Day 05 in Ise… Ōku no Himemiko and the Manyōshū

One of the Ise traditions that we learned about this week is the practice of interning a young female relative of the tennō (Japanese emperor) in Ise. Unlike the tradition of rebuilding the main shrines every 20 years, this tradition is no longer perpetuated. The young girls were known as saiō 斎王. They would pray at Ise Jingū on behalf of the tennō, officiate a few ceremonies a year, and otherwise live a life of calm and relative leisure until they were summoned back to capitol. The tradition started with Ōku no Himemiko大来皇女 (661-702), who was the first young girl to be appointed saiō in 674. She was appointed by her father Tenmu tennō 天武天皇 (631-686).

斎王・斎宮について 斎王とは、

Ōku no Himemiko is said to have spent her time writing poetry while she was living in the  saigū  斎宮 (the saiō‘s residence). A few of her poems appear in the Manyōshū 万葉集–Japan’s oldest existing poetry anthology compiled in the late 8th century. One of the poems appears in the text that I use in my Introduction to Japanese Culture course. I distinctly remember this poem being a discussion topic this past semester. The is poem in question is number 105 in Book II (Nishi Honganji-bon 西本願寺本):



わがせこを / やまとへやると / さよふけて / あかときつゆに / われたちぬれし

To speed my brother / parting for Yamato,  / in the deep of night I stood / ’til wet with the dew of dawn.


This translation is the one that appears in the book Anthology of Japanese Literature (compiled and edited by Donald Keene). The introduction to this poem says that Ōku wrote this poem after her brother Ōtsu 大津皇子 (663-686) secretly came to visit her at Ise, and then left.

In class a student asked me why her brother needed to visit her in secret. At the time I did not understand the saiō system, nor could I answer him why Ōtsu had to visit in secret–couldn’t he just travel freely? I read the footnotes that accompany this poem in the Shin Nihon koten bungaku taikei 新日本古典文学大系 and was able to answer his question in the following class. The footnotes said that because the Tenmu tennō (Ōku & Ōtsu’s father) had just died, Ōtsu risked polluting or defiling Ise, which was considered such a sacred place. However, Ōtsu really wanted to see his sister so he secretly went to see her at the saigū.

At this time (7th century) Ise Jingū was not open for just anybody to make a pilgrimage–in fact it was only for the tennō to visit. Commoners, lower ranking officials, and the casual tourist were forbidden from going to Ise. Therefore Ōtsu had broken this rule. According to what I further researched online, Ōtsu believed that he would be the next tennō, so I can imagine that he just took the liberty and went to Ise. However, another one of Tenmu’s consorts wanted her son to be the tennō, so she convinced the authorities to punish Ōtsu with death for polluting Ise (that is, even the death of a family member could cause one to be polluted until after the appropriate amount of time had passed and the appropriate rituals were completed.)

Learning about the saiō tradition and actually visiting the site where the saigū once stood has really been valuable to me. I look forward to passing on this information in my classes!



Day 04 in Ise… Shintō and Bushidō 神道と武士道

Yesterday (22 February) Sugano-sensei 菅野覚明 gave us a presentation on Bushidō 武士道, the way of the warrior. I was quite interested when I saw this lecture listed on the program schedule, so I was looking forward to hearing Sugano-sensei’s talk.

An image of the Gosei baishiki moku (御成敗式目,ごせいばいしきもく)–a Kamakura period document written for warriors, setting laws and guidelines by which they should abide.

His lecture was broken into 5 main parts:

  1. Origins of Bushidō 武士道の起原
  2. The Relation between Bushidō and Shintō 武士道と神道の関係
  3. What is Bushidō? 武士道と何か
  4. The Ideal Warrior 理想の武士
  5. Representations of Kami and the Ideal Warrior 神のイメージと武士の理想

The talk was a mix of some folklore and legends (some dating to the 6th century) that he said were indicative of bushidō, as well as some citations of historical documents that mention bushi and bushidō.

