Introducing the Japanese Imperial System – Part II

banner imperial system part 2Welcome to part two of my imperial blog post! Last time, we covered some of Japan’s oldest and newest emperors, today we will have a look at who’s in between. There truly is a lot to say about Japanese emperors (they are, one might argue, the backbone of the Japanese state), so I would like to give you a little bit more contextual information (the history of Japan in a nutshell) while simultaneously highlighting the accomplishments (and failures) of some of these rulers. Like I told you before, there have been 125 emperors thus far, allegedly all part of the same family since 600 BC. The first emperors and empresses are of rather legendary status and not much historical evidence can be found to verify their actions or even their existence.

At the end of the 7th century, a more reliable system of imperial era names (gengō 元号) was introduced, indicating a new era period in which a new emperor ascended the throne, or another historic event of great importance. Since the Meiji period, new era names could only change with every new emperor. Today, this system of periodization is still in use: the current year (2017 AD), for example, is Heisei 29 平成二十九年. Heisei indicates the period of emperor Akihito’s reign, and 29 is the 29th year of his ascension in 1989 (Heisei  1 = 1989). The name of the period refers to the posthumous name of the emperor. As such, the previous era, the Shōwa period (1926-1989), is named after Akihito’s father Hirohito, whose posthumous name is Emperor Shōwa. The names of emperors I mention in my blog posts, are always their posthumous names, with the exception of recent emperors. You might think this practice is outdated but nothing is less true. All official documents, newspapers, and other texts you will come across as a student of Japanese studies, use this era-naming system. Be prepared.


The Meiji emperor, aka Mutsuhito

Another link between emperor and era system is the place where the imperial family lived: the home city of the emperor was de facto the capital of Japan. Before the 7th century, assumed capitals are as legendary as their inhabiting emperors. It was customary to move the capital with every new emperor, since the demise of the previous one had “tainted” the palace. However, when Empress Genmei settled in Nara, then called “Heijo capital” (Heijō-kyō 平城京), it remained the capital for around 70 years (with one interruption of five years). Today, Nara is certainly worth visiting, with its historical palace Heijō-kyū 平城宮, many temples and shrines. The city itself was built in the middle of nowhere and was a smaller version of the Chinese capital Chang’an, structured in a grid pattern. Based on geomantic Feng Shui principles, the city is surrounded by mountains on three sides, a river that flows from North to South, and a palace facing South. It quickly urbanized and the population grew exponentially – yet it must be said that the inhabitants were mainly aristocrats (including the imperial family), civil servants and the clergy, the soldiers that protected them and the people who provided for their needs.

The Japanese Emperor had never been this powerful: he or she represented the central state (the old Japanese word for emperor, mikado, was even written in Chinese with the characters for state 国家), owned all of the land and the people on it and was above the law. The emperor ruled Japan by means of a centralized bureaucratic system. Under Empress Genmei’s reign, the discovery of Japanese copper was made and the Kojiki (“Records of Ancient matters” 古事記) was compiled. Succeeding her was Empress Genshō, the only female ruler that inherited her title from another empress regnant.


Emperor Shomu

The next Emperor, Shōmu, was the first to marry a “commoner”, someone outside the imperial family: a Fujiwara consort. If you know a little bit about Japanese history, you’ll probably recognize the name Fujiwara. The Fujiwaras were an aristocratic clan that basically monopolized all political power throughout the Heian period (794 – 1185). They maintained this power by marrying off their female family members to the emperor, hence securing a position as regent (sesshō 摂政or kanpaku 関白). As was often the case in history and still is in many countries today, the one with the highest position in theory does not hold as much power in practice as the one situated just one rank lower in hierarchy. You can compare it to a monarchy in which the prime minister is in charge and not the king. Emperor Shōmu also set the trend of retiring as a Buddhist priest.

Speaking of Buddhism, when the imperial family in Nara started to feel threatened by the power of the Buddhist clergy, Emperor Kanmu moved the capital to Kyoto (heian-kyō 平安京) in 794, where it would remain until mid-nineteenth century with the exception of a “pop-up” shogunate capital in Kamakura in the twelfth century.  Again, the city was modelled after Chang’an (and Nara). The palace, Daidairi 大内裏 or Heian-kyū 平安宮, lasted for five centuries until it burnt down to the ground – it doesn’t help that it was (re)constructed mainly out of wood. Besides arson, a lot of things happened during the Heian period. As I mentioned before, the court was practically kept under the Fujiwara’s thumb. The imperial family lost much of their “public” authority (my professor called this development a “privatization of the imperial power”) and had to compete with rivaling families by accumulating private properties and ruling the country through other, not so direct means.

The emperor was soon nothing more than a state symbol, tasked with the performance of religious ceremonies. Life at the Heian court was ridiculously luxurious and the gap between the aristocracy and the common people could not have been greater. As we know from writings dating back to the 10th century, court nobles cared a lot about their appearances, each others’ manners and spending their days in leisure (examples here). Peace at the Heian court was disrupted when the Genpei 源平 war (described in the Heike Monogatari) broke out. The war was fought between the samurai of the Fujiwara’s (Minamoto 源 clan) and the warrior of the Emperor (Taira 平 clan). Yoritomo Minamoto seized power and established the first shogunate government (bakufu 幕府) in Kamakura. This move created a diarchic situation in which the emperor had even less power than before.


