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.

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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.”

(http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhism/meditate/lotus.htm)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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~

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Bashō and Tohoku in the BBC News

“There was a shopping mall
Now it’s all covered with flowers”

–Talking Heads, “Nothing but Flowers”

 

When I open my browser, the BBC automatically opens showing me world news headlines and current events. It’s the first thing I see when I get on line, and I usually take the time to scroll down the page before moving on to check my e-mail and start my day.  Today I saw a section labeled “Japan” with the phrase “Japan’s most heavenly village.” Of course I had to click and I’m glad that it did–it brought me to an article titled “A Pure Land Inspired by Treachery.”

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The article is about a town called Hiraizumi 平泉 in southern Iwate 岩手県, which is right next door to Akita 秋田県. Hiraizumi is significant to me for two reasons: it is where (according to legend) Minamoto no Yoshitsune 源義経 and his side-kick/ retainer Saitō Musashibō Benkei 斎藤武蔵坊弁慶 died; and it is one of the places in Tohoku 東北 where Matsuo Bashō 松尾芭蕉 stopped during his Oku no hosomichi 奥の細道 journey. My M.A. thesis as well as my current research is on Yoshitsune lore, which basically encompasses any type of literary genre that features Yoshitsune. Also, I’ve been teaching an intensive course on  Bashō for a few years now.

Yoshitsune is known as a tragic hero in Japanese history. The article mentions his older brother Minamoto no Yoritomo 源頼朝:

“the Buddhist utopia was attacked by warlord Minamoto no Yoritomo in his successful quest to become shogun and establish his military dictatorship in Kamakura 鎌倉, a town not far from present-day Tokyo”

Yoritomo saw the younger Yoshitsune as a threat to his maintaining power over the country, and so sought to have him killed. The kōwakamai 幸若舞 librettos  I studied for my thesis (Shikoku-ochi 四国落, Togashi 富樫, and Oi-sagashi 追探) were about Yoshitsune running all over the country, trying to escape his brother. His attempts to escape Yoritomo’s grasp ended when Yoshitsune was finally cornered at Hiraizumi where he took his own life as the enemy closed in. His retainer, Benkei, armed with a bow and a quiver of arrows, fought off Yoritomo’s invading forces to allow his lord, Yoshitsune, to commit suicide. There is a famous woodblock print of Benkei riddled with arrows while fighting off hordes of enemy soldiers.

The second reason Hiraizumi is special to me is because–like the article mentions at the end–it is one of the places Bashō visited during his last long journey through Japan–the journey from which he based his book Oku no hosomichi. Although almost 500 hundred years after the death of Yoshitsune, the historical significance of Hiraizumi was not lost on Bashō. As the article mentions while there he composed the haiku:

The summer grass

‘Tis all that’s left

of ancient warrior’s dreams

夏草や

兵どもが

夢の跡

Natsu kusa ya

Tsuwamono-domo ga

Yume no ato

 

This haiku is an example of what I call Buddhist irony–Hiraizumi was once a beautiful, palatial city. It was called the Kyoto of the North for a darn good reason: politically the Ōshū Fujiwara 奥州藤原 rivaled the powers in central Japan, the city employed hundreds of skilled artisans, had a large Buddhist population, and had many gardens that added to the aesthetics of the city, much like the gardens of Kyoto. However when Bashō visited Hiraizumi all this majestic wealth had all but gone away. All that was left was overgrown grass, reminding Bashō that everything in this world is momentary. It reminds me of the Talking Heads song “Nothing but Flowers” which describes a post-apocalyptic word where all the signs of our mass consumerism have been overgrown by grass and flowers.

 

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Also check out the version by our beloved Guster…!

Akita Snowshoeing

 

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Akita Prefectural Rt. 15

The whole reason I limited my job search to between Tokyo and Sapporo was because I wanted to be in a place that was cold and snowy for a good part of the year. So here I am, in Akita. This year however winter was so short. Too short. The first snowfall only lasted a brief amount of time. The first real accumulation wasn’t until the end of December. By the end of February the snow seemed to be all but gone. Here it is Saturday, March 18 and they are calling for snow on Monday. It’s global warming, baby.

I did have a few good snow adventures this winter, however. I climbed up Maedake, and on another day I snowshoed about 11km (6.8m) through the mountains. It doesn’t sound far, but the deep powder and steady inclines made it really challenging.   This snowshoe course is one that I have been wanting to do for a long time. It wasn’t really a road meant for recreational use–there are a bunch of old roads and logging trails that are closed to traffic all year-round and are perfect for adventurists! In a place like Boulder they’d be hot, but in Akita NOBODY uses them–wake up people! I was happy to have the whole place to myself (well, I was with a few peeps actually). I feel bad for the people who go to the dumb mall all the time instead of getting outdoors on snowy days.

The road I followed this time was Akita Prefectural Route 15. The road seems to go from Tegata, where I live, through Nibetsu and the mountains to Gojōme, and ends at Hachirōgata.   Here’s a map of my route:

At the very start we passed a post marking 0.5 km. I assumed that meant 0.5 km from the road block at Nibetsu (where we parked). I was hoping that we’d see signs like that regularly, but no. However, in some spots, rivers and little canyons were marked, which made it easier to find where we were on the map.

