Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

February 28, 2017

Science & Education: Two Museums in Kyoto

Science and education are the pillars of a modern country. This is demonstrated clearly by the development of Japan since the late 19th century. Two small museums of Kyoto reflect this development in their displays: The Kyoto Museum of School History shows how the citizens of Kyoto tried to shore up the city's economy, damaged by the departure of Emperor and court to Tokyo, by themselves introducing universal education before the national government did so. And the Shimadzu Memorial Hall shows how interest in science and technology, here by a father and son who were both inventors, has created today's advanced industry in Japan.

[Kyoto Museum of School History] 

1. Kyoto Municipal Museum of School History (Kyotoshi Gakko Rekishi Hakubutsukan)
Kyoto was faced with an economic crisis when in 1868 the capital was transferred to Tokyo and the court and aristocracy, which for many centuries had been catered to by Kyoto's numerous artisans, packed up and left. Happily, the citizens of Kyoto were intelligent and wise, and they realized the enormous importance of education for the future. They were also already organized in a form of communal self-governance based on city wards, which made it easier to come into action. So based on donations by almost every family in Kyoto, 64 "bangumi" primary schools were founded in 1869 ("bangumi" are school districts based on wards). In other words, the citizens of Kyoto introduced general compulsory education three years before it was introduced in the whole country.

To commemorate this fact, Kyoto has set up the Kyoto Municipal Museum of School History, which is aptly located in a former Meiji period primary school, south of Shijodori and Gion not far from Bukkoji Temple. It has educational materials and textbooks on display, but also paintings and crafts donated by the graduates of those schools. There are displays on late Edo-period education, about the setting up and history of the "bangumi" schools, and about the education system in the Meiji, Taisho and Showa periods. There is a room with textbooks everyone can read (in copy). A film is also shown about the history of schools in Kyoto. Finally, the Japanese-style paintings in the collection form an extra enticement to visit.

[Shimadzu Memorial Hall]

2. Shimadzu Foundation Memorial Hall (Shimazu Sogyo Kinen Shiryokan)
Shimadzu is a manufacturer of precision measuring, medical, aviation and industrial instruments. It is one of the many companies originally set up in Kyoto, showing that this city was not only bent on tradition but also had (and still has) a strong innovative side, not in the least thanks to its many excellent universities. Shimadzu Corporation was set up by Shimadzu Genzo in 1875 at Kiyamachi in Kyoto, at the northern end of the Takase River (there were more laboratories and industrial facilities in this area in the early Meiji period using the latest technologies from Europe).

The museum is housed in a historical two-story wooden building in which Shimadzu Genzo lived for 45 years and which he used as his head-office. Shimadzu Genzo was the son of a craftsman of Buddhist altars, but as he was interested in science, he studied at the Physics and Chemistry Research Institute in the Nijo district and started manufacturing instruments for physics and chemistry. Although born in traditional Kyoto, he strongly believed Japan should become a world leader in science. In 1882, his catalog of scientific instruments had expanded to 110 items. He was also invited to teach at the Kyoto Prefectural Normal School. Unfortunately, he suddenly passed away in 1894.

His son, Genzo Jr., succeeded him and happily, the son was even more of a science geek than the father. He was a remarkable inventor who earned the nickname "Edison of Japan." In 1896, only a year after Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays, he succeeded in producing an X-ray image and in 1909 he developed the first medical X-ray device in Japan (exhibited in the museum). Ever since, Shimadzu has remained a pioneer in the field of medical X-ray devices. In 1895, Genzo Jr. also began manufacturing storage batteries, which led to a new business, GS Battery (named after his initials), which now is GS Yuasa Corporation, and one of the world leaders in its field - its batteries are used in electric cars as well as in the space station.

In 1934 Shimadzu developed Japan's first spectograph, entering the field of analytical instruments, which since has remained a core business. Shimadzu's technology really came into its own during the years of rapid economic growth after WWII, and many important products were introduced one after another. The company also expanded abroad.

In 2002, Tanaka Koichi, at that time assistant manager at Shimadzu Corporation's Life Science Research Center, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which drew much attention from around the world.

This interesting history is highlighted in the museum, with a collection of historical and new instruments as well as various related historical reference materials and artifacts. The museum really helps visitors understand how Japan could grow into such an advanced science nation.

[For opening days/hours and location - plus maps - see the English websites of these museums, via the links above in the post]

January 28, 2017

The Best Three in Japan

Pythagoras calls three the perfect number, expressive of “beginning, middle, and end,” and he therefore makes it the symbol of the divine. The Japanese, too, are fond of this number, and the Japanese-language Wikipedia has an enormous page with lists of "the best three... (fill in what you like) in Japan," ranging from nature, architecture, religion, food, history, to life and entertainment.

Here is a selection:

