Tag Archives: 日本語

Happy 2016: The Year of the Monkey

sanzaru

The Three Wise Monkeys (Sanzaru) at a Shinto shrine. By そらみみ (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

 

2016 is the Year of the Monkey – specifically, the Red Fire Monkey. But what does the monkey signify in Shinto? Read more here!

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Filed under Rituals & Festivals, Shinto / Japanese Religion

Let’s keep our “minority language” GCSEs and A-Levels (inc. Japanese)

MinorityLanguages

Another call to action! Your help is needed to preserve the continuation of qualifications in Japanese (and other languages) in the UK…

The exam boards AQA, OCR and Edexcel have stated that they will not re-develop, and in effect will withdraw, GCSEs and A-Levels in 13 languages – including A-Level Japanese.

(For those not in the UK, the A-Level is a major qualification taken around the age of 18 that can determine both whether or not you go to university and your future job prospects)

As a Shintoist, and as a life-long learner of Japanese language for whom the ability to speak Japanese has proved essential to my career, I believe this decision is utterly wrong and that the government needs to do all in its power to overturn it. It should be noted that many of the other languages planned to be axed, such as Arabic, Modern Hebrew, and several South Asian dialects, are strongly connected with members of particular religious groups in the UK, meaning that practitioners of these faiths will no doubt feel in some ways de-valued by these plans.

There is a ray of hope – the government has pledged its commitment to (some of) our “minority languages,” and that it will work to preserve their qualifications. But this is no guarantee set in stone, and we may find ourselves losing qualifications in some of these languages if we do not make our voices heard.

If you wish to help, please see the campaign page on the Speak To The Future website here, which includes further information, links to petitions, and other suggestions on how you can assist such as writing to your MP. You don’t have to be living in the UK to help – anyone in the world can voice their opinion!

Finally, if you need any further persuasion as to the importance of Japanese language to the UK as a whole, please see (and share!) this infographic produced by the Japan Foundation:

JapaneseInfoGraphic(rubi)

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Why I love the word “kami”

kami

The Japanese kanji for “kami”

In Japanese, the word used to refer to any kind of deity is kami, sometimes with the suffix “-sama” at the end to show respect. Out of all the words for “deity” I know in any language, “kami” or “kami-sama” is perhaps my favourite. And here’s why… [Read more]

 

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Reflections on “Japanese Death Poems,” Yoel Hoffman

DeathPoemsAs Samhain approaches, now seemed like a good time to read and reflect upon this collection of Japanese “death poems,” compiled by Yoel Hoffman.

There’s a tradition among Zen Buddhist monks and poets in Japan to compose one final poem during their final hours of life –  a jisei, often translated into English as “death poem.” This poem functions as a kind of self-epitaph, a farewell to the world. In this book, Hoffman has collected jisei from Zen Buddhists and haiku poets from all over Japan and presented them, many for the first time, translated into English.

The book begins with an introduction not just to the concept of death poems, but also to the culture and customs surrounding death in Japan, in addition to Zen teachings and Japanese poetry in general. It’s a nicely-written introduction that serves as a good preface to the collection of poems, which is divided into two parts – jisei by Zen monks and jisei by haiku poets.

So what are jisei like? Actually, there is quite a difference between those written by the monks and those written by the poets. Let’s start with the monks first, with this example from Hosshin, who died in the 13th century:

Coming, all is clear, no doubt about it.
Going, all is clear, without a doubt.
What, then, is it all?

This abstract, enigmatic poem is typically Zen – questioning the nature of reality and existence itself. Many of the other poems by Zen monks are similarly cryptic and philosophical. Each one is like a miniature Zen teaching in itself.

To be honest, I preferred those written by the haiku poets, both for their beauty and their messages. As those familiar with haiku might expect, they are very short (three lines) yet rich in imagery and symbolism. Take this example by Baiko, who died in 1903 at the age of sixty:

Plum petals falling
I look up – the sky,
a clear crisp moon.

Although brief, this poem is full of meaning. Firstly, the “plum petals” allude to the season of early spring, and their “falling” represents both death and the transient nature of existence, a concept which is fundamental to Zen. Seeing the moon can represent enlightenment, and this is re-enforced by it being clear and crisp. From this beautiful, short message, we not only get a glimpse of the time and place where Baiko spent his last hours, but also his most innermost feelings. It sounds like he had made his peace with the world before leaving it. Don’t worry if you need some help with the symbolism with some of poems – many of them poems are given a short interpretation by Hoffman.

The above poem also demonstrates the combination of simplicity and philosophical contemplation with deep appreciation of the natural world – two very common features of the haiku form of jisei. I like to think of this almost as a fusion of Zen Buddhist philosophy with Shinto nature-worship.

