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!

The Perception of Mental Disorders in Ancient Japan

20160623_193344.jpgAs mentioned before, several parts of my Master’s dissertation (“The Stigmatization of People with a Mental Disorder in Premodern Japan: Research from a Cultural Historical Perspective”) will be posted on Nippaku. Click here to check out the first introductory part! Another history post related to this topic that might be of interest to you is this one about the similarities and differences between the Belgian city of Gheel and the Japanese hamlet of Iwakura. Today, we will go as far back in time as the eighth century to discover how people with a mental disorder were regarded and treated during the Nara and early Heian period.


“Madness” as a Privilege of the Shaman

The oldest notion of “madness” can be traced back to shamanism, a spiritual practice that originated in the Paleolithic period[1]. The Japanese form of shamanism, mikoism, was shaped with the diffusion of shamanism in Central Asia, although there are as many differences as similarities[2]. In the hunter-gatherer society, it was believed that the animals they hunted down for food could reincarnate. A Siberian fortune teller, or shaman, descended into the world of the sacrificed animals to predict by means of their bones whether this was the case or not. The shaman also wore animal hair and skin to adopt animalistic features. In order to psychologically immerse himself in the underworld, the shaman drank extracts of poisonous mushrooms, uttered incantations, danced fanatically until he or she eventually fell down on the ground and entered a state of apparent death. The poisonous substances triggered a state of altered consciousness, interpreted as “madness” and today known as a mental disorder caused by narcotics or alcohol. The fact that the character for “mad” (狂) in Japanese has the radical for dog or animal (犬)[3] can be traced back to this shamanistic practice.

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Picture from an article in National Geographic, depicting a Mongolian shaman. The text says “shaman, the one chosen by the spirits” – http://natgeo.nikkeibp.co.jp/nng/article/20121120/331216/

With the emergence of sedentary agricultural societies, shamans continued to play an important role by predicting successful harvests. The harvest was a matter of life or death, and shamans were often appointed as king or queen of newly-formed states. Although they combined a spiritual responsibility with a political role, shamans still carried a strong link with “madness”. During times of war, the king or queen, “raging with anger” would lead the troops. “Anger” expresses just like “madness” a strong affective change[4]. In the shamanistic society, the privilege of being “mad” inferred a supernatural statute, and was only granted to shamans, or kings and queens.

Footnotes[1] 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. 21ff. [2] Fairchild, William P. “Shamanism in Japan.” Folklore Studies 21 (1962): 1, p. 105. [3] Kamada, Tadashi鎌田正and Toratarō Komeyama米山寅太郎 “狂.” (kyō) in New Kanji Forest新漢語林, Taishūkan Shoten, 2011.

Early Accounts of Mental Disorders

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The oldest extant manuscript (眞福寺本shinpukuji-hon) of the “Kojiki” – Wikimedia Commons

The oldest preserved Japanese law documents that gives an account of the treatment of mentally disordered citizens, is the Taihō Ritsuryō (701). According to this premodern law system, mental disorders were divided into three categories[5] based on the severity of the disorder. Citizens suffering from the two most severe disorders, were registered as fukakō (不課口) or fukuwa (不課), and discharged from corvée. The law also stipulated that people with a mental disorder of the most severe type should receive nursing care[6]. Moreover, the punishment for crimes committed by individuals with a mental disorder was slightly reduced[7]. Although it remains unclear whether these provisions were actually realized, we can see that during the eighth century, the law system did not prescribe the proactive banishment or persecution of individuals with a mental disorder but pursued a policy of social integration.

Records of Ancient Matters (Kojiki古事記, 712), the oldest literary work in Japan, comprises another description of the reaction to “madness”.

Then His-Swift-Impetuous-Male-Augustness said to the Heaven-Shining-Great-August deity: “Owing to the sincerity of my intentions I have, in begetting children, gotten delicate females. Judging from this I have undoubtedly gained the victory.” With these words, and impetuous with victory, he broke down the divisions of the rice-fields laid out by the Heaven-Shining-Great-August deity filled up the ditches, and moreover strewed excrements in the palace where she partook of the great food. So, though he did thus, the Heaven-Shining-Great-August deity upbraided him not, but said: “What looks like excrements must be something that His Augustness mine elder brother has vomited through drunkenness. Again, as to his breaking down the divisions of the rice-fields and filling up the ditches, it must be because be grudges the land they occupy that His Augustness mine elder brother acts thus.” But notwithstanding these apologetic words, he still continued his evil acts, and was more and more violent. As the Heaven-Shining-Great-August deity sat in her awful weaving hall seeing to the weaving of the august garments of the deities, he broke a hole in the top of the weaving-hall, and through it let fall a heavenly piebald horse which he had flayed with a backward flaying, at whose sight the women weaving the heavenly garments were so much alarmed they died of fear.[8]

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Susanoo, here in a sober state, saving a princess from a dragon – Wikimedia Commons

His-Swift-Impetuous-Male Augustness, otherwise called Susanoo, drank too much out of excitement and started to act like a “madman”. His sister the Heaven-Shining-Great-August deity, or Amaterasu, forgave him the first time, attributing his vicious behavior to a mental change caused by alcohol. However, when Susanoo threw a skinned horse through the roof, Amaterasu was terrified and hid herself into a cave.

The “madness” here illustrated can be further explained by the hare and ke dichotomy theorized by Yanagita Kunio in A History of the Meiji and Taisho periods: Social Conditions 明治大正史 世相篇 (Meiji taishō shi  sesō hen, 1930). Hare, “the sacred”, refers to something formal, festive, ritual, public and extraordinary whereas ke, “the secular”, alludes to the profane, mundane, private and everyday life. Based on Yanagita’s thesis, the suggestion here is that people who lost the ability to discern between hare, the sacred and ke, the profane, behaved as was only permitted on hare days, and were, therefore, labeled as a “mad”.

Susanoo, for example, was so proud of his accomplishment that he started drinking alcohol and acting violently, this in contrast with his sister and the other women, who were dealing with their daily activities. His actions were seen as “defilement”, kegare, in a ke context, whereas it would have been perceived as a sign of spirituality in a hare context. Although Susanoo was heavily punished for his vicious acts in the end, it should be noted that Amaterasu first shows some mercy regarding his mental condition.

Footnotes[4] Perhaps best illustrated in the English language, where the word “mad” covers those two connotations. [5] Zenshichi残疾, haishichi癈疾 and tokushichi篤疾.[6] Hashimoto, Akira橋本明. The history of psychiatric care in Japan. Were there rights for “mental patients”? – Gleaners in the history of psychiatric care in Europe.日本の精神医療史. “精神病者”の権利はなかったのか?―ヨーロッパ精神医療史の落穂拾い― (Nihon no seishin iryōshi. “seishin byōsha” no kenri ha nakatta no ka? – yōroppa seishin iryōshi no ochibohiroi), 2002.  [7] Omata, History of Psychiatry, p. 48.[8] Chamberlain, R. H. The Kojiki. Seattle: PublishingOnline, 2001, p. 32-33.

“Mad” People and Religion

One way to discover elements of (non-)stigmatization in a certain period in time, is by looking at the terminology used for individuals with a mental disorder and the positive, neutral or negative connotations these words bear. In Chronicles of Japan (Nihon shoki 日本書紀, 720)[9], Shoku Nihongi続日本紀 (797)[10] and Saimeiki 斎明記[11], the word tabure 狂is used to describe “madness”. Tabure has a double meaning: on the one hand, it is connected with the word tawamure 戯れ, meaning nowadays “jest”, “flirtation” or “joke”, and indicates a deviant social behavior, such as in the story about Susanoo’s ravage. On the other hand, tabure is derived from the phrase tamashii ni fureru 魂に触れる, “to touch the soul”, and refers to spirit possessions, as was practiced in Shintoism[12]. Accordingly, “mad people” were called taburebito狂人. This term appears neutral, even positive in combination with a context based on hare. Notwithstanding, only one word existed to point out “mad people” at that time, so it could in se also express strong disapproval of others’ deviant social conduct.