[Mt Fuji - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Sacred Mountains (San Reizan)
  • Mt Fuji (3,776m), the perfect conical volcano at the border of Shizuoka and Yamanashi Prefectures that is the symbol of the whole country. In the course of history, there have been 18 eruptions, the last one in 1707. Since ancient times, Mt Fuji has been regarded as a sacred mountain by the Japanese. 
  • Tateyama, a group of peaks in eastern Toyama Pref., with snowy ravines and beautiful alpine flora (the main peak is Mt Oyama at 2,992m) forms the NW outpost of the Northern Japanese Alps. 
  • Mt Hakusan (2,702m) is a famous volcano on the border of Ishikawa and Gifu Prefectures, and like the other mountains above two, a pilgrimage center. The Shinto shrine Shirayamahime near Kaga-Ichinomiya Station stands at the foot of the mountain and affords a good view of its peak in clear weather.
[Kegon Falls - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Great Sacred Waterfalls (San Dai-kotaki)
  • The Nachi Falls (133m) in southern Wakayama Pref., in the Yoshino-Kumano National park - contrary to what you would expect, a thin, wispy thread of a waterfall; but very photogenic when seen with the vermilion-colored, three-story pagoda of nearby Seigantoji temple in the foreground.
  • The Kegon Falls (97m) in Nikko, draining into a gorge from Lake Chuzenji, is probably Japan's most spectacular waterfall; the falls have such a sheer descent that wind and air tear the water apart into a lace-like drapery, which gives the falls a phantasmal beauty.
  • The Nunobiki Falls in Kobe, only 45 meters but famous in classical poetry (see my post about the Nunobiki Falls). The falls were a popular retreat for Kobe residents, but are now hidden behind Shinkobe Station, so that only hikers find their way here. 
[Ukimido at Lake Biwa - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Largest Lakes (San Daiko)
  • Lake Biwa (672 sq km; circumference: 277 km; deepest point: 104 m), taking up 1/6 of Shiga Pref. As the lake is shaped like the musical instrument named biwa, a sort of lute, it has earned its present name. There are several small islands in the lake composed of volcanic rock; the most famous is Chikubushima, dedicated to the goddess Benten and a stage on the Saihoku Kannon Pilgrimage.
  • Lake Kasumigaura in Ibaraki Pref. (168 sq km; circumference: 137 km; depth: 7 m). At its SE extremity, the water flows through a canal into another lake, Kitaura, which is connected with the Tone River. On the SE shore of lake Kitaura stands the famous Kashima Shrine.
  • Lake Saroma in northern Hokkaido (152 sq km; circumference: 90 km; depth: 20 m), in fact a lagoon on the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk. It abounds in salmon, trout, herring and pond smelt. Adjacent is another lagoon/lake called Notoro; the nearest town is Abashiri.
The Three Greatest Onsen (San Dai-onsen)
  • Atami Onsen in Shizuoka Pref., a large resort with hundreds of springs, already popular since the 8th c. The name Atami means "hot sea," and the whole Atami area is part of an extinct volcano. 50% of the mineral content of the water is common salt, while the remainder are chlorines and sulphates. The springs are said to be helpful in the treatment of rheumatism, skin diseases and nervous ailments. 
  • Shirahama Onsen in Wakayama Pref., a white beach fronted by hotels; the springs are just at the waterfront, so that bathers are splashed by the ocean waves. The alkaline waters, impregnated with chlorides, are said to be effective in the treatment of diseases of the throat, stomach and intestines, as well as rheumatism and neuralgia. 
  • Beppu Onsen in Oita Pref. has 8 major hot springs called "the eight hells of Beppu." This town is so garish that it is almost fascinating. One of its onsen hotels features a giant bath complete with slides, exotic pavilion, a torii gate, and tanks with tropical fish. Everyday 100,000 kl of hot water boils up from 3,795 different openings; the waters are said to be efficacious in the treatment of a whole variety of illnesses. 
[Taiko no Yudonokan Museum, showing Hideyoshi's bath house in Arima Onsen 
- photo Ad Blankestijn]
The Three Oldest Onsen (San Koto)
  • Arima Onsen on the N side of Mt Rokko in Hyogo Pref. was already discovered in the 7th c. There are two kinds of springs, one (kinsen), which has water colored yellow-brown from iron and salt, the other (ginsen), which is colorless and contains radium and carbonate. Arima was popular with the warlord Hideyoshi, whose bath has been excavated and now is a museum. 20th c. literary giant Tanizaki Junichiro was also a frequent visitor; he enjoyed the rustic atmosphere of the old inns. Today, the nicest place in Arima is the area around Onsenji Temple, with the Tosen Jingu Shrine, Gokurakuji Temple and Nembutsuji Temple all standing close together. 
  • Shirahama Onsen (Wakayama Pref) - see above.
  • Dogo Onsen in Ehime Pref., in the outskirts of Matsuyama, is already mentioned in the Manyoshu. There is a majestic public bathhouse built in 1894. Natsume Soseki used it as a location in his comic novel Botchan. Matsuyama is also known for other writers, as the poets Masaoka Shiki and Santoka. The water is alkaline, transparent, colorless and tasteless. 
[Kumamoto Castle - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Famous Castles (San Meijo)
  • Himeji Castle (Hyogo Pref.), located in the center of Himeji. The best castle in Japan and one of the very few still in its original state (i.e. not a modern reconstruction). Built in 1603 by Ikeda Terumasa. The five-storied keep took nine years to construct. On purpose, a system of walls creates a labyrinthine approach to the castle. With their curved and pointed gables, the turrets are very elegant. The mansion where the castle lord lived, stood at the base of the main tower.
  • Kumamoto Castle (Kumamoto Pref, unfortunately heavily damaged by the 2016 earthquake). The original castle was destroyed in 1877 during the Satsuma Rebellion, and the keep was reconstructed as a museum in modern times, but the original fortifications and castle walls are still there and very impressive. The walls are remarkable for their stone-dropping vents and overhanging eaves (so that invaders could not climb over the wall). These can still be seen on eleven surviving turrets. 
  • Nagoya Castle (Aichi Pref.). The original castle, built between 1609 and 1614, was one of the greatest fortresses in Japan. It was unfortunately destroyed in WWII, not only the keep, but also the daimyo's living quarters with beautiful screens. The keep has been rebuilt in concrete. Also visit the Tokugawa Art Museum elsewhere in Nagoya, which exhibits bit by bit the superb collection of the branch of the Tokugawa family that ruled from the castle. 
[Kintaikyo - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Famous Bridges (San Meikyo)
  • Nihonbashi (Tokyo). Nihonbashi was a major mercantile district developed by the Mitsui family, as well as a fish market. The first bridge was built in 1603 to span the Nihonbashi River. The bridge became extra famous as it was the terminus of the Tokaido, the highroad between Edo and Kyoto, from where all distances were measured.
  • Kintaikyo (Iwakuni). A historical wooden arch bridge, built in 1673 without the use of nails, spanning the Nishiki River in a series of five wooden arches - an undulating span that is thought to resemble a brocade sash. The bridge is located at the foot of Mt Yokoyama, at the top of which stands Iwakuni Castle; the Nishiki River separated the quarter of the samurai from that of the commoners. The bridge could only be used by samurai, commoners had to take a small boat.
  • Meganebashi (Nagasaki). The "Spectacles Bridge," a double arch which when reflected in the water, suggests a pair of spectacles. Built in 1634 by the second abbot of Kofukuji, introducing a Chinese-style stone arch into Japan. 
 [The torii of Miyajima - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Views of Japan (Nihon Sankei)
  • Matsushima, a group 260 small scenic islands in scenic Matsushima Bay, Miyagi Pref, near Sendai (don't miss National Treasure temple Zuiganji here). Most of the islands were formed by strata of volcanic tuff; some of them are mere pinnacles, others appear like battlements; again others have caves and tunnels hollowed out by the waves. On most of them pine trees cling to the scanty soil in all sorts of fantastic positions. 
  • Amanohashidate, a 3.6 km long sandbar with interestingly gnarled pine trees in western Wakasa Bay near the Tango Peninsula, northwestern Kyoto Pref. The sandbar is connected to Monju near Amanohashidate Station via a bridge. The best view is from Kasamatsu Park on far side. Behind Kasamatsu Park stands the old Buddhist temple Nariaiji, one of the temples on the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage.
  • Miyajima (also known as Itsukushima), a forested island in Hiroshima Bay that is home to a National Treasure shrine famous for its huge vermilion torii gate standing out in the bay. Miyajima was already in the 6th c. considered as an island sacred to the sea deities. In the past, worshipers approached the island by boat through its torii. The many deer roaming freely on the island are considered as messengers of the kami. 
The Three Major Night Views (San Dai-yakei)
  • Hakodate seen from Mt Hakodate (accessible by cable car). This is also a good view by day, as the location of Hakodate, on a narrow isthmus with the sea on both sides, and Mt Hakodate at the tip, is very interesting.
  • Kobe and Osaka Bay seen from the Kikuseidai park on Mt Maya (accessible by Maya Cable Car);
  • Nagasaki seen from Mt Inasa (accessible by ropeway). This view is also good by day, as the whole city with the bay, as painted by Kawahara Keiga for the Dutch who had their trading post on Deshima, lies at your feet.
[Kenrokuen - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Famous (Daimyo) Gardens (San Mei-en)
  • Korakuen in Okayama, established in 1702 by daimyo Ikeda Tsunemasa and an example of the Kobori Enshu school of landscape gardening - the garden is adorned by tea houses, ponds, waterfalls and a noh-stage (13.3 hectares). The black castle of the Ikedas looms in the background of the garden. Patches of rices paddies and tea bushes provide a rustic touch. 
  • Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa, laid out in 1822 by daimyo Maeda Narinaga and famous for its beauty in all seasons, plus for possessing the oldest fountain in Japan (10 hectares). No expense was spared in creating the pond, streams, and hills of this garden, or in moving the rocks and planning the gnarled pine trees. The best daimyo garden in Japan.  
  • Kairakuen in Mito, the capital of Ibaraki, known for its forest of plum trees (ume) and established in 1842 by powerful daimyo Tokugawa Nariaki (7.5 hectares). There is a nice pavilion in the center of the garden.
[Gion Festival - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Great Festivals (San Dai-matsuri)
  • The Sanno Festival of the Hie Shrine in Tokyo, celebrated from June 10 to 16 - the deity Sanno Gongen was the guardian of Edo Castle; the festival culminates in a stately procession on the 15th, led by an ox-drawn sacred carriage and accompanied by mounted samurai. Note that the main version of this festival is only held in even numbered years, alternating with the Kanda Matsuri. 
  • The Gion Festival of the Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, famous for the parade of giant, wheeled floats on July 17, although held during the whole month of July; originated in the 9th c. when halberds where carried to a pond and dipped in as a supplication to end a plague. The famous floats first appeared in the Muromachi period (1336-1573).
  • The Tenjin Festival of the Tenmangu Shrine in Osaka, held July 24 and 25 and featuring a procession of festival boats with drum beaters aboard on the River Yodo.
The Three Great Sacred Places (San Dai-reijo)
  • Osorezan (Mt Terror), a mountain on the Shimokita Peninsula in Aomori Pref. considered by locals as the gathering place of souls of the dead. It is a desolate volcanic landscape sacred to blind shamans (itako); the temple here (Bodaiji, also called Entsuji) is of relative recent date (1522) and the itako cult is even more recent - an interestingly creepy place, but qua historical and cultural importance Osorezan can not stand in the shadow of the next two sacred places:
  • Mt Hiei, northwest of Kyoto, with Enryakuji, the headquarters of Tendai Buddhism, founded in 788 by Saicho (Dengyo Daishi). The mountain is studded with temple halls, divided into three separate precincts. The main hall is the Konpon Chudo (Fundamental Central Hall), a national treasure dating in its present form from 1642. If you stay on the mountain (there are no temple lodgings, but there is a central "hotel" called Enryakuji Kaikan), you can early in the morning observe the Buddhist service in this hall. 
  • Mt. Koya in Wakayama Pref., the headquarters of esoteric Shingon Buddhism. The complex was founded in 816 by Kukai (Kobo Daishi). Besides the head temple Kongobuji and Okunoin, the mausoleum of Kukai, there are more than fifty temples on the mountain, many of which offer lodgings. More than a million pilgrims visit Koya-san every year. Besides the central compound (garan) and the Tohokan Treasure Hall, especially the huge cemetery lying under a canopy of ancient trees, on the way to the Okuno-in, is impressive.
[Fushimi sake breweries - photo Ad Blankestijn]
Three Great Sake Producing Clusters (San Dai-shuzo)
  • Nada in Hyogo Prefecture. The sake area of the Five Nada Districts stretches from Nishinomiya to Kobe (skipping Ashiya), with in all about 25 large and small breweries. Today, it is not such a beautiful area as it has been densely built up in a haphazard way with flats, outlets and warehouses, but you will forget this once you stand inside the breweries which often feature buildings in historical style. Several breweries operate brewery museums or have shops.
  • Fushimi in Kyoto. Gekkeikan and other breweries operate beautiful old warehouses here and there is also a sake museum. There are 17 breweries in Fushimi. Except for the big, nationally operating Gekkeikan and Takara Shuzo, these are mostly smaller breweries that have dedicated themselves to brewing premium sake. 
  • Saijo (East Hiroshima) and Takehara in Hiroshima Pref. There are 9 sake breweries in Saijo, often housed in historical buildings. In Takehara, another historical town, there are three more breweries. The National Institute of Brewing is also located in Saijo. 

