Category Archive: Japanese Culture
The bushidō, “the way of the warrior,” was the samurai’s code of conduct. It exemplified a warrior’s moral values in mastery of martial arts, frugality, loyalty, and honor unto death. A rōnin was a samurai with no lord or master. A samurai could lose his master from death or even from falling out of his master’s favor. The story of the Akō vendetta, or the Revenge of the 47 Ronin, during the Genroku Akō incident is a perfect example of a samurai living up to their code of honor.
The story of the Revenge of the 47 Ronin goes like this…
In 1701, there were two daimyo (powerful lords)—Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori, the young daimyo of a small fiefdom in western Honshū known as the Akō Domain, and Lord Kamei of the Tsuwano Domain. Both were ordered to organize a reception for the Emperor’s envoys in Edo sankin kōtai service (a daimyo’s alternate-year residence in Edo) to the Shogun. The Edo official, Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka, was not satisfied with the offerings because they lacked the bribes that he wanted. Anticipating the disaster that could ensue, Kamei’s counselors offered Kira a large bribe without Kamei knowing. This prompted Kira to treat Kamei better but continued to insult Asano, who lost his patience, attacked Kira with a dagger, and wounded the official’s face. Asano was ordered to kill himself by committing seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment). All his lands were taken, his family was ruined, and his samurai retainers were to be made ronin after his death.
Print depicting the ronin, on their way back to Sengakuji after the attack on Kira.
Ōishi Yoshio, the head chamberlain of the Asano estate and the leader of the 47 ronin, moved the Asano family away and refused to let his master’s death go unavenged. Revenge was prohibited, but the 47 ronin swore a secret oath to eventually avenge Asano by killing Kira.
Kira was heavily guarded at all times. To stave off any doubt from Kira that any loyal envoys of Asano plotted revenge, Ōishi moved to Kyoto and even divorced his wife of 20 years to keep her safe once they had killed Kira. Ōishi frequented geisha houses, acted like a drunk, and was thought to be a disgrace. The other ronin spread around Japan and became monks or tradesmen. All this was reposted to Kira who gradually let his guard down. It took two years for Ōishi to be totally convinced that Kira had completely let down his guard. On the 4th day of the 12th month of the 15th year of Genroku (January 30, 1703), the 47 ronin sought to avenge their master. They followed the bushidō to the letter, allowing Kira to commit seppuku, but he stayed quiet and shaking in fear. Ōishi had to ask other ronin to pin Kira down as he cut his head off with a dagger. The 47 ronin washed and offered Kira’s head on the tomb of their master and said prayers. Then they gave themselves up for sentencing.
The death of Kira was no loss, for he was not well-liked. The 47 ronin were just following their code of honor, yet they also defied the shogunate’s authority. 46 ronin were sentenced to take their own lives by seppuku rather than being executed. They each performed the ritual that took their lives on the 4th day of the 2nd month in 16th year of Genroku (March 20, 1703). The 47th ronin was Terasaka Kichiemon, who was deemed too young to commit seppuku. He was pardoned by the Shogun and lived to be 87 years old. All 47 ronin are now interred in front of the tomb of their master in the grounds of Sengaku-ji Temple, Tokyo.
47 Ronin graveyard at Sengaku-ji Temple.
Traditional winter dishes in Japan usually include daikon. Daikon (大根) is a winter radish popular in Japanese cuisine. Its mild flavor makes it a versatile ingredient; it is usually characterized by its long and white root. The origins of daikon can be traced to the Mediterranean. It spreadquickly to the east and is now grown all across Asia and some parts of the world.
In Japanese cuisine, daikon is used often in the many pickling variations of traditional Japanese cuisine such as bettarazuke and takuan-zuke. Grated daikon is also used in making the popular Japanese condiment ponzu, a soy sauce and citrus juice blend. Japanese hot pots such as oden are especially popular during winter, and a delicious bowl of warm broth wouldn’t be complete without slices of daikon. The drying process is a common way of preserving food in Japan. Shredded and dried daikon called kiriboshi-daikon, and daikon sprouts kaiware-daikon make a beautiful garnish. Daikon leaves don’t go to waste, either. They can be fried or pickled and are delectable either way.
Daikon. | Franco Folini
Aside from being a favorite ingredient in many Japanese dishes, daikon also has numerous health benefits.
Helps prevent cancer – daikon contains antioxidants that fight off free radical damage known to cause cancer. Research studies indicate that daikon juice prevent the proliferationsfc of harmful chemicals and carcinogens in the body.
