2/22 & the Relationship between Cats and Ninja

February 22nd is a special day, as it is a day of recognition for 2 separate themes in Japan. The first one is “Neko no Hi” (猫の日), or “Cat’s Day”¹, which has been around since 1987. The second is “Ninja no Hi” (忍者の日), or “Ninja Day”², which started in 2015. In this post I will pay tribute to both by introducing a topic that relates how cats were useful to the ninja.

There is a method for telling time called “neko no medokei” (猫の眼時計), or “cat’s eye clock”. During a time with no electricity and dependency was on the light from the sun, people in the past could use this method to tell the time by looking at a cat’s eye and observe how the pupils adjust based on the position of the sun. This is considered a special method used by ninja when they were active during middle ages in Japan. A few points to keep in mind regarding this is that while the method is indeed old, it was not originated by ninja, nor was it only used by them.

The concept behind the neko no medokei actually comes from a set of documents written in China in the year 860 called “Yūyō Zasso” (酉陽雑俎, Yŏu yáng zá zǔ in Mandarin Chinese). Within this text is a mixture of educational lessons and bizarre stories. Physical traits, coupled with some odd interpretations, regarding cats and their behavior with their eyes, nose, ears, and so on are included in this. Eventually, this text was brought over to Japan during the cultural exchanges in Japan’s earlier history, with the information on cat’s eyes being the inspiration to using it as a method for telling time. Of course, as with many things that have been adopted into their culture, the Japanese would put their own spin on it in order for it to fit with their culture and needs…this includes the ninja as well.

The poem regarding neko no medokei from the Mansenshukai

There is an old text called Mansenshukai (万川集海), which is considered one of the 3 important manuscripts of the ninja³. Within this text is a section called “Tenmonben” (天文編) which details information regarding weather conditions, operating at night, and telling time. There is a poem that describes how the neko no medokei works, which goes as the following:

「猫眼歌二 六ツ丸ク 五七ハタマコ 四ツ八ツ柿ノ實二て 九ツハ針」

“nekome uta ni mutsu maruku itsutsu nanatsu wa tamago yotsu yatsu kaki no mi nite kokonotsu hari”

Although written in code, this poem states simply the different shapes a cat’s pupils would undergo, which is related to the time of day based on sunlight. The details work according to the old clock system used before modern times, which incorporates the Zodiac signs from the Lunar calendar to indicate the specific hour(s) in a day. Here’s a breakdown of the poem:

  • Mutsu (六ツ) refers to the 6th hour of both the morning and evening, which would be at dawn and sunset respectively. At these times, a cat’s pupil will be a circle shape since dawn occurs before sunrise, and evening should arrive after sunset.
  • Itsutsu (五) represents modern time range 6~8 in the morning, and nanatsu (七) refer to 3~5 in the afternoon. A cat’s pupil will become an egg shape as sunlight is nowhere near being its brightest.
  • Yotsu (四ツ) represents modern time range 9~10 in the morning, while yatsu (八ツ) refers to 1~2 in the afternoon. A cat’s pupil will look like the shape of a persimmon seed as outside is pretty bright.
  • Kokonotsu (九ツ) represents the time around 12 pm, where the sun is at its brightest. Due to how bright outside is with the sun being at its highest point, a cat’s pupil will become thin and look like a pin.

Prior understanding of how to read this old clock system was critical in deciphering this poem in the past, although nowadays there are plenty of sources that explain it. Visually there are diagrams that interpret the details very clearly, such as the ones presented below.

One would imagine that the neko no medokei would’ve been useful for those who stayed in one location. While it is claimed that a ninja could use this while on a mission, most likely this would’ve been so during the day, for the neko no metokei wouldn’t be effective at night.

For those who own a cat could test this time reading method and see if the results are the same as above. If I did, I totally would give this a shot!


1) One of the reasons February 22nd was chosen as Neko no Hi is because the number 2 is pronounced as “ni” (nee) in Japanese. It is said that if you say just the numbers that represent this date as “ni-ni-ni” fast, it resembles the sound a cat makes.

2) One of the reasons February 22nd was chosen as Ninja no Hi is because of how the number 2 sounds close to “nin”, which is one way to say the word “忍” (nin, perseverance) and is usually associated with the image of ninja especially in pop culture. Basically, if you say just the numbers that represent this date as “ni-ni-ni” fast, it sounds like you are saying “nin-nin-nin”, which is like a shorthand of saying ninja.

3) These 3 are the following: Mansenshūkai (万川集海, also called “Bansenshukai”), Ninpiden (忍秘伝, also called “Shinobi Hiden”), and Shōninki (正忍記). Together, these are often categorized as “sandai ninjutsu densho” (三大忍術伝書, the 3 great secret texts of ninjutsu) in Japanese.

The Strategic Prowess of Takigawa Kazumasu ~ Part 1

There are many recordings of historical figures that were active during Japan’s Sengoku period. Normally stories of significant figures are readily available, but what about those who may be considered “minor” individuals yet were major players that influenced historical events? This year, a goal of mine is to cover more stories about historical figures that do not have a great deal of info in English. To start things off, this article will be about a military commander named Takigawa Kazumasu.

Who is this individual? Within Japanese history books, Takigawa Kazumasu (滝川一益)¹ is primarily remembered as the 36th retainer of the once powerful Oda Nobunaga, but it should be noted that he rose in the ranks very quickly, and became one of Nobunaga’s most reliable retainers. Even after Nobunaga’s death, Kazumasu would continue to earn merits while serving other feudal lords. In terms of his personality and traits, we learn from recorded military accounts that he was a crafty commander who utilized many tactics, some more indirect than others, to ensure victory on his side. This included psychological warfare, quick assaults and retreats, and secret raids. Kazumasu was especially fond of taking part in establishing kinship in order to gain increased support, even with those who were on the opposing side. Talented in the politics of warfare, as not only did he approach enemies with tact, he was also relied on to handle diplomatic encounters. Overall, he was talented in a variety of situations.

LOOKING AT THE BEGINNING

Kazumasu was born in 1525, and was from Kōka District, Ōmi Province (present-day Kōka City, Shiga Prefecture). His original name is said to have been Kyusaku (久作) before it was changed to Kazumasu during his military career. Other names include also Takigawa Sakon Shōgen (滝川左近将監)². In terms of parents, what is known is that he was the son of a man that is believed to have used either the name Shigekiyo (資清) or Ichikatsu (一勝). Shigekiyo was known to come from a prominent family in Ōhara Village of Kōka District, Ōmi Province, and was once lord of Taki castle.

While he is of the Takigawa family³, Kazumasu also has ties to the Ōtomo clan (大伴氏). This is possibly due to the fact that one of the Takigawa clan’s family crest, the tomoe (巴), is the same as the Tomo clan within the same Kōka Province. Ōtomo is a descendant line of the Tomo line, so speculations are that the Takigawa have an ancestral connection in this manner, but this is not 100% confirmed yet. It is also speculated that the Takigawa family has connections with a few other older family lines, such as the Ki clan, and the Kusunoki clan. It is still uncertain whether or not this is through a blood connection.