January 7, 2017

Nanakusa or Seven Herb Festival

January 7 is the day of the Nanakusa or Seven Herb Festival. This day, many Japanese eat rice gruel (kayu) that contains the seven medicinal herbs of spring as a prayer for good health in the coming year (nanakusa-gayu).

In ancient Japan, people customarily gathered herbs in the spring and ate them as an expression of their wish for good health. The herbs could also be presented to a superior as a wish for long life. To make then easier to consume, the seven spring herbs were later added to a gruel.

The custom goes back to the Heian-period, when according to tradition the Emperor Saga was very fond of this broth, although it was in his time eaten on the first Day of the Rat. In the late ninth century, in the days of Emperor Uda, the custom came to be observed on January 7.

The custom of serving the Emperor with a medicinal gruel on January 7 continued till the Tokugawa period, during which the Seven Herbs Festival came to be widely observed in the whole country.

[Nanakusa-gayu - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The seven herbs are:
nazuna, or shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)

hakobera, or chickweed (Stellaria media)

seri, or water dropworth, Japanese parsley (Oenanthe javanica; this is one of the few non-toxic species of the Oenanthe (water dropworts) genus, which are otherwise extremely toxic, so outside of Japan be careful not to consume any wild-growing varieties even in small amounts!)

gogyo or hahakogusa, cottonweed (Gnaphalium affine)

hotokenoza, or henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)

suzuna or kabu, turnip (Brassica campestris)

and suzushiro or daikon, white radish (Raphanus sativus).
[Nanakusa - photo Ad Blankestijn]

I must confess some of the English names above mean as little to me as the Japanese ones (with the exception of course of white radish and turnip), but I trust in age-old wisdom and will have my bowl of medicinal gruel today!

And that is very easy in our modern times. In the past, these herbs had to be gathered, mixed and beaten with a willow-stick on the night of January 6. Now, conveniently, you can find packs of the herbs in supermarkets, sometimes already with the gruel added, so you only have to heat it.

Nanakusa - the fresh variety on the left, and the freeze-dried variety on the right
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

By the way, Poem 15 (Emperor Koko) of the Hyakunin Isshu is about the gathering of the young greens of the seven herbs in the fields of spring.

And then there is also a set of the "seven herbs of autumn," but that is of later concern...

[Update Jan. 8: replaced photos]

January 4, 2017

Seven Deities of Good Fortune in Sumida

The Sumida River circuit of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune in Tokyo is the very first of this type of New Year pilgrimages: it was devised in 1804 by Sawara Kiku, a retired curio dealer and dabbler in Chinese culture. Sawara had bought land here for a garden, Hyakkaen, in which he installed a small statue of the Chinese deity Fukurokuju. He next searched the temples and shrines in the vicinity to complete the set of the lucky seven and so the pilgrimage was born. The Sumida River course thus stands at the cradle of a long and impressive line of lucky pilgrimages, but is itself one of the best - perhaps even the very best - despite the fact that Mukojima, the "Side Yonder of the River," where the course runs, has long lost its bucolic charm and now often is an eyesore jumble.

It is popular without getting extremely crowded. Start at either end, at Tamonji or the Mimeguri Shrine, and just follow the other people walking the pilgrimage. The whole course is about 3 kilometers, but as you need time to see the shrines and temples, count on spending half a day. Come here in the first week of January - that is when all temples are open to sell a small, black ceramic figure of their deity. These figures have to be placed on a ship, which you can buy at either end of the course. It is the Takarabune, the Treasury Ship of the Lucky Deities.

[Kannon and Main Hall of Tamonji - photo Ad Blankestijn] 

Bishamonten in Tamonji Temple
(10 min N on foot from Kanegafuchi St on the Tobu Skytree Line)
"Tamon" is another name for Bishamonten, the Lucky Deity of this temple. Bishamonten / Tamonten is known as a protector of Buddhism from evil forces and here he serves in addition as the guardian of the other six Deities of Good Fortune. After all, they need a guard, as with their fat bellies and long white beards they themselves happily lack any martial prowess. Tamonji Temple stands in the northern part of Mukojima and acts therefore at the same time as the protector of the area. The temple sports a nice thatched gate, the only one left in the whole of the metropolis. There is an attractive little garden with the usual stone monuments - here including an impressive set of six Jizo statues and a modern Kannon.

[Shirahige Shrine - photo Ad Blankestijn] 

Jurojin in the Shirahige Shrine
(10 min W on foot from Higashi-Mukojima St on the Tobu Skytree Line)
Shirahige, "White Whiskers," is the name of a deity of Korean origin - there is also a shrine dedicated to him at Lake Biwa. Because Jurojin, one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune, also proudly sports an impressive set of long, white whiskers, the two were easily associated with each other. Jurojin is originally a Chinese god of longevity, usually accompanied by symbolic animals as a stag, crane and turtle. He wears a long staff and is clad in the dress of a scholar. The shrine is hemmed in among ugly, modern buildings, but has a main hall dating from late Edo. 

[The Seven Herbs of Spring in Hyakkaen - photo Ad Blankestijn] 

Fukurokuju in Hyakkaen Garden
(8 min W on foot from Higashi-Mukojima St on the Tobu Skytree Line)
Hyakkaen, a garden set up in 1804 by Sawara Kiku, forms the origin of the Sumidagawa Deities of Good Fortune: the tour was devised by Sawara and his friends, among whom famous literati and painters as Tani Buncho and Sakai Hoitsu. Considering the Chinese-centered interests of Edo-period literati, it is not strange that the set of Seven Deities of Good Fortune includes so many gods of Chinese origin. The plants and flowers in the garden, too, were all selected based on associations with Chinese literature, with an emphasis on the plum tree, the "gentleman's flower." In the northwest corner of the garden stands a small shrine with a statue of Fukurokuju, the - indeed, Chinese - deity of Good Luck, Fortune and Long Life. He has an extremely long, bald head, so you can't miss him. The garden is pleasant for a stroll, even in winter. It features a pond, bridges, arbors and is full of memorial stones, including stones with haiku by Basho.

[Stone stele in Chomeiji - photo Ad Blankestijn] 

Benzaiten in Chomeiji Temple
(15 min NW on foot from Oshiage St on the Toei Asakusa subway line)
Chomeiji has a statue of Benten, the goddess of artistic inclinations, who carries a biwa lute and is usually enshrined on islands as Chikubushima in Lake Biwa or Enoshima near Kamakura, as she harks back to an Indian water sprite. Chomeiji also has a link with water: there is a sacred spring in the grounds. The water of that spring once revived an ailing shogun, who happened to come by on a falcon hunt, and that became the origin of the name "Temple of Long Life." Unfortunately, the modern city sprung up around it has not left much life in the temple, except the many monuments in the grounds, some with haiku, others with relief carvings of Buddhist deities. 