Rich in vitamin C – vitamin C is an essential antioxidant that strengthens the body’s immune system. 100 grams of daikon are said to supply the body with 34% of the daily value our bodies need. Daikon leaves have a higher concentration of vitamin C levels than daikon roots.
Migraine relief – migraines are caused by constricting blood vessels in the brain. Daikon helps dilate the blood vessels and can be taken as a preventative measure or even at the first sign of a migraine.
Helps in organ functions – daikon is an effective diuretic. It also helps cleanse the blood and gets rid of toxins through the liver, kidneys, digestive tract, and sweat glands.
Anti-inflammatory – high levels of vitamin C and B found in daikon aid in preventing chronic inflammation that lead to arthritis and heart disease.
Pickled daikon and carrot coins. | iris
Japan consists of almost 7,000 islands. Over 70% of the country is mountainous; there are over 200 volcanoes in the Japanese jurisdiction. As a volcanically active nation, Japan has many bathing facilities and literally thousands of hot spring resorts scattered all over the country.
Sentō (銭湯) is a Japanese communal bath house that charges a fee for entrance and use of the facilities. Though over the years there has been a rapid decline in the need for sentō because modern Japanese residences now have their own baths, many Japanese still find that going to a public bath house is an important social ritual: a longstanding Japanese custom that “physical proximity brings emotional intimacy.” A sentō varies from an onsen, which uses hot water from a natural hot spring. At an onsen, the bathing facility has at least one bath filled with natural hot spring water.
Woodcut print by Kiyonaga of a Japanese communal bath house.
The origins of the Japanese bathing culture and the sentō in general can be traced back to Buddhist temples in India. The practice then spread to China and finally to Japan during the Nara period (710–784). The Nara period and the Kamakura period (1185–1333) were known for their religious bathing rituals because of the predominant religious influence. Baths were commonly found at temples during these periods and were called yūya (hot water shop). The baths were steam baths commonly used by priests and the sick. Members of the upper class and wealthy merchants soon included baths in their residences. By the end of the Edo period (1603–1867), the Tokugawa shogunate segregated baths by gender to uphold public moral standards.
Modern sentō at Takayama. | sanmai
Tradition is important in Japan, and bathing in an onsen or sentō is a big part of the Japanese culture. The Japanese experience would not be complete without treating yourself to a relaxing dip in a hot spring or a warm bath to create a stronger kinship among friends or, as it is loosely termed, skinship.
Check out LaQua resort, a natural spring, a hidden gem right in the middle of the bustling city of Tokyo.
Japanese warriors like the samurai, ronin, and ninja are portrayed in the modern world as being cunning, skillful, and adept in their fighting prowess with some of the more popular weaponry we know as katana, shuriken, and tanto. These great warriors were essential in Japan’s feudal era. The country was in so much chaos that strong leaders and strict reforms were needed to bring the whole country together during the Tokugawa bafuku.
A han (藩) was the estate of a warrior during the Edo period and early Meiji period. Preceding the Tokugawa bafuku was the Sengoku period, during which a feudal system arose that was based on the agricultural yield or annual income of a particular han. In 1690, the richest han was recorded to be the Kaga Domain with a little over 1 million koku (Japanese unit of volume, equal to approximately 278.3 liters).
Japanese painting depicting a battle during the Sengoku period.
Under the imperial government’s scheme, ownership of land was consolidated into estates regulated by religious institutions and civil nobility. This heightened the need for samurai warriors who grew in number throughout the 11th and 12th centuries, giving the military class power and importance among Japanese society. The title daimyo were given to military lords who exercised territorial and proprietary control over private estates.
Though the hans were under the authority of the central government, the Tokugawa, they still operated autonomously and were responsible for their own defenses and transportation. Essentially, they should have been economically self-sufficient. The Tokugawa shogunate were in control of a third of the country’s hans. However, others were still against the local government. An alliance between the hans that opposed the Tokugawa eventually overthrew military rule and a new central government was established under the emperor in 1868. This led to the abolition of the han system on August 29, 1871.
Japanese farmers planting rice. | NYPL
Chinese literature significantly influenced early Japanese literature. Over time, Japanese literature came into its own as Japanese writers developed their own identities and started writing about Japan. When Japan opened its ports to Western trading after the sakoku years, both Western and Eastern literature greatly influenced Japanese literature until today.
