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Amaterasu and the Rock Cave

In Japanese History, Japanese Mythology, Japanese Shrines & Temples on July 2, 2020 at 7:00 am

天岩戸
Ama no Iwato
The Rock Cave

AMATERASU IN THE CAVE

When you finish reading, check out the details of this woodblock print.

If you thought the Creation Myth was weird, brace yourself. I told you that the kami were self-absorbed and capricious, but things are going to get truly bizarre now. First, we looked at the birth of the universe and the creation of Japan[i]. This time we’ll look at the most famous legend in all of Japan, that of Amaterasu, the sun goddess and divine ancestor of the emperors of Japan. This tale begins with the birth of the sun kami, so if you’re just joining the story in progress, I highly suggest you read the previous articles first. Also, as with the previous myth, I’ve been liberal in my retelling so as to make the narrative more palatable to our modern sensibilities. That said, be prepared. A dude will take massive dump inside a house and then just fling crap everywhere like Donald Trump throwing a temper tantrum[ii]. I’m not joking.

Anyhoo, this story is divided into three parts. First, it describes the realms given to the Three Noble Children by Izanagi no Mikoto. Next, we experience the petulance of Susano’o. The story concludes with the Rock Cave Myth. All right, let’s get into it!

Further Reading:

SANKISHI

The Three Noble Children and the Three Divine Commands

After cleansing himself of the defilement he received during his journey to the Land of Yomi[iii], the last living creator god, Izanagi, gave birth one last time. “For many years[iv], I’ve been giving birth to kami after kami, but finally I’ve made Three Noble Children[v]. He removed his necklace[vi] which was decorated with 勾玉 magatama comma shaped jewels[vii]. He shook it so that the stones rattled and sounded throughout the land. Then he gave the necklace to Amaterasu Ōmikami the sun goddess. Placing it around her neck, he commanded her to rule the Heavenly High Plains and the Central Land of Reed Plains[viii]. Then, he commanded Tsukuyomi to rule the realm of the night and Susano’o to rule the storms and seas[ix].

Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi were obedient and followed their father’s wishes, worthy of being called “noble.” However, Susano’o was not obedient and disobeyed his father’s commands. Instead, he just threw tantrums and wept and howled until his beard grew down well past his chest[x]. In fact, he cried so much that it caused the green mountains to turn brown and the rivers and seas to dry up[xi]. As a result, the malevolent kami throughout the Central Land of Reeds also began to cry, and they swarmed around everywhere like summer flies causing all kinds of calamities[xii] all over the world.

All of this weeping and wailing was annoying AF to the other kami and all living creatures, so finally Izanagi came to Susano’o and scolded him. “Why are just weeping and howling like a man-baby when you should be ruling the storms and seas that I entrusted to you?” asked his father. “I wish to go to the land of my mother, Izanami – the Land of Yomi[xiii],” sniffled Susano’o. “That is why I weep[xiv].”

“Are you freaking kidding me?” Izanagi roared. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. You’re destroying the world Izanami and I created. If you can’t rule properly like Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi, then I forbid you from living in my lands!” And with that, Izanagi banished Susano’o from the world.

[And with that Izanagi disappeared from the world[xv].]

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Amaterasu looking bad ass. Notice she is holding a mirror and is wearing the magatama necklace given to her by her father, Izanagi. Her headdress is both sun-shaped and mirror-shaped.

Susano’o Says Goodbye to Amaterasu

Having been expelled from the Central Land of Reed Plains, Susano’o announced that he would say farewell to his sister, Amaterasu. As he ascended to the Heavenly High Plain, the mountains and rivers and all the lands shook violently.

Amaterasu, ruling the heavens, was startled by this and said “This can’t be good. Surely my brother wants to steal my lands in the High Plains of Heaven and in the Central Land of Reeds.” She undid her hair[xvi] and put up it up in buns on her left and right sides. She decorated her hair and arms with long strings decorated with priceless magatama beads. She donned a 1000-arrow quiver on her back and a 500-arrow quiver on her chest. She also put an arm-guard on her left arm and then shook the tip of her bow and stamped her feet on the ground kicking up dust everywhere and let out a war cry.

“Why have you come here?” she asked.

“It’s all good, sis. I swear I have no bad intentions.” Susano’o declared. “Our father, Izanagi, asked why I’ve been weeping and howling for years, and so I told him that I wanted to visit the land of my mother, so he banished me from this land. Therefore, I’ve come here to say goodbye to you.”

“You’re a frickin’ weirdo. Anyways, how do I know your intentions are pure and bright?” Amaterasu asked.

“I propose a competition! Let’s each have a bunch of babies and the person has the most beautiful children wins!” Susano’o suggested.

Despite this being one of the dumbest ideas to prove one’s intentions that I’ve ever heard, Amaterasu agreed to this competition, and so they both immediately squatted down on the ground and began to grunt, pushing really hard in order to squeeze out some kami babies.

The Kokiji then goes on to spend an entire chapter describing the births of all the gods they created. And yes, they each have long-ass names like every other kami we’ve encountered up to this point. Skip!

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Susano’o

Susano’o Rages with Victory

After Amaterasu babbles on and on about the new genealogies linking herself and Susano’o to the birth of a handful of divine ancestors of the most elite clans of the future Yamato Court, they assess the quality of their respective offspring. Ultimately, Amaterasu popped out five sons while Susano’o popped out three daughters[xvii].

Susano’o bragged, “Look at this! My Three Divine Girls are purer, brighter, and more beautiful than your stupid five sons. Sucks to you be you, bitch!” And therewith he claimed total victory in this asinine competition[xviii]. He proceeded to raged with victory by breaking down the ridges between Amaterasu’s rice paddies[xix] causing them to flood. This destroyed all of her crops which meant there would be no harvest in the fall. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he ran into Amaterasu’s house, pulled down his pants to squat, and just took a massive shit inside her dining hall[xx]. Then he bounced around like a monkey just flinging feces everywhere – on the walls, on the ceiling, even in her cat’s litter box[xxi].

horse susanoo

Amaterasu was all like “WTF?” in her mind, but didn’t complain. No, she took it way better than you or I would. She just looked around her palace inspecting each room and said “Hmmmm. What is all this stuff on the walls, the ceiling, and in my kitty litter box?”[xxii] Susano’o didn’t say anything. “Umm, this stuff that looks like…uh, shit. This must just be vomit from the last time you passed out drunk[xxiii],” she suggested. “And you probably trashed my rice paddies because you thought I wasn’t using my lands correctly.”[xxiv] Susano’o had an out. She literally just gave him an excuse to calm down and move on without consequences, but instead he just got more obnoxious.

After cleaning up the shit her brother smeared throughout her entire palace, Amaterasu went to oversee the making of divine garments in her weaving hall. Susano’o took a “heavenly piebald colt[xxv]” and skinned it alive – yes, you read that correctly, he literally skinned it alive – from the tail up to the head causing the baby horse unimaginable pain. Dragging the dying animal with him, he climbed up her wall, crawled up on her thatched roof, tore open a hole, and tossed the bloody carcass into the weaving hall. As you can imagine, this startled her weaving maiden who was so terrified she accidentally pierced her pussy with the loom’s shuttle and died right there on the spot[xxvi].

WTAF???

encampment outside the heavenly rock cave

After you read the next section, see how many kami and how many sacred items you can identify in this picture.

The Heavenly Rock Cave[xxvii]

As you can imagine, Amaterasu was freaked the fuck out and opened the Heavenly Rock Cave[xxviii], went inside, and locked herself there – plunging the High Plain of Heaven and the Central Land of Reeds into total darkness. The natural order of things was broken and the world continued as if night was now eternal. The millions of other kami were pretty cool about it for a while, but eventually they got tired of walking around and bumping into each other all the time.

The other kami all decided to gather together beside the riverbed of 天安河 Ame no Yasu no Kawa the Tranquil River of Heaven which flowed past the Heavenly Rock Cave. They set up a camp where they could all work together to plead with Amaterasu to come out and restore sunlight to the heavens and earth.

First, the gods gathered together a bunch of roosters to crow in hopes that they could trick the sun into rising again. Then, they brought a large stone to use as an anvil[xxix] from the upper stream of the river and they took metal from 天金山 Ame no Kanayama the Heavenly Metal Mountain (because, of course, they did). The gods then commanded 天津麻羅 Ama tsu Mara and 伊斯許理度売命 Ishikoridome no Mikoto[xxx] to use the metal and anvil to forge a mighty bronze mirror[xxxi]. And finally, they brought out the big guns. They ordered 玉祖命 Tama no Ya no Mikoto the god of jewelry to make a long strings decorated with thousands of magatama beads.

They also ordered two priestly kami, 布刀玉命 Futo Tama no Mikoto and 天児屋命 Ame no Koyane no Mikoto[xxxii], to climb 天香久山 Ame no Kaguyama[xxxiii] Mt. Amanokagu to remove the whole shoulder of a male deer and gather up bird cherry wood[xxxiv] in order to perform divination rituals[xxxv]. They also uprooted a large, verdant evergreen[xxxvi] and brought it to the encampment in front of the cave. The gods tied the long strings of magatama beads to the upper branches. Next, they hung the large sacred mirror on the middle branches. And lastly, on the lower branches, they draped white and blue prayer clothes. After everything was prepared, Futotama held up sacred objects in his hands as a sacred offering while Amenokoyane chanted sacred words. But these rituals were not enough to soften Amaterasu’s heart and coax her out of the Heavenly Rock Cave[xxxvii].

Then 天鈿女命 Ame no Uzume no Mikoto who is the kami of parties and art suddenly had an idea. An idea, as they say, so crazy it just might work. She ordered the god of physical strength[xxxviii] to run up to the Heavenly Rock Cave and hide next to the door. Then she rolled up her sleeves[xxxix] and fixed her hair so she looked sexy and grabbed an overturned wooden tub to make an impromptu stage. Ame no Uzume hopped up on to the tub and began to dance. She stamped her feet upon the stage making sounds that caused the ground to shake, this grabbed the attention of all the kami, including Amaterasu who was hiding in the cave.

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Ame no Uzume dancing on the tub for all the gods

She became divinely possessed[xl] and her dancing became more intense. Each move, each turn entranced the other kami who followed her closely with their eyes. She raised one hand to her breast and slowly opened her shirt exposing her cleavage. The other kami cheered with loud voices, and Amaterasu could here all this from inside the cave. Continuing her dance, Ame no Uzume pulled open her top exposing her nipples which caused the gods to clap and howl, and several gods tossed a few ¥1000 notes on the stage to encourage her to show more. Slowly, she pushed down her skirt past her belly button. All the kami gasped. She pulled it down further exposing her glorious, hairy black bush[xli].