Emperor Go-Toba

Here, the story becomes a little bit inception-like: the family that was really in charge of the shogunate was not the Minamoto’s, but the Hōjō 北条 clan. This family was related to the Taira, but betrayed them to the Minamoto clan, before betraying the latter as well. After Yoritomo’s death, they occupied the position of regent through intermarriage not only to the bakufu, but even to the emperor, hence reducing both players to puppets. Fujiwara 2.0, let’s say. Some emperors tried to reverse the situation, like the retired emperor Go-Toba, who sent an army to Kamakura. This attempt failed and the imperial family was severely punished. Emperor Go-Daigo was more succesful. Although his conspiracy against the Hōjō failed and he was sent into exile, other “underdogs” revolted and destroyed the Hōjō clan, including its Kamakura shogunate, in 1333.


shogun Yoshimitsu, sad because he couldn’t become emperor

Emperor Go-Daigo returned and established his own government, but managed to make himself so unpopular that he failed to consolidate imperial power, and soon a second shogunate was founded in Kyoto by Ashikaga Takauji. As the new shogun, Takauji put an emperor of his choice on the throne over which he ruled de facto. But ex-emperor Go-Daigo was not yet defeated and moved his own court to Nagano, close to Nara. As a result, there were two courts: one in the South, and one in the North, dominated by the bakufu. In 1392, the Southern court surrendered. Again, the Emperor was just a puppet with pretty clothes on, now closely watched by the bakufu residing in the same capital. And yet, someone was jelly. For shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, ruling over Japan was not enough – he aspired to become emperor. His master plan was to have an imperial prince adopt his own son, make his son emperor and promote himself to “retired emperor”. He died too early to succeed. He did receive the title of “King of Japan” from China, though. And he lived in a fancy golden temple (kinkakuji 金閣寺).


The flower palace (Hana no gosho 花の御所), political and cultural center of the Muromachi shogunate

There was another big war, and things went from bad to worse. The emperor was now completely obsolete and had barely enough money to pay for his own coronation ceremony. Emperor Ōgimachi had to borrow money from powerful feudal lords (daimyō 大名) to be able to buy some sake. One ambitious daimyō in particular, Oda Nobunaga, conquered all other daimyō (I’m jumping to conclusions here) but remained emperor-friendly: he protected Ōgimachi, restored the palace and guaranteed his daily bread (or rather, rice). After he was murdered, Toyotomi Hideyoshi finished the job of unifying Japan. Hideyoshi was also keen to befriend the emperor. He had himself adopted into the Fujiwara family and eventually became regent to the emperor. Power relations were clear, though, as Hideyoshi built a palace exceeding the imperial palace by far in size and splendor and invited the Emperor to visit him there (it should be the other way around).

The seventeenth century and Hideyoshi’s death called for a new leader. Tokugawa Ieyasu became shogun in 1603 and moved the political center to Edo, nowadays Tokyo. The imperial family as well as aristocratic clans in Kyoto were granted some means, but their freedom was restricted to minimize the least chance of a rebellion. They had to act in accordance with a code (Kinchū narabi ni kuge shohatto 禁中並公家諸法度) that forbade them to be politically engaged or appoint members for the administration, and forced some princes to become monks, among other rules. When Emperor Go-Mizuno’o was so sneaky to appoint religious leaders behind the bakufu‘s back, the imperial family was completely stripped of their power. They even had to start teaching to earn a living (imagine!). Basically, the emperor was tolerated yet ignored throughout the Edo period.

edo castle attendance

The Edo castle


Emperor Kōmei

Two centuries later the situation turned around. The sonnō-jōi 尊王攘夷 (“revere the emperor, expel the barbarians”) movement wanted to kick the foreigners out of Japan who had been demanding trade relations from 1853 on, as well as teach the shogunate a lesson. Despite initially testing the water with some tentative proposals that were pro-bakufu, they couldn’t get over the fact that the bakufu signed treaties with the foreigners without consulting the emperor. They received support from Emperor Kōmei and in 1867, the bakufu was abolished and the shōgun surrendered his power to the emperor.

The Meiji restoration (meiji ishin 明治維新) was meant to restore imperial rule. As we have seen throughout this post, the emperor was in fact most of the time powerless, so they had to look back as far as the Nara period to imagine what prerogatives a ruling emperor should be given. The structure of Jinmu’s administration was also a source of inspiration. The imperial court was moved to Tokyo and replaced the shogunate there as the political center. Fans of the bakufu resisted but were defeated in the Boshin 戊辰 war. The Emperor became so important that the Meiji Constitution was practically written to solidify his divine sovereignty. He was also appointed supreme commander of the Japanese military force.

meiji moving to tokyo

Western drawing of the Meiji emperor moving from Kyoto to Tokyo.

During the Shōwa period (1926-1989), the extreme veneration of the Emperor was exploited as a war strategy: kamikaze pilots sacrified their life in name of the emperor. Today, the role of Hirohito in World War II is still a controversial topic: some see him as a war criminal who actively took part in plotting atrocities and expansionist policies, according to others he is a tragic hero who opposed the military’s decisions but was unable to keep the situation under control. Hirohito was never convicted.

