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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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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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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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!

 

Mental Health Stigma in Japan: Introduction

20160623_192603.jpgAs promised, excerpts of my master’s dissertation will be published on Nippaku in an adapted version. This post will give an outline of the problem concerning mental health stigma. First, I will discuss the causes and consequences of stigmatization against people with a mental disorder in general and then focus on the specific situation in Japan. Interested in more mental health posts? Check out Iwakura: the Japanese Gheel (Mental Health in Japan Series no. 1) or The Medical Treatment and Supervision Act (2005): Forensic Mental Health in Japan Today – part 1 and part 2.

1. Stigmatization of people with a mental disorder worldwide

d7ce1619515f465aa20331c1db3ff37cFrom various studies, we can conclude that stigma against individuals with a mental disorder is a real and serious problem worldwide[1]. First of all, people with a mental disorder often experience discrimination in housing, education and employment[2]. Not only does stigma influences the negative attitude of others who are otherwise unrelated to the health care industry, it has been proven that mental healthcare workers as well take a stigmatizing stance towards their patients[3]. Moreover, high-quality primary care and non-pharmacological care is often not sufficiently provided, which contributes to a pervasive experience of stigma. Apart from its social consequences, stigma also affects the patient on a personal level. Causing a loss of confidence and a further worsening of the emotional state, stigma has been called “the second illness”, because its effects are sometimes as harmful as the disorder itself[4]. Another critical problem is that stigmatization interferes at every stage of the process towards recovery, i.e. during diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation[5]. Due to social stigma, mental health patients are much less likely to seek psychological help immediately, agree to treatment or return to society after having spent time at a mental institution. This self-stigmatizing attitude (the internalized type of stigma towards oneself[6]) forms a real barrier to optimal recovery, and is one of the main challenges in the field of mental health care today.

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Mental health stigma in Britain – https://goo.gl/bYqWw0

Stigma is visible in various types of negative attitudes and prejudices. Moreover, the mentally disordered have been stigmatized throughout history. Contrary to people diagnosed with a physical illness, those with a disease of the mind are often regarded as irresponsible, weak and blameworthy, as if they hold responsibility for their own illness[7]. This stigmatizing attitude is reflected in the fact that not even 60 percent of surveyed states by the WHO had a dedicated mental health policy in 2011[8], and only 68 percent provided a mental health plan or legislation in 2014[9]. Additionally, stigma against people with a mental disorder is often promoted by false information in the media and entertainment industry. Not uncommonly, mentally disordered offenders are sensationally reported in the news, and by emphasizing the mental state of the offender, individuals with a mental disorder in general are labeled as inherently dangerous[10]. Stigma takes further concrete shape in derogatory terms and expressions based on such a discriminating attitude like “psycho”, “freak” or “nuts”[11] [12].

Another prevalent prejudice is that “mental health problems are untreatable”. According to a study by Lebowitz and Ahn, who had participants read vignettes emphasizing the treatability of mental disorders, stigma can be reduced by providing correct information on mental disorders[13]. Jorm et al. point out that the increase of public knowledge about depression leads to more recognition of the mental disorder, and in particular stimulates positive beliefs about treatment and the benefits of help-seeking[14]. In other words, it has been demonstrated that in order to deal with stigma, it is necessary to tackle the root problem, ignorance, first, which resulted in a sharp increase of campaigns focusing on “mental health literacy[15]” in the last two decades. For example, Crisp et al. compared the attitudes toward people with different mental disorders before and five year after the Changing Minds campaign in Great Britain. One of the improvements they reported was a reduction in the percentage of stigmatizing opinions[16]. On the other hand, mental health literacy campaigns should be continued on a long-term basis in order to achieve a sustained change[17]. There is, however, the possibility that negative attitudes do no change for the better, even if the public mental health literacy clearly increases[18].

2. The situation in Japan

Ando et al. reviewed nineteen surveys related to mental health stigma in Japan. They reached the conclusion that Japanese people in general have the tendency to regard mental disorders as untreatable diseases, caused by weakness of personality rather than by biological factors[1]. Other studies show that the stigmatization of mental patients in Japan is stronger than in Taiwan[2], Australia[3], Bali[4], but not as strong as in China[5]. Research on stigmatization of schizophrenia shows that the Japanese respondents heavily emphasize the “dangerousness” and “abnormality” of patients, a far more negative attitude than the British respondents[6]. Additionally, these kind of prejudices are not limited to a specific age or environment, as they have been found prevalent among young Japanese people[7] and the rural Japanese population[8] in contrast to other nationalities. We can conclude from the study results described here, that, in general, the tendency to stigmatize people with a mental disorder is relatively strong in Japan.

