Leprosy Literature

leprosy9One year ago, I wrote a paper for Culture and Disability, an elective course in my Anthropology program. I took this course because, as you probably noticed by now, I am very interested in the history of medicine (and in medical anthropology as a whole), in particular in the Japanese history of psychiatry and its relation to culture. For this course, I chose to write about Hansen’s Disease, which had (and has, to some degree) been a controversial topic in Japan. You can read about the history of leprosy in Japan in this post. While researching Japanese policies on Hansen’s disease I stumbled across the genre of leprosy literature. I felt that this topic deserved more attention, so here is a short introduction to the genre.


 From 1909 until this day, Hansen’s disease patients residing at leprosaria have produced a considerably large amount of literary works. The Collected Works of Hansen’s Disease Literature that is being published from the year 2002 on, covers thus far leprosy literature up to 1965 but counts already 10 volumes of each around 550 pages. Leprosy literature (rai bungaku 癩文学or hansenbyō bungaku ハンセン病文学) can be described as prose, essays and poetry on the topic of leprosy by leprosy sufferers, a unique phenomenon in its kind, since no other literary genre exists in Japan named after a disease. It is important to note that this excludes stories in which leprosy plays a role, but is not written by patients themselves.

leprosy3During the 1930s for example, Japanese people were fascinated by this phenomenon of leprosy, illustrated by the many whodunits in which not the murderer but the ‘leper’ who had infected the protagonist, had to be unmasked (Burns, 2004). More highbrow literature used leprosy as a metaphor for an inevitable fate. Neither of these genres centered around the experiences of the Hansen’s disease patient him/herself. On the contrary, such stories often encouraged the stigmatizing ideas about leprosy patients at that time. Literature written by patients, on the other hand, focused strongly on the psychological impact of being diagnosed with leprosy and the pursuit of happiness once inside the leprosarium.

hansenbyo bungakuFurthermore, leprosy literature is characterized by a particular style of writing. Traditional Japanese poetry such as haiku and tanka was often preferred over other literary genres since it was accessible in structure, allowed to convey personal feelings anonymously, and was usually composed in a collective setting (Tanaka, 2013). The establishment of poetry circles inside the leprosaria generated a feeling of belonging and community. Hence, literature produced by isolated leprosy patients can be regarded as an expression of a disability culture.

However, leprosy literature should not be considered as the literary materialization of right-based movement ideology or outside of the context of the isolation policy. “For some patients, an escape from social stigma and the sense of duty to the nation was a source of happiness. For others, they chafed at the forcible quarantine and life in the hospital. In their poems, the process of translation is a more complex process (Tanaka, 2013: 114)”. Burns (2004) points out that leprosy literature was not exclusively directed against the system of institutionalization; on the contrary, the institution itself was actively involved in the production of residents’ literature. Already in the 1930s, every leprosarium had its own journal which contained, besides reports and announcements, prose and poetry written by patients. Hence, the journal circulated mainly inside the leprosarium and was seldom read by ‘healthy’ people. This changed when leprosy patient Hōjō Tamio published a series of short stories with the recommendation of famous writer Kawabata Yasunari in a well-known literary journal. Intra-leprosarium competitions were also held, and these attracted exceptionally the attention of ‘outside’ readers.

The production of “leprosy literature” was thus mediated—indeed encouraged—by the leprosarium system, which provided an incentive to write by authorizing the annual competitions, created a medium for publication in the form of the house journals, and gave financial rewards and status to patients who became authors and editors. It is important to note, however, that censorship was involved as well. (Burns, 2004: 201)

Burns further argues that the encouragement of literary output by the Japanese authorities was a political strategy to promote the system of institutionalization. This places leprosy literature in a context of propaganda and self-censorship; through his or her own literature, the system created “a citizen who was willing to be hospitalized for the good of the nation, with every effort aiming for the eradication of the illness from the Japanese social landscape (Tanaka, 2013: 102)”. In other words, a cultural identity did not only emerge from among the patients themselves, it was also mediated,  reshaped and encouraged by the authorities in favor of an isolation policy. Especially the portrayal of the leprosarium as a place in which patients could rediscover the meaningfulness of life, served to assure both leprosy patients and ‘healthy’ people of the leprosarium’s usefulness.

Leprosy literature is indeed a unique genre that emerged from personal experiences intersecting with the social and political climate in Japan at a given point in history. All elements in the story of Japanese Hansen’s disease patients have contributed to the formation of this specific genre, which can thus be identified as an expression of disability culture. To finish, I introduce you to an example: this short poem (tanka 短歌) below was printed in a 1927 pamphlet and written by patient Kanemaru Yūichi. It appeared in translation in Tanaka (2013), but here I provide my own translation. For more poems, click on the link to read Tanaka’s article and translations.

ようやくに                  yōyaku ni                     Even if at last
病む心地さえ              yamu kokochi sae       I had forgotten the pain
忘れて得し                  wasurete eshi              in my heart, how lonely
吾に淋しき                  ware ni sabishiki        I felt when my dear father
慈父の門出よ              jifu no monde yo         departed through the gate

– Kyushu Leper Asylum Guide Book, 1927, p. 419

 

References

  • Burns, Susan L. “Making Illness into Identity: Writing ‘Leprosy Literature’ in Modern Japan.” Japan Review 16 (2004): 191–211.
  • Tanaka, K. M. “Contested Histories and Happiness: Leprosy Literature in Japan.” Health, Culture and Society 5, no. 1 (November 15, 2013). 
  • http://leprosy.jp/
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Fox Possession & Modern Medicine

mental health 7 bannerIt has been a while, but in this post I would like to share another part of my (previous) Master’s thesis on mental health stigma with you! If you are new to this series of blog posts, feel free to check out part 12345, 6 first before getting into this one. Part 7 will discuss interpretations of madness through fox possession and other cultural constructions, while paying attention to the introduction of modern medicine and the social changes in the perception of mental health this brought along.


Fox possession (kitsunetsuki 狐憑き) became the most valid and prevalent explanation for mental disorders in the Edo period, supplemented by badger (tanuki 狸) and goblin (tengu 天狗) possession. In contrast to possession by demons (mono no ke) and deities (kami), as had been common during the Nara and Heian period[1], foxes underwent a cultural emancipation and started to play a major role in a “world where fox possession was a matter of course[2]” from the early 17th century on. Lafcadio Hearn recorded this phenomenon in detail in his work Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan.

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Hearn and wife

Goblin foxes are peculiarly dreaded in Izumo for three evil habits attributed to them. (…) The third and worst is that of entering into people and taking diabolical possession of them and tormenting them into madness. This affliction is called “kitsune-tsuki.” Strange is the madness of those into whom demon foxes enter. Sometimes they run naked shouting through the streets. Sometimes they lie down and froth at the mouth, and yelp as a fox yelps. (…) It not infrequently happens that the victims of fox-possession are cruelly treated by their relatives—being severely burned and beaten in the hope that the fox may be thus driven away. Then the Hoin or Yamabushi is sent for—the exorciser. The exorciser argues with the fox, who speaks through the mouth of the possessed. When the fox is reduced to silence by religious argument upon the wickedness of possessing people, he usually agrees to go away on condition of being supplied with plenty of tofu or other food[.] (…) For all these reasons, and doubtless many more, people believed to have foxes are shunned. Inter-marriage with a fox-possessing family is out of the question; and many a beautiful and accomplished girl in Izumo cannot secure a husband because of the popular belief that her family harbours foxes. (…) Very strong men are believed to be proof against all such goblinry.[3]

From this account, we learn that the possessed, although not personally blamed for their condition, were sometimes treated cruelly and faced discrimination even after recovery. Similar to mono no ke and monogurui, fox possession involves an external, evil source invading the body and dominating it from the inside, thus driving it mad. Moreover, it was believed that a lack of physical strength facilitates such afflictions. Fox possession was viewed as the cause of eccentric behavior, unnatural death, disappearances, fleeing the village, transformations and other actions regarded as “madness”. Other, often bizarre stories of fox possession are mentioned in countless Japanese works from the late Edo period, such as in Ear Bag (Mimibukuro 耳嚢), Anecdotes from the North Window (Hokusōsadan 北窓瑣談) and Kokutensago (黒甜瑣語)[4].

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Fox possession drawn by Okada Gyokusan. The image dates back to the Edo period

Moreover, the kitsunetsuki theory was still supported by physicians: in Evening Talks of the Kasshi-cycle Year (Kasshiyawa 甲子夜話), a doctor witnesses a fox haunting a woman and threatening to kill her, while in Shunparōhikki (春波楼筆記), the medical treatment of a possessed patient is described[5]. Nevertheless, some physicians were skeptical about the assumed spiritual origin of “madness” and suggested that perhaps it could be regarded as some kind of illness. The author of Ear Bag lists several anecdotes involving fox and badger possession but did not leave the impression of believing the stories himself[6]. Kagawa Shūtoku香川修徳 wrote in Ippondō Gyōyoigen (一本堂行余医言, op. posth. 1807): “That which is commonly called fox possession is always the symptom of a mania (kyōshō 狂症); it is not the curse of a fox or badger. Only once or twice in hundred, thousand cases they are really possessed by a fox[7]”. The Accounts of Official Business 御用留帳 (Goyōdomechō, 1703-1867) in Moriyama, Michinoku, give various descriptions of incidents involving “mad” people, but recognizes in most cases their “madness” as an illness or as a result of intoxication (shukyō 酒狂).

There are, however limited, still examples of “madness” interpreted as fox or spirit possession[8]. In short, the new interpretation of “madness”, instigated by the venue of medical science, did not yet fully exclude the traditional perception of fox possession. On the contrary, both concepts were complementary because they were regarded as the cause for completely different symptoms – a comprehensive idea in the modern sense like “mental disorders” was not yet developed. In the medical books of the Edo period, we find descriptions of spirit possessions interpreted as jasui 邪祟 (“evil curse”)[9]. Hence, fox possession was only rejected as a wrong and superstitious interpretation of “madness” from modern times on[10].

JozefGuislain

Jozef Guislain from Ghent specialized in the humane treatment of the mentally ill.

The introduction of western medicine by the Dutch (ranpō igaku 蘭方医学) brought along the notion of an interior pathogenesis[11], in contrast with the traditional belief that “madness or other illnesses were caused by the addition of something exterior, similar to injuries or intoxication[12]”. The idea that consciousness, and therefore the cause of “madness” is situated in the brain, as suggested by the Dutch, was revolutionary[13]. It also complicated treatment, since the usual exorcism was deemed not appropriate anymore to cure mental afflictions. In a medical context, jasui was no longer “the subject of shamanistic treatment but took meaning as an action approached from a doctor’s standpoint[14]”.

However, treatment rooted in tradition was still prescribed[15]. For example, Kagawa Shūtoku recommended in his practical work Ippondō Yakusen (一本堂薬撰, 1738) “sprinkling of water as effective against demonstrated madness[16]”. In other words, in the Edo period, some mental disorders were still perceived as spirit possessions and necessitated traditional methods, but in combination with newly introduced medical treatment. In premodern Japan,

[Madness] sometimes invaded the body from the outside and could then be expelled. It was regarded as something supernatural and exterior. Hence, it was possible for the person who was possessed by a fox to return to his normal condition by removing the evil spirit from his body and mind. Fox possession was certainly not viewed as irreversible or incurable, and the possessed was therefore not criticized according to secular morals. [17]

Once the evil was removed, the patient could return to his state as before the possession. “Madness” was something superfluous that did not originate from the afflicted person himself and could easily be removed. As a result, those who were or had been possessed by evil spirits were not regularly the subject of social stigma, although it must be said that some faced cruel treatment that was directed toward the fox “inside” them. This is in contrast with “madness” later defined as a “mental illness”, whereby “the existence of the patient himself was the foundation on which the mental originated; not only did this relate to the moment when the illness manifested itself, its time-axis was to be traced back to the patient’s past[18]”. Even with a gradual development of psychiatry, doctors kept struggling to give a clear explanation for mental diseases, whereas a curse or possession had provided cause and meaning for “madness” in se[19]. “Madness” grew highly personal, and provoked stigmatizing attitudes claiming that the patient himself was at fault or that mental disorders were untreatable.