All of the millions of kami lost their shit and started cracking up[xlii].

All of the ruckus outside had Amaterasu’s curiosity piqued. She just had to see what was going on outside, so she nervously peaked out the door of the Heavenly Rock Cave, but couldn’t really see what was happening. She scooted up a little farther to get a better look and saw Ame no Uzume dancing half naked and the millions of other kami falling out of their seat with laughter.

Announcing her presence, Amaterasu shouted, “I locked myself in this cave and thought the High Heavenly Plain and Central Plain of Reeds would be plunged into darkness. And, yet Ame no Uzume is singing and dancing[xliii] and getting nekkid out here and all of you can see it and are laughing! What’s going on?” Adjusting her skirt, Ame no Uzume replied to her, “Just sitting around in the dark was boring, so we’re just having a little fun. Oh, and guess what? We found another kami who is superior to you!”

Just then, Amenokoyane and Futotama grabbed the bronze mirror[xliv] and shined in Amaterasu’s eyes. To her astonishment, she saw what looked like another sun goddess. “Wait, what?” she thought, “how can there be another…?” She crept closer to the entrance of the cave to get a better look when…

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Tajikarao no Kami, the god of strength hiding next to the door of the Heavenly Rock Cave

The god of strength, who was hiding beside the door, seized her and pulled out of the cave by her arm, and this suddenly brought light back to the heavens and earth. Futotama ran behind her and blocked the entrance with a magical rope[xlv]. “Now you can’t run back into the cave!” he said. And thus, the sun was restored to both the Heavenly High Plain and Central Land of Plain of Reeds, and the natural order of things returned[xlvi].

After that, all the kami had a meeting and decided to kick Susano’o out of the Central Land of Reeds forever.

Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey, goodbye.

Pretty Nifty Story, Right?

I hope you enjoyed the story of the Rock Cave Myth as much as I did. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, this has become one of the most important of all Japanese myths. While they might not remember all the details and all the names of the various kami, most Japanese people know the basics of Amaterasu hiding in the cave and the striptease that lured her out, thus returning sunlight to the world. That said, the story is dense with deeper meanings, so if you’re curious about that, please check out my next article which dives deep into the significance of this legend.

Further Reading:

 

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[i] ie; the world.
[ii] I’m not joking.
[iii] If you don’t know what the Land of Yomi, you really, really, really read my article on Japanese Cosmogony and the Japanese Creation Myth. Seriously, dude. You’ve been warned.
[iv] This is my insertion. The Kojiki has no sense of time. In a way this annoying to modern readers, but on the other hand, it creates this interesting disconnect between the mundane Age of Men and the mythical Age of the Gods.
[v] The Three Noble Children: Amaterasu, Tsukuyomi, and Susano’o. In Japanese they are called 三貴子 Mihashira no Uzu no Miko. If that name is too long for you, the short form is Sankishi which is by far the easier reading and, of course, easier to pronounce.
[vi] The name of the necklace is 御倉板挙之神 Mikuratana no Kami.
[vii] We talked about magatama in my last article so I’m not going to repeat myself. Look it up in your own.
[viii] Seriously, read the previous articles. I’m not explaining this shit twice.
[ix] Readers have wondered a lot about Tsukuyomi. We’re unsure of this kami’s gender, appearance, and divine duties. Basically, after this mention, we never hear from Tsukuyomi again!
[x] ie; until he matured. Essentially, he was a big ol’ man-baby – just like #BunkerBoy aka Donald Trump.
[xi] Not sure why the rivers and seas dried up since he was incessantly crying. Seems counter-intuitive, if you ask me.
[xii] Calamatitties. Follow me on Twitter, you won’t regret it.
[xiii] Actually, in the Kojiki, it doesn’t say the Land of Yomi, rather 根之堅洲國 Ne no Katasu Kuni the Realm at the Borderland of Roots, and later in the text 妣國 Haha no Kuni the Land of my Dead Mother. Sometimes these are synonymous with Yomi, but other times they seem to be different, but related places.
[xiv] This is weird because Izanami died well before Susano’o was born so she couldn’t possibly be his mother under “normal” circumstances, or perhaps she impregnated her brusband Izanagi before she died, and thus the Three Noble Children are still the genealogically related to both Izanagi and Izanami. Weird shit, huh?
[xv] Remember, I used the term “hide” in the previous articles.
The Kojiki merely states that Izanagi is enshrined at Taga of Awaji. Apparently, this is a gloss and not part of the narrative. It’s a reference to 伊弉諾神宮 Izanagi Jingū Izanagi Shrine which is located in 兵庫県淡路市多賀 Hyōgo-ken Awaji-shi Taga Taga, Awaji City, Hyōgo Prefecture on Awaji Island. Some glosses claim it refers to 多賀大社 Taga Taisha Taga Grand Shrine in 滋賀県犬上郡多賀町 Shiga-ken Inukami-gun Taga-chō Taga-chō, Inukami District, Shiga Prefecture which lies on 旧仲仙道 Kyū-Nakadendō the Old Nakasendō highway. Scholars think glosses mentioning the larger and more famous shrine in Shiga date from the Heian Period when many local shrines on well-traveled routes tried to boost their status by claiming relevance to ancient myths. Gotta get those sweet, sweet pilgrim yen!
[xvi] Which up to this point was apparently done in some other Yayoi style hairdo. Who knows?
[xvii] Susano’o’s three daughters are: Takiri Hime no Mikoto, Ichikishima Hime no Mikoto, and Takitsu Hime no Mikoto. If you’ve ever been to 宮島 Miyajima in Hiroshima, you’ve probably been to the famous shrine 厳島神社 Itsukushima Jinja Itsukushima Shrine. The three daughters are enshrined there and you may have seen their images in the underground passage that leads from 宮島口駅 Miyajimaguchi Eki Miyajimaguchi Station over to the ferries that take you to the sacred island. If the name Ichikishima (sometimes read as Itsukishima) sounds similar to Isukushima, well, I think you can put two and two together.
By the way, the Nihon Shoki claims Susano’o has three sons, not daughters.
[xviii] One wants to say, “oh, wow, he’s such a proud father,” but let’s face it. In the end, Susano’o is just a dick.
[xix] These days, the footpaths between rice paddies are usually called 畦道 azemichi. Long time readers maybe recall that in Old Japanese the word 谷地 yachi was used to describe the same thing, but in the old Kantō dialects near Edo, 瀬田 seta was the common term in the Heian Period. I talked about this in my 2013 article What does Setagaya mean?
[xx] The Hall of First Fruits – this is a reference to a place where harvest festivals were held. In imperial times, the first rice of the harvest would be presented to the emperor in a special ceremony at 伊勢神宮 Ise Jingū Ise Grand Shrine which was the favored shrine of Emperor Tenmu who ordered the Kojiki to be compiled. Amaterasu is enshrined at Ise and Emperor Tenmu strongly supported her cult.
[xxi] And the cat was PISSED.
[xxii] OK, I have to be honest. I made up the kitty litter box part.
[xxiii] Because who the fuck would take a dump in someone’s dining room and then throw the shit all over the place?? Come to think of it. Why would anyone vomit in every room of someone’s house when they were drunk?
[xxiv] The modern reader gets the impression that Amaterasu isn’t the sharpest knife in the kitchen. I mean, why does she take Susano’o’s bullshit like a chump and not call him out or get angry at him? Who knows? This part of the myth is kinda stupid, if you ask me, so it’s not terribly important. That said, scholars have put some thought in to it – because that’s what they get paid to do. You know, think about shit-flinging deities. Don Philippi suggests it might be an ancient belief that “one could turn evil into good by speaking well of it.” He points out that in the past Japanese people believed in kotodama (kotoba tama) “word-spirit” (a magical power of words) which was used to bring out desired results by speaking them into existence.
[xxv] WTF does “piebald” mean? (Don’t worry, I had to look it up too! The pronunciation, btw, is /ˈpaɪbɔld/). This is an animal – a horse in particular – that is black with white spots. 天斑駒 Ame no Fuchikoma Heavenly Spotted Pony/Horse/Foal is probably meant to evoke the stars dotted across the blackness of the night sky.
[xxvi] Remember that Shintō is obsessed with ritual purity. Having a dead and bloody animal in your home was considered utterly contaminated. Having an actual human death occur inside your home? That was the absolute worst.
[xxvii] Interestingly, the Ainu allegedly have a similar myth where the sun-goddess is kidnapped and the world is plunged in to darkness. Because they don’t know when to waken up, the gods and humans literally sleep themselves to death.
[xxviii] Why this cave has a door is beyond me. It’s often depicted in art a large boulder, similar to the boulder that blocks the Land of Yomi from the Central Land of Reeds.
[xxix] In the Kojiki just calls this stone a heavenly hard rock. I added the anvil bit because that is how the stone is used and that is how it is depicted in traditional artwork.
[xxx] Amatsumara is an obscure kami of iron-working. It’s been suggested that his name means “heavenly one-eyed diviner.” Losing an eye was a common work hazard among blacksmiths. On the other hand, Ishikoridome is much better known as the divine ancestor of the clans who produced ceremonial mirrors for the Yamato Court. Her name means “special woman who is can cast mirrors using stone molds.”
[xxxi] Called 八咫鏡 Yata no Kagami the Eight Ta Mirror. A ta is an ancient Chinese measurement. I think eight ta is the equivalent of 64 thumb lengths. And no, I didn’t just make that up.
Interestingly, in 938, some ladies of the court discovered Ishikoridome’s bronze mirror (Yata no Kagami) in a palace store at Heian-Kyō (the ancient name of Kyōto). This story is interesting for two reasons. First, it sparked renewed interest in the Rock Cave Myth among court nobles and subsequently among Shintō shrines associated with the Yamato Court. Secondly, it implies that perhaps the imperial regalia (the mirror, the sword, and the magatama beads) were not critical to 大嘗祭 daijōsai the ritual of imperial accession prior to the mirror’s rediscovery. I mean, how do you lose an ancient mirror made by the gods before the Yamato Court or its imperial family even existed?
[xxxii] Also, these kami aren’t actually priestly, I just added that to make it easier to understand. They are, however, the divine ancestors of two of the more important priestly families in the Yamato Court.
[xxxiii] Also read as Ama no Kaguyama. This mountain is located in 奈良県橿原市 Nara-ken Kashihara-shi Kashihara City, Nara Prefecture.
[xxxiv] In the text, this is 波波迦 hahaka. And now you know the word for Japanese bird cherry (Prunus grayana).
[xxxv] This divination ritual was performed by placing the shoulder bone over burning bird cherry wood and then “reading” the cracks that formed in the bones.
[xxxvi] The evergreen in question is 榊 sakaki (Cleyera japonica) which is sacred in Shintō.
[xxxvii] This isn’t said directly in the text of the Kojiki, but any person in the Kofun Period would have understood the symbolism. They would recognize the rituals performed by these kami as typically Shintō and they would also expect them to be effective, but they are not. Therefore, there is a tension in the original lost on modern readers. We will soon see that, it isn’t going through the motions of using sacred objects and chanting that will coax Amaterasu out of the Rock-Cave, it will be the impromptu striptease that comes up next.
[xxxviii] Ame no Tajikarao no Kami
[xxxix] Well, actually, she bound them up with a cord (Yayoi Period clothing was very loose).
[xl] The Kojiki uses the term 神懸かり kamu-gakari kami-possession (with an emphasis on sudden divine utterances). Shamanism was practiced in ancient Japan, but persisted in many ways up until the Meiji Period when the influence of western organized religion (ie; Christianity) made it look uncool to Japanese elites who saw themselves as purveyors of “modernization.” Traditional Korean religion is still shamanistic, as are many of traditional practices of the Ainu and Okinawans.
[xli] Before you jump all over me for getting graphic here, this is intentional. Exposing the breasts or genitals is pretty much limited to this myth in Japan. Anyone familiar with the extreme formality of most Shintō dance and other rituals immediately will find this shocking. However, in many other cultures, exposing the genitals is often used as a way to drive away evil influences (thru the pussy power? lol) while at the same time amusing the spectators to alleviate the scene. It should also be noted that Japan has traditionally been a very, how shall we say, prurient culture. Pornography, casual public nudity, and 下ネタ shimoneta dirty jokes have enjoyed long popularity right up to present times. In recent years, especially during the 64 Tōkyō Olympics and the 98 Nagano Olympics, great effort was made by the government to shield foreigners and foreign press from the casual presence of the sex industry, even going so far as to shutting down entire red-light districts. As a result, the presence of this vibrant and storied aspect of Japanese culture is very much diminished today on the surface, and only thrives underground or in the seedy parts of town. That said, the caricature of the Japanese “dirty old man” is very much alive and well, and one can image telling this myth and really going to town during Ame no Uzume’s striptease while everyone enjoys another round of sake.
[xlii] Believe it or not, some scholars believe that the gods dying of laughter is a reference to ritual laughter meant to provoke the anger of a kami who is not paying attention to them. By laughing (perhaps even mocking) the kami, you can grab the god or goddess’s attention and then submit your prayer to them.
[xliii] Here’s one for all you language nerds out there. The word for “singing and dancing” is written as (read in Modern Japanese as raku/gaku), but the glosses tell that the kanji should be pronounced as /asobi/ or /utamaɸi/. The first reading is modern 遊び asobi play/playing, the second reading is 歌舞 utamai singing & dancing. Utamai is a rare kun’yomi (Japanese reading) for modern 歌舞 kabu singing and dancing, which is on’yomi (Chinese reading).
[xliv] Remember, mirrors are a symbol of the sun kami.
[xlv] In Japanese, this magic rope is called 尻久米縄 shirikume nawa ass-shroud rope. 尻 shiri is butt (not as rough as ketsu ass, which uses the same kanji) and 久米 kume is modern 籠め kome to enshroud, to block off.
[xlvi] I took a lot of liberties with the last handful of paragraphs to make the narrative more palatable to modern audiences. The Kojiki is really choppy and while I try to stay as faithful as I can, sometimes I just have to extend bits to make it flow better. Keep in mind, the texts were compiled from oral traditions, so it’s easy to imagine storytellers embellishing bits here and there to pique the listeners’ interest. The Kojiki itself was meant to establish a basic text that preserved these myths in an efficient manner while emphasizing the parts that legitimized the imperial family’s position and the positions of the most important noble families of their court.

