism or folklore Shintoism, who treated illnesses by exorcizing the evil spirits causing the disease. Shirane explains: “The aim of the exorcist was to transfer the evil spirit from the afflicted person to the medium, usually a young girl or a woman, and to force it to declare itself. The exorcist used various spells and incantations to make the Guardian Demon of Buddhism take possession of the medium. When he was successful, the medium would tremble, scream, have convulsions, faint or behave as if in hypnotic trance. The spirit would then declare itself through her mouth. The final step was to drive the spirit out of the medium[12]“.

Once again, diseases are set against a religious and spiritual background. As the doctor in Sei Shonagon’s story is exhausted from overworking, it appears that sudden attacks of mono no ke were very common at that time. One believed that the most effective way to treat illness was to recite incantations. A failed exorcist session is covered in The Pillow Book as a “depressing thing”.

With a look of complete self-confidence on his face an exorcist prepares to expel an evil spirit [=mono no ke] from his patient. Handing his mace, rosary, and other paraphernalia to the medium who is assisting him, he begins to recite his spells in the special shrill tone that he forces from his throat on such occasions. For all the exorcist’s efforts, the spirit gives no sign of leaving, and the Guardian Demon fails to take possession of the medium. The relations and friends of the patient, who are gathered in the room praying, find this rather unfortunate. After he recited his incantations for the length of an entire watch [= two hours], the exorcist is worn out. (…) “Well, well, it hasn’t worked!” [13]

References[10] Takeguchi, Ryūsuke竹口竜介. “About the Genesis and Social Conditions of Mono no Ke during the Heian Period” 平安時代における物怪発生と社会状況について (Heian jidai ni okeru mono no ke hassei to shakai jōkyō nit tsuite) Journal of Ryūkoku University Graduate School for Literature Research 龍谷大学大学院文学研究科紀要 (Ryūkoku daigakuin bungaku kenkyūka kiyō), 27 (Dec 2005): 328-334, p. 330. [11] Shirane, Haruo, ed. Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600. Abridged ed. Translations from the Asian Classics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 151.[12] Original footnote in ibid., p. 149. [13] Ibid., p. 149.

Story no. 3: The Tale of Genji and jealous spirits

In order to nuance our definition of mono no ke, it is necessary to look into its use in The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari 源氏物語, early 11th century). The fact that this term appears 51 times indicates its role as a key feature throughout the work. Writer Murasaki Shikibu attributes 18 personae with a spiritual possession, among which the story of Genji’s wife, Aoi, and the spirit of his mistress, the Rokujō lady, is perhaps the most representative.

At Sanjō, Genji’s wife seemed to be in the grip of a malign spirit [mono no ke]. It was no time for nocturnal wanderings. (…) Several malign spirits were transferred to the medium and identified themselves, but there was one which quite refused to move. Though it did not cause great pain, it refused to leave her for so much as an instant. There was something very sinister about a spirit that eluded the powers of the most skilled exorcists. The Sanjō people went over the list of Genji’s ladies one by one. Among them all, it came to be whispered, only the Rokujō lady and the lady at Nijō seemed to have been singled out for special attentions, and no doubt they were jealous. The exorcists were asked about the possibility, but they gave no very informative answers.[14]

aoi rokujo.png

Aoi and Genji, surrounded by anxious court ladies.

Aoi passes away due to an illness caused by the jealous spirit of the Rokujō lady, who is unaware of her own soul’s wanderings. Apart from Aoi’s suffering, Shikibu also emphasizes the mixed feelings of the Rokujō lady, unable to suppress her jealousy and overcome with self-loathing. In this sense, both ladies are victimized by the “madness” mono no ke generates. Other characters described as haunted by an evil spirit, nearly all of them female, are driven mad by love-related conflicts.


“Aoi no Ue” in Illustrated Book of Monsters (怪物絵本, kaibutsu ehon 1881)

It is clear that the Tale of Genji does not strive to render a realistic image of mental disorders. Shikibu employs mono no ke as a metaphorical tool to liberate women from social restrictions and empower them to express their suppressed feelings. As Bargen argues, “spirit possession and exorcism are understood, on the one hand, as a dramatic, subversive response to social injustice and the psychological repression of women and, on the other, as the attempt of controlling groups to pacify female frustration and rage[15]”. The Tale of Genji already enjoyed great popularity in the Heian period. It should, therefore, not surprise that its influence attributed to the establishment of mono no ke as a dramatic concept in the literature and arts of later periods.

References[14] Murasaki Shikibu and Edward G. Seidensticker, translator. The Tale of Genji. eBooks@Adelaide, chapter 9 “Heartvine”. [15] Bargen, Doris G. “Spirit Possession in The Context of Dramatic Expressions of Gender Conflict: The Aoi Episode of The Genji Monogatari.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 48, no. 1 (June 1988): 95–130, p. 96.

Next post in this series: Mad Monks & Medieval Medicine

Ozu Yasujirō in CineConcert

Three years ago, I undertook to convince you to watch Ozu Yasujirō’s movies because of five solid reasons: realism on the screen, the opportunity to hear/read spoken Japanese (dialects), excellent actors, the Japaneseness and the stylised, interactive way of filming. I was again impressed by all of these things characterizing director Ozu’s style after watching the silent movie “Gosses de Tokyo” (original title: 大人の見る絵本 生れてはみたけれど otona no miru ehon – umarete ha mita keredo “A picture book seen by adults – I was born, but …” 1932) at Film Fest Gent last week. This film festival showed a selection of Japanese movies as a tribute to the 150 years of friendship between Japan and Belgium (I wrote something about this here!). The screening was accompanied by beautiful live music, a new score written by Gwenaël Grisi and brought by a quintet.


I had watched a bunch of Ozu’s movies in the past, but “Gosses de Tokyo” was my first silent Ozu movie. The story revolves around two young brothers in a middle-class family who have to deal with bullies at school and the harsh reality that their father is not “the best”. On the contrary, he works for the father of one of their own schoolmates, over whom they gain “power” once they teach their bullies a lesson. The boys rebel by skipping school, quarreling with their parents and going on a (failed) hunger strike. The coming-of-age perspective was also riddled with humor. This line had the audience bursting into laughter:

  • Dad: Did you enjoy going to school today?
  • Son: Yeah, going was fun and coming back was fun too, it  was only the part in between that was really boring.

Other comical elements were the boys’ behavior, in which we all resemble ourselves as a child, and the younger brother constantly mimicking the older one.


Title screen of the movie (Sorry for the bad quality)

Because it was a silent movie, language use was limited and depended for a great deal on correctly interpreting the context. In some cases, it really helped having some insight in Japanese culture. For instance, there was a scene in which the boys, who had skipped school, asked the sake delivery boy to write the grade “A” (甲 kō) on a fabricated calligraphy homework. Unfortunately, the delivery boy drew the middle line so that it emerged on top, producing thus an entirely different character, 申 (saru, meaning among many other things, “monkey”). When one of the boys proudly presented this homework to his father, he wisely covered the upper part of his ‘grade’. Apart from such rare occasions, the visual story line spoke for itself and was nicely complemented by the music.

Fun Fact: I later discovered that Ozu reworked “I was born, but…” for his color and sound movie “Good Morning” (お早よう Ohayō), which I believe I have watched many years ago. I guess I should watch it again to be sure…

Thanks to Jana for the invitation!