Day 08 in Ise… Ise and Literature

Kōgakkan University‘s professors have presented a lot of great material on a wide variety of topics so far. One topic that I was anxiously awaiting was about the literary connections to Ise. I already wrote a post about a trip to the saikū 斎宮 where I was able to learn a lot about the historical background of some poems found in the Manyōshū 万葉集, but today’s presentation (3 March) on literature was the one to which I was really looking forward.

Arakida Moritaka

The presentation was given by Fukatsu Mutsuo-sensei 深津睦夫氏, who is a member of the literature department here at Kōgakkan. A few of the topics he spoke about were:

  1. The History of Japanese & Sino-Japanese Poetry (shika 詩歌)
  2. Waka 和歌 Poetry Connected to Ise
  3. Linked-verse Renga 連歌 Poetry
  4. Haikai 俳諧

In the History of Japanese & Sino-Japanese Poetry portion of his talk, Fukatsu-sensei provided a brief history of how Chinese writing (Japanese did not exist in a written form until the arrival of Chinese writing) prompted the Japanese people to begin writing their own poetry. He also introduced some of the main poetry collections of the early Japanese canon.

In the Waka 和歌 Poetry Connected to Ise portion, he spoke about how aristocrats in the Heian period would write waka poems both about Ise and while in Ise. He also spoke about the famous poet Saigyō’s 西行 connection with Ise. I found this really interesting because Saigyō was a Buddhist monk and all things Buddhist were banned from the Ise Jingū area. Apparently Saigyō revered Ise Jingū and had no problem stripping himself of Buddhist accoutrement during his stay. Shrine officials also had a penchant for writing waka, apparently. I love Saigyō’s poetry and strongly recommend it to everyone.

Linked-verse Renga poetry is poetry composed in groups, when each member writes a stanza building on the previous member’s stanza. This form of poetry was a very popular way for aristocrats to entertain themselves and was also a favourite pastime of shrine officials in Ise. One Ise Shintō priest, Arikida Moritake 荒木田守武 (1473-1549) is particularly famous for writing renga. This is the first time that I have ever heard of him, I think, and am interested to read about him some more.

Finally, waka and renga gave way to haikai, so Fukatsu-sensei ended with a brief explanation of haikai and of course Matsuo Bashō 松尾芭蕉 whose hometown is in Mie and who travelled to and composed poems about Ise.

What was most interesting to me was the very idea of “Ise” as a theme in literature. I had never considered it before, but as Fukatsu-sensei demonstrated, literature was “happening” at Ise from very early. Ōku no himemiko 大来皇女 (661-702) who is famous for her poetry in the Manyōshū is one of the Thirty-six Poetry Immortals, is a key figure in Ise history. Saigyō had a very influential effect on later poetry, especially with the way he incorporated Buddhist messages and themes into poems. His poetry and style influenced poets for generations to come (for example Bashō was a huge fan of his, 500 years later). At a time when Buddhist language and culture were taboo in Ise, renga became a popular pastime–case in point, Arikida Moritake. And finally Bashō and his connections to Ise are important to note.


An Essay by Achim Bayer: “Silence (沈黙): The Cannon and the Cross”

I’m subscribed to a few Japanese culture and literature listservs. Topics that fellow subscribers post about range from arcane vocabulary in the Kojiki 古事記 to problems facing today’s humanities programs.

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Shūsaku Endō

Just today I saw a post by Achim Bayer, an Associate Professor at Kanazawa Seiryo University 金沢星稜大学. The post advertised an essay that he has recently written and made available for free online about Martin Scorsese’s film Silence. Scorsese’s film is based on the Japanese author Shūsaku Endō’s 遠藤周作 (1923-1996) novel Chinmoku 沈黙 (1966). The essay is titled “Necessary Reflections on Martin Scorsese’s “Silence”: Religious Violence in the Seventeenth Century, as Seen from Japan.” It’s a short read, but full of pertinent information regarding the state of world in which Silence is set. And, while Bayer wrote this essay in response to Silence, the information is also to germaine to another of Endō’s novels, The Samurai (Samurai 侍, 1980).

In the article Bayer seems to be criticizing the film (and by extension, the novel) for not portraying the ugly affairs happening in other parts of the world in which Christians were involved. (see Dr. Bayer’s cordial comment below about my interpretation of his article.) He mentions Spain’s conquering of the Philippines and the bloody 30 Years’ War–two “current events” that Bayer claims the Japanese shogun (who was the military, de facto ruler of Japan)  knew fully about. Understanding the historical background is important for understanding any text, I would argue. But I do not think Endō was purposefully leaving out key information (such as the role played by missionaries in conquering lands), I think he was just a guy trying to write a novel. I do not think the novel makes the Japanese warlords or the missionaries look like the villains, nor do I think it makes them look like the heroes. The novel is simply a commentary about a historical event in Japan.

I was really excited to see a Japanese novel make it to the big screen in America–not only make it to the big screen, but be a masterpiece–so I have posted about Silence in the past here and here. Bayer’s essay covers information that I did not address in my previous posts.

Day 07 in Ise…Disrupting the Shintō Tradition

This post is titled “Day 07…” but really it’s the end of week 2! Time flies.