[Main hall of Kofukuji - photo Ad Blankestijn] 

Hotei in Kofukuji Temple
(15 min NW on foot from Oshiage St on the Toei Asakusa subway line)
Kofukuji Temple attracts the attention by its impressive gate and hall. It is a temple of the Chinese Obaku Zen sect, and therefore a fitting place to house Hotei, the good-natured Chinese priest with his huge belly and broad smile. The head temple of the sect, Manpukuji in Uji, has an even more impressive Hotei statue on display. The temple was founded in 1673 by Tetsugyo Doki; the present buildings are reconstructions in traditional style from 1933, after the destruction by the 1923 earthquake. The Hotei shrine stands to the right as you enter the grounds.

[Mimeguri Shrine - photo Ad Blankestijn] 

Ebisu and Daikokuten in Mimeguri Shrine
(15 min NW on foot from Gyoheibashi St on the Tobu Skytree Line)
As the Mimeguri Shrine possesses two statues, we finish the tour of Seven Deities by only visiting six places. Ebisu is the patron of fishers and traders and carries a fishing rod as well as what he caught with it, a large sea bream. Daikokuten is a mingling of an Indian god and the Japanese Okuninushi. He stands on rice bales and carries a mallet with which he scatters money around. Both gods are very cheerful and extremely popular in Japan.

[Stone fox in Mimeguri Shrine - photo Ad Blankestijn] 

Mimeguri originally was a combination of temple with shrine, probably founded somewhere in the 14th c., although it traces its history all the way to Kukai. A priest of the temple/shrine once dug up an image of Inari, the Fox God, in the grounds. Suddenly, a white fox appeared that ran three times around the statue before vanishing. This occult occurrence gave the name to the establishment: Three Circuits. The grounds, again, sport many statues (among them an impressive fox) as well as a stone with a haiku by Basho's disciple Kikaku.

January 2, 2017

First Calligraphy in the New Year

The First Calligraphy in the New Year is called "Kakizome" or "Kissho-hajime" and it is one of many "firsts," as we have hatsugama (the first tea ceremony), hatsu-ike (the first flower arragement), hatsu-ni (the first cargo), and hatsuyori (the first visit to their music teacher by maiko).
The custom which is usually held on January 2, seems to go back to the Kamakura period (1192-1333). With the spread of literacy in the Edo-period, via the terakoya temple schools, it became a nationwide practice.

Traditionally, kakizome was performed with the first water drawn from the well on New Year's day (wakamizu) - the water was used to rub the ink stick in to make ink. People would be seated in the lucky direction of the year according to the zodiac signs and write poetry containing auspicious expressions as "long life" or "eternal spring."

In modern Japan, kakizome has mainly become a children's activity. Pupils are assigned kakizome as their winter holiday homework. They write auspicious expressions (kibo no haru, "a hopeful spring," hatsu-yume, "first dream," etc.) or New Year resolutions rather than poems. The results, written in bold characters on long rectangular pieces of paper like hanging scrolls, are exhibited together in the school.

Brush and ink were brought from China in the distant past and calligraphy, Shodo, has become an inseparable part of Japanese culture. But due to the use of computer keyboards, also in Japan most people now have bad handwriting. Even more seriously, they are forgetting the Chinese characters, so in recent years we have seen many books published to stimulate people to write kanji again by hand. This is also considered to be good for your brain and a means to ward off old-age forgetfullness.

The results of the kakizome are usually displayed until January 15. In some parts of Japan they are then burned together with the New Year decorations. The higher the burned flakes soar, the more accomplished your handwriting will become!

January 1, 2017

The Seven Deities of Good Fortune (Shichifukujin)

In Japan, "Shichifukujin" are the seven gods (kami) who are said to bring wealth and long life. The group of these seven lucky gods consists of Ebisu, Daikokuten, Bishamonten, Benzaiten, Fukurokuju, Jurojin and Hotei. This includes gods and sages of Indian, Chinese and Japanese origin; one of them is a historical person. These deities are all in the order of syncretistic folk religion rather than pure Shinto or Buddhism (of course, in pre-modern times pure forms of these religions didn't exist, everything was mixed together in the most folksy way).

[The Seven Deities of Good Fortune in Fujinomori Jinja, Kyoto - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Ebisu: A Japanese fishing deity, who with the passage of time also became a deity of commerce and farming.
Daikokuten: A Hindu deity, "Mahakara," an avatar of Vishnu. Was merged in Japan with the traditional Shinto deity Okuninushi no Mikoto.
Bishamonten: Originally a Hindu deity, Kuvera. Was a war god, but after he was taken up by Buddhism, he was turned into a deity who increases fortune (Vaisravana).
Benzaiten: Originally a Hindu goddess called Sarasvati. In Buddhism she became a goddess of music, eloquence, wealth and wisdom.
Fukurokuju: A Daoist deity from China,. He brings long life, happiness and wealth.
Jurojin: A Daoist deity, avatar of the South Pole Star, again a deity who brings long life.
Hotei: An eccentric Chinese Zen priest who lived in the 10th c. Also seen as an incarnation of Miroku Bosatsu.

These deities were grouped together as "shichifukujin" in the Muromachi period, but initially the members were not fixed and Benzaiten was added somewhat later. They came to be widely worshiped in Japan from between the 15th and 17th centuries, especially among urban merchants and artisans. Their jolly group appears in many painted, sculpted or printed examples.

The Seven Deities of Good Fortune are often seen sailing in a Treasure Ship (Takarebune), filled with magical instruments, rich merchandise, and a bag of money that never empties. Such a picture is an auspicious symbol, especially during New Year celebrations. People may place it under their pillow on the night of 1 January to guarantee that the first dream of the year will be a lucky one.

Another New Year custom is "Shichifukujin-meguri," a circuit of seven shrines or temples that each enshrine one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune. Such a tour is thought to bring luck, and is also good fun. At each temple/shrine one receives a stamp on a shikishi (square piece of cardboard) or on a scroll; sometimes one has to collect small clay dolls of the deities and place these on a treasure ship. Such tours are most popular in the first days (or week) of the New Year, but some of the most frequented circuits are open all year. Famous circuits are the "Sumidagawa Shichifukujin" circuit, or the "Yanaka Shichifukujin" circuit. In Kamakura we have the "Kamakura Enoshima Shichifukujin" circuit, and in Kyoto "Miyako Shichifukujin" and so on (there are between 50 and 60 courses in the whole of Japan). Some can be done on foot, but in other cases the shrines and temples are spaced so far apart that public transport is necessary.

Here is a look in more detail at the seven deities:

[Ebisu - photo Ad Blankestijn]

Ebisu is regarded specifically as the god of farming, fishing and commerce (in contemporary urban society, especially that last function). The name "Ebisu" in fact means "foreigner" and reflects a belief in deities who have come from afar (marebito) and bring skills from foreign lands. Ebisu is also identified as Kotoshironushi no Kami, the son of the god Okuninushi no Mikoto, or as Hiruko, in Japanese mythology the first, "boneless" child of the creator gods Izanagi and Izanami. The feast of Ebisu is usually celebrated in October (but at some shrines also in January). In October all kami from Japan are supposed to visit Izumo for the Kami-ai-sai, but Ebisu was excluded - perhaps because the kami of the market place and commerce could not allowed to be absent.

Originally a fishing deity (most of his shrines are located at the coast), the association with markets and commerce dates from the 12th century. A purification ritual and prayers for prosperity were offered before the market commenced. Worship of Ebisu became popular during the Edo period, when Ebisu dolls were sold throughout the country by traveling Ebisu puppeteers from Nishinomiya. Such dolls were used by believers at festival rites for Ebisu (Ebisu-ko). The main shrine of Ebisu stands in Nishinomiya, between Kobe and Osaka; here Ebisu is identified as Hiruko. Another important shrine is Imamiya Ebisu Jinja in Osaka, where Ebisu is identified as Kotoshironushi no Kami. An important festival is Toka Ebisu, held on January 10.

[Ebisu - image from Wikipedia]

Ebisu is normally represented as a plump bearded figure, smiling happily, and wearing a kimono, a divided skirt (hakama) or a Heian period hunting robe (kariginu) and a tall cap folded in the middle (kazaori eboshi). He holds a fishing rod in his right hand and carries a sea bream (tai, a symbol of good luck) under his left arm. He may also be depicted sitting on a rock. Ebisu is the only one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune to originate purely from Japan. He is frequently paired with our next deity, Daikoku; they are often enshrined in kitchens. You may see a small Ebisu statue in restaurants where fish is served.