References

download the list here.

All pictures are from Wikimedia Commons

My Internship in Japan: Kyushu Travels III

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In a previous post, I wrote about my internship from mid-September to mid-November 2017. My main place of residence was with a host family in Minamata, but I also traveled quite a bit during those twee months. I visited the following places: Kawaminami, Aya, Nishihara, Furuishi, Hita, Yufuin, Oyama, Shimonoseki, Ube, Yamaguchi, Hisayama, Hitoyoshi, Mizukami, Itsuki, Morotsuka, Tōgo, Miyazaki, Kobayashi, Yatsushiro, Jōyōmachi, Ukiha and Fukuoka. In true paparazzi style, I took hundreds of pictures of which a selected few are published here. Although I am really bad at it, I have tried to contain myself to not include the complete history and a detailed description of natural and cultural features of every place I have set foot in. Just keep in mind that there is much more to write than I did. Enjoy! This is part III of the Kyushu travels posts (click for Part I and Part II). It is also the last part, and coincides neatly with the submission of my final thesis which was based on my internship and fieldwork in Kyushu. 


The first place I want to introduce you to is Hitoyoshi city 人吉市, although we basically just drove through it. Positioned on the border of Kumamoto prefecture, Miyazaki prefecture and Kagoshima prefecture in the South, Hitoyoshi is surrounded by mountains and forests, the natural borders. It houses a national treasure, the Aoi Aso shrine青井阿蘇神社. According to legend, the shrine was founded in 806. It is thanks to the powerful Sagara clan 相良氏, who ruled for 700 years, that the temple still stands: it was more or less common for daimyō 大名(feudal lords) to destroy everything that preceded their reign, and the culture-loving Sagara clan did not. We visited a Buddhist temple, the Shōrenji Amidado青蓮寺阿弥陀堂, built in 1295. This is all I know about Hitoyoshi, so let’s move on to the next location!

A 40-minute drive away lies Mizukami village 水上村. Only a little over 2,000 people live in Mizukami, and yet I was so lucky to meet two elderly residents and have a conversation over lunch at their place. To prepare for winter times, they had been pickling all sorts of vegetables and fruits in big plastic jars. Their house was impressive: it was traditionally built, with an enormous fireplace in the living room and some smaller ones in he kitchen – no need for air conditioning or central heating. Not surprisingly, the profession of the house master was fireplace builder, quite a unique specialization in these modern times. As a young boy, he excelled in baseball but gave up his dream to help out his family. We had a conversation about the rural lifestyle: he remembered that every family kept goats and chickens to eat away grass and leftovers. People ate wild boar’s meat with herbs to strengthen the body. In times of poverty, around 50 years ago, all types of animals were consumed: birds, deer, raccoon dogs, goats, dogs… On another note, I was told that the men in Mizukami are strong and can drink a lot of alcohol. Yet, in reality, they die on a younger age because of these expectations.

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Traditional fireplace in Mizukami

Mizukami is blessed with a sacred forest around mount Ichifusa, marked by a torii, a shinto gate. The trees, almost all cedars are enormous, very old and spectacular. Can you spot the twin tree? Some trees are over 1000 years old. They mark the path that people walk to visit the shrine.

I visited Itsuki village 五木村 on a rainy but beautiful fall day. With its mixed forest of colorful maples and evergreen trees, Itsuki is located high in the mountains, and is particularly famous for its lullaby, itsuki komoriuta 五木子守歌. In the past, many poor people lived here. Their children travelled through the mountains looking for a job to do, while singing sad songs. One of these songs, a lullaby sung by a babysitter, has been rediscovered in the 1930s and is a classic nowadays. When you pull up into the parking lot of the local specialities shop, you are welcomed by the sad sound of lullabies. Itsuki is also known for its tofu specialities such as inaka tōfu, tofu that tastes like cream cheese, and yamauni tōfu, tofu fermented with miso.

On the other side of the prefectural border lies Morotsuka village 諸塚村. The forests, covering 95% of Morotsuka, form a unique patchwork of broad-leaf trees, cedars, bamboo, tea plants… In 2015, the forest was acknowledged as World Agricultural Heritage. Most of these forests are private property and are sustainably managed by families. Locals cultivate shiitake シイタケ, a type of mushroom, on oaks and beeches, and the exquisite wood itself is logged and sold with an FSC label. Of the 1,700 inhabitants, only a couple of residences can occupy the higher grounds because the danger exists that they go down the slope like dominoes when too many houses are built there: the strong winds can create an unstable situation. I was in the passenger’s seat when we drove through the hills and I can tell you – it’s not the most relaxing drive, although the view is phenomenal.

Mushrooms are sold in the shopping street in all forms and shapes: fresh, dried, in powder form, still on a tree stump… Besides the mushrooms, different types of potatoes (such as the bright purple one in the picture above) are local specialities. Because of the many quality trees, bees also feel at home in Morotsuka. Locals eat honey including the comb as a snack. I had a little piece the next day, it really is sickening sweet! I don’t know if you would like to try it out, but another delicacy of Morotsuka is bee larvae. Apparently, these are yummy when fried on the stove.

Speaking about bees, did you know that one of my greatest fears during my internship were these striped creatures? Before you start laughing, I need to tell you that the Japanese countryside is home to the venomous Asian giant hornet. When you get stung, there is a high chance you get into anaphylactic shock, or suffer a cardiac arrest or multiple organ failure. Taking into consideration that the nearest hospital is 20 minutes away by car and that every year 30 people die from it, it was only normal that I  got terrified when I saw or heard one buzzing around. At one point, we were logging bamboo wood in the forest and saw a giant beehive between the trees. We returned home pretty quickly. Pro tip: you should stand very still until the monster moves on…

kobayashi frogs nojirikopia

plaza.rakuten.co.jp/miyazakisi/

To assist at two lectures in Miyazaki prefecture, I visited the towns of Tōgo 東郷町 and Kobayashi 小林市 briefly. In Tōgo, I noticed some interesting specialities at the local shop. For example, you could buy rice bran in large quantities (used for cooking and cleaning purposes). They also had the biggest yuzu (citrus fruit) I have ever seen and corn rice and black rice. Kobayashi, on the other hand, is known for its fruits: melon, pear and grapes. The streetlights were shaped like melons, how cute is that? Kobayashi is also home to an amusement park called Nojirikopia 野尻湖ピア where you can find an enormous amount of – creepy – frog statues. A lady told me that this is an expression of the local’s quirky sense of humor: in Japanese, the word for ‘frog’ is pronounced the same as the verb ‘return home’ (kaeru). Kobayashi town struggles with depopulation, since many young people move to big cities (e.g. to Miyazaki for university studies) and never come back. With the frogs, they want to persuade the younger generation to stay in their home town.

Yatsushiro 八代市 is one of the largest cities in Kumamoto prefecture. When driving from Minamata to Yatsushiro, you might notice something very un-Japanese: the land close to the water, the Yatsushiro Sea, is completely flat, while mountains rise up on your right side. In the past, the sea level reached to those mountains. At some point in history, the area became wetland, and nowadays the sea level has lowered so much that the flat land can be used to live and work on. For centuries, Yatsushiro thrived as a port town, shipping to Nagasaki and beyond. The history center of Yatsushiro is located next to a small river. In the past there was a big castle, but now only a shinto shrine ( Yatsushiro-gū 八代宮 or myōken-gu 妙見宮) remains.

According to legend, the deity Myōken, god of the North Star, came to Yatsushiro on the back of a mythical sea creature called Kida. Kida, on the picture right above, is part turtle and part snake. During the shrine’s festival, a representation of Kida, weighing 200 kilo, is carried through the streets. The whole town dresses up in historical clothes and holds a procession, which also involves the controversial practice of getting horses drunk on sake and forcing them to run through the noisy crowd.  Besides sliced horse meat (馬刺し basashi), other specialities of the region are karashi renkon 辛しレンコン (lotus roots stuffed with spicy mustard) and pottery (Yatsushiro-yaki 八代焼).

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Ukiha city

Last but not least, we arrived in Ukiha city うきは市 on the day of my departure back to Belgium. This city in Fukuoka prefecture is particularly attractive because of its well-preserved white-washed walls, paper lanterns and traditional houses. These look even more lovely when decorated with dolls for the Hina doll festival. The place is also known as “Kingdom of Fruits”, giving locals and visitors the opportunity to pick fruits in the many orchards. We visited a traditional crafts store in Ukiha, where I bought some souvenirs (very timely, I know) and a present for myself – a glass necklace (picture below on the right). We looked around the shop and had a chat with the artisan himself. He had travelled to Spain to study the stained glass technique, and was now probably the only one in Japan who applied Japanese motives and themes to glass art objects. The necklace I got is a perfect combination of my love for stained glass (the prettiest part of European churches, in my opinion), my love for Japanese arts and crafts and my love for nature. The purple flower is a bell or balloon flower (桔梗 kikyō), native to East Asia. In ‘flower language’ (花言葉 hanakotoba), the bell-flower represents eternal love and faithfulness.

Now that I have guided you around Kyushu, I  will finish this series with sharing some fun and surprising things I experienced. For example:

  • That time when I was invited to the wedding of people I didn’t know. I was even ‘forced’ to be in the official wedding picture despite my objection – not in the back but in full sight on the second row, behind the parents of the bride. I imagine the happy couple going through their wedding pictures ten years from now and wondering what that foreigner with casual clothes was doing there… At least they were happy with my wedding gift: a box of Belgian chocolates!
  • That time when I had tea in a tea field, located 700m above sea level. Even better: the tea in my cup is the same tea as produced on that particular field. Also, I was gifted so much tea that a quarter of my luggage was filled with packs of tea. As you might remember from a previous post, I worked for 4 days on a tea farm and the farmer gifted me a bag of the tea leaves I had selected and labelled it “Ann’s 3 year Bancha tea”. Nothing is more satisfactory than enjoying something you made yourself.
  • Those times I looked my finest in Japanese granny clothes. I can’t stop giggling when I look at these pictures, can you? On the countryside, you need to be covered fully when going out to work in the field, because insects can do nasty things to you. In the picture left, I had already gotten rid of my gloves, sunglasses, fishing jacket, rubber boots and dirty socks. My red face is proof that it’s no fun working in this outfit, logging and burning bamboo wood in the forest, while it is 25 degrees Celsius outside. In the right picture, I am ready to make some traditional Japanese sweets. Most of the clothes I could borrow from the lady of the house, since I did not bring the appropriate work outfit.
  • That time I attended not one, but two sports festivals at local elementary schools on two consecutive days. I sat with the families, watched the games and even participated twice, once in hoop rolling and once in throwing balls. I had a great time! Of course, the bentos were spectacular. And the kids were cute (even though they surrounded me and yelled “American” and “foreigner” (gaijin – derogatory). When I talked back and they got quiet because they did not expect me to speak Japanese, I took the opportunity to lecture them not to say something like that again).
  • That time I saw Manneken Pis in Minamata, and that time Kumamon visited the Minamata public library, casually scanning books the children wanted to borrow. You can say what you want, I get why the Japanese are so found of Kumamon, he’s a charming fellow. Why Manneken Pis is somewhere on a street corner in Minamata, on the other hand, I do not get.
  • That time Japan was surprisingly vegan: my favorites were the colorful vegetable sushi I enjoyed in Hita and the plant-based curry dish I helped making in the community kitchen of Minamata (still not advising you to go unprepared to Japan as a vegan, though).
  • That time I screen printed a t-shirt and that time I was taught how to play the koto, both for the first time. My dad is wearing the deer t-shirt now and I can’t wait for another opportunity to play the koto. The score is totally different from what I read in orchestra, a real challenge.

As you can read, I learned a lot during these nine weeks of internship. On my own, I would have never been able to travel to so many places and to meet that many interesting people. I received the opportunity to participate in daily life on the Japanese countryside, and wish to extend my gratitude to everyone who made this possible! ありがとうございました。

All pictures are mine, unless stated otherwise.