An example of taburebito used to condemn those not in their right mind, can be found in Veritable Records of Three Reigns in Japan (Nihon sandai jitsuroku日本三代実録, 901). An imperial edict from the year 866 warns that “in the case lunatics would conspire to destroy the state, all deities will quickly resurrect”[13]. This criticism is directed towards the conspirators of the Ōtenmon incident of the same year[14]. Those who would harm the state and therefore also its fundament, the emperor, officially the descendent of the gods, must be crazy. Taburebito is used here to argue that rebellion against the political institution or emperor is pure “madness”[15].

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People running to the burning Otenmon Gate, painted scroll from the 12th century – Wikimedia Commons

Around the Nara period, the Sino-Japanese reading of the character for “mad”, kyō 狂, came into use. Kyō is not as old as the Japanese reading tabure and bears in addition a slightly more negative connotation: it is used to direct social criticism towards people behaving differently from what convention prescribes, especially when the motive or reason for this demeanor is known[16]. In other words, Kyō roughly overlaps with the first meaning of tabure, but has an additional element of criticism.

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Yamabushi – Wikimedia Commons

Another characteristic of “madness” in Ancient Japan lies in the connection between taburebito and the practice of mountain worship (sangaku shinkō山岳信仰). With the development of an agricultural society on the flatland, mountains were held to be the abode of kami and became objects of worship[17]. They were, therefore, forbidden ground for normal villagers. On hare days, kami descended from the mountains to the village, and the “madness” originating at sacred heights was temporarily transferred. People who entered the mountains were thus regarded as “madmen”. Especially on ke days, this kind of deviant behavior represented a breach or escape from everyday interpersonal relations[18].

At the same time, however, mountains were supernatural places where an encounter with the gods became possible, and attracted for that reason people wandering around in search of spiritual enlightenment[19]. Taburebito who used to do so on normal days were regarded as “close to the gods” and gained a special status. Their aberrant conduct was not judged on a personal level but in a religious context, in the sense that their connection with kami was predestined and necessary for a smooth communication with the supernatural world. In the footsteps of shamans and miko, taburebito played an important role in mediating between the two worlds. Considering that “madness” was strongly connected with hare, we can conclude here that an interpretation of non-stigmatization can be applied.

Footnotes: [9] E.g. tabure gokoro no mizo 狂心渠 “the ditch of madness”, an enormous water construction ordered by empress Saimei (chapter 26). [10] E.g. tabure madō 狂迷 “go astray in madness” (16th emperial edict). Frellesvig, Bjarke, Stephen Wright Horn, Kerri L. Russell, and Peter Sells. The Oxford Corpus of Old Japanese. [11] Actually a part of the Nihon Shoki. Saimeiki gives an account of the feigned “madness” (itsuwari tabure) of prince Arima.[12] Oda, Japanese Sources on Madness, p. 15, 17-18. [13] Original text: 若狂人乃國家乎亡止謀留事奈良波。皇神達早顯出給比 (若し狂人の国家を亡さむと謀る事ならば皇神達早く顕出し給ひ).  [14] Although it is unclear who actually conspired against who, the incident started with the main gate of the royal palace (Ōtenmon) burnt down. Several accusations were made, but in the end Fujiwara no Yoshifusa seized the power, executed his political enemies and was promoted as Regent. [15] Dismissing those who rebel against the emperor and imperial family as “madmen” is not only limited to this period, but is a recurring phenomenon throughout Japanese history, also referred to as a side effect of the “chrysanthemum taboo菊タブー(kiku tabū, chrysanthemum refers to the imperial house)”. For an overview of such incidents in modern Japanese history, see Inoue, Shōichi井上章一. Madness and Royal Authority 狂気と王権 (Kyōki to ōken), Tokyo, Kodansha, 2008. [16] Oda, Japanese Sources on Madness, p. 15. [17] Yano, Kazuyuki. “Sacred Mountains Where Being of ‘Kami’ Is Found.” 16th ICOMOS General Assembly and International Symposium: Finding the Spirit of Place – between the Tangible and the Intangible. Quebec, Canada, 2008, p. 1. [18] Oda, Japanese Sources on Madness, p. 27-28. [19] Yanagita, Kunio. Mountain Village Life. Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1961.

“Madness” in Buddhism

During the 6th century, Buddhism was introduced in Japan and later adopted as the official religion. The monk Keikai edited 116 Buddhist stories from the Nara period and earlier in the Nihonkoku (Genhō Zenaku) Ryōiki日本(国現報善悪)霊異記 (822)[20]. In this compilation there are several stories dealing with mental disorders, but remarkable is that this “madness” is often reported as punishment for a crime committed towards Buddhism. For example, it is described how one man harbors ill feeling towards Buddhism and tries to lock up a Buddhist monk begging for money. The monk escapes and recites incantations, upon which the man loses his mind and starts running around like crazy.

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The Nihon Ryōiki – Wikimedia Commons

It is likely that the introduction of Buddhism from mainland China via Korea brought along a change in the perception of “madness” in Ancient Japan. In contrast with the positive connotations attributed to taburebito in Shintoism and folk religion, “madness” here is in nothing related to supernatural beings, but perceived as a punishment on a personal level, a prevalent understanding of “illness” as “evil” in several religions around the world. “Mad” people do not contribute to society or gain a special status in a Buddhist context. They are marked with a mental disorder as proof of their “defiant” behavior and categorized as impure together with criminals, debtors et cetera. In such cases, the Sanskrit word ummatta is used to express “insanity”. Nevertheless, there was legal and social consideration towards people with a mental disorder, for example, monks who developed a mental illness were not accountable for crimes against the Buddhist law[21]. On the other hand, religious experiences such as possessions, illusions or hallucinations are not unusual in Buddhism[22]. These experiences are temporary, caused externally and mystically significant, but unlike Shintoism and folk religion in Japan, Buddhism differentiates between experiences with a spiritual connection and other “madness”, or ummatta. This perception views ummatta as devoid of religiosity (hare) and is more likely to encourage the stigmatization of individuals with a mental disorder, rather than the generalizing notion of “madness” in Shintoism does.

Footnotes: [20] This work is translated by Watson, Burton as Record of Miraculous Events in Japan: The Nihon Ryōiki. Translations from the Asian Classics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.[21] Koike, Kiyoyuki. “Mental disorders from a Buddhist View, especially those within the Nikaya, the Vinaya Pitaka and the corresponding Chinese translations” in Indian and Tibetan Studies Research, 7 & 8, p. 178.[22] Oda, Japanese Sources on Madness, p. 55-56.

UNESCO World Heritage in Japan

unesco_blue_logoAfter a few research-based posts, I felt like presenting a more visual topic this time. And what better eye candy is there besides some of Japan’s most beautiful and culturally inspired places? Hence my topic: The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage. In this post, I will show you which places in Japan have been granted a world heritage status since the Japanese acceptance of the convention in 1992. Because I visited some of these places myself, I hope to share a few of my own pictures here as well (all pictures are mine, unless mentioned otherwise). Currently, the list includes 16 cultural and 4 natural sites in Japan.

To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria. – site UNESCO

Such criteria include, for example, being a representation of human creativity, an interchange of human values, a cultural tradition or a development in design, art or technology. Or, the site in question must be an outstanding example of technology, landscape or architecture that plays a significant role in human history and culture. Natural world heritage, on the other hand, should represent outstanding natural phenomena, significant biological and geological processes or the major stages in the history of our earth.

CULTURAL WORLD HERITAGE IN JAPAN

Buddhist Monuments in the Horyū-ji Area (1993)

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Wikimedia Commons

I can’t believe I couldn’t find a decent picture of the Horyū-ji temple 法隆寺 from when I visited Nara. The main hall, entrance gate and pagoda date back to the early seventh century and are among the world’s oldest wooden buildings.

Himeji-jō (1993)

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Himeji-jō 姫路城 is an excellent example of early Japanese castle architecture. It looks very sophisticated with its white walls and elegant rooftops. This fourteenth-century castle was remodeled and expanded in 1581 by the famous “unifier” Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Ōtsu Cities) (1994)

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The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (kinkaku-ji 金閣寺) is one of the most popular attraction in Kyoto. This gaudy piece of architecture was originally the villa of a rich statesman but was purchased by shogun Yoshimitsu and converted into a Zen Buddhist temple. In a novel of the same name by Mishima Yukio, an acolyte burns down the temple. This story was based on true events.