As a young kid, Kazumasu is described as having a strong, spirited personality, but was raised with bad manners. It seems he may have rebelled against the tight-knit ways of his fellow residence in Kōka District and caused trouble along the way. At some point, he left his hometown under one of two scenarios. The first is said that he opposed the “all as one” pact that was the predominant stand all the families lived by there. The second is that, through an ongoing dispute with the Takayasu clan, Kazumasu killed one of their members. Supposedly this incident forced him to flee Kōka, as he was sought out by the rest of the Takayasu members of Taki castle.

ESTABLISHING TIES

Before his inevitable departure, Kazumasu had acquired some valuable warfare skills, as he learned how to use the latest military weapons during his youth, such how to operate and shoot various types of guns. This may have been used as a selling point for him as he wandered around in Japan, looking for a place where he could find suitable work under a prominent employer. He would eventually do so, and it is believed that a sibling of his father named Takigawa Tsunetoshi helped with this. From time to time, Kazumasu would visit Tsunetoshi and show off his shooting skills. Around 1558, Tsunetoshi spoke highly about his nephew’s impeccable accuracy with a rifle to members of the Ikeda family, which he had married into. Ikeda Tsuneoki, who was a retainer of Oda family, excited by such claims, requested that he meet him. After establishing contact, Tsuneoki introduced this remarkable gunner to his lord, Oda Nobunaga, who would then request a demonstration. As requested, Kazumasu shot at several targets, hitting each of them with pinpoint accuracy. Pleased with what he had witnessed, Nobunaga took him in and made him one of his retainers. This was a fortunate opportunity for him, as he was able to align himself with the warlord of Owari Province that would later make a huge impact in his trek to conquer Japan.

In 1560, Nobunaga tasked Kazumasu with his first military task, which was participating in the first wave of attacks against the warlord of Suruga Province, Imagawa Yoshimoto, during the battle of Okehazama (桶狭間の合戦) . This battle represented the power struggle that warlords of different areas went through as they contested their might against one another, as Nobunaga made attempts to extend his range of control in the eastern part of Japan. In the long run, Nobunaga and his force were able to defeat Yoshimoto, and claim much of the territory in Suruga Provence. This was only the beginning for them, as key locations were targeted in order to strengthen their growing power and continue to contend with other potential feudal lords trying to claim absolute power as well.

A 3-panel woodblock print depicting the battle of Okehazama. Oda Nobunaga and his force are shown in the farthest right panel, while Imagawa Yoshimoto and his force are in the farthest left panel. From Wikipedia.

Within the same year, Nobunaga took action to move into Northern Ise through stationing his force at Kanie castle in Owari in 1960. This was possible through the funding from Hattori Tomosada, who was lord over the Nagajima castle of Ninoue in Owari. Initially, Tomosada was given command of Kanie castle, but later was driven out. In his place, Kazumasu was made lord of this castle, which allowed Nobunaga to claim control over one of the 5 major areas in Northern Ise.

SIGHTS ON ISE

For several years, Oda relentlessly set military campaigns throughout Northern Ise, and claimed as much as he could in order to subdue Ise Province as a whole. Takigawa Kasumasu was very active during these campaigns as part of the reserve corps. He had firsthand experience in many of the skirmishes that took place in various territories such as Kaga, Tanba, and Harima as he was assigned to mobile assault forces, which had to infiltrate these territories. An interesting note is that Akechi Mitsuhide, one of Nobunaga’s well known retainers, was recruited around the same time as Kazumasu, possibly under the same conditions of being skilled with rifles. During these infiltration missions, it is said that Mitsuhide also took part in these.

As an example, in the 2nd month of 1567 there was a push to establish suitable grounds in a campaign to subdue the Kitabatake clan, who had major control over northern Ise. Kazumasa, leading a force of 4000, was part of a scheme that targeted the Ueki, Kimata, and Fukumochi families. To start, Kazumasu placed Akechi Mitsuhide into his ranks⁴. This was due in part to Mitsuhide’s connections with a monk named Shōei, who is formally from Ise⁵. Being able to acquire Shōei’s assistance, Kazumasu used him to help in negotiations with certain opposing groups to side with Oda’s forces. Such actions proved very effective in the long run, which not only Kazumasu put into practice, but even Nobunaga as well, which is illustrated in the next paragraph below.

A map of Japan, with Ise Province in red. Northern Ise is in the upper area of Ise Province.

In the same year, Oda Nobunaga laid siege with his main force on Inabayama castle of Mino Province. This castle, along with the area of Mino, was under the control of Saitō Tatsuoki. This is not the first time Nobunaga has targeted this area; a key location in his campaign to control Ise Province, he has tried several times to defeat Tatsuoki and claim both the castle and Mino Province as his own. This time around, Nobunaga was able to gain the upperhand through having local loyalists to the Saitō family side with him, such as Inaba Yoshimichi, Ujiie Naomoto, and Andō Morinari. Gaining cooperation and necessary secrets from those defectors, Oda’s force used a ploy where they bore flags that had the Saitō family’s crest on them as they laid siege. Not being able to distinguish friend from foe, Saitō Tatsuoki was driven out, and retreated to Nagajima of northern Ise by boat. Nobunaga would then rename this castle as “Kifu castle” (岐阜城, Kifu jō).

In the 8th month of 1567, Kazumasu was part of the vanguard of Oda’s main force of 3000 as they marched towards their next target, Kusu castle⁶. At this time, the Kusunoki clan were in control of this castle, with Kusunoki Sadataka acting as the young castle lord⁷. For this battle, Kazumasu was given full command of the troops. He had the assistance of a few other important figures, such as other retainers like Ikeda Tsuneoki, as well as gained support from Kusunoki Masamori, a member of the opposing family that controls Kusu castle, by converting him to Oda Nobunaga’s side⁸. However, despite having a larger army and additional help, Kazumasu and his force were unable to capture Kusu castle, for Kusunoki Masamori too had additional help. For example, Yamaji Danjo, lord of the neighboring Takaoka castle just south of Kusu castle, was able to help defend Kusu castle, and turning the tide of the battle in their favor. In the long run, Kazumasu and his force had to turn back and retreat, but this wasn’t because they were completely defeated. Instead, Kazumasu wanted to regroup, analyze the situation, and try again. Will they be successful in the next round against his younger opponent, Kusunoki Sadataka?

FACT CHECK #1: INFLUENTIAL STRENGTH

Let’s take a moment to examine the main individual of this article. When evaluating Takigawa Kazumasu’s military career in history-related sources, it is often pointed out how quickly he rose in the ranks to being a vital asset in Oda Nobunaga’s successful rise in power. Along with his tactical sense on the battlefield, Kazumasu is also viewed as a competent advisor. As an example, he was given room to speak on military campaigns early in the years after his employment. For example, he was allowed to voice his opinion to his lord Nobunaga regarding the expansion into Northern Ise Province. In order to get the Kitabatake clan to submit, Kazumasu mentioned the importance of occupying Kuwana and Nagashima. He stressed that this would not only gain them access to other lands within Northern Ise such as as Mino Province, but such a move would grant them a better geographic advantage when going up against the Kitabatake clan and their supporters. This display of strategic oversight must’ve been to Nobunaga’s liking, for it would influence Kazumasu to have more opportunities like this.

