Old Stories of Madness


Next 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.

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.


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


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]


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].


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.


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.


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.

The Infamous Tantra Teachings of the Tachikawa-ryū

Some of you may have noticed, but I took a break from blogging this summer. Among other things, I signed up for an introductory summer school course in Tibetan Buddhism at the University of California, Berkeley. Since I have only familiarized myself with Japanese Buddhism thus far, this was a great opportunity to broaden my perspective and go back to Buddhist basics. At the same time, I learned about Tibet, for me an unknown region with a fascinating history, culture, language and – of course – religion.


Buddhist teacher Padmasambhava in sexual embrace with consort. – Tibetan painting on post card, original at Asian Art Museum San Francisco

Since the focus was mostly on Tibet, Japan was not mentioned very often during my class, but the notorious “Tachikawa-ryū” (lit. school of Tachikawa) was repeatedly brought up by several authors in their account on the dispersion of Tantrism in Far East Asia. So what is it?

Buddhism is often portrayed as one of the most peaceful and least morally offensive religions in the world. However, if you study the different movements and schools that originated from the teachings of the historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) in more depth, you will notice that there are certainly some ritual elements that would seem scandalous and even indecent today. (Here I want to point out already that the notion of what is obscene and deviant behavior is, of course, bound to cultural norms, values and expectations.) Some practices in Tantrism, for example, could come across as “shocking” and contrary to mainstream religious attitudes towards sexuality. An elaborate explanation of Tantrism would take up at least five more blog posts, so I will keep it short and provide you with the following quote by Bernard Faure.

Tantra, an offshoot of the vedic-brahmanic and yogi tradition, is first of all a system of correspondences between microcosm and macrocosm, man and the universe. Whereas early Buddhism was defined by its ascetic world rejection and its conception of man as an ultimately otherworldly being, Tantra may be defined as its reintegration of the world into the soteriological path – since man and the world are now fundamentally identical. By reintegrating the world into its practice, Tantra also reintegrated sexuality, one of the world’s main driving forces. – B. Faure (2001: 543)

me & buddhism

Buddha is love. Literally.

Although it is often criticized that the western world has focused too much on the sexual connotations of Tantrism (which developed relatively late and is only a small part of tantric practice), it would be a misrepresentation to not acknowledge the important role sexual ritual plays in the practices of the Tachikawa-ryū. However, this is a contentious statement as well, since some scholars claim that there is no substantial evidence of the Tachikawa-ryū having actively engaged in sex rituals (cf. infra). Buddhism in Japan was from its introduction on mainly tantric (mikkyō), i.e. esoteric and thus secret. The Tachikawa-ryū itself originated out of Shingon Buddhism around the 12th century, one of the major Buddhist schools in Japan. Its founder is Ninkan (early twelfth century), who was exiled in 1113 to the town of Tachikawa in Izu, hence the name of the school. Ninkan had roots in Shingon Buddhism and combined his knowledge with cosmological elements such as yin and yang and the five agents.

Tachikawa ryu

Mandala symbolizing sexual union.

Ninkan’s teachings were systematized by followers over centuries after his exile and suicide. In Tantrism, the world is perceived in terms of sexuality and fertility, and the practice (or conventional truth) – in contrast to the theory or ultimate truth – prescribes a dualistic approach. Since the idea of a world, created by the union of male (yang) and female (yin) elements, is the essence of cosmology in Tantrism, sexual union serves as the “real life” version of this dualism. In other words, sex is an effective way to achieve buddhahood in a relatively short amount of time (best case scenario: this life, “becoming a buddha in this very body (即身成仏 sokushin jōbutsu)”). Furthermore, much ink has flown on the description and discussion of a human skull ritual that involved sexual intercourse and the use of seminal and vaginal fluids to create an object of worship. The Sutra of Secret Bliss (1100) emphasizes the importance of sexual union:

In order to experience the Great Bliss, a man and a woman have to unite. Liberation can only be realized through the act of sexual love. (…) Sexual intercourse between a man and a woman is the supreme Buddha activity. Sex is the source of intense pleasure, the root of creation, necessary for every living being, and a natural act of veneration. – J. Stevens (2010)


