Throwback Time

Time flies! It’s already been over a year since I came back from my one-year stay in Japan. I’ve grown pretty nostalgic these days, thinking back to all the good stuff, and maybe forgetting a little bit about the things I liked less. I am planning to go back soon to do fieldwork for my research, but in the meantime I have saved some eye candy for you from my last trip, showing you what exactly I can’t wait to go back to. Now, let’s begin our stroll down memory lane.

The nature

Many people who have travelled to Japan will tell you that excursions outside the vibrant cities are certainly worth the trip. Especially for this journey, my family brought a nice camera – spot my brother in action among the sunflowers. As you can also see from the pictures below, we travelled around Japan during summertime. Being totally surrounded by nature was overwhelming, in particular because we Belgians aren’t really used to that much green (and the weather was also extremely hot for our standards).

The Japanese island is for 70% mountainous and for over 60% covered with forests, which results in sparse low-leveled, but densely populated areas popping up in between vast woods, rivers and mountain ranges. Lots of nature to explore, in other words. Below you see some of the “99 island” (Kujukushima 九十九島), a bamboo forest, a view of Kyushu’s countryside and colorful koi fish.

But even in metropolis centres, you can find quiet, green spots among the many touristic attractions. Below are two pictures from Kobe (the ropeway up to Rokko Mountain and the Nunobiki waterfalls) and two from Kyoto, displaying a magnificent temple garden and a proud heron in the garden of Nijo castle.

The culture

Well, isn’t this my favorite part about Japan! Living in Kobe, I was situated close to the cultural and historical heart of Japan. You probably know that I am more into (let’s call it) the ‘traditional’ stuff. Hence, the tourist in me is more drawn towards castles, temples, medieval art and so on. That doesn’t mean I don’t value modern cultural phenomena – on the contrary, I think they’re fascinating research material! Since this post is trying to be as visual as possible, the pictures below can seem a little cliché in that sense, since they depict mostly ‘the classics’. For the reason that I’m into ‘traditional’ stuff, I actually never visited Tokyo during my round trip (oh, the shame). Of course I would recommend it to everyone, but personally I do not really feel attracted to the hyper-modern, current capital of Japan (the previous ones I love, though – Nara, Kyoto, you name it). But one day, I’ll go to Tokyo, for sure! *pinky swear*

Besides the extraordinary craftsmanship, I love the abundance of colors, yet at the same time serenity of temples and palaces. Kyoto was great (how many temples can you visit in one day?) and as a Buddhist geek, I thoroughly enjoyed all the religious references in Japanese culture such as the many Buddha statues. During our journey, we often stumbled across unplanned festivals and other celebrations, for example the Gozan fire festival. On the other pictures, you can see the beautiful white Himeji castle and the ‘floating’ torii of the Itsukushima shrine on Miyajima island.

Typical for smaller Japanese towns is that they specialize in a certain product which then attracts a lot of shopping tourists. That is the case, for example, in Uji, a town close to Kyoto and  famous for its matcha – but also known for its prominence in The Tale of Genji and its stunning Byodo-in temple. Another example is Arita, famed for its ceramics and pottery. Also, when nature and culture come together, great stuff happens. Like, deer in Nara. Or the Korakuen garden in Okayama.

Japanese architecture, traditional or modern, keeps fascinating people. Take for example the huge main temple in Nara (with my parents posing in front of it), the innovative water architecture of Osaka city station, the golden pavilion in Kyoto or the modern office constructions you see everywhere in big cities.

And last but not least, let’s talk arts. Japan is known worldwide for its origami, ikebana, kimono designs and performing arts such as puppet theater, kabuki and noh. These arts are constantly developing and modernizing, yet maintain their ‘traditional’ character. In Hiroshima, we saw ‘1000 folded cranes’ and a Kagura performance. On Shikoku, I was so lucky to watch puppet theater (they were so kind to pose with us for a picture), and kimonos were a common sight in Kyoto.