This talk made me think that notbushidō and Shintō” but rather a talk on modern day BUDŌ 武道 and Shintō would be interesting. By budō I mean things like karate 空手, jūdō 柔道, kyūdō 弓道, etc. For example in my aikidō 合気道 dōjō 道場 there are a lot of Shintō implements and we follow some Shintō rules of etiquette. And again with aikidō, the founder of aikidō implemented a lot of Shintō myths and legends into his aikidō philosophy. This topic would have shown us how Shintō is blended in to modern day activities, and not only in Japan, but all over the world.

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An example of some Shintō furnishings in a typical aikidō dōjō

Day 03 in Ise…

In my last post I wrote about an example of a change in the Japanese language that was connected with how people think and talk about Time. I wanted to write about another Time related theme that was presented to us: the calendar of Shintō festivals throughout the year. The title of the lecture was Ise Jingū’s festivals (伊勢神宮の祭り) and was given by Matsumoto-sensei (松本丘), a professor of Shintō Studies at Kōgakkan University.

Print of an Edo period (1600-1868) new year’s festival, most likely held in early February. 『江戸砂子年中行事 元旦の図』


To use an example from Catholicism, think of the liturgical calendar. The liturgical calendar is the yearly timeline of church events: feast days, holy days of observation, Lent, Advent, and others. The liturgical calendar generally runs independent of the official public calendars that we use locally day-to-day. Following the liturgical calendar keeps all churches, parishes, and individuals uniform. It also affects how Catholics conceptualize their day-to-day lives. Not only conceptualize their lives, but it also affects their work life, family life, and the economies in which they participate. So this liturgical calendar (although a fabricated measure of Time) has very real concrete effects in the world in which Catholics live. Similarly there is a calendar of Shintō festivals. There are various Shintō schools and sects (Ise Shintō 伊勢神道, Ryōbu Shintō 両部神道, Watarai Shintō 度会神道, Yoshida Shinō 吉田神道, etc.) but of course the Shintō calendar that we learned about was the Ise Festival Calendar.

A few points about Shintō festivals (matsuri 祭り) to keep in mind:

  • There are about 80,000 Shintō shrines (jinja 神社) in Japan
  • The purposes of Shintō festivals are peace in the Emperor’s household, peace in the Nation, and peace for the People, as well as prosperity for the whole world
  • The festivals are tied to rice cultivation (inasaku 稲作), that is to say Japanese people’s traditional daily activities
  • The festivals are not only observed at shrines, but also privately within people’s homes

A couple points to keep in mind about the Ise Jingū festivals:

  • There are over a thousand matsuri (though not all massive festivals like are seen on TV or in guide books)
  • Ise Jingū’s “Big 3” traditional festivals are in June and December (Tsukinami no matsuri 月次祭) and in October (Kan name no matsuri 神嘗際)

As of about 1873 (Meiji 6) the Shintō sacred year begins on January 1st. The Meiji period (1868-1912) is the time immediately following the 268 years of Japanese self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world. When the Meiji period began, Japan began mimicking European and American governance (as well as other things like fashion and other customs) in an attempt to “catch up” with the rest of the developed world. Hence one way of catching up and conforming was by adopting the western calendar (Gregorian calendar).

The Shintō sacred calendar is based on the rice planting season, thus it begins not on January 1st in the dead of winter, but later—around the time of “Chinese New Year,” which is a lunar new year. For example, according to the lunar new year, the Shintō new year and sacred calendar should have started 4 February 2017, a whole 35 days after the western 1 January new year. Speaking from my own observations this year, during the weekend of 4 February this year, the snow in farmlands like Gifu, Aichi, and Shiga (and I’m assuming Mie) had all but melted away. Temperatures were also above freezing, meaning the earth had begun thawing and making it ready for the planting season. A month earlier the fields would have been nowhere near the conditions needed to prepare for the planting season.

I think that if Shintō really wants to preserve Japan’s folk, rice agriculture based traditions (as it claims to do) then discarding the western calendar and reclaiming it’s lunar-solar calendar is a necessity. Government, fiscal, and academic calendars can stay the same—there’s no need for Shintō to follow suit with them.