My Internship in Japan: Kyushu Travels II

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In a previous post, I wrote about my internship from mid-September to mid-November 2017. My main place of residence was with a host family in Minamata, but I also traveled quite a bit during those twee months. I visited the following places: Kawaminami, Aya, Nishihara, Furuishi, Hita, Yufuin, Oyama, Shimonoseki, Ube, Yamaguchi, Hisayama, Hitoyoshi, Mizukami, Itsuki, Morotsuka, Tōgo, Miyazaki, Kobayashi, Yatsushiro, Jōyōmachi, Ukiha and Fukuoka. In true paparazzi style, I took hundreds of pictures of which a selected few are published here. Although I am really bad at it, I have tried to contain myself to not include the complete history and a detailed description of natural and cultural features of every place I have set foot in. Just keep in mind that there is much more to write than I did. Enjoy! This is part II of the Kyushu travels posts. You can find part one here.


Let’s get this second part starting with a visit to Oita prefecture. I went to Hita city twice with side trips to Yufuin town and Ōyama town, the latter officially part of Hita since 2005. Hita city 日田市 gained importance at the end of the sixteenth century as the headquarters of the Toyotomi clan. Later, is was assigned as tenryō 天領, shogunal demesne for tax collection and other administrative matters, a center of power from where the Tokugawa shoguns ruled over Kyushu. Commerce and culture in Hita thrived, and the city became known as “little Kyoto” 小京都, still visible in the historic shopping street of Mameda nowadays.  Hita is known for its antique hina doll collection, imported by rich families during the Edo period, and geta, Japanese sandals, made from the excellent cedar trees that the surround the area.

A small village in Hita called Onta 小鹿田 houses only ten families who all share the same occupation: making pottery. Around 300 years ago, the three clans Yanase, Kuroki and Sakamoto established themselves there and started the tradition of Onta ware (ontayaki 小鹿田焼). Onta pottery is easily recognized by its simple but tasteful design and the unique comb-like patterns. Once you have set eyes on it, you will be able to recognize it everywhere. The potters retrieve the yellow-colored clay, rich in iron, from the surrounding mountains. Today, Onta pottery has been designated Intangible Cultural Property but until eighty years ago, nobody knew about it. As a result, visiting Onta is like stepping into a world where time stands still. Because my pictures are of mediocre quality, I recommend you to look for better ones on the Internet (Onta has been captured beautifully by Simone Armer, for example).

The first thing you notice, is the pounding sound from the karausu 唐臼, wooden constructions powered by water energy and operated all day long without manpower or electricity. Through a small mill, water is scooped from the river below and poured into the hollow side of the beam. With every “thump”, the water-filled side tilts and the hammer on the other side crushes the clay to powder  – this sound has been selected as one of the 100 soundscapes of Japan. Every family can only have two pottery wheels, and since the profession is passed on in a patrilineal way (yes, it’s very traditions), the grandfather will stop working once the oldest grandson is ready to take over. The labor-intensive task of preparing the clay is done by the female family members. They transfer the crushed clay from the karausu pits to a trough with water, and then put it on top of a kiln to harden. When the clay is moulded and decorated in the desired shape, the onta ware is placed outside to dry in the sun. In the last phase, the pottery is burned for 60 hours and glazed. The “climbing kilns” in which this happens is only lit five times a year. During that time, the potter is barely allowed to sleep, because he has to watch over his pottery.

I had expected a lot of tourists in Onta, but we were the only people walking around, chatting with the potters and buying plates and cups in the shops. If you are in the vicinity, please go take a look! Every time I write about it, I am amazed by the fact that a place like Onta exists: its uniqueness is almost indescribable. As an afternoon snack that day, we had handmade soba in the only restaurant in the village – the plain noodles mirror the simplicity and quality of Onta ware perfectly. Yet, the area is not spared from natural disaster. Some time before my visit, the neighboring village Ono had been hit by a landslide caused by torrential rains in July 2017. As you can see from the picture below, the houses alongside the river were completely wept away, giving rise to three casualties…

Once an independent town, Ōyama 大山 is now part of the expanding city of Hita. Oyama has an interesting history: until 1961, the local agriculture focused, with governmental support, on the cultivation of rice. But unlike other areas, Ōyama’s fields are too small for this type of cultivation and the population remained in poverty. As a result, the New Plum and Chestnut Movement was established, which provided farmer residents with subsidized seedlings and training session to facilitate the transition. Plum and chestnut crops proved to be succesful. Ōyama is now famous for these products: they organize annual umeboshi (dried plum) contests and festivals, and I can personally testify to the umeboshi’s deliciousness.

Moreover, agricultural successes led to wealth. An illustration of this is the slogan “Let’s plant plum and chestnut trees and go to Hawaii” (For decades, Hawaii has been the holiday destination by excellence for well-off Japanese). Apparently, at the end of the sixties, Ōyama residents had the highest rate of passport ownership in Japan with 70%! I visited the direct-sales stores Konohana Garten that features almost thousand locally produced items, and stuffed my belly at the popular buffet-style restaurant next-door.

Fifty kilometers east of Hita city lies Yufuin town 湯布院町. What I heard from the locals, goes as following: in the beginning, Yufuin was very rural with slim future perspectives. It had, however, amazing views on the surrounding lakes, rivers and mountains, and a several onsen, natural hot springs. Three young people took matters into their own hands, travelled to Baden-Baden in Germany, the mecca for natural springs in Europe, and learned how to make Yufuin more attractive to outsiders. Nowadays, the town is a popular destination for domestic as well as international tourism. One lady told me that where she used to make crayon drawings on rocks in wasteland, is now the main shopping street. Although most onsen are still resident-only, a couple of spas have been opened for tourists. I visited a high-end ryokan, one of the three traditional hotels in Yufuin that have contributed to the town’s attractiveness.

Yufuin is also home to a remarkable tradition: the screaming contest. First, everyone gathers on a large meadow for a local beef barbecue. Then, participants can shout whatever they feel like, going from personal worries to political statements. The screamer with the loudest voice – measured in decibel – wins (movie from 2015 here). Although I could not witness this bizarre contest, I had the opportunity to visit some talented craftsmen around town. First, I made my way to the atelier of designer Tokimatsu Tatsuo. He creates tableware and utensils by hand from a variety of wood types. One of his former apprentices started his own shop specializing in chopsticks nine years ago – a rarity. When I asked him about this choice, he explained that with chopsticks, not much of the wood is wasted. Here as well, you can choose between a whole array of wood types, lengths and styles. As a customer, it’s like choosing a wand in Diagon Alley. I was presented one of 25 centimeters in cherry tree wood. Did you know that it takes 4 years to make a qualitative pair of chopsticks? That is how long the cut wood needs to dry.

I spent most of my internship time on Kyūshū, but one day we crossed the border and entered Honshū, Japan’s main island. On the most Southern tip lies the city of Shimonoseki 下関. I was particularly excited about the visit because of Shimonoseki’s historical value. in the twelfth century, the decisive sea battle between the Minamoto and the Taira was fought in the bay of Dan-no-ura. Before there was a bridge, one could not easily cross the strait by boat between Honshū and Kyūshū because of the strong current. As a result, Shimonoseki lodged many travelers. During the Edo period, the Chōshū domain (the current Yamaguchi prefecture) ruled by the Mōri clan played an important role, and Shimonoseki attracted many influential politicians. In 1863, the battle of Shimonoseki Straits took place, followed by an almost year-long bombardment of the city by the foreign forces of US, The Netherlands, UK and France. The Japanese were forced to surrender. As a result, you can still visit foreign buildings around the city, such as the Former British Consulate (there was a Beatrix Potter exhibit going on). On the picture right, you can spot a garden on the roof of the building in eclectic Japanese-European style from the Former Akita Company: this was the first rooftop garden in Japan, and probably one of the first ones worldwide.

For the foodies among us, besides fugu fish and squid, Shimonoseki is known for its kawara soba, green tea buckwheat noodles, pork or beef, egg, seaweed, green onion, grated radish, lemon and chili flakes baked on a hot roof tile. To eat, you dip it in a tuna-based soup. According to legend, soldiers in the 19th century civil war heated their food on similar roof tiles due to lack of cooking materials. A clever soba maker reinvented this original way of serving soba in the 1960s, and it has only become more popular since then. Because of my dietary choices I cannot tell you how it tasted, but it sure looked delicious!

The kawara soba dish can only be enjoyed in Kawatana Onsen, a rural district at the outskirts of Shimonoseki. Perhaps it was just because of the stunning weather, but I thought Kawatana was like paradise. Not only are there tons of hot springs, nature has outdone itself by giving the residents a view to die for: primeval forests, beaches, mountains with hiking trails, near-by desert islands to camp on, historic pilgrimage routes, an excellent jogging path around the dam (see below) … In terms of culture, things can not get more exciting than this legend about a blue dragon. Once upon a time, when Kawatana was still swampland, an enormous blue dragon lived in the water. In the 6th century, an earthquake struck the area and killed the dragon. But the villagers kept praying for the magnificent creature, and they were rewarded with onsen, hot water that welled up from the earth.

But do not only take my word about Kawatana’s attractiveness: many poets and authors have come here to end their life in beauty. Not a few haikus have been written on this view. I wish to highlight one of them, written by Taneda Santōka 種田 山頭火:

「こころつかれて| 山が海が|うつくしすぎる」

kokoro tsukarete | yama ga umi ga | utsukushisugiru .

My heart is tired | the mountains, the sea | They are too beautiful (own translation)

A couple of his poems are engraved in rocks surrounding a thousand-year old camphor tree, which I could not fit in one picture (left). Kawatana has also been pimped to appeal more young artists, for example with the construction of an ultra-modern concert/cultural center, the Cortot Hall in 2010. The Hall was named after the Swiss musician  and founder of the Ecole Normale de musique de Paris Alfred Cortot, who had toured around Japan in the 1950s. At one point, he gazed out of his window at the Grand hotel in Kawatana and spotted the most beautiful island he had ever seen, Atsushima. It was his dream to live alone on that island. He started negotiations to buy it, but the village chief simply said: “if you come live here, I will give it to you for free”. From that time on, the island was known as 孤留島 Korutō, the same pronunciation as his name, with the kanji meaning ‘stay alone island’. Unfortunately, Cortot was unable return to Kawatana and he died of kidney failure ten years later. To celebrate 150 years of friendship between France and Japan, many musical events have been organised in partnership here since 2008.

Some more fun facts about Kawatana: 1) the vanguards are yellow instead of white. 2) Elderly ladies are called “sister” (neechan, neesan, oneesama) instead of “granny” (baachan, obaasan, obaasama), how cute is that? 3) The onsen contain radium (in a small-not-so-radioactive degree), which makes them more rare.

The next day, we drove further East to Tokiwa Park in Ube city 宇部市. Ube has a questionable reputation as an industrial coal city. In the past, this created so much air pollution that white laundry drying outside turned black instantly – and I can only imagine how badly the smog affected the residents’ health. Because of the passive attitude of the authorities in the 90s, a bottom-up movement took matters into their own hands: they wanted to transform Ube into a city of flowers, greenery and sculptures. Its showpiece is Tokiwa park ときわ公園 where all three elements are represented. I attended a meeting with a group of volunteers, who maintain the flower beds every Sunday. You can also enjoy interactive modern art sculptures in the park.

Further on the road, we made a brief stop in Yamaguchi to check out the vertical garden at the Shinyamaguchi shinkansen station. this vertical garden was designed by the French botanist Patrick Blanc. He researched over 100 local plants in the surrounding mountains. The plants were put into pockets of felt and attached to the wall. You can watch this making-of video [in Japanese], because my picture has particularly bad lighting.

Our last stop before heading back to Minamata was Hisayama 久山町, a town nearby Fukuoka. In Hisayama, koi fish swim in the ditches. In a popular local store, they sell ice cream with soy sauce flavor. You can imagine I was impressed. Food-wise, the area is also known for its dashi, or soup stock. Normally dashi is made from fish and kelp, but here you could choose from a variety of vegetable, mushroom, meat and fish stocks. Another fun feature of Hisayama is its scarecrows. Instead of boring straw puppets, the Hisayama residents bring it to a whole new level. They dress up their scarecrows and create a story around them. As is to be expected in a country with thousands of festivals, there is an annual scarecrow matsuri in Northern Hisayama during Fall. I have no pictures, but I googled it here for you. Go check it out, it’s highly amusing (and slightly creepy).