The Food

Apart from culture and history, food is also a big interest of mine. The Japanese cuisine is very different from the Belgian one, and this also influenced my taste palette and culinary preferences. I have been a vegetarian for some time now, so there are lots of Japanese dishes out there that I never tried – I had to make an exception for the unavoidable dashi (fish stock), though. Yet, I was often surprised about the availability of vegetarian dishes, and the willingness of the chefs to adapt to the (vegetarian) customer’s needs. Japanese people eat a lot of vegetables, tofu is everywhere and I enjoyed some great vegetarian meals, like the ones below. On one or two occasions, I had a fancy vegetarian set meal, and the Buddhist, vegetarian food on mount Koya was also a pleasant experience.

Okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake with a filling of choice, proved to be the perfect alternative for pizza. Back in Belgium, I also had to get used to the idea that there is no concept such as izakaya here: places where you can drink alcohol and order lots of food at the same time. You could say I mostly went to izakaya together with friends or colleagues to drink, but I always ended up stuffing my face with delicious foods. Not that I didn’t drink at all – sake was love at first sight.

Sushi is, of course, always a good choice. Try kaiten-zushi (conveyer belt sushi) for a lot of fun and a full stomach! If I didn’t have time to prepare a lunch box on a busy school day, I used to buy onigiri (rice triangles) or inarizushi (seasoned rice in a marinated tofu skin) at the supermarket. Other standard meals I often ordered in restaurants include udon noodles with tofu or don (rice) dishes with egg. From time to time, I treated myself to some curry: I like the Japanese ones with vegetables as well as the curry set menus at Indian restaurants.

An example of how my taste buds adapted to Japanese flavors, is the fact that I started prefering Japanese sweets over western, much sweeter and sugary desserts. There have been many days lately that I crave mochi! Also, matcha is a gift from the gods – I love all kinds of desserts stuffed with it (don’t the phoenix matcha pancakes from Uji look amazing?). Another favorite snack of mine is red bean paste, especially in manju, like the ones from Miyajima shaped like leaves on the left. I also cannot express enough how tasty mitarashi dango are (am I the only who feels like this?): Japanese rice dumplings with sweet soy sauce. Yummy!

The people

Japanese people and me went along pretty well! I always felt at ease because they would try to make me feel welcome as much as possible, be considerate and show me the utmost respect. It was a reassurance that the Japanese would never make fun of me or embarrass me – at least not in my face. Most conversations are pretty predictable (no sarcastic remarks or surprises from people you don’t know very well) which also helps you to follow and respond better by anticipating the rest of the conversation. One thing that is not supposed to be annoying but actually is when you live there for a while, is the complimenting: hearing time and time again how good your Japanese is and how baffled they are by your knowledge about Japan (“Even I as a Japanese didn’t know that!” – but then again I am the one majoring in Japanese studies and not you, and I am not an expert in Belgian history either, is what I would have liked to reply), can get a little tiring.

They often say that Japanese people do not have a sense of humor, but I don’t think that’s true. Of course, the slapstick on Japanese television doesn’t crack me up either, but contextual jokes and puns were as funny in Japan as anywhere else. Another pro is that politeness is prioritized over personality – being rude doesn’t make you cool. And with people you want to befriend, you can discover a whole new personality behind this polite “façade” (tatemae). I believe I’m not a very warm person and a little distant myself when I don’t know another person very well, so I could relate.

In general, Japanese people were kind and always willing to help me. I experienced this while studying and researching at uni, as well as in the Shorinji martial arts club I was a member of. From my first day in Japan, I received a lot of help and friendship from the Japanese at my faculty. The professors, unlike in Belgium sometimes, were supportive and respectful towards their students. During shorinji training as well, I  was never left on my own. The more experienced “fighters” taught the newbies, and I learnt a lot from practicing together. Because I was mainly focused on my research, I wasn’t the most social one in the group but I had a lot of fun in my free time.

I could go on and list up many other experiences I had during my stay there, but I think it’s best to go back to Japan and make more memories! In the meantime, I will write a couple of new blog posts with a more academic content. Feel free to share your memories in the comment section below!