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Other famous historic monuments in Kyoto include the Kiyomizu-dera “clear water” temple 清水寺 founded in 778. You cannot see it on the picture above, but the temple is located on a hill and therefore supported by tall pillars on one side. Not a single nail was used in the construction of the temple.

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This famous stone garden is part of the Zen Buddhist Ryōan-ji temple (“Temple of the Dragon at Peace” 龍安寺). The placement of the stones is intended so that one is unable to see everything from one place.

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I thought Byōdō-in 平等院 in Uji was truly a magical place. Again, this building was originally a villa and later transformed into a Buddhist temple. The central Phoenix Hall is surrounded by a pond and appears to be floating due to its reflection in the water. This hall and the phoenix statue on top of it are depicted on the 10 yen coin and the 10,000 yen bill.

Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama (1995)

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Wikimedia Commons

I have never been to Toyama or Gifu but I would love to visit these traditional villages. Characteristic are the big houses with slanted roofs, an architectural style known as “prayer-hands construction” (gasshō-zukuri 合掌造り).

Itsukushima Shinto Shrine (1996)

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Itsukushima 厳島, often called Miyajima (“shrine island” 宮島), is located not far away from the bay of Hiroshima. The key shrine on the island, Itsukushima Shrine, is particularly famous because its gate and main building are built in the sea. Looking at the picture above, you can see how far the water reaches at high tide, which gives the illusion of a floating gate.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) (1996)

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Also in Hiroshima you can find the Atomic Bomb Dome (genbaku dōmu 原爆ドーム) as part of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. This ruin was originally the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall and is the only building near the hypocenter that survived the atomic bombing  of August 6, 1945.

Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara (1998) 

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Oh deer, we’re in Nara! This cutie was so kind to pose for us in front of the Tōdai-ji’s ( “Great Eastern Temple” 東大寺) Great Southern Gate (Nandaimon 南大門), reconstructed at the end of the 12th century since the original structure from the 8th century had been destroyed by a typhoon. On the gate is written “Daikegonji”  (大華厳寺), an alternative name for the Tōdai-ji temple.

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The main “Big Buddha” hall (Daibutsuden 大仏殿) of the Tōdai-ji is an impressive construction of wood and houses an enormous bronze statue of a sitting Buddha (picture below). The 16 m high statue was completed in 751 and literally contained almost all of the bronze available in Japan at that time.

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Shrines and Temples of Nikkō (1999)

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Wikimedia Commons

Another destination on my Japan bucket list is Nikkō (日光) in Tochigi prefecture. Futarasan-jinja 二荒山神社, Rinnō-ji 輪王寺 and Nikkō Tōshō-gū 日光東照宮 were designated as UNESCO world heritage at the end of last century. On the picture you see the main hall of Nikkō Tōshō-gū, a Shintō shrine dedicated to Japan’s first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryūkyū (2000)

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Wikimedia Commons

The Ryūkyū kingdom (15th – 19h century) ruled over the islands south of the main island of Japan. The remains of many gusuku (“castle” in Ryukyuan) on Okinawa such as Shuri castle 首里城 in the picture above have been listed as world heritage. Fun fact: the gate of this castle is depicted on 2,000 yen bills. Read more about its history in my blog post Money Matters.

Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range (2004)

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I photographed this belfry on mount Kōya ( Kōyasan 高野山), the center of Shingon Buddhism. It belongs to the Garan (“temple” 伽藍), the main temple complex founded by Kūkai. Other sacred sites and pilgrimages include places in Yoshino, Omine and Kumano.

Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape (2007)

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Wikimedia Commons

Since I did not know about this place, I was curious about the story behind this silver mine in Ōda: apparently, during the 17th century, its output accounted for one-third of all the silver in the world! The mine was active for almost four centuries until its closure in 1923. The heritage site also includes three castles that protected the mine, ports for export, transportation routes and various other sites that bear an important connection to its history.

Hiraizumi – Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land (2011)

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Wikimedia Commons

The city of Hiraizumi 平泉 plays an important role in Japanese history as the home of the ruling Fujiwara clan during the Heian period. It developed quickly into a city of sophistication and splendor for 100 years, rivaling Kyoto as the place to be. As soon as the Fujiwara were overthrown, Hiraizumi became forgotten, but many buildings remain well-preserved even today. It is said that Hakusan Shrine 白山神社 (picture) was the structure first built in Hiraizumi in 717.

Fujisan, sacred place and source of artistic inspiration (2013)

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Wikimedia Commons

This iconic view is so well-known that I should not need to expand further. Sakura, Fuji-san 富士山and shinkansen: Japanese scenery in a nutshell. I am, however, very much surprised that it took so long before Fuji Mountain was recognized as world heritage.

Tomioka Silk Mill and Related Sites (2014)

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Wikimedia Commons

This mill in Gunma prefecture is Japan’s oldest modern silk factory and still in its original state today. The government established the mill in 1872 as a model factory to industrialize modern machine silk reeling imported from France.

Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining (2015)

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A collection of more than 20 sites illustrate Japan’s rapid development as a modern and industrialized country in the Meiji period. An example is Thomas Glover’s house on a hill in Nagasaki, looking out over the city. Thomas Glover, a Scottish merchant, played a crucial role in the modernization of Japan by introducing Western technology.

The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement (2016)

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Wikimedia Commons

Besides many buildings in other places of the world, Le Corbusier designed the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo. This museum is the only work of Le Corbusier situated in the Far East.

NATURAL WORLD HERITAGE IN JAPAN 

Shirakami-Sanchi (1993)

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Wikimedia Commons

The Shirakami mountains (Shirakami sanchi 白神山地) is an immense unspoilt forest situated in Akita and Aomori prefectures. The forest is highly protected and visitors without permission cannot enter the heritage site.

Yakushima (1993)

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Wikimedia Commons

Yakushima 屋久島 is an island located in the south of Kyūshū and is particularly famous for its ancient cedar forest. Some of the trees are more than thousand years old. Because of its subtropical climate and boundless rainfall, Yakushima also has plenty of waterfalls, such as Ōko no Taki you see in the picture above.

 

Shiretoko (2005)

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Wikimedia Commons

Of course, the Northern island of Hokkaidō has some natural heritage material as well. In the Shiretoko National Park (Shiretoko kokuritsu kōen 知床国立公園) you can find wildlife such as bears, foxes and deer. During wintertime, drifting sea ice can be seen from there.

Ogasawara Islands (2011)

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Wikimedia Commons

The last world heritage site on our list is a chain of remote vulcanic islands known as the Ogasawara Islands 小笠原諸島, also called Bonin Islands. People live only on the two main islands, “father island” (Chichijima 父島) and “mother island” (Hahajima 母島). Next to beautiful beaches such as the Kominato beach and Kopepe beach, the Ogasawara Islands offer a warm climate, unexploited forests and a unique vegetation.

Have you visited one of these places? Let me know!

 

Haiku with a Cup of Tea

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First of all, I must admit that I am not a huge haiku fan: I love reading poetry, but I prefer long poems, just like I usually read thick books. That being said, from time to time I enjoy browsing through some haiku collections. Last year I received the Dutch translation of Classic Haiku, a compilation of some of the most famous haiku categorized by master. Among these names, my favorite haiku writer is definitely Kobayashi Yatarō (1763-1828), known by his pen name Issa 一茶. Issa literally means “one (cup of) tea” and refers to the serenity of the Japanese tea tradition 茶道 (sadō) but also to the emptiness of life, as can be observed in the disappearing froth on a cup of matcha tea. Throughout this post, I will visually serve you five haiku by Issa and five types of Japanese tea. Enjoy!


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Issa wrote more than 20,000 haiku. His style is characterized by a simplicity and childish admiration for the outside world. “Lower” creatures such as flies, frogs, snails etc. are often the topic of his poems, in contrast to more traditional kigo 季語 (seasonal words) other famous haiku masters employ. Issa introduces the sentimentality and banality of everyday life into his poetry.