Along with trust in his perspective on military strategy, Takigawa Kazumasu also was trusted with diplomatic matters. This is evident when he was sent to ensure the contractual acquisition of Matsudaira Motoyasu⁹. This was important because Motoyasu was a retainer to Imagawa Yoshimoto. in 1560, after the death of his lord Imagawa Yoshimoto, Motoyasu and his Matsudaira clan were the only other powerful force that could contest for Owari, yet he did not at any point oppose or challenge Nobunaga. For the span of almost 3 years, there were several contacts made between the two regarding joining forces, but nothing came of these. Finally, in 1563 Motoyasu made to trip within Owari to Nobunaga’s Kiyosu castle in Kasugai District, where he would make his official pledge to serve the Oda clan. As witnesses, Tominaga Tadayasu (a brother to Motoyasu through marriage) and Takigawa Kazumasu were present, and added their seals to the contract that was made to seal the deal¹⁰.

ENDING

Looking at his history from the beginning of his life up to this point, Takigawa Kazumasu had a slow start with his military career (he gains employment over the age of 30), but the merits he gained are plentiful in such short time. We come to the close of part 1. Stay tuned for part 2, where the story continues with Takigawa Kazumasu’s siege on Kusu castle, along with following battles that will eventually conclude the chapter on Ise Province.


1) In sources another pronunciation for his given name is Ichimasu.

2) In this case, the kanji “滝” (taki) is at times replaced with “辰” (tatsu), but still retains the “taki” sound

3) Speculations are that Kazumasu’s family name was originally Takayasu (高安). However it was changed when Kazumasu’s father Shigekiyo became lord of Taki Castle (滝城). At the time, Shigekiyo went by the name Takayasu Norikatsu (高安範勝).

4) It is thought that early in his military career, Akechi Mitsuhide was not a direct retainer of Oda Nobunaga, but would be so at a later time. Thus the reason why he labored under other generals such as Takigawa Kazumasu.

5) There seems to be a slight discrepancy with this. There are 2 individuals who bear the name “Shōei”, although the kanji in their names vary abit. In many Japanese sources the Shōei mentioned bears the kanji “勝恵”. This was a Buddhist monk of the Jōdō Shinshu sect who helped to establish Hongan Temple (本願寺, Honganji) along with other many monks from Eastern Japan. He was born in 1475 and passed away in 1557. Going by this date, he could not have been alive during Oda Nobunaga’s campaign to control Ise Province.

The other Shōei would be the one who uses the kanji “証恵”. He is the grandson of the 1st generation Shōei mentioned above. This Shōei was born & grew up in Nagajima, which is within Ise Province. It could be that he was the one who had some connection with Mitsuhide Akechi…except that his date of death is 1564. This is 3 years before the time he’s stated to have been recruited. Could it be that the date of death for both individuals named Shōei is wrong? Was there another Shōei that wasn’t recorded? Or was it a completely different person?

6) In some sources, it is said that this is also called Kusunoki castle. This is most likely true, as the kanji “楠” for Kusu can also be read as “Kusunoki”.

7) Kusunoki Sadataka is recorded as being 19 at the time, compared to Takigawa Kazumasu who was in his early 40s.

8) The full details of Kusunoki Masamori’s switch from the Kitabatake’s side to the Oda’s side is not fully described. However, it seems that this was a permanent switch due to Takigawa Kazumasu’s influence, or of some other connection. In fact, their connections will go so far that years later Masamori will marry the daughter of Kazumasu’s nephew.

9) He was the young lord of the Matsudaira clan who would later go by the name of Tokugawa Ieyasu and unify Japan.

10) This agreement is known under various names, with the most well know being “Kiyosu Dōmei” (清洲同盟, Alliance at Kiyosu Castle). Other names include “Shoku-Toku Dōmei” (織徳同盟, Alliance between the Oda clan and Tokugawa clan) and “Bisan Dōmei” (尾三同盟, Alliance between the 2 clans from Owari and Mikawa).

Updates + Special Collaboration

Here’s a quick announcement on what’s new on my plate, in relations to the blog as well as other matters:

1) Translations section has been updated with both a new entry in the Buki Sode Kagami page, and a new project called “Kōyō Gunkan no naigunpō no maki”. The latter is about the famous documentation on military-related matters called Koyo Gunkan, and how it compares to another manual that contains entries from it called “Ueno Tamaki Kabunsho”. This one is an ongoing project, so look out for updates coming soon. A few other translation projects will also be following suit as I finish putting them together.

2) This year my agenda is to release more articles on historical figures, similar to my format a few years ago. Targeting less known/less spoken about individuals just for the sake of variety. The 1st article which will be out shortly this week will be on Takigawa Kazumasu, a military commander who had many years of success under warlords such as Oda Nobunaga.

Outside of this, some updates to the site made for the sake of better user interface. Specifically, the menu bar has been tweaked where subpages no longer show when the cursor highlights the Translations tab.

3) Chikushin Group continues to train and keep up our yearly theme. Due to regulations in NYC, we do not meet indoors. Instead, all classes are officially outdoor for the time being. Safety measures include the use of hand sanitizers and gloves. More about this can be found on the Chikushin Arts Facebook page.

4) Recently I made a collaboration with Kazuyo Matsuda to have two of my articles featured on her website “Fine Ladies Kendo Worldwide”. Kazuyo and a few others who specialize in kendo join together to create a website that highlights many talented women who make strives in the kendo community, as well as discuss topics related to their respective training. They also have a magazine for subscribers who want to gain access to premium content.

The articles that are featured on Kazuyo’s website are the ones about Chiba Sana due to her history in gekiken. Along with this, she not only translated these articles into Japanese, but was gracious enough to provide some updates to the original articles with some research she did on her end, which have been implemented on my blog. A special thank you goes out to Paul Budden, who spent time corresponding with me to make this collaboration happen.

Please check out Kazuyo’s new site below. For those who want to support them, you can also subscribe for a monthly membership access more exclusive content.

Fine Ladies Kendo Worldwide

Setsubun 4 times a Year?!?

This year’s Setsubun no Hi (節分の日) fell on February 2nd, one day earlier than normal. Like many traditional celebrations in Japan, this is a day were people take part in activities to bring forth fortune by cleaning their homes, scattering mame (豆, roasted soy beans) within their homes to ward away bad luck, and consuming ehōmaki (恵方巻, long sushi rolls) while facing the designated lucky direction. But did you know that long ago the tradition of Setsubun actually took place 4 times a year?