Japanese Cosmology

In Japanese History, Japanese Mythology, Japanese Shrines & Temples on June 12, 2020 at 4:47 am

大和の宇宙誌
Yamato no Uchūshi
Japanese Cosmography

AMATERASU IN THE CAVE

We’re gonna try something new this time. JapanThis! usually focuses on the etymology of Edo-Tōkyō place names, then uses that as an excuse to explore the history and culture of various neighborhoods in what I think is the greatest city in the world. However, from time to time, I like to deviate from the standard model to explore things like Tōkyō train lines, the graves of the shōguns, and — in one foolhardy attempt — the history of a handful of rivers in the capital.

What we’re going to do today is explore Japanese cosmography. And by that, I mean we are going back to 神世 kamiyo or kami no yo the Age of Gods[i]. After that, we will dip our toes into 現世 utsushiyo the Age of Man[ii]. In the following articles (coming soon!), we’ll explore the Japanese creation myths and the descent of the gods to the realm of humans. After that, we’ll witness the transfer of divine authority from the gods to the Yamato Clan which we know today as the imperial family.

Poetically, Japan is often referred to as 神国 shinkoku or kami no kuni the land of the kami. Fans of the 80’s TV mini-series event SHŌGUN[iii] may recall the phrase “the Land of the Gods.” Sure, Japan is a country of astounding beauty, but I’d like to turn to Japan’s native myths and legends to explore how pre-modern Japanese people thought of their origins and place in the universe.

AMATERASU

A Quick Historical Background

The beginnings of religious practices and general history of very early Japan are pretty murky. Writing didn’t arrive until the 400’s, so we don’t have any records by the Japanese themselves until the 5th century at the earliest. That said, since 1000 BCE invaders from the Asian mainland had been living side by side with the aboriginal inhabitants of the islands. Archaeology has shown that these cultures merged and the original hunter-gatherers, who we call today 縄文人 Jōmonjin the Jōmon peoples, who were eventually absorbed into communities of the technologically advanced 弥生人 Yayoijin Yayoi populations. From about 300 to 538, a new culture emerged in what we call the Kofun Period where we see an emergent culture of  和人 Wajin the people of Wa[iv]. Supposedly, there were about 100 ancient kingdoms in the Land of Wa, but over time, power was consolidated under the most powerful 国 kuni kingdoms/provinces. The strongest authority was that controlled by the 大和朝廷 Yamato Chōtei Yamato Court (ie; the imperial court). If all of these dates and periodization seems confusing, you can refer to my cheat sheet for Japanese Eras (or just skip to the cosmography section below).

OKUNINUSHI

Okuninushi Sporting Kofun Period Fashion

Compilation of the Myths

In the 6th century, 仏教 Bukkyō Buddhism began to trickle into Japan and with it came a flurry of learning and innovative ideas from China. By the late 600’s, the Yamato Court began using a new Chinese term for the emperor (more about this later) and it seems they felt the need to collect all of the myths into a single text that would explain and legitimize the imperial family’s claim to authority. This was important because they weren’t just claiming political authority, but divine authority given to them by the gods themselves.

It’s about this time that the imperial clan began keeping written records of their mytho-history, as had the other powerful families that made up the court. As you can imagine with any group of oral traditions dating back to preliterate times, not all of the family records matched up. 天武天皇 Emperor Tenmu (reigned 673-686) wanted to collect all the legends, compare them, “correct” them where necessary, and compile an official history from the beginning of the universe until the current era. In the official succession, Tenmu is considered the 40th emperor, so there was quite a long period of history to cover[v]. The results of all this research were the two oldest surviving Japanese texts: 古事記 Kojiki the Records of Ancient Matters and 日本書紀 Nihon Shoki the Chronicles of Japan.

Further Reading:

JINJA

The Land of the Gods

Japanese religion is often described as polytheistic and syncretic. Basically, there are an infinite number of 神 kami gods. When I say infinite, I’m not exaggerating. There are gods of fire, gods of making money, gods of love and relationships, etc. See a beautiful bend in the river? That’s probably a kami. Is there a stunning, snow-capped volcano?[vi] It must be a kami. Oh, look at that strange shaped crag jutting out of a cliff. Chances are that’s a kami, too. In fact, every person who dies becomes a kami. And any existing kami can 分霊される bunrei sareru be split and re-enshrined in an infinite number of places anywhere on the planet an infinite number of times. Infinity is a mind-blowing concept if you try to think about it too hard, but luckily, the Japanese have two handy poetic terms that go back to the earliest texts.

八百万の神
yaoyorozu no kami

the eight million kami
“eight million” shouldn’t be taken at face value. This is just a poetic term for myriad/countless.

神祇[vii]
jingi

all kami
if committing to “eight million” doesn’t work for you, maybe jingi is more your style[viii].

Miyajima

Japanese Cosmology

So, what did the universe look to Japanese people[ix] of the Kofun Period?

To the average peasant, it probably just looked like agricultural cycles peppered with bouts of luck or malady. For them, a spiritual realm existed and people visited sacred sites that were predecessors of what we now call 神社 jinja Shintō shrines to pray for harvests and health or to thank the gods such things.

However, to the elites of the Kofun Period, the universe’s spiritual realm was a bit more relevant. It described the trials and tribulations of their ancestors who lived in a fabled time, barely remembered by man. The peasants were fine just knowing bits and pieces of these fantastic stories of yore because they were more interested in praying for good harvests, healthy families, and keeping away ghosts, but the elite clans treasured these epic stories because they described the exploits of their divine ancestors. Also, if anyone questioned your family’s high position in society, you could cite your divine lineage and tell them to suck it.

These tales — some just-so-stories, others folklore, and yet others just veiled peaks into the politics of an era long-hidden since time immemorial, handed down by illiterate generation upon illiterate generation — described a universe populated by heavenly kami and earthly kami, humans and animals, ghosts and monsters. They attempted to explain the mysterious, the magical, the inexplicable, and everything and everyone’s place in the world.

JAPAN MOUNTAINS

Land of the Gods

Although these legends took place in a mysterious epoch long ago, the people of early Japan seemed to view their universe in a very peculiar way. It’s from those early texts, the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, that we know how they understood the history of the universe. It’s clear that by the 7th century, the universe was generally understood to have consisted of two distinct ages: one is a mysterious and magical “land before time” and the other is the mundane world in which we all live and can only tell stories of ancient times.

Epochs

神代
Kamiyo

The Age of the Gods (Age of the Kami)

現世[x]
Utsushiyo

The Present Age[xi]
(The Age of the Mundane)[xii]

HIGH PLAIN OF HEAVEN
Now, in the Age of the Gods, the cosmos was physically divided into three distinct realms, each populated by different castes of magical beings. Notice the hierarchy. The heavens are purely divine. The earth is mostly mundane. And beneath the realm of man, is a polluted and meaningless world of death and decay, only accessible by dark, damp caves or death itself.