Book titled “Tachikawa-ryu Heresy”

The “immorality” of the Tachikawa-ryū teachings resulted in it being labelled as a “heretical belief (jakyō 邪教)”. The rationale for this move is that the popularity of the Tachikawa-ryū had become a threat to the orthodox schools of Shingon Buddhism and was dealt with by means of a long-lasting smear campaign. Tachikawa practice became forbidden and the school’s ritual texts were destroyed. As a result, only a few original scriptures and rituals survived the persecution, which makes it very difficult nowadays to fully understand the teachings of the Tachikawa-ryū. Nonetheless, the influence of the Tachikawa-ryū on later developments in Japanese Buddhism is significant.

The Tantrism of the Tachikawa-ryū is an emulation of the Indian “left-hand” or heterodox tantrism (sadō mikkyō 左道密教), but was primarily based on Tibetan Buddhism. Apart from the inclusion of many astrological and Taoistic elements (especially cosmology), the Tachikawa doctrine was also a “Japanized” version of Tantrism: For example, Indian buddhas were identified with Japanese Shintō deities, such as Amaterasu as the buddha Vairocana (Dainichi), and the two shrines of Ise were regarded as the two mandalas most important in Shingon buddhism.

A question many scholars have struggled and are struggling with, is whether the Tachikawa-ryū actually performed the transgressive rituals described in texts. In the Indian and Tibetan Tantric tradition as well, it is often assumed that prescriptions of violence and sex are merely symbolic.  Hence, in the interpretation of the Tachikawa-ryū teachings, scholars have gone back and forth between assuming the common occurrence of sexual rituals as a way to attain enlightenment and claiming that such portrayal was a false representation in order to criticize and discriminate the school. Because the (secret) Tachikawa teachings were orally transmitted, and because many scriptures were destroyed on purpose, we have to rely on secondary sources by other Tantric schools that are most likely critical towards the Tachikawa-ryū.

By defining the Tachikawa-ryū as a degenerate sub-branch of Japanese esoteric Buddhism that was destroyed through religious suppression by high-ranking monks of the Mt. Kōya establishment, these scholars have firmly placed the Tachikawa-ryū outside the category of mainstream Japanese esoteric Buddhism and, in doing so, have effectively denied it the possibility of being taken seriously. (T. Hino, 2012: 14)

Although lately the academic field has  gained interest in the history, portrayal and influence of the Tachikawa-ryū, the secret teachings remain secret…

References and Further Reading

  • Faure, Bernard. “Japanese Tantra, the Tachikawa-Ryū, and Ryōbu Shintō.” In Tantra in Practice, edited by David Gordon White. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001.
  • Faure, Bernard. The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.
  • Hino, Takuya. “Creating Heresy: (Mis)representation, Fabrication, and the Tachikawa-Ryu.” Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 2012.
  • Stevens, John. Tantra of the Tachikawa Ryu: Secret Sex Teachings of the Buddha. 1st ed. Berkeley, Calif: Stone Bridge Press, 2010.
  • Payne, Richard Karl, ed. Tantric Buddhism in East Asia. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006.

Aum Shinrikyō’s Legacy and Japanese Pop Culture

On 20 March 1995, The Aum cult released self-made Sarin gas in the metro of Tokyo. 13 people died, and more than 5000 people got injured. Till then, those “new religions” (shinshūkyō 新宗教) had not been causing such serious accidents, and were left undisturbed in their activities. The reason for that, is that the Japanese were afraid to break the law of “freedom of religion” and to create a precedent that would be similar to the institution of shintō as a state-religion in WWII. Therefor, new religions were tolerated and could spread their popularity across all layers of the Japanese – and sometimes foreign – population. These newly formed religious movements gathered a considerable number of followers, what made scientists think of this after-war period as “the rush hour of the gods”. Aum was supported by ten thousand members in Japan. Most striking is the fact that many highly qualified, young graduates from top universities joined Aum, what gave them the label of “The Elite Sect”.