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Example of a Japanese mental health stigma campaign.

One Japanese study demonstrates the close relationship between correct knowledge or information and social distance from individuals with a mental health problem among young people, in the sense that correctly informed youngsters took a less negative attitude towards the mentally disordered[9]. For that reason, mental health campaigns in Japan as well have been designed to deepen the understanding of the general public, and an increase can be noticed in television soaps and programs featuring people with a mental disorder without stereotyping them[10]. A further indication of efforts to reduce stigma is the decision in 2002 to change the word for “schizophrenia” in Japanese from seishin bunretsu byō 精神分裂病(“mind-split-disease”) to tōgō shicchō shō 統合失調症 (“comprehensive imbalance disorder”), the former expressing a lack of personal autonomy and thus contributing to a stigmatizing attitude[11]. According to a survey on dementia conducted in 2004, older people in Japan hold a slightly more negative opinion compared to younger people. When the same survey was repeated in 2007, the researchers found a reduction in stigmatization by the older age group against people with dementia[12]. Nevertheless, the same survey found that dementia is still strongly regarded as an “untreatable” and “shameful” disorder by Japanese people.

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Illustrating mental health stigma – https://goo.gl/LnWOX

What affects the Japanese attitude even more directly, is the widespread prejudice that “people with a mental disorders are a danger for society[13]”. According to the most recent data from the Ministry of Justice, “the ratio of offenders with a mental disorder is 1.5%, but looking per offense, the ratio for arson (17.4%) and manslaughter (12.8%) is high[14]”. Certainly, we cannot deny the fact that among offenders of serious crimes like arson and manslaughter, the ratio of offenders with a mental disorder is rather high. However, the total ratio of mentally disordered offenders is only 1.5%, which makes a general judgment like “inherently dangerous” far from applicable to all people with a mental disorder[15]. Furthermore, Link et al. state in another study that, although it is correct that mental patients are generally more prone to use violence, the excess risk of violence due to the factor of a mental disorder is rather modest in comparison with other factors[16]. As a result of the prejudice linking mental disorders to violence, people with a mental disorder often experience segregation and isolation. Based on this false assumption, mental health patients themselves and their families generally believe that in case of a mental disorder, it is better to be hospitalized for a long period than being rehabilitated into society. This preconception is clearly reflected in statistics showing that Japan has not only the most hospital beds in general, but also the most beds for psychiatric patients worldwide (fig. 1 and 2).

figure 1fig-1 source: OECD. Health at a Glance 2015 OECD Indicators. Paris: OECD Publishing, 2015, p. 105.

figure 2fig2.png source: OECD. Reviews of Health Care Quality: Japan 2015 ; Raising Standards. OECD Reviews of Health Care Quality. Paris: OECD Publishing,2015, p.172.

Along with a maximum number of psychiatric beds, another indication of the emphasis on inpatient settings in Japan due to a strong stigmatization, is the average length of stay for psychiatric patients of 377 days in 2000 and 298 days in 2011, an extremely long hospitalization period compared to the OECD average of 36 days (fig. 3)[17].
figure 3fig3.png source: OECD. Reviews of Health Care Quality: Japan 2015, p. 172.

Despite the fact that the number of psychiatric beds and the length of hospital stay for psychiatric patients has been decreasing, mental health care in Japan still faces a number of challenges in order to be able to make the step towards “deinstitutionalization” [18]. In Japan, however, “the community-based infrastructure remains underdeveloped with relatively low numbers of staff working in the community, and low numbers of supportive housing facilities, coupled with a strong emphasis on physical treatment rather than psychosocial treatments[19]”. It seems likely that the delay of an out-patient setting such as community-based care in Japan is partly rooted in the strong social stigma towards psychiatric patients because of the difficulties they face regarding reintegration.