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Issa was not exactly a lucky man. When his mother died, he was forced by his “evil stepmother” to leave the house, his first two wives and all of his children died, and when he at last managed to secure a part of his family’s property, his house burnt down. Shortly after that, he died in the storehouse next to the house that had survived the fire. Despite his misery, Issa succeeds in capturing the beauty of nature with empathy for every living being. He also often mixes in personal feeling. Therefore, his poetry is considered to be more “humane”.

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Issa’s poetry is often humorous, and in many cases verging on satire. He uses a colloquial tone, plain language and sometimes local dialects. This results in very down-to-earth poetry that is accessible to all kinds of readers.

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Similar to Bashō a century before, Issa was the wandering type of poet. After having studied the art of haiku under Nirokuan Chikua in Edo, he became a Buddhist priest and travelled around Japan for about ten years. Apparently, Issa looked like a beggar, was extremely poor and lived off the earnings of others. His situation is reflected in  humorous self-portraits and haiku mocking his own condition. He wrote from the perspective of people at the bottom of society and created a new poetic style that differed greatly from previous haiku masters.

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Facts for Fun

  • On hot days in Japan, everybody drinks chilled tea and I loved to check out new kinds of tea during my time spent there. My favorite cold tea is jūrokucha 十六茶, a mix of sixteen different teas (the more the better!), followed by hōjicha ほうじ茶 (roasted green tea) and iced barley tea (mugicha 麦茶). The last one is offered for free in many shops. [List of Japanese teas here.] When it is hot in Belgium, I usually make lots of Oolong tea and put it in the fridge. So refreshing!

References

  • Lowenstein, Tom, John Cleare, and Susanne Castermans-Nelleke. Klassieke haiku’s: de mooiste Japanse poëzie van Bashō, Buson, Issa, Shiki en hun navolgers. Kerkdriel: Librero, 2015.
  • Ueda, Makoto, and Issa Kobayashi. Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa. Brill’s Japanese Studies Library, v. 20. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2004.
  • Database Issa poetry [in Japanese]
  • Haikuguy [in English]
  • All translations and pictures are mine. For the translations of the Japanese haiku I chose to stick to the 5-7-5 rule.
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Part of my tea collection: matcha, genmaicha, jasmine tea, Chinese milky oolong tea and sencha.

150 Years of Japan-Belgium Relations

150_fb_sharingAs some of you perhaps already know, this year we celebrate 150 years of friendship between Japan and Belgium (so 150 years Nippaku 日白, actually). In this post, I will give a short overview of the events leading to the signing of the treaty and some (early) history that both countries share.

It all started in 1866 when a Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation was signed. Belgium was the ninth Western state the Japanese shogunate entered such a treaty with. The Japanese were particularly attracted by Belgium’s technology, e.g. the railroad industry and glass techniques, and institutional organisation, such as law and the central bank system (the Bank of Japan was actually founded in 1882 based on the Belgian model). It is also suggested that the Meiji constitution was indirectly influenced by the Belgian one. The visit from the younger brother of the shogun, Tokugawa Akitake (1867), Japanese students (1871) and the Iwakura mission (1873) are proof of that interest. Belgium, on the other hand, believed that Japan was a promising new market.

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1866 Treaty –  belgiumjapan150.jp/150-years

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Count de Mountblanc with a Japanese retainer.

Ironically, it was a French journalist that suggested in 1847 that Belgium should send a military expedition to Japan in order to pursue foreign trade (“gunboat diplomacy”). Although the project was firmly rejected and the interest in Japan was almost non-existing at that time, the appearance of American Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 who forced the Japanese to sign a treaty, impressed the Western countries greatly. Thus, Belgium used the opportunity to sign a similar treaty on 1 August 1866. Count Charles Descantons de Mountblanc established the first official contacts and negotiations were undertaken by Auguste t’Kint de Roodenbeke. Despite the title “Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation” 修好通商条約, it was clearly an unequal/semi-colonial one: it included extraterritoriality (foreigners in Japan were exempted from local jurisdiction) and denial of the right for Japan to determine the import tariffs. The foreign ministers in the following years would devote a big deal of their time on revising these unequal treaties.

The amount of export from Belgium to Japan was around ten times the amount of import, but trade between the two countries in general was limited for a long time. The policy Belgium adopted to encourage marine trade brought a change: now the shipping company Nippon Yūsen made a stop at the port of Antwerp on its way to London. The line was inaugurated in 1896.

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Old map of Japan. “Indiae Orientalis Insularumque Adiacientium Typus”. f. 63 of Abraham Ortelius. in Theatrum orbis terrarum […] Antwerp, 1575. Collection KU Leuven.

Informal connections between Belgium and Japan, however, go back much further in time and originally rooted in religion. The first “Belgian” avant la lettre to ever set foot in Japan was Jesuit missionary Theodoor Mantels in 1588. The arrival of the second Belgian, missionary Ludovicus Frarijn, in 1620 was rather short-lived since he was burnt alive two years later. A third unlucky missionary, Lambert Trouvez, befell the same fate. This was due to the ban on Christianity promulgated in 1587.

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Float with Belgian tapestry at Gion festival – blog.goo.ne.jp/kenken1948

Flemish art, mainly inspired by religious figures, reached Japan at an early stage. During the sixteenth century, copper engravings and such were sent to Japan and China as a visual means of spreading Christianity. For example, some Brussels tapestries dating from that period are still used today to decorate the floats at the Gion festival in Kyoto.

During the “splendid isolation” (sakoku 鎖国, ca. 1633-1853) period, the Low Countries (including The Netherlands and Belgium of today) was the sole Western country Japan maintained a relationship with. [Check out my post on Jacob de Zoet if you want to know more about this topic!] Via the VOC (East India Company) various books written in Dutch or Latin were imported and exerted considerable influence as new sources of knowledge on technology, medicines etc. In order to understand the members of the VOC residing on the island of Dejima, and read the books they brought along, the Japanese started to learn Dutch (the so-called rangaku 蘭学, “Dutch learning”).

13293122_10208766063484840_1783271670_nOne work that played a crucial role in the development of rangaku is the Cruydt-Boeck (“herbal book”, 1554) by Rembert Dodoens, a botanist and physician from Mechelen. Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune (r. 1716-1853) was curious about its contents and ordered a translation. Problem: no one could read Dutch well enough. It took ten years to offer the shogun some sort of summary, and the complete translation in Japanese was ready only two hundred years after the original publication date. Nevertheless, its translation laid the groundwork for a flourishing study of Dutch in the first half of the nineteenth century. We know, for example, that Hiraga Gennai was an avid collector of Dutch works such as Dodoens’s.

201933Vice-versa, the enormous influence of Japan on Belgium during the late nineteenth century can not be overlooked. The treaty of 1866 set in motion the cultural exchange we now call “japonisme/Japonism”. The Belgian bourgeoisie and nouveaux riches became obsessed with Japanese fine arts and decorative arts, such as fans, kimono, paintings, woodcut prints, nature motifs, ceramics, textiles etc. The VOC had imported Japanese objects as curiosities before, but these objets d’art really became fashionable around the 1880s. International exhibitions played an important part in the diffusion of Japanese culture, as did  the magazine Le Japon Artistique by art dealer Siegfried Bing.

The impact of Japanese art is visible in neo-impressionism, decorative art, symbolism and Art Nouveau. Examples of Belgian artists influenced by Japonism are Théo Van Rysselberghe, Fernand Khnopff, James Ensor, Alfred Stevens (pictures below), Henri Van de Velde and Victor Horta. [A Dutch example is Vincent Van Gogh, post here.] They were attracted by elements such as simplicity, two-dimensionality and asymmetry. In short, a style completely different from traditional Western painting. Japanese elements are also present in fin de siècle literature for example the work of the Destrée brothers, Max Elskamp or Émile Verhaeren. Nevertheless, there is the critique that artists influenced by Japonism hardly made any distinction with chinoiserie and had a rather superficial idea of Japanese arts.