The rest of the story you already know. After Hirohito’s death, Akihito ascended the throne, not as a divine sovereign, but as a human being and purely a symbol of the state. There occurred a couple of anti-emperor incidents, like the Toranomon incident (a communist attempted to assassinate prince Hirohito) in 1923 and an incident in 1959 in which a boy threw a stone at the wedding carriage of Akihito and his wife (he did not agree with the fact that they had spent tons of tax money on the ceremony). I described these incidents in my Japanese thesis about mental health stigma, since the perpetrators were often (falsely) declared “mad” and institutionalised because of the “Chrysanthemum taboo” 菊タブー Kiku tabū: a taboo on criticizing or even discussing the emperor and the imperial system. The underlying idea was that someone who was against the emperor could only be out of his mind.

wedding akihito 1

marriage parade of Emperor Akihito and “commoner” Michiko

And yet, I suspect there will remain a Japanese emperor on the throne for quite some time from now. A survey by NHK in 2009 revealed that only 8% wanted to have the imperial system abolished, while 82% stated that they were just fine with an emperor as symbol. Only 6% believed he should be given political power. I think the Japanese simply cannot do away with the imperial system because it is intrinsically linked to their country’s past and present – and you have to admit, it’s quite the family history.

Fun Facts

  • Somewhere from the Heian period on, the Emperor’s names appear to be dictated by a rule that they should be composed of two Chinese characters, the first one of choice and the second one hito 仁, meaning “perfect virtue”. The names of female members of the imperial family end in ko 子, meaning “noblewoman” traditionally. While hito 仁 is highly unlikely for “commoners”, ko 子 is a popular suffix for female names.
  • The Tokyo Imperial Palace was built on the ruins of the bakufu‘s Edo Castle.
  • Watch this cook prepare a fish for the emperor (be patient). You should keep in mind that this food was actually offered to the gods, after which the emperor could eat from it, hence the elaborate ceremony.


  • Vande Walle, Willy. Een geschiedenis van Japan van samurai tot soft power. Leuven: Acco, 2011.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Wikipedia
  • All pictures are from Wikimedia Commons
  • 井上章一『狂気と王権』東京: 講談社, 2008

Mad Monks & Medieval Medicine

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

Buddhist Notions of “Madness”

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

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

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


Kamo no Chomei

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

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

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



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

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

Footnotes and references

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

A Change in “Madness” Perception Due to Secularization

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


Mono no ke of Lady Aoi in The Tale of Genji

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



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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Footnotes and references

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

Old Stories of Madness

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

Story no. 1: The Great Mirror and Mad Emperors

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

Reizei_kyoto tomb.jpg

Emperor Reizei’s tomb in Kyoto.

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


Emperor Kazan, Reizei’s son.

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

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

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

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


Writer Sei Shonagon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

aoi rokujo.png

Aoi and Genji, surrounded by anxious court ladies.

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


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

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

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

Next post in this series: Mad Monks & Medieval Medicine

The Perception of Mental Disorders in Ancient Japan

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

“Madness” as a Privilege of the Shaman

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


Picture from an article in National Geographic, depicting a Mongolian shaman. The text says “shaman, the one chosen by the spirits” –

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

Footnotes[1] Omata, Waichirō 小俣和一郎. The History of Psychiatry 精神医学の歴史 (Seishin igaku no rekishi). Tokyo: Daisan Bunmeisha, 2005, p. 21ff. [2] Fairchild, William P. “Shamanism in Japan.” Folklore Studies 21 (1962): 1, p. 105. [3] Kamada, Tadashi鎌田正and Toratarō Komeyama米山寅太郎 “狂.” (kyō) in New Kanji Forest新漢語林, Taishūkan Shoten, 2011.

Early Accounts of Mental Disorders


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Mad” People and Religion

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

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


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

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


Yamabushi – Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

“Madness” in Buddhism

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


The Nihon Ryōiki – Wikimedia Commons

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

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

Next post in this series: Old Stories of Madness

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!


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”.

gheel iwakura.png

Mental hospital of Gheel (left) and Iwakura (right) – Sources: and

1. The history of Gheel

st dymphna

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.


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 –

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.

Geel - De kolonie rond 1900

The mental hospital of Gheel around 1900 – Gemeentearchief Geel

gheel dr guislain museum

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.


Water therapy at Fujinuta Falls (date unknown) – Kitsuta Masateru,


Waterfalls at Daiunji-temple in Iwakura – Kobayashi (1972)

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. zashikiro

zashikiro –

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.


Patients exercising at Iwakura Mental Hospital –

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


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.


Map of the Daiunji temple domain with names of inns and shrines around 1779 – in “Encyclopedia of Famous Places” volume 6, 1968.

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.


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.

familienpflege iwakura

Translation German: “family care in Iwakura” –

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.


  • 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

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.


1866 Treaty –


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.

map iapan nippaku

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.


Float with Belgian tapestry at Gion festival –

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.


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.

1992 royal imperial family

1992. © Collection of queen Fabiola – more pictures on [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!