Stigma is also believed to play a role in the high suicide rate in Japan (18,7 per 100,000 population in 2013[20]). Despite a decreasing rate from 2000 on, many Japanese struggling with mental health problems still fail to seek medical help due to the mental disorder taboo. Furthermore, the phenomenon “hikikomori”, adolescents and young adults withdrawing from society to extreme extents, has recently called attention to the mental wellbeing of the younger generation in Japan. A study revealed that in 2011, 1.2% of Japanese people aged 20 to 49 identified with hikikomori[21]. This phenomenon can be linked to (self-)stigmatization. Additionally, it has been revealed that many victims of the Great East Japan earthquake in 2011 suffer from mental health problems, which urges the rethinking of an accessible community-based mental health care system[22]. Considering the serious effects of social stigma, it is clear that this problem has to be dealt with in order to improve the challenging situation of individuals with a mental disorder.

Footnotes and references
Since the list of footnotes is really too long to post here, you can check it by clicking on the following link:

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.

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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)

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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.

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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)

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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.

Iwakura: the Japanese Gheel?

13553337_10209027881150118_1336223955_nFor two years now, I have been doing research on the history of mental health stigma in Japan. Consequently, I have also written some reports and papers about this topic and the history of psychiatry in general. During my year at Kobe University, I wrote a paper in Japanese about the link between the hamlet Iwakura in Kyoto and the Belgian city of Gheel. Since this is perfectly acceptable Nippaku material, I thought it could be interesting to post a translated version on this blog!


 Introduction

In Flemish, we have a proverb “going to/coming from Gheel” which means being crazy. In Japan there is a similar expression about Iwakura, a hamlet North of Kyoto. Both places appear to be related to mental health patients: Gheel as well as Iwakura have gained fame as “colonies of the mad”. At the end of the 19th century, Gheel attracted worldwide attention because of its unique family care system. Since it was believed that traditionally a similar system existed in Iwakura, it was called “the Japanese Gheel”. We cannot deny that there are many similarities between these two places, but is it really true that family care which emerged from a very specific (religious and economical) context in Gheel is also ingrained in the history of Iwakura? In this post, we will compare the relevant history of both places in chronological order and take on the question whether or not Iwakura can truly be called “the Japanese Gheel”.

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Mental hospital of Gheel (left) and Iwakura (right) – Sources: cultuurgeschiedenis.be/paradijs-der-krankzinnigen/ and kenkyukaiblog.jugem.jp/

1. The history of Gheel

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Picture of St. Dymphna in Gheel – Photo taken at the Museum Dr. Guislain, Ghent.

Gheel (Geel in Dutch) has been an important pilgrimage destination since early times. From the 12th century on, ill people from all corners of Europe came to Gheel because they had heard about the legend of Sint Dymphna (Dimpna in Dutch), the city’s patron saint. It was believed that seeing and touching her relics had curative powers. According to the legend, Dymphna was the daughter of an Irish king ruling in the seventh century. When the queen died, the king started looking desperately for a woman to remarry who looked exactly like his deceased spouse, but could find no one who resembled her more than his own daughter. The king, by then insane from grief, proposed to Dymphna. She refused him and fled together with father confessor Gerebernus and some trusted others to Gheel. They were eventually tracked down and the king beheaded his daughter himself and had Gerebernus killed as well. Both were declared martyrs. The people in Gheel buried their bodies, but later exhumed the bones to function as relics in the Dymphna Church they established in the vicinity of their grave.

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Jan Carel Vierpeyl, “Exhumation of the bones of St Dimpna and St Gerebernus”, beginning 18th century, St. Dymphna church in Gheel – wikimedia commons

In the beginning, Gheel attracted all kinds of diseased people as a place of pilgrimage, but from the 15th century on St. Dymphna became known as the patron saint for the mentally disordered, and the number of visiting “mad people” increased rapidly. The standard procedure was a “novena”, a nine-day ritual that required the diseased to stay during that period in Gheel. For that purpose, sick rooms were set up inside the church. However, space was limited and in high season (i.e. around May, since May 15 was St. Dymphna’s feast day) the number of pilgrims largely surpassed the number of novena participants the church could deal with, and those who arrived sometimes had to wait for weeks before they could receive spiritual healing.