Inversely, there were also Japanese artists influenced by their visit to Belgium. The poet Kaneko Mitsuharu and European-style painter Kojima Torajirō, for example. The former read work of Flemish authors and interacted with the Belgian artistic society during his stay in Brussels. The latter’s work, as you can see below, is obviously influenced by pointillism or neo-impressionism (luminism in Belgium). Kojima studied in Ghent and was acquainted with Emile Claus. Furthermore, he brought many European works back home. Nowadays, these are displayed at the Ohara museum of art in Kurashiki, the oldest museum featuring Western art in Japan.

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Japanese tower in Brussels. – picture by author

Other things that indicate a link between Japan and Belgium are 1) the Japanese tower in Brussels. King Leopold II had the plan to establish a district in North East Brussels full of majestic buildings from different cultures. Besides a Chinese pavilion, he required the building of a Japanese tower. Although the bottom part was a piece from the 1900 world exhibition in Paris, the rest of it was designed by Belgian and French architects. Hence, the tower is far from an accurate representation of a pagoda. The number of roofs, the structure and the interior design are way off the mark. It is more a reflection of how the West saw Japan than a real effort to understand Japanese culture. What is more, King Leopold lost all interest in the tower once it was completed. 2) there is a second Manneken Pis, the iconic statue of a urinating boy, in  Tokushima. The statue was a gift from the Belgian embassy. But that is not the only replica: apparently there is also a Manneken Pis in Itami, Hamamatsu and Tokyo.

Concerning diplomacy, bilateral relations intensified during the 1960s after a difficult start in the postwar period. Japanese companies sought access to the European market for investments. Nowadays, Belgium’s most important export product to Japan is pharmaceuticals, while Japan mainly exports cars to Belgium and Europe in general. It is also known that there are close ties between the imperial Japanese family and the Belgian royal family. Both families frequently make official or private visits, for example in the vintage photograph below.

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1992. © Collection of queen Fabiola – more pictures on royalementblog.blogspot.be/search/label/Japon [in French]

Although I would love to go into more detail about this fascinating topic, I fear this post might become too long. In case you would like to know more, check out the referenced materials!

References

Japanese Poetry and Nature

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Sakura-themed coffee I enjoyed earlier this spring in Japan.

Japanese culture is often said to have a special connection with nature. Japanese aesthetics are therefore characterized by this “traditional love of nature”[1]. It is true that Japanese people, young and old, participate in several festivals and annual observances celebrating the beauty of nature, such as viewing cherry blossoms in spring or admiring the bright foliage in fall. Daily life also reflects those seasonal associations: cooking, house decorations, clothing and even greetings are systematically adjusted to weather, fauna and flora.  But do the Japanese really have an inherent affinity with nature, more than other people worldwide? For one of my classes at Kobe University, I read parts of Haruo Shirane’s book titled “Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts” (2012). Shirane provides an interesting theory on how this myth was developed throughout Japanese history. In this post, we will look into the connection between nature and poetry.

shiraneThose who know waka 和歌, Japanese poetry, will certainly agree that nature plays a central role in many poems. Haiku 俳句, for example, a still popular poetry genre of poetry nowadays, requires a seasonal word. The connection between nature and poetry is very clear from the fact that “the imagery of Japanese poetry for more than a thousand years was drawn almost exclusively from the natural phenomena of the four seasons[2]”. Hence, nature became a literary device through which human emotions were expressed. To illustrate this, I have tried to closely translate (with the same syllable structure) a tanka 短歌, or short poem, from the Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves (Man’yōshū万葉集), the oldest Japanese poetry anthology. This poem is actually part of a long poem (chōka 長歌) praising Yoshino in spring, a place close to Asuka, the capital at that time.

三吉野乃                            み吉野の                  In fair Yoshino,
象山際乃                            象山の際の              between the Kisa-mountains,
木末尓波                            木末には                  where in the tree tops
幾許毛散和口                    ここだも騒く              you can hear their loud noises,
鳥之聲可聞                        鳥の声かも               the voices of singing birds.
(no. 924 by Yamabe Akihito)

A more poetic translation by Earl Roy Miner[3]:

From among the branches
of the trees upon Mount Kisa’s slopes,
the flocks of birds
fill the lovely vale of Yoshino
with their free and joyous songs.

And a translation by Haruo Shirane[4]:

In beautiful Yoshino’s
Kisa Mountains,
in the tops of the trees
how many, how noisy,
the voices of birds.

Shirane explains that Yoshino symbolized the current political order, but that later on, it would gain fame for its beautiful cherry blossoms and snow scenery. Thus, Yoshino became a place with a poetic essence (utamakura歌枕): only the name of “Yoshino” sufficed to evoke a seasonal association, i.e. spring.

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One side of “Folding Screen Depicting Yoshino and Tatsuta”. Although only blossoms and a river are painted on this screen, the scenery can immediately be associated with the poetic place of Yoshino. – 17th century, Museum of Hakone

New for me was Shirane’s argument that the nature embedded in Japanese visual and material culture was not taken directly from primary nature, but was in fact a reference to poetry[5]. In that sense, seasonal associations were originally developed by Japanese poetry and were only then passed onto other genres. As a result, classical paintings with a seasonal theme were not a direct reflection of nature, but rather inspired by the waka tradition that flourished among the urban nobility. Proof is the frequent combination of textual and visual elements, in which an image representing elements from nature or seasonal topics was further embellished by the well-chosen characters from a famous waka poem. From the few characters, a technique called scattered writing (chirashigaki 散書), one could guess what poem was depicted. Examples are clothing designs, paintings and screens, like the one below.

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Painted screen depicting flowers and birds of the four seasons, with scattered writing of waka by Shōkadō Shōjō. – 17th century, http://bunka.nii.ac.jp/

During the Heian period (794-1185), poetry was limited to the nobility, and it is therefore somewhat ironic that the people who barely set foot out of their palaces, wrote thousands of poems about the nature they had isolated themselves from. Moreover, inside they were surrounded by seasonal elements and references to nature’s beauty.

Since Heian aristocratic women rarely went out, screen and partition paintings, decorated with small sheets of waka, became, along with the garden, a surrogate for nature. The women often composed poems not on the actual small cuckoo that they heard in the garden, but on the hototogisu painted on a screen painting or partition. – Shirane (2012), 64.

Shirane calls this “secondary nature” (nijiteki shizen 二次的自然), a culturally constructed nature that resembles in no way the real, raw nature. Hence, it should not come as a surprise that classical poetic motifs were strictly codified. A canon of nature images came into existence: all seasonal elements with their own established associations, set combinations and temporal and physical location. For example, April was represented by the lesser cuckoo (hototogisu ホトトギス) and Deutzia flower (unohana卯の花) in the canonized Poems on Flowers and Birds of the Twelve Months (1214) by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241). Plants, flowers and animals that did not make the waka shortlist were left unsung for centuries. For example, the only four-legged animal was the deer, associated with loneliness, since birds and insects were more fancied among high-class society.

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“Fragment of Rough Sketch of Deer and a Poem” by  Hon’ami Kouetsu – 17th century, Gotoh Museum

Another example is the fact that the most popular seasons to write about were spring and autumn, while in reality summer and winter are the dominant and lengthy seasons. This is perhaps linked to the idea that the Japanese finds identification with nature based on the transience that applies to both man and nature[6]. In that sense, cherry blossoms and bright foliage are representative elements of “fleeting nature” in a “fleeting world”. When poetry diffused to the lower classes during the Edo period, the genre of haikai 俳諧, humorous poetry, gained popularity. Other, even vulgar topics such as cat love (neko-koi 猫恋), were introduced, along with a different perception of the seasons. As a result, new seasonal words were created, greatly varying from the traditional waka-based canon. The focus on nature, however, remained strong, and is still visible in the Japanese culture of today.