Money Matters (2)

You keep it in your pockets every day, you spend it, you worry about it, but what or who exactly is depicted on these bills? Time to find out. This post deals with 5000 and 10,000 Yen, readers who want to know more about 1000 and 2000 Yen should check out my previous post


This lady is Higuchi Natsuko 樋口夏子 (household name Natsu 奈津), but widely known as Higuchi Ichiyō 樋口 一葉, her pen name. Higuchi was born in 1872 in Tokyo and died of tuberculosis at the very young age of 24. She was one of the most influential writers during the Meiji period (1868-1912) and the first woman to make it as a writer in modern Japan. Her work is characterized by an elegant use of language, reflecting Heian literature, mixed with a modern sensibility.

As a little girl, Natsuko loved picture books and she started reading literature at the age of seven. Because her mother considered education unnecessary for girls, Natsuko dropped out of school when she was 9 years old. But Natsuko’s father realised her literary talent and allowed her five years later to take classical poetry lessons at the famous academy Haginoya 萩の舎. There, she also gave lectures as a teaching assistant. Nevertheless, she was treated as a commoner by the rich kids at the academy because of her low rank. Eventually, Natsuko became very introverted and wrestled with an inferiority complex.


at Haginoya

The Higuchi family - Golddust

The Higuchi family – Golddust

From that point on, the Higuchi family’s life turned into a tragedy. When Natsuko was 19, her father lost everything in a failed business enterprise and died shortly after that. Natsuko became head of the family – unusual for a woman at that time – and she, her mother and her sister desperately tried to meet the ends by doing all kinds of odd jobs, like house-keeping, needlework, weaving sandals and laundry chores. It is said, however, that Natsuko despised this kind of labor and was therefore looking for another source of income. Inspired by a female class mate who published a successful novel, she decided to become a writer.  Natsuko choose “Higuchi Ichiyō” as her pen name and wrote her first novel Kareobana hitomoto かれ尾花一もと (“Withered silver grass”) at the age of twenty.


Nakarai Tosui

In 1891, she was introduced to journalist and novelist Nakarai Tōsui 半井桃水. Ichiyō became his pupil and with his help and advice, she managed to publish her short stories in some magazines. From her diary, we know that Ichiyō had a crush on the tall, handsome and gentle widower Nakarai, but unfortunately her love was not returned. On the contrary, her mentor turned out to be an infamous womanizer. As a female writer in the male-dominated world of literature, Ichiyō was often the topic of rumours and speculations about her love life. She would never marry, but broke off her engagement due to money problems and turned her ex-fiance down the second time he proposed. 

51Y62QACTHL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Luckily, she had more success with writing. Her break-through came with the publication of Umoregi うもれ木 (“Buried wood”). Ichiyō wrote stories for the famous lit-magazines Bungakukai 文學界and Miyako no Hana 都の花 and her talent was soon acknowledged by prominent Meiji writers. Economically, however, the Higuchi family was not in a good shape and they had to move to the Yoshiwara district, a poor neighbourhood and infamous as a pleasure quarter. This environment served as a setting for one of Ichiyō’s masterpieces, Takekurabe たけくらべ (“comparing statures” often translated as “Child’s play”). Ichiyō opened a variety shop, but closed it the same year, after which the family moved again. Between December 1894 and February 1896, her so-called “14 miraculous months”, she published 10 works of outstanding quality. After that, she only wrote one more work before she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She died three months later. Higuchi Ichiyō, the most famous female writer of the Meiji period lived in poverty, but her image will make you rich. Ironic isn’t it?

5000yen_backThe reverse side of a 5000 Yen bill is inspired by a painting on a wall screen by Ogata Kōrin (1658 – 1716). The flowers on the left side are irises 杜若 (kakitsubata). Irises have been considered “classical plants for gardening” since the Edo period and stand out because of their purplish blue color and speckled light yellow interior. The irises screen is a National Treasure of Japan.


Fun Fact The Tales of Ise (Ise monogatari 『伊勢物語』) mentions the prefecture of Aichi as a famous place for irises. The story goes that the protagonist composes the following poem when he and his companions are enjoying the view of an iris marsh from a bridge. The first syllables of every line together form the Japanese word for iris.

ら衣                karagoromo                 I have a beloved wife
つつなれにし   kitsutsu narenishi         Familiar as the skirt
ましあれば      tsuma shi areba           Of a well-worn robe
るばる来ぬる  harubaru kinuru           And so this distant journeying
びをしぞ思ふ   tabi wo shi zo omou     Fills my heart with grief
(translation by McCullough)

References Wikipedia Jp, Wikipedia Eng, Copeland, Rebecca, and Melek Ortabasi. The Modern Murasaki: Writing by Women of Meiji Japan. Asia Perspectives: History, Society and Culture. Columbia University Press, 2006, Jaanus.


Finally, we have arrived at the highest bank-note denomination. The 10,000 Yen bill was first introduced in 1957 and portrays Fukuzawa Yukichi 福沢 諭吉 (1835-1901), engraved by Oshikiri Katsuzō, since 1984. Japanese people often refer to the 10,000 Yen bill as “Yukichi”. Fukuzawa was a versatile man. He was a writer, teacher, translator, entrepreneur, journalist, liberal ideologist and Enlightenment thinker. He is often called “the Japanese Voltaire” and “one of the founders of modern Japan”. Without doubt, Fukuzawa has played an important role in the transition from the Edo period (1603-1868) into the Meiji period (1868-1912), when Japan made an end to its feudal system, opened up its ports for foreign trade and underwent a drastic modernization.