V0048050 Pilgrims receiving the Eucharist in the chapel of St. Dymphn

Pilgrims receiving the Eucharist in the chapel of St. Dymphna – wellcomeimages.org

The inhabitants of Gheel provided a solution in the form of lodging at their own homes. Moreover, not few pilgrims wished to stay for an extended period longer than the nine days in church to maximize the healing effects of St. Dymphna’s relics. From this custom the family care system was born: for an unlimited period, the people of Gheel “adopted” one or two mental patients and in return received a compensation. The patients who could also helped with farming work. In other words, families without any medical knowledge lived together with mental health patients under the same roof, unlike the situation in hospitals or specialized boarding houses.

From 1532 on, the Communal Council of Gheel took care of the accommodation, supervision and novena for mentally ill pilgrims. In the 17th century, however, the patients were placed directly in the host families via a sponsored organization called the “table of the poor” (“De Armentafel” in Dutch). As a result, several pilgrims with a mental disorder stayed in Gheel and lived together with their foster family for the rest of their live. Although Gheel become known as “the merciful city”, the explanation behind this charity was mainly an economic one: for the authorities, family care was simply a cheaper solution to keep “mad” people off the streets than having them treated at mental asylums in surrounding cities.

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The mental hospital of Gheel around 1900 – Gemeentearchief Geel

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Literature on Gheel – photo taken at Museum Dr. Guislain.

In 1850, Belgium’s National Mental Illness Law legally recognized family care as equal to other forms of psychiatric care. The village was renamed “the Colony of Gheel”. A mental hospital was established in 1862, but the family care system remained, even today. In 1893, there were 1,156 foster families and in 1938, there were 3,736 mental health patients staying at the colony. Nowadays, many families still host one or more patients in exchange for a compensation [interesting video here]. The sight of mentally ill patients on the streets of Gheel is far from unusual. Today, as well as during previous centuries, the “pilgrims” enjoyed a relatively free life style, and there were remarkably few incidents or crimes involving the “mad”, a fact often used as an argument against the assumed strong connection between mental health patients and violence or crime. From the 1860s on, the colony gained fame as the model by excellence for family care and renowned psychiatrists and scientists from all over the world gathered in Gheel. Among them, there were also Japanese visitors. This is the point in history when the comparison with Iwakura began.

 

2. The history of Iwakura

During the Middle Ages (1185-1603) in Japan, a handful of religious institutions offered services for mental health patients, such as Chinese herbal medicine treatment and moxibustion (burning plant material close to or on the skin) in Buddhist temples, and incantations and exorcism sessions in Shintoist shrines. Because psychiatric treatment avant la lettre was often associated with spiritual healing, those in need undertook pilgrimages to “places of healing” that provided special treatment. Nevertheless, this was still exceptional, and most temples and shrines started to develop facilities for the mentally ill only late in the Edo period or at the beginning of the Meiji period. Hence, from the 17th century on, the number of religious institutions specializing in mental health treatment rose significantly. Shortly before the Meiji revolution, the reading of sutra, incantations, water treatment, moxibustion and Chinese-style herbal medication were available in 28 shrines and temples nationwide. Additionally, 2 mental asylums were established in the first half of the 19th century.

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Water therapy at Fujinuta Falls (date unknown) – Kitsuta Masateru, http://kenkyukaiblog.jugem.jp/?cid=10

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Waterfalls at Daiunji-temple in Iwakura – Kobayashi (1972) http://kenkyukaiblog.jugem.jp/?cid=10

Among these institutions, the Daiunji-temple in Iwakura, north of Kyoto, is a well-known example of a popular destination for mentally disordered pilgrims. Its reputation as a place of healing was based on a legend from 1072. The third daughter of emperor Go-Sanjō who suffered from a mental disorder, recovered by drinking from a well and bathing under a waterfall at the place that was later called Iwakura. From around the year 1765, people started to flock there, which urged the provision of housing, first inside the temple domain and then at inns and local farmers’ houses. The expansion in population called Iwakura as a hamlet into existence. In 1875, a private mental hospital was established, and the people in Iwakura were forbidden to accommodate mental patients any longer because they could not provide adequate treatment. The hospital, however, was closed in 1882 due to financial difficulties. Consequently, many patients returned to the inns and local families’ houses. A second hospital was established in 1884.

