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 – http://www.arc.ritsumei.ac.jp/

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.

The Perception of Mental Disorders in Ancient Japan

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

“Madness” as a Privilege of the Shaman

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


Picture from an article in National Geographic, depicting a Mongolian shaman. The text says “shaman, the one chosen by the spirits” – http://natgeo.nikkeibp.co.jp/nng/article/20121120/331216/

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

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

Early Accounts of Mental Disorders


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Mad” People and Religion

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

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


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

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


Yamabushi – Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

“Madness” in Buddhism

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


The Nihon Ryōiki – Wikimedia Commons

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

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

Japanese Poetry and Nature


Sakura-themed coffee I enjoyed earlier this spring in Japan.

Japanese culture is often said to have a special connection with nature. Japanese aesthetics are therefore characterized by this “traditional love of nature”[1]. It is true that Japanese people, young and old, participate in several festivals and annual observances celebrating the beauty of nature, such as viewing cherry blossoms in spring or admiring the bright foliage in fall. Daily life also reflects those seasonal associations: cooking, house decorations, clothing and even greetings are systematically adjusted to weather, fauna and flora.  But do the Japanese really have an inherent affinity with nature, more than other people worldwide? For one of my classes at Kobe University, I read parts of Haruo Shirane’s book titled “Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts” (2012). Shirane provides an interesting theory on how this myth was developed throughout Japanese history. In this post, we will look into the connection between nature and poetry.

shiraneThose who know waka 和歌, Japanese poetry, will certainly agree that nature plays a central role in many poems. Haiku 俳句, for example, a still popular poetry genre of poetry nowadays, requires a seasonal word. The connection between nature and poetry is very clear from the fact that “the imagery of Japanese poetry for more than a thousand years was drawn almost exclusively from the natural phenomena of the four seasons[2]”. Hence, nature became a literary device through which human emotions were expressed. To illustrate this, I have tried to closely translate (with the same syllable structure) a tanka 短歌, or short poem, from the Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves (Man’yōshū万葉集), the oldest Japanese poetry anthology. This poem is actually part of a long poem (chōka 長歌) praising Yoshino in spring, a place close to Asuka, the capital at that time.

三吉野乃                            み吉野の                  In fair Yoshino,
象山際乃                            象山の際の              between the Kisa-mountains,
木末尓波                            木末には                  where in the tree tops
幾許毛散和口                    ここだも騒く              you can hear their loud noises,
鳥之聲可聞                        鳥の声かも               the voices of singing birds.
(no. 924 by Yamabe Akihito)

A more poetic translation by Earl Roy Miner[3]:

From among the branches
of the trees upon Mount Kisa’s slopes,
the flocks of birds
fill the lovely vale of Yoshino
with their free and joyous songs.

And a translation by Haruo Shirane[4]:

In beautiful Yoshino’s
Kisa Mountains,
in the tops of the trees
how many, how noisy,
the voices of birds.

Shirane explains that Yoshino symbolized the current political order, but that later on, it would gain fame for its beautiful cherry blossoms and snow scenery. Thus, Yoshino became a place with a poetic essence (utamakura歌枕): only the name of “Yoshino” sufficed to evoke a seasonal association, i.e. spring.


One side of “Folding Screen Depicting Yoshino and Tatsuta”. Although only blossoms and a river are painted on this screen, the scenery can immediately be associated with the poetic place of Yoshino. – 17th century, Museum of Hakone

New for me was Shirane’s argument that the nature embedded in Japanese visual and material culture was not taken directly from primary nature, but was in fact a reference to poetry[5]. In that sense, seasonal associations were originally developed by Japanese poetry and were only then passed onto other genres. As a result, classical paintings with a seasonal theme were not a direct reflection of nature, but rather inspired by the waka tradition that flourished among the urban nobility. Proof is the frequent combination of textual and visual elements, in which an image representing elements from nature or seasonal topics was further embellished by the well-chosen characters from a famous waka poem. From the few characters, a technique called scattered writing (chirashigaki 散書), one could guess what poem was depicted. Examples are clothing designs, paintings and screens, like the one below.


Painted screen depicting flowers and birds of the four seasons, with scattered writing of waka by Shōkadō Shōjō. – 17th century, http://bunka.nii.ac.jp/

During the Heian period (794-1185), poetry was limited to the nobility, and it is therefore somewhat ironic that the people who barely set foot out of their palaces, wrote thousands of poems about the nature they had isolated themselves from. Moreover, inside they were surrounded by seasonal elements and references to nature’s beauty.

Since Heian aristocratic women rarely went out, screen and partition paintings, decorated with small sheets of waka, became, along with the garden, a surrogate for nature. The women often composed poems not on the actual small cuckoo that they heard in the garden, but on the hototogisu painted on a screen painting or partition. – Shirane (2012), 64.

