Tag Archives: japan

Celebrating the Neopagan Wheel of the Year in Japan

WotY-Japan

This Monday July 18th is a public holiday in Japan known as Umi no Hi, or “Ocean Day.” It’s one of 16 public holidays in Japan, which is quite a large number compared with many other countries (on the flip-side, few Japanese take annual leave from work for a variety of reasons). Fortunately for Neopagans living in Japan, not only do many of these public holidays fall on or close to the eight Sabbats of the Wheel of the Year, but several lend themselves to Pagan celebrations in their own right.
So let’s look at how Neopagans in Japan can work their Wheel of the Year around Japan’s own calendar…[Read more]

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Help for Kumamoto

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Aso Shrine, one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan, located in Kumamoto. The tower gate in this picture has now been destroyed by the earthquake. By Reggaeman, CC / Wikimedia Commons

Kumamoto, a prefecture in Japan’s southwest island of Kyushu, was struck by a magnitude 6.2 earthquake on April 14th. This was followed by a second earthquake on April 16th of magnitude 7.3. Concern is also growing regarding the possibility of landslides as heavy rain has been forecast, as well as increased activity at Mt Aso, Japan’s largest volcano, which is located in Kumamoto.

At time of writing information about the scale of the destruction is still unfolding, but we do know that dozens have died, hundreds are injured and hundreds more have had to evacuate. We also know that there are still victims trapped under rubble. It’s the biggest disaster to hit Japan since the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

I think it’s safe to say that everyone in the international Shinto community has a strong connection with Japan, and we are all feeling shocked and saddened by this disaster. I am feeling particularly upset because I know Kumamoto well. I lived there as an exchange student for one year, having incredible experiences and making life-long friends in the process. And like many people all over the world, I want to help.

If you would like to donate towards rescue and relief efforts in Kumamoto, these are some of the organisations that are currently assisting, or ready to assist, in the area:

Finally, I would like to offer a prayer for the people of Kumamoto. Please do feel free to offer your own prayers, energy and thoughts, according to your own personal practice and traditions.

Great Kami-sama, I offer this prayer for all people affected by the earthquakes in Kumamoto.

I pray for those who have lost their lives, and the loved ones they leave behind – may they find strength at this most difficult time.

I pray for all those who are injured – please protect them and help them recover.

I pray for everyone who is suffering from the loss of their homes and basic amenities, and from the trauma and fear resulting from this disaster – please keep them safe and let help reach them swiftly, so they may continue with their lives.

With the greatest reverence, I humbly speak these words. Kashikomi kashikomi mo mōsu.

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Why Doesn’t Japan Celebrate Easter?

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Japan celebrates Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Halloween, so why not Easter? I explore the issue at Patheos here!

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Happy 2016: The Year of the Monkey

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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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Reflections on “Oriental Ghost Stories,” Lafcadio Hearn (compiled and edited by David Stuart Davies)

orientalghostWhy did I choose to read this book?

I really like the Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural books, which are reprints of classic horror and gothic stories published cheaply by Wordsworth Editions. I have several of them – their collection of vampire short stories and their Edith Nesbit collection, to name a few – and I was delighted to see that they’d also released some of the works of Lafcadio Hearn. All erudite Japanese people, and a large percentage of people who’ve studied Japan, know the importance of Hearn – he emigrated to Japan in 1890 and was responsible for much of the West’s understanding of Japanese culture through his writings on Japanese customs and folklore. I’ve long been familiar with Hearn but have never owned a collection of his writings, and being a lover of all things Japanese, folky and ghostly, I knew I had to get this book. And with Samhain coming it, now felt like a perfect time to reflect on it!

In a nutshell, what it is it about?

This book compiles stories from Hearn’s books – Kwaidan, In Ghostly Japan and Some Chinese Ghosts – into one volume, with a very nice introduction by David Stuart Davies. The stories are essentially folktales – old, spooky “urban legends” that Hearn came across during his time in Japan, as well as a few other writings about China and Europe. All the stories feature elements of the supernatural, from ghosts to demons to inexplicable magic.

What did I particularly like about it?