Cosmography

高天原
Takama ga Hara[xiii]

Heavenly High Plain[xiv]

葦原中国
Ashihara no Naka tsu Kuni

Central Land of Reed Plains [xv]

黄泉国
Yomi tsu Kuni[xvi]

Land of Yomi[xvii], Underworld;
Realm of Ghosts[xviii]; Hades[xix]
YOMI

The Entrance to Yomi

Between the High Plain of Heaven and the Central Land of Reed Plains was a bridge that connected these worlds. In paintings, it looks like a bridge made of little, fluffy clouds. In the texts, it seems like there was only a single pathway, but other myths and local legends are either inconsistent with its location or there were multiple bridges that came to exist over time. The Land of Yomi, on the other hand, was accessible via certain caves or tombs built on the Central Land of Reed Plains[xx].

Access Points

天浮橋
Ama no Ukihashi

Heavenly Floating Bridge

黄泉比良坂
Yomi tsu Hirasaka
[xxi]

Wide Slope of Yomi

Each realm was populated by specific types of kami.

Divine Inhabitants of the Three Realms

Heavenly High Plain

天津神
ama tsu kami

heavenly kami

Central Land of Reed Plains

国津神
kuni tsu kami

earthly kami[xxii]

Land of Yomi

黄泉津神
Yomi tsu kami[xxiii]

contaminated kami[xxiv]

Although some heavenly gods have famously interacted with the Central Land of Reed Plains and the Land of Yomi, for the most part, these deities “hide.” When a kami hides, they stop interacting with other gods and living creatures. An interesting example is the first batch of kami who pop into existence. Most of them are born and immediately hide – never to be mentioned again. Unlike Indo-European gods who are immortal, the Japanese kami can die – and quite a few are killed, actually[xxv]. The gods of Yomi are more mysterious. Since death is considered impure and spaces in which these beings reside or travel to are defiled, I think it’s fair to think of them as prisoners in the netherworld. If they escape to the Central Land of Reed Plains, they must be cast back down to the Land of Yomi for the benefit of mankind and the earthly kami. This restores the natural order.

YUREIZU

A Ghost

Here I’d like to mention a few things that I think are very interesting about this cosmology. First, the Central Land of Reed Plains is also home to humans, animals, and plants, yet this is the only system that I know of which has no mythological explanation for the creation or existence of these lifeforms. They simply just exist. The early Wajin (proto-Japanese) only seem concerned with the stories of various kami and take for granted the mundane existence of non-divine lifeforms[xxvi]. Second, Shintō is famously obsessed with ritual cleanliness and purity – we’ll see this in the myths we explore in upcoming articles. It has no problem with the heavenly kami coming and going between the Plain of High Heaven and the Central Land of Reed Plains. It even allows for kami and humans coming and going between the Central Land of Reed Plains and the Land of Yomi[xxvii]. That said, any being relegated to the underworld must be kept locked out of the earth and the heavens. To this purpose, there is a sacred boulder blocking the exit of Yomi – itself a kami – called 道反の大神 Chigaeshi no Ōkami the Great God of the Way Back. In order to preserve natural harmony in the Land of Wa[xxviii] (ie; the Central Land of Reed Plains), no contaminated soul should be allowed to leave the Realm of Ghosts. Ancient texts suggest various locations for this so-called “gateway to hell,” but the most famous location is in former 出雲国 Izumo no Kuni Izumo Province which is modern-day 島根県 Shimane-ken Shimane Prefecture.

The Entrance to Yomi

Origins of the Myths

So where do we get this cosmology and these stories? The answer may feel a bit hollow to you. I mean, it does to me. The oldest tales probably evolved during the middle of the Yayoi Period and began to be consolidated during the Kofun Period[xxix]. Admittedly, I’m tempted to imagine the most ancient kami as mythicized representations of actual leaders who emigrated from the Asian mainland via the Korean Peninsula in the Yayoi Period to establish kingdoms in the Japanese archipelago. The names of kami and legendary places seem grandiose and childish at the same time, so it’s hard to tell where kernels of real history lurk beneath the acts described in this fantastic world of storytelling.

I mentioned earlier that in the 7th century, the Japanese began using a new title for the successive heads of the imperial family. Generally, the Yamato rulers were referred to as 大王 Ōkimi the Great King (ie; the king greater than all the other kings). From Emperor Tenmu’s time, the Chinese title 天皇 tennō[xxx] was used. The characters literally mean “heavenly emperor” but is often translated as “son of heaven.” By using this title, Tenmu and his successors were elevating themselves to the same position as the emperors of China – the equivalent of a non-Roman ruler calling himself Augustus or Caesar while emperors are still running the Roman Empire. This was a ballsy claim to say the least. I’m sure the Chinese courts were not amused[xxxi], but more important to the Yamato court was how this new title would be received at home. The word tennō implies rule by divine right, similar to European monarchs who ruled Deī grātiā by the grace of God. But the imperial family didn’t just rule at the leisure of the gods, they claimed divine descent. 天照大神 Amaterasu Ōmikami, the sun goddess herself, transferred her authority over the Central Land of Reed Plains directly to the first emperor, 神武大王 Jinmu Ōkimi[xxxii] (ie; the imperial bloodline was divine). This was the impetus for compiling and “correcting” these myths. The stories in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki legitimized the imperial family’s claim to authority[xxxiii].

KOFUN

A Kofun Period Grave

Other Clans Also Benefitted

The imperial court was comprised of other important families that also ruled their ancestral lands by right of their divine ancestors in service of the Yamato clan. Some clans served political and ritual functions in the court and those positions were also legitimized by the myths presented in their family histories or even by the newly compiled official texts.

Without going into all the clans, here are three examples for comparison:

Clan

Divine Ancestor

Function

和氏
Yamato-uji

天照大神
Amaterasu Ōmikami

the sun goddess

imperial family

中臣氏
Nakatomi-uji

天児屋根命
Amenokoyane no Mikoto
a heavenly kami who assisted Amaterasu

a priestly clan in charge of the most important Shintō ritual on behalf of the court

斎部氏
Inbe-uji

布刀玉命
Futodama no Mikoto
a heavenly kami who assisted Amaterasu

a priestly clan in charge of the most important Shintō ritual on behalf of the court

So, that’s Japanese cosmography in nutshell. In the next few articles we’ll be exploring the Age of the Gods. This is the framework you must understand before trying to wrap your head around the mythical Age of Gods. I wish I could draw all the pictures I have in my head when thinking about these concepts, but I can’t. I suck at drawing. That said, if any of you are artistically inclined, I’d love to swap ideas, including maps to give readers a better visual representation. You can contact me via this page.

The next article is right around the corner.

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[i] From here on out, I’ll use Age of Gods, Age of Kami, and Divine Age interchangeably.
[ii] This term literally means “the present world,” but when discussing Japanese cosmography, it simply means “not the Age of the Gods.” By the way, Buddhism uses this same word with the Chinese reading gensei which also means “the present world” but has a connotation of transience and impermanence that the Japanese reading does not.
[iii] Or the novel by James Clavell which was the source material for the tv show.
[iv] This term is used by historians to designate this proto-Japanese culture. Here’s what Wiki says about the Land of Wa.
[v] The official list of emperors is actually bullshit. Well, the dates of many of the first emperors do not line up with what we know about Japanese history from the archaeological record.
[vi] I’m looking at you, Mt. Fuji.
[vii] By the way, for you Kyōto lovers out there, 祇 gi kami of the kingdom is the first character in 祇園 Gion, the area where 八坂神社 Yasaka Jinja Yasaka Shrine was founded. Today the area is famous for 芸子 geiko geisha of the Kyōto persuasion. The 八 ya eight is the same as the first character in 八百万の神 yaoyorozu no kami eight million kami.
[viii] Although outside of scholars and serious practitioners of Shintō, I believe this term is quite rare. I just wanted to point out the linguistic relationship.
[ix] Wajin. You remember that term, right? Because we just fucking talked about it…
[x] This is age is sometimes less imaginatively called 人代 Hitoyo the Age of Man.
[xi] This basically means all of human history that doesn’t have gods running around doing magic shit all over the place.
[xii] That’s my translation, thank you very much.
[xiii] Alternate, Takama no Hara.
[xiv] Forget choirs of angels, roads paved with gold, and St. Peter with his white beard checking the guestlist to see who’s been invited. This is merely the land of the heavenly kami who, literally, live high above the land. And yes, in paintings, they’re depicted as standing on clouds.
[xv] The name refers to the Land of Wa. It’s descriptive as this land lies between the heavens above and the underworld below.
[xvi] Alternate, Yomo tsu Kuni. The vowel sounds changed from Old Japanese to Modern Japanese, so before genitive つ tsu, 黄泉 yomi may have been read as /jömötsu/. This realm is sometimes referred to as 根国 Ne no Kuni (literally, Land of Roots), while sometimes the two are considered separate worlds.
[xvii] This is simply the world of the dead. It’s not hell. It’s not a world of demons torturing souls for eternity amid lakes of fire or anything like that. It was just a dark and contaminated decaying realm.
[xviii] My translation, thank you very much.
[xix] A shitty translation by the dude who first translated the Kojiki into English. Yomi is similar to Hades, but not the same in many ways.
[xx] While not stated specifically in the Kojiki or Nihon Shoki, it seems like there were multiple entrances to Yomi, but the Wide Slope led to a single magical exit that always returned you to the access point you used when you descended into the netherworld.
[xxi] Because of sound changes between Old Japanese and Modern Japanese, sometimes this is written Yomo tsu Hirasaka. The kanji 比良坂 hirasaka (separating from goodness hill) are ateji. They’re sometimes replaced with 平坂 hirasaka (wide hill).
[xxii] Literally, “kami of the kingdom/province.” These are the gods that became the tutelary deities/ancestors of various clan leaders and their kingdoms. Many of the minor earthly kami eventually became protectors of villages and local industries.
[xxiii] Again, due to sound changes between Old Japanese and Modern Japanese, sometimes this is rendered as Yomo tsu Kami.
[xxiv] The kami of Yomi come in all shapes and sizes. Everything from hags to ghosts to monsters, etc. Yomi is also populated by 魂 tama/tamashii spirits of the dead.
[xxv] Often in humorous or sometimes horrific ways lol
[xxvi] I don’t want to jump ahead, because we’ll get into this in a later article on Japanese mythology. However, my personal view is that these stories often seem like veiled recollections of Yayoi peoples invading the Japanese archipelago – which was already populated by the Jōmon peoples. The invaders ultimately took control of the lands, and I think, remembered their conquering ancestors as gods who came from heaven to subdue a land where humans, animals, and plants already existed. There was no need to describe the people who already lived here. They were just here. They were mundane and not descended from elite clans with heavenly (mainland) origins. Think about the heavenly bridge, too. Maybe the Yayoi people didn’t come down from heaven, but they most definitely made a perilous voyage across the sea to Japan.
[xxvii] Providing any visitor to Yomi ritually purifies themselves afterwards.
[xxviii] While the Land of Wa simply means Ancient Japan, the character 和 wa means “harmony.” To disturb someone’s wa means to bother someone, to disturb harmony. Keeping defilement out of the land of the living is the ultimate act of preserving harmony.
[xxix] There are scholars who think some ritual practices and myths originated from the native Jōmon people or may reflect a blending of Yayoi and Jōmon traditions.
[xxx] Another reading of 天皇 was sumeragi.
[xxxi] Although, to be honest, the Chinese used 天帝 tentei (tiān-dì in Chinese) so the Japanese were trying to pull a fast one here.
[xxxii] Today known as 神武天皇 Jinmu Tennō for consistency’s sake.
[xxxiii] Interestingly, the Kojiki was intended for a Japanese audience while the Nihon Shoki was intended for foreign audiences (ie; if any embassy arrived in Japan, they could show off how cool Japanese “history” was to the emissaries).