Day 02 in Ise…

The morning started with sudden hail and then some snow. Luckily when it was time for us to move from the Kōgakkan-kaikan 皇学館会館, where we are staying, to campus the weather had cleared up. We had three presentations today, all in Momofune 百船, which is like their study resource center. The first presentation was about Ise Jingū’s history (伊勢神宮の歴史) and was given by Endō-sensei (遠藤慶太), then about Ise Jingū’s festivals (伊勢神宮の祭り) by Matsumoto-sensei (松本丘), then the last one was about general Ise Jingū & shintō (『遷宮浪漫』解説) background by Mayo-sensei (Christopher M. Mayo).  Endō-sensei’s presentation was really honest and objective, I thought. This might sound surprising, but when you study about things like shintō and the type of national-learning that’s done at Kōgakkan, myth and [sometimes ultra-] nationalism can easily take over. I was really relieved to hear Endō-sensei’s academically sound approach to Ise Jingū’s history. Mayo-sensei’s presentation was also really helpful because he gave a lot of recommended-reading to us and showed us where to find some online sources.

Saitō-sensei giving his talk on Day 02.

Saitō-sensei giving his talk on Day 02.

Two presentations that I want to write about are Matsumoto-sensei’s about Ise Jingū festivals and a presentation from Day 01 by Saitō-sensei (斎藤平) about Japanese and Ise Language (日本語と伊勢言葉). Both of these deal heavily with the notion(s) of Time, which as I’ve written about in other posts, I’ve been considering a lot lately in my own literary research. Unfortunately I don’t have time to write about both, so I’ll write about Saitō-sensei’s, since he went first!

What a Difference a Day Makes

Saitō-sensei is a linguist, so his presentation dealt with changes in Japanese language (locally) over time. The example that he showed us was about how words for tomorrow, the next day, the day after that, etc., changed in other parts of the country, but kind of froze in time in Ise. The result is sometimes confusion between Ise people and people from other parts of the country when talking about upcoming events, making plans, etc.

  Today Tomorrow In two days In three days In four days
Standard Japanese kyō










Ise sasatte




As you can see in the chart, shiasatte in Standard Japanese means in three days, but in Ise it means in four days. This may sound like a minor detail, but it’s indicative of how remote the Ise region was, albeit such a long time ago. The “sa” in Ise’s sasatte used to be written with the character for 3 三 and was pronounced sa, hence “in three days,” and was written as 三明後日 However, more populous, metropolitan parts of the country started writing 明々後日, which is pronounced shiasatte, meaning something like “the next-next day,” but Ise never kept up with the trends in language, or else was stubborn. Meanwhile, yanoasatte came into vogue as a way of saying “in four days” but Ise stuck with shiasatte. The shi in shiasatte means 4. So in Ise they would write the kanji for 3 (sa) and 4 (shi) when referring to “in 3 days” and “in 4 days.” My guess is, if people wrote or read these terms in kanji (not hiragana) there would be no confusion—the confusion comes when they are spoken or heard.

Finally, why did Ise not change to match the current language change? Well there could be two main reasons. One is that since they are geographically isolated from places like Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo, they just missed out (just think if Ise was Iowa and Kyoto was New York—New York is where all the trends start, then it takes time for them to catch on in places like Iowa, if they ever catch on at all). The other is that since Ise was thought to be a sacred, historic place they preferred the old ways and purposefully did not adopt the new. This is just a small, small example of how language is connected with perceptions of Time and how language is understood can affect one’s understanding of possible future events.

Day 01 in Ise… Getting Started

The “Ise” & Japan Study Program officially began day. Everything went smoothly without any problems. Today consisted of three basic parts: learning about the history of Kōgakkan University 皇学館大学, a brief tour to orient us with the campus facilities, and a lecture about Ise’s local expressions. Here’s a little bit about the university’s history.