To begin with, I LOVE the idea of presenting Japanese ghost stories first and foremost as simply that – horror stories. All too often, East Asian writings (and writing from other non-European cultures) get pigeonholed into “East Asia” or “Oriental” as a genre in itself, as if their literature cannot be appreciated alongside or compared with similar literature from the West. This adds to the myth that Japan and other countries are “inscrutable.” Publishing Japanese ghost stories alongside those by European writers as part of the Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural series, in a cheap, almost pulpy, paperback format, is an excellent way of introducing Japanese stories to the masses who may not have any initial interest in Japan, which helps to shatter that “inscrutable” image.

Then there are the stories themselves. Hearn is a wonderful storyteller, who manages to keep a balance of making these stories appealing to the Western reader and retaining their eerie and mystical atmosphere without completely losing their sense of “Japaneseness.” Naturally, I liked some stories better than others; some of the highlights for me included:

  • “The Story of Mimi-Nashi Hoiichi” – The opening story of the book, which has as its protagonist one of Japan’s most fascinating stock characters; a blind lute-player.
  • “Yuki-Onna” – The legends of the mysterious and potentially deadly “snow woman” are well-known to lovers of Japanese folklore, and this version is full of elegance and mystery.
  • Jiu-roku-zakura” – A short but moving tale of a man devoted to his cherry tree. It reminded me a little of Oscar Wilde’s beautiful “The Nightingale and the Rose.”
  • The Dream of Akinosuke” – Something of a mystery story. The real meaning is revealed at the end, but clever readers might be able to guess what’s going on before then…
  • “A Story of Divination” – A neat and somewhat spooky tale exploring the idea of predestination.

Was there anything I didn’t like about it?

Oriental Ghost Stories has a very eclectic feeling, with strange little essays and extracts included among the stories which add variety. Some people might be put off by this “jumbled” feeling, but I rather liked it. The rather archaic language (especially the old ways of romanising Japanese words) might be a bit jarring to some, but again, I thought this added to the book’s charm.

How has it helped my spiritual development?

I actually learned an awful lot of things I didn’t know about Japanese religion from these stories (I suppose that’s not so surprising – folktales can sometimes offer the greatest insight into spiritual beliefs). Due to the nature of the stories, most of the religious elements described are Buddhist (as Buddhism is associated with funeral rites in Japan), which I liked because I am less familiar with Buddhism (especially on the popular level) than Shinto in Japan. I also learned a few things about Shinto that I didn’t know – for example, I had no idea that incense is considered “unclean” in Shinto and isn’t generally burned at Shinto shrines until reading this book! This made me re-consider my current practise of occasionally offering incense to Inari Okami.

Additionally, I was fascinated to read about the concept of “nazorareru.” Hearn claims that this word “…cannot be be adequately rendered by any English word” but describes it as “…to substitute, in imagination, one object or action for another so as to bring about some magical or miraculous result,” for example, laying a pebble before the image of Buddha instead of building a Buddhist temple in order to evoke the same feeling of piety. I immediately realised that what Hearn is describing is the very same “sympathetic magic” that forms the basis of the theories in The Golden Bough! I realised that the concept of sympathetic magic exists in Japan (as it does in all human cultures), but I had no idea that the Japanese had their own term for it. I was really excited to discover this.

Would I recommend this book to others?

Yes – whether you want to read it to learn more about Japanese folklore, or simply want a good scare, I’m sure you would enjoy this book.

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Autumn-themed Japanese Sweets

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I work for a Japanese organisation and very often we receive lovely gifts of sweets, as it is a Japanese custom to bring edible treats when a representative of one organisation visits another. Today we received these beautiful higashi, traditional sugar candies that are often served during the tea ceremony. These ones are mostly autumn-themed, in the shape of leaves (including maple and ginkgo), chestnuts, persimmons, apples and acorns. Interestingly for such traditional Japanese items, there’s a few non-Japanese autumn symbols in there, including depictions of hedgehogs and European squirrels, neither of which can be found in Japan. All of them are extremely cute – they look too good to eat! But as the Japanese say, you “eat with your eyes” (me de taberu) – in other words, how good food looks is just as important as how it tastes when it comes to enjoying it.

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10 things you should do in autumn (according to the Japanese)

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Offerings for the Moon Viewing Festival in Japan. By katorisi (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Many people in Japan love autumn out of all the seasons. The weather is generally pleasant, and the autumn landscapes are very beautiful as the leaves turn vivid red, orange and gold. Autumn is a variety of different activities in Japan, many of which sound like they would appeal to people in other countries as well, including western Pagans. So if you’re looking for ways to celebrate autumn, here’s some ideas from Japan [Read more]

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The Full Moon and New Moon in Japan

nozomuOne day at work, I happened to be checking alternative readings for the kanji character 望. This fairly common character, which students of Japanese language will come across at about intermediate level, is usually read “nozomi” or “bou,” and is usually translated as “wish” or “aspiration.” But then I discovered that it also means “Full Moon.”