What does Tennōzu Isle mean?

In Japanese History on April 8, 2020 at 8:46 am

天王洲 I S L E
Tennōzu Isle (island of the sandbar of the heavenly king)

So, COVID-19 is Still a Thing

I hope everyone is staying at home as much as possible. Deaths worldwide are up 13,000 since the last article. Yeah, so… you know what? Today we’re going to look at a popular man-made island in 東京湾 Tōkyō Wan Tōkyō Bay that is connected to a 神 kami god who has the power to protect mankind from disease epidemics. So, how ya like dem apples, Corona-chan?

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Tennozu Isle at dusk

Tennōzu Isle

It’s dusk, on a hot summer’s eve and you’re strolling along a fashionable boardwalk on a rectangular man-made island. Couples and families bounce in and out of the galleries, restaurants, and creative spaces that line the boulevard as bridges tower overhead. Enjoying the sea breeze in the wind, you pause to take in the flittering lights that dance across the waterfront. It doesn’t seem so hot anymore. The salt water in the wind soothes you. Looking down to where the sea splashes up against the land, you spot something familiar – something old. Everything fades into the background as you squint to get a better look at… yes, yes, you can see them clearly now. This is the only thing that matters now.

Edo muthafuckin’ Period stone walls, bitch. Focused on what must be done now, you grunt with satisfaction and begin rolling up your sleeves and hock a loogie into the water. A seagull perched on a rooftop above inhales deeply, opens its beak wide, and releases a single stream of fire writhing like a whip. You growl to the stone walls, “Oh yeah, baby. You ready for this? You think you’re ready? You better be. That’s right. You know you love it. It’s time to get nerrrrrdy. Awwwwwwww yeah.”

The seagull flies away aaaaaaaaaaaand… SCENE!

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First Let’s Look at the Kanji


ten, ama/ame

heaven, sky


ō

king

[i]
su, –zu

sandbar, mid-ocean sandbank

Today’s place name is a combination of two words: 天王 tennō heavenly king and 洲 su sandbar. It has a spiritual connotation which could better be translated as “sandbank sacred to the heavenly king.” In this case, the heavenly king is a reference to 牛頭天王 Gozu Tennō – a syncretic deity with Shintō, Buddhist, and Hindi aspects[ii]. He is the god of plagues, pestilence, and pandemics, who has the power to bring epidemic destruction as well as take it away and protect from it. Soon after the importation of this Indian deity through Buddhism, the Japanese came to equate him with the kami of storms and seas, 須佐之男命 Susano’o no Mikoto. The center of Gozu Tennō worship is 八坂神社 Yasaka Jinja Yasaka Shrine in 京都 Kyōto.

Obviously, Tennōzu Isle glaringly includes an English word. In Japanese, island is shima/-jima and so theoretically we could’ve gotten *天王() *Tennō(zu)jima Tennōzu Island, but let’s face it. That sounds dumb. So, the cool English word “isle” is used in ローマ字 rōma-ji romanization rather than 片仮名 katakana the simplified syllabary, which would be アイル airu. Also, the area is officially known as 天王洲 I S L E, but at the train station name is written only in Japanese characters as 天王洲アイル.

Anyways, the keen reader has probably figured out that water is pretty important to this story. We’ve got the sandbar in the middle of the ocean, a mashup kami who deals with the seas, and a reference to an island. Keep the water theme in the back of your mind.

2A80ECCE-7781-4070-8AA2-8DD46A5967CC

Tennozu Isle during the Bakumatsu

The Etymology

Before any artificial islands were built here, there was a large sandbar formed by the accumulation of sediment. It was well known by fisherman who worked in 江戸湾 Edo Wan Edo Bay for centuries.

The story goes that one day in 1751, a fisherman cast his nets across the sandbank, but when he tried to pull it back aboard, there was something heavy weighing it down. He soon realized that he had caught a wooden carving of the face of Gozu Tennō. Realizing that this was “miracle” – which was a more common occurrence than you’d think[iii] – the people began referring to this place as Tennō’s Sandbar. The people of 品川 Shinagawa gathered round and took the sacred object up the 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River to 荏原神社 Ebara Jinja Ebara Shrine which protected all of 荏原国 Ebara no Kuni Ebara Province. Gozu was enshrined as Susan’o and came to be worshipped as a triune kami. Furthermore, the locals began celebrating 天王洲祭 Tennōzu Matsuri Tennōzu Festival every spring by parading 御神輿 o-mikoshi portable shrines decorated with the 神面 shinmen sacred visage of Gozu Tennō down to the bay. There, in a rite called 海上渡御 kaijō togyo[iv] they would return him to the sandbar whence he arose to present himself to the good people of Shinagawa.

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Notice the divine face on this portable shrine.

It’s a good story and I suppose it does a decent job of explaining the etymology of this place name. Except, according to Ebara Shrine itself, Gozu Tennō was enshrined as Susano’o all the way back in the Kamakura Period – June 19th, 1247, to be precise. Priests at Yasaka Shrine[v] in Kyōto perfumed a ritual called 勧請 kanjō and split the spirit of Gozu Tennō and sent it all the way across the country to Ebara Shrine. That’s about 500 years before the Edo Period story I just told you!

F87581B8-4839-4DD4-BADA-F484EC31805C

Gozu Tenno

So Which is Correct?

Who the fuck knows? But clearly, there’s a strong association between Ebara Shrine and the sea and the local people who make a living off the bay – and I suspect that has to do with the sea god aspect of Gozu Tennō. In the 1200’s, the villages around Edo experienced a boom, so it makes sense that with a little finagling and a little help from the Minamoto court in Kamakura, the shrine could convince the priests of Yasaka Shrine to share a bit of their juju with Shinagawa, both areas were now fairly connected via the 古東海道 Ko-Tōkaidō ancient Tōkaidō trail[vi].

By the Edo Period, Shinagawa was home to the busiest and most prestigious post town on the shōgunate’s most prominent highway. Even to this day, the modern road is littered with temples and shrines once made rich by travelers coming and leaving the bustling capital. It isn’t hard to imagine an overly zealous Ebara Shrine priest taking a boat out one moonless night in 1751, then tossing a wooden carving of Gozu Tennō’s face into the shallow waters covering the sandbar in hopes that some dumb ass fisherman is gonna find it the next day and show it to the other mud-grubbing, low-tide-smelling lemmings of the village. Ebara Shrine would blow the fuck up over night. Every local, every traveler, every priest and monk from far and near would want to throw a few coins in the collection box just to get a look at the miracle face mask, know what I’m sayin’?

 

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Tennozu Isle today

 

From Baby Sandbar to Big Boy Island

Tennōzu was just a sandbar only known to fishermen for most of its history. Then in 1851, Commodore Perry arrived in Edo Bay demanding the shōgunate open up for trade and international relations. He gave them time think about it, vowing to return in a year to accept Japan’s agreement to his terms, or he would bombard the shōgun’s capital. Understandably, the government lost its collective shit and ordered the construction of 11 man-made islands to serve as 台場 daiba cannon batteries to prevent Perry’s 黒船 Kurofune Black Ships from getting to close to the city. The government chose Tennō’s Sandbar as the most efficient spot to build 第四台場 dai-yon daiba Battery #4. Work was completed in 1853, but a fire broke out and burned down the wooden structures. The shōgunate abandoned the island, its stone sea walls being the only indicator that it had once been an artificial island, much less a sandbar.

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Oaki Daiba in the Taisho Period. You can see the factory buildings.

In 1873 (Meiji 6), a shipbuilder named 緒明菊三郎 Oaki Kikusaburō bought former Daiba #4  and renamed it 緒明台場 Oaki Daiba. Then, with a little investment by the 中将 chūjō vice-admiral of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 榎本武揚 Enomoto Takoyaki[vii], a pro-Tokugawa loyalist turned Meiji statesman, he began expanding the island to use as a shipyard. Kikusaburō made a killing building boats, and the island was still is use during 日清戦争 Nisshin Sensō the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895; Meiji 28-28) and 日露戦争 Nichiro Sensō the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905; Meiji 37-38).

From 1925-1939, further land reclamation projects expanded the island ever more. Although no longer used as a shipyard, the site became home to bayside factories, warehouses, and distribution centers. This changed the look of the former sandbar and daiba forever. The former nickname, Oaki Daiba was gradually forgotten and the traditional name Tennōzu came back into use.

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Edo Period stone walls. Awwww yeah.

Fast forward to about 1985, a group of 22 landholders designed the diabolical 東品川二丁目マスタープラン Higashi-Shinagawa Ni-chōme Masutā Puran Master Plan for the 2nd Block of East Shinagawa[viii]. It included a plan to redevelop the area as a stylish boardwalk with a waterfront view, including a new station for the super-spiffy 東京モノレール Tōkyō Monorēru Tōkyō Monorail. It’s during this expansion that the island took its final, rectangular shape which can still be seen today. Two sides (the northwest corner) of the former pentagonal daiba are still visible, this is where you can see the Edo Period seawalls.

The developers thought Higashi-Shinagawa 2-chōme was too long and re-christened the project 天王洲I S L Eマスタープラン Tennōzu Airu Masutā Puran the Tennōzu Isle Master Plan. Now, remember, this was the height of the Bubble Economy, and one of many fads at the time was studying English just because it was popular. Suddenly, 和製英語 wasei eigo Japanese English meant to be understood by Japanese speakers only began popping up everywhere. This place name is a product of that fad. Tennōzu Isle sounded like Tennō’s Isle and rolled off the tongue easier than Tennōzu-jima (both “Tennō’s Island”) [ix], but it looked foreign and exotic – perfect for a population of passively English-literate Tōkyōites with money burning holes in their pockets.