Japanese writers embraced free verse and incorporated it in the traditional poetic repertoire through the introduction of European literature. This allowed Japanese artists a fresh approach in creating longer works and alternative themes. Many young Japanese writers were allowed a broader range of ideas and styles that they quickly embraced. Some of the more popular contemporary Japanese writers include:
Kenzaburō Ōe (born January 31, 1935) – his writing is heavily influenced by American and French literature. He writes mostly about social, political, existential, social non-conforming, and philosophical issues. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994. Some of his latest works available in English include the Kaifuku suru kazoku, 1995 – A Healing Family (trans. by Stephen Snyder, ill. by Yukari Oe),Chugaeri, 1999 – Somersault (trans. by Philip Gabriel) and Torikae ko (Chenjiringu), 2000 – The Changeling (trans. by Deborah Boehm).
Kenzaburō Ōe. | Thesupermat
Haruki Murakami (born January 12, 1949) – his works have gained critical acclaim and awards in Japan and internationally. His writings have been translated into 50 languages and have sold millions of copies. Haruki Murakami’s writing style usually makes use of the first-person narrative in the tradition of the Japanese style I-Novel (literary genre in Japanese literature used to describe a type of confessional literature where the events in the story correspond to events in the author’s life). Some of his more popular writings include The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994-1995), Kafka on the Shore (2002), and 1Q84 (2009–2010). Murakami has also translated a number of English novels into Japanese such as those from authors J.D. Salinger and Raymond Carver.
Haruki Murakami.| wakarimasita
Banana Yoshimoto (born 24 July 1964) – an influence on her early works was American author Stephen King, particularly his non-horror stories. As she further developed her writing, she admired the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Truman Capote. Banana Yoshimoto says that the main themes of her writings are “the exhaustion of young Japanese in contemporary Japan” and “the way in which terrible experiences shape a person’s life.” The Lake, her latest work, was longlisted for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize (an annual literary award given to the best novel by an Asian writer, either written in English or translated into English).
Banana Yoshimoto. | screengrab from www.goodreads.com
During the 17th, 18th, and most of the 19th century, Japan adopted a policy that isolated the whole country from the outside world. This long period of national isolation was called sakoku, literally meaning chained country. During sakoku, no Japanese could leave the country on penalty of death, and very few foreign nationals were permitted to enter or trade with Japan. Japan traded strictly with only five entities from four gateways. The Matsumae clan from the Matsumae Domain, located in Hokkaido, was one of them.
The Matsumae clan (松前氏) was originally known as the Kakizaki clan from Shimokita Peninsula and later changed to Matsumae. They were granted the area around Matsumae, Hokkaidō by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1590. The clan governed the area, a march fief (militarised border region), from 1603 to 1868. The Matsumae clan was in charge of defending it from all possible invasions. In return, they were exempt from owing a rice tribute to the shogunate. Aside from defending the country, the clan had close contacts with the Ainu of Hokkaidō, which also granted them exclusive rights to trade with the Ainu communities.
Print depicting Matsumae daimyo. | Eliphalet Brown Jr.
Trade between the Matsumae clan and the Ainu did not always go so smoothly. This resulted in conflicts known throughout Japanese history, such as:
Shakushain’s Revolt – an Ainu revolt between 1669 and 1672. It initially began as a fight for resources that eventually developed into a last try by the Ainu to keep their political independence and regain control over the terms of their trade relations.
Menashi-Kunashir Rebellion – a battle in 1789 where 37 Ainu people were arrested and sentenced to death. The rebellion was provoked by the suspicion that poisoned saké was given to some Ainu people in a loyalty ceremony, compounded with other reasons regarding Japanese traders.
It was only fairly recently, during the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century, that the Matsumae march was dissolved and Hokkaidō was formally annexed by Japan.
Today, Matsumae Clan Mansion is reconstructed in its former glory as an Edo period castle town and a theme park that transports you back in time where you can experience what life was like during the Edo Period and the grand days of the samurai. There are 14 buildings that include merchant and samurai houses, magistrate’s office, a guard station, and other such places typical of a flourishing town. There are also traditional Japanese samurai armors and clothing that you can try on.
