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Archive for the ‘Shinto’ Category

Wowee. It’s been nearly a month since I’ve last posted. Sorry about that! I’ve been organizing photos and writing Wiki entries, visiting museums, and catching up on actual research/work. And in the meantime, boy have the links piled up.

“Heaven and Hell,” by Kawanabe Kyôsai. Tokyo National Museum.

*I don’t normally follow Christie’s auctions, but their current Japanese art auction came to my attention as it includes a long-believed-lost painting by Kawanabe Kyôsai, depicting a “Hell Courtesan,” or Jigoku-dayû, along with a bunch of other Kyôsai works, all of which are said to have once belonged to Josiah Conder, architect of some of the most famous/prominent buildings of the Meiji period. The full catalog can be downloaded as a PDF here.

*Speaking of Meiji architecture, the Asahi Shimbun reports that Japan is seeking World Heritage Status for a number of sites representative of Meiji industrialization. Now, I’ve written before on Japan and China (in particular, among other countries, I’m sure) appealing for just about anything and everything to be classified World Heritage Sites, and how absurd some of the petitions are. It’s basically a competition for who can have the most, regardless of how genuinely significant the sites may be to world heritage. But, with Japan oft-cited as the first major modern non-Western power, the first non-Western country to join the ranks of the Western powers as a “modern” industrial and military power, I think there’s actually some legitimacy to this idea.

*And, speaking of historical sites (gee, that worked out nicely), there is apparently a project called Wikipedia Loves Monuments. It’s operating in a bunch of different countries – here’s the map for the US – and it basically consists of a keen interface, powered by Google Maps, showing a whole ton of famous sites across the US (and across the world) that are in need of photography for use on the corresponding Wikipedia page. Most of the major ones have been covered already, as one might expect; the only ones in red anywhere near where I was in New York for the last few weeks were a few random houses in normal residential neighborhoods which are apparently either really old, and therefore historical, or are representative of particular architectural styles… I wish that Japan was one of the participating countries, because I’d love such a nice, smooth, interactive map of notable sites in Japan to go hunt out. (As for whether I’d then give my photos to Wikipedia, I dunno. I’ve got some issues with Wikipedia, as I may have mentioned in the past.)

A reproduction of the Edo zu byôbu, an early 17th century depiction of the shogunal capital of Edo (today, Tokyo).

*Meanwhile, Marky Star, over at Japan This!, has been pumping out one excellent article after another, mostly on the origins & history of Tokyo-area placenames, shogunal burial sites, and shogunate-era execution grounds. Among his most recent, most ambitious and most impressive articles to date is one from a few weeks ago in which he asks (and answers) What does Edo mean?

*Switching gears, Brittany at San’in Monogatari has published a very nice post on Kanayago, the goddess (or kami) of tatara. What’s tatara, you ask? Well, it’s a certain kind of furnace, a traditional Japanese method of building and operating a furnace.. and, I’m not ashamed to admit, I know of it chiefly from the film Mononoke Hime (or, Princess Mononoke), in which a community of women, headed by Lady Eboshi, uses tatara furnaces to smelt iron, and if I remember the plot of the film correctly, to construct firearms.

More to come soon…

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8/7

Wow. Day Five already? Almost done :(

You’ll notice there is no post for Day 4. This is because, while the day was certainly eventful and successful in certain respects, for the most part it consisted of just being dragged around by the sensei from one thing to another… so I don’t really have stories or photos to share. Today, on the other hand, Day 5, was quite busy.

After several days of following the sensei around, and operating on their schedule, I was once more free to go out and do my own thing. Not that I’m complaining – the sensei did so much for me, bringing me places I might not have been able to go/see otherwise, and helping me get access to all kinds of resources.


The objectives for the day were to see sites, to buy books, and to buy some clothes. I started out by visiting Tsuboya, the famous pottery center of Okinawa. In 1682, the royal government ordered several pottery centers from across the island to be relocated here, making Tsuboya – a neighborhood just beyond what is today the Kokusai-dôri / Heiwa-dôri shopping arcades – the chief center of pottery production in the islands. Of course, I am sure they must produce cups and bowls and other standard pottery products, but, this being Okinawa, shisa (guardian lions) are a major portion of the area’s output, along with ceramic funerary urns.