Fukatsu-sensei’s lecture on Kogakkan’s history

Fukatsu-sensei 深津睦夫, the head of literature department, gave us the lecture on Kōgakkan’s history. The university opened in 1882 during the Meiji period 明治時代 (1868-1912). This is the period when Japan was “opened” to the west after more than 200 years of a closed-border policy banning foreigner visitors as well as banning Japanese people from going abroad. In the Meiji period a flood of American and European culture came pouring into the country. Kōgakkan seems to have been started as a way of preserving Japanese culture in the face of this rapid influx of new fashions and worldly culture. “Ise Shintō” 伊勢神道 is one of the three main types of Shintō 神道 (the other two being Ryōbu Shintō 両部神道 and Tendai Shintō 天台神道). Shintō is believed to be the religion of the Japan’s native people, so it made sense to open a university preserving Japanese heritage in Ise, which is why Kogakkan is here.

Of course the university suffered during WWII and in 1946 after the war GHQ closed the university. In the early 20th century the Japanese powers that be manipulated Shintō and used it as a tool to promote nationalistic fervor, especially when invading neighboring countries and when going to war with Russia, so it is not surprising that GHQ would see the university as threatening to a new order.

In 1962 the university re-opened. Today it has robust Japanese literature, cultural studies, and history programs and is also known for training about half of the country’s Shintō priests. The first class to re-open the university in 1962 was made up of approximately 100 men. I’m curious to know when it became co-ed. I’ll have to ask tomorrow.

5 Things You Should Know about Japan in Martin Scorsese’s Film “Silence”

In a previous post, I wrote about Martin Scorsese’s new film “Silence” based on the 1966 novel Chinmoku 沈黙 (translated as “Silence”) written by the Japanese author Shūsaku Endō 遠藤周作. In that post I linked to a wonderful article that appeared in America’s online magazine titled “Fr. James Martin answers 5 common questions about ‘Silence.’” The film is about the experience of Christians (read: Catholics) in Japan who suffered at the brutal hands of local war lords during the early days of the Edo period (1600-1868). The novel raises a lot of theological issues, that Scorsese masterfully captures in his film, so it is no wonder that Christian audiences of all denominations would be left with questions about both their own faith and faith in general.

In the America article, Martin addresses theological issues brought up by viewers after having seen the film. By addressing these religious issues, Martin hoped to give viewers who do not have the same understanding of Catholic faith and Jesuit philosophy as he does a better understanding of the film. Keeping Martin’s approach in mind, I’ll address some of the Japanese cultural aspects that the common viewer may not realize. I do not believe there are any spoilers in this post, but after reading it you will certainly be able to view the film (or read the novel) with a different perspective than that of just a casual viewer.

Image result for silence endo

I think the cover of this book is funny because Silence doesn’t occur anywhere near Mt. Fuji–come on Picador! Try harder!

1. “Japan is a wasteland, a swamp where nothing can hope to grow”

The two main religions associated with Japan are Shintō and Buddhism. Although Shintō is often referred to as the native religion of Japan, Buddhism (from India via China and Korea) had been the dominant religion politically and culturally in Japan from about the 6th century until perhaps the late 17th century. By the time Silence takes place (presumably around the 1640s) Catholics had been trying to establish a firm presence in Japan for a few decades, with little success. The Jesuit missionaries really needed the type of access that could only be obtained with the assistance of the ruling parties in Japan at that time. However, Japan’s government structure was very complex, consisting of both an “emperor” (tennō 天皇) ruling simultaneously alongside dozens of regional war lords. As one may imagine, language and other communication problems were also obstacles to the missionaries’ success.

To illustrate why Christianity had failed to take root in Japan the “inquisitor” Inoue (played by Issey Ogata) says to Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) that, to paraphrase, “Christianity won’t take root in Japan because Japan is a swamp, a wasteland where nothing can grow.”

