Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Kami Kami Kami

My next project is on the incorporation of the human body into memorial objects in modern Japan. One of the objects I'll be looking at is this rope made of human hair, enshrined at Higashi Honganji in Kyoto. In Japanese the rope is called a kedzuna, which means exactly what you would think it would mean: hair rope. According to the explanations provided by the temple, human hair was used to make the rope because it was the only material strong enough to move the massive wooden beams used in the construction of the temple. My hunch is that this is probably not quite true—or not the whole truth anyway. I had the opportunity to present some of my thoughts on the hair rope at a conference a couple of years ago, and Leslie Kawamura suggested at that time that one of the things that might underlie the choice to use human hair in the rope was the fact that the Japanese word for human hair (kami 髪) is a homonym for kami 神. It just so happens that the Japanese word for paper (kami 紙) is also a homonym for kami 神. This month we’ll be spending quite a bit of time in class talking about kami 神, so I’m going to try to put some things up on the blog about kami 髪 and kami 紙.