I’ve never been nearly as interested in pottery as in paintings & prints, so Tsuboya was pretty low on my list, but, after walking over to the Tourist Info Center at the corner of Kokusai-dôri & Oki-ei-dôri, I was pretty much already there, so I decided to check it out. And I’m glad that I did. I don’t know how touristy it might feel later in the day, but at that early hour, it felt very quaint and nice, with lots of traditional architecture and cute shops. The downside of getting an early start on the day, though, is that most of the establishments were closed. Even so, in the end it was actually a pretty nice street, with lots of little shops and cute quaint architectural atmosphere; I didn’t end up going inside anywhere, but still I’m glad I went.

My next stop was BookOff. One of the major goals of this trip, for me, was to get more books about Okinawa, and to hopefully get them cheaply. There are some scholarly books out there that have a cover price of as much as ¥12,600 (roughly, US$126) for no goddamned reason, and if I could just get lucky, maybe I could get it for a more reasonable price. Besides, BookOff is wonderfully cheap, and so even for the more reasonably priced $15-20 books, if I can get them for $5-10 instead, it’s a win. Unfortunately, to my surprise, the two BookOffs I visited (at Akamine & Azato) – the only two easily accessible by monorail – had astonishingly few books of interest or relevance to my research. On the one hand, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they had a whole separate section set aside for Okinawan topics, meaning I didn’t have to scour through the History, Art History, etc. sections each individually, but it also meant that whatever was not in that set-aside section, was most likely not in the store at all. If I recall correctly, I left with nothing at all. Strange and surprising, given that when I visited Fukuoka a few years ago, their BookOff had a great selection of books about Okinawa…

In any case, the second half of my shopping aims was to obtain some kariyushi wear, since all but one of my aloha shirts have mysteriously developed giant holes in them. Kariyushi wear is like aloha wear on a basic level, insofar as that in both Hawaii and Okinawa, rather than wearing proper dress shirts, neckties, and business suit jackets, people wear short-sleeved shirts in flowery patterns, sometimes on an extra-light / summery material, and this counts as formal enough. However, while aloha shirts are certainly popular enough and common enough in Okinawa, worn in place of kariyushi wear, I discovered that the true kariyushi wear – the ones with more distinctly Okinawan patterns and/or materials – are disgustingly overpriced.

Right: A kariyushi shirt with a wonderful original design based on traditional bingata designs. I tried it on, and it looked, and felt, great! Shame it was $250. Are you kidding me?

Everywhere I went, I found plenty of really standard aloha shirts – the kinds of things you could get from a random street vendor in Waikiki for $15, or could probably even find at WalMart or something; really standard – for $30-40, which of course I’m not paying, and then the ones with the really nice, really distinctively Okinawan styles, for upwards of $100 or even $200. Whoever pays these prices, and therefore allows the supply side to continue to get away with charging such prices, should be shot. These weren’t fancy boutique stores, either – these were mom & pop booths in a shopping arcade, and “discount sale” sections in the mall. In the end, I did manage to find one shirt I really liked, for a very reasonable price, and I’m very happy with it, but I really kind of expected to be buying more, and I’m still quite annoyed at the entirely unreasonable prices for some of the other things. I know it’s Made in Okinawa, and that it’s a unique design by a named designer, and so from the supply side, there are some arguments to be made for why it’s so expensive, but, frankly, at some point, on some level, a shirt is a shirt, and I generally try not to spend more than $30 on a shirt.

Asahibashi Station, on the Okinawa Monorail line.

I’d heard that Oroku – the neighborhood where this BookOff and shopping mall were located – was also known for having some relatively intact traditional-style cobblestone-paved sidestreets. There’s even a walking tour that one can take that’ll show you around these streets. But, not being on a tour, and just being on my own, I couldn’t find them, so I skipped over to Onoyama kôen, two stations away. The 600円 all day pass was definitely worth it on these wandering/exploring days. It costs anywhere from 220円 to 320円 to go from one station to another (depending on distance), so, in just two to three rides you recoup your costs. Anyway, I don’t remember what I thought was at Onoyama Park – I’m not sure I knew there was anything at all in particular there, and was just going to check it out, and find out. But, once I arrived and looked around a little, I very quickly found that I was very glad to have gone.