In case you would like to know more, I highly recommend the work of Dr. Shirane. Also interesting are two of his presentations on YouTube:


References

[1] Saito, Yuriko. “The Japanese Appreciation of Nature” in The British Journal of Aesthetics 25, no. 3 (1985): 239–51, p. 239.
[2] Asquith, Pamela J., Arne Kalland, Japan Anthropology Workshop, and Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, eds. Japanese Images of Nature: Cultural Perspectives [Seventh Meeting of the Japan Anthropology Workshop Held in April 1993 in Banff, Alberta]. Repr. Man and Nature in Asia 1. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 2004, p. 23.
[3] Miner, Earl Roy. An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry. 1. publ. 1968. Stanford, Calif: Stanford Univ. Press, 1975, p. 68.
[4] Shirane, Haruo, ed. Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600. Translations from the Asian Classics. New York ;Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2008, p. 92-93.
[5] Shirane, Haruo (2012). Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 57.
[6] Saito, The Japanese Appreciation of Nature, p. 248.

Some observations

It is in the small things we see it, they say. During my stay in Japan (unfortunately, I already returned to Belgium), I noticed some things that you would never spot somewhere else, things that are so typically Japanese, but so unremarkable that they are barely mentioned. Probably, these observations are closely linked to me being a Belgian, so it is possible that I am only observing from a European/Western perspective (and probably with a focus on the city of Kobe, the place where I lived). Nevertheless, I thought that these kind of small things are worth mentioning nevertheless, and maybe I am able to add some couleur locale to your image of Japan.


Obaachan (grannies) with colored hair 

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When you imagine Japan, you think perhaps of the crazy hairstyles and fashion that can be seen around Harajuku in Tokyo. In Kobe, however, the ones with the most funky hair colors are almost always elderly women, doing their shopping at the local grocery stores or chatting with their neighbors at street corners. These women have short, permed hair, as most grannies around the world, I suppose, but dyed in unusual colors like purple, blue, green or pink. At first, I thought it was a hair dyeing gone wrong, but I encountered far too many grannies with a flashy hairdo to rule it out as an exception.  When I searched on the Internet, I found some possible explanations:

 

  • When Japanese people get gray hair (actually called “white hair” 白髪 in Japanese), it has a slightly yellow shade which makes the face looks older. So, they apply some colored rinse such as in the opposite color purple, to cover up the yellow shade and make their hair look white. In most cases, however, the hair still has a purple shade, certainly when it is dyed regularly. (Hitomebo)
  • On the other hand, there are some obaachan who fancy a very strong shade of purple, blue or green. Just because it is trendy to do so. (also, purple is traditionally a “noble” color) Apparently, bold hair colors for elderly women became a big hit during the ’80s and has never been out of fashion since. (Quora)
  • People believe that a bright color reflects a bright personality. (Oshiete)
  • Simply because they can. They are no longer expected to play the role of the Japanese working woman or housewife with a traditional appearance, they are retired, the kids are all grown up, in short, they have the freedom to do as they like. A bold hair color symbolizes their social status as an elderly free woman. (Quora)

Singing

On the streets in Kobe, I often heard people singing to themselves while walking or riding a bike. Not just humming, as many of us probably do, but really singing aloud, not afraid that anyone else could hear them. In a country where karaoke is almost a national sport, it should not be surprising that the Japanese, young and old, participate in many singing events. At school, I heard a-capella clubs practice daily on campus, whenever they were free. It struck me that being asked to sing, regardless of your skills, does not cause any shame in Japan. Maybe they humbly state that they are very bad at it but at least the Japanese are always willing to sing. I don’t think many people in Belgium would be very enthusiastic to perform a song in front of their co-workers, the whole family or their neighbors. I like singing a lot, but was still embarrassed and nervous every time it was my turn, certainly in front of people I didn’t know that well.

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In Japan, singing is a form of bonding: everyone cheers you on, sings along and claps when you finishes. Next to that, it is a way to relieve stress. Of course, karaoke is often combined with drinking alcohol, which really livens up the party. I also read in some articles that the “singing culture” of Japan is often contrasted to the “dancing culture” in America. It is said that in the west, people prefer going to clubs and bars where they can dance. (Hapa Eikaiwa)

“Centiliter” vs. “milliliter”

812401At one point, I realized that on cans and bottles the contents are not written in centiliter (cL) as is usual in Europe, but only in milliliter (mL). Also, a pack of milk for example, contains “1000mL” rather than “1 L”. When I asked whether “cL” was used in Japan, they told me that it is usually not the case, as they shorten the word for cm to senchi センチ, which only refers to centiMETER. Deciliter and decimeter are barely used as well. I am not sure why, but it appears to be a choice they made when the metric system was adopted. Before that, Japan had been using the traditional shaku-kan system.

Fun fact: There are even characters for measurements in the metric system! 竕 – deciliter; 竰 – centiliter; 竓 – milliliter (Wikipedia)

Japanese fashion and colors

Not only do Japanese people have a different fashion sense, the color palette of their clothes is also different. During my stay, I made the following observations:

  • Japanese people like pale or more toned-down colors, like white, light yellow, pink and blue, black, grey and brown. Too eccentric or too bright colors are avoided. This is a big contrast with the traditional Japanese dress (着物kimono), which often comes in bold color and patterns, especially for young women.
  • Stripes and checked patterns are always in fashion. They are everywhere.

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  • Japanese boys and men often wear light pink shirts in summer. I was surprised, because you do not see that usually in Belgium (it is either a very fashionable and bold statement, or associated with homosexuality here). But in Japan, pink is just another color that has no particular gender connection (bright pink, on the other hand, is seen as a very girly color and is not worn very often by men). The choice for light pink shirts in summer can perhaps be compared with white clothing worn in Europe during the summer, as the color white evokes a feeling of lightness and freshness. In Japan, however, white shirts are the standard uniform for business men, and are therefore associated with formality and work. To create the same lightness as white but keep their dress informal, Japanese men opt for light pink. Or at least, that is my theory.
  • Pastel colors are a big hit among women, especially for pyjama’s and clothes worn at home (very soft, by the way, but a tad too Helly Kitty-ish for me).

IMG_20150517_143912

Ditches

Once during a grammar class in Belgium when we were translating sentences from English to Japanese, I came accross the sentence “The mathematician who was wearing rainboots was staring at the stars above and fell into a ditch” or something like that. At that time, it seemed highly unlikely to me that you could fall into a ditch just like that, because the Belgian gutters and ditches I knew were very shallow, and the sewage pits were always covered with a lid. Once arrived in Japan, I realized how easy that actually is. In Japan, ditches are deep holes (around half a meter or more) at one or both sides of the road. I believe that most of the time these ditches are covered with a grid or a stone, as is indeed always the case in front of houses, but where I lived in Kobe, the danger of falling into one at dark was very real. Frightening as well was when cats suddenly jumped out of a ditch in front of your feet. In short, the mathematician has my sympathies. I took extra care and managed not to suffer the same fate, but at times when I was reading while walking or looking at my phone, I came very close to the danger of stepping into nothing, falling into rain water, or crushing a hiding cat. I did not take any ditch picture, but maybe this photo can give you an idea.

Dogs_in_the_ditch_Soryo

ja.wikipedia.org

Anthropomorphism in Japanese Culture

japan anthropomorphism nippakuAnthropomorphism, or “the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, animal, or object” (Oxford Dictionary), is a cultural phenomenon that can be observed throughout history all around the world. The Old Egyptians depicted their gods as animals, Aesop set the trend of moralizing animal fables and several Native North American tribes’ share the tradition of totemism. Japan as well, has a rich history of anthropomorphism, gijinka (擬人化)  or gijinhō (擬人法) in Japanese.

uribo

Cute flyer from my university

It is remarkable, however, to what extent anthropomorphic objects and animals are integrated into Japanese society. Due to their enormous popularity, everyday life in Japan cannot be imagined without  these “mascots” and other forms of anthropomorphism. Take for example the cute mascots every company and institution creates to sell products or promote services. Because a mascot should represent the best qualities of the product its company has to offer, it has to be unique, eye-catching and above all, kawaii (cute 可愛い). For example, the mascot of Sato Pharmaceutical is an elephant, because in Japanese culture this animal symbolizes a long life. Another example is the mascot of my university here in Japan, Kobe University. The main campus is situated on Mount Rokko, where you can often spot wild boars (I met one once! And fled.) and the University is therefore represented by a wild boar piglet (uribō 瓜坊).