That’s it for this time! In the next post, we will continue our journey to other rural destinations across Kyushu. See you then!

My Internship in Japan: Kyushu travels I

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In my previous post, I wrote about my internship from mid-September to mid-November 2017. My main place of residence was with a host family in Minamata, but I also traveled quite a bit during those twee months. I visited the following places: Kawaminami, Aya, Nishihara, Furuishi, Hita, Yufuin, Oyama, Shimonoseki, Ube, Yamaguchi, Hisayama, Hitoyoshi, Mizukami, Itsuki, Morotsuka, Tōgo, Miyazaki, Kobayashi, Yatsushiro, Jōyōmachi, Ukiha and Fukuoka. In true paparazzi style, I took hundreds of pictures of which a selected few are published here. Although I am really bad at it, I have tried to contain myself to not include the complete history and a detailed description of natural and cultural features of every place I have set foot in. Just keep in mind that there is much more to write than I did. Enjoy! This is part I of the Kyushu travels posts.


One of my first trips involved crossing the island of Kyūshū from Minamata in the West to Kawaminami town 川南町 in Miyazaki prefecture in the East, a 4-hour drive. I actually went back once more to participate in a food event – for research purposes, of course. Kawaminami is a very versatile place to live: not only is it located at the Pacific ocean, ideal for surfers and fishing communities alike, the area is also covered with pastures and grassland for livestock farming, mountains and vegetable and tea fields. At the foot of the mountain range, there is a viewing point from where you can overlook the whole town (picture below left). Because of the sunny climate, strawberries, bananas, peanuts and other natural sweets are a local speciality. I met one surfing strawberry farmer and was impressed, but as is shown in this promo video for the town, it’s quite common…

Because the area covers such different landscapes and livelihoods that come with these landscapes, the animosity between the fishing community at the coast and the farming community in the mountains was driven to a high in recent times. The former accused the latter of soiling with manure the river water that flows from its source in the mountains to the ocean. Through talking about it instead of avoiding the subject, helping each other out and participating in common projects, the two communities grew closer. As many Japanese, they felt connected the most through food. They organized a “hot pot battle” (nabe gassen 鍋合戦) together and started the tradition of a “seasonal food event” (yotsu no shiki wo taberukai 四つの季節を食べる会), which is still organized four times a year nowadays. The events bring together both communities and their surprisingly different food cultures.

I was so lucky to attend the fall edition of this food event. It was quite the experience, I might say! Somehow we ended up as special guests at the table of the mayor and other high-ranking elder men. The food was arranged for in potluck-style. People who had brought something proudly explained the contents of the dish: all of it was local, home-grown and seasonal. Meanwhile, the presenter made non-stop jokes and cracked up the whole room. At the front an enormous swordfish was exhibited, freshly caught that morning.

newspaper taberukai kawaminamichoBefore the food was even touched, half of the participants had gotten drunk on the booze they had brought in large amount. But the fun part had yet to begin! After dinner, sponsored gifts and local products were distributed… through several rounds of rock-paper-scissors (jan-ken-pon じゃんけんぽん). Those interested in the prize had to battle against each other in the game. Nothing beats the sight of 80-year old ladies in a heated jan-ken competition to win a box of eggs. And another fun thing happened: I was interviewed by a reported for the local newspaper during this event. Apparently, I was the first foreigner to attend in the 11 years, or 44 editions the food event was being held. I got mailed the newspaper article when I was already back in Belgium. See the result, including silly picture, for yourself…

Moving on to a different place, located on the route between Kawaminami town and Minamata city: the town of Aya 綾町. I visited Aya three times in total, since it was one of the favorite travel destinations of my host. He had enormous admiration for Aya and its former mayor Minoru Gōda. Once, Aya was a “runaway city”, a town where people fled from once they got the chance. There was poverty as was common on the countryside, few jobs, little tourism, no hotels or sightseeing opportunities. In other words, Aya was not attractive to locals nor to outsiders. And yet, the city is blessed with one of the last remaining primeval woods in Japan: 2000 hectares of broad-leaved forest.

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The rich vegetation provided Aya’s three rivers with minerals. There’s a saying “the mountain is the sea’s lover” (yama wa umi no koibito 山は海の恋人) that illustrates this important connection. As a result, life in the water flourished; one remarkable specimen is the local sweetfish (ayu 鮎), which has a golden color. Unfortunately, heavy industrial and mining induced pollution of the water started to manifest in health problems among the population. Mining also caused several forest fires. When the authorities eventually wanted to log parts of the forest, Gōda protested heavily – much to the discontent of local woodcutters who finally had the perspective of a steady job. Gōda argued that the forest provided fresh air and delicious drinking water, and that the inhabitants of Aya could start a better life by making use of these gifts of nature instead of destroying them.

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the organic marketplace. Local farmers sell their products here.

Once he had prevented the logging of the forest (it is now a Unesco ecopark), he focused his attention on the local agriculture. Then, in the sixties, vegetables were purchased in neighboring areas. Gōda was actually far ahead of his time, because he predicted that organic veggies would increasingly gain popularity. Instead of a buying economy, he proposed a self-sufficient economy in which inhabitants grow their own vegetables without any damaging chemical substances. In the beginning there were not many different kinds of vegetables and fruits, but soon people started to grow specialities. Gōda’s daughter Mikiko exploits an organic, vegetarian restaurant in the center of Aya. I could try to explain you how good the food was, but I fear words cannot describe the sensation.

Mikiko’s food is based on kanpō (eastern medicine 漢方), featuring 5 tastes: sour, pungent, sweet, spicy and salty. These tastes interrelate as they complement or counterbalance each other. Every taste relates to a certain area of the body, such as the liver for sour, the stomach for sweet, and the ears for salty. If you encounter a physical problem, you can counterbalance by focusing on the taste group opposite to the problem area. For example, too much fatty, sweet foods (including rice, beans, chicken and corn) are to be counterbalanced by seaweed, tofu or soy sauce.

Today, Aya is an agricultural city, famous for its organic production and its touristic attractions, such as the forest  and the international crafts castle, where I made a ceramic mug! You could also try out artisanal weaving or buy art objects by local craftsman.

At the castle, I met an excentric figure called Genta. Genta has been working there for over 30 years. He migrated to Aya because of its beautiful nature. He started out as an amateur (because he thought it would be fun), but is now an expert in natural dyes. While showing me how to dye a piece of fabric in a particular pattern of fading blue, he philosophized about life. What I take away from this conversation: “Don’t think about what the future will bring, think about what you want to do. That’s your future.”

silk weavery

A little outside of Aya is another silk weaving house and dying shop, where silk textile is created according to traditional sericulture: caterpillars are bred and once spun into a cocoon, long threads of raw silk are harvested and twisted together into a fiber. The dye is naturally sourced from plants or shells. The picture on the right shows the famous Japanese indigo colors that are displayed in the shop, and a dipping pattern characteristic for Japanese dye craftsmen. The silk is very light, but keeps you warm at the same time and is incredibly strong. More than a clothing item nowadays, naturally dyed silk is an art object.

Our next stop is Nishihara 西原村, a village of barely 6,700 residents located next to Aso 阿蘇市. I participated in a couple of workshops there. Perhaps a little info about Aso is in order: Aso city is located in the center of Kyushu, and features the highest – still active – volcanic mountain in Japan. Mount Aso erupted violently some 300,000 years ago and shaped the Kyushu landscape as how it is now. Starting from a certain height, the scenery gets fascinatingly steppe-like.

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on the open spots, there were houses once

Equally violent and shocking was the 2016 earthquake in the area. When I visited Nishihara, complete streets had been wiped away, whole families had moved out and houses were being rebuilt. Five people had died, and more than 60 suffered injuries. Blue sheets, indicating collapsed building, could be spotted everywhere even a year after the disaster. I was shocked because the earthquake had only briefly been featured on the news in Belgium: I could never have imagined the gravity of the situation until this day. Signs of the earthquake aftermath were visible in a 140-year old samurai house we visited: part of the gate was destructed, and the entire house had even moved a couple of centimeters to the left.

DSCF7676We hit the road to go find Nishihara’s hidden treasures. I was in the food team, a strategic choice since I got to try some stuff, like pumpkin ice-cream in a triangular cone. Because grazing land is readily available, all types of dairy products are a speciality of the region. In my team, we also noticed that the availability of fresh and tasty mountain water was key to the region’s produce. One Italian-style restaurant, for example, used only the water of the waterfall you see below on the right to grow tomatoes and other ingredients. Wells at shrines were regularly visited by locals to tap fresh water or wash products like chestnuts or beans. We interviewed one guy who drove over an hour every weekend to fill his bottles with Nishihara water. He was a police chief and distributed the water at the workplace.

In Nishihara’s Kazurame hamlet, consisting of only 5 families, an old lady showed us proudly her flower field, an enormous persimmon tree (right) and a field full of soba seeds (left). It was actually the first time I thought about how soba noodles are made. Have you? As it turns out, soba  (buckwheat) is not even a type of wheat, but it’s a seed. When crushed, it forms the flour that is used to make noodles. Further in my journey, I encountered some people who specialized in homemade soba noodles: these noodles stand out because they are unevenly shaped, melt away in your mouth and are delicious in their simplicity. In Shimonoseki, we even had tea soba noodles on a hot roof tile, but later more on that.

Furuishi 古石 is located in the Ashikita area, separated from Minamata by Yajiroyama-mountain. The village houses around 400 people, and everybody knows everybody. I stayed in Furuishi for an afternoon and then for a weekend with the loveliest elderly couple you can imagine. They had a cosy countryside B&B and spent their time like everyday was Sunday. With the same relaxed attitude, they took care of all labor-intensive tasks that living on the countryside requires: harvesting rice, making traditional sweets, logging trees, pickling vegetables and fruit, taking care of ancestral spirits and shrines, socializing with the neighbors, clearing fields from weeds, organizing the annual festival… I think the words “work hard, play hard” actually fit the rural situation very well. At the time I visited them, they were busy building a wall for their new furnace, so I helped out a little. The food on the table was homemade from scratch – the couple practically lived in a self-sustaining way and only consumed local meats like wild boar or fish they caught in the river. Dinner on the first day was creamy pumpkin soup, dried bamboo shoots and pickled greens.

The next day, I made traditional sweets with the lady of the house: rice cake (mochi) mixed with sweet potato, filled with anko, a sweet azuki bean paste, and coated with kinako, roasted soybean flour. In case you have never eaten dango before: beware, because these will get you hooked. We went to 4 local shops where the dango were distributed. These shops, all with locally produced organic products, were surprisingly popular – I was told that people nowadays in a post-Minamata/Fukushima era prioritize the safety of their food above anything else and don’t care to pay a little bit extra for it. After a couple of hours we were notified that all of our dango, even the ones I had made, were sold out. My succesful cooking adventure continued in the evening with being in charge of the sushi. For the occasion I was allowed to use a real razor-sharp sushi knife. Against all odds, I did neither hurt myself nor screw up dinner. Even Pan-chan the house cat was amazed.

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kimono by Goto Junko. You can read more in English on her site: http://tananohataya.com/

After dinner, we chatted about life in the village. I heard the story of an older lady who drank one cup of shochū (Japanese whisky) every day until she died at the age of 99. There was once a kimono artist living in Furuishi and she created the lightest kimono in history over the span of 7 years (this sounds like a fairy tale but it actually happened a couple of years ago, I have visual proof ->). The garment weighs 150 grams and is made from hemp, woven into threads so thin you can not see them with the bare eye. The kimono itself is priceless, but you could try it on if you had a spare 20,000 Yen to buy the underwear from the same material required to wear underneath in order not to damage the piece. It is also remarkable how strong social ties are in Furuishi. One young man who had moved to the city came to help his father in Furuishi from time to time. Because some tasks like weeding were done collaboratively, the residents made it a habit to go out drinking together every month. The son liked the company and social events so much, that he moved back to Furuishi.