By now I’ve attended many lectures on Shintō 神道 that have covered a wide range of topics. I feel as though two radical changes in the way Shintō has been practiced over the centuries have been detrimental to maintaining “true” Shintō.


This family shrine was probably once in the middle of the rice field they tended–now surrounded by buildings. No rice fields for miles.

Uji-gami 氏神

The first one is when local family shrines were forced to combine to form conglomerate shrines.  For argument’s sake, let’s just call Japan’s native folk religion Shintō.” This form of early Shintō centered on village worship practices focusing on agriculture. Therefore worshiping the kami 神 (deity) associated with the family or village was the center of Shintō traditions. A family, or clan, ruled a particular area and that family’s or that area’s kami was the object of worship. The term for this is uji-gami 氏神 (clan deity). As Japan began establishing itself as a nation, the regions’ powerful families combined and many uji-gami were discarded.

Today what we have in modern Japanese Shintō is not families or villages worshipping their own kami. Instead, what happened at various times in history but (mainly in the early days of the Meiji period (1868-1912) is that families and local areas were forced to dismantle their local shrines (in essence, relinquish their ancestral kami) and focus on new larger shrines representing the nation. These larger, newer shrines were established in order to rally the Japanese people around the emperor and the “nation” rather than around their ancestral kami.


Lunar Solar Calendar 太陰太陽暦

The second harmful change to practicing true Shintō is when Shintō officials decided to adopt the western calendar. The result is that annual matsuri 祭り (festivals, rituals) became divorced from the natural agricultural-based seasonal calendar. Shintō and kami worship is intrinsically and undeniably an agricultural based religion. The matsuri were created to be in-sync with the planting season and the lunar-solar calendar, thus bringing harmony between people, the kami, and the seasons. By discarding the lunar-solar calendar, which is deeply connected to the planting cycle, in favor of a western calendar beginning on January 1st,  Shintō officials (who probably live in the middle of Tokyo and don’t know the first thing about rice farming) have essentially eradicated part of what makes  Shintō Shintō.”

The population in rural areas is declining in Japan, just like it is in many countries all over the globe, so revitalizing family and village kami worship would probably be a very daunting task. However, re-claiming the lunar-solar agricultural calendar would be rather easy to do. For example, everyone knows about “Chinese New Year”–well that’s the Shintō New Year, too! But in all my time in Japan  I have never heard of a festival happening at that time of year at a Shintō shrine. (There are thousands of Shintō shrines in Japan, so one of them must have a Lunar New Year festival, I just have not heard of it.)

Modern day Shintō leaders should turn back to the family- and community-centered roots rather than focusing on the country and politics.

Day 06 in Ise… Japanese Pilgrimages

About 8 years ago I was part of a program that retraced Matsuo Bashō’s 松尾芭蕉 (1644-1694) Oku no hosomichi 奥の細道. Many western scholars refer to Bashō’s journey as a type of pilgrimage. What I had read about Bashō’s pilgrimage gave me the impression that Japanese pilgrimages were circular (starting and ending in the same place) whereas western/ European pilgrimages were linear (a start point differing from the end point). However, participating in the Ise and Japan Study Program has changed my understanding of Japanese pilgrimages.

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Bashō’s counterclockwise pilgrimage route.

As for western pilgrimages, consider the Canterbury pilgrimage, the Santiago de Compostella pilgrimage, or even the Hajj (which is not western or European obviously but I feel as though Christianity and Islam share enough history for their respective pilgrimages to be similar). The Canterbury pilgrimage, made famous by Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, begins in London’s Southwark and ends in Canterbury. The Santiago de Compostella pilgrimage begins at various starting points in Europe that all lead to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where the remains of St. James the Great are buried. Similarly, the Hajj has various starting points all which end in Mecca. Each of these pilgrimages follows a linear route.

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The Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury.

Bashō’s Oku no hosomichi

Bashō’s pilgrimage route was circular, following a counterclockwise path. His route starts in Tokyo then proceeds north along Japan’s east coast towards Sendai, then traverses Honshū to present day Yamagata/Akita, and back south down to Ogaki, just outside of Nagoya. The Shikoku Junrei 四国巡礼 starts in Tokushima, Shikoku and follows a clockwise route ending in Kagawa.

I thought that these pilgrimages were indicative of all Japanese pilgrimage traditions, but this is wrong. Take for example the pilgrimage to Ise Jingū. Since the Jingū was originally only for the tennō 天皇 (emperor) exclusively to make pilgrimages, it began wherever the tennō was (generally in the areas of Nara and Kyoto) and ended at Ise Jingū–a linear route. In the Edō period 江戸時代 (1600-1868), pilgrimages to Ise Jingū were open up to everyone. Pilgrimage starting points were thus established any place where people could gather in groups and make the journey. One such gathering spot is located in Osaka at Tamatsuri Inari Jinja 玉造稲荷神社 and follows a linear route to Ise.

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Linear Pilgrimage Route from Tamatsuri Inari Jinja to Ise Jingū

Since checking out more information on Japanese pilgrimages, I have found quite a lot of linear pilgrimage routes, especially into mountain regions (i.e. the base of the mountain, to the top, and back). I’ve learned that in Japan there are a variety of pilgrimage routes through out the country and that they vary in either linear or circular layouts.

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