Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Traditional Japanese Swords

(I will be putting up the remaining posts throughout the spring, for my own enjoyment, before I go back to blogging myself. This post is by Alice. Thank you Alice!)

Manipulation of traditional Japanese swords requires strict etiquette. Until today, every handler is required to apply these customs since the traditional Japanese sword represents a religious and social symbol worthy of respect and careful handling.

Several of these customs include:

• Never take the sword out of its sheath (saya) to present it: originally, this custom served to guaranty the security of people surrounding the sword-handler. However, this custom is still performed today for the same reasons. In general, one must always ask for the sword owner’s permission to unsheathe the blade and especially stand in good distance from him.

• The sword’s blade must never be pointed to the ground since, in case of a fall, its point could risk damage. Further, in the course of the handler’s movements, the blade must never be held horizontally; it is to be kept in a vertical position with the blade towards the top.

• Never touch the blade with the fingers. The traditional Japanese sword is very fragile and must be handled with care. Indeed, the blade is very sensitive to the sweat’s acidity and will find itself damaged.

• The handler should always discretely salute the blade when he removes it from its sheath. According to the Japanese religion, an artistic object deserves to be recognized for its meaning and value. In fact, according to the Samurai the famous Katana was considered the source of the warrior spirit. In a gesture of reverence, the Samurai often had their name engraved in their sword’s blade. This act can be understood as a way to attribute personal value to the object, which is a common theme in Japanese religion.

According to the Kojiki, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu is said to have given her grandson Ninigi No-Mikoto a sword as he was given the duty to reign down on earth. Many stories can be told about the mystical power of traditional Japanese swords. One of them involves two swordsmiths, Muramasa and Masume. Both decided to do a contest to see which made a better sword. To test the sword, Muramasa held his sword upright, which cut every leaf in the blade’s path in two. However, when Masume performed the same action, the leaves avoided his blade, passing on either side of the sword. Masume’s blade was therefore declared superior to its rival as it was proved to possess mystical and spiritual powers.

The Samurai and Katana

The Samurai are considered the most honourable warriors of ancient Japan. The Samurai’s principal weapon is a two to four feet long sabre called the Katana. Usually employed for outdoors combat, the Katana are characterized by their curved blade and high manoeuvrability. According to the Samurai history, the Samurai were the only individuals granted with the right to handle a Katana sword. If an individual belonging to the farmer or lower soldier class was suspected of owning such a weapon, he would be outright killed.

Hara-kiri (“Cutting the Belly”) is an act of suicide carried out by the Samurai in order to avoid falling into the enemy’s hands. Indeed, the Samurai preferred to take their own lives instead of succumbing to the enemy and suffer shame. A Samurai performing hara-kiri generally uses the smallest traditional Japanese sword called wakizashi. However, hara-kiri could also be used as a capital punishment for the Samurai in case he committed unprovoked murder, robbery, corruption or treason.

The Making of Katana
While the Katana’s handling was restricted to a selected group of individuals, its making also was. Ancient Japan swordmakers were an honoured class; the forging of the blade, notably, was perceived as a highly sacred activity: it was widely believed that only individuals with the purest hearts and highest moral standards could master the art. Rites of purification were (and are still) performed before engaging in the act of forging.

-video showing the making of a katana sword:

~guest blogger, Alice Giraud

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What we're talking about in class today.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Magatama Beads

(This post on the magatama is by Lauren. Lauren, thank you!)

Magatama beads are authentically Japanese and date back to the Jomon period (14,000 BC to 400 BC). Magatama, meaning “curved jewel” or “curved spirit/soul” are comma shaped beads typically made of jade, glass, rocks and various semiprecious stones. These beads do not only have an aesthetic appeal to the Japanese, but have a long history of being incorporated into their religious practices including shamanism and Shinto.

The magatama beads have several possible origins. It is believed that they developed from hunters wearing the animal paraphernalia (claws, teeth, bones) from their game as mementos (Holtom 32). Another possible origin is that magatama beads are representative of the crescent moon, a fact supporting this is “the use of jewels in Old Japan as devices wherewith to magically control the tides”, like the moon (Holtom 34; 33-5). Some scholars also believe that these beads are derived from the Chinese ying-yang symbol, as they are visually similar (Schumacher, Arnheim).