FukuzawaYukichiFukuzawa grew up in a low-ranking samurai family in Osaka. From the age of five, he received schooling in Confucianism and Chinese classics. It was soon clear he was a gifted student and at the age of 19, he went to Nagasaki to study Dutch. At that time, Dutch merchants were the only Europeans allowed on Japanese soil, more specifically on Dejima, an artificial island in the bay of Nagasaki. The Japanese were particularly interested in European warfare and artillery, and because they prohibited the Dutchmen to study Japanese, official translators were employed to communicate with and learn about the West (the study of Dutch is called rangaku 蘭学). Although his study in Nagasaki was succesful, his host got envious of his talent and tried to send him away. This attempt failed, but Fukuzawa decided to travel to Edo nevertheless. When he stopped by his family on the road there, his brother persuaded him to complete his study of Dutch in Osaka at Tekijuku 適塾.

doeff halma

The Dutch-Japanese Doeff-Halma Dictionary

In 1856, his elder brother died (his father passed away a long time before) and Fukuzawa became head of the family. Nevertheless, he did not give up studying. To pay his school fees, he successfully translated a Dutch book about fortification as a military strategy and was rewarded free housing and schooling at Tekijuku. There, he mastered the Dutch language in three years and became head teacher at the age of 22. Apart from studying Dutch, Fukuzawa was also interested in the topics introduced in these Dutch books, untill then unknown subjects to Japan such as chemistry and medicine (although he could not stand the sight of blood). In 1858, he was appointed official Dutch translator and sent to Edo (Tokyo today) as a teacher. There, he founded a small, private rangaku school.

The end of Japan’s “splendid isolation” drew near with the arrival of the “black ships” of the American Commodore Perry. Japan signed a treaty with the United States and opened three of its ports to European and American ships in 1859. During a trip to Kanagawa to see the arrival of the foreign ships, Fukuzawa was baffled by the fact that all foreigners used English instead of Dutch. So he started learning English. The same year, he volunteered to be part of a diplomatic mission to San Francisco. The many cultural differences made a big impression on him.


Fukuzawa with Alice Theodora, the daughter of the photographer, in San Francisco.

Upon his return five months later, he became an offical translator for the Tokugawa shogunate. His first publication was an English-Japanese dictionary, which was actually a translation from a English-Chinese dictionary he bought in America. From that moment on, he changed the subject of his classes from English to Dutch and translated several English works. Fukuzawa embarked on (the first) Embassy mission in 1862, this time via Hong kong and Singapore to France, England, The Netherlands, Germany, Portugal and Russia. He wrote down his experiences abroad in “Things Western” seiyō jijō 西洋事情, a work of ten volumes that soon became a best-seller. In 1868, Fukuzawa changed the name of his school to Keiō Gijuku 慶應義塾, where he taught mainly political economy. He also brought in foreign professors. Later, Keiō Gijuku would become a university in 1889, the forerunner of today’s Keiō University.


Keio University, then and now.

fukuzawa-yukichi_Fukuzawa authored several works of educational interest, among which An Encouragement of Learning (gakumon no susume 学問のすすめ) is considered one of his most inspiring works. He stressed the importance of education for everyone, and advocated gender equality. Fukuzawa also published critical works and essays, like An Outline of a Theory of Civilization (bunmeiron no gairyaku 文明論之概略) in 1875. As a thinker, Fukuzawa believed that knowledge about the West was essential for the development of a modern Japan and the resistance to European imperialism. Therefor, he introduced many aspects about Western society, like the banking system, postal services, conscription laws, hospitals, electoral systems, parliaments and so on. He established his own newspaper Current Events (Jiji Shinpō 時事新報) in 1882. Thanks to this widely read newspaper, Japanese common people got familiar with the idea of a reformation and modernization in Japan. In 1898, Fukuzawa collapsed due to a cerebral apoplexy. Although he recovered, it occurred again three years later, and eventually led to his death in 1901.

Fun Fact Fukuzawa invented a new letter combination to write the “v”-sound, foreign to the Japanese language. Just like today, it is written as an “u” with two dashes ヴ. So it is thanks to Fukuzawa that I can write my very Flemish name in Japanese.


On the other side of a “Yukichi” we see the Phoenix statue of the  Byōdō-in 平等院 in Uji. This mythological bird represents peace and is the symbol of the imperial household. The Byōdō-in is one of the most famous Buddhist temples in Japan. It was designed as an earthly reflection of the Pure Land Paradise. The main hall is nicknamed Hōō-dō 鳳凰堂 (“Phoenix Hall”) and is actually depicted on the reverse side of a 10 Yen coin. I visited the Byōdō-in during last summer and it certainly is a splendid temple. Can you spot the two phoenixes?

byodoin hoodo


References Keiō University, Wikipedia Eng, Wikipedia Jp, Fukuzawa, Yukichi, and Eiichi Kiyooka. The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.[Google Books]

Jacob de Zoet: A Dutchman in 19th-century Japan

jacob de zoet bookSome days ago, I finished reading David Mitchell’s novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. The story is set in Japan at the turn of the 18th century and tells the story of Dutchman Jacob de Zoet, who starts working for the East India Company in order to prove to the father of his beloved Anna that he is a man worthy of her. The intended stay of a few years turns out to be a long and unexpected adventure. Mitchell is beyond doubt a brilliant narrator. His work does not only cover an exciting narrative, it is also built upon profound research. The bestseller was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010 and received many enthusiast reviews. The story is told from various – Dutch and Japanese – perspectives:

‘David Mitchell told a Japanese newspaper, “My intention is to write a bicultural novel, where Japanese perspectives are given an equal weight to Dutch/European perspectives”.’ (Man Booker Prize)

Mitchell’s background also explains his interest and knowledge of Japan:

‘It is interesting but unnecessary to know that the author has lived in Japan, is the father of half-Japanese children, and has set an earlier novel –number9dream (2001) – in the country. Equally, the fact that this new novel centres on a love story between a European man and a Japanese woman represents no more than the most elementary draw from autobiography. (The Guardian, 9 May 2010)

Underneath the story , ‘dealing with questions of alienation and strangerhood’ (Ching-Chih Wang, 2013), lies Mitchell’s own alienation, experienced as a foreigner in Japan.

The novel creates a setting of Japan during the  Edo period (1603-1868), when it was an isolated country (sakoku 鎖国). No Japanese could leave the country alive, and all contact with foreigners was forbidden. As a result, a united Japan, established by Tokugawa Ieyasu, maintained peace for over 200 years and domestic trade flourished. In 1799, only the Dutch were allowed on Dejima, an artificial island in the bay of Nagasaki.

Nagasaki itself, wood-grey and mud-brown, looks oozed from between the verdant mountains’ splayed toes. The smells of seaweed, effluence and smoke from countless flues are carried over the water. The mountains are terraced by rice paddies nearly up to their serrated summits. (…) Dominating the shorefront is his home for the next year: Dejima, a high-walled, fan-shaped artificial island, some two hundred paces along its outer curve, Jacob estimates, by eighty paces deep, and erected, like much of Amsterdam, on sunken piles. (TAJZ, p.15-16)



The Dutch were not the first to set foot in Nagasaki. In the 16th century, the Spanish and the Portuguese imported iron weapons, Western cuisine, foreign languages and Christianity (called Nanban “barbarians from the south” trade period). About 130,000 Japanese were converted to this new, humane religion, including many daimyō. With their support, the Portuguese obtained jurisdiction over trade in Nagasaki. The Japanese shogunate felt threatened and Toyotomi Hideyoshi promulgated the first ban on Christianity in 1587. Priests were no longer welcome.

Portuguese ships

Portuguese ships

chrHasekuraPrayerWith the unification of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu at first turned a blind eye towards the foreigners and their Christian mission in favor of trade. Later he realized trade was possible without accepting Christianity and forbade missionaries in 1614. All converts had to be executed, and the Catholics were driven underground (kakure kirishitan 隠れ キリシタン ). The Japanese also disliked that the Pope had divided Oceania among Spain and Portugal, of which the latter would receive Japan. A critical turning point was the battle of Shimabara in 1637, a rebellion of Christian peasants, supported by the Portuguese, against the Tokugawa regime.



From that moment, every person related to Christianity was severely punished. In order to unmask practitioners of the Western religion, the shogunate introduced fumie (踏み絵, “stepping on the picture”). Everybody had to trample on an image of Christ or Mary. Those reluctant or refusing to do this, were suspected of Christianity and sent to Nagasaki for torture. When they refused to change their religion, they were executed. The same applied to Dutchmen. Books they brought with the slightest hint to this Western religion were banned – and its owner killed.

I am told,’ says the interpreter, ‘Mr de Zoet brings many books… and here they are…’ he points to the chest ‘… many many books. A “plethora” of books, you say?’ ‘A few books,’ says Jacob, nervous enough to vomit. ‘Or quite a few: yes.’ ‘May I remove books to see?’ Ogawa does so, eagerly, without waiting for an answer. For Jacob, the world is narrowed to a thin tunnel between him and his Psalter, visible between his two-volume copy of Sara Burgerhart. (TAJZ, p. 21)

Only high officials of the Japanese government were allowed access to the Dutchmen on Dejima. The Dutch Chief had the duty to write a yearly report for the East India Company (Oranda fūsetsugaki, オランダ風説書), of which the oldest report archived now dates back to 1675. The Dutch were not allowed to study Japanese, and so they had to communicate via Japanese translators. Every year the Dutch chief of Dejima was summoned to Edo in order to report to the Shogun about the European situation.

Oranda fūsetsugaki –

The Hall of Sixty Mats is airy and shaded. Fifty or sixty sweating, fanning officials – all important-looking samurai – enclose a precise rectangle. Magistrate Shiroyama is identified by his central position and raised dais. His fifty-year-old face looks weathered by high office. Light enters the hall from a sunlit courtyard of white pebbles, contorted pine trees and moss-coated rocks to the south. Hangings sway over openings to the west and east. A meaty-necked guard announces, ‘Oranda Kapitan!’ and ushers the Dutchmen into the rectangle of courtiers to three crimson cushions. Chamberlain Tomine speaks and Kobayashi translates: ‘Let the Dutchmen now pay respect.’  (TAJZ, p. 40)

The Japanese imported Dutch wool, textile, cotton, medicine, clock works and sugar. They were also interested in western knowledge, mainly in the positive sciences. Rangaku (蘭学, “the study of the Netherlands”) as a term for the study of western sciences, medicine and technology in particular, and the translation of these books in Japanese, led to the beginning of a modern Japan. In return, the Dutch were mostly interested in copper. They shipped it to Batavia, the capital of Dutch India.