During and after the Taishō period (1912-1926) Iwakura experienced a facilities construction boom and at the beginning of the Shōwa period (1926-1989), 10 sanatoria were established there to take care of the mentally ill. Many of the patients stayed for a longer period, some of them for the rest of their life. Those who could, helped with household chores, worked on the land or in the mountains. At the same time in Japan, the custom, and later on legislation of confining “insane” family members at home in zashikirō 座敷牢, cage-like wooden constructions, was widespread.

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zashikiro – hidekiueno-net.jp

Compared to this way of dealing with mentally disordered people, it is assumed that those staying at Iwakura could enjoy a relatively free lifestyle. Nevertheless, previous research has pointed out that patients who were difficult to handle, were often locked up and physically restrained. In the past as well, the inhabitants of Iwakura who were entrusted the care of these patients and therefore responsible for them, did not want to take any risks. As a result, the “mad” were tied down to prevent them from escaping or causing any harm.

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Patients exercising at Iwakura Mental Hospital –  http://shuchiinfukushi.blog46.fc2.com/blog-entry-524.html

At the end of the year 1935, more than 500 mental health patients were admitted to the Iwakura hospital, and 300 more stayed at the surrounding sanatoria. The Second World War caused severe food shortage, and the mortality rate at mental hospitals nationwide rose sharply. The mental hospital and many of the sanatoria in Iwakura were forced to close their doors. Two new hospitals were established after the war, but the inns and sanatoria played no longer an important role. In the Iwakura of today, mental patients are mainly cared for at the hospital, and inhabitants taking on the task of housing them are hardly seen anymore.

It is believed that the famous Japanese physician Kure Shūzō 呉秀三 (often called the founder of psychiatry in Japan) was the first to draw the attention of specialists on the particular situation in Iwakura. Consequently, the “mad” of Iwakura and its psychiatric history attracted worldwide attention at the beginning of the 20th century. Many western psychiatrists visited Japan and pointed out the resemblance between the existence of sanatoria in Iwakura and the family care system in Gheel. Moreover, the interest in Iwakura was rooted mainly in the comparison with Gheel. We can assume that without the perception of Iwakura as “the Japanese Gheel”, the traditional practice of caring for patients at inns and farmers’ houses would have disappeared much sooner. The attention Iwakura gained during the early years of the 20th century “prolonged”, in a sense, the duration of this tradition. But on what exactly was the comparison with Gheel based?

3. Comparing Gheel and Iwakura

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Kure Shūzō – Wikimedia Commons

In 1906, The Latvian physician Wilhelm Stieda visited Iwakura, and wrote the words “In this village – a Japanese Gheel” (original in German: “In diesem Dorfe – einem japanischen Gheel -” in a specialized journal article. The notion of a resemblance between these two places was widely publicized, and Iwakura gained worldwide recognition. However, if we carefully examine the background against which this comparison was drawn, we learn that Kure Shūzō was the one who pointed out the similarities with Gheel to Stieda. Kure mentioned in his “Essentials of Psychiatry part II” (1895) that in Gheel as well as in Iwakura, there existed a similar system of family care. Before that, no other Japanese physician had mentioned such a thing during study trips to Germany, the place-to-be for psychiatrists at that time and also the country where efforts were made to introduce a family care system based on Gheel’s example.

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Map of the Daiunji temple domain with names of inns and shrines around 1779 – in “Encyclopedia of Famous Places” volume 6, 1968. http://www.kagemarukun.fromc.jp/page003j.html

In contemporary Japan, the traditional treatment in Iwakura was being perceived as “outdated”. After he visited Gheel in 1901, Kure compared the city once again with Iwakura, and this time, he expressed his disapproval of the Japanese situation. This was because Kure actually desired the development of a family care system exactly like in Gheel (which was not the case in Iwakura), but the accommodation of mental health patients at inns and tea houses became prohibited by the Mental Patients’ Custody Act promulgated in 1900. Furthermore, the care for mental patients at the sanatoria that resembled hotels rather than family homes, differed greatly from Gheel’s family care system. In other words, based on the strong desire that “Iwakura should be the Japanese Gheel”, Kure and other Japanese psychiatrists strived towards an introduction of the Gheel system. This failed.