In the aftermath of the 1995 terrorist action, or so-called “post-aum period”, the New Religious Movements faced strong opposition by the public opinion. The government did well in solely focussing on the severe punishment of Aum members. If they had been carried along with the public rage, there would have been the risk of endangering article 20 of Japan’s Constitution.

Anti-Aum protest

Anti-Aum protest

Some New Religious Movements share following two characteristics (only what’s in bold letters), which I adopt to Aum Shinrikyō (given explanation). I have no knowledge of all New Religous Movements, so I do not at all claim that each of them engages in terrorist actions, nor do I believe their members to be treated in the way as Aum members were. On the contrary, except for a few ones like Aum, New Religious Movements are peacefully pursuing and developing their spiritual life.

  • A central, spiritual leader: The almost blind Shōkō Asahara formed Aum Shinrikyō in 1984 and was granted legal recognition 5 years later. The doctrine he promoted, contains several elements of Buddhism and Shintoism, as well as Christianity and Hinduism. He proved his born leadership i.a. by performances of self-levitation. He also declared himself “Christ”. Asahara was condemned to capital punishment, but is still in death row.
  • The Apocalypse Scenario: Aum-followers strongly believed Nostradamus’ prediction of a millennium-ending apocalypse. This subscribed to a utopian view on a perfect world (“shambhala”, paradise) they could help to establish. By ending the sinful world a bit earlier, for example. Many members in search of a spiritual way had joined because they felt a decline of society due to too much focus on materialism. There was a possibility of salvation for human beings, be it evidently limited to members of Aum. These people underwent ‘survival training’. Methods like brain washing and feeding chemicals and drugs were used to remove anxiety. Some died because of too much intensive training (i.e. lack of sleep and food) and were secretly cremated and buried with the remains of murdered opponents.

Nowadays, Aum’s legacy still wanders around in Japanese people’s mind, as is visible in following products of pop culture.

Bloody Monday

(ブラッディ・モンデイ) drama, 11 episodes, 2008, adaptation of the same-titled manga

A terrorist group threatens to murder Tokyo’s population by spreading a deadly virus, called Bloody X. The story revolves around a school boy who succeeds to stop the organisation’s evil moves by hacking into their computers and system. If you are fond of thrilling, sensational drama, then I can recommend you this one. Maybe the story turns highly unlikely after nine episodes and the hacking skills of our young hero are far from belief as well, but that doesn’t make it not worth watching.

Now, back to reality. While watching, I immediately felt the resemblance with the gas attack of 1995. Leader of the terrorist cult group is “High Priest” Kamishima Shimon, who possesses the unearthly powers to kill people while being imprisoned (the magic is later on revealed; compare with photos of Asahara’s levitation, as they turned out to be taken while he ‘hopped’ in Lotus position). What’s so attractive about the massacre, is that the terrorists can become God, being in possession of both the virus and anti-virus. So, as the end of the world is absolutely necessary, fortunately they can choose who stays free of bloody noses. Their justification for murdering Tokyo’s population goes as follows:

This country is rotten. In order to regenerate the world, everything needs to be reset.

Sounds a lot like Asahara and his followers, isn’t it? Another resemblance has to do with Aum’s foreign business. In 1992, Asahara traveled to Moscow on a “Russian Salvation Tour”. A central office in the capital and three branch offices were opened, and 30,000 Russian joined the cult organization (at least that is the number Aum claims). The reason for many young Russian to devote themselves to Asahara and his theories, was the same as the Japanese youth: they were looking for spiritual nourishment. After the Cold War, they had lost the relationship with traditional christianity and turned towards more mystical beliefs. In Bloody Monday, Russia plays an important role as the location for the first experiments with the virus.