description of a microscope

description of a microscope

Interpreter Iwase translates for Chamberlain Tomine, who arrived with the hollyhock-crested scroll-tube delivered this morning from Edo. Kobayashi’s Dutch translation of Edo’s message is half unrolled. ‘Number?’ ‘What,’ Vorstenbosch’s patience is exaggerated, ‘is the Shogun’s offer?’ ‘Nine thousand six hundred piculs,’ announces Kobayashi. ‘Best copper.’ 9,600, scratches the nib of Jacob’s quill, piculs copper. ‘This offer is,’ affirms Iwase Banri, ‘a good and big increase.’ A ewe bleats. Jacob fails to guess what his patron is thinking. ‘We request twenty thousand piculs,’ assesses Vorstenbosch, ‘and we are offered less than ten? Does the Shogun mean to insult Governor van Overstraeten?’ (TAJZ, p.144)

When confronted with Western weapons, technology and ships, many Japanese realized – but only a few dare to utter – that sakoku, Japan’s voluntarily isolation, is an illusion which will soon come to an end. The supremacy of European colonial power is visible in all of Asia, and unconquered Japan is too tempting to leave alone. In order to survive, Japan should start developing a similar military force to handle foreign attacks. In the story of Jacob de Zoet, The English also attempt to extort a trade agreement – and fail, thanks to the resistance of the Dutch.

‘The recent incursions by Captain Benyowsky and Captain Laxman warn us of a near future when straying Europeans no longer request provisions, but demand trade, quays and warehouses, fortified ports, unequal treaties. Colonies shall take root like thistles and weeds. Then we shall understand that our “impregnable fortress” was a placebo and nothing more (…) Dr Maeno clears his well-respected throat and raises his fan. ‘First, I wish to thank Yoshida-san for his stimulating thoughts. Second, I wish to ask how best the threats he enumerates can be countered?’ (…) ‘By the creation of a Japanese Navy, by the foundation of two large shipyards, and by the establishment of an academy where foreign instructors would train Japanese shipwrights, armourers, gunsmiths, officers and sailors.’ The audience as unprepared for the audacity of Yoshida’s vision. (TAJZ, p. 198)

When the Union Jack appears on the frigate’s jack-staff, Jacob de Zoet knows, The war is here. The transactions between the longboat and the greeting party puzzled him, but now the strange behaviour is explained. Chief van Cleef and Peter Fischer have been kidnapped. (TAJZ, p. 365)

Philipp Franz von Siebold watching an incoming Dutch ship at Dejima

Philipp Franz von Siebold watching an incoming Dutch ship at Dejima – painting by Kawahara Keiga

On the last day of 1799, the East India Company is declared bankrupt. Jacob de Zoet, however, stays in Japan and returns years later home as a rich man.

Fischer smiles for a long second. ‘Captain Penhaligon’s orders are to negotiate a trade treaty with the Japanese.’ ‘Jan Compagnie trades in Japan,’ says Ouwehand. ‘Not John Company.’ Fischer picks his teeth. ‘Ah, yes, some more news. Jan Compagnie is dead as a doornail. Yes. At midnight on the last day of the eighteenth century whilst some of you – ‘ he happens to glance at Gerritszoon and Baert – ‘were singing rude songs about your Germanic ancestors on Long Street, the Ancient Honourable Company ceased to exist. Our employer and paymaster is bankrupt.’ (TAJZ, p.390)

It is in 1854 that American Commodore Perry forced the opening of Japan. As predicted, unequal treaties follow, but thanks to the import of Western knowledge, the transition to a modern nation ran smoothly.

Kurofune, the “black ships” of the Americans, depicted by the Japanese. –

Facts for Fun

– Want to read more about this? Goodman, Grant Kohn. Japan and the Dutch, 1600-1853. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 2000.


– Vande Walle, Willy. Een geschiedenis van Japan van samurai tot soft power. Leuven: Acco, 2011.
– Fragments (TAJZ) from Mitchell, David. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. London: Sceptre, 2010.
– Wikipedia
– Pictures from Wikimedia Commons
– Thanks to Sam for lending me the book!

Becoming Japanese: Stories of Immigration and Naturalization

testbanner3These days, Japan’s population (126,981,371 on June 19, 2014) is declining severely, caused by low birth rate and next to nothing immigration. As a result, Japan experiences a huge aging problem, what will lead to a population of which people aged over 65 account for at least 40% of it. (source) At present in Japan, the rate of this population group is 30%, making up for the oldest population worldwide. (source) Low birth rate is a development that can be observed in various countries, although the country with the lowest birth rate is without doubt Japan (7.64 births per thousand).