[Daikokuten - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The god of wealth. Also known as Mahakara ("Great Black") i.e. Shiva, an Indian god who fought forces of evil and in Buddhism became a protector of the Three Treasures (the Buddha, the Law and the priesthood). Mahakara was introduced to Japan by the priest Saicho, the founder of Tendai Buddhism, who made him the protector of the food supply in monasteries. But since the name Mahakara was homophonous with an alternate reading of the ideograms for the Shinto deity Okuninushi no Mikoto, the two were subsequently merged. Okuninushi is the major deity of the Grand Shrine of Izumo, whose messenger is the rat.

[Daikokuten - image from Wikipedia]

Together with Ebisu, Daikokuten is venerated as the tutelary deity of the kitchen. Daikokuten is usually represented as a fat and wealthy-looking merchant wearing a black hat with a round crown, holding a mallet of good fortune (kozuchi) in his right hand, and carrying a huge bag packed with valuable objects slung over his left shoulder. The mallet could also associate him with carpenters. He may be standing on two straw bushels (tawara) containing rice, with mice nearby signifying plentiful food.

The oldest extant image of Daikokuten in Japan is the late Heian wooden sculpture in Kanzeonji in Dazaifu (Fukuoka prefecture), where his expression is fierce, perhaps indicating that he originally was a war god. It may have been the subsequent association with Okuninushi that turned Daikokuten into a god of good fortune.

[Bishamonten - photo Ad Blankestijn]

Bishamonten is originally Tamonten, one of the Four Heavenly Kings (Shitenno), who protect the four quarters and whose statues often stand on altars in large Buddhist temples. Tamonten is the protector of the North. He is based on the Hindu god Kuvera, who in Buddhism became Vaisravana. As a single deity, he is called Bishamonten. He is depicted as a warrior in armor with a grotesque face, holding a halberd in one hand and a treasure tower (hoto) in the other. He may also be depicted with a hoop of fire at his back. He is the god of fortune in war and battles, also associated with authority and dignity. He is the protector of those who follow the rules and behave appropriately. As a protector of the North, his image is found in temples like Kuramadera north of Kyoto, or in temples in Iwate like Narushima Bishamondo (here iconographically as Tobatsu Bishamonten, supported by the female deity Jiten). In addition, he is the protector of the Buddhist teaching and of the nation. There are many old tales of Bishamon's miraculous deeds. It is from the Muromachi period that he became in the first place known as a deity of good fortune.

[Benzaiten - photo Ad Blankestijn]

Benzaiten (Benten)
Benzaiten comes from the Hindu goddess Sarasvati, the patron of music, learning, eloquence, wealth, longevity, and protection from natural disasters. In Indian mythology she was a river goddess. She appears in two forms: with eight arms and eight hands holding a bow, an arrow, a sword, an ax, a spear, a long pestle, an iron wheel and a silk rope (in the Sangatsudo of Todaiji, Nara, or in Hogonji on Chikubushima, Shiga Pref.); or as a plump Chinese lady dressed in a flowing gown and holding a biwa lute (Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura).

[Benzaiten of Hogonji, Chikubushima - photo Wikipedia]

Benzaiten may also be seated on a white serpent, indicating her watery origins. In the Edo period, the popularity of Benzaiten among the merchant and urban classes grew. Benzaiten is often confused with Kichijoten, another female deity of good luck who was considered as the wife of Bishamonten.

[Fukurokuju - photo Ad Blankestijn]

Derived from the Chinese legend of a Song-Dynasty hermit, Fulushou. He is also associated with the Pole Star (Nankyukosei). He is the kami of wealth (fuku), happiness (roku) and long life (ju). Fukurokuju is depicted as having a small body and an elongated bald head. He may be accompanied by a bat, a crane or a tortoise. Fukurokuju is often confused with Jurojin. (The sake brand Fukuju takes its name from this deity).

[Jurojin - photo Ad Blankestijn]

Called Shoulaoren in Chinese, this Daoist deity is known as the Immortal of the Northern Song Dynasty and like Fukurokuju is often identified with the Pole Star (Nankyukosei). He is depicted as a Chinese-style hermit. Jurojin sports a large elongated head and a white beard and carries a long staff to which a Buddhist sutra is attached. He is often accompanied by a white stag said to be 1,500 years old. (The sake brand Hakushika takes its name from this white stag of Jurojin). In Japan, he became a deity of longevity. He may also be shown under a plum tree, another symbol of long life as these trees can live for many centuries. As a member of the Seven Deities, in Japan he is also considered as being Shirahige Myojin, the deity of the Shirahige Shrines.

[Hotei in Manpukuji, Kyoto - photo Ad Blnakestijn]
A Chinese fat-bellied, eccentric Zen priest (in the West often called "the laughing Buddha"), nicknamed Budai in Chinese. He may originally have been a 10th c. itinerant semi-legendary Buddhist monk, Qici (Keishi), who became a frequent subject in ink painting. Budai lived as a hermit in the mountains, but when he came to town he would carry a large cloth bag (budai) to collect alms, hence his nickname. He was a figure like the Tang Dynasty priests Hanshan and Shide, a man of "enlightened innocence" and thus a superior example of Zen values (in fact, in later times, his bag was therefore said to be always empty). Hotei was even thought to have been an incarnation of Miroku (Maitreya), the Buddha of the Future. He is shown with a broad smiling face, a large bare belly, loose garments, a bulging bag and a wooden staff. He is usually seated but may also be walking, dancing, or pointing at the moon. Sometimes he is followed by a group of playing children.

[Hotei by Kuniyoshi - image Wikipedia]

Written with the help of information from: Japan, An Illustrated Encyclopedia, by Kodansha; Essentials of Shinto, by Stuart Picken; JAANUS website; Japanese Wikipedia.

December 31, 2016

The Year of the Rooster

2017 is the Year of the Rooster (toridoshi) in Japan (also translated as cock or chicken; the term denotes general barnyard fowl), the tenth year in the cycle of 12 signs from the Japanese (and originally Chinese) zodiac. The Year of the Rooster is represented by the Earthly Branch character 酉. The rooster is the only bird in the zodiac.

[Roosters by Ito Jakuchu - image from Wikipedia]

As is written in We Japanese, it is believed by the Japanese that the rooster has five virtues:

  • Its comb represents civilization
  • Its strong feet denote military strength
  • With an enemy it fights well, demonstrating courage
  • It calls friends out of goodwill
  • Watching for the dawn, it is faithful

In other words, the Year of the Rooster is generally considered as a lucky year and persons born in that year are according to fortune tellers generally intelligent and kind by nature.

[Shokoku - photo from Wikipedia]

Already since the dawn of history, there have been roosters and chickens in Japan. Although Japanese breeds now have been crossbred with western strains, there are also 30 breeds of what is known as the indigenous "Japanese rooster." The majority of these are not raised for meat or eggs, but are kept by fanciers as pets. Here are some of the best known ones:
  • jidori, an indigenous, primitive breed that resembles the red jungle fowl of SE Asia; it has a red body, with black tail and black breast;
  • shamo, developed from a game breed in Thailand; raised for cockfighting. The meat is also of excellent quality. 
  • shokoku, introduced from China in the Heian period; its feathers are silvery, golden or white and it has a long, flowing tail and an elegant posture. Was kept in shrines as a sacred breed.
  • onagadori, a striking, long-tailed breed developed in Tosa (now Kochi Pref.) during the Edo period. It is silvery, white or brown and its tail feathers, which grow longer every year, can reach 8 meters. They are therefore kept in special, elevated cages.
  • chabo, a diminutive chicken with short legs and a large head. Plumage colors vary widely.  
  • minohiki, a decorative breed whose neck and tail feathers are said to resemble a straw raincoat (mino).
  • ukokkei, fowl with a fluffy plumage like silk; can be white or black. Originates in China.

[Onagadori - photo from Wikipedia]

The rooster has played a prominent role in ancient Japanese culture. The bird came from China to Japan via Korea in the Jomon period (10,500-300 BCE). It is represented in haniwa pottery figures from the Kofun period (300-710 CE). The cock also plays an important role in the myth about the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami. When the Sun Goddess retired to a cave in anger at the violence of her brother, Susano-o, and the world was steeped in darkness, the cock's crow outside the cave made the goddess think that the day had dawned even without her presence (due to a rival?) - and this was how she was lured out of the cave by the other gods. At the Grand Shrine of Ise the cock is regarded as a messenger of the Sun Goddess, and in the shrine's precincts one often comes across freely roaming roosters.