Sasaki Kojirō (佐々木 小次郎, 1585–1612), of Fukui Prefecture, Japan, was also known as Ganryū, orLarge Rock style. Kojirō was a master swordsman during the Sengoku and early Edo periods. He studied Chujō-ryū (old style martial arts founded in the 14th century by Chujō Nagahide) sword fighting from either sword masters Kanemaki Jisai or Toda Seigen. Kojirō later went on his own and founded the Japanese traditional school for swordsmanship, Ganryū, the name he is also known for. He is also known for his skills in wielding the nodachi (a long traditional Japanese sword) known as the Drying Pole and the Tsubame Gaeshi technique (Turning Swallow Cut) believed to mimic the motion of a swallow’s tail during flight.
Sculpure of the duel. | Roger Ferland
Miyamoto Musashi (宮本 武蔵, 1584–1645) is also known by his other names, Shinmen Takezō or Miyamoto Bennosuke, or his Buddhist name Niten Dōraku. He was an expert swordsman and rōnin who is known for his many duels even when he was very young. Miyamoto Musashi was the author of The Book of Five Rings, about tactics, strategy, and swordfighting philosophies that are still used today. He also founded the Hyōhō Niten Ichi-ryū or Niten-ryū style popular for its two-sword techniques.
Miyamoto Musashi illustration.
Sasaki Kojirō and Miyamoto Musashi were involved in one of Japan’s historic duels in 1612. The two swordsmen were bitter rivals at the time. There are several accounts on the story that led to the actual duel; the one considered the most accurate goes like this.
Miyamoto Musashi, wishing to put an end to the notion of who is really the best swordsman, requested Lord Hosokawa Tadaoki (a respected samurai), through his trusted vassal Nagaoka Sado Okinaga, to arrange a duel between the two swordsmen. The duel took place on 13th April 1612, in the remote island of Ganryujima of Funashima, off the coast of the Bizen Province. As part of a strategy to throw off Kojirō ‘s inner state of being, Musashi arrived three hours late. When he finally arrived, the officials of the duel as well as Sasaki Kojiro were extremely irritated; Kojiro was full of rage. On drawing his katana, he threw his scabbard aside, prompting Musashi to further enrage him by commenting, “If you have no more use for your sheath, you are already dead.”
Sasaki Kojirō illustration.
The duel began with both men on guard as a show of respect for the other’s skill with their own style and technique. In the end, though, there could be only one winner. Musashi had provoked Kojirō to make the first attack. Miyamoto quickly countered and succeeded in breaking Kojirō’s left ribs and puncturing his lungs, eventually killing him. Because of this event, Musashi attained spiritual awakening and renounced ever doing lethal duels in the future.
Kanda Shrine (神田明神 ) is conveniently located in Japan’s capital, Tokyo. The shrine was initially built in 730 CE during the Tenpyō Era, in the fishing village of Shibasaki close to the modern Ōtemachi district. When Edo Castle needed expansion in 1603, Kanda Shrine was moved to the former Kanda ward, then again in 1616 to its present site on a small hill near Akihabara. The shrine’s origins can be traced back about 1,270 years, but it has been rebuilt and restored several times including after the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake. In 1934, the shrine was rebuilt with concrete, which enabled it to withstand the bombs of World War II. During the Edo period, Kanda Shrine was an important place for many members of the warrior class and local citizens of Japan. Even shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu paid his respects to the gods at Kanda Shrine. Restoration continues today to preserve its long history.
Kanda Shrine gate.
The grand main gate of Kanda Shrine is a two-story structure named Zuishin-mon that marks the entrance into the historical shrine. It was reconstructed in 1995 using cypress wood and has an irimoya styled roof (Eastern Asian architectural style, where a hip roof slopes down on all four sides and integrates a gable on two opposing sides) and is painted vermilion with gold and lacquered interiors.
Taira no Masakado print.
Kanda’s thhree main kami
Ebisu – the god of fishermen, workingmen, and luck, and the guardian of the health of small children. He is one of the Seven Gods of Fortune and the only one to originate purely from Japan without any Chinese or Hindu influence.
Taira no Masakado – a Heian Period samurai who led one of the biggest rebel forces against the government of Kyoto. He is considered a hero and even a demigod to the locals who are reminded of his bravery against the Japanese central government as well his need to appease his malevolent spirit.
Daikokuten – the god of wealth, commerce, and trade. He is one of the Seven Lucky Gods. His name is equivalent to Mahākāla, the Buddhist name for Shiva.
Kanda matsuri is one of the three main Shinto festivals celebrated in Tokyo. It’s an old tradition started in 1600 by Tokugawa Ieyasu after the victory of the battle of Sekigahara. It is held in honor of the enshrined kami, and celebrated mid-May each year.