The blue line is the birth rate, the grey line indicates the mortality rate. In 1966 the birth rate dropped suddenly. According to Japanese superstition, women born in “the year of the Fire Horse” (hinoeuma) will bring misfortune to their husband. –

Remarkable as well is the extreme low rate of immigration. Currently in Japan, 98.5% is ethnic Japanese, 0.5% Korean, 0.4% Chinese and all other nationalities do not exceed 0.6%. To compare with Belgium, where 11% of the population is not ethnic Belgian, this is ridiculously low. (source)


Recently, the government reported to consider boosting the number of immigrants for the benefit of a long-term economic growth. Japan would accept 200,000 immigrants a year. (source) Doctors, nurses and care-givers are mostly welcome, as in 2050 worker-to-retiree ratio will be 1,55:1. (source) The immigration and naturalization procedure is not easy, however. Especially language requirements are tough. In 2011, only 15 of 285 Indonesian nurses passed the test in Japanese, full of complex medical terminology. (source) The others, although qualified nurses but not able to read kanji that well, were sent home. Maximum 2000 non-Japanese with a “high degree of capability” (high salary, Ph.D or specialized knowledge) on the contrary are surprisingly not expected to achieve a certain Japanese fluency (source).  It looks like Japan is rather hesitant to accept foreigners.


Jon Heese, foreign-born politician in Japan, mentions three reasons for this aversion. Firstly, people fear change. Secondly, until recently Japanese people grew up with the idea of “fearing foreigners”. They believe foreigners are more likely to commit crimes. Thirdly, there is excessive nationalism in Japan. (source)

But there are success stories about foreigners becoming Japanese as well. In this post, I will focus on naturalized Westerners, as I believe it is more difficult for non Asian people to assimilate.

william adams .How could we not start with William Adams a.k.a. Miura Anjin 三浦按針 (1564 – 1620), the first Westerner to be “naturalized”? In 1600 sailor Adams and 8 other members of the remaining crew of the Dutch vessel “De Liefde” stranded in Japan and were captured. But instead of the crucifix that awaited most “foreign pirates”, Adams was lucky. Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa appointed him as his diplomatic and trade advisor. For his contributions to Western style shipbuilding in Japan, Adams was rewarded with a high salary, a big house, the title of samurai and many precious gifts. Adams himself thought highly of Japan, its people and the shogun:

The people of this Land of Japan are good of nature, curteous above measure, and valiant in war: their justice is severely executed without any partiality upon transgressors of the law. They are governed in great civility. I mean, not a land better governed in the world by civil policy. The people be very superstitious in their religion, and are of diverse opinions. (William Adams’s letter to Bantam, 1612)

From now on called Miura Anjin (for William Adams was declared dead by the shogun), he married a Japanese woman and had two children. In 1613 he helped to set up a trading factory for the British East India Company and set more than once sail to Siam and Cochinchina for business. Miura never returned home. He died as one of the most influential Westerners in Japan. Today, his memory is still kept alive by several monuments and a Miura Anjin festival.

Schermafbeelding 2014-06-19 om 21.01.28Next up is Lafcadio Hearn a.k.a. Koizumi Yakumo 小泉八雲 (1850 – 1904), born in Greece with a British father, raised in Ireland and sent to the United States at the age of 19.  After finishing his studies he became a journalist there. But Hearn, with his international background, was not meant to stay in one place for too long. In 1890 he travelled to Japan and became a teacher at a local school in Matsue. Hearn did not only fell in love with Japan, he actually married a Japanese girl of the Koizumi family and became a naturalized Japanese. He spent the rest of his life on teaching at a secondary school and at Tokyo and Waseda university. Hearn wrote down his impressions of Japan in various books and short stories. As an enthusiastic Japanophile, Hearn was later often accused of exoticizing Japan. Indeed he is fascinated by the Japanese nature and can frequently be found glorifying Japanese culture and traditions.

The most beautiful sight in Japan, and certainly one of the most beautiful in the world, is the distant apparition of Fuji on cloudless days, – more especially days of spring and autumn, when the greater part of the peak is covered with late or with early snows. (in “Fuji-no-Yama”)

His works however have great historical value, and moreover, they presented an image of Japan to the West. Hearn describes with precision the transformation of a traditional Japan in a modern one. Among his writings, many focus on Japanese folklore, legends and ghost stories.

Schermafbeelding 2014-06-19 om 21.25.20

Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

A third and more recent case was the naturalization of Donald Keene a.k.a. Kīn Donarudo 鬼怒鳴門(°1922), American born scholar of Japanese literature. Keene taught for over 50 years at the Columbia University. He published many works of importance in the field of Japanese studies, covering the topics of Japanese literature, history and culture. Furthermore, he provided several translations of Japanese classic and modern literature and befriended famous writers Mishima Yukio, Kenzaburō Ōe and Junichirō Tanizaki. Keene attributed a great deal to the study of Japan and as a would-be scholar of the Japanese myself, i can only admire him. Keene’s interest in Japan was triggered by a translation of the Tale of Genji.

After the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, Keene was deeply moved by the tragedy Japanese people went through, and decided at the age of 89, to spend the rest of his life there. Keene chose his Japanese name with a sense of humor: the characters mean devil – angry – sound – gate and are a phonetic version of his English name.

“When I first did it, I thought I’d get a flood of angry letters that ‘you are not of the Yamato race!’ but instead, they welcomed me,” said Dr. Keene, using an old name for Japan. “I think the Japanese can detect, without too much trouble, my love of Japan.” (in The New York Times)

But after all, Keene concludes “I have become a Japanese in many ways. Not pretentiously, but naturally.” Not the legal way makes you a Japanese, the cases of these three people point out that becoming Japanese is a matter of deep love for and a strong connection with Japan.