In Japan there are many interesting folk beliefs about the rooster: its crowing at daybreak is believed to drive away the evil spirits of darkness that could roam freely during the night. The rooster has therefore become a talisman against evil spirits. (In Western countries, by the way, the cock is also a symbol of watchfulness, reason why it is often placed on weather vanes.)

In the Heian period, the court held regular cock fights, a sport which later also became popular among commoners. In later periods, certain decorative breeds of roosters were the subject of famous paintings (as the one by Ito Jakuchu above) and woodblock prints. 

What about chicken as food? It appears chicken was eaten in Japan until the Buddhist injunction against meat, which was proclaimed by successive emperors when ascending the throne since the 7th c., increasingly became stronger. So from the 10th century on also commoners virtually stopped eating meat (with the exception of fish), although the Japanese never were a fundamentalist people where religious injunctions were concerned. Besides a Buddhist, I suppose there was also a Shinto reason: meat from dead or slaughtered animals was considered as impure. But from the 16th c. on, this injunction again became gradually looser and after contact with the Portuguese and Dutch some Japanese also started eating chicken. But - like the rare consumption of other kinds of meat - it was more something for sick people in order to regain strength than part of normal cuisine. There was no meat industry in Japan until the Meiji period. In the case of roosters, we should also take into account that this bird was regarded as the messenger of Amaterasu and therefore sacred; even chicken eggs were avoided until the 15th c. (quail eggs were eaten instead). 

After Japan opened its doors to the West, the eating of meat and chicken became more common, but all the same remained relatively small scale. In the Meiji period a chicken cuisine was established in the Kansai. As Japanese chickens were not as rich in meat as Western strains, farmers mostly switched away from indigenous chickens. But the production of chicken meat remained low and it was only after WWII that this bird became a popular dish, after the introduction of American broilers. From that period also date now so popular chicken dishes as yakitori and tori no kara-age. A recent Japanese custom is to eat chicken at Christmas, a "new tradition" brought about in the early 1970s by a successful promotional campaign of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
[Written with information from Japan, An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Kodansha) and We Japanese (an old publication of the Fujiya Hotel), as well as the Japanese and English Wikipedia]

December 26, 2016

Meyami Jizo, Kyoto

The small temples of Kyoto are very interesting when you happen to stumble upon them, but usually they are not places to seek out on purpose. Meyami Jizo is different - I have often visited this small temple on Shijodori in Kyoto close to Gion with family and friends. The late afternoon or early evening is good time to come by, for when the lamps inside and outside are lit the small temple develops a sort of romantic radiance which it lacks in cool daylight.

[Meyami Jizo Temple, Kyoto]

Officially, the temple is called Chugenji and there is a legend behind its founding. In 1228, the Kamo River was overflowing because of incessant heavy rains. Seta Takamine, the official charged with controlling the river, was able to prevent a larger flood thanks to a divine message from the Bodhisattva Jizo. To express his gratitude, he therefore enshrined a seated statue of Jizo here at a spot close to the river and named it Ameyami Jizo or "Rain Stopping Jizo" - that was the origin of Chugenji.

There is also a theory that the temple was called Ameyami Jizo because people used to take shelter from the rain here - the temple after all stands on the eastern bank of the Kamo River, in the past outside the city proper, and travelers may have been caught by showers in what then was open land.

Anyway, in later times, when the city had grown and it was not necessary anymore to stop the rains or take shelter in the fields, the temple managed to remain in the hearts of the people by a simple but ingenious linguistic shift. "Ameyami" became "meyami," which has nothing to do with rains anymore but everything with eye disease (me is eye en yami is illness). So our "Rain Stopping Jizo" became the "Bodhisattva Who Heals Eye Complaints," a not insignificant task in a premodern society and even of importance today. And of course it was not only a matter of linguistics, people really believed prayers addressed to the Jizo were effective in healing their eye complaints and undoubtedly many stories of miraculous recoveries were passed on from mouth to mouth.

The main hall is occupied by a large, seated Jizo statue, dating from the Muromachi period, so it is younger than the original presumably installed here by Seta Takamine. Note the bald monk's head and the staff he carries as all Jizo statues. The temple also owns a great Thousand-armed Kannon statue in a room on your right when you stand in front of the Jizo hall. Further at the back, also to the right, you will find a jolly fat Daikoku.

And closer to the entrance, on the left, I saw this lovely small Jizo...

December 23, 2016

The Ako Incident and the Forty-Seven Loyal Retainers (Chushingura) in fact and fiction

As I wrote in my previous post about the seasonal events of December, the last month of the year is the season that traditionally the story of the Forty-Seven Ronin (also called Chushingura, "the Treasury of Loyal Retainers," after the title of the puppet drama) is performed in the puppet theater and the Kabuki, while on TV both older movie versions are shown as well as newly made TV films. Why December? Because the final act of the story took place on the 14th day of the 12th month of the year Genroku 15 according to the Japanese calendar (January 30, 1703, in the Gregorian calendar). It has become a typically Japanese year-end tradition like playing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in concert halls around the country. December 14 is also the day of the Gishisai or Festival of the Loyal Retainers at Sengakuji Temple in Tokyo - Sengakuji is the temple where they and (some years earlier) their lord were buried after committing seppuku. On December 14, many people visit their graves and also come to watch a parade of persons dressed up as these 47 loyal retainers. In Ako in Hyogo Prefecture, the location of the castle of Lord Asano, a similar parade is held on that date, as well as at the Oishi Shrine in Kyoto's Yamashina.

[Incense smoke billowing over the graves of the 47 ronin in Sengakuji, Tokyo
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

The story of the Forty-seven Loyal Ronin is based on a historical incident, but also has inspired countless fictional media, from kabuki and bunraku to film, theater, novels and manga. That means it has been snowed under by fictional elements and unfounded interpretations. Below I will first look at the facts as they stand; after that we will consider the fiction in the form of Bunraku / Kabuki plays and 20th c. movies.

The Facts
The Ako Incident (Ako Jiken) occurred when a band of forty-seven former retainers of Asano Naganori (1667-1701), the late lord of Ako (in Hyogo - see this post), led by chief retainer Oishi Yoshio / Kuranosuke (1659-1703), raided the residence of Kira Yoshinaka (1641-1703), a direct vassal of the Tokugawa shogun, and assassinated him.

The assassination originated in another incident. Asano Naganori had been in charge of ceremonies such as receiving delegates from the imperial court to Edo castle. In the course of that task, on the 14th day of the 3rd month of Genroku 14 (21 April, 1701, in the Gregorian calendar), he drew his sword and lightly wounded Kira, who was the shogunate's chief protocol officer and therefore Asano's superior. Drawing one's sword in the shogunal palace was a capital crime and Asano was ordered to commit seppuku within that same day. His domain was confiscated by the shogunate and his retainers were disbanded and became masterless samurai (ronin).

Back to 1703. After the assassination of Kira, forty-six of the samurai (one had been sent back to Ako before the actual attack) marched to the grave of Asano in Sengakuji temple where they presented the enemy head to the last resting place of their lord. They also notified the shogunate of their deed, awaiting arrest. It took the authorities six weeks of debate before coming up with the judgement that the samurai were to be sentenced to death by seppuku. Thus they committed ritual suicide in March 1703, all forty-six, ranging in age from 15 to 77. Later their ashes were buried in the small graveyard of Sengakuji, next to those of their lord.

[Corner of the graveyard for the 47 Ronin at Sengakuji, Tokyo
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

Historical evidence about the incident is scarce. Why did Asano attack Kira in the first place? Why did the masterless samurai assassinate Kira? Why did they wait a year and half to do so?

The meagerness of facts has led to much speculation. Some seek the reason for the original feud between Asano and Kira in romantic competition about a woman; others in economic motifs (Ako was a small fief, but rich thanks to the salt industry), or again in psychological issues (Kira's purported arrogance). 