Baiko’s poem also contains the quiet sense of calm, dignity and gratitude for life that permeates many of the other poems in this collection. I felt quite inspired to read such beautiful and profound poems written by elderly people at the end of their lives – not only do they give a unique account from elderly people experiencing something so personal and private yet common to us all, but I also find them comforting and positive in the face of a natural phenomenon that many of us find frightening. Some of the poems even have a bit of humour in them too:

Bury me when I die
beneath a wine barrel
in a tavern.
With luck
the cask will leak
(Moriya Senan, died 1838)

While I think this is a wonderful collection, with good accompanying text and translations that capture the beauty and nuance of the original poems very well, there was one thing I found to be a major disappointment. That was the complete absence of the poems written in their original Japanese characters. The haiku poets’ jisei are only accompanied by romanised Japanese, while the Zen poems don’t even have this, giving us only the English translation to read. Considering that in Japanese, the characters used brings an added dimension to the meaning of text and contributes immensely to both the aesthetics and semantics of poetry, it is a massive shame that there were no Japanese characters included at all. I even think this is true of the poems originally only written in hiragana syllabary – while one might argue that the romanised version suffices as it conveys no more additional meaning than hiragana sounds, I believe that romanised Japanese looks rather awkward, ugly and stark. In putting the poems into romanised Japanese without any Japanese characters at all, the original looses much of its beauty and fluidity. Even though the work is written in English, its rather niche subject means that many students of the Japanese language would be among the target audience, so leaving out the Japanese characters entirely seems a very odd decision. Most peculiar of all, Hoffman did decide to put the poets’ names in their original characters! I am very surprised and bewildered that he prioritised the characters for the poets’ names over the actual poems themselves.

Japanese Death Poems is beautiful, poignant and very unique – a very welcome addition to my collection of books on Japanese spirituality. I would recommend it not only to those with an interest in Japanese philosophy and poetry, but also those who want to deepen their understanding of the nature of life and death – especially those who find it difficult or distressing to come to terms with this sensitive subject.

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Brigid and Jizo

Entrance_to_St_Brigids_Well

St Brigid’s Well in Liscannor, which has a distinctly Pagan feeling. “Entrance to St Brigids Well” by Liscannorman – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In modern times, Paganism and Christianity generally tend to avoid each other. Although there are such people as “Christian Pagans,” I would say that they are in the minority. Indeed, it can be hard to see how the eclectic, spontaneous, nature-orientated polytheism of Paganism could blend with the rule-bound, human-orientated monotheism of Christianity – and that’s without considering the bitter history between the two. [Read more…]

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Reflections on “Shinto Norito: A Book of Prayers,” Anne Llewellyn Evans

ImageThis book is a rarity – a collection of Shinto prayers collected by an actual non-Japanese Shinto priestess trained at one of Japan’s oldest shrines, and translated beautifully into English.

At over £8.00 on Amazon for the properly bound printed version, it might seem a little steep for quite a slim book, but I would say it’s been worth every penny. And here’s why:

– It features a good Foreword and Introduction that include some really insightful and interesting thoughts on Shinto ritual

– It’s authentic. The prayers have been written down just as they are used at the shrine from which they come, without any attempt to adapt them to make them more “universal.” For example, there are prayers in there that refer specifically to Evans’ shrine (Tsubaki Okami Yashiro), so they can hardly be considered “general purpose.” But the fact they have been left unchanged and intact is what gives these prayers their rarity and uniqueness. And there’s plenty in there which are more general in nature.

– In addition to the English translations, each prayer is transliterated into romanised Japanese, and the original text is included too. For readers like me who can read Japanese but only as a second language, this is perfect. What’s more, in Shinto it’s believed that the very words of the prayer written down have a spirit of their own. And for anyone who’s not fluent in Classical Japanese (which is probably most people reading this), you will be relieved to know that hiragana readings are included for all the kanji.

– The prayers themselves are beautiful and would no doubt serve as inspiration for even non-Shinto Pagans. I was particularly pleased to see that there was one in there specifically for Inari Okamisama! I also like the short prayer for purification (which consists only of sacred syllables and has no literal meaning), which I intone when creating shide or otherwise want to purify or consecrate something,

– Right at the end, there’s an appendix (complete with illustrations) that explains how to perform certain Shinto rituals. These range from the commonplace (etiquette for visiting a Shinto shrine, making an offering at a kamidama household altar) to the more unusual (Misogi waterfall purification, chinkon meditation).

The only small problem this book has (and it is small) is that while the English and romanised Japanese passages are formatted to fit neatly on to the page so the text does not cut off mid-sentence, this has not been applied to the original Japanese. So if you’re reading the original Japanese out loud during ritual and have to turn the page mid-phrase, it does disrupt the flow. It might also make it harder for beginner-level Japanese learners to follow the Japanese text by comparing it with the romanised and English versions. But this is only a minor issue.

I highly recommend this to anyone interested in Shinto who wants to go beyond the usual “What Is Shinto” books and learn prayers and techniques for real-life Shinto worship.

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Filed under Reviews, Shinto / Japanese Religion