The translation of Setsubun indicates this, for it means “the division of the seasons” (季節を分ける)¹. According to the old Lunar calendar, these 4 points were designated several days after the current season is waning, and one day before the official season change. The day right after Setsubun has a unique name that indicates the start of the next season. It is said that this practice originated from special rituals that took place in the Imperial buildings during the Heian period (794~1185) called “Tsuina” (追儺, Driving out Evil Spirits)². Onmyōji (陰陽師, diviners of Onmyōdō) performed these rituals as a means to prevent disease and calamity brought upon by evil spirits befalling on the Imperial palace during the transition from one season to another. Essentially, these Onmyoji had to do this ritual 4 times a year.

Below is 2021’s designated days for each season change according to the Lunar calendar. The day Setsubun would’ve been for the seasons of Spring, Fall, And Winter is also added.

Winter→Spring2/2 (節分, Setsubun) → 2/3 (立春, Risshun, 1st day of Spring)
Spring→Summer5/4 (節分, Setsubun) → 5/5 (立夏, Rikkan, 1st day of Summer)
Summer→Fall 8/6 (節分, Setsubun)→ 8/7 (立秋, Risshu, 1st day of Fall)
Fall→Winter11/6 (節分, Setsubun) →11/7 (立冬, Ritto, 1st day of Winter)


Note that while these dates are correct, the only one that’s officially observed is the change from Winter to Spring. Even though these other Setsubun periods are not in use, you can find the 1st day of Summer, Fall, and Winter listed on Japanese calendars. For those who have a liking of divination can find special calendars that list the seasonal changes, along with a lot of information that was once a norm in society when the Lunar calendar was still in use, such as uranai (占い, fortune telling), kyūsei (九星, 9 Star chart) rokuyō (六曜, 6 auspicious days), and so on.

An example of the modern calendar mixed with the old Lunar calendar, with information related to divination, moon phases, and so on. From AJNET.

While this can be interesting to review for personal studies, just remember that the tradition of Setsubun has a lot of differences with modern day calendars. For example, the official first day of Spring in America is March 20th. That’s quite a gap! When Japan adopted the modern calendar, older practices associated with the Lunar calendar didn’t quite follow along so smoothly. Some practices had to have changes and adjustments implemented. This is noticeable when comparing certain season-influenced days dependent on the structure of the Lunar calendar to the new format brought on by the modern calendar.

By the way, I recently did a project based on the yearly seasons and days in accordance to the Lunar calendar. You can learn more about the unique days mentioned above, along with others and how they related to the seasons in the Translations section here.


1) The meaning of this word has been altered over time based on the current social perception of this tradition. It is not unusual (even in Japanese) for people to say that Setsubun means “driving out demons by scattering soybeans”. Actually that meaning comes from the term mame maki (豆撒き), which is the action performed on the day of Setsubun. As a whole, Setsubun is just the indication of the change of the season to the next, while those traditional practices on that day have their own individual labels.

2) There are other names for this ritual, such as Oni Yarai (鬼遣).

Kagami Biraki: Open Up to Good Fortune ~ Part 2

We continue with our discussion about Kagami Biraki and how it is celebrated in Japan. As mentioned in part 1, this ceremony has important ties with the martial arts community. Yet, it is but only but one part of the overall experience, as there are other manners in which people can acknowledge this without having to be a martial artist. In this article, we will take a brief look at the origins of Kagami Biraki, and how it is observed by the general public, both on an individual level and in a public setting.

MEANING BEHIND THE CEREMONY

Sometime in the Edo period, Kagami Biraki originated through strong roots to buke (武家), or military families. According to resources such as “Nihon Kokujo Daijiten” (日本国語大辞典) and “Nihon Daihyakka Zensho” (日本大百科全書), the original date was set for the 20th day of the 1st month, but was then changed to the 11th day due to the 3rd Tokugawa shogun Iemitsu passing away on the 20th of the 4th month in 1651¹. Some references still remain concerning the original date. For instance, In Japanese the 20th day of the month is pronounced hatsuka (二十日, 20 days). To tie it in with their heritage as warriors, the characters of hatsuka were changed to “刃柄”, which can mean “sword”, as the characters reference a blade and a handle.

To celebrate, men would have mochi set up before a fine suit of armor. Not only was this mochi called “gusoku mochi” (具足餅, armor mochi), but the ceremony itself was once called “Gusoku Biraki” (具足開き) or “Gusoku Kagami Biraki” (具足鏡開き). On the other hand, for women of these same families, they would instead setup the kagami mochi on a kagami dai (鏡台), which is a small platform where a mirror would normally go on. As a play on words, women also referred to the original 20th day as “hatsukao” (初顔) or “hatsukagami” (初鏡). This points to them seeing themselves in the mirror the 1st time of the new year and admiring their beauty.

For either manner, these families followed a belief about inviting the toshigami (年神) into their home through the use of a kadomatsu (門松, paired decoration of pine and large bamboo shoots) within the first week of the new year². Shortly after this, they would further wish for luck from the toshigami presently residing in their home through eating kagami mochi (鏡餅), which is a 2-tier rice cake that is slightly firm on the outside, yet soft on the inside. For public events, the kagami mochi is often very large, and may be in the familiar 2-tier shape or separated. Normally a powder white color, in some events the top mochi may be dyed pink. For those occasions where the presentation is simpler, the kagami mochi is much smaller, and placed on a kagami dai.

To the right, a decorated kagami mochi placed on a kagami dai. From AC-Illust.

To consume a kagami mochi, the standard practice is to first split the top layer, then separate it. People can do this by hand, or with a small wooden mallet. Spreading it open in this fashion is symbolic as one’s fortune growing ever so widely. This action is usually described with the phrase suehirogari (末広がり), which stands for opening up like a folding fan called a sensu (扇子). This phrase is one of the reasons why a small sensu is used dress the kagami mochi. There are other terms used to describe Kagami Biraki, as well as how one goes about conducting this ceremonial-like practice, but the above one is currently the most recognized one.

WHEN & HOW TO CELEBRATE

In terms of general observation, there is “Kagami Biraki no Hi” (鏡開きの日, Kagami Biraki Day). While it is officially appointed on the 11th day of January, there are other dates depending on which part of Japan a person is from. On whichever day it falls on, the general population may choose to consume a treat that is believed to promote longevity and good luck. These treats usually consist of mochi in it. A few examples are the following:

  • kinako mochi (きな粉餅, roasted soybean powder-covered mochi)
  • age mochi (揚げ餅, deep fried mochi)
  • yaki mochi (焼き餅, roasted mochi)
  • kurumi mochi (くるみ餅, mochi covered in grounded walnut sauce)
  • oshiruko (おしるこ, sweet redbean soup)

Note that these can be eaten regularly anytime one feels like it, but tend to be chosen as the to-go choices on Kagami Biraki no Hi. From my personal experience, kinako mochi is a great treat on it’s own or, following popular trends, with green tea. It’s especially tasty with kuromitsu (黒蜜, brown sugar syrup). Yaki mochi is another that I’d generally eat on Kagami Biraki no Hi, as it is simple to prepare. Wrapped in nori (のり, roasted seaweed), it has a good crunch, while dipping it into soy sauce enhances the flavor.