And then there was this couple who had a restaurants up in the mountains that is completely self-sufficient: they grow every ingredient themselves. The owner had been dreaming for a long time about an independent mountain lifestyle, but was not sure whether he could manage it on his own. But then he met a girl who shared the same dream, they married and started a restaurant far away from the inhabited world. Now it is more or less a well-kept secret that serves a great menu. The interior was designed by the owner’s wife and is full of designer books and magazines. It is a place you might not expect in a village like Furuishi! We had a fantastic lunch there, and much to my surprise,  we could enjoy a chai latte with soy milk, my favorite drink ever.

20171022_161727Since it was national election day, we headed to the village meeting center in the afternoon. Although voting is not compulsory in Japan, everybody went in Furuishi because it would be noticed if you didn’t go. I had been told that the director of the center married at the age of 50. All his life, he had been poor but the villagers encouraged him to marry anyways, and to not worry about the fact that he could not pay much for the wedding. To support him, they organized a wedding dinner in potluck style. The most recent addition to the meeting center was a rock wall for the senior ladies bouldering club. I don’t know about you, but I find this very impressive (needless to mention, I couldn’t get near the top). In Furuishi (literally “old rock” because you can find enormous and unique rock formations in the forest) outdoor bouldering contests are held as well.

That is it for now, see you back for part 2!  All pictures are mine, unless stated otherwise.

My Internship in Japan: Minamata

banner minamataWell hello there, it’s been a while! Time to bring Nippaku back to life and disclose what I have been up to during these blog-less months. On September 14th, I started my internship journey in Minamata 水俣市, Kumamoto prefecture in central Kyushu (in the South of Japan). As a Japanologist doing an advanced Master’s program in Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies, it was only natural that I chose Japan as my destination for a two-month internship with a local organization. Since one of my other interests is sustainability, I sank my teeth into the sustainable development of rural Japanese areas. I started looking for possible topics, et voilà, I came across jimotogaku 地元学, or ‘local learning’ in translation. I promise to tell you all about jimotogaku once my research is more or less wrapped up (aka when I have finished my thesis), but for now I will provide some pictures and explanation about Minamata. 


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Susubaru view

I arrived on September 15th in Fukuoka, from where I took the shinkansen to Minamata and was picked up by my host and his granddaughter. The host family I stayed with is located in Susubaru 薄原, a small village in the mountains of Minamata with a decreasing population of around 100 inhabitants at the moment. Farmland in Japan is located on hills and mountains while urban areas are developed on plains. This is the complete opposite in Belgium: farmland, literally “flat land” (platteland in Dutch) encloses densely populated cities. It became a running joke when I told them that the highest Belgian mountain, Signal de Botrange, barely reaches 700 metres – a height they would not even consider worthy of the term “mountain”.

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Takeyama 竹山, “bamboo mountain”, property of my host family. I regularly helped out by cutting and chopping trees, burning wood and repairing the fence.

In Susubaru, we were surrounded by a mixed forest of cypress and chestnut trees amidst sky-scraping bamboo, and everything was still lush green at that time. Due to heavy rainfall and the subtropical climate, nature is difficult to keep under control, and locals could spend a great deal of their time trimming weeds, chopping wood or clearing the roads. The forests and fields are regularly trampled by wild boar, who come down from higher up in the mountains every night and snack on fallen fruit such as persimmons and chestnuts. Farmers protect their fields with electrified fences. Apparently, these animals also hate the color pink, so occasionally I could spot flashy pink wires. Besides wild boar, there are also deer (I could hear their cry from time to time) and raccoon dogs, and the air is always  buzzing with insect sounds. Luckily, I brought my ear plugs to guarantee a quiet night of  sleep.

The city of Minamata itself has a troubled history, which was partly the reason why I went there. Starting out as a fairly insignificant coastal but mountainous village, the city’s population boomed with the arrival of Chisso, a chemical company, in 1908. At the time it all went wrong, Chisso employed or indirectly affected the livelihoods of 25% of Minamata’s inhabitants: the exponential population growth (twice the size of today’s population) paralleled Chisso’s increasing output. This was one of the reasons authorities were reluctant to stop the disaster at once: it was a dilemma of helping a few victims or helping all people in the city to make a decent living.

So what happened? Between 1932 and 1968, Chisso – consciously – dumped toxic waste water containing mercury in the Minamata bay and the inland Shiranui sea. Bacteria in the water transformed it into methylmercury when they came into contact with the toxic substance. Once consumed in large doses, directly or by eating the fish that had ingested the methylmercury, the substance causes neurological damage, going from muscle weakness to paralysis and death. The disease is also congenital, which means that unborn children can be exposed to methylmercury poisoning in the womb. Until this day, there is no cure, only drug therapy to reduce symptoms and the pain. For more in-depth information, watch this movie by SciHow [English] and original footage here [Japanese].

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Mother bathing her daughter Tomoko who suffered from Minamata disease, photographed by Eugene Smith – Wikimedia commons

The first signs of mercury poisoning were observed in “dancing” cats and birds who couldn’t fly, and dead fish that washed ashore. In 1956, a girl with strange symptoms was brought to the factory hospital. Many more would follow, with an alarming high mortality rate. It was discovered that the mercury had accumulated in fish and shellfish, the main source of nutrition for  fishing communities in Minamata. The condition was coined “Minamata disease”. Despite the fact that it became pretty clear it was Chisso that had caused so many living beings to suffer at the end of the 1950s, the company did anything it could to not be held responsible – and was helped in doing so by the authorities out of economic interests. They started discharging wastewater directly into the Minamata river instead of the Hyakken harbour, which led to even more pollution, and they did not cooperate with the research. Finally, in 1968, they stopped poisoning and killing people, but not before hiring yakuza to beat up protesting victims. In the end, Chisso paid hundreds of millions of Yen in compensation money. But yes, the factory is still there, renamed as JNC, among the many other branch plants they hold around the country.

Minamata’s dark history is linked with how the jimotogaku movement came into existence, but later more on that. At the time of the pollution scandal, Minamata was in full chaos. Victims’ families were enraged with Chisso, Chisso employees were enraged with patients (this contradiction occurred even within families), city people thought patients were faking it to get compensation, the mountain communities held a grudge because they could not sell their products anymore due to stigma…Today, the stained image of Minamata might still affect how people think about the city. In the aftermath of the pollution scandal, inhabitants of Minamata were strongly discriminated against: somehow, people thought the disease was contagious or that they had brought it upon themselves. They could not sell products, work outside of the city or marry non-Minamata citizens. When the train passed Minamata, travelers closed the windows. The staff at a hotel was ordered to throw away the linen of a group of Minamata school kids on a trip. One man told me that he went with his team to Fukuoka to play a baseball match, and that the arena was empty because not one supporter wanted to be in the vicinity of Minamata residents.

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recycling station in Susubaru

From the 1980s on, tremendous efforts have been made to clean up Minamata’s image, leading to great results. Minamata profiled itself as an environment-friendly city when they adopted the ISO 14001 environmental management standard and became an Ecotown in 2001. Remarkable actions are the establishment of a strict 21-item recycle system, the Meister Program for local producers of healthy, safe and organic products, an eco-shop certification for craftsman and the reduction of waste in general. Knowing that Japanese people love food and deeply value safety, I noticed that people especially appreciate organic products since these are safe and healthy to eat. The Meister Program recognizes 32 “Meisters” of which I had the pleasure to meet and even befriend some.

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Matsumoto Kazuya serving tea in his tea field

The Matsumoto family (桜野園 Sakura noen) and the Amano family (天の製茶園 Amano no seichaen) are two producers of organic tea in Minamata. Both housing three generations in their homes, they produce a rather rare kind of tea, Japanese black tea (和紅茶 wakōcha), among the more generic green and roasted tea. As a matter of fact, Amano Hiroshi and Matsumoto Kazuya are two of the four Japanese black tea “kings” in Japan, and they sell worldwide. I was so lucky to try Matsumoto teas on several occasions and received a guided tour around their tea fields. I was also welcomed for four days at the Amano tea farm in Ishitobi, a hamlet located 600 meters high, where I helped the family out with sorting bancha tea leaves. I learned that the reason for only producing naturally grown tea there is because of the position of the Amano’s farm on top of the mountain. Due to the pollution scandal, awareness had been raised that contaminating something as precious as water is the worst thing you could do to yourself and other people since you are responsible for the source of the irrigation that flows into other people’s wells and fields. It was also very interesting to see how the drink is made from plant till cup. Bringing back home literally tens of tea packages, I must admit I drink more tea than ever (tea related blog posts here and here). Better than too much coffee or soda, right?

Minamata people also eat lots of white small fish from the bay (safe to eat now), mikan-oranges that are grown more upward the hills (organic mikan jam in the picture left below) and local specialities like kuri 栗 (chestnuts), satoimo 里芋 (village potato), akebi  アケビ (chocolate vine, right picture) and take no ko 竹の子 (bamboo shoots). I ate several portions of chestnuts for dessert, they are delicious when boiled till soft and sweetened with sugar and red bean paste. Below in the middle you see a picture of cooked chestnuts, also great as an afternoon snack. Those who are familiar with Japanese culture, know how fascinated/obsessed the Japanese are about food. Hence, the local cuisine was a topic that came up multiple times a day. Locals are really proud of the healthy, traditional meals they serve with home-grown ingredients.

Another (organic) asset for Minamata is rice. Being the staple food of Japan, it is unthinkable that the mountains of Minamata would lack the numerous rice fields and terraces a rural area is characterized by. Traditionally, every household has their own rice paddy, which produces enough rice to provide for the whole family plus a little extra that can be sold on the local market. Farmers who specialize in rice are rather rare. Nevertheless, familial rice fields are increasingly abandoned due to depopulation, draught of the irrigation system and lack of labor force. When I arrived in Minamata, the rice plants were already bright yellow. Once they turn this shade and drop their “heads”, they are ready for harvest. If necessary, the locals call friends and family to the countryside to help out because sowing and harvesting is some labor-intensive work. They cut the rice stalks with a machine or a sickle, bind them together into sheaves and let them dry in the sun on a wooden construction. After ten days, the stalks are dehulled.   

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Harvested rice stalks

Normally, harvesters use a machine to cut and bind most of the rice stalks, but I got acquainted with someone who not only grew his rice without fertilizers but also cut all stalks manually. The work is notorious for causing severe back ache. One of the reasons elder Japanese ladies shuffle around with an extremely bent back is said to be because of cutting and binding rice stalks. 20170926_173820Toiling in the heat sure is exhausting, and I talk from experience since I helped out with the harvest on the collectively owned rice paddy of Minamaru Kitchen, a community restaurant that only uses local and seasonal ingredients. After dehulling, the produced rice – between 60 and 90 kilos –  was bagged and taken to the kitchen. Speaking of Minamaru Kitchen,  I really liked the idea of its collective ownership, the many activities that were held there and the entrepreneurial spirit of the co-owners. The main forces behind the Kitchen are pastry chef Sasehara, optician Kawata and Mrs. Matsumoto, the wife of the tea farmer I wrote about earlier. The Kitchen tiess together a network of people with a shared interest in the sustainable development of the community and its small economy. I also attended a couple of lectures there and found myself inspired by new ideas and examples.

The picture in the middle shows a bottle of cider (which is a non-alcoholic sparkling lemonade drink in Japan), produced with natural spring water from Kagumeishi hamlet. On one of my last days I went along to tap some fresh water from the source. It is free from any charge and extremely clean, since the water is filtered through untouched mountain land. It is said that the people residing around the source live a long and healthy life – the current inhabitants were centenarians. I met some locals and visitors who came to fill their bottles regularly at such spots because of the taste, high quality and spiritual meaning of the water. In fact, you can often find a place of veneration close to the water source, like a small shrine from stone with gifts in it, to honor the water spirits. Bigger shrines can similarly feature a stream with spring water. I was told there are seven natural water sources in Minamata alone. Besides, there is a residential area called Yu no tsuru 湯の鶴 “crane from hot water” in Minamata with onsen 温泉, or hot springs.