To one familiar with Buddhism, this image of a swampy wasteland is really a classical metaphor. Travelling through Japan and other parts of Asia, tourists often stop to marvel at beautiful lotuses growing in city parks, shrine and temple gardens, and other places. These beautiful flowers grow in swampy conditions. The contrast between the lotus’s beauty and the filthy swamp from which it sprouts sometimes seems paradoxical. This paradox was not lost on followers of Buddhism. Lotus imagery commonly appears in Buddhist art, but the image of the beautiful, pure lotus shooting up through the filthy mud is a metaphor that Buddhists use quite purposefully in their teachings. Take for example this quote:

“The Buddha, like a lotus, is determined to grow out of the muddy surroundings, that is the defilements and sufferings of life.”


It may have sounded like Inoue was disparaging Japan by calling it a wasteland and saying nothing could grow there, but really this is a classical Buddhist metaphor for this entire world, not only Japan. If Rodrigues had known better, he would have easily been able to say that Christianity, like Buddhism, could be a lotus springing up from the swamp.

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Lotuses growing in Akita!

2. The Buddhist Version of Redemption and/or Forgiveness

Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka) plays roles similar to that of a jester, a fool, or a Judas, but more importantly he is the snitch who gets dozens of innocent peasants tortured and killed. When I saw the film, Kichijiro’s antics caused quite a bit of laughter from the audience, especially the countless scenes in which he returns to the missionaries asking for forgiveness. Even though he purposefully turns in Christians to the authorities, which consequently gets them killed, he still wants forgiveness from the priests so that he may go to heaven. Audiences may wonder, “How could he be so foolish as to think that he’ll actually be forgiven and go to heaven?”

Many people may ridicule the Catholic doctrine of forgiveness through God’s grace, especially because forgiveness is possible no matter how atrocious the sin. Illustrating this, the worst case scenario would be if there was a mass murderer who made an act of contrition on his/her deathbed. According to Catholic doctrine, even this person could [possibly] be absolved of sin and enter heaven. Japanese people would have been very receptive to this notion of a last minute holy redemption because of the teachings of Pure Land Buddhism (Jōdo-shū 浄土宗).

How exactly one may reach nirvana and leave the cycle of birth-death-rebirth (samsara) is at the root of Buddhist teachings. According to Pure Land, which became quite popular in Japan in the late 12th-13th centuries, one may reach nirvana not based on things like how one lives one’s life, how much money they offer a temple, how many times one copies sutra, but by simply repeating the nembutsu—something that costs nothing and that any one, regardless of wealth or social position could do. Reciting the nembutsu is as simple as saying the phrase namu Amida Butsu (Praise be to Amida Buddha!) There are tales of men who lived despicable lives but recited this phrase just before their deaths and were reborn in the Pure Land—such is the power of Amida. In the case of Kichijiro, a despicable man who causes pain and suffering to those around him, it is not the simple recitation of the nembutsu, but rather the Catholic act of confession that he put his faith into for a reward in the next life. Therefore, the notion of redemption after doing such terrible things would not have been such a foreign concept to Japanese people familiar with popular Buddhism at the time.

Image result for pure land buddha

3. Torture in Japan

Many people associate Japan with its delicate arts and pastimes like tea ceremony, flower arrangement, or calligraphy. Others associate Japan with noble samurai charging fiercely into battle or bravely facing a single opponent in a respectful dual. Images like these are celebrated and romanticized in all kinds of movies, books, and what not, and while these bits of Japanese culture are indeed fascinating and commendable, Japan’s penchant for dishing out brutal methods of torture should not be ignored—a few of which are shown in Silence.

In fact, torture and abuse are key features of medieval Japanese literature, literature that was often a means of propagating Buddhism. In some narratives tales, such unfortunate people as slaves, people being used for human-offerings, or wrong-doers are made to suffer through quite gruesome methods of torture. Mild cases involve cutting in such a manner that the ensuing scars serve as a type of brand. More serious cases involve being burned alive, boiled in water or hot oil, skinned alive, and other hellish method. These tales are usually set in the present world, but are meant to illustrate what happens if one is to be reborn into one of the many Buddhist hells. Since the purpose of these tales is to convert people to Buddhism as well as make believers more steadfast in their faith, these tales of mutilation and agony are often conveyed to audiences in great detail. These gory images are absent from beautiful Japanese kimono patterns and tea ceremony accouterments.