The city of Naha was, historically, up until the late 19th or early 20th century, made up primarily of a series of islands, and was not the relatively integrated “mainland” city it is today. Much of the core residential and commercial parts of the city – Kume, Wakasa, Nishi and Higashi – were located on a large island called Ukishima, while many temples, fortresses, shrines, and warehouses were located each on their own separate, tiny, islands in the harbor. Over the years, the harbor gradually silted up, and in the late 19th and early 20th century large-scale public works projects used landfill to dramatically alter the shape of the city, erasing the separate islands and the waterways that separated them, and creating the Naha we know today. Onoyama was the largest of these islands, and, to make a long story short, it today includes two major shrinesOki Shrine, or Oki-gû, one of the Eight Shrines of Ryûkyû, and Gokoku Jinja, or “Protection of the Nation Shrine,” a Meiji era creation – alongside baseball parks, an archery range, and all sorts of other rather shiny, new, well-maintained-looking athletics facilities.

The archery range, or kyûdôjô, at Onoyama Park.

The concept, the grouping, of the “Eight Shrines of Ryûkyû” is itself a Meiji era creation, and so I’m not so sure I care that much about the grouping itself. However, most if not all of the shrines in the group were of some considerable significance during the era of the Ryûkyû Kingdom (prior to Japan’s takeover and annexation of the islands in the 1870s), and Oki-gû is no exception. After finding and exploring Oki Shrine, I thought I might divert my efforts to making sure I found all eight, but, some are quite far outside of Naha, and in the end I managed to see four, which isn’t too bad, I think. There are some other sites, such as the temple of Rinkai-ji, which I kind of regret not going out of my way to find, but, there will be a next time.

Oki Shrine, as it exists today, is a rather interesting site. It strikes me as very much a mixture of Okinawan and Japanese architectural elements (and other elements), the very representation of what a Shinto shrine adapted to Okinawa could, would, should look like. Shinto is not, was not, native to Ryukyu, but was for the most part introduced/imposed in the Meiji period (in fact, much of what Shinto looks like today, even in mainland Japan, is owed to its reinvention in the Meiji period), so I’d be very curious what these major shrines, like Oki-gû and Naminoue, looked like in the previous centuries.

Today, Oki Shrine incorporates Japanese torii, the criss-crossing roofbeams of a Shinto shrine, and much of the forms and practices otherwise of a Japanese Shinto shrine – including a Shinto priest in standard white Shinto priest’s robes, performing what I can only assume were standard Shinto rituals (I didn’t get that close) – combining these with very Okinawan elements, from the lush greenery growing on the rocks and surrounding elements of the shrine, to the red-tiled roof and otherwise generally Okinawan style of the main hall. And, higher up the hill, several utaki – sacred spaces in the traditional Ryukyuan (not Japanese/Shinto) fashion, essentially just stone markers marking a rock or tree or space as being sacred.

I don’t know much, in depth, about either Ryukyuan religion or Shinto, but from what I do know, it’s interesting to see the similarities and differences – both are founded on very similar principles, the identification of natural spaces or objects of spiritual power, and the construction of a named or designated “shrine” space around it. Yet, in the execution, it is quite different. Whereas Ryukyuan utaki, for the most part, it is my impression, consist of little more than stone markers identifying the space, and sometimes stone walls marking off, or closing off, the space, even the smallest Shinto shrines generally consist of a wooden shrine building – sometimes far too small for human entrance, but no less architecturally complex – and at least one torii gate. By no means do I wish to enter into the fallacy of an argument that Ryukyu represents precisely what Japan used to be – and, indeed, in this case I’m not sure it could hold true anyway, given that Japan has been building Shinto shrines, i.e. with actual, sometimes quite large, shrine buildings, for over a millennium. But, there is certainly something interesting in the intersection between the ways the two belief systems identify, designate, and maintain sacred spaces, and in the objects of the worship themselves – generally, a worship of the sacred found in nature itself.