There is similar disagreement about the reason for the later attack on Kira's mansion. The modern popular view is that the Ako samurai were motivated by vengeance for the death of Asano, in line with "samurai duty." This is often linked with ahistorical concepts of Bushido - incorrectly, because "Bushido" was an invention from the late 19th century, by the philosopher Inoue Tetsujiro and others; around 1700, Bushido did not exist, the ideology of the samurai was Confucianism (I know this is against popular opinion, but please read the wonderful study Inventing the Way of the Samurai by Oleg Benesch if you still need to be convinced!). Moreover, the action by the Ako ronin was an anomaly: it was the only case in the long Edo-period of a lord being avenged by his retainers! Revenge killings (adauchi) occurred, but only in cases when the killing of a parent had gone unpunished - wholly in line with Confucianism. Confucianism does stress loyalty, but the most important virtue is filial piety, "loyalty to the own parents," rather then to the ruler. 

But even if lord-vassal vendettas had been the rule, the Ako Incident would not have fit the definition, because Kira did not kill Asano. Kira was merely the plaintiff in a case in which the shogunate condemned Asano to death. 

So rather than an exemplary manifestation of samurai behavior, the Ako Incident was unique and anomalous - and that is why it still continues to attract such a lot of interest. Various alternative motivations for the action of Oishi and his fellow ronin have been proposed. By the confiscation of the domain, the Ako retainers had lost their income and position, and perhaps they thought they could regain their former status by demonstrating their prowess via this martial deed. They may also have wanted to distinguish themselves in front of potential new employers. These views are supported by the fact that they did not immediately perform seppuku when offering Kira's head to the grave of their former master - they had no clear course of further action and seem to have waited for the reaction of society. And indeed, the reaction from the authorities took six weeks to formulate, so this was apparently not a clear-cut case.

[The grave of Oishi Kuranosuke
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

Fiction - Popular Performance Arts
The uniqueness of the case and the mysterious motivations of its protagonists, soon made this story of the "Tormented Lord" and his "Loyal Retainers" extremely popular as fictional material, although the action had to be transposed back several centuries and the identities of its actors had to be hidden as commentaries and plays about contemporary events and persons were forbidden by the shogunate. Between 1706 and 1892 about seventy Kabuki and puppet plays were written about this hot subject. 

The most famous of these became Kanadehon Chushingura, "Kana practice book Treasury of the Loyal Retainers," an 11-act bunraku puppet play from 1748 (a Kabuki version of the same play also soon appeared; in Kabuki it became customary to perform just a few selected acts and not the whole work). The "kana practice book" in the title refers to the coincidence that the number of ronin matches the number of kana syllables. In this play, the personal relation between Oishi and his lord is the central element; he takes possession of the dagger used by Asano during his seppuku and this becomes his keepsake, almost a fetish; in the end he will plunge the weapon into his lord's enemy. Kanedehon Chushingura also made the loyalty of the retainers a central theme and as the shogunate saw this as a desirable virtue, they allowed the Forty-Seven Loyal Retainers to become popular heroes - in 1703, the historical retainers had rather been seen as a threat to the state as they had upset the order in Edo. The virtue of loyalty was thereby promoted among commoners - samurai, by the way, did not visit Kabuki or the puppet theater, their form of theater was the Noh.

[Graves of the rank and file of the retainers in Sengakuji
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

In Kanadehon Chushingura the names of the protagonists have been changed and the story is transported several centuries back. Asano Naganori becomes Enya Hangan, Kira Yoshinaka becomes Ko no Morono and Oishi Kuranosuke Oboshi Yuranosuke. The division of the story is as follows (note the generous addition of fictional elements):

Act I: The Hachiman Shrine (Introduction in which Ko no Morono tries to seduce the wife of Enya Hangan)
Act II: The Mansion of Wakanosuke (Wakanosuke, a colleague of Enya Hangan, wants to kill Morono but is prevented by his retainer)
Act III. The Pine Corridor (The taunted Enya Hangan attacks Ko no Morono)
Act IV: Enya Hangan's Seppuku (The seppuku scene; with his dying breath Enya Hangan asks Oboshi Yuranosuke to avenge his death)
Act V: Musket Shots on the Yamazaki Highway (Kanpei, a former retainer of Enya Hangan who wants to join the vendetta, by mistake shoots a robber and finds a purse with cash)
Act VI: Kanpei's Seppuku (Kanpei mistakenly thinks in the previous scene he has killed his father-in-law and commits suicide)
Act VII: The Ichiriki Teahouse (Yuranosuke pretends to be debauched by making fun in Kyoto's licensed quarter)
Act VIII: The Bride's Journey (Konami, the betrothed of Yuranosuke's son Rikiya, travels to Yamashina)
Act IX: The Retreat at Yamashina (Yuranosuke's wife is against the marriage of her son with Konami, but relents when Konami's father Honzo commits suicide to atone for his act of restraining Enya Hangan in the past)
Act X: The House of Amakawaya Gihei (The ronin test the trustworthiness of Gihei, a Sakai merchant who will transport their weapons to Edo)
Act XI: The Attack on Morono's Mansion (The assassination of Morono, whose head is then carried to Hangan's grave)

Certain elements of this Bunraku / Kabuki play became standard to the story; others proved more extraneous. Central were acts III, IV, VII, and XI.

[The well where the Ronin washed Kira's head at Sengakuji, Tokyo
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

In the 19th c. the story of the Forty-Seven Loyal Retainers also was taken up by Kodan storytellers. Kodan evolved out of lectures on historical topics given to high-ranking nobles and samurai. Because of these origins it is usually performed sitting behind a lectern, and using wooden clappers or a fan to mark the rhythm of the recitation. In the Edo-period it became a popular form of entertainment. Kodan storytellers were mainly responsible for further developing the character of Lord Asano. He was turned into a sincere and pure youth (reason why in later films he is usually clothed in light blue), who suffers various humiliations because he refuses to give his mentor Kira a bribe. While in Kanadehon Chushingura Kira's lust for Asano's wife had been the impetus of the tragedy, the role of women became rather insignificant in the Kodan versions of the story and the theme of loyalty among men was further emphasized.   

That submissiveness became even more important in another genre which came up at the beginning of the 20th c., rokyoku or naniwabushi, a form of storytelling with shamisen accompaniment, often about sad subjects. All romantic interludes were cut and complete loyalty was stressed. This also fit the atmosphere after the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, when feudal loyalty was associated with loyalty toward the emperor. 

[Souvenir shop selling replicas of the drum used to sound the attack at Kira's mansion
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

Fiction - The Movies
This is also the period when the first film versions of Chushingura were made, often combining episodes from Kabuki and Kodan. Chushingura films were generally box office hits, they served to propagate the ideal of loyalty and self-sacrifice on a massive scale. In total about 70 film versions of the story were made in the 20th c. (mainly between 1907 and 1962), plus about 30 TV versions.

The first Chushingura film based on a Kabuki play was made in 1907, and Japan's pioneer director Makino Shozo shot his first (of many) Chushingura films in 1910, with Japan's first star actor Onoe Matsunosuke in the main role, that of the leader of the 47 Ronin, Oishi Kuranosuke. The whole movie (including the sub-stories) consisted of 130 film rolls, so it rivaled the large films of D.W. Griffiths in length. This is the oldest surviving version of the story, and the oldest surviving print of any Japanese feature film. A completely static camera just films scene by scene from a performance of Onoe's Kabuki troupe. Onoe starred in at least eight other versions of Chushingura, but these were all lost. In contrast to naniwabushi, Makino Shozo tried to attract women viewers by drawing out the parting scene between Oishi and his wife. But "male bonding" remained paramount, as can be seen in the "tender parting looks" exchanged between Asano, on his way to seppuku, and one of his retainers in many later film versions.

Some of the more important prewar film adaptations were the 1928 version by Makino Shozo, called Jitsuroku Chushingura (A true record of Chushingura), made to celebrate the 50th birthday of the director (although the negatives were destroyed by a fire, about an hour of this film has been restored from existent prints); the 1934 Nikkatsu version with Okochi Denjiro as Oishi; and the 1938 Nikkatsu version with Bando Tsumasaburo as Oishi.

[Gate of Sengakuji, Tokyo
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

Renewal in this period came from the popular novel, which had also picked up the 47 Ronin theme. The most famous of these was Ako Roshi or The Ronin from Ako by Osaragi Jiro from 1927. In line wth the liberal trend of the 1920s, Osaragi turned the loyalty of Oishi and his fellow retainers into anger at the injustice of their lord's death sentence, and interpreted the assassination of Kira as protest against a corrupt government. But also in nationalistic accounts of the story, it became common to describe Oishi's times as degenerate. And Osaragi's theme of upright men in corrupt times also appealed to rightists, who saw themselves in a similar position. Osaragi's novel, by the way, had much influence on Chushingura films from the 1950s and early 1960s. 