Shirane calls this “secondary nature” (nijiteki shizen 二次的自然), a culturally constructed nature that resembles in no way the real, raw nature. Hence, it should not come as a surprise that classical poetic motifs were strictly codified. A canon of nature images came into existence: all seasonal elements with their own established associations, set combinations and temporal and physical location. For example, April was represented by the lesser cuckoo (hototogisu ホトトギス) and Deutzia flower (unohana卯の花) in the canonized Poems on Flowers and Birds of the Twelve Months (1214) by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241). Plants, flowers and animals that did not make the waka shortlist were left unsung for centuries. For example, the only four-legged animal was the deer, associated with loneliness, since birds and insects were more fancied among high-class society.


“Fragment of Rough Sketch of Deer and a Poem” by  Hon’ami Kouetsu – 17th century, Gotoh Museum

Another example is the fact that the most popular seasons to write about were spring and autumn, while in reality summer and winter are the dominant and lengthy seasons. This is perhaps linked to the idea that the Japanese finds identification with nature based on the transience that applies to both man and nature[6]. In that sense, cherry blossoms and bright foliage are representative elements of “fleeting nature” in a “fleeting world”. When poetry diffused to the lower classes during the Edo period, the genre of haikai 俳諧, humorous poetry, gained popularity. Other, even vulgar topics such as cat love (neko-koi 猫恋), were introduced, along with a different perception of the seasons. As a result, new seasonal words were created, greatly varying from the traditional waka-based canon. The focus on nature, however, remained strong, and is still visible in the Japanese culture of today.

In case you would like to know more, I highly recommend the work of Dr. Shirane. Also interesting are two of his presentations on YouTube:


[1] Saito, Yuriko. “The Japanese Appreciation of Nature” in The British Journal of Aesthetics 25, no. 3 (1985): 239–51, p. 239.
[2] Asquith, Pamela J., Arne Kalland, Japan Anthropology Workshop, and Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, eds. Japanese Images of Nature: Cultural Perspectives [Seventh Meeting of the Japan Anthropology Workshop Held in April 1993 in Banff, Alberta]. Repr. Man and Nature in Asia 1. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 2004, p. 23.
[3] Miner, Earl Roy. An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry. 1. publ. 1968. Stanford, Calif: Stanford Univ. Press, 1975, p. 68.
[4] Shirane, Haruo, ed. Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600. Translations from the Asian Classics. New York ;Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2008, p. 92-93.
[5] Shirane, Haruo (2012). Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 57.
[6] Saito, The Japanese Appreciation of Nature, p. 248.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Portuguese ships

Portuguese ships

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



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

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

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


Oranda fūsetsugaki – ndl.go.jp

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

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

description of a microscope

description of a microscope

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



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

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

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

Philipp Franz von Siebold watching an incoming Dutch ship at Dejima

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

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

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

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


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

Facts for Fun

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


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

Writing Women

One of the first books by Japanese writers I ever read, was Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book. Afterwards, I read some parts available in Dutch translation of The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. In that period of my life, I had to choose what I wanted to study at university, and these books really coaxed me into Japanese studies. I already found observing different cultures in general very interesting, but ultimately I choose Japan as major. Why? I don’t really know. But I do know that Heian literature (794 – 1185) left a great impression. And what is that period called? Yes, the “golden age of women’s writing”.


Murasaki Shikibu

Sato Hiroaki points out the prominent presence of women poets, starting from the seventh century and even earlier. “Both sexes are well represented, but the best Japanese prose is written by women. This prose was in so far admired, that it inspired many male authors up to now,” according to Jos Vos. Compare this with women’s presence in Western literature from the same period. Right, not much to observe there. That was not the case in Japan. Orikuchi Shinobu even goes as far as to call it “Japan’s historical habit of recognizing women’s poetry as the same as men’s in rank”. Nevertheless, this is to be taken with a grain of salt. Yoda Tomiko makes clear that “the identification of Heian literature in feminine terms was variously construed and contested”.


Who were these women? Most of them served as court ladies to members of the imperial family. Their real names are often unknown, and they gained recognition under their court nicknames. During the Heian period, literature seems to have been an inescapable means to survive the daily grind at the palace. The ladies in waiting, for example, enjoyed a certain sexual freedom. But nightly visits by their lovers were only made possible after some poetical correspondence. Many court ladies also wrote in detail about their daily joys and sorrows in poetic memoirs, like Sei Shōnagon. Other ones preferred fiction, and brought dazzling princes like Genji to life.

In the Heian, women were usually not educated in Chinese. At that moment, the Japanese people had adopted the Chinese characters to match their native language. In fact, there was no Japanese writing system. So how then did these women write? They invited their own syllabic script, kana 仮名.

Yoda Tomiko describes Heian women’s writing as “narrative fiction, poetry, and memoirs that evoke complex insights into matters such as romance, literary discourses, familial relations, and sexuality.” I was attracted to these writings because they were modern as far as writing style and originality were concerned, but they seemed at the same time from another world, something exotic and intangible. I agree with Jos Vos on this point: “Such writers made a modern impression because of their open-heartedness. Despite differences in life style, they sound as intimate as your best friend. And they demonstrate psychological depth.”


Genji Monogatari

Izumi Shikibu is not as well-known as her fellow court lady Murasaki Shikibu, but I dare say she has some spirit. I love the way she expresses her self-consciousness and shows some mild sarcasm in the following tanka 短歌.