Water is so important it dictates the rules of agricultural life. Irrigation is essential to a succesful rice harvest: that is why all paddies are located next to a river while at the same time water flows from the mountains in the direction of this river, creating an abundant supply of liquid for the rice plants. Behind the paddies are vegetable fields that need less water and then there are the houses, closer to the hills for wood logging and fruit picking. Concerning the climate, Minamata’s is kind of wet. Farmers do not work outside on rainy days, so they plan from day-to-day, disregarding fixed schedules for days off like weekends. On rainy days, relatives are visited and work inside the house is done. Locals also like to catch fish or play in the river in their free time. Due to its history of pollution, water is even more valued as an asset in Minamata. I was surprised by how clean water bodies are over there, certainly compared to the rivers in my home country (you can regularly spot rusty bikes and garbage floating on the surface)…

minamata river
Mountains, rivers, forests, villages… Minamata has it all.

In short, nature in Minamata is impressive, a view that locals might be used to, but spectacular for Belgian eyes. Life on the countryside is also very distinct from city life, and interesting to dive into. I must admit that this time I experienced quite a culture shock, something that was not the case when I studied in Kobe for a year!


I hope this post informed you a little bit about the city of Minamata and life in rural Japan. In the next part, I will describe the things I did and learned during my trips around Kyushu. Till next time!

[all pictures are mine, unless stated otherwise] 

Staging Madness: Nogaku vs. Kyogen

mental health 6 bannerJust before boarding my flight to Japan (this time for a two-month internship in Kumamoto prefecture – update will follow!), I would like to share another part of my Master’s thesis on mental health stigma with you. If you are new to this series of blog posts, feel free to check out part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 first before getting into this one. Part 6 is dedicated to the performance arts, nōgaku and kyōgen in particular, and how these represented “madness” in premodern Japan.


Nōgaku indicates two theater forms developed from Sarugaku during the 14th century, Nō 能 and Kyōgen 狂言. Nō is a musical performance art that presents famous tales and legends by making use of masks and a limited amount of props on stage. performances are full of symbolism and often feature supernatural elements. One leitmotiv in several Nō pieces is monogurui 物狂[1], a theatrical element representing “madness”. It can be said that Nō plays of the monogurui type are constructed around a central concept of “possession” as a sacred phenomenon[2]. Monogurui has multiple meanings: it does “not only indicate the condition in which one loses mental equilibrium, but also refers to (a) a person in such a condition or (b) such a display of madness in a performance[3]”.

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a Nō performance – blogs.yahoo.co.jp

A state of monogurui is caused by a psychological crisis and is in many cases expressed in the form of a “mad dance”. In this instant of “madness”, the protagonist, in almost all plays of monogurui Nō a woman, reveals her suppressed feelings. According to Zeami, “madwomen” (kyōjo 狂女) were the ideal material for an interesting play, because “women are mysterious beings by nature”[4]. Two triggers of monogurui can be identified: spirit possession (tsukimono 憑物), or excessive affection because of the loss of a loved one (omoi 思ひ)[5].  From an objective point of view, the “madwoman” as represented in Nō, tormented by a spirit or by immense grief, has a reason to act insane. The “mad dance”, the climax of monogurui, functions here as a visual representation of mental suffering and as a dramatic tool to evoke sympathy from the audience[6]. This indicates not only a high level of spirituality, but also a strong influence of Buddhism and Shintoism.

For example, in Lady Aoi (Aoi no Ue 葵上), a play loosely based on the possession scene in The Tale of Genji as described in a previous post, the evil spirit that possesses Lady Rokujō and haunts Aoi, is exorcised by sacred prayers. After her soul has been cleansed of jealousy, Lady Rokujō is capable of reaching enlightenment. In the pictures below, the anger of Lady Rokujō is expressed through her transformation into a demon. Although the play is named afer her, Lady Aoi never appears on stage: she is represented by an empty kimono. Hence, the focus is on the possessed Lady Rokujō throughout the play.

 

Other examples of Nō plays featuring monogurui are Mii-dera Temple三井寺, Hanjo 班女, Hyakuman The Dancer (Hyakuman 百万), The River of Cherry Blossoms (Sakuragawa 桜川), The Reed Cutter (Ashikari蘆刈), Sumidagawa River隅田川, Flower Basket (Hanagatami花筐), and Pining Wind (Matsukaze 松風) [7] . Monogurui in Nō resembles in many aspects the mono no ke concept from the Heian period. Both target “weak” women, are caused by psychological instability, are dramatic techniques to enable the protagonist to freely express their otherwise suppressed feelings, and bear a strong connection with religion and spirituality. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that this embellished idea of “madness” is one dominantly perceived on stage or in literature; “during the Middle Ages, such behavior would certainly have been a frightful sight in real life[8]”.

sumidagawa

Sumidagawa 隅田川 is a well-known example of a “madwoman’s play” – Wikiwand

The second theatrical form of Nōgaku, Kyōgen, does not use masks nor music. The plays are comical sketches, traditionally staged between Nō plays. As much as Nō is connected with spirituality, Kyōgen is intrinsically linked with “earthiness”, with its performance in vulgar language and satirical representation of daily events in common people’s life. Although the expression of “madness” is not as obvious as in Nō, there are multiple plays in which the characters act unconventionally, or are called “crazy” by others. “Madness” in Kyōgen is irrational; no clear incentive is given. Its absurdity, “playful lunacy [9]” in a sense, is staged not to evoke compassion, but laughter.

 

The representation of “madness” in Kyōgen appears to be closer to mental disorders in real life[10], an impression supported by the fact that the word kyōgen actually means “mad words”. Another significant observation is that the word monogurui 物狂 designates the Japanese reading for 狂 (kuru-i), while kyōgen狂言prescribes the Sino-Japanese pronunciation for the same character狂 (kyō). Moreover, when “madness” is directly expressed in a Kyōgen play, the word bukkyō 物狂 is mostly used, which is the Sino-Japanese reading for 物狂. For example:

  • なう、そなたのなりは物狂や、何事ぞいなう。(Nau, sonata no nari ha bukkyō ya, nanigoto zo inau.) From Mr. Dumbtarō (Dontarō 鈍太郎). translation: “Come now, you look like crazy, how scandalous!”
  • のう、物狂物狂や、何とわらわが名などが付けらるるものじゃ。(Nō, bukkyō ya bukkyō ya, nani to warawaga mei nado tsukeraruru mono ja.) Translation: “This is madness, it’s madness, what for a name am I getting now” From Bikusada Gets Named (Bikusada 比丘貞)
  • 「なうなうおぢやれ,物いはう」「ああ物狂や」(“nau nau odjare, mono ihau” “aa bukkyō ya”) Translation: “Here here, come on in, let us talk!” “You’re insane!” From The Second-Class Master Blindman and the MonkeySaru Zatō 猿座頭). [11]

The speaker in this play directly criticizes the appearance or action of the other or the “crazy” situation they are in, a nuance completely absent in Nō theater. Both forms of Nōgaku have a different interpretation of “madness”, which can be observed in the different terminology they utilize. Although spelled the same, when read Monogurui, it is used in the sacred, ritual and highly stylized context of Nō, while the pronunciation bukkyō is associated with Kyōgen, the theater form strongly connected with the ordinariness and vulgarity of everyday life [12]. A similar distinction between the two readings of bukkyō/monogurui can also be found back in other text dating back to roughly the same time Nōgaku was in vogue. While mongurui appeared almost exclusively on stage and in a ritual or religious context, bukkyō is a common description of “madness” in everyday life, used to express the speaker’s feelings of annoyance and vexation towards the aberrant behavior of someone else [13].

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Foreword to the Sand and Pebbles – Wikimedia Commons

For example, in the work Sand and Pebbles (Shasekishū 沙石集, 1283), “mad” people are referred to as bukkyō no mono 物狂の者. Sand and Pebbles is a collection of Buddhist parables by Mujū Ichien無住一圓, “small talk reflecting the lifestyle and feelings of the general populace in the far Eastern region at that time[14]”. The influence of Kyōgen is visible in the plain and popular reciting style as well as in the humorous notes. The Rise and Decline of the Minamoto and Taira Clans (Genpei Jōsuiki 源平盛衰記, 14th Century), an extended version of The Tale of the Heike, uses bukkyō as to indicate aberrant behavior (bukkyō no hito ni te,…物狂の人にて、…[15]). A last example is from the Kenmu Code (Kenmu Shikimoku建武式目). One article promulgating “matters that should be economized” argues that wearing luxurious and flashy clothes should be strictly regulated. Such inappropriate attire is called “extreme madness” (sukoburu bukkyō 頗る物狂) and thus heavily criticized[16].

Kyogen (1)

Manzo Nomura, a famous Kyogen actor – Asia Society

One scholar mentions that during the Japanese middle ages, the difference between sane and insane was only a matter of the cultural value attached to these concepts. Nevertheless, he warns, what was once tolerated in ancient society was now being identified as “madness”[17]. In short, there existed different interpretations of “madness”, and two of these interpretations (one highly stylized as an art form, one criticized and laughed at in daily life) were acted out on stage in Nō and Kyōgen.

Footnotes & References

[1] Zeami expressed in his theoretical work The Flowering Spirit (Fūshikaden風姿花伝) his preference for this type of Nō: “it is the most fascinating form of Sarugaku theater.” Matsuo, Kōichi 松尾恒一. From Ritual to Art. Mania, Possession and Jest. 儀礼から芸能へ. 狂騒・憑依・道化 (girei kara geinō he. kyōsō・hyōi・dōke) Kadokawa Series 54. Tokyo: Kadokawa Gakugei Publishing, 2011, p. 110. [2] Oda, Susumu 小田晋. Japanese Sources on Madness日本の狂気誌 (Nihon no kyōkishi). Tokyo: Kodansha, 1998, p. 130. [3] Savas, Minae. “Feminine Madness in The Japanese Noh Theatre.” Ohio State University, 2008, p. 55. [4] Sugisawa, Haruko 杉澤陽子. “A Study of ‘Monogurui Noh’” 能の物狂いについての研究 (Nō no monogurui ni tsuite no kenkyū) in The Bulletin of the International Society for Harmonization of Cultures & Civilizations融合文化研究 (Yūgō bunka kenkyū) 7 (June 2006): 66–81, p. 72. [5] Savas, Feminine Madness, p. 53. [6] 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. 21. [7] “Monogurui Nō” 物狂い能 in Digital Daijisen『デジタル大辞泉』Tokyo: Shogakukan, 2012. and “Noh Plays DATABASE”. [8] Matsuo, From Ritual to Art, p. 112. [9] “Asobi kuruu” 遊び狂う. Kitagawa, Tadahiko 北川忠彦. “Self-oblivion in Kyōgen”狂言の忘我性 (Kyōgen no bōgasei) in Tenri University Japanese Literature Research Room天理大学国文学研究室 (Tenri daigaku kokubungaku kenkyūshitsu), 20 (March 1976): 63–75, p. 71. [10] Ibid., p. 72. [11] Directly retrieved from a collection of kyōgen plays, original text. Translation by me. [12] Oda, Japanese Sources on Madness, p.132-134. [13] Yokoi, Kiyoshi 横井清. “A Memorandum of The Matter of Madness” 狂気のこと覚え書き (Kyōki no koto oboegaki), Tradition and Modernity 伝統と現代 (Dentō to gendai) 44, 1977. [14] “Shasekishū” 沙石集 in Encyclopedia Nipponica 日本大百科全書(ニッポニカ) (Nihon daihyakka zensho (nipponika)). Tokyo: Shogakukan, 1994. [15] The full sentence is物狂の人にて、悪き様にや御目に懸候はんずらん (bukkyō no hito ni te, waruki yō ni ya ome ni ken sōrohan zuran), translated as “No doubt it would be mad of me to ask a pardon for myself, but I see nothing wrong with asking one for you.” Tyler, Royall. The tale of the Heike, 2012, online version chapter 10. [16] Hosokawa, Middle Ages of Deviance, p. 19. [17] Ibid., p. 14.