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Wilhelm Stieda – Wikimedia Commons

So we can assume that when Stieda met Kure in 1906, he was not really under the impression that Iwakura had a similar family care system like in Gheel. Probably, he referred to the religious background, high population rate of mental health patients and history of lay treatment that both places shared. Nevertheless, Iwakura became mainly known to western psychiatrists for its alleged family care system. As I explained before, this was not the case then, since mental patients stayed at the hospital or sanatoria, and were no longer “adopted” into the farmer’s families. There are examples of family care in Iwakura before 1900, but calling it a “system” would be incorrect. However, the Japanese side did not deny and even supported this erroneous understanding. Hence, Iwakura’s history was recreated as “the Japanese Gheel”. Because Iwakura was already being compared to Gheel, the (re)introduction of a family care system should be possible, Japanese psychiatrists such as Kure thought.

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Translation German: “family care in Iwakura” – http://www.lit.aichi-pu.ac.jp/~aha/doc/Southampton%20congress.pdf

According to specialist Akira Hashimoto, the words “Iwakura is the Japanese Gheel”, written in a time the world of psychiatry was fascinated by the family care system in Gheel, should be understood as an idea created on Japanese soil. I agree that the model of “family care” did not really apply to 20th-century Iwakura, but besides that, there are many resemblances here that should not be overlooked. Moreover, it is clear that in both places, people earned their living by caring for mental health patients. The influx of mentally ill pilgrims resulted in economic profits. The culture of lay psychiatric treatment is also remarkable. By nursing people with a mental disorder on a daily basis, the villagers developed a particular set of skills and became fully experienced, despite their lack of medical knowledge. Furthermore, mental patients enjoyed a relatively free lifestyle and the boundaries between “patient” and “villager” were rather blurry in both places.


I hope this post was able to convince you that Gheel and Iwakura deserve special attention because of their exceptional history of mental health care. More posts on this topic will follow (soon)! In the meantime, those who are interested in psychiatry can read a previous blog post on forensic mental health in Japan here: part 1, part 2.

References

  • 小俣和一郎『精神病院の起源』東京: 太田出版, 1998.
  • 小俣和一郎『精神医学の歴史』東京: 第三文明社, 2005.
  • Official site city of Gheel
  • Nakamura, Osamu. “Family Care of Mentally Ill Patients in Iwakura, Kyoto, Japan.” presented at the International Research Symposium: Therapy and Empowerment – Coercion and Punishment: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Labour and Occupational Therapy, lecture at St Anne’s College, Oxford, June 27th, 2013.
  • 中村治「精神医療の流れと洛北岩倉: 第二次世界大戦後」人間科学:『大阪府立大学紀要』 1 (2005): 111–30.
  • 中村治「洛北岩倉における精神病者の処遇」人間科学『大阪府立大学紀要』 2 (2006): 97–114.
  • Hashimoto, Akira. “The Invention of a ‘Japanese Gheel’: Psychiatric Family Care from a Historical and Transnational Perspective.” In Transnational Psychiatries Social and Cultural Histories of Psychiatry in Comparative Perspective, C. 1800-2000, edited by Ernst Waltraud and Thomas Mueller, 142–71. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2010.
  • 橋本明『京都・岩倉の国際関係論「岩倉は日本のゲールである」という虚構をめぐって』第83回精神科医療史研究会
  • 橋本明「二十世紀前半における京都・岩倉の“国際化”について(その二)」『日本医史学雑誌』48, 3 (2002): 374–75.
  • 橋本明『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―』講演, 2002.
  • 兵頭晶子『精神病の日本近代―憑く心身から病む心身へ』越境する近代 東京: 青弓社, 2008.
  • Mueller, Thomas. “Re-Opening a Closed File of the History of Psychiatry: Open Care and Its Historiography in Belgium, France and Germany, c. 1880-1980.” In Transnational Psychiatries Social and Cultural Histories of Psychiatry in Comparative Perspective, C. 1800-2000, edited by Ernst Waltraud and Thomas Mueller, 172–99. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2010.
  • 八木剛平, 田辺英『日本精神病治療史』東京: 金原出版, 2002.
  • Wilhelm Stieda. “Über die Psychiatrie in Japan.” Centralblatt für Nervenheilkunde und Psychiatrie 29 (1906): 514-522.
  • full text of “Gheel: the city of the simple” (1869)
  • time line history of Gheel

