Sunday, April 5, 2009

(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