In 1934 another stage in the development of the 47 Ronin story was reached with the modern Kabuki play Genroku Chushingura by Mayama Seika ("Genroku" is the name of the period in which the incident took place). The author placed emphasis on historical accuracy and took for his central theme the fear of Oishi that his loyalty toward his dead lord could be construed as disloyalty toward the emperor (this theme was of course totally ahistorical, as the emperor in Kyoto did not play any role in the minds of samurai living around 1700). This was a new interpretation and one of the high points of the play is that Oishi is secretly told of the emperor's approval. Overjoyed, he is now determined to act on his decision. Heavily based on the naniwabushi version, Mayama in fact celebrated modern patriotism.

[Oishi's mansion in Banshu-Ako
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

This modern Kabuki play became the basis of the film made in 1941 and 1942 by Mizoguchi Kenji. The film shows its wartime origin in its sober and grave dignity. On top of that, Mizoguchi left out the final vendetta in the snow, as well as the tormenting scenes between Kira and Asano, which were Kodan additions. But in this way Oishi's loyalty was made into something unconditional and impersonal, simply directed toward anyone in a higher position. This is most dramatically illustrated when Oishi bows in front of the ancestral altar of Asano and is shot by an overhead camera as if bowing for some kind of god. After the assassination of Kira, he bows in the same way for the proclamation allowing him to commit seppuku. In other words, what we see here is total submission to authority - Mizoguchi has given perfect expression to Japan's wartime ideology. The military had demanded this film from Shochiku because the studio had failed to make a sufficient number of "national policy films." This internalized, ideological version of the famous story, however, flopped at the box office as Mizoguchi had left out the fighting scenes people enjoyed most. Despite the monumental visuals (which have made the film posthumously famous), I find it rather boring and certainly not one of Mizoguchi's best films.

How did the story of the 47 Loyal Retainers fare in Japan's democratic, postwar period? The large number of films on this subject made between 1952 and 1962 demonstrates that, while very few postwar Japanese would support the feudal virtue of loyalty toward a superior, Oishi's devotion to his dead lord was still considered as appealing. Many of the films were based on Osaragi Jiro's novel, and the element of criticism of a corrupt government was strong.

During the Occupation period (1945-1952) feudal subjects had been forbidden in films, so immediately after Japan was free from foreign authority, a veritable flood of such subject matter was released in cinema houses around the country. The popularity of period films remained strong until the early 1960s, when the genre moved to TV and yakuza took the place of samurai on the big screen.

[A restored corner tower of Ako Castle
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

Between 1952 and 1962 there were at least nine major productions of Chushingura films: four by the Toei studio, two by Daiei, two by Shochiku and one by Toho. As the Japanese knew this often repeated story by heart, most directors took a certain familiarity with the story-line for granted, although usually none of the famous scenes were entirely cut. In fact, the films made in this period are rather similar and also include literal remakes (sometimes by the same director and with the same group of actors).

Toei was a new studio especially set up to make period films. The company managed to gather many great period film actors under its umbrella and soon grew into the largest producer of films. It made the first film about the loyal retainers immediately after the ban on period films had been lifted, in March 1952 (Ako Castle (Akojo) by Hagiwara Ryo, with Kataoka Chiezo as both Asano and Oishi). The other Toei Chushingura movies were made by one and the same director: Matsuda Sadatsugu (1906-2003), a Toei genre director who was the son of pioneer director Makino Shozo and half-brother of the better-known director Makino Masahiro: in 1956 Ako Roshi (The Ako Retainers), based on the above mentioned "liberal" novel by Osaragi Jiro, with a screenplay by Shindo Kaneto; in 1959 Chushingura, and in 1961 a remake of Ako Roshi. Oishi was played either by Ichikawa Utaemon or Kataoka Chiezo.

In the 1956 version I especially like the scene where Ichikawa Utaemon is finally on the way to Edo for the vendetta; he hides his identity and pretends to be a certain "Tachibana Sakon." But to his consternation suddenly the real Tachibana Sakon appears in front of him (played by Kataoka Chiezo). The confrontation between the two great actors consists of a largely non-verbal "conversation," with as result that the real Tachibana Sakon clears the field to help Oishi.

[Ukiyoe depicting the assault of Asano on Kira in the Great Pine Corridor of Edo Castle]

Daiei was known for its magnificent period films as Rashomon and Ugetsu, and also the lavish color film The Gate of Hell. The Daiei Chushingura version of 1958, with Watanabe Kunio as director, shines through the large number of actresses taking part (typical for Daiei), albeit in minor roles: Kyo Machiko as a spy on behalf of Kira; Yamamoto Fujiko as Asano's wife; Kogure Michiko as the top-class prostitute (Taiyu) Ukihashi; Awashima Chikage as Oishi's wife; and Wakao Ayako as Orin, a carpenter's daughter who obtains a map of Kira's mansion for the assassins. Hasegawa Kazuo played Oishi and Ichikawa Raizo Asano. A solid classical version that however looses a bit steam after the first 30 minutes. An interesting scene is when Oishi brings Ukihashi, his new "girlfriend" home and asks his surprised wife to kindly clear out of the premises - despicable behavior that is even too much for the Taiyu Ukihashi! But Oishi wanted to demonstrate that he was totally debauched and not anymore interested in vengeance.

The 1962 Chushingura version by Inagaki Hiroshi made for Toho is usually considered as the best of these classical postwar versions. It is a lavish adaptation in two parts (Hana no Maki, Yuki no Maki), with Matsumoto Kojiro as Oishi. Sets and scenery are gorgeous. Lord Asano is presented as the incarnation of sincerity. The film pays much attention to the detailed political dealings between the very large group of characters, sometimes dropping the pace to a crawl, but ends with a riveting, climactic battle scene. Hara Setsuko played her last film role here, as the wife of Oishi. Among the all-star cast was also Mifune Toshiro, for whom a new subplot had been devised.

[Ukiyoe version by Yoshitoshi of the attack on Kira's mansion]

After 1962, only two major films on the subject of Chushingura were made in the rest of the century, simply because the period drama had moved to the new medium of television. That is where many Chushingura adaptations saw the light of day, in fact until the present times. Some major productions are the NHK drama Ako Roshi from 1964 (with Hasegawa Kazuo as Oishi); Dai-Chushingura with Mifune Toshiro by Asahi TV; the same company's 1979 version called Ako Roshi with Nakamura Kinnosuke; and the 1990 Chushingura with Beat Takeshi by TBS, to name a few.

The two feature films - the only ones remarkable in the last five and half decades - are Akojo Danzetsu (The Fall of Ako Castle), by maverick yakuza film director Fukasaku Kinji (Toei, 1978), with Nakamura Kinnosuke (Oishi), Chiba Shinichi and Watase Tsunehiko; and Shijushichinin no shikaku or Forty-Seven Assassins made in 1994 by veteran director Ichiwaka Kon. Fukasaku's film sparkles in the mob scenes, like his Battles Without Honor and Humanity film series, but for the rest his treatment of the story is remarkably conservative. More interesting is the film by Ichikawa, featuring Takakura Ken as Oishi, and based on a novel by Ikemiya Shoichiro, which provided a fresh perspective on the old story. For example, it starts in medias res, the story of Asano's seppuku is told in flashbacks; Takakura Ken's Oishi is cool and stoic, in contrast to the emotional performances by Kataoka Chiezo or Hasegawa Kazuo; he falls in love with a young woman (Miyazawa Rie) who joins him while he is lying low in Yamashina and even bears his child (no playing around with geisha or taiyu here) - therefore Oishi is torn between a new beginning or a violent finale to his life; Asano is not taunted by Kira for private reasons, but becomes the victim of an economic power struggle with the strong Uesugi clan (more convincing); Kira has defended his mansion with ninja-like traps, what leads to a riveting fight scene. Is the last major film version also the best? Contrary to other critics who are generally more negative about this film (they find that it is too far removed from the classical story), it gets my vote - together with the classical Inagaki version.
Partly based on information from Archetypes in Japanese Film by Gregory Barrett and Inventing the Way of the Samurai by Oleg Benesch, as well as Japanese Classical Theater in Films by Keiko I. Macdonald.