ECC9F2E2-8D0B-4F99-BC80-2B8752685469

kaijo togyo

To this day, Ebara Shrine celebrates the Tennōzu Festival and local worshippers still perform the kaijō togyo ritual, returning the Oxhead Heavenly King to the sandbar he first appeared at. This tradition is said to protect the area from floods, hurricanes, and most importantly for us, massive epidemic outbreaks.

7C56CC63-4C42-43BA-9DC7-756B799D4393
I hope you found this bite-sized JapanThis! article informative. I tried to avoid as many rabbit holes as possible, and I hope I’ve succeeded. We’re not out of the dark on this coronavirus bullshit yet, so please stay home, wash your hands, and stay six-feet apart from everyone. Call your loved ones and take care of yourself. Also, if you see a fire breathing seagull, get the hell away from it.

 

Further Reading:

 

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[i] This is an older kanji still used in place names or to seem old timey. Modern Japanese tends to use , but this kanji can also mean “state” or “province,” so the older kanji is good for clarity in place names.
[ii] Gozu literally means “ox head” and is probably a reference to Mt. Oxhead in Southern India.
[iii] Longtime readers will remember all the other time people were just finding random Buddhist statues in the water. It’s a pretty hilarious trope. I can picture monks whose temples are lacking funds, dumping statues in the water to create “miracles” and drum up a little business for themselves.
[iv] Transferring a sacred object to the sea.
[v] Also known as 祇園神社 Gion Jinja Gion Shrine.
[vi] I use Ancient Tōkaidō and 旧東海道 Kyū-Tōkaidō former Tōkaidō (“old Tōkaidō”) to distinguish between the very well organized and regulated Edo Period highway. Ancient refers to the road as it slowly developed over centuries.
[vii] OK, ya got me! He’s real name is Enomoto Takeaki. You can read more about him here.
[viii] Well, let’s be honest. It wasn’t actually diabolical.
[ix] Though, the more natural Tennō-jima doesn’t sound bad. Just doesn’t pop like the Japanese/English hybrid.

What does Inaricho mean?

In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples on November 28, 2019 at 3:28 am

稲荷町
Inarichō
(Inari town)

inaricho station

Let’s give a hearty thanks to reader Will on fire who suggested this topic on Twitter. You should follow him and if you don’t already follow me, you should. I share lots of Japan-related news, pix, and just vent from time to time. It’s good fun[i]. Also, Twitter and Facebook are great ways to suggest new place names that you’re curious about. Anyhoo, let’s get into it, shall we?

Here’s the original post:

Where is Inarichō?

OK. So, let’s do this. Anyone who’s ever taken the 銀座線 Ginza-sen Ginza Line to 上野 Ueno Ueno or 浅草 Asakusa Asakusa has passed by 稲荷町駅 Inarichō Eki Inarichō Station. With Asakusa becoming an ever-increasing tourist trap[ii], chances are high that most people who visit 東京 Tōkyō will pass by here, though chances of them getting off the train are slim. In general, old timers might refer to this area as 下谷 Shitaya which literally means “the lower valley.”[iii] However, these days Inarichō is located in 台東区 Taitō-ku Taitō Ward, an area famous for its traditional 下町 shitamachi low city vibe[iv].

Further Reading:

inaricho station ginza line.jpg

The Ginza Line stopping at Inaricho Station

Let’s Look at the Kanji

稲荷
Inari
Inari, the primary rice deity

machi, chō
town, city;
neighborhood

Etymology

The origin of this place name is pretty basic. It’s named after a local 稲荷神社 Inari jinja Inari shrine. As I mentioned before, the old timers may call this area Shitaya. This term refers to the areas that lie beneath 上野山 Ueno Yama the Ueno Plateau – the low city areas of 浅草 Asakusa Asakusa, 本所 Honjo Honjo, and 深川 Fukagawa Fukagawa. To this day, these areas are famous for their non-fancy, traditional atmospheres.

And like I said, there was an ancient Inari shrine in the area. When a train station first opened here in 1927, they chose the name Inarichō “Inari Town” because this particular neighborhood was historically known by that name – the shrine being the area’s only claim to fame. That’s the long story short[v].

shitaya shrine.jpg

There’s Always More to the Story

The shrine that started the whole thing still exists and is called 下谷神社 Shitaya Jinja Shitaya Shrine and according to their records it was established in 730 by what were basically regional tax collectors. They collected rice tax on behalf of the 朝廷 chōtei imperial court in 京都 Kyōto Kyōto[vi]. At this time, eastern Japan was barely under the control of the imperial court. The court’s legend says that a certain samurai warlord named 平将門 Taira no Masakado Taira no Masakado decided to call himself “Emperor of the East.” Historical records point more at regional territorial disputes, but Masakado became a bit of a folk hero in Edo as an easterner who stuck it to the man.

taira no masakado painting

Anyhoo, depending on how you slice up the dates, Masakado’s unsuccessful uprising came to an end when he was unceremoniously beheaded in 940[vii]. Shrine records say that one year before, in 939, a certain 藤原秀郷 Fujiwara no Hidesato Fujiwara no Hidesato rebuilt the shrine complex to pray for the defeat of Masakado because he was a dick like that. Religion is dumb but praying for someone’s death is pretty gross. As a result of his defeat, Taira no Masakado became a symbol of eastern pride, especially in Edo, while Hidesato came to be seen as a toadie of the distant and rarified court in the west. However, Masakado is still famous throughout the country, while Hidesato is a footnote in history books. The fact that he gets a paragraph on JapanThis! is probably the most attention he’s gotten in a thousand years. Yeah, fuck that guy. I’m #TeamMasakado all day long, baby.

And for those of you who follow Japanese baseball, the east/west rivalry pre-dates the 東京ジャイアンツ Tōkyō Jaiantsu Tōkyō Giants and 阪神タイガース Hanshin Taigāsu Hanshin Tigers[viii] by more than a thousand years. Masakado’s uprising wasn’t the beginning, but it was definitely an incident in which eastern Japan, and Edo in particular, finally grew a pair and realized they could be contenders in a country controlled nominally by a bunch of snooty aristocrats in Kyōto who claimed to be the descendants of 神 kami deities, rather than samurai bad asses from the hinterland. But, just to set the record straight, here at Japan this we know that Edo-Tōkyō is cooler. Always has been. Always will be[ix].

Further Reading:

rice plants.jpg

Inari, God of Rice

So, the etymology of Inarichō is very straightforward. Shrine to Inari. Station gets a name. All good. So, who is Inari? Longtime readers probably already know this, but if you’re new to JapanThis! or want a refresher, I’ll give a quick breakdown.

On the most basic level, 稲荷神 Inari no Kami[x] Inari is the 神 kami deity of rice production. His[xi] name is made of two characters 稲 ine/ina rice and 荷 ri something you carry. The kanji clearly imply “rice harvest.”[xii] When the cult of Inari began isn’t known, but we can assume it dates back well into prehistory[xiii]. Rice fields take a lot of time and manpower to build[xiv]. Rice represents food. Surplus rice means money. Large scale rice production requires protection and is a symbol of status because in a world of haves and have nots, the haves can feed more loyal subjects than their neighbors.

rice paddy japan

Hopefully, you can see where this is going. By the time we get to 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai the Warring States Period[xv], you have samurai warlords all around the country making all kinds of territory grabs to control agricultural production (read: money and power). An underlying religious component is that since ancient times, powerful clans often venerated Inari for profitable harvests. The Warring States 大名 daimyō feudal lords often adopted their local Inari as a tutelary kami.

In the Edo Period (1600-1868), when the shōgun’s capital was in… umm… Edo, hence the name, an institution called 参勤交代 sankin kōtai alternate attendance was established. This required the various daimyō to maintain palaces in Edo to take part in the shōgun’s government. Most of them, through a process called 分霊 bunrei splitting a kami, would re-enshrine their local Inari in Edo. Because the area presumably had thousands of Inari shrines to begin with, the addition of new Inari shrines by more than 200 daimyō during the Edo Period, this particular kami became the most recognizable deity in the capital and probably all of Japan[xvi]. I’ve said this many times in many articles, the Edoites had a proverb, 伊勢屋、稲荷に、犬の糞 Iseya, Inari ni, inu no fun which essentially means “you can’t go anywhere in Edo without seeing shops named Iseya, Inari shrines, and dog shit.” To this day, you can still find shops called Iseya everywhere – maybe as many or more Inari shrines. Dog shit… not so much. And, for those of you who are fans of spatial anthropology, know that when you see free-standing Inari shrines in Tōkyō, there’s a good chance you’ve arrived at a former daimyō’s palace.

Further Reading:

 

fushimi inari taisha kyoto

Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine in Kyoto

Inari and Foxes

Anyone who has visited 伏見稲荷大社 Fushimi Inari Taisha Fushimi Grand Shrine in 京都 Kyōto Kyōto knows exactly what to expect of an Inari shrine. In fact, if the image of this shrine isn’t burned into your brain, you need to learn a little more about Japan. No shame, though. We all start somewhere. And so, while a vermilion 鳥居 torii gate is common[xvii], the most striking feature is the shrine being flanked by two semi-tame 狐 kitsune foxes, often holding objects in their mouths, such as scrolls, toy balls, or jewels.

inari kitsune.jpg

The association of Inari with foxes is strong, but the origins are unclear. Obviously, in the Japanese countryside, you’d probably find foxes near rice fields. But as Shintō and Buddhist teachings aren’t very dogmatic or standardized between sects and regions, the link between Inari and foxes is not set in stone – although Inari shrines without fox guardians are almost unheard of. Most people think Inari is a fox, or at least the avatar of Inari is a fox. Others believe foxes are merely emissaries of Inari, as the kami doesn’t possess a physical body. I personally don’t think there’s a clear-cut answer to why foxes are associated with Inari other than the fact that you find foxes in the countryside. I tend to think that foxes are messengers of Inari and not Inari himself[xviii]. That said, Inari and foxes – white foxes specifically – are inextricably tied together.

ginza line 1927

Ginza Line in 1927, somewhere between Asakusa and Ueno, which means there’s a 50/50 chance this is Inaricho Station.

Inarichō Station

Lastly, as I mentioned earlier, Inarichō is a station name. Despite the area being known by locals as Inari-chō, it’s not an official postal address. The neighborhood is located in 台東区東上野三丁目に Taitō-ku Higashi Ueno 3-chōme 3rd block of East Ueno, Taitō Ward. Only the station name preserves this traditional appellation.