AUSPICIOUS PRACTICE

As one would imagine, Kagami Biraki has a connection with religious establishments. As an example, priests of either Shinto or Buddhism perform rituals that are meant to ward off any serious natural disasters and plagues, which is still in practice today. Also, kagami mochi and other forms of charms are sold at the stalls that are set up on the grounds around shrines and temples, readily available for purchase by visitors. Another example is the symbolic use of taruzake (樽酒), or rice wine sealed in special barrels, as part of the ritual at a shrine. This rice wine is considered to be goshinshu (御神酒, divine wine of the gods), and is viewed to bring luck in the same manner as kagami mochi. In fact, the round lids are split open with a small wooden hammer. It is thought that the practice with the taruzake predated the kagami mochi, thus inspiring this common practice that anyone can do even at home.

A pic of taruzake. From AC-Illust.

Note that both kagami mochi and taruzake have a lot in common regarding how they are used during the ceremony Kagami Biraki. The round shape of the mochi and the lid of the barrel represent a “mirror”, and when “split open”, good fortune is spread out for each individual. Note that a small wooden hammer is the preferred method for bringing forth good luck. A few things to consider are their differences, such as that the term kagami biraki is used to indicate to splitting of the kagami mochi, but not for the splitting of the lid on the taruzake, despite it being used in the same event. Instead, the proper term for the action done on the taruzake is “sakedaru wo akeru” (酒樽を開ける), or even “shito wo akeru” (四斗樽を開ける).

An interesting point worth mentioning is the evolution of the name Kagami Biraki. While it did bear different titles from conception to the change of the designated day, there are 2 that are important in relations to the tone of this ceremony. It is thought that at one time in the past the name used for celebrating with kagami mochi was “Kagami Wari” (鏡割り), for a knife was used to slice open the mochi. For taruzake, “Kagami Biki” (鏡引き) was used to indicate how the lid was pulled off of the wine barrel. Due to unfavorable implications presented by both names, a more acceptable concept to highlight what the ceremony was meant to achieve helped to have both replaced by the title “Kagami Biraki”. If we look at Kagami Wari, the idea of using a knife to cut open something was reminiscent to seppuku (切腹, suicidal cutting of one’s belly), which contradicted with the idea of a ritual that was to bring luck. As for Kagami Biki, using a pulling force also did not fit well when it comes down to wishing for luck. It boils down to the idea that both kagami mochi and taruzake inhabited by new year lucky deity spirits³. Using a sharp instrument, or a physical pulling action, resemble an aggressive attack on these deity spirits with which people seek good fortune from. Thus, using a hammer to merely split the top layer was viewed as the proper method for releasing good fortune from within.

ENDING

From its history down to the different manners in how it’s celebrated, we get a feel of how deeply entwined Kagami Biraki is with the Japanese culture. While instilling the ritualistic idea of wishing for longevity and good fortune, it is approached in a fun manner with the inclusion of sweet treats. This covers the overall observation of Kagami Biraki. Looking forward to public gatherings for this in the future once the world can get back to normal.


1) Note that is is according to the inreki (陰暦), or old calendar system once used predominantly in Japan. This means that, in comparison with the modern, Gregorian calendar, the inreki was late by one month. So, the 1st month of the new year would’ve actually been February.

2) The standard time in modern times is from January 1st to January 7th, although it may start as early as December, or end as late as January 15th, in certain areas of Japan based on their tradition. This period is called Matsu no Uchi (松の内), which stands for inviting the toshigami inside one’s kadomatsu.

3) Other than the toshigami, deities of rice such as inadama (稲魂) and kokurei (穀霊) were thought to inhabit the kagami mochi and taruzake. Thus the quality of these items, as well as the proper means of showing respect when opening these items, is important.

Kagami Biraki: Open Up to Good Fortune ~ Part 1

There are many martial arts groups that open the new year in Japan with a ceremony called “Kagami Biraki” (鏡開き). Along with how it’s utilized for the sake of auspicious readings and praying for year-long fortune by shrines and temples, this ceremony is conducted for the sake of good luck during year-long martial training sessions. Its purpose is symbolically significant that my Chikushin group has also adopted this to promote a safe & healthy training year. For this article, we’ll first explore how this ceremony is conducted, by looking at a few events that really illustrate the theme for the new year.

PROCESSION OF THE KAGAMI BIRAKI CEREMONY

Today, Kagami Biraki is used as an opening ceremony for many martial arts groups and organizations. It can be either a small gathering among those who are associated with said group, to a large gathering in a form of a collaboration between different organizations. Well established groups such as Maniwa Nen ryū and Kōdōkan Judō Institute hold this ceremony among their own members, as an example. These smaller events may commence with a speech or formal new year blessing, then followed by technique demonstrations. At the end, there may be  traditional sweets and treats associated with the ceremony that are made available to participants, such as mikan (みかん, mandarin orange). Depending on their tradition, visitors may be allowed to view these groups’ ceremony.

One of the largest, most publicized of these events is “Kagami Biraki-shiki & Budō Hajime” (鏡開式・武道始), which is conducted at the Nihon Budōkan in Tokyo City, Japan. This is an event that has two parts, first being the Kagami Biraki ceremony, then followed by the martial arts segment. Dozens of different martial arts schools, both traditional and modern, participate to present their unique systems.

Let’s look at how Kagami Biraki takes place at the Nihon Budōkan. For the ceremony portion there are 3 parts¹. It starts off with “Yoroi Kizome” (鎧着始め), where individuals dressed in Japanese armor give tribute to the roots of combat to those warriors that fought during warring times. Next is “Sankon no Gi” (三献の儀), where the sōdaishō (総大将, commander-in-chief) does a ritualistic consumption of kachiguri (勝ち栗, dried walnuts), uchi awabi (打ち鮑, dried abalone), and konbu (昆布, kelp) alongside with sake (酒, rice wine) for the sake of gaining luck before going into battle. Finally, “Kagami Biraki” portion takes place, where the sōdaishō uses a small mallet to break the top layer of a kagami mochi (鏡餅, 2-tier decorated rice cake), while his second-in-command officers split the lid on a taruzake (樽酒, barrel filled with special rice wine).  All of this is symbolic, and is considered important to promote the true spirit when engaging in Japanese martial arts.

Next is the training portion, which usually is conducted in the form of demonstrations by each participating group. It is a mix of groups that specialize in modern, sports-oriented styles, and traditional styles. So you may see one group that’ll demonstrate kyūdō (弓道, way of archery), and another demonstrate a version of karate.  There are usually groups that are involved in iaidō (居合道, way of drawing the sword), sōjutsu (槍術, spear techniques), or naginatajutsu (薙刀術, glaive techniques). Over the years, this event had demonstrations of hōjutsu (砲術, gunnery techniques), jukendō (銃剣道, way of the bayonet), and even sumō wrestling. Every year, the participating groups may differ, so there may be variations in what types of styles are presented. After all the demonstrations are over, the floor is open for everyone to take part in hatsu geiko (初稽古, first practice session). A good variety of practitioners, both young and old, can be seen training together. Finally, this ends with an oshiruko kai (おしるこ会, sweet red bean soup event), where everyone can sit together and replenish their energy with this tasty treat.