Adani-ga-daki, an utaki in Shuri, consists at its core of a small inner sacred space with a small stone marker, like every other utaki I’ve seen. But, unlike those, this one has a stone wall and stone-paved outer area, plus a red gate. Is this typical? I don’t know. Is it so different from the basic concept/layout of a Shinto shrine?

Wow. It was a busy day… I guess I’ll have to leave the rest of Day 5 for the next post.

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RocketNews24, among numerous other news sources, are reporting that Tokugawa Yasuhisa, great-grandson of the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu (Keiki), has been appointed head priest of the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.

Yasukuni, as you may know, is the chief Shinto shrine dedicated to the spirits of those Japanese who gave their lives – chiefly, in battle – for their country. As this includes a number of convicted and accused war criminals, and a great many men involved in the invasions and colonization of Korea, China, and elsewhere, and the various injustices and atrocities associated with those events, it is easy to see why the shrine is the center of considerable controversy, attracting great ire and protest in China and Korea every time a prominent Japanese politician makes a visit there. The shrine is, in any case, a genuine center of rightwing/militarist activity, and contains a majorly biased/skewed war history museum.

Thinking about it historically, in a late 19th through pre-WWII early 20th century context, the shrine is very much embedded in discourses of nationalism as connected to the post-Meiji Restoration creation of the concept of the “modern” “nation-state” of Japan, and thus to themes of Emperor worship and all that. Being that the Meiji Imperial institution was borne out of an anti-Tokugawa revolution, and being that much of the rhetoric of the Meiji state (up through WWII and possibly into the early post-war period) emphasized a conception of the Tokugawa period as a backwards, non-modern, dark ages of feudal repression during which Japan was “closed” to the world, and thus closed to new advancements and development, one would think that Yasukuni itself would also be closely tied up in that same pro-Imperial, pro-modernization, anti-Tokugawa discourse.

So, what does it mean that a Tokugawa, the great-grandson of the very same shogun who was overthrown by the Meiji Restoration, is now the head priest of Yasukuni? On a discursive or symbolic level, I feel there’s something very odd about this juxtaposition… Though, obviously, the State, the Imperial Household, the shrine, and the Tokugawa family have no problems with it, so maybe I’m just imagining things.

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The NYTimes today features a brief article on the renovation of Izumo Taisha, one of the most important (and famous) shrines in Shinto. I suppose the title of my post implies that I myself have enjoyed this rare peek, but, alas, no.

For the first time in six decades, Izumo’s main shrine — the house of a Shinto god who, wrapped in a piece of cloth, was moved to a temporary shrine in April — was opened to the general public.

The cost of the renovations — in particular the roof, made of the bark of Japanese cypress, which needed to be rethatched — will exceed $73 million, with about a third to be borne by taxpayers. Repairs to the shrine, classified a national treasure, will start soon and take five years, during which it will remain closed to visitors.

“Then the god will return here, so it won’t be possible for human beings to come inside in a carefree manner and sully the place,” said Kunimaro Senge, 34, the son of Izumo’s chief priest and his expected successor.

The main shrine will be closed, again, to all but Shinto priests and members of the imperial family until the next renovations. “People will have to wait another 60 years,” Mr. Senge added.

Like other Shinto shrines, Izumo also kept its rituals — and, above all, its object of worship — a secret. In keeping with Shinto’s polytheist and animist traditions, each shrine venerates a different god embodied by a sacred object of worship. Here, priests were not allowed to look at the object, and it was not clear whether the chief priest himself was. “There are many theories — that it’s a mirror, a sword, or a wooden idol,” Mr. Senge, the chief priest’s son, said. “But when people ask me what the object is, I can only reply that it is too awesome to put into words.

Full article – “God’s Home Gets Rehab, and Japan Sneaks Peek” by Norimitsu Onishi. 26 August 2008.

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