In 1927, 東京地下鉄道 Tōkyō Chikatetsudō the company that would become today’s 東京メトロ Tōkyō Metoro Tōkyō Metro that we all know and love opened 稲荷町駅 Inarichō Eki Inarichō Station. Even though it’s gone under many renovations over the years, the station is pretty much the same one that we got in the 1920’s for the 銀座線 Ginza-sen Ginza Line. Essentially an unofficial local nickname based on an Inari shrine in former Shitaya Ward, which is now Taitō Ward birthed a train station name. It could have faded into obscurity, but it didn’t. The train station preserves that legacy.

shitaya shrine entrance.jpg

Entrance to Shitaya Shrine

In Conclusion

Sadly, the etymology of Inarichō is not particularly exciting. But I hope long time readers enjoyed the reiteration of who Inari is and I hope knew readers learned something knew and useful. Coincidentally, I spent the evening tonight at a fashionable tea café called Inari Tea in 恵比寿 Ebisu Ebisu[xix]. It’s nowhere near Inarichō Station, but as Inari shrines are everywhere, it’s impossible to avoid this kind of reference to the auspicious rice god. Inari is a super common place name, so if you see an area named after Inari, I think you can assume its named after the rice god or is at least referencing it. And why not? White foxes are super cute!

Further Reading:

.

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[i] By the way, iTunes forced my computer to reboot and MS Word didn’t save a good 20-30% of the original article. So I apologize for this being so brief. There was actually a lot more to say, but computers suck. Or at least my computer sucks.
[ii] Still worth a visit, mind you.
[iii] And believe me, we’ll be talking about that later.
[iv] This may be a topic for another day, but Taitō Ward is comprised of former 下谷区 Shitaya-ku Shitaya Ward and 浅草区 Asakusa-ku Asakusa Ward. However, the name Shitaya is still used casually by locals for the lowlands in Taitō Ward, but only appears officially in the block names (eg; 下谷一丁目 Shitaya Icchōme 1st Block, Shitaya and so on).
[v] It’s important to remember that today Inarichō is not a postal address, it’s only a station name. Today this area is 東上野三丁目 Higashi Ueno San-chōme 3rd Block of East Ueno. That said, it used to be a place name.
[vi] More about that in a moment.
[vii] OK, I made up the “unceremoniously” part. The imperial court went to great lengths to put down Masakado’s rebellion and… I don’t know… there might have been some “ceremony” surrounding his execution. Or maybe he died in battle and was beheaded ex post facto. We don’t really know.
[viii] If you don’t follow Japanese baseball, this has traditionally been the biggest rivalry. Basically Tōkyō vs. those losers in Ōsaka.
[ix] And yes, I’m shit posting. If you don’t like it, go read that other website about Ōsaka and Kyōto place names. Oh, riiiiiiight….
[x] Also read as Inarishin. Also known by other names like 稲荷大明神 Inari Daimyōjin. In common speech this kami or his shrines can be referred to as 御稲荷様 o-Inari-sama or more casually 御稲荷さん o-Inari-san.
[xi] Actually, Inari’s gender is somewhat ambiguous. Unimportant might be a better way to think of it.
[xii] Though, it should be known that different kanji were used throughout history, but most of them did include a reference to rice. Many historians (I don’t know about linguists), seem to think the name derives from 稲成 ine-nari becoming rice, hence “rice growing.” I’d like to speak to a Japanese diachronic linguist about that one, though. Not sure if I believe it.
[xiii] Just a reminder, “prehistory” means “before written documents.”
[xiv] The kanji 男 otoko man is actually made of two characters rice paddy and power. This doesn’t refer to the manpower required to build rice paddies, rather the power acquired by controlling rice paddies and the power required to protect them.
[xv] Sengoku Period on Samurai Archives.
[xvi] But make no mistake about it. The cult of Inari was pervasive. It had been popular since time immemorial.
[xvii] Non-vermilion gates also exist.
[xviii] But whatever. We’re talking about religion. All of this is made up bullshit anyways lol.
[xix] If you know your Japanese beers, you know YEBISU. Same thing.

What does Meoto-bashi mean?

In Japanese History on October 26, 2019 at 3:20 pm

夫婦橋
Meoto-bashi (“lovers’ bridge,” more at “wedded couple’s bridge”)

meotobashi.jpg
I often get asked, “Marky, how do you find new place names?” Believe it or not, it’s just random. However, I’d say 80% of the time, I’m just riding a bus or train, and something jumps out and I wonder “why is this place called what it’s called?” That other 20% comes from just looking at random places on maps and wondering the same thing, “why is this place called what it’s called?” In today’s case, something really strange happened.

I’m an avid Pokemon GO player. As a result, the app discovers weird place names all the time. I was on the 京急線 Keikyū-sen Keikyū Line coming back to 東京 Tōkyō from 韓国 Kankoku Korea and I had the app open. En route, it found 夫婦橋 Meoto-bashi which I read as Fūfu-bashi. There must be a good story here, I thought.

musume

We’ll talk more about this grave later…

Let’s look at the Kanji


fu, , bu; otto, oto; sore
husband; man


fu; yome

wife, bride; woman


hashi, -bashi; kyō

bridge

夫婦 fūfu is the standard word for a married couple. Sometimes, you might be invited to a party with the phrase ご夫婦で来てください go-fūfu de kite kudasai please come with your spouse. Another common expression is 夫婦生活 fūfu seikatsu married life and 夫婦墓 fūfubaka[i] husband and wife shared grave[ii]. That last term can also be read as meotobaka. While meoto is a proper reading of the kanji, fūfu is far and away the more common pronunciation. In the case of this bridge, the correct reading is Meoto-bashi. That said, the meaning is exactly the same: married couple’s bridge.

open marriage
Where is Meoto-bashi?

That’s a good question, because I’d never heard of this bridge. But, as I said before, Pokemon GO found the location for me and I was just sitting on the train. A quick internet search sorted things out nicely. I soon learned that Meoto-bashi is located in 大田区 Ōta-ku Ōta Ward and spans the 平作川 Hirasaku-gawa Hirasaku River[iii] — essentially a three-minute walk from 京急蒲田駅 Keikyū Kamata Eki Keikyū Kamata Station. Nearby the bridge is 夫婦橋親水公園 Meoto-bashi Shinsui Kōen Meotobashi Riverside Park[iv]. Anyhoo, the bridge and the park are a 15-minute train ride from 品川駅 Shinagawa Eki Shinagawa Station.

Further Reading

sunamura-san

Grave of Sunamura Shinzaemon

Construction of Meoto-bashi

According to records, the first bridge to span the Hirasaku River in this area was built in 1667 by a local farmer named 砂村新左衛門 Sunamura Shinzaemon. When people hear the term farmer, they might think of some kind of country bumpkin peasant, but make no mistake about it, Shinzaemon was a very wealthy landholder and extremely well educated. Despite being a farmer according the class system of the day, it’s probably better to think of him as a pre-modern civil engineer[v].

edo period bridge

Typical, old Japanese bridge minus the mud surface.

The point of creating the bridge wasn’t only to get people from Point A to Point B, but also to create a 水門 suimon floodgate to prevent back current from 江戸湾 Edo-wan Edo Bay flowing against the river and flooding the riverside villages. An unexpected side effect of the floodgate was a buildup of silt that created a sand bar upon which another bridge was eventually built. Having two bridges so close together in what was literally the boonies was extremely rare and the people came to think of them as a pair, a married couple, if you will. The bridges seem very rustic when compared to the flashy wooden bridges of Edo that we all know and love from 浮世絵 ukiyo-e woodblock prints of daily life in the Edo Period. In fact, an 1825 description of Meoto-bashi describes it as a rough, log bridge covered in dirt and mud[vi].

The current concrete bridge was built in 1954, and other than a major update in 1988, it remains unchanged.

meato bridge.jpg

Two Bridges.

A Married Couple. End of Story?

Nope. Not a chance.

Prior to Shinzaemon’s bridge/floodgate, apparently there had been bridges here before. We don’t have specific dates about their construction (remember, this was the boonies), but it’s fair to say there were bridges crossing the Hirasaku River in this area as far back as the 鎌倉幕府 Kamakura Bakufu Kamakura Shōgunate – roughly 800 years ago, which is when Eastern Japan really began to take off. Because of the counter currents from the bay during typhoons and tropical storms[vii], these ancient bridges were often destroyed and washed away by nature’s temper tantrums.

A local legend persists among the old timers in the area. According to them, after a particularly brutal storm that ruined the bridge and devastated the villages along the Hirasaku River, the village headman called an assembly. In order to appease whatever kami deity was allowing these horrible things to happen to the people, it was decided that a sacrifice must be made. The most beautiful, unmarried girl of the village was chosen by the people. She was dressed in white garments[viii] and marched down to the riverbank where they had begun construction of a new bridge. The young girl was placed into the hole where the first pillar was to be inserted. Her family and the villagers said their farewells – presumably much crying ensued. And then they lowered the pillar into the slot, believing her sacrifice would preserve the safety and prosperity of the village and the bridge which was vital to their survival. This practice is called 人柱 hitobashira. It literally means “human pillar.”

emma ai

Whoa. Human Sacrifice?! Was That Really a Thing???!

Without archaeological evidence to back up certain famous claims of hitobashira, it’s hard to say definitively. However, records going back as far as the 700’s, including 日本書紀 Nihon Shoki The Chronicles of Japan, claim this sort of human sacrifice existed in 神道 Shintō the native religion. From time to time, you’ll hear ghost stories in Japan that say things like “underneath every beautiful cherry blossom tree lies a dead body” – often a samurai who fell in battle or committed 切腹 seppuku ritual suicide or a fair maiden who was sacrificed for the good of the village. In 地獄少女 Jigoku Shōjo Hell Girl, the only anime you need to watch[ix], the main character 閻魔愛 Enma Ai is condemned to her role of, um, condemning other people to “hell” after being selected by local villagers to be hitobashira to protect the village. Many Japanese castles have stories about retainers or local beauties being buried alive for the protection of the lord’s keep and therefore, the domain’s security. I sincerely hope these are just spooky stories, but there are a lot of them in the folklore and mythology in Japan, so I wipe a little tear from my eye while I say, this practice most definitely happened in some form or another.

hitobashira grave

Edo Period grave erected to commemorate the life of the young girl sacrificed for the sake of the village.

Happy Halloween

On that note, get your costumes ready. Go be spooky and sexxxy! Also, if you’re trying to get laid, you might want to leave this dark story out of your repertoire. That said, I have a few other Halloween-related articles you might like to share with a friend[x].