Dramatic Fashion

I confess: I love to write academic stuff, but sometimes I just want to share something personal with you such as what I enjoy doing in my free time, except for writing this blog of course (spoiler: watching series and dressing up). In the past, I have written about Japanese drama a few times, here and here. I am still watching it although not very consistently (I have those binge-watching moments, especially during exam periods and in the weekends) but I can enjoy an episode now and then. It’s also a good exercise for brushing up my Japanese now that I am studying something completely different.


Legal High: so funny

It should be said, however, that I am very picky; I prefer detective and crime drama (the Japanese are Mystery Masters) and slice-of-life drama with a strong sense of humor (I can even tolerate some romance). On the other hand, I am more than fed up with (mostly Korean) dramas that are complete misrepresentations of society, reinforce gender roles like it were the 19th century and feature the same storyline over and over again. Please stop showing me another handsome but arrogant chaebol son, a poor but oh so kind orphaned girl with the latest phone or a so-called “ugly” woman who becomes pretty the moment she takes off her glasses and puts on some make-up. I stopped watching stuff dramas like that, although I am sure that there are still some not so mainstream series out there worth watching.

But this is not what I wanted to write about. So, here we go: I have noticed that, personally, my fashion style corresponds with a specific style in Japanese fashion as recently featured on Japanese television. During my one-year stay in Japan, I often  received the comment that I dress “oshare” (おしゃれ, stylish) as opposed to “kawaii” (可愛い, cute), that other, more typical way of dressing Japanese are famous for. It is true that I like certain elements of Japanese clothes and styling: layering, covering shoulders and cleavage, wearing almost always feminine skirts, flower patterns, putting on accessories, high but comfy heels AND always wearing matching socks, especially in sandals (socks are everything – I have them in around 50 different colors and patterns). Besides, I also adore traditional kimono. It really is a egg-or-chicken question: do I like Japanese fashion because I dress similarly or am I being influenced by it? Yet, some of the things about my appearance are not Japanese at all, such as my make-up, and – let’s be honest – the shape of my body. Below are some outfits I approve of from two dramas I like(d) to watch (there are probably more but I can’t remember. So feel free to recommend a drama with some great fashion in it!).

  1.  Jimi ni Sugoi! Kōetsu Garu Kōno Etsuko 地味にスゴイ! 校閲ガール・河野悦子 (Simpleness is Great! Proofreading Girl Kono Etsuko). I recently finished watching this drama and I really liked it. The ambitious and fashionable Etsuko finally gets in the publishing company of her dreams, albeit in the gloomy proofreading section. I identify with Etsuko’s outgoing personality as well as with her wardrobe: I enjoy wearing scarfs (around the neck and in my hair), midi high-waisted skirts, lots of colors, flowers and socks, and I like to try out a new hairstyle now and then. There is also a vintage feeling about these outfits. As a keen vintage collector (I only buy secondhand clothing) I especially appreciate the 70s Bohemian vibe and the 50s silhouette Etsuko incorporates in her fashion style.

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  2. A few years back, I watched Okitegami Kyoko no Biboroku 掟上今日子の備忘録 (The Memorandum of Kyoko Okitegami). I’m not a huge fan of this quirky detective’s silver bob, but I admire the way she effortlessly mixes and matches colors and patterns. Her clothes are not tight-fitted yet timelessly elegant. I especially like the color-blocking. Plus, adding a beret is always a good idea. It also makes me realize I should wear tartan more often. By the way, it’s obvious that glasses make you more stylish (don’t believe Kdrama makeovers, kids). That’s it for today! I will be back soon with a new post (you can expect something academic).

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wp-image-1575460682jpg.jpgAt this moment, my university (KU Leuven in Belgium) and other institutions are commemorating Thomas More’s Utopia. This work, written in Latin and edited by Erasmus, was published by Dirk Martens in Leuven, the city where I study, exactly 500 years ago. (Okay, I started working on this post in 2016, so it’s 501 years ago now.) Utopia is a frame story about a fictitious island. The title, a neologism invented by More’s good friend Erasmus but derived from the Greek language, means “no place”, not to be confused with eutopia, “good place”. Nevertheless, More gives the impression that Utopia really existed, providing the reader not only with a detailed description of the island, but also inserting several letters to his own friends such as Peter Giles, town clerk of Antwerp, who plays a role in the story too. Additionally, the book was furnished with a map of the island, the Utopian alphabet (designed by Peter Giles) and two poems in the Utopian language with translation.