20th Century Boys

(二十世紀少年) manga by Naoki Urusawa, 1999, 22 volumes

20thCentury Boys- UrusawaLeader and Savior of the World “Friend” takes care of the end of the world, according to a plan he made with his school comrades a long time ago. Again, a virus with bloody results is featured, as well as the divine talent of “Friend” himself to fly and raise from the dead. He gains enormous popularity among the Japanese youth, and even starts his own political party (which is not without any foundation in real life: see the Facts for more on Sōka gakkai and Kōmeito).

Urusawa always does a great job, and this SF-manga contains again a thrilling story. That such things could happen in real life seems absurd, but you never know… One psycho and his ideology can cause a lot of harm. If people are discontent with their present society, who stops them from believing in a better world? In their conviction of helping mankind for their own good by slightly accelerating world’s end, they would go smiling around to spread gas and viruses. And there lies the hidden fear of all: no exposed violence and display of power, but how the fragility of people like you and me, can be used so easily.

Facts for Fun

– The internationally known cult movement Sōka gakkai formed in 1964 its own political party, Kōmeito. Scarcely 5 years later, it was Japan’s third largest political party. Nowadays, they represent 10% of national voters. Although the band with Sōka Gakkai has been officially broken, meetings behind the scenes still happen.

– Aum Shinrikyō still exists: it changed its name to Aleph. The members abandoned terroristic plans, but are not yet quite accepted by Japanese society.


– The inspiration and some info I gathered during the lessons of Japanese religions.

– Metraux, Daniel Alfred. Aum Shinrikyo’s Impact on Japanese Society. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000.

– First picture is from Wiki Commons. On the site where I found the photo of Asahara on the cover, a lot of information about Aum can be found.

– watch Bloody Monday and Bloody Monday 2 online

Zen and Things Called Zen

What is Zen?

I could say, it’s a branch of Buddhism, based on the Chinese shan and introduced in Japan during the 12th century.
I could say, it’s an art of living, bringing tranquility and serenity into the mind.
I could say, it’s writing haiku, going to a tea ceremony and doing Japanese martial arts.

According to Google, Zen has a lot to do with stones.

According to Google, Zen has a lot to do with stones.

I could say a lot more, but it only confirms the clichés. Next to that, I’m too young to understand (for once I admit), and I have only some vague idea of Zen. Fortunately, there are some other people out there who have deeper insight on this matter and have written books about it. For example, Reginald Horace Blyth and his Zen and Zen Classics. Hereby I confess that Blyth is one of my favorite writers on Japanese topics. I like his witty cleverness, his on the same time philosophical but clear writing style and his intertextuality with Western literature. Some quotes:

All kind of people do Zazen for all kinds of reasons. (…) Some people like Zen because it gives them an excuse to be rude. Some whose heads are not good enough to understand philosophy are glad to hear that Zen is against it. Some people like anything mysterious and exotically esoteric. Many people want to live calmly, not bothered with unimportant (or even important) things.

What is Zen? Zen means doing anything perfectly, making mistakes perfectly, being defeated perfectly, hesitating perfectly, having stomach-ache perfectly, doing anything, perfectly or imperfectly, PERFECTLY. What is the meaning of this PERFECTLY? How does it differ from perfectly? PERFECTLY is in the will; perfectly is in the activity.

There are the artistic, the philosophic, the moral, and the poetical approaches to Zen.

Haiku, for example.

yado no haru
nani mo naki koso
nani mo are

In my hut this spring,
there is nothing,
there is everything. (Sodō)

There is nothing, there is everything. So simple can a poem be. So simple can life be. I sense this feeling of meekness or equanimity as an acceptance of how things are. Whether it is the truth or not, that doesn’t matter. It is. And at the same time, it isn’t. So who am I?

The logic of Zen would seem to be this. I am nothing. I have no special wants or wishes, no particular desire for the things of this world. But you want them, and I am you, so I want them,-for you.

Life is the stream, and we drift like fallen leafs upon it, carried by this strength of nature. Do not block the stream by looking back or wanting other things; just live in this moment.

Look for unity, inside and outside yourself. Do not see the forest as trees, do not see yourself as apart from others.


ame arare
yuki ya koori to
otsureba onaji
tanigawa no mizu

Rain, hail and snow,
ice too, are set apart,
but when they fall-
The same water
of the valley stream.