During the Sakoku years of Japan, the country was deeply isolated from the rest of the world except for a few foreigners, mostly Koreans and Chinese. The only Western trade with Japan was from the Dutch East India Company. Japan’s self-imposed isolation made their wares much coveted by foreigners.
Isaac Titsingh (1745–1812) was a Dutch merchant-trader, surgeon, scholar, and ambassador. He was a senior official of the Dutch East India Company with a long career in East Asia. Titsingh represented the European trading company exclusively as an official contact in Tokugawa, Japan. He had the opportunity to travel to Edo and meet with high ranking bakufu officials. When he returned to Europe in 1797, Titsingh brought the very first Japanese-authored historical account published and circulated for scholarly study in the West, known as Nihon Ōdai Ichiran.
Nihon Ōdai Ichiran (日本王代一覧 ), “The Table of the Rulers of Japan,” is a narrative from the perspective of the Japanese author and his samurai patron, the daimyo of the Obama domain of Wakasa Province, tairō (great elder) Sakai Tadakatsu. Nihon Ōdai Ichiran is a chronicle of 17th-century Japanese emperors and their reigns, with entries on some noteworthy events in Japanese history. The compilation of written works was almost complete in 1783 when Isaac Titsingh sent a manuscript to the daimyo of Tamba, Kutsuki Masatsuna. When Masatsuna finished editing the manuscript, he sent it back to Titsingh, who had become head of the Dutch East Indies Company trade operations in Hoogly, West Bengal. But in 1785, Masatsuna’s comments were lost in a shipwreck en route from Japan to India. In 1812, Isaac Titsingh’s drafted a final version of the book, which he dedicated to his friend Kutsuki Masatsuna.
Nihon Ōdai Ichiran page. | Waseda University Library
Nihon Ōdai Ichiran, an extensive seven volumes, was later translated into French as Nipon o daï itsi ran. The seven volumes were presumed lost during the Napoleonic Wars. After Isaac Titsingh’s death in 1812, the manuscript sat in near neglect. Later, the project was revived, and the Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britain and Ireland published the work; publication and printing took place in Paris, with London handling the distribution. At last the Western world could begin to clear away the mystery of Japan.
Title page of French translation of Nihon Ōdai Ichiran.
Religion is an important cultural aspect and way of life for many Japanese. Numerous Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are scattered all around Japan and most times, they are right beside each other. In many Buddhist temples, you may notice a pair of stern looking muscular statues. The intimidating dynamic duo that stand devotedly at the entrance of the temples are known as Niō or Kongōrikishi. They are the protectors of Buddha.
Niō (仁王) are believed to be the manifestation of Bodhisattva Vajrapāṇi, one of the earliest known bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism (a branch of Buddhism) that symbolize Buddha’s power. According to Japanese belief, Niō guardians travelled with Buddha to protect him. Stories also justify the use of physical force to keep values and beliefs against evil. The Niō statue standing at the right side of the gate is called Misshaku Kongō and has his mouth open to represent speaking the first grapheme (smallest semantically distinguishing unit in a written language) of Sanskrit Devanagari (writing system of India and Nepal) pronounced as “a.” The left statue is known as Naraen Kongō and has his mouth closed to represent the last Devanagari grapheme pronounced “ɦūṃ.” When man is born he is believed to be speaking the “a” sound with his mouth open and when he dies his last word is “hum” with his mouth closed. The pair together symbolize the birth and death of all things, and as with the Alpha and Omega in Christianity, Niō embodies “all creation.” The contraction of “a” and “hum” is Aum, which in Sanskrit means “The Absolute.”
Niō statues at Kannonshō-ji in Azuchi, Omihachiman. | 663highland
Niō statuse at Zentsu-ji. | 663highland
The manifestations of the Niō statues can come in three forms:
Misshaku Kongō or Agyō – “a”- form, a term for open-mouthed statues in aum pair. They symbolize overt violence. The statues are usually depicted wielding a mallet, diamond club, thunderbolt, sun, or stick, and are baring their teeth.
Naraen Kongō or Ungyō – “um”- form, a general term for closed-mouthed statues in the aum pair. They symbolize latent strength. The statues are usually depicted with their mouths tightly closed and wielding a sword or are bare-handed.
Shukongōshin – a combination of the Naraen and Misshaku Kongōs into one statue. It literally means “vajra (a ritual weap0n) -wielding spirit.”
Shukongōshin in Hokke-dō, Todaiji Temple, Nara. | Association of Cultural Properties