I was really surprised that this kanji could have two such different and beautiful meanings. I asked my Japanese colleague about it, and she confirmed that it is a fairly common way to signify the Full Moon (the even more common way to write “full moon” in Japanese is 満月, pronounced “mangetsu”). She even pointed out a Japanese calendar hanging up behind her desk, in which all the days of the Full Moon were marked with 望.

So I asked her, seeing as 望 also means “wish,” do Japanese people make wishes at the Full Moon?

Her answer really surprised me. She told me that actually, the best time to make wishes is at the New Moon. This is because the night is so still and the sky so clear that your wishes are more likely to reach the heavens at the New Moon than at the Full Moon.

I’d never heard of this before. While I try to make an occasion of the Full Moon (I try to hold a solo ritual for the Esbats), I do nothing to commemorate the New Moon. But now I’ve heard that the Japanese associated the New Moon with making wishes, I’ve now decided to use the New Moon to make extra prayers and offerings to Inari Okami and the other Shinto kami. So the Full Moon will be the time I devote most to the Western Pagan deities, and the New Moon will be for the Shinto ones.

The next New Moon will be on Sunday. I’ll see how my plan goes!

(Incidentally, the character for “New Moon” is 朔, pronounced “saku.” It’s made up of the characters meaning “moon” 月 and “inverse” 屰. I really like the idea of the New Moon being an “inverted” moon!”)

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Thoughts for the VJ Day 70th Anniversary

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Obon offering to departed spirits. By Flickr.com user “Blue Lotus” (http://www.flickr.com/photos/bluelotus/220805096/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday marked the 70th anniversary of the Allies’ victory over Japan in the Second World War. It also happened to be O-bon, the Japanese Buddhist festival of remembering the dead.

As a British person who works with a Japanese organisation, I see VJ Day as very much a positive day. Far from being a day in which I think bitterly on the brutal ways in which soldiers and civilians died on both sides, I see it as a reminder of just how far we’ve all come. Within living memory, Japan and the UK have come from being outright enemies to close allies. Thanks to the efforts towards reconciliation and reconstruction after VJ Day, I now work side-by-side with Japanese colleagues to try and further strengthen Japan-UK relations. 70 years ago, this would surely have been unthinkable.

I also celebrate the fact that the image of Japan held by British people has greatly changed. When you say the word “Japan” to young people in the UK, rather than thinking of images of kamikaze pilots or torture of PoWs, they’ll probably be thinking of anime, manga, geisha, giant robots – the culture that they can experience easily now due to the friendship between Japan and the West.

Gradually, the same thing will happen to Shinto as well. I am very much aware that to many people, Japanese and non-Japanese alike, “Shinto” means “State Shinto,” the oppressive form of Emperor-worship that Japan used to justify its wartime atrocities. But today, I think more and more people (again, young people) see Shinto as a nature-based folk religion, which conjures in their minds images of peaceful shrines or strange and wonderful worlds as seen in Miyazaki movies.

The fact that the West’s view of Japan can change so much in such a short period of time fills me with such hope. Not only for the relationship between Japan and the West, but also for Japan’s relationship with China and Korea. Things are very tense between China and other East Asian countries right now, with China and Korea demonising Japan in order to deflect criticism of their own governments, while Japan continues to refuse to acknowledge certain war crimes or make a full apology, as a show of strength against its critics. There are clearly faults at both sides, and if things go too far, it could make for a very dangerous situation for the rest of the world. But what encourages me is that in the UK, a large percentage of young people studying Japanese, or taking part in Japan-related events such as cultural expos, are of Chinese, Korean or other East Asian heritage. Despite what their governments are saying, there are clearly young people in China and Korea who are fascinated by Japan and see it in a positive light.

And then there are the current issues that the West is dealing with regarding our relationship with the Middle East. At current time, we could hardly be regarded as allied with many Middle Eastern countries. But if Japan tells us anything, it is that peace between any nation is possible. I really hope that the people who come after me will be able to travel just as freely to some of the Middle East’s most war-torn states as I did as a young university student in Japan. It may seem unthinkable now – but surely a young British student travelling to Japan to study Japanese would have been unthinkable 100 years ago.