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The first couple kms were flat. I was surprised that not too much snow had accumulated. In some parts the snow had melted and the road was exposed. Then I realized that the small creek beside the road had some natural hot spring water running through it, so I guess the ground is warmer where those hot water vents are. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any secret hot spring spots to get in. And, a local hot spring on Mt. Taihei capped off a major flow point, monopolizing the water.

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When you start from Nibetsu, the river is actually on your right side (I’m looking back in this picture).

As you can see in the picture, the road is about wide enough for one car. Between kilometers 5~7, when the road started to climb and twist & turn it got more narrow. There were lots of side trails feeding into this main road, but it was pretty obvious which was the main road which was a side trail. I assume the side trails lead to logging areas. Maybe in the summer I’ll check it out.2016-01-23 11.48.34

The picture is above is right about where we turned back. It was really narrow. No worries about ‘falling off the side’ or anything though. Maybe from a landslide or something? This was the highest point of our hike, about 275 meters (900 ft.) It was that steep, but we were huffing and puffing. The powder was the deepest here. Lots of switchbacks, too, as the road wove through the canyon.

Can’t wait for next year! Will definitely go back to this spot. Maybe even try to hit it from the Gojōme/ Kita no Hata side. Going straight through to Gojōme would be awesome, too! I’d definitely need someone waiting with supplies on the other end though.

It would be a good winter camping spot too! Hopefully we’ll have more snow next winter.

Maedake–Winter Hiking 前岳の冬季登山

This past Saturday was a great day! A colleague and I hiked up a local mountain, Maedake. There was about a foot or two of snow on the ground making for beautiful winter scenes along the creek at the beginning of the trail, on the tree-canopied trail, and finally at the top which overlooks Akita. Last year I had done the hike solo, on a whim, so I felt pretty confident as a guide this time.

According to the guide book I have (秋田の山),1 there’s a trail called Nite no mata 二手の又 that starts from the top of the Taiheizan ski slope. However, I use a different trail called Kisoishi 木曽石. The trailhead for this course is right off rt. 232, as you can see here:

I’ve had a terrible time finding trail maps in Japan. To put it bluntly, the ones I’ve found have been pretty crappy. But, here’s a map that I found in the book I mentioned above:

from 「秋田県の山」

from 「秋田県の山」

The road I take to the trailhead (Rt. 232) is just off what’s shown in the map, to the left. The Circled P in the bottom left corner is obviously parking as well as the Kisoishi Trailhead, which I’ve marked in red. The waterfall, Kanayama Falls, is not worth the visit.

The Trail

type: out & back

length: approx. 6 km (3.72 miles) one way

starting elevation: approx. 84m (275 ft)

peak elevation: 774 m (2,539 ft)

time: about 2 hrs up; 45 mins. down

In the map above, the Kisoishi trail starts in the bottom left corner. On this map it’s the black dashed line that goes through the 291.4 m elevation marker and joins the red dashed “Nite no mata” trail. In the snow, this junction is barely, barely visible.

Note: This is a really popular trail! Both times that I’ve done it (in the dead of winter!) I’ve passed many hikers of all ages. Since it’s so well traveled the trail is pretty easy to follow. Also, the trail doesn’t end at Maedake. Hikers can go through to Nakadake and even further on to Okudake. There is a cabin on Okudake open year round that hikers can sleep in.

Photo Tour of the Trail

As you can see in the Google Map above, regardless of which way you do to the trailhead you eventually end up on Rt. 232. The road is one-lane in each direction and winds through rice fields and small ‘villages’. You’ll see a large blue sign traffic-sign above the road pointing you towards Kanayama Falls (Kanayama-daki 金山滝), which leads you to this narrow road pictured here:

This road is off of Rt.232. Depending on the conditions you can drive down it and park at the end.

Wooded road leading to trailhead.

You can just park out on 232, or if you’re able to there is some parking at the end. The entrance to trailhead is clearly marked at the end of this road and looks like this:

Maedake Kisoishi Trailhead

The post on the left in the photo says Taiheizan Trailhead, which it is–“Taiheizan” is the cluster of little mountain peaks. This trail will take you through Maedake to Okudake, which is the highest peak of the cluster.

Shinto and Buddhist statues line the Kisoishi trail

 
  

  
 

1「秋田県の山」ISBN 978-4-635-02354-2

500px

There’s a local American guy who has been living in Akita for about 30 years or so. What he “does” is teach English, but what he “is” is an artist.

Every year he and a friend of his put on an exhibit. He first told me about it last December. I had really been looking forward to seeing his stuff and kept waiting and waiting to hear back from him about when it would be. This past April (?) they held it. He’s an amazing artist, incredibly talented. We got to talking and he told me he was into photography, too.

He encouraged me to set up a profile on 500px and put my photos out there on the web. Months later, I finally did:

http://500px.com/bgrafstrom

I‘ll probably put about a dozen or so every few weeks. The ones I have up there now are all old shots I have saved in a little folder titled “Portfolio” on my hard drive.

Here’s Tim’s profile to check out too:

http://500px.com/emit2u