Minister Hatoyama as Saiban'inko.

Minister Kunio Hatoyama as Saiban’inko.

Without doubt, these kind of mascots would be considered childish and highly unprofessional in the West. In Japan, on the contrary, not having a mascot would be like a huge missed sales or advertising opportunity. Mascots are a way of familiarizing the public with a certain product, company or service. Because of their cuteness, human characteristics and approachability, people will feel an emotional connection with these mascots. Not only animals, but also lifeless objects and even concepts are strategically transformed into huggable human-like creatures and given cute names, referring to what they stand for. The local public transport in Japan is often represented by an anthropomorphic vehicle, for example. Even prefectures have their own mascot, resembling a specific historic or cultural aspect of the prefecture in question. Also, institutions who should be taken very serious, like the police or the government, rely on mascots to appeal to Japanese people of every age. For example, the introduction of the new jury system to the public in Japan, is smoothed by the appearance of Saiban’inko the parakeet (saiban’in 裁判員 means lay judge; inko インコis Japanese for parakeet). Japanese Minister of Justice once made an appearance on TV wearing a Saiban’inko costume to promote the new system of trial by jury.

This kind of customed mascot character is called a yuru-kyara ゆるキャラ. Because of their huge popularity in Japan, there is a countless number of yuru-kyara, all with their own way of walking, talking and dancing. There is even a specialized school where you can master the mascot art: the Choko group mascot school in Tokyo provides specific training for aspiring mascots. In short, it is not at all unlikely in Japan to run into mascots at matsuri (festivals 祭り), tourist attractions, on shopping streets and in extreme cases, at events like the one in the following video (World Character Summit):

From Animism to Anime

Anthropomorphism is a crucial concept in Shintoism 神道, Japan’s ethnic religion. Shintoists believe that everything – the universe itself included – has a soul or spirit. Based on this belief, called animism, the Japanese regard animals and nature as the messengers of the gods. The Kojiki 古事記 (“Records of Ancient Matters”, 712) contains a few stories in which animals speak, think and act like humans. Next to that, the transformation of foxes and raccoon dogs into human beings is a returning topic in Japanese folklore. Not only animals and elements in nature, but also artificial objects can obtain a soul. These animated objects are named tsukumogami 付喪神, after the work tsukumogami emaki 付喪 神絵巻 from the Muromachi period (1333-1573). This work contains drawings of old household items that gain a soul after 99 years and change into ghosts.

Hyakki-Yagyo-Emaki_Tsukumogami_1

Tsukimogami in Hyakki Yakko Emaki 百鬼夜行絵巻

With the introduction of Buddhism in Japan, animals were also associated with reincarnation. Despite the fact that this kind of reincarnation was considered a punishment, animals were able to attain nirvana which was still in line with the animistic Shinto theories. The Buddhist work Nihon Ryōiki from the Heian Period (794-1185), for example, mentions various animals with anthropomorphic characteristics. During the Japanese Middle Ages (1185-1603), animal stories became more popular than ever, and with the development of Noh theater 能 and Kyōgen 狂言 (Noh comedy) in particular, animals who behaved like people were put on stage regularly. Sometimes even plants played a lead role. Just like animals, plants were attributed certain qualities or characteristics. The iris, for example, represents a young women while an old woman is impersonated by the willow.

The Scrolls of Frolicking Animals and Humans (鳥獣人物戯画 Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga) are four scrolls in monochrome drawing style depicting various scenes of daily life. The scrolls date back to the 12th of 13th century. This work is nowadays known as the first manga, but was already popular back then. The scrolls are an excellent example of anthropomorphism in Medieval Japan. There are animals preparing for a matsuri, horseback riding, holding a Buddhist funeral, making jokes, bathing in the river, playing a game and so on. The animals depicted include animals well-known to the Japanese public as well as exotic animals and even mythological creatures. Although the caricatures are a slightly ironic representation of typical human activities, they are not meant to moralize the reader.

Chouju

Scrolls of Frolicking Animals and Humans (鳥獣人物戯画), first scroll. A stealing monkey is being chased by rabbits and frogs with sticks.

During the Edo Period (1603-1868) and after that, stories and pictures like ukiyōe 浮世絵(woodblock prints) featuring anthropomorphism became increasingly popular. Cats, mice and insects were the animals most often depicted as human beings. From the moment Japan opened up his borders in the nineteenth century, the introduction of foreign anthropomorphic figures soon followed. In the ’50s and ’60s American comics and Disney’s animation movies heavily influenced the Japanese manga scene. Animals and objects were given large eyes and a head that was proportionally too big for their small body, features contributing to their cuteness.

ISIS-chan

ISIS-chan

Today, this trend is called “moe anthropomorphism”. Moe 萌え refers to one’s strong affection towards a certain character (kyara キャラ). One of the more advanced forms of moe anthropomorphism is kemonomimi 獣耳(“beast ears”): the depiction of a cute, human-shaped character with animal ears and a tail. Apart from the many official moe characters, these kind of characters are usually created by amateurs and fans and circulate freely on the internet. The result is always cute and innocent, but the animated concept itself often is not. There exists, for example, a moe character to depict terrorist organisation ISIS.

Anthropomorphism explained 

Why is anthropomorphism so prevalent in Japanese culture? The reason remains unclear but scholars have already formulated some plausible explanations. 1) Anthropomorphism in Japan is heavily influenced by animistic Shintoism. The Japanese ancestors shaped objects and animals like human beings in order to understand the world around them. In the same way that monotheistic cultures attribute incomprehensible phenomena to their god, Shintoism describes these phenomena as having a soul. 2) Another explanation is based on the Japanese psychology. Japanese people tend to internalize their own feelings because they want to express sympathy towards the other, rather than stating their own opinion. Doing so, the relationship can continue in harmony, and the personal feelings of the other are not expressed but only assumed. In the same way, the emotions animals and even inanimate objects cannot express are being assumed and interpreted in a human way. 3) Thirdly, there is a social explanation.  When communication as a basic need is not being fulfilled, the tendency to interact with a human-shaped object becomes stronger. This could probably explain the enormous popularity of characters among socially withdrawn internet users like hikikomori 引き篭もり.  4) And last but not least, anthropomorphism would appear to have a positive effect on our efficiency. We consider predictable operations as human and expect the same from anthropomorphic objects. When these objects do so, it leads to peace of mind and improves our efficiency. This is for example the reason why Japanese people prefer android robots.

Fun Facts 

References

  • 平野重雄, 関口相三, 奥坂一也, and 喜瀬晋. “モノ創りにおける 擬人化と縮み志向の文化について.” In 日本設計工学会. 山形大学, 2014.
  • 高畑、勲.十二世紀のアニメーション―国宝絵巻物に見る映画的・アニメ的なるもの―.初版.東京:徳間書店、スタジオジブリ・カンパニー、1999.
  • 榊原、悟.江戸絵画万華鏡―戯画の系譜.初版.大江戸カルチャーブックス. 京都:青幻舎、2007.
  • Imuhata, Hachiri, and Tachibana Calamansie. “KEMONO: The History of Japanese Anthropomorphic Culture.” 2013. Prezi
  • Wikipedia.org

Money Matters (1)

You keep it in your pockets every day, you spend it, you worry about it, but what or who exactly is depicted on these bills? Time to find out. This post deals with the 1000 Yen en 2000 Yen bank-notes.

日本1000円札(見本)

On the 1000 Yen bills we have Noguchi Hideyo (野口英世), a bacteriologist who became famous because he discovered the causative agent of syphilis. Noguchi is also the first scientist to appear on a Japanese bank-note.

After his operation. - cao.go.jp

After his operation. – cao.go.jp

As a baby, Noguchi fell into a sunken fireplace, which resulted in a burn and the deformity of his left hand. At the age of eight, he underwent an operation and was so impressed by medical progress that he decided to become a doctor. Noguchi proved to be a very smart kid and obtained his medical license at the age of only twenty. He started working at several hospitals and institutions. As a doctor he distinguished himself by discovering a bubonic plague patient at the quarantine station, and was shortly after that dispatched to Manchuria in order to investigate and prevent the plague that was spreading there.