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!


genmaicha utsukushiya nippaku 1

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.

jasminetea muddy claws nippaku

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”.

matcha dragonfly nippaku

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.

sencha karasu tilling field nippaku

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.

milky oolong milkyway nippaku

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

Modernizing the Kimono

Kimono photographed at the trendy shop Tokyo 135°

Kimono displayed at the trendy shop Tokyo 135°

Traditional Japanese clothing is known for its specific color scheme, patterns, cut and use of fabric. Kimono 着物, literally meaning “wear thing”, is the umbrella term for all types of Japanese style clothing (also called wafuku 和服). Unlike tailored western clothing, kimono are constructed out of long strips of fabric and are wrapped around the body. In this way, they fit all sizes (full-length kimono are often too long; excessive fabric is tucked under the obi 帯, or belt). The only (rather small) distinction is between men and women clothing.

Like any Japanophile would do, I bought some vintage kimono during my stay in Japan. New kimono’s are very expensive (they are often family heirloom, or they are hired for special occasions), but you can find many second-hand shops in Japan where they sell a whole array of these beautiful garments and accessories at very low prices. I prefer second-hand not only because it is cheaper, but also because the idea that someone else has already worn and cared for this piece makes it more valuable.

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Pictures of women in yukata (summer wear)

My collection of kimono started out of interest in all things Japanese, but instead of regarding my purchases as curiosities that should be safely put away in the closet at home, I actually like to wear them on a daily basis in combination with “normal” clothing and non-traditional elements. The three different pieces you see below are two haori 羽織 and one full-length grass-green robe, which I had adjusted as a mid-length jacket. Haori are hip-length jackets traditionally worn over a robe with small sleeves. I believe the ones I have in my possession are for men (at least I was told so because of the cut of the sleeves). The green kimono is a woman’s model.

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A few years ago, “kimono” became a trend in street fashion, although it is a pity that most of these garments do not resemble the original very much (more something like a flimsy nightdress with exotic motifs that is open in the front). In Japan, kimono is still worn by many people, mostly on festive occasions. As everyday wear, however, it is rare. Some elder people still wear Japanese clothing everyday, but in general, kimono as seen on the streets is rather exceptional. Nevertheless, kimono have never disappeared from the Japanese fashion scene. To fit a more modern image, some brands have re-invented the kimono by selecting different and surprising materials, and styling the look with modern clothes or elements.

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Modern wool haori from the brand Trove using modern materials: the left one has ventile lining, the right one cupra rayon lining.

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Denim UK-inspired kimono from Tokyo 135°

From the late 19th century on, kimono influenced the western fashion world tremendously. Japanese clothing is so different from how Westerners were dressing at that time, it caused a revolutionary change in the traditional silhouette for women (small waist, hourglass shape). Silk kimono dominated the fashion scene during the artistic movement called Japonism (although slightly delayed in comparison to the arts). Exotic objects such as “Japanese gowns ” were popular as peignoirs, home wear or costumes. The wardrobe of Phryne Fisher, a feisty lady detective in the Australian 1920s drama series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries  contains some beautiful examples of the kimono style that was in vogue then.

Two weeks ago, I visited “Game changers – reinventing the 20th century silhouette” at the Fashion Museum in Antwerp (MoMu). This exhibition centers around the work of Balenciaga, but shows the Japanese influences on 20th century haute couture designers as well. The kimono became model for a new, freer silhouette, shaping the body of modern working women. In the pictures below (excuses for the bad quality), you can see Japanese elements, such as broad shoulders, a round neckline, the detail in the back of the pink dress, resembling an obi, straight lines, no emphasis on the curves of the body, broad sleeves, two-dimensionality, dropped waistline etc. There is also the work of Kubota Ichiku, who experiments with new textiles and designs. His series showcase several kimono linked to each other in a continuing landscape. Personally, I believe that the act of modernizing traditions, such as the kimono, is proof that this tradition is still alive and keeps abreast of times. How will the kimono be represented in the fashion of the future, I wonder?

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Special thanks to my sister Elise, for being my photographer and my biggest supporter!

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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ameblo.jp

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).

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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.

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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