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The work itself consists out of two books: the first book covers discussions and criticism on the “real” society while the second book goes into details about the unknown island of Utopia. A character called More (a surrogate for the author) is introduced by his friend Peter Giles to Raphael Hythloday, the Portuguese explorer that discovered Utopia. They discuss the current political situation in Europe, ethical issues in serving at court, social abuse that leads to theft and other topics. In the second book, Hythloday recounts his journey to Utopia. During his stay of 5 years, he familiarized himself with the remarkable Utopian customs. A description of these customs would take more than one post, so check out this summary if you are interested.

Utopia paved the way for a whole new genre of literature. The ideas the humanist and statesman More (1478-1535) put forward in his book, are still relevant and inspiring today (for example the 6-hour working day Sweden has been experimenting with), and some ideas have even come true. However, not all of the Utopian customs would be considered OK nowadays. Slavery, for example, was still a thing. Moreover, it is wrong to think that Utopia represents the perfect society because this was not More’s intention at all – the difference between “eutopia” and “utopia” is really important here. On the contrary, the author distances himself from some of the Utopian ideals and principles. Therefore, Utopia should be read as a criticism of the society More lived in. Not an easy task, by the way: the danger of critiquing society directly is illustrated by the fact that More was later beheaded because he did not go along with Henry VIII’s plan for the establishment of a Church of England.

Climbing the Utopia-themed stairs to the Japanese collection at the University Library

You are probably wondering what this has to do with Japan. Well, I was curious whether, traditionally speaking, Japanese literature also covers a genre of utopian writings. This has been a question often addressed by scholars, and the usual answer is: no, not in the Western sense of the word (not so strange because the genre was named after More’s Utopia), but yes, Japanese literature includes utopian-ish texts, especially works written during the Meiji period (1868-1912). Apparently, utopian works in the West are characterized by a constant shift in position between reality and the imaginary world. The difficulties the reader is faced with in trying to distinguish between what is fictional and what is real, is precisely the level of ambiguity utopian literature aims for.

It is argued that in Japanese works, this ambiguity is not very present. However, the differences between Western utopias and Japanese literature on a similar topic do not indicate that Japanese works are ‘underdeveloped’ or lacking what their western counterpart have: this would be measuring with a Western yardstick. Imagine if a pasta dish was critically evaluated based on its similarity to ramen, Japanese noodle soup (both are tasty in their own way, right?). Moreover, in the manga, anime and Japanese drama of today, a utopian setting is often used. This has certainly been influenced by the popularity of western science fiction from the postwar period on, but apparently utopian-ish genres date back to the Edo period or even earlier. The length of this post will convince you that comparing both literary traditions is more complex than is often assumed.


Example of a “kibyoshi” from 1809 –

Burton (2007) points out that in mid-Edo times, a genre of fantastic travel narratives existed that was also used to critique contemporary society: kibyōshi 黄表紙 “yellow cover books”, the first comic books for adults. Because Japan was isolated from the rest of the world due to a policy of seclusion (sakoku 鎖国) at that time, the Japanese became fascinated by these booklets with their yellow covers that illustrated in words and (lots of) pictures the (imaginative) travels to far, exotic countries and their curious inhabitants. Burton further argues that the Japanese travel narratives were highly influenced by much older Chinese sources, often rooted in Taoist and Buddhist iconography. Such fantastic tales were regularly set in a different time period, to completely mask the fact that they were actually criticism on contemporary society. By doing so, authors could address political or other “forbidden” themes in a satirical way that would be censored otherwise. Although kibyōshi did not stand the test of time and popular authors soon disappeared into oblivion, the idea of a hypothetical world inspired Japanese writers in the centuries afterwards. 