Nevertheless, Blyth states:

The mistake of Zen is its (mystical and scientific) over-emphasis on unity.

To live undisturbed doesn’t mean to get rid of your emotions. As far as we’re human, feelings will always be stuck in our heads. The Zen approach rather encourages us to acknowledge the feelings, in order to find our “true self”. Declaring: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” would be of much greater help than walking furiously up and down because of pent-up rage. Once you see emotions as they are, you can make the choice to not let them affect you.

Only when you neither love nor hate does it appear in all clarity (Hsinhsinming)

So how becoming Zen? The two main methods are sitting meditation (zazen 座禅) and kōan 公安 practice. The last one tests the insight of the pupil. The Zen teacher tries to provoke a spontaneous answer by making a paradoxical or absurd statement/question. Sometimes he beats the bewildered student monk to assure the purity of the answer. The most famous kōan is: “What is the sound of one clapping hand?” Somehow it reminds me of Zeno’s paradoxes. That Zen is paradoxical itself, proves following quote:

Zen is at once irresistibly and unutterably repulsive.

Everything written above was only the introduction for our topic of today. I could have made it shorter, but I believe that Zen, although teaching a simple philosophy, deserves a more extensive explanation. Now, let’s turn to the presentation of Zen in media. When looking through fashion magazines, I often notice things (randomly) called Zen. Is it Zen aesthetics that appeal so much to influence our buying behaviour? Or wait, what exactly are Zen aesthetics?


"Zen tastes like chocolate." Why not.

“Zen tastes like chocolate.” Why not.

Zen makes us realise that, only “what interests is interesting.” (…) Zen is the universal standard of judgement we have all been looking for. Zen is good taste.

Rupert Cox focuses in his book “The Zen Arts” on the culture of aesthetics form in Japan. That is, he only indicates chadō 茶道 (the way of tea), 能 (traditional theatre), shodō 書道 (calligraphy) and budō 武道 (martial arts) as owners of the Zen aesthetics. The outer appearances, referred to with the concepts of wabi 詫び and sabi 寂び, are projected into the mind.

The michi and dō 道 of the of the Zen arts were more preferred to be more well-known as Japanese aesthetic terms, like wabi (poverty) and sabi (rusticity).(…) The assumption is that these aesthetic ideals are transmitted directly, from the physical or material form to the mind (kokoro) and describes as gradual process of psychological change within a linear notion of time. (R. Cox)

Beauty is a subjective matter, and only when I can decide to find true beauty in everything around me, then things become beautiful.

Is beauty in the eye of the beholder, or in the picture? The Zen view, and the right one, is that beauty exists when and only when I am the picture. Though the picture is a bad one, or even a blank canvas, there is still Zen, if and when I am the canvas, but beauty arises when the canvas has already suffered a sea-change, a universe-change, a Zen-change.

Zen expresses our search of serenity. Up till now, relax exercises, wellness weekends and healing music has never been this popular. After a stressful day arriving at a house like this, should ensure a Zen life:
In my opinion, calling these things Zen is quite eccentric. Apart from the soothing feelings these products should enhance, I don’t see any link with the philosophy itself. We don’t go around saying :”O my god, this soap is so Buddhism!” And what concerns my MP3 player, I don’t get it at all.

Ceci n'est pas Zen. C'est un lecteur MP3.

Ceci n’est pas Zen. C’est un lecteur MP3.


– All quotes, unless stated otherwise, are taken from:
Blyth, Reginald Horace. Zen and Zen Classics. Volume 1, From the Upanishads to Huineng. Tokyo : Mountain Press ; San Francisco : Heian International, 1960.
or: Blyth, Reginald Horace. Zen and Zen Classics. Volume 5, Twenty-five Zen Essays. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1962.

– Cox, Rupert. The Zen Arts: An Anthropological Study of the Culture of Aesthetics Form in Japan. Richmond: Curzon, 2001.