Screen shot of the hatsu geiko segment. From the video here.

Take note that each Kagami Biraki event has its own date in which it takes place. For the one that is held at the Nihon Budōkan, it’s held on the 11th of January. Unfortunately, this event was canceled due to the precaution against the current pandemic inflicting the world. For those interested, there are vids on Youtube that showcase these Kagami Biraki events. To see the one held at the Nihon Budōkan, I recommend the following video found on Budo Japan Channel, as it covers the explanation in this article very closely.

ENDING

The connection that Kagami Biraki has with Japanese martial arts is considered a deep one. Every year many groups and organizations go to great lengths in organizing events where practitioners can feel they can begin their training in the new year on the right foot. Unfortunately, since a great number of participants are pulled in every year for this, many Kagami Biraki events have been canceled due to the current restrictions. As a substitute, it’s possible that these groups may have performed a smaller ceremony just for direct members.

Be on the lookout of the 2nd art on the topic of Kagami Biraki. In the next one, we will look into the actual history behind this ceremony, look deeper into some of the components that were briefly mentioned, and get an understanding of how it’s celebrated by the general public and through religious establishments.


1) This is carried out by “Nihon Kacchū Bugu Kenkyū Hozonkai” (日本甲冑武具研究保存会). This organization’s name in English is “The Association for the Research and Preservation of Japanese Helmets and Armor”

Ushidoshi: Steady Pace is the Ox’s Way

Welcome, 2021! Kicking off the new year, our 1st post will cover the Lunar Zodiac sign for 2021. Which animal sign is the highlight for this year? What traits are represented by this animal sign? Are there any unique stories, traditions, or phrases related to it? As always, the info and viewpoint will be from how it is interpreted in Japan, unless there are any differences between other countries that is worth mentioning.

COME FORTH THE OX

The zodiac sign for 2021 is none other than the ox, which is called “ushi” in Japan. Pronounces as “ushitoshi” (丑年) in Japanese, this year is the 2nd in the current Lunar Zodiac cycle. According to old folktales, the ox is also the 2nd sign, for it came in 2nd place in a foot race, being outwitted from arriving 1st by the mouse¹. The character that represents the ox sign is “丑”, but just like the other animal signs, this sign originally had no association with the animal image.

If we take this character ushi (丑) and look at its root meaning, it signifies something that bends, wraps around, or clings onto an object. It’s normally seen within specific characters such as himo (紐), which means “rope”. In ancient Chinese text regarding the Lunar zodiac, the ushi character represents a bud that is being produced from a seed, but has not fully gotten through the hard exterior. In a sense, this expresses that hard work & effort is needed to produce the outcome one desires².

2021 IS ALSO THE YEAR OF THE METAL OX

In conjunction with the 12 Animal Zodiac signs are the 10 Heavenly Stem, which is written as “Jikkan” (十干) in Japanese. 2021 marks the 38th year where both work in unison, and we get a combination of ushi (丑) and kanoto (辛). Together, this year is also called “kanoto-ushi doshi”, or “Year of the Metal Ox”. What is so significant about this? Kanoto, which is the 8th sign from the 10 Heavenly Stem, further enhances the traits of the ox (more on this below). Here’s some things to consider:

  • As a standard, the 5 Elements and Ying Yang theory are incorporated into this unison
  • Kanato’s element is metal, while it is on the ying (dark) side
  • Ox’s element is earth, while it is on the ying (dark) side
  • Both share similar qualities

Originally, kanoto’s character “辛” stood for “to go against” or “to offend one’s superiors”. However, this meaning is no longer in use, as the purpose of the 10 Heavenly Stem has been revised³.

Most, if not all of this, doesn’t say much in a way that makes it easy to follow or understand for the average reader. Even for myself, I do not fully grasp all the components that consist in these different areas that work hand-in-hand to make the Lunar calendar what it is. As an ancient practice for predicting the outcome in a yearly basis within Asian culture, it is amazing that it is still observed in modern times, let alone make its way into Western societies.

TRAITS OF AN OX

Now that 2021 is here, predictions and forecasts regarding how the year will progress based on the ox sign is out. What are we to expect? What type of traits does the ox represent? Here’s the following:

  • The ox sign represents hard working, my-pace mentality, and intelligence
  • This depiction lines up well with the use of oxen for labor work throughout history, as they are patient & resilient animals that can accomplish long, strenuous tasks
  • People under this sign are said to bear these traits naturally

Those born under the ox sign are said to be hard workers who, once set on a task, are completely focused on it, and will see it through until the very end when it’s complete. While it is commendable, this could also be they become stubborn, and may not sway easily to others’ requests. Also, when needing to work with others, they do so at their own tempo. As a leader, they may make many requests to their employees, but on the other hand they tend not to be a tyrant of a boss. As a bonus, this year being the “Metal Ox” means that those under this sign will also get a boost in popularity, and establish good relations easily. As always, those of the ox sign need to be careful not to overdo it, lest their good qualities backfire and turn against them!

Artwork by Utagawa Toyokuni. Originally untitled, it’s been referenced as featuring a beautiful woman riding an ox alongside her young companion (牛乗り美人と若衆). From the Fujisawa Ukiyo-e Museum.

For this year, everyone is encouraged to learn from the ox traits and apply it, even if your sign is not the ox. While the prediction may still be too early to consider fact, the “Metal Ox” unity is said to be a lucky one. Through patience and hard work, individuals are predicted to be successful in 2021. It’s not something we can do on our own, so through good communication and establishing intimate relationships will prove beneficial. Attempting new endeavors during these troubling times can be worthwhile with abit of effort and patience.

MISCELLANEOUS & FUN FACTS

The following are ways in which the ox sign played a role as a cultural fuction throughout Japanese society over the years. First, let’s look at how it was used for conventional means.

  • Time = 1 pm – 2 pm
  • Direction = North-Northeast (around 30 degrees)
  • Month = 12th (according to the old calendar)
  • Energy = dark (ying)
  • 5 Elements = earth

Next, are some phrases and idioms that are related to, or even inspired by the image of the ox. Note that the majority of these are old, so you most likely won’t hear them used today.

  • Ushi no mimi ni kyōmon (牛の耳に経文)
    LITERAL: Reciting sutra to an ox
    MEANING: Your words have no effect on a person mo matter how many times you explain
  • Ushi no ayumi (牛の歩み)
    LITERAL: Walk like an ox
    MEANING: Someone who walks slow
  • Ushi no ayumi mo senri (牛の歩みも千里)
    LITERAL: Even the ox walks a very long distance. (senri = 4,000 km)
    MEANING: You have to put in your fullest effort in order to get the desired results
  • Ushi no kaku wo hachi ga sasu (牛の角を蜂が刺す)
    LITERAL: The bee stings the horn of the ox
    MEANING: You feel no pain no matter what may occur
  • Ushi wa ushi-zure uma wa uma-zure (牛は牛連れ馬は馬連れ)
    LITERAL: The ox leads the oxen along, while the horse leads the horses along
    MEANING: People of like qualities can easily gather and work together

ENDING

This about covers the ox sign of the Lunar Zodiac, and the predictions for 2021. Look out for more posts this year related to the ox sign, as I will continue to cover this theme. Let’s work to make this a great year in the long run!