Some of the earliest religious uses of magatama beads were in Japanese shamanic practices. Here they were used as tools to draw a kami spirit into a shaman, who would serve as a medium between kamis and humans (Matsume 18-19). The beads were also used in spirit pacification rituals to “call back the spirit of the deceased and then to bind it and/or transfer it” (Ebersole 96). This was possible because the magatama beads are believed to be a lure to the kami as well as a temporary residing place for them (Blacker 106). These ideas are given further solidity when looking at the Kojiki story of coaxing Amaterasu out of the cave. Ame-no-uzume (the kami that causes the laughter) is thought by scholars to be a shaman who becomes possessed by Amaterasu while performing a spirit pacification ritual where she is reviving Amaterasu's soul (bringing it back from the dead and binding it in the world of the living by using magatama beads tied on a sakaki tree) (Ebersole 98; Matsume).

The most important magatama beads are called the yasakani no magatama and is one of the imperial regalia objects. In this context the beads are believed to possess the soul of a person wherein it can be passed on to others as a means of passing one's authority or power to its receiver. Izanagi's gift of these beads to Amaterasu is so important because in doing so, “Izanagi ceded all of his spiritual power to Ama-terasu-opo-mi-kami” to rule with (Philippi 71). This is because Izanagi had previously put his soul into the beads by shaking them (indication of a spirit pacification ritual) (Philippi 71). The transfer of power and authority to rule Japan has been handed down in this way - through the yasakani no magatama beads - from Amaterasu to her descendants, right up to the present emperor and continues to be done through the imperial accession ceremony (Ebersole 96).

Finally, magatama beads are believed to be beneficial to their owner. According to
Schumacher they are for the “'avoidance of evil'”, the “'magic of good fortune'”, or “growth, longevity, and prosperity”. This is depicted again with Izanagi giving the beads to his daughter, as he wanted to grant her longevity (Philippi 71). So, next time you're in Japan, get some magatama beads as they might bring you luck, long life or even a kami.

~guest blogger, Lauren Forbes

A hat that does more than just keep your head warm.

(Alison gives us this post on the kaihogyo hat. Thank you very much Alison!)

Just outside of the city of Kyoto we find Mt. Hiei, home to the Japanese Esoteric Buddhist sect called the Tendai. The most extreme practice some of these kaihogyo monks undertake is the one thousand day walk, where practitioners walk
the equivalence of the circumference of the globe over a period of seven years (Covell 256). It’s easy to understand why these monks are called the “marathon monks.” Anybody would concede that spending an average of 143 days per year walking would require top-notch attire and walking equipment, but these monks don’t have so much as a good pair of sneakers. Instead, the kaihogyo monks adorn themselves with no more than straw sandals, a robe, a wooden hat, and some accessories. What is of particular interest is the hat, considered to represent the principle deity of Mt. Hiei, Fudo Myo-o (Rhodes 194). (For a picture of the hat, go to: http://www.kyoto-np.co.jp/kp/topics/eng/2003sep/09-18.html)

The practitioner is said to be a symbol of Fudo My-oo and is to recite his mantras during their entire walk, establishing a constant state of worship (Ludvik 117). Since the Fudo hat is a representation of Fudo, it serves as a constant reminder of the deity and of the ongoing state of worship. The hat is made by wood from a hinoki tree and is rolled up on both of the sides, giving it an oblong shape that kind of resembles a hotdog bun. Because the hat itself is said to be Fudo Myo-o, the marathon monks are to treat it with the highest respect; in fact, the monk isn’t even allowed to wear it for the first 300 days of his practice, except when it rains (Rhodes 194).

Hagami Shocho, who completed the one thousand days of walking in 1954, recalls at first feeling somewhat sceptical about the attire the monks had to wear. Quite quickly, however, he realized that each article of clothing had its own purpose. Of the hat, he noted that its streamlined design made it “just the right fit for narrow tree-lined mountain trails” (Covell 263). This logical design of the kaihogyo attire extended, in his opinion, to the logical and scientific nature of the practice itself. As a result, the Fudo hat takes on a larger role, representing not only the powerful deity Fudo but also the rationale and science of traditional Japanese Buddhist practices (Covell 263).

Any kaihogyo practitioner is said to pledge to kill themselves if, for any reason, they are unable to complete the one thousand days of walking. As such, they carry with them a dagger and a rope if they find themselves unable to go on. Placed in their hat is the rokumon-sen coin, the coin that is pays for the ferry toll to cross the river separating the dead from the living. Here, the Fudo hat takes on another function: that of facilitating border crossing. This is especially interesting considering how much we’ve discussed border transgressions this semester. The Tendai monk sets out on his practice (very much alive) with the preparedness to cross into the world of the dead if he cannot complete his practice. The hat, moreover, is what makes possible this border crossing. So, in addition to representing a very important deity and reflecting the logical nature of the Tendai tradition, the Fudo hat also serves to cross the ultimate border between life and death. Now that is one heck of a hat.