Of no use at all-
these cherry blossoms blooming
around my house.
For it is the tree’s owner
people really come to see


In my idleness
I turn to look at the sky-
though it’s not as if
the man I am waiting for
will descend from the heavens.

And to conclude with: a fragment out of The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon .


Sei Shonagon

Sparrows feeding their young.
To pass a place where babies are playing.
To sleep in a room where some fine incense has been burnt.
To notice that one’s elegant Chinese mirror has become a little cloudy.
To see a gentleman stop his carriage before one’s gate and instruct his attendants to announce his arrival.
To wash one’s hair, make one’s toilet, and put on scented robes; even if not a soul sees one, these preparations still produce an inner pleasure.
It is night and one is expecting a visitor. Suddenly one is startled by the sound of rain-drops, which the wind blows against the shutters.


– Orikuchi Shinobu, Josei Tanka-shi, vol. 11, Zenshuu, 4th rev. ed. (Chuuoo Kooron Sha), 1984.
– Yoda, Tomiko. Gender of National Literature. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004.
– Sato, Hiroaki. Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2008.
– Carter, Steven D. Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003.
– Vos, Jos. Eeuwige Reizigers: Een Bloemlezing Uit De Klassieke Japanse Literatuur. Amsterdam [etc.]: De Arbeiderspers, 2008.
– Sei Shōnagon, and Meredith McKinney. The Pillow Book. London: Penguin, 2006.
– All pictures from Wikimedia Commons.

Heike Monogatari: the Japanese Iliad

Two impressive works, both of great influence. They originated in places and ages that couldn’t be more distant from each other, and still there are some striking resemblances.

The title

‘Iliad’ is derived from the old Greek word for Troy (Ilion or Ilios).

‘Heike monogatari’ 平家物語 means ‘the tale of the house of Taira’ (‘Taira’ in Chinese reading is ‘hei’平).

The titles work here as a kind of spoiler: they predict the fall of two once mighty people.

Description of an epic battle between two groups of brave warriors

Iliad: Helen, the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta, is kidnapped by the Trojan prince Paris. In those times that seemed a sound reason for declaring war, and the deceived husband mobilizes together with his brother Agamemnon Greek’s bravest men to attack Troy. After knocking around for ten years, the Greek succeed in burning Troy with the assistance of a giant wooden horse.

Heike: The mighty and dominant Taira clan has to deal with protest actions conducted by retired emperor Go-Shirakawa and the Minamoto clan. These struggles culminate in the Genpei war 1180-1185 (源‘gen’ is Chinese reading for Minamoto, 平‘hei (becomes pei after n-sound)’ for Taira). Lots of battles provide some spectacular scenes. Most famous is the one with a Minamoto boy shooting an arrow through a fan hold by a Taira lady on a ship. The Taira were finally defeated in the battle of Dan-no-Ura.

The author

409px-Homeros_MFA_Munich_51The author of the Iliad is said to be Homer, a blind poet-singer-with-lyre. The story of Troy was an oral tradition that went on for ages, before someone wrote it down. Was Homer really the author, and did he even exist? To be or not to be, that’s the Homeric Question.

The Heike displays a remarkably resembling issue with authorship. The story is a compilation of oral tales, told by singing monks-with-biwa, the Japanese lute. Therefore there are various versions, but the most famous one is written by the monk Kakuichi in 1371. And, surprisingly, he was blind too.


The Iliad is written in dactylic hexameters: — U | — U | — U | — U | — u u | — X.

The Heike uses the 7-5 syllable rhythm, except for the opening poem.

Opening poem

Μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾿ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾿ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾿ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι· Διὸς δ᾿ ἐτελείετο βουλή,
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.

Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
the cursed rage which brought the Achaeans endless sorrow
and threw many mighty souls of heroes into Hades,
and made them a pray for the dogs and all kind of birds.
For thus the will of Zeus was fulfilled;
(Sing) from the moment they were parted by strife,
Atreus’ son, king of the men, and the glorious Achilles.


The sound of the bells at the Gion Monastery
echoes the impermanence of worldly things.
The color of the flowers on the double-trunked sala tree
reveals the reason why the prosperous must decay.
Haughty people won’t last for long,
like a mere dream on a spring night.
The brave will be destroyed in the end,
will be only like dust before the wind.

Some resemblances in content:

– The role of religion, whether it is Greek pantheism (Goddess, Hades, Zeus) or Buddhism (Gion, double-trunked sala tree, “impermanence of worldly things”).

– The fall of human (prey for dogs and birds, decay, destroyed)

– A moral lesson: “Too much rage can lead to trouble!”, “Don’t act haughty!”. At the same time, men is not to blame. The Greek made it a fulfilment of Zeus’ wish, the Japanese sigh “karma…”

– The last sentence makes a sinister prediction (parted by strife, destroyed). Doubtlessly they mastered the techniques to gain their public’s attention.


– Information and original texts found on Wikipedia. Greek and Japanese translations are mine.

– Iliad and Homer picture from Wiki Commons.

Facts for Fun

– full text of Iliad (English)  and Heike Monogatari (Japanese)

Performance of a singing biwa player.

– The Tokugawa Art Museum has some nice collections. You find nine objects about the Heike here.