After seeing movies like Memoirs of a Geisha or The Last Samurai, the sadism in Silence may catch audiences off guard. Certainly this type of brutality is at odds with the way modern Japan tries to market itself to the world. Japan tries to peddle kawaii 可愛い (cute) culture with its fluffy snuggle-ly mascots and ultra happy pop music groups, but historically there has always been an underlying dark side. In the last century in fact, torturing political dissidents was a common practice utilized in early 20th century Japan—something that Endō could in fact be alluding to in his novel.

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…torture scene from the gruesome children’s book “Hell” 地獄の絵本

4. Japan: a Closed Country

The time period in which Silence is set called the Edo period 江戸時代 (a.k.a. the Tokugawa period 徳川時代) and spans the time period between 1600 and 1868. For all intents and purposes, Japan was a “closed nation” during this time, similar to how North Korea is today. Come to think of it, EXACTLY like how North Korea is today. Any poor soul (like a fisherman washed-away to sea) who found themselves outside Japan was not allowed re-entry, and traders or voyagers from other lands who found themselves lost at sea were not allowed entrance. The rationale behind this was that Japan had been suffering through internal war and turmoil for centuries, basically from the late 12th century until 1600. Internal power struggles among wealthy warlords is the main reason for all of this turmoil, but external forces were also at hand. New trends in Buddhism making headway in Japan encouraged equality among all levels of society as well as between men and women. This new way of thinking disrupted social order and threatened war lords’ power and cushy lifestyles, so cutting off ties with the Asian mainland was viewed as one way to stem this revolt. One could easily see similarities in the effects Buddhist caused in society during medieval Japan and the perceived Christian threat of the Edo era with its message of universal salvation.

5. Trampling Objects of Worship

There are countless, countless similarities between Buddhist and Christianity, not the least of which are the two religion’s use of imagery and hand gestures. In Buddhism there are mudra and mandala. A mudra is a gesture or way that a Buddhist positions their hands during meditation or other such religious ceremony. Statues and paintings of Buddha depict mudra as well (think of how the Buddha’s hands are positioned—that’s a mudra!) Japanese people during the time in which Silence is set would certainly have been receptive to such similarities found in Christianity and may have in fact viewed what the Jesuit missionaries did with their hands (signs of the cross, the sign of peace, touching one’s hands during prayer, etc.) as mudra. They would have also noticed the way in which Jesus has his hands positioned in images of him and probably would have drawn similarities to Buddha and their own religious culture.

While mudra are physical aids to spiritual practice, mandala are visual aids. Mandala depict Buddhas, other worlds, and the subsequent relations between the various Buddhas and worlds. Mandala vary in importance and use depending on which sect of Buddhism is using them, but they are generally regarded with the utmost respect and reverence. In esoteric Buddhism, such mandala were even believed to have supernatural powers—not only mandala but statuary, too. Therefore, Japanese people at the time would have likely approached images and statues of Jesus with the same reverence, thinking that they too were capable of supernatural effects in this world.

Contrary to what Martin Luther wants people to believe, the idea that physical objects automatically have supernatural power and should be the object of worship is not Catholic doctrine. While images of Christ should of course be handled with the utmost respect, trampling on them (as is seen in the movie) is not really a big deal, and certainly Catholic superstars like St. Augustine would agree with me. However in the movie, the audience sees the great pain trampling the icons causes the poor Japanese peasants. One should not overlook the fact that to illiterate peasants, such symbols bear a great deal of authority—indeed a symbol or image can take the place of a written sign, so to illiterate followers who don’t have as much ownership over their own language, icons and images hold a great deal of importance.


Hopefully the ideas and concepts introduced here will add to your interest and enjoyment of Silence, either in its novel or film form. And, maybe even encourage you to read more about Japanese culture and literature.


I started this blog WEEKS ago, but with the end of the semester and other responsibilities, I could just not finish it in a more timely manner. COMMENT please! Would love to open a discussion~