For more on the kaihogyo practitioners, see:



For more on Fudo Myo-o, see



~guest blogger, Alison Colpitts

Sunday, April 5, 2009


(Thanks to Marc for this informative post on incense!)

Entering a Buddhist or Taoist temple, one is immediately aware of a pleasant sent in the air, the scent of incense. After exposure one can almost immediately recognize the presence of a temple or shrine based on smell alone, it is a very recognizable and distinct smell. The Japanese have been using incense within their religion and culture for hundreds of years. Buddhism was brought to Japan in the year 538 C.E. and along with it came incense. Ever since then, incense has been an integral part of Japanese religions.

There are many different ideas of what constitutes incense, but generally speaking, “Incense is defined to be both the perfume or fumigation arising from the burning of certain resins, barks, woods, seeds, fruit, etc., as well as the material being burned itself” (Bedini, 41). There are two main types of incense: direct burning and indirect burning. Direct burning involves combustion, while indirect burning involves heated stones to create the effect. Both types were and still are used by the Japanese. Direct burning incense is found in many temples, shrines, and homes. A good example of direct burning incense are incense sticks. Indirect burning is done during Kodo (the incense ceremony) or strictly on religious grounds within special incense containers.

Kodo, as stated previously, is a Japanese incense ceremony. It is a very hard ceremony to perfect. “It takes many years of study, and a great deal of practice to perform the incense ceremony properly. The art of the Japanese Tea Ceremony is itself very difficult, and takes about 15 years to master. The art of Kodo takes over 30 years!” (Oller, 2). The incense ceremony represents the Japanese appreciation for incense. There are many Kodo ceremonies, such as kneading the incense and burning the incense, and also many games that are often run by a Kodo master. Yet, Kodo is jut one of the many uses for incense.

Within both Buddhist and Taoist temples and shrines, incense is burned very often. Incense sticks are the most prevalent in temples. They serve at least four distinct purposes. First, they are burned as a form of purification. They can be used to purify both objects and people. The second use of incense is to aid prayers on their way to the other world or to ancestors. Incense is seen as a medium that allows one to have contact with spirits and deceased relatives. It is also used as to facilitate the burial process for the same reasons. Thirdly, it is used to help in meditation, to calm oneself (this calming aspect is why incense was medicinally used as well). Lastly, incense was used as a measurement for time.

The use of incense as a timekeeper was prevalent in Japan from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, and is still used today in rural monasteries. Matchcord and Candle are the two main types of incense timekeepers. A matchcord consists of incense wrapped into a cord shape, and candles consist of a solid piece of incense. Candles have designated amounts of time. They were used as timekeepers for the monks. The gathering bell was scheduled to be rung by the burning of incense.

It seems that incense and Japanese religion go hand in hand. Incense is an integral part of a Buddhist/Taoist temple or shrine. Japan has used incense throughout the years, for purposes such as prayer, burials, and time keeping. Incense is very important to the Japanese people, and is therefore celebrated during Kodo, a way of giving thanks to such an essential element of Japan.

~guest blogger, Marc Duquette
(This is Jared's take on sake. Thank you very much Jared!)

SAKE!!! Many students of religion have encountered it somewhere along the line, some of them likely dropping a shot of it into a cup of beer and consuming the concoction post-haste, perhaps even yelling something in the process. Funnily enough, the tradition and history of sake goes well beyond this modern-day ritual; it actually has ancient roots in several crucial Japanese religious rites. Thanks to Kelly for the background on rice--as sake is (as she explained) a rice-based alcoholic beverage, an understanding of this component of its nature is important.

Japanese culture and ritual is abundant with sake. Small bowls of sake are offered to the dead or to the kami, new barrels are opened to ceremoniously celebrate the beginning of new businesses, and further, sake plays an important role in specific purification rituals (Kasulis 2004, 56). In 2008, for example, workers at North Shore Constructors in Japan splashed each part of a machine to be used to drill tunnels with sake before embarking on their endeavour (Ritchie, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review). They describe it as a ritual undertaken to wish for good drilling. Kasulis points out that ancient myths and folktales allude to the fact that the kami are fond of sake. In some examples of the use of sake in Japanese religion, its intoxicating quality is of little to no importance. Sake barrels at Shinto shrines often represent the donations of patrons and have nothing to do with intoxication. But as Kasulis admits, the inebriating qualities of sake are often relevant and therefore should not be ignored. Accordingly, Japanese workers often drink sake as a means to escape social norms and hierarchies; drinks after work with co-workers and employers tend to disintegrate existing social norms (think back to carnivalesque inversion!). Barrels of sake are opened following Shinto ceremonies, and even following victorious sports events, and are passed around freely to spread good fortune. Ms. Curley, in class, correctly explained sake culture as a culture of looseness, libido and relaxation in many contexts.