Next post in this seriesFox Possession & Modern Medicine

Gift-Giving in Japan

bannerFor the course Economic Anthropology last year, I wrote a paper on the relation between the Japanese gift culture and the capitalist market system. In retrospect, I believe this topic might interest my readers, so I have selected and adapted the most informative bits on gift-giving in Japan (and how much money you should spend on it) to share with you on Nippaku. Enjoy! 


Just as he was leaving the morning room he had turned around and said: “When is the wedding? I would like to give a present, but since I have no money, I am afraid I can’t.” – in Kokoro by Natsume Soseki

Similar to other gift traditions all over the world, wedding presents make up for an important part of Japanese gift culture, encompassing not only a substantial amount of money but also requiring specific knowledge and skills on how, when and to whom one should present a wedding gift. This happens usually in the form of cash and is at least 10,000 Yen (around 80 euros – I will use Euro as the currency of reference from now on). Close family members are expected to give up to tenfold that amount. The character in Natsume’s novel making the quote stated above, a poor student, is clearly not able to afford an appropriate wedding gift and can, therefore, not comply with social norms. Katherine Rupp (2003), who describes in great detail the complexity of gift-giving in Japan based on her fieldwork observations, immediately points out the economic consequences of this abundant gift culture: “people invest substantial amounts of money in gift-giving. (…) Gift-giving is very important, not only at personal and household levels but on national and macroeconomics level as well. For example, ochūgen and oseibo, summer and winter gifts, provide 60 percent of annual profits of most Tokyo department stores” (p. 1).

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traditional gift wrapping – madameriri

The economic burden of compulsory gift-giving is felt by many Japanese people and has recently come to complement an erosion of ‘traditional’ gift giving among the younger generation(s). This makes it all the more remarkable that never before, so much money was spent on gifts: The report by the Yano Research Institute (2016) on Japan’s domestic gift market mentions increased retail sales of almost 73 billion Euro in 2015, 102% of gift sales in the previous year. The report further points out that less formal gifts are purchased, and more commodities circulate in the form of casual gifts. Thus, instead of spending money on presents that are linked with obligatory gift-giving, the Japanese now prefer buying presents for their loved ones, less restrained by social conventions.

From ancient times, Japan has known a formal gift-giving culture based on  customs and traditions with a focus on ceremonial occasions, but against the social background of a decreasing birthrate, an aging population, the nuclearization of the family, and a weakening of neighborhood and kinship ties, compulsory and formal gifts such as chugen and seibo, wedding presents, ceremonial gifts, return gifts for funeral offerings and Buddhist memorial services, are decreasing. Yet, at the same time, giving gifts as an expression of gratitude, affection, respect and love towards people one is close to such as one’s parents, children and friends, is playing a big role and has become a way to facilitate communication. Regardless of the formality of the present, the existence of ‘casual gifts’, adapted to recent times, can also be observed. It is believed that these will become a factor of market growth in the near future. (my own translation – Yano Research Institute, 2016: 2)

Save for the trending ‘casual gifts’, this so-called ‘formal gift-giving culture’ is related to a rigorous wrapping etiquette, to such a degree that the packaging divulges the occasion. Hence, the content becomes subordinate to the presentation and the act of giving in se – in such a degree that in some, often business-related cases, presents are never opened and passed onto others in a continuous chain of gift-giving. Especially within the industry, business meetings and lucrative transactions go hand in hand with a whole series of gifts and ‘donations’, balancing on the verge of what Westerners would consider as bribery. Physicians usually receive a ‘token of appreciation’ (expensive gifts or a substantial amount of cash) in advance of medical procedures and during winter or summer gift season, challenging the physician with the fact that “the space between a giver’s gratitude and a receiver’s obligation can be narrow and murky” since accepting could unintentionally lead to biased treatment of the patient in question (Takayama, 2001: 139). Again, it should not surprise that all these donations generate enormous economic profit, confirming that “not only do individual Japanese people spend a lot of time, worry, and money on gift-giving, but [that] gift-giving is also a crucial part of the overall workings of the macro-economy” (Rupp, 2003: 2). Below, an overview will be provided of Japanese gift-giving customs and their (economic) significance in today’s society.

matcha baumkuchen

This matcha baumkuchen won first prize for best Japanese gift last year.

TYPES OF GIFT-GIVING IN JAPAN

Writing my bachelor paper on Japan’s wrapping culture, I familiarized myself somewhat with the complicated etiquette surrounding gift-giving on several occasions, but putting it in practice during my one-year stay there turned out to be a different matter. As an exchange student, I quickly realized how little I had to be concerned with giving adequate presents in Belgium. Luckily in Japan, foreigners, as well as children and young adolescents, are often forgiven in that respect. The wife of a Japanese composer (an elderly couple with a traditional mind-set I acquainted and whom I used to visit regularly), offered me the following explanation, while reluctantly accepting the box of Belgian chocolates I had brought her as a thank you gift for the invitation (temiyage 手土産): “young people do not have much money, so you really shouldn’t have bought that for us. You should just receive the presents from older people until you are earning enough money to treat other people”. It appears that this gift-giving obligation for the Japanese evidently involved a lot of expenses and effort. Below, I give a non-exhaustive overview of the main gift rituals currently performed in Japan and their economic consequences.

nihon no okurimono

Catalogue of Japanese presents featuring regional products of every prefecture.

Souvenirs

Omiyage (お土産, written with the character for ‘earth’ and the character for ‘produce’, thus meaning ‘products from the land’) are souvenirs, usually local foodstuffs such as sweets and cookies that have a connection with the place visited. Every region in Japan has its own specialty (meibutsu名物). Mantell (2012) suggests that the local production of omiyage can contribute to the community’s identity and pride. Because of this link with the travel destination, homemade souvenirs are to be avoided. Upon return, omiyage are distributed among colleagues at the work place and given to family members and friends. In the research office where I had my desk while studying in Japan, foodstuffs were regularly brought in and placed on the shared table, accompanied by a note of the returned traveler offering everyone to serve themselves.

omiyage uji

Omiyage for sale in Uji.

The ‘hunt’ for souvenirs is expensive and time-consuming, certainly taking into consideration that even a one-day trip involves omiyage. As such, some people “hide travel plans from friends and neighbors so as not to have bring back presents from trips” (Rupp, 2003:1). This is especially the case when omiyage are strongly experienced as giri (義理, ‘social obligation’; Krag, 2014: 69), yet souvenirs can also express gratitude and indebtedness for ‘holding the fort’ whilst away, the strengthening of social ties, or a desire to share the travel experience (Park, 2000:86-7).

According to the Japanese government’s latest white paper on domestic tourism (2016), the Japanese population spent more than 21 billion euros on shopping alone, which surpasses the travel expenses for food and drinks (p. 251). Although it is not entirely clear how many of the purchased goods were bought as souvenirs and not for own use, Tsujimoto e.a. (2013) point out that in 2010, 72.4% of shopping expenses went to food products that were not consumed during the trip (p. 226), and 97,5% of the goods indicated as omiyage were foodstuffs, mostly sweets. It is customary to pay between 8 and 48 euros on omiyage for each person; Tsujimoto e.a. calculated an average of 47 euros in total spent on souvenirs per trip (p. 238).

Seasonal Gift-Giving

* Ochūgen and Oseibo

There are two gift-giving season in Japan, rooted in ancestral offering traditions: during summer in July (ochūgen お中元) and during winter between 13 and 20 December (oseibo お歳暮). These gifts are sent out to personal and business relations such as to superiors, clients, doctors, teachers, landlords and – in a lesser degree – family members, as an expression of gratitude for taking care of them. Again, mostly foodstuffs are given, and similar to omiyage, regional products are popular. Rupp (2003) lists, for example, watermelons, canned fruit, curry sauce, eggplants, cheese and other specialties (p. 29). Household products are frequently sent as well. Important to note is that both gift seasons coincide with the semiannual bonus many Japanese employees receive, amounting to at least two months’ salary (Lebra, 1976: 98). Hence, summer and winter gifts are heavily advertised as slightly more expensive gift sets or basket in stores all over Japan. Online and in most department stores, it is possible to have the gift delivered directly at the receiver’s doorstep, wrapping and gift card included.

ochugen

Popular ochugen gifts. The site also mentions how much money should be spent based on the type of relation between giver and receiver, somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 yen – Rakuten

According to the Yano Research Institute (2016) gift report, ‘casual’ gift-giving has also pervaded the domain of seasonal gifts. As a result, the demand for presents that convey one’s feelings towards close friends and family, has increased, along with the emphasis on the act of ‘giving’ in itself (p. 2). This in contrast to the ‘courtesy’ gifts rooted in tradition that are less frequent today, especially among the younger generation. Nevertheless, due to the increased sales of ‘casual’ gifts, expenses nationwide accrued to almost 8 billion euros for ochūgen, and 6.5 billion euros for oseibo. Compared to the previous years, this is only a ‘slight’ decrease of 30 to 40 million euros. Shopkeepers tend to respond to the demand for more personal gifts by allowing customers to assemble an original gift basket instead of offering pre-packaged gift sets.

* Doll Festival and Children’s Day

hina matsuri

Full set of Japanese dolls, displayed for the Doll Festival.

Among the ‘five seasonal festivals’ (五節句 gosekku), Doll Festival (雛祭りhina matsuri), or Girls’ Festival, and Children’s Day (子供の日kodomo no hi), or Boys’ Festival, bear the most economic consequences. During the former, traditional dolls are displayed on a staircase-like structure every year. As is the custom, these dolls are purchased by the maternal grandparents (if not already in family possession) at the birth of their first female grandchild. Due to the high cost of these dolls (prices for a full set start at 680 euros and go up to more than 10,000 euros), it is not uncommon anymore that other family members chip in as well. The family of the mother is also responsible for presents such as carp banners and warrior dolls for their grandson on Boys’ festival. Yet recently, it has become normal that other relatives and friends give presents as well.

Business Gifts

Business gifts are more frequent in Japan than in Europe (Mba, 2012). Apart from seasonal gifts, omiyage and New Year cards, it is customary to exchange gifts at the end of a (first) business meeting or on formal occasions. The value of the gift mirrors the company’s hierarchy: high-ranking employees receive the most expensive items (Alston & Takei, 2005: 55). Business gifts are elaborately wrapped items that are never opened in presence of the donor. Underlying these gifts is a complex etiquette, defining how the gift should be presented, what items are to be avoided and how the gift should be received in an appropriate manner. For those who want to play it safe, department stores and high-end chains promote a series of commodities in varying price ranges as ‘ideal’ business gifts.

business gift

Business gifts on the website of Shinise Mall

Religious Offerings

Shintō ceremonies (e.g. purification of a house) involve offerings to ancestral spirits, and cash money given to the officiating priest. These offerings include sake and food such as rice, fish and vegetables (Rupp, 2003: 13). When visiting a Buddhist grave, incense and flowers are often placed on the stone. In traditional households where ancestors are daily commemorated by means of a small altar or shrine in the house, ‘unusual’ specialty food are offered first to the ancestors. The food is placed on the shrine and “when the ancestors have finished (Smith, 1974: 136)”, it is removed and eaten by the family. On Japanese New Year’s Day (oshōgatsu お正月), it is common to offer traditional food such as sake and soup with rice cakes first to the ancestors.

offering to ancestors

Offering of fruit to ancestors during obonNandaikinjo

During the religious observances of ohigan (お彼岸, equinoctial Buddhist services lasting one week in Spring and Fall) and obon (お盆 festival to honor the ancestors’ spirits, held in July or August), the Japanese return to their hometowns and visit family graves. They bring along food for ancestral offering (often luxury fruits such as melons, but also wine and sweets, depending on the culinary preference of the deceased) which is afterwards consumed during the family meal. By doing so, they are permeated by the power of the spirits (Rupp, 2003: 127). Since ancestral offerings and the dinner celebrations connected to these often involve ‘unusual’ or luxury foodstuffs, prices are evenly extravagant. People pay easily up to 100 euros for a gift melon. Incense and flowers are sold as expensive obon sets, yet there is always a choice between a wide range of prices.