It is certainly important to remember those who have died in the war, both on the Japanese and Allied sides. But I think that we should focus equally on the future – on the young people who bring the hope of peace.

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The Divine Masculine and Feminine in Shinto

Izanami Izanagi2

Izanami and Izanagi, Shinto’s divine creator deities

The common Pagan/Wiccan belief in the Divine Masculine and Feminine (or Great God and Great Goddess) is shared in many other faiths, and Shinto is no exception, having quite a few masculine/feminine parings in its pantheon. Shinto probably owes much of this to Chinese folk religion, in which the concept of Yin and Yang stresses the balance between Masculine and Feminine. Whenever I invoke the Great God and Goddess, I remember that I am also invoking those Masculine/Feminine deities in Shinto, and vice versa. Here’s a few of the divine Masculine/Feminine pairings that can be found in Shinto and related Japanese folk beliefs

Izanagi-no-mikoto and Izanami-no-mikoto – Two of the most important deities in Shinto, Izanagi and Izanami are the divine creators, responsible for the birth of the other kami (gods and goddesses). Their story is very similar to that of Orpheus and Eurydice – after dying in childbirth, Izanami decends into the underworld and Izanagi tries to follow her. Izanami warns Izanagi not to look upon her, but he betrays her and lights a fire to see her, and shrinks back in horror to find her rotten and decaying. In rage, Izanami chases Izanagi from the Underworld. Another account tells us that Izanami eats from the food of the Underworld which binds her there forever – much like the myth of Hades and Persephone.

amaterasu Amaterasu Omikami and Tsukuyomi no Mikoto – Like many religions, Shinto recognises the Sun and Moon as a divine Masculine/Feminine pair. But unlike many religions, the Japanese see the Sun as the feminine (the goddess Amaterasu Omikami) and the Moon as the masculine (the god Tsukuyomi no Mikoto). Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi were said to be born from the eyes of Izanagi upon washing them after his journey to the Underworld. It is fairly unusual that in this pairing, Amaterasu is most definitely the dominant force. She is often considered the most important deity in the Shinto pantheon, while Tsukuyomi holds a fairly minor role – little is known about him.

joutoubaJou and Uba – A legendary old couple who have become dosojin – wayside guardian spirits. A little more positive than Izanagi and Izanami’s relationship, they represent harmony and love in marriage. The characters of the Old Man and Old Woman are very important in Japanese folklore – a large proportion of mukashi-banashi (Japanese fairy tales) begin with the words, “Once upon a time in a certain place, there lived an old man and an old woman.” [Picture: By Yanajin33 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

OrihimeHikoboshiOrihime and Hikoboshi – Originally from Chinese mythology, Orihime is the “Weaver Princess” identified with the star Vega, and Hikoboshi is the “Cowherd Star” identified with Altair. During the Tanabata festival in Japan, the two are said to meet across the Milky Way – you can read more about this festival here. [Picture: “Yoshitoshi – 100 Aspects of the Moon – 40-2” by 月岡芳年 – http://www.ukiyoart.com/img/YoshitoshiShogokuKengyoiFullSize.html. Licensed under パブリック・ドメイン via ウィキメディア・コモンズ]

CraneTurtleTsuru and Kame – Tsuru means “crane,” and kame means “turtle.” Again of Chinese origin, cranes and turtles paired together represent longevity. In Japan, the famous mukashi-banashi tells of the legend Urashima Taro, who turns into a crane after falling in love with the sea goddess Otohime in the form of a turtle. So again, the two can represent the divine masculine/feminine union.

ObinaMebinaObina and Mebina – At Hina Matsuri, Japanese households display dolls representing an Emperor and Empress, called Obina and Mebina. Although not regarded as deities, there is still a sacredness attached to these dolls, and again they can be seen as representing a divine masculine/feminine pair. [Photo: “HinaDolls-Emperor-Empress-topplatform2011” by Nesnad – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

inari3Inari Okami – Although usually regarded as a single deity, Inari Okami nevertheless represents a union between the divine masculine and feminine for me. Inari-sama is depicted equally as male and female, and his temples are always guarded by a pair of fox statues – one male, one female.

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