It’s interesting to note than during the Second World War, Kamikaze pilots drank sake before their missions. What might be their motivation? Could it be religious – a way of connecting with the deities in their last minutes of life? Or something else? It seems to me that there are cynical and not-so-cynical answers; you be the judge :)

Sake maintains a position as one of the five elements that provide purification in Shinto ritual (the others being water, salt, fire and sand). It has already been described in this blog how rice assists in forming a communion with deities. Japanese folklore explains the history of sake as a sacred beverage produced as an offering to the gods (Lebra 1986, 114). Mortal beings drank sake in a rite called naorae, drinking it in communion with the gods, in a sense sharing their spiritual essence (Lebra 1986, 114). The communal aspects of religious sake drinking in Japan have carried over into its secular use, as seen by its use following sports victories and a hard day’s work. But its communal nature holds perhaps the most value in its application and use in Shinto ritual.

In 1824, Samuel Morewood wrote a book entitled ‘An Essay on the Inventions and Customs of Both Ancient and Moderns in the Use of Inebriating Liquors’. It’s available for free online through Google Books. Specifically, check out pages 136 and following for an interesting account of sake in Japan during that period. Kanpai!!

~guest blogger, Jared Schwartz

Bunya Ningyo

(Bianca brings us this post on one of the coolest forms of Japanese theatre.)

Puppetry generally brings to mind children playing with felt finger-puppets whilst putting on performances for each other, and not a critically-acclaimed, historically and culturally significant art form, at least in the mind of
a North American. However, in the Japanese cultural tradition, the manipulation of puppets is executed with ritualistic expertise and often included in religious rites (Walter). There are many forms of Japanese puppetry, including Bunya Ningyo, which in 1977 was recognized as a National Intangible Cultural Asset (Wales).

Sado is an island located in the Japan Sea with an interesting history and has been described as representing a microcosm of Japan (Sado Tourism). Historically, many well-known people accused of political or ideological crimes were exiled to Sado and more recently Sado has been the birthplace of many intellectuals and artists, including puppeteers (Sado Tourism). Sado puppetry is divided into three categories: Sekkyo puppets (preachers of morality), Noroma puppets (simpletons) and Bunya puppets (storytellers). Gorozaemon Suda of the Niibo district brought a group of dolls from Kyoto 250 years ago and founded a theatre on Sado (Sado Tourism). Sado prides itself on its Sekkyo and Bunya stanzas that remain closer in form to the stories of the founders of the genre as well as the recent movement to ensure conservation of this prized cultural asset (Sado Tourism). Bunya puppetry, along with other traditional folk performances, is a significant and essential part of the annual calendar of festivals and events (Sado Tourism).

The Bunya (storyteller) puppets are carved out of wood and clothed with fabric. The puppets are nearly life-size, and though their wooden faces hold the same painted expression, the puppeteer, dressed in black to remain invisible to the audience, gracefully guides the body, head, and limbs creating precise, life-like movements across the stage, as musical accompaniment expresses the changes of feelings and emotions of the mute puppets (Wales). The puppeteers use one hand to control the stick attached to the puppet’s head while the other hand is tucked inside the puppet’s clothing so the performer can maneuver the body (Wales). Bunya Puppet Drama is not your average puppet show - the themes can include sex, violence, alcohol consumption, and other commentaries and reflections on Japanese society (Walter).

Whether on or off the stage, the puppets’ pale faces and blank expression can be quite unsettling, There is power in the simplicity of their facial features as well as their movements, and after a while you are convinced you have their expression change. I had the pleasure of visiting Sado Island, and seeing the works of art that are Bunya puppets in the “flesh”. My parent’s long-time friend is a Canadian-born artist, who has been living on Sado Island for 12 years and had the honour of apprenticing under the master Moritaro Hamada (1900-1998), who said that Sado puppetry may rest in his hands (Wales). When we were visiting, he was working on a piece in honour of Sado Island including puppets of the ever-present raccoon-dog and the quintessentially Sado tugboat fisherman. Bunya puppetry, an important cultural feature of Sado Island, is an art form that celebrates Japanese folkloric tradition with increasingly more modern elements.

~guest blogger, Bianca Martella