1) This version of the story is featured in the Translations section of this site, which I translated into English. You can read it here.

2) In ancient times, each of the 12 Zodiac signs shared the same theme of a plant’s growth from a seed one way or another. Eventually, this theme was overshadowed by the more popular animal theme.

3) Outside of the Lunar calendar, this character acts as an adjective in the standard Japanese language. It can either be pronounced as “karai” and have such meanings like “spicy” and “salty”, or pronounced as “tsurai” and have several meanings such as “painful”, “difficult”, and “heart-breaking”.

Closing of 2020…

As I close the year with this last post, I look back at what has transpired around the world. What sticks out the most is how a pandemic has changed the lifestyle for everyone. Countless lives have been lost, travel and social activites have nearly ceased, jobs have downsized or ceased, and the economy for many countries have been affected greatly. We’ve all been affected personally in one way or another. The negatives of 2020 will linger greatly in many people’s minds possibly for some time.

Yet, this doesn’t mean that there haven’t been any positive moments in 2020. In times of of turmoil we’ve seen people work together to help one another. Many who work in the hospitals around the world worked tirelessly to save the lives of those inflicted by the pandemic. We’ve seen innovation used to keep society from screeching to a halt through making work spaces safe or to interact remotely from one’s homes. Families could spend more time safely to strengthen their bonds and continue to move forward, and so on. These may pale in comparison to the negatives, but in reality we must look for the silver lining in the clouds in order to strengthen our spirit and find the will to move forward.

There is a popular Japanese proverb that goes “nanakorobi yaoki” (七転び八起き). It means even if you fall down seven times, you get back up eight times. Countless people around the world have gone through some tough moments personally due to the pandemic. Yet, we all need to keep going forward into the new year with a positive attitude. This resolve will make us stronger, and hopefully overcome a history we hope to never revisit. We all can return back to a state of normalcy, and from there continue to aim further for great success in the years to come.

Here’s wishing everyone a Happy New Year, and a fruitful 2021!

Ōsōji: Starting the New Year Clean & Fresh

As the year comes to an end, households, business establishments, and religious grounds have a traditional practice performed called ōsōji (大掃除). This is a common word one will hear especially in December, as it refers to cleaning the entirety of one’s house or living space. While this practice is well throughout Japan, there is even an older one, which is considered a rarity, yet still practiced today. For today’s article, we’ll look into the origins of ōsōji, when the best time to start, and what entails in keeping your home clean.

ANCIENT PRACTICE OF CLEANING

The older form of ōsōji is believed to be the practice of susuharai (煤払い), which stands for cleaning the soot that would have accumulated in one’s living space within the span of a year. This soot is from the smoke created from the burning of candles, stove while cooking and the like. It was a form of ritual that went further than merely cleaning the house, but in ridding & preventing akki (悪鬼, bad spirits). Through this, kami (神, divine spirits or gods) could enter into each household in the new year, which ensured fortune to be bestowed there.

2 pages depicting a large cleaning within the home of a merchant, called “Shōka Susuharai” (商家煤払). From the 5th volume of “Tōto Saijiki” (東都歳事記)

The roots of susuharai is traced to the Heian period (794 – 1185) as an ancient ritual in the Imperial palace. This is during the time when the Imperial family and noble families alike were learning a great deal from religious teachings that stemmed from China. Within an old rulebook called “Engishiki” (延喜式), is explained about how this ritual was conducted. Later, as the Heian period transitioned to the Ashikaga-ruled Kamakura period (1185 – 1333), 6th Ashikaga shogun by the name of Munetoshi Shinō (宗尊親王) wrote about the practice of susuharai within the old text called “Azuma Kagami” (吾妻鏡). It seems that from these ancient texts the word itself stood for more than keeping the Imperial palace and its grounds completely clean, but to ensure great fortune from the Toshigami (年神, deity that visits during the early new year), as the act of cleaning also included warding away evil spirits.

From the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573), susuharai became a large task performed within the shrines and temples respectively. Monks and priests worked together to ensure their halls were clean in accordance to appeasing the deity they worshiped. This ranged from wiping clean the numerous butsuzō (仏像, statues and figures depicting Buddhist gods) placed in a temple, to using a takesao (竹竿, long bamboo pole) that has a branch full of leaves or straw at one end in the form of a broom to sweep the ceiling of the hondō (本堂, main chamber). Centuries later, the practice of susuharai was passed down to civilians throughout Japan during the Edo period (1603 – 1868) . To ensure everyone had ample time for this, the 13th day of the 12th month was designated as the time to accomplish this.

MODERN DAY APPROACH TO ŌSŌJI

Today, ōsōji is designated for December 31st according to the modern calendar. This day is called Ōmisoka (大晦日), which means “last day (nightfall) of the year”. Along with cleaning, other traditional activities take place, including the eating of toshikoshi soba (年越し蕎麦, buckwheat noodles served at midnight of ending of the year) and visiting temples for Joya no Kane (除夜の鐘, listening to the temple bell ring for the sake of good fortune).

Sample of simple cleaning tools for your ōsōji needs! From AC-Illust.

While the 31st is an important day, it is also a very busy day if one intends to prepare and participate in the numerous events that take place. In regards to ōsōji, depending on the house size, or even one’s schedule, families may start earlier. For example, my wife often told me that while growing up in Tokyo, her mother, who had a busy work schedule including running her own shop, would clean a single room or an area in the house one day at a time as the 31st approached. She would finally finish on the 31st, if needed, with one room remaining.

What is needed to perform ōsōji nowadays? Your everyday cleaning implements, and water! While considered a tradition, the rules are not as strict as one would think. Generally, family members dust and clean every possible inch of their household, includes on top of cabinets, in corners, around windows, inside the sink and toilet, and so on. Water is also fine for wiping surfaces clean to ensure dirt is removed, as water is symbolic for purification in Japanese culture.

Traditionally, when ōsōji is completed, kadomatsu (門松, paired decoration of pine and large bamboo shoots) and shimenawa (注連縄, purified rope made out of rice paper or hemp) are placed around the entrance of the home, business establishment, and shrine & temple grounds. These are the final touches believed to be excellent invitations for the Toshigami to visit and bring everlasting fortune. This is still in practice today as well.

CLOSING

This covers the history of ōsōji, and how it is observed even today. My family and I also carry this tradition forward in our household. Ōsōji is something everyone around the world can practice, as there are so many benefits gained from this outside of the ritual implications. If anything, going into the new year in a clean house is great hygienically.

Shiwasu: How busy monks coincide with the last month of the year

Japanese can be a very colorful language, especially before standardization took place in recent times. Many words that have survived hundreds of years and is still part of modern speech due to their inclusion in the culture have some very interesting back stories. These can range from the name of towns, types of clothing, professions, or celebrations. One topic I’d like to bring up is the naming convention of the months within a yearly cycle, which was a project just recently finished. This can be found in the Translation section under “Topics Related to the Lunar Calendar”. Some points regarding the origins of how these months were named left a lasting impression on me, one particular I want to elaborate on just a little.