Japanese translation of More’s Utopia

More highbrow alternatives for  kibyōshi  are Ihara Saikaku’s  “Island of Women” (女護島 nyogonoshima) in which the author criticizes gender inequality, and Yoshitsune’s trip to fantastic islands with half-human, half-animals creatures  in the classic  The Tale of the Heike (平家物語 Heike monogatari). Once Japan’s borders opened up for foreign literature in the second half of the 19th century, the Japanese public became fascinated by Western utopias. For example, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was translated and published in 1880, More’s Utopia the year after that. Moichi (1999) argues that the Japanese imported Western novels as a type of Western technology that had a political purpose. As a result, Japanese utopian-style texts inspired by this Western literature mainly promoted a modern ideology, which they hoped would result in political change in Japan’s near future. Coincidently, the Japanese public gained an enormous interest in writings on the future – eutopian or dystopian (the latter was slightly favored because it could shock the readers more).

I could devote an entire post to the well-established tradition of futurological literature in Japan, but at least an introduction is in order since both genres are often interlinked (stories about other, unfamiliar worlds regularly take place in the future). Drawing on the contents of an interesting class I took last year, I was able to trace the origins of futuristic narratives back to early Japanese history. The genre of miraiki (未来記 “record of the future”) is a literary tradition in Japanese history that has its roots in Chinese dynastic writings. At the start of every new dynasty in China (often established by means of a massacre), the new royal family had to justify why they deserved the “heavenly mandate”  (tenmei 天命) by discrediting the previous dynasty. Hence, they referred to a text that had “predicted” the rightful establishment of a new dynasty (the massacre part of the old dynasty was also slightly downplayed).


“Prince Shotoku’s secret writings “Miraiki” disclosed”

It is not difficult to guess that this text was written by the new dynasty and not by someone in the past. As a result, we can regard traditional “futuristic texts” more as writings about the past than about the future. Since Japan does not have a dynastic system, their take on futuristic texts was different: most miraiki were attributed to Prince Shōtoku (Shōtoku Taishi 聖徳太子, 574-622) who is said to be capable of predicting the future. Those texts emerged throughout the Heian period and the Japanese Middle Ages. Similar to the Chinese original, miraiki were used in political discourse for refiguring the past. So here as well, miraiki are part of a literary tradition that claims to be futurological in spirit but is actually historical. The reliance on Prince Shōtoku’s authority to introduce certain standpoints clearly indicates the political character of miraiki. 

Miraiki underwent a drastic transformation from the Edo period  (1603-1868) on: they were trivialized and appeared in the form of satiric kibyōshi for the general public (this should ring a bell for attentive readers!). In other words, the genre of kibyōshi is believed to emerge from the tradition of miraiki. Yet, these “new” miraiki differed considerably. Kibyōshi stories are not necessarily set in the future, but those that are, are seen as equally impossible as utopian-ish stories, which results in absurd and comical narratives. This changed, again, with the arrival of Western futuristic works at the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912). The future became more approachable, and speculation about it less absurd. According to Kurita (2000: 6), “Japanese during the formative years of Meiji, like the founders of the United States (…) had an unusually keen interest in proactively creating their own future.” Reminiscent of miraiki literature, it is remarkable that, once again, Japan wanted nothing more than to glorify and at the same time rewrite its past: the Meiji Restoration is characterized by a desire to go back to imperial rule and make an end to the power of the shogunate that had been overshadowing the emperor’s leadership from 1185 on. Hence, the future of Japan was envisioned with the past in mind.

anno-2065Kurita further argues that the reception of the Dutch novel Anno 2065; Een Blik in de Toekomst (“A Glimpse into the Future”, 1865) by Dr. Dioscorides aka Pieter Harting in Japan acted as the stimulus to another change in literary perception of the future. Anno 2065 appealed to the Japanese because of its “dream device”. The narrator falls asleep and wakes up in the future. According to Kurita, this inspired many Japanese authors to use  the same dream device in their miraiki. However, it should be noted that the “dream”, or rather, “the magical dream pillow” is a traditional element in Chinese, Korean and Japanese storytelling, and we should be careful to interpret the presence of it in Meiji period miraiki as a mere imitation of Western works that use a similar device. From the 1880s on, the refashioned miraiki integrated a Western notion of utopianism and futurology by not only focusing on the past, but also taking present understandings into consideration. Between 1885 and 1890, more than 100 miraiki were published.

