Japan’s Secret Christians

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マリア観音 – Maria Kannon

In 1637 an uprising comprised of mainly Japanese peasant Catholics was brutally crushed by the Tokugawa Shogunate, with almost 37,000 rebels and supporters beheaded and buried in the ruins of their castle stronghold.

The shogunate, accusing Portugeuse settlers, implemented the Sakoku (鎖国 – Locked country) policy, limiting foreign influence and forbidding Japanese citizens from leaving. Catholic missionaries and priest were expelled and converts either killed or tortured.

This started the sect of the Kakure Kirishitan (隠れキリシタン – hidden Christian). Worshiping in secret rooms they adapted prayers learnt from memory to sound like Buddhist chants and idols of the Virgin Mary and crucifixes were built in Buddhist styles. Eucharist was performed with rice and Sake.

17th Century crucifix

Over time the original meanings of the prayers were lost and the Kakure Kirishitans beliefs became more ancestor worship based, with Christian martyrs taking the place of actual blood relations.

When religious sanctions were lifted in the mid 19th century many of the Kakure returned to the Catholic church. Only a handful remained.

In 1991, anthropologist Christal Whelan traveled the Goto Islands, southern Japan to speak with the few surviving Kakure Kirishitans. A preview of her documentary Otaiya; Japan’s Hidden Christians can be seen on Youtube.

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Ono no Komachi

Ono no Komachi (c 825-900) was a famous and prolific waka poet. She is placed within the Thirty Six Poetry Immortals.

Komachi was renowned for her beauty and charm. As a poet, she specialized in erotic love themes, mostly about  anxiety, solitude and  passionate love. 

Komachi’s birthplace is unknown but, according to one tradition, she was born in what is now Akita Prefecture (northern Japan),  Her social status is also uncertain but she is believed to have been the daughter of a low ranking lord and subsequently become an emperor’s lady-in-waiting , possibly Emperor Ninmyō (r. 833-850).

Legends abound of Komachi in love. The most well known is a story about her relationship with a high-ranking courtier. Komachi promised that if he visited her every night for a hundred nights, then she would become his lover. He obliged but failed once towards the end. Despairing, he fell ill and subsequently died. When Komachi learned of his death she was overcome with grief.

Komachi’s old age when she had lost her beauty, been abandoned by her former lovers, and now regrets her life, wandering around as a lonely beggar woman is also frequently portrayed in later-period literature including many noh plays. What is fiction and what is fact is the subject of debate.

Today the name Komachi still evokes the image of classical feminine  beauty  and is a popular girls name to this day

Though I go to you
ceaselessly along dream paths,
the sum of those trysts
is less than a single glimpse
granted in the waking world.

Yōkai; Rokurokubi

轆轤首 – Rokurokubi (potter wheel neck)

Rokurokubi are normal women by day, but at night they gain the ability to stretch their necks to ridiculous proportions.

It is said that rokurokubi live undetected during daylight and may even take mortal husbands trying to keep their demonic forms secret. They are tricksters by nature, however, and their compulsion to frighten and spy on human beings is hard to resist. Some rokurokubi thus resort to revealing themselves only to drunks, the sleeping, or the blind in order to satisfy these urges.

Other stories say that the rokurokubis were humans who had broken Buddhist law. They feast on the blood, favoring that of those who had also broken religious doctrine.

Yōkai; The Shirime

尻目 – Shirime (bum eye)

In the run up to halloween, I want to introduce you to the strange and wonderful world of the yōkai.

The story of the Shirime starts with a lone samurai walking to Kyoto. On hearing someone calling to him he turns to find a naked man, ass up. From where the man’s poop chute should be a HUGE GLITTERING EYE opens.

The famous haiku poet and artist Yosa Buson liked the story so much he included the Shirime in many of his yōkai pictures, like the one above.

Keeping Up With The Isonos

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Meet the Isono family.

The stars of the longest-running animated and non-soap opera scripted TV series in history, Sazae-san.

The comic strip was started in 1946 by manga artist Machiko Hasegawa. It appeared in her local newspaper and in 1949 when the national Asahi Shinbun asked her to draw for them, she moved herself, as with the setting for the cartoon, from Kyushu to Tokyo.

The story follow the family dynamics and daily lives of the Isono family and the eldest daughter Sazae.

At the time of its release Sazae was a role model for the modern woman, more interested in being herself than dressing up in kimono and makeup to attract her future husband. Hasegawa wanted the Isonos to embody the image of the modern Japanese family after World War II.

In 1969 Fuji television commissioned the animated series. It has run every Sunday at six thirty since then creating over six thousand three hundred episodes. Although the comic strips were forward thinking the animated series are renowned for their representation of a traditional Japanese family, The shows never feature video games, cell phones or the things that spring to mind when thinking of Tokyo.  The family always has dinner together and all major festivals are shown.

The names of the main characters were all inspired by a trip made by Hasegawa to the sea.

Isono 磯野  The family name,  iso means rocky shore

Namihei 波平 The father – 54, nami meaning wave

Fune  船 The mother – 50. Her name means ship

Sazae サザエ The eldest daughter and shows namesake – 24. Sazae is a shellfish that is a great delicacy in Japan.

Katsuo カツオ Sazae’s younger brother – 11, Katsuo means bonito fish or skipjack tuna.

Wakame  ワカメ The youngest daugther – 9, wakame is seaweed found in soups and salads.