The characters for the 12th month name, Shiwasu. From Illust-AC.

According to the old Lunar calendar called “inreki” (陰暦)¹ once used in Japan’s past, each of the months have a “standard” name alongside which number month it is. They were also accompanied with many variants, which were devised with a relatable concept. These names are not as significant as they once used to be, but provide a cultural glimpse several hundreds of years ago of how people lived, how they viewed the seasons, or what activities were significant at specific times. Some are easy to understand and give you a clear visual once you hear the description. Others are not so clear, or have a description that may not really make sense at all. The biggest culprit of this is “Shiwasu”, which is designated as the 12th month of the year². The name Shiwasu has a unique meaning of “teacher (Buddhist priest or monk) rushing about”, which in turn indicates the ending of the year. How can such a description have any relations to indicating what month it is? And why a monk?  

Below are a few quoted sections from an article about Shiwasu, which comes from the website “Setagaya Byori”. It provides a few nice examples, and gives a slightly different take from my own write up in the project mentioned earlier. Below is the original Japanese text, followed by my English translation.


“「師走」はもともと旧暦の「12月」を指す言葉です。具体的には今の12月末から2月上旬ごろを指すのですが、今では陽暦の12月の異称としても親しまれています。”

“The word “Shiwasu” was the designated label to the “12th month” of the old (Lunar) calendar from the very start. To be entirely clear, it points to the later part of the 12th month all the way to the earlier part of the 2nd month. However, it is more familiar to us as an alternative name for the 12th month within the new calendar.”

“「師が走る」という字面から、まさに年末の慌ただしい気分までうまく表した言葉のように思えますが、この漢字は「当て字」ともいわれ、語源も諸説あってはっきりしないのです。”

“The term “shi ga haseru” (師が走る), which means “teacher is hurrying about”, gives us vivid thoughts of a very busy end of the year. However, the characters used in this name is said to be an ateji (当て字), or alternative label for naming purposes only, for the explanation behind it doesn’t match up properly with the actual roots for the name.”

“語源として有名なのは、師走の「師」は僧侶であるという説。かつては冬の季節、僧侶を招いて読経などの仏事を行う家が多かったため、お坊さんが東西に忙しく走り回ることとなり、「しがはせる」から「しはす」になったといいます。この説は、平安時代末期に成立した古辞書『色葉字類抄』に「しはす」の注として書かれているのですが、この説をもとに、のちに「師走」の字があてられたと考えられます。また、「師馳せ月」が誤って「師走」になった、という説もあります。”

“The explanation for “shi” of “shiwasu” is that it stands for Buddhist priest or monk, and is a famous one as being the roots of its origin, which goes something like the following. During the winter season, monks were busy running back & forth from east to west because there were many homes that required Buddhist services, which included calling for a monk to recite sutras. Due to this practice, the term “shi ga haseru” was shortened to just “shihasu” (しはす). This explanation is based on the writing of the word “shihasu” in the late Heian period ancient dictionary called “Iroha Jiruishō”. It is thought that the characters “師走” were being referenced in the word “shihasu”, thus the origin for this explanation.  Another explanation is that “Shiwasu” accidentally became a word from the phrase “Shihase Tsuki” (師馳せ月), which shares the same meaning.”


Just by reading this, one can get an idea where some issues would pop up. One of the biggest is the pronunciation. Why change to “shiwasu”? Ease of pronunciation? Apparently in the Iroha Jiruishō only the phonetic “しはす” (shihasu) is written, with no indication that the characters “師走” is being referenced. One linguistic point here could be that, as witnessed in some older documents, the character ha (は) represented the sound wa, which may be why it was assumed that the reading should be “shiwasu” instead³. Unfortunately, there is no real evidence in this case that leads to such a point.

A monk hurrying along during the last month of the year. Is this truly the origin behind the name Shiwasu?!? From Illust-AC.

One thing worth mentioning is that studying up on Japanese history will show that there was a strong presence of Buddhism during the late Heian period, especially in Kyoto, where the Imperial palace was present throughout the majority of Japanese history. Many nobles also lived there, and kept up with what was popular, which including growing interest in Buddhist practice. Due to this, it is most likely that monks were busy fulfilling requests of visiting homes and reciting sutras. However, was this truly the basis for the naming convention for the last month of the year? Most likely not, especially since many other activities were taking place at the same time that may have been more significant. There is a strong belief that this is a more recent creation that puts a bit of poetic spin on the name, which would then spread and become popular. Fortunately, there are more solid theories behind the root word “shihasu”, which are stronger and closer to the actual end-of-the-year description. This can be read in the last page of “Months” here.

Here’s yet another theory that is interesting, for it supports a different spin on the busy religious teacher theme, but from a Shinto angle.



“師が忙しく走り回る説にはバリエーションがあります。「師」は「御師」という神職のことで、この季節は神社の参詣者の案内をしたり、祈祷を行ったりするのに忙しくなるから、という説…”

“There is another variation to the explanation regarding a teacher busily running around. It states that the character “shi” (師) comes from the title “onshi” (御師), which is a rank in Shinto tradition meaning “low level Shinto priest”. The story here is that during the winter season, onshi were very busy with tasks such as guiding worshipers who come to visit the shrine, and conducting prayer services…”


This is just one of the many different theories placed on this unique name “Shiwasu”. Unlike the Buddhist priest theory, the Shinto priest theory is not a popular one. On top of this, it is most likely a recent theory.

Honestly, researching about “Shiwasu” while working on the months of the Lunar Calendar project was one of my highlights that left me scratching my head all too often, but not entirely due to frustration. Oddities like this give a glimpse of some of the creative liberties with the Japanese language in the past that individuals took that shine a light on cultural aspects and topics. If I were to point out every word like this that I’ve come across over the years, I could write about each one in an article everyday for about a year!


1) The Lunar calendar coincides with what was used in most of Asia in the past. Compared to the western Gregorian calendar, the Lunar calendar has a different starting point by almost a month. That means that new years took place at the start of today’s February! Also, the length of each month varied due to certain conditions.

2) According to the Lunar calendar, this was most of what we would designate as today’s January. Japan has long switched to the Gregorian calendar, so Shiwasu begins at the 1st of December and ends on the 31st. On a side note, this adjustment actually affects the meaning of certain names, as they were originally designed to match up with corresponding seasonal changes.

3) Here’s an example of Japanese grammar for those interested. On page 69 in the 3rd volume of the Takeyazō-sho version of Iroha Jiruishō is the word “貫河”. The phonetic for this is written as “ぬきかは” (since it is an official documentation, it actually is written in katakana as “ヌキカハ”).

At 1st glance one would think that this is read as “nukikaha”, but in reality it is “nukikawa”. The reason is the character “河” is pronounced “kawa” as a standard. In the past the character “は” doubled for the sound “ha” and “wa” visually. Basically, you would have had to have been educated to know this point so as to not read it incorrectly depending on which word it was being used in.