One work in particular, Nijūsannen miraiki 二十三年未来記 (The Year 23: A Record of the Future, 1886) by Suehiro Tecchō 末広鉄腸 (writer’s name Suehiro Shigeyasu 末廣重恭), helped the miraiki genre gain a nation-wide but short-lived popularity (previously published texts, sometimes with the same title, were also influential but Suehiro’s novel was the first one able to break through successfully). The year 23 refers to Meiji 23, or 1890. Not really that far away in the future to count as futurological literature, you would think. Nevertheless, life in 1890 was imagined very differently due to a drastic change: the introduction of a Diet system. In 1881, an edict called into existence a constitution and a National Diet. Since the public was not familiar with these concepts, journalists such as Suehiro wanted to educate people about this new political system and promote it through means of the popular genre of miraiki.

The story in The Year 23 depicts a parliamentary debate in 1890. Again, miraiki mainly played a political role. Yet, they were innovative in combining a Japanese traditional genre with a futurological perspective as introduced through Western literature. They are set in the (near) future, but do also reflect contemporary society mixed with expectations and desires about how Japan should look like (hopefully to be fulfilled in the future). In that sense, these kind of miraiki have a flavor of eutopian utopias, albeit a different one than More’s work evoked in the West. After the second World War, Japanese readers became interested in American science fiction (often in a dystopian setting)  which also resulted in SF novels flooding the market. Today, utopianism is a recurring theme in modern Japanese literature. Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, for example (check one of my first posts on this book here!), or manga such as Akira and  Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Enough reading material to feel like you are living in a different world…


Old Stories of Madness


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

Story no. 1: The Great Mirror and Mad Emperors

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

Reizei_kyoto tomb.jpg

Emperor Reizei’s tomb in Kyoto.

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


Emperor Kazan, Reizei’s son.

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

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

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

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


Writer Sei Shonagon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

aoi rokujo.png

Aoi and Genji, surrounded by anxious court ladies.

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


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

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

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

Ozu Yasujirō in CineConcert

Three years ago, I undertook to convince you to watch Ozu Yasujirō’s movies because of five solid reasons: realism on the screen, the opportunity to hear/read spoken Japanese (dialects), excellent actors, the Japaneseness and the stylised, interactive way of filming. I was again impressed by all of these things characterizing director Ozu’s style after watching the silent movie “Gosses de Tokyo” (original title: 大人の見る絵本 生れてはみたけれど otona no miru ehon – umarete ha mita keredo “A picture book seen by adults – I was born, but …” 1932) at Film Fest Gent last week. This film festival showed a selection of Japanese movies as a tribute to the 150 years of friendship between Japan and Belgium (I wrote something about this here!). The screening was accompanied by beautiful live music, a new score written by Gwenaël Grisi and brought by a quintet.


I had watched a bunch of Ozu’s movies in the past, but “Gosses de Tokyo” was my first silent Ozu movie. The story revolves around two young brothers in a middle-class family who have to deal with bullies at school and the harsh reality that their father is not “the best”. On the contrary, he works for the father of one of their own schoolmates, over whom they gain “power” once they teach their bullies a lesson. The boys rebel by skipping school, quarreling with their parents and going on a (failed) hunger strike. The coming-of-age perspective was also riddled with humor. This line had the audience bursting into laughter:

  • Dad: Did you enjoy going to school today?
  • Son: Yeah, going was fun and coming back was fun too, it  was only the part in between that was really boring.

Other comical elements were the boys’ behavior, in which we all resemble ourselves as a child, and the younger brother constantly mimicking the older one.