Masuo Fugata マスオ フグ田  Sazae’s husband – 28, Masu meaning trout and Fugu meaning blowfish

Tara  タラ Masuo and Sazae’s son – 3, Tara means cod.

Hasegawa lived and worked in Sakura-Shinmachi a suburban neighborhood in Setagaya-Ku Tokyo.  There is a museum dedicated to her life and work. In 2012 the town unveiled bronze statues to try to increase tourism to the area. The father’s trademark strand of hair has been stolen twice.

Sazae-san airs at 18:30 every Sunday on Fuji Television.

生首掛け軸

Namakubikakejiku, An Edo jidai portrait of an executed criminal (possibly a samurai). These pictures were posted as a warning. The red was painted in the executed’s blood.

When this picture was shown on TV, it was noticed that the eyes seemed to be opening and moving during the segment.

Tsukimi

During the Heian period (平安時代 794-1185), moon viewing parties came into fashion. The eighth month of the lunar calender (Gregorian September) the moon was thought to be at its brightest. Aristocrats would gather to recite poetry and make offerings to the moon in order to secure a good harvest.

Japanese mythology claims a mochi  (rice cake) making rabbit lives in the moon instead of the western man in the moon.

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The traditional way to throw a Tsukimi party is to decorate your house with pampas grass and eat Tsukimi dango (white rice dumplings).

Other tsukimi time foods are  Tsukimi udon/soba; noodles served in a broth with a raw cracked egg and in Kyushu they serve eggs on yakisoba and many fast food restaurants have tsukimi menu items such as Mcdonald’s “tsukimi burger”.

2012’s Tsukimi day is September 30th.

Obon お盆

Obon during the late Edo period.

Obon (お盆) is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honour ones dead ancestors. It has been celebrated in Japan or over 500 hundred years; in recent years the traditional Buddhist Confucian customs have evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people travel back to their hometowns to visit relatives and clean the graves of passed family members.

Renowned  his ability to mind read and converse with ghosts and gods.

The customs supposedly originate from the story of Maha Maudgalyayana, an important disciple of the Buddha, who used his supernatural powers to look upon his deceased mother. He discovered she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering. He asked the Buddha how he could release his mother from this realm. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to the many Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. The disciple did this and saw his mother’s release. He also began to see the true nature of her past unselfishness and the many sacrifices that she had made for him.

After she had moved up from the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts (what a name!) he was so happy he danced for joy This birthed a new custom know as Bon Odori.

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Bon Odori is different from region to region. Typically the dancers, dressed in light-weight summer kimonos known as yukata, line up in a circle around a wooden scaffold band stand. Large drums or taiko beat out the rhythm and the dancers proceed around and perform set dances. Each region has its own songs and moves. Tokyo has Tokyo Ondo, Hokkaido, Soran Bushi and Gifu has Gujo odori.

The moves are also influenced by the history of a region. One of the most famous dances is the Tanko Bushi from the Miike Mine area in Kyushu. Its moves depict mining life, digging, cart pushing, lantern hanging, etc.

Bon Odori has moved away from its religious roots and is now seen as a summer dance that is performed at most summer festivals. Current pop songs are also adapted to have an odori  of their own.

Another Obon tradition involves making horses and cows out of cucumbers and aubergine. These are left on family altars, they are meant to be vehicles for spirits to get around. Also lanterns called bonchochin are placed beside the altar to help guide the spirits home.

After Obon the animals and lanterns are either floated in the ocean or rivers or burnt to ensure a safe journey back to the world of the spirits.

Obon is celebrated at 3 different times in differing parts of Japan. When the lunar calendar was replaced during the Meiji Restoration, regions reacted differently. The “official” Obon week is around August 15th. Although it is not a public holiday, leave is generally given and it is one of the busiest travel times in Japan with many places increasing prices.

Today’s 日本語

ABC! easy as 123! NOPE!

Japanese has a very specific way of counting and everything from paper to people to trees have their own way of being counted.

Here are a few,

People take the suffix ~ nin (人)

一人 hitori  二人 futari  三人 san nin  四人 yo-nin  五人 go-nin

animals and insects are ~hiki (匹)

一匹 ippiki  二匹 nihiki 三匹 sanbiki  四匹 yonhiki  五匹 gohiki

Birds and rabbits* use ~wa (一羽)

一羽 ichiwa 二羽 niwa 三羽 sanwa  四羽 yonwa 五羽 go wa

bound objects like books, magazines and gimps take ~ satsu (冊)

一冊 issastu 二冊 nisatsu 三冊 sansatsu 四冊 yonsatsu 五冊 gosatsu

flat objects such as paper, tickets, bills and empty plates use ~mai (枚)

一枚 ichimai 二枚  nimai  三枚 sanmai 四枚 yonmai 五枚 gomai

Plates of food take ~sara (皿)

一皿 hitosara  二皿 futasara 三皿 sansara 四皿 yonsara 五皿 gosara

electronic devices like phones, rice cookers and vehicles take ~dai (台)

一台  ichidai  二台  nidai 三台  sandai 四台  yondai 五台  godai

long things are hon (本) (the kanji means origin………….rude)

一本 ippon  二本  nihon 三本 sanbon  四本 yohon 五本 gohon

 

* the reason that rabbits take the bird counter instead of the animal one is that back back in time religious laws banned eating meat from land animals, but fish and birds were OK. Rabbits, with their long ears could be “mistaken for birds”