Further Reading

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______________________________________
[i] This word can get giggles because it also sounds like 夫婦馬鹿 fūfu, baka couples are stupid.
[ii] As uncomfortable as this may be for some, 夫婦ぶっかけ fūfu bukkake refers to couples who, um, get the bukkake treatment together or engage in cockhold bukkake play. Just trying to be thorough here, folks. This is research.
[iii] I’d never heard of this river before, but for those curious, it flows from 横須賀 Yokosuka in 神奈川県 Kanagawa-ken Kanagawa Prefecture to 東京湾 Tōkyō-wan Tōkyō Bay.
[iv] The official English name of the park is “riverside park.” However, the word 親水 shinsui parent water is sometimes translated as “hydrophilic” which means “water loving.” I don’t think there’s an equivalent English word, but the nuance is something like “next to the water” or “intimate with the water” and can be found in other Tōkyō parks that are located on rivers or sometimes have fountains powered by the nearby river.
[v] Also, just for reference, this part of Tōkyō was not part of Edo. It was just rice paddies and forests as far as the eye could see in 武蔵国荏原郡 Musashi no Kuni Ebara-gun Ebara District, Musashi Province.
[vi] I’m going out on a limb an guessing that the dirt and mud was to make pulling carts across the bridge smoother, as logs would have been bumpy and could probably damage axels and goods.
[vii] And the lack of technological know how to combat back currents.
[viii] In Japan, white is a symbol of death. Corpses are dressed in white at funerals and samurai who performed 切腹 seppuku ritual disembowelment wore white.
[ix] My opinion. I don’t watch other anime.
[x] PS: Any English article you read on these topics was done after I did the research, so please don’t support those lazy “journalists.” You heard it hear first, my friends.

What does Setagaya mean?

In Japanese History on July 8, 2013 at 6:47 pm

世田谷
Setagaya (Valley of the Eternal Rice Paddy)

All of Setagaya looks like this.  Every last bit of it. And they have flying monkeys too...

All of Setagaya looks like this.
Every last bit of it.
And they have flying monkeys too…

This place name is ancient. So take all of this with a grain of salt. But the generally accepted theory is as follows.

瀬戸 seto usually means a strait, as in the Strait of Gibraltar[i], but in Old Japanese, it could also be applied to 谷地 yachi a narrow marsh in a valley. In the old dialect of the area, it’s said that word seto was pronounced seta and written 瀬田 seta. Old Japanese had two possessive particles. Modern Japanese uses の no, but Old Japanese also used が ga. It survives in place names all over the country, the most famous being 関ヶ原 Sekigahara[ii], which literally means “the checkpoint gatehouse’s prairie/field.” Thus 瀬田ヶ谷 seta ga ya meant something like 瀬田の谷地 seta no yachi “the narrow marsh in the valley’s narrow marsh in the valley,” which I would have said was a totally ridiculous name, if they had asked me. But they didn’t.

Eventually, the first kanji was swapped out with 世 se “generation, world” because it’s an auspicious character. 世田 sounds like rice paddies that are bountiful forever, hence my translation of “Valley of the Eternal Rice Paddy.” Also, is a standard ateji character. It was so common in phonetic renderings that the shorthand form of became katakana セ se.

The first attestation of the name is in 1376 as 世田谷郷 Setagaya-gō Setagaya Hamlet. By the Edo Period, the town was listed as 世田谷村 Setagaya Mura Setagaya Village and this name lasted until the Meiji Era. In the Edo Period it was not part of the city of Edo, but of 荏原郡 Ebara-gun Ebara District of 武蔵国 Musashi no kuni Musashi Province[iii]. In 1871, when the 廃藩置県 haihan-chiken[iv] the abolition of domain and establishment of prefectures was enacted, the eastern section of what is now Setagaya Ward was absorbed into 東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City within 東京府 Tōkyō-fu Tōkyō Prefecture. In 1936, the boundaries of present day Setagaya Ward were pretty much fixed. It became a special ward of the newly created Tōkyō Metropolis in 1946 and lived happily ever after.

Maneki Neko

Maneki Neko

Oh wait, I forgot something kinda cool.

So that cat is called 招キ猫 maneki neko, it’s kind of a good look charm for businesses in Japan. 招く maneku means to invite or beckon and 猫 neko means cat[v]. There are a few origin stories for this good luck charm. One involves Setagaya Ward.

The story goes that once upon a time, there was an impoverished temple called 豪徳寺 Gōtoku-ji. Even though the head priest of the temple had barely enough food for himself, he took in a white stray cat and cared for him. Nice guy.

The temple isn't impoverished anymore.  They have a huge market share of the crappy cat statue market in Tokyo.

The temple isn’t impoverished anymore.
They have captured a huge share of the crappy cat statue market in Tokyo.

According to the legend, the daimyō of Hikone Domain, Ii Naotaka[vi], a contemporary of Tokugawa Ieyasu and Hidetada, was passing through Setagaya Village with his entourage as a storm was coming up. As Naotaka’s group passed by the temple, the daimyō noticed the white cat beckoning them to enter the temple precinct. As it was totally about to rain, he and his group commandeered the temple for shelter. It started raining and maybe some lightning struck somewhere and, you know, some legend shit happened. I dunno, maybe it was a crazy storm.

Naotaka was thankful for being able to take shelter at the temple. As a result he requested to make the temple the Ii clan’s 菩提寺 bodai-ji funerary temple in Edo and the family made endowments to the temple and basically just made it rain[vii] on them throughout the Edo Period. As a result the family of the priest attributed the family/temple’s good luck to the white cat[viii]. And they found another awesome way to make money. They  started selling little white cats and telling people that if you buy this little white cat, a hereditary daimyō  might pass by your place and start throwing money at you for 2 and a half centuries. Well, anything’s possible, right?

The Grave of Ii Naosuke, one of the best dudes the late shogunate produced who had a really bad day on March 24, 1860.

The Grave of Ii Naosuke, one of the best dudes the late shogunate produced who had a really bad day on March 24, 1860.

Anyhoo, whatever you think of this story, the Ii clan was definitely a major patron of the club, err, I mean temple. The place is definitely in Setagaya Ward. The temple plays up the maneki neko story and the characters is known far and wide. Even in the ancestral Ii lands based around Hikone Castle, they use a cat character called Hikonyan, a reference to the maneki neko legend.


[i] I don’t know why I gave this example. After all, there are perfectly good Japanese examples.

[ii] As in the Battle of Sekigahara which secured Tokugawa Ieyasu’s position of dominance over Japan. This set the stage for him being granted the title 征夷大将軍 sei-i taishōgun, commander-in-chief of the expeditionary forces against the eastern barbarians, as they say.

[iii] See my article on Shimo-Kitazawa for another passing reference.

[iv] Not to be confused with the 廃藩痴漢 haihan chikan the public groping abolition of domains.

[v] It’s also slang for a “submissive” male homosexual.

[vi] I don’t want to get side tracked, but he is the illustrious ancestor of the no-less illustrious Ii Naosuke who was the regent of the clown shōgun, Tokugawa Iesada.

[vii] Make it rain. If you haven’t experienced this, then (a) you’re not a stripper or (b) you’re not rich or (c) you haven’t lived your life vicariously through rich people and strippers like me.

[viii] Because religious people love to thank imaginary shit instead of the people who actually help them.

What does Shakujii mean?

In Japanese History on May 9, 2013 at 12:46 am

石神井
Shakujii (Spirit-Stone Well)

Shakujii Park

Shakujii Park

Today’s place name is another reader request. The kanji are pretty interesting and the history of the area ties into a theme that will come up often later. I wanted to hold off on opening this can of worms, but it’s a reader request. I can’t say no.

The word is made of three kanji:

石 ishi stone
神 kami god/spirit
井 i well

In Shintō, there are an infinite number of 神 kami (some people translate as “gods” some as “spirits”). You can find kami in lakes and trees and forests and waterfalls. Some kami – apparently – love stones.  石神 ishigami spirit stones are curiously shaped stones that people said were homes of (or just related items of) particular kami.

Back in the day some villagers were digging a hole to make a well. While they were digging they found an interesting looking stone rod in the ground. Since no one had ever seen a rod shaped rock before, they decided it might be a good idea to start worshiping it. Cuz, you know… it’s a weird shaped stone.

Anyhoo, they named the well 石神井戸 Shakujin’i Spirit-Stone Well.

But, wait, you say, “shakujin” doesn’t sound anything like “ishigami.” Ishigami is the native Japanese reading of the kanji (kun’yomi), shakujin is the Classical Chinese reading (on’yomi). And how about that missing “n” sound? Well, the final /-n/ sound is weaker than our English /n/ – in fact, in some ways it’s closer to a vowel than a consonant, so it’s easily dropped in situations where it’s difficult to pronounce. There are also cases where the sound is missing in dialectal variations of some words.

I don’t know if the ishigami is still there or not, but it was enshrined at 石神井神社 Shakujii Jinja Shakujii Shrine located in 石神井公園 Shakujii Kōen Shakujii Park in Nerima Ward. If you go there, maybe you can ask where the stone is. In the park there is a lake called 三宝寺池 Sanpō-dera Ike Sanpō Temple Lake. The local people of the area believed that the Shakuji Well eventually became that lake.

Shakujii Castle, Nerima

You call that a castle??!

Another interesting fact is that the Toshima clan had a castle here. The Park grounds are actually the remains of 石神井城 Shakujii-jō Shakujii Castle. None of the castle structures exist, but some of the defensive walls and moats can still be seen. The castle was abandoned in 1477, after Ōta Dōkan defeated the shit out of Toshima Yasutsune and the Toshima clan fell. Remember this clan name because we’re going to talk about this family again tomorrow.

Oh, I almost forgot. Just to put things into chronological perspective. The name of the area was first recorded in the Heian Period. This means that the story of the ishigami and building of the well and the shrine was probably a well-established legend in the area. So this place name is old. The etymology seems legit and we’re lucky to have such an old pre-Edo Period place name with such a well preserved history. The Toshima Clan who ruled much of the area that is now Tōkyō and Chiba managed their holdings from Hiratsuka Castle in the Kita Ward, but main castle of the clan was Shakujii Castle. As a clan, they were active from the Kamakura Period until the Muromachi Period when Ōta Dōkan smote them like little bitches. Place names all over Tōkyō derive from the clan and their retainers. Even the name Edo derives from a vassal of the Toshima… but more about that later.

Oh, and one more thing.

This dude has a photo blog of the Shakujii Castle ruins and some models and maps.
This other dude has some CGI reconstructions of Shakujii Castle on his blog.

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