‘Modern’ Forms of Gift-Giving

* Christmas Presents

Despite the fact that less than 1% of the Japanese population considers itself a Christian, Christmas is a well-celebrated occasion, albeit a non-religious version adapted to Japanese culture and society and especially among younger couples. Contrary to Belgian habits, Christmas Eve in Japan is reserved for lovers, while New Year’s Eve is spent in company of family members. In families with young children, toys are sometimes given, but never to adults (Rupp, 2003: 144). Christmas decoration, on the other hand, is widespread.

‘Imported’ celebrations such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day (cf. infra), revolve around excessive advertisements, high consumption and a (rather Western) portrayal of romanticism. It is common for a couple to go on a date to a high-end restaurant, exchange luxury goods such as jewelry, scarves and handbags for women, and watches, wallets and pens for men, and spend the night at an expensive hotel. The standard Christmas meal at home is fried chicken and a strawberry cream cake, which has to be pre-ordered months in advance due to its popularity. Note that, in contrast to traditional celebrations, food consumed on Christmas is almost never homemade and thus store-bought.

xmas

You would think this is an ad for Valentine’s presents but it’s not: these are gifts deemed appropriate for Christmas – Rakuten

The popularization of Christmas from the 1930s on, was a commercial opportunity for stores to extend sales after the oseibo boom. Papp (2016: 67-68), referencing a report by Ishii, mentions that in post-war Japan, Christmas was seen as a symbol of modernity, and hence as a shortcut to ‘happiness’, generated by industrialism and consumerism. Another point worth mentioning is that, in most cases, men pay for the whole evening and always give a present to their wives or girlfriends, while women are not ‘obligated’ to give something in return (cf. infra). This indicates a break with more traditional gift-giving customs.

* Valentine’s Day and White Day Gifts

Also introduced in post-war Japan, February 14th is a celebration that mirrors the Western tradition, but has its own Japanese interpretation. Different is that Valentine gifts are exclusively chocolate, are presented only by women, and are not solely given in a romantic way. On the contrary, only a small part of the chocolates is given to loved ones. Valentine’s Day was launched by a chocolate manufacturer and became a nationwide celebrated holiday by the 1970s (Rupp, 2003: 146). It was promoted as the only day women could express their love, and the fact that in other Valentine-celebrating countries men also gave presents, somehow got lost in translation. As a result, Valentine’s Day today is more about boosting men’s confidence than about romance. Minowa e.a. (2011: 52) speak of the “gender asymmetric nature” of the Valentine Day’s gift-giving ritual.

 

Although a recent and foreign gift-giving tradition, Valentine’s chocolate quickly incorporated ‘traditional’ elements such as a connection with giri, or social obligation (Davis & Ikeno, 2011): women in the workplace and at school felt obliged to give their co-workers and superiors Valentine’s chocolate in order to avoid accusations of favoritism (Buckley, 2009) and to preserve harmonious relationships. This type of chocolate, often store-bought and less expensive, is giri choko. When the gift is meant to convey a feeling of affection, it is called honmei choko (本命チョコ ‘favorite chocolate’). These chocolates are far more expensive than giri choko and in some cases homemade (DIY-kits are also sold at stores). Recently, women have started to hand out tomo choko (友チョコ‘friend chocolate’) to their female friends. This year’s Valentine’s Day generated 1.1 billion euros of revenue (3% more than last year), with most chocolate companies earning half of their annual sales in February (Japan Times, 2017). A Japanese woman spends around 80 euros on Valentine chocolate every year.

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Ad for White Day candy gifts – Amazon

White Day on March 14th is the male response to Valentine’s Day and originated in the 70s as a commercial stunt by the National Confectionery Industry Association to boost sales in the month following February. Originally it was launched as Marshmallow Day, but marshmallows turned out to be an unsuccessful product and the name was changed. On this day, Valentine gifts are reciprocated in the form of white presents: white chocolate, candy, handkerchiefs, flower, cookies, jewelry and underwear (acceptable even for work relations). Rupp (2003: 149) points out that many men do not make a return gift, and in the case of giri choko, it is the wife of the Valentine’s recipient that concerns herself with providing the office women with White Day presents. These gifts are usually at least twice as high in value than the original gift, yet sales are not as high as for Valentine’s Day. As will be explained later, not returning a gift or returning twice the amount would be inappropriate in other gift-giving settings, but ‘hybridized’ holidays allow for divergence of standard norms.

* Mother’s Day and Father’s Day Presents

From the 1970s on, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day as ‘imported’ holidays have been celebrated in a similar fashion as in the West. Department stores anticipate this gift-giving by putting specific items on display. In 1966, Respect for the Aged Day was introduced on 15 September, today celebrated in the third week of September. The elderly receive gifts from their relatives such as flowers, clothing and food. It has been a custom for the government to present centenarians with silver sake cups on this day, although last year it was decided to send out cheaper cups, since silver ones for the more than 65,000 centenarians proved to be too costly to manage (Japan Times, 2016).

mothers day

Results of a survey on Mother’s Day gifts in Japan, asking what they received and what presents made them most happy. Flowers are number one in both cases. – Ringbell

It is indicative that for ‘imported’ gift-giving traditions, the word purezento (プレゼント, the Japanese pronunciation of the English word ‘present’) is used rather than Japanese words for ‘gifts’ such as okurimono (贈り物). Purezento bears a more individual and western connotation and is less formal. Today in Japanese society, many people prefer to give more personalized items to close friends (the so-called ‘casualization’ of gift-giving) instead of gifts that are rooted in social obligation. For example, only sending Christmas gifts and not oseibo (Rupp, 2003: 145).

Cash Gift-Giving

* Wedding Gifts

wedding envelope

Decorated envelope for a cash wedding gift – Rakuten

As was touched upon in the introduction of this blog post, wedding gifts mainly consist out of money. The decorated envelopes (shūgi-bukuro 祝儀袋) with cash – new bills – are handed over at the reception desk, specifying whether it is for the groom or for the bride, or are delivered at home in case the giving party is not invited to the wedding or cannot attend. The amount of money should mirror the relationship with the recipients, as well as the wealth status of the donor. College friends and neighbors, for example, give around 160 euros, family members usually give more. Special envelopes with tied cords in auspicious colors are purchased for the occasion. Since a considerable amount of gift money as compensation for costs can be expected, “this custom (…) has led to more and more extravagant receptions, all to the delight of the companies that sell wedding packages and the luxury hotels where such receptions are often held” (Mak, 1998: 30). Indeed, the Japanese wedding industry, including the many return gifts that are sent to all guests (cf. infra) is worth 20.1 billion euros today (Yano Research Institute, 2017).

* Funeral Gifts

koden

envelope for ‘incense money’ – Amazon

‘Incense money’ (香典kōden), ranging between 24 euros and 800 euros per person,  is given at funerals or wakes in special envelopes (Suzuki, 2000: 84). In contrast to the crisp new bills presented at a wedding, incense money should be old. Again, the amount of money is dictated by relationship and status. For more traditional wedding gifts as well as funeral gifts, the gender of the recipient or deceased plays a role: less money is given in the case of a woman. Mourners additionally send white flowers with their name attached. The incense money covers only around half of the funeral costs, since return gifts are made to every donor. Annually, roughly 2.7 billion Euro is spent on ceremonial gifts at funeral services (Karan & Gilbreath, 2005: 176).

Symbolic gifts

Small traditional gifts often have a symbolic meaning. It is customary, for instance, to present new neighbors with long, thin noodles since these symbolize longevity. Boxes with noodles especially for such occasions are sold at department stores and are differently wrapped and priced than noodles purchased for own consumption. Noodles in their plastic supermarket wrapping would also be inappropriate for ochūgen, for example. As a betrothal gift, a set of store-bought items that symbolize good luck, longevity and good health, often accompany an envelope with around 8000 euros from the groom’s family – or around three times his monthly salary (Rupp, 2003: 86-88).

otoshidama

Lucky kid just received her New Year’s money – K-pedia

New Year cards (年賀状nengajō) in auspicious colors depicting the Zodiac sign of the new year are sent out to relatives, friends and teachers but also to co-workers and business connections. New Year’s presents from parents to children (otoshidama お年玉), on the other hand, is a sum of money and must be given in a special envelope. It may appear that gift-giving in Japan always calls for an occasion, but susowake (すそ分け‘dividing the edge’) is one type of gift purchased simply because the other might like or need it, and has no symbolic meaning attached. Hence, there is no social obligation to return (Rupp, 2003: 29).

Return gifts

The returning of gifts is an essential but fairly more complex part of the Japanese gift-giving tradition. Since gift-giving is an act of giri, and since giri requires reciprocation, a gift naturally calls for a return gift. The moral obligation to give, to receive, and to return gifts is as much a part of traditional Japan as it is of the archaic societies with which Marcel Mauss (1954) concerned himself in his famous essay on the gift. (Lebra & Lebra, 1986: 162)

return gifts

Some popular return gifts – Kinogift

Technically, every gift should be returned with a counter-gift of half its value. Returns in cash are inappropriate, even if the original gift was money (Rupp, 2003: 192). How much a gift costs, can be estimated from the wrapping that has the name of the shop on it where it was purchased. Some high-end department stores are famous for carrying expensive gift items, and often where a gift comes from tells more about its value than the actual contents. Traditionally, gift-giving is the task of the wife and she, herself purchasing gifts frequently, has gained the knowledge to estimate its value and reciprocate in a fitting manner. To make things easier, department stores stick code tags on gifts that tell you its worth. It might be surprising that today as well, Japanese women are the ones responsible for the year-around exchange of gifts,  but seeing as how Japanese gender norms are still solidly entrenched in contemporary society – distinctly more so than in the West – gift-giving continue to be a woman’s job. Rupp, too, describes some situations in which wives, never husbands, were blamed for an ill-chosen gift.

kurumadai

Cute “car money” envelopes – Creema

At weddings and funerals, attendees and those who sent money in advance receive a bag full of return gifts. For weddings these include auspicious food, long-lasting objects, souvenirs of the happy event and sometimes an envelope with money that covers the transportation cost for people who come from far away. Additionally, newly weds spent a lot of time and money during their honeymoon gathering more return gifts. For funerals, traditionally salt, sake, sugar, objects made of thread and other items for purification are bagged. Although estimated to be half of the value of the cash gift, some people end up receiving more than they have given. In some regions, return gifts for incense money are only reciprocated after a certain period of time, and are calculated to match half of the value of the presented cash.

Nevertheless, there are exceptions: return gifts for birth presents are only half to one-third the value of the initial gift. Matchmakers (the couple through which the wedding was arranged) are lavished with more return gifts and money than any other person. White Day, serving as a reciprocity opportunity, prescribes that men, if they do give something, return gifts of at least twofold the Valentine gift’s cost. Rupp (2003: 150) points out that this reaffirms men as the superior party in their relationship with women. In fact, all ‘imported’ holidays have to be seen outside the framework of traditional gift-giving and return gifts. Christmas gifts, for example, are not reciprocated.


This was a short overview of the most common types of gift-giving in Japan. I think we can conclude that the Japanese give a lot of presents on many occasions and that a lot of money is spent in the process. Yet, it strengthens relationships and is a crucial part of Japan’s social landscape.

References here

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.

Meiji_Emperor

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

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

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.

Yoshimitsu_Ashikaga

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).

Hana_no_Gosho

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_Komei

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.

References 

  • 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

Introducing the Japanese Imperial System

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

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

The_Meiji_Emperor_of_Japan_and_the_imperial_family,_by_Torajirō_Kasai,_1900

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

Emperor_Akihito_cropped_1_Barack_Obama_and_Emperor_Akihito_20140424

Emperor Akihito

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

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

Emperor_Jimmu by Yoshitoshi

Emperor Jinmu

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

hirohito

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

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

Amaterasu

Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess

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

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

jingu

Empress Jingu in Korea

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

suiko

Empress Suiko

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

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

Fun Facts 

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

References

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