Title screen of the movie (Sorry for the bad quality)

Because it was a silent movie, language use was limited and depended for a great deal on correctly interpreting the context. In some cases, it really helped having some insight in Japanese culture. For instance, there was a scene in which the boys, who had skipped school, asked the sake delivery boy to write the grade “A” (甲 kō) on a fabricated calligraphy homework. Unfortunately, the delivery boy drew the middle line so that it emerged on top, producing thus an entirely different character, 申 (saru, meaning among many other things, “monkey”). When one of the boys proudly presented this homework to his father, he wisely covered the upper part of his ‘grade’. Apart from such rare occasions, the visual story line spoke for itself and was nicely complemented by the music.

Fun Fact: I later discovered that Ozu reworked “I was born, but…” for his color and sound movie “Good Morning” (お早よう Ohayō), which I believe I have watched many years ago. I guess I should watch it again to be sure…

Thanks to Jana for the invitation!

The Perception of Mental Disorders in Ancient Japan

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

“Madness” as a Privilege of the Shaman

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


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

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

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

Early Accounts of Mental Disorders


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Mad” People and Religion

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

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


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

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


Yamabushi – Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

“Madness” in Buddhism

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


The Nihon Ryōiki – Wikimedia Commons

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

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

UNESCO World Heritage in Japan

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

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

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


Buddhist Monuments in the Horyū-ji Area (1993)


Wikimedia Commons

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

Himeji-jō (1993)


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

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


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


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


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


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

Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama (1995)


Wikimedia Commons

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

Itsukushima Shinto Shrine (1996)


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

Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) (1996)


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

Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara (1998) 


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


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


Shrines and Temples of Nikkō (1999)


Wikimedia Commons

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

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


Wikimedia Commons

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

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


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

Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape (2007)


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

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


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

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


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

Tomioka Silk Mill and Related Sites (2014)


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

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

glover garden nagasaki.jpg

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

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


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


Shirakami-Sanchi (1993)


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

Yakushima (1993)


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


Shiretoko (2005)


Wikimedia Commons

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

Ogasawara Islands (2011)


Wikimedia Commons

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

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


Mental Health Stigma in Japan: Introduction

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

1. Stigmatization of people with a mental disorder worldwide

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


Mental health stigma in Britain –

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

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

2. The situation in Japan

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


Example of a Japanese mental health stigma campaign.

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


Illustrating mental health stigma –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Infamous Tantra Teachings of the Tachikawa-ryū

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


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

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

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

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

me & buddhism

Buddha is love. Literally.

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

Tachikawa ryu

Mandala symbolizing sexual union.

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

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


Book titled “Tachikawa-ryu Heresy”

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

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

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

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

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

References and Further Reading

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

Iwakura: the Japanese Gheel?

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


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

gheel iwakura.png

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

1. The history of Gheel

pc4136Gheel (Geel in Dutch) has been an important pilgrimage destination since early times. From the 12th century on, ill people from all corners of Europe came to Gheel because they had heard about the legend of Sint Dymphna (Dimpna in Dutch), the city’s patron saint. It was believed that seeing and touching her relics had curative powers. According to the legend, Dymphna was the daughter of an Irish king ruling in the seventh century. When the queen died, the king started looking desperately for a woman to remarry who looked exactly like his deceased spouse, but could find no one who resembled her more than his own daughter. The king, by then insane from grief, proposed to Dymphna. She refused him and fled together with father confessor Gerebernus and some trusted others to Gheel. They were eventually tracked down and the king beheaded his daughter himself and had Gerebernus killed as well. Both were declared martyrs. The people in Gheel buried their bodies, but later exhumed the bones to function as relics in the Dymphna Church they established in the vicinity of their grave.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Geel - De kolonie rond 1900

The mental hospital of Gheel around 1900 – Gemeentearchief Geel

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

2. The history of Iwakura

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


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


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

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

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

zashikiro –

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


Patients exercising at Iwakura Mental Hospital –

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

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

3. Comparing Gheel and Iwakura


Kure Shūzō – Wikimedia Commons

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


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

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


Wilhelm Stieda – Wikimedia Commons

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

familienpflege iwakura

Translation German: “family care in Iwakura” –

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

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


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