Noguchi was fluent in Chinese and English, and dreamed of pursuing an academic career abroad. In 1900, he set out for the United States. When his study of venomous snakes proved to be a success, he was appointed an assistant position at the University of Pennsylvania. Later, while working as an assistant for the Carnegie Institution of Washington, he studied for one year in Copenhagen, Denmark.

in Pennsylvania. - cao.go.jp

in Pennsylvania. – cao.go.jp

Upon his return, Noguchi started working at the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research, Washington. There, he dedicated the rest of his career to bacteriological research. He took a particular interest in yellow fever, and traveled to Central and South America and Africa to do research and develop a vaccine. His findings, however, were heavily criticized and discredited. Next to that, Noguchi had been accused of conducting an unethical human experiment by injecting extracts of syphilis in orphan children. In 1928, Noguchi contracted yellow fever himself and died at the age of 51.

busy with alligators to discover yellow fever - cao.go.jp

busy with alligators to discover yellow fever – cao.go.jp

Despite the fact that later research proved many of his theories false, his findings about syphilis and snake venoms are valuable contributions in the field of medical science. Noguchi was nominated for the Nobel Prize three times and received several honours around the world.

Fun Fact Noguchi was actually born Noguchi Seisaku, but changed his name because of the publication of “Portraits of Contemporary Students” (当世書生気質) by Tsuboichi Shoyo, a novel about a doctor named Nonoguchi Seisaku who lead a life of dissipation and eventually ruined himself.

1000Yen_noteSD_008

The reverse side of a 1000 Yen bill is a cliché representation of Japanese nature: Mount Fuji, lake Motosu and cherry blossoms. It is based on a work of photographer Okada Kōyō (1895-1972). Okada had photographed Mount Fuji for over 50 years and published many Fuji collections. He even established the Fuji Photo Association in 1940. Besides Japan’s most famous mountain, Okada has taken pictures of the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923.

Fun Fact Before 2004, this scenery was actually depicted on the reverse side of a 5000 Yen bill.

References Cabinet Office, Government of Japan, The Rotarian,  Wikipedia, kotobank

P103-2000Yen-(2000)_front

A 2000 Yen bill is rather rare in Japan (some people compare it to the American 2 Dollar bill). I received a bunch of them when I exchanged money back in Belgium, but it appears that Japanese people do not like to use them. They are inconvenient because you cannot use them for vending machines or ATM (I used them without any problem in shops, though) and their unpopularity even lead to concern for the bill’s survival. Which is a pity, because I like the design of this bank-note.

Wikimedia Commons-picture by 663highland

Wikimedia Commons-picture by 663highland

The 2000 Yen bill was only introduced in 2000, to commemorate the millennium and the 26th G8 Summit, held in Nago, Okinawa. For that reason, the obverse side of the bank-note depicts a castle gate in Naha, capital of Okinawa prefecture, namely the Shureimon (守礼門), one of the main accesses to the Shuri Castle (首里城). This castle functioned as the palace of the Ryūkyū Kingdom (15th – 19th century) and was almost totally destroyed during the second World War. Besides its long history, the castle is remarkable because of its architecture: influences of Japanese, Okinawan and Chinese architecture are visible in the use of orange-red, clay tiles and its resemblance to the Forbidden City. The tablet on the gate as well, is in Chinese and reads 「守禮之邦」.When a Chinese delegation visited Okinawa, every Japanese official lower in status than the king had to perform a kowtow in front of the gate to welcome them: three times kneeling and nine times touching the ground with their head.

Fun Fact I The Shureimon was featured in many brochures and guidebooks to attract tourists. The gate, however, did not meet their expectations and got labelled “disappointing landmark”.
Fun Fact II For gamers, the Shureimon may seem familiar. Shuri Castle is the battlefield for the last American mission in Call of Duty: World of War.

2000_Yen_Murasaki_Shikibu

The reverse side of a 2000 Yen bill displays a scene from the Genji Monogatari 源氏物語(The Tale of Genji), and a portrait of a peeking Murasaki Shikibu, the writer of this Tale. In the past, I have published some posts about Genji and his adventures on this blog (here and here). Often called the world’s first modern novel, Genji Monogatari is considered one of the most important works in Japanese classical literature. The tale was written around the 11th century and features a handsome and charming prince, Hikaru Genji 光源氏 (“shining Genji”), leading a life of amorous escapades and political intrigue. The scene depicted on the 2000 Yen bank-note is taken from a handscroll from the 12th Century and is linked to the 38th chapter “Suzumushi” 鈴虫, “The Bell Cricket” of the Genji Monogatari. It is a parallel chapter 並びの巻(narabi no kan), which means that it tells a short story that runs parallel with the main story line. The characters depicted are Prince Genji (right) and Emperor Reizei 冷泉院(left), actually his son, conceived out of an illicit affair with his stepmother.

Genji suggested that the whole night be given over to admiring the bell cricket. He had just finished his second cup of wine, however, when a message came from the Reizei emperor. (…) Even though he in fact had few commitments these days and the Reizei emperor was living in quiet retirement, Genji seldom went visiting. It was sad that the emperor should have found it necessary to send for him. Despite the suddenness of the invitation he immediately began making ready. (…) The Reizei emperor was delighted. His resemblance to Genji was more striking as the years went by. The emperor had chosen to abdicate when he still had his best years ahead of him, and had found much in the life of retirement that pleased him. (translator: Edward Seidensticker)

Now it gets complicated. The calligraphy on the bill does not describe this scene, but is an excerpt of another part of this chapter. It is difficult to read, but this is written in Japanese:

すゝむし
十五夜農遊不
二宮於盤してハ
堂万ひつゝ念珠
あ万支三多ち二
徒るとてなら須
のけはひなとき
いと那三にいそき
流二連いのわ
いとしけく

This is, however, only the half of a “caption” (kotobagaki 詞書), an arranged version of the original text. Compare:

十五夜のゆふ/くれに仏のおまへ
に宮おはしては/しちかくなかめ
たまひつゝ念珠/したまふわかき
あまきみたち二/三人はなたてま
つるとてならす/あかつきのおとみつ
のけはひなとき/こゆさまかはりたる
いとなみにいそき/あへるいとあはれな
るにれいのわ/たりたまひてむしの
いとしけく/みたるるゆうへかなと

with the original text:

十五夜の夕暮に、仏の御前に宮おはして、端近う眺めたまひつつ念誦したまふ。若き尼君たち二、三人、花奉るとて鳴らす閼伽坏の音、水のけはひなど聞こゆる、さま変はりたるいとなみに、そそきあへる、いとあはれなるに、例の渡りたまひて、『虫の音いとしげう乱るる夕べかな』(…),

translated as

On the evening of the full moon, not yet risen, she sat near the veranda of her chapel meditatively invoking the holy name. Two or three young nuns were arranging flowers before the holy images. The sounds of the nunnery, so far from the ordinary world, the clinking of the sacred vessels and the murmur of holy water, were enough to induce tears. Genji paid one of his frequent visits. “What a clamor of insects you do have!” (translator: Edward Seidensticker)

e0131814_21271739The woman in question here is Onna Sannomiya 女三宮, or the Third Princess. She is Genji’s niece and he marries her. Unfortunately, Genji has somewhat lost his youthful charm and his wife gets seduced by a young fellow called Kashiwagi. This liaison results in a baby boy. Onna Sannomiya feels so guilty she enters the nunnery, hence the chapel, holy images and nuns described in this excerpt. The link between these two scenes is the parallel theme of adultery and sons born out of wed-lock (and in my opinion, a hint of incest). Genji recognises himself in the affair his wife was having, blames himself and goes in exile. Maybe the message the Bank of Japan wants to send us by picking out these scenes for their 2000 Yen bank-note, is that you should not spend your money on adultery?

References Wikipedia, The Nation, Genji Monogatari (Eng), summary of Genji Monogatari (Eng), Mixi