Tanabata and the Customs involving Tanzaku

Tanabata, which falls on July 7th in modern times, is one of the more anticipated holidays during the summer. It is especially a major attraction for kids, as they partake in this during school. One aspect to Tanabata’s popularity is due to its relatively fun & involving practices. Along with learning about the stories involving star viewing and actually experiencing this with telescopes, kids also take part in tanzaku (短冊), where they engage in small crafts and decorate the sasa leaves on the bamboo stalks.

A starry night sky, and papers of wishes hung among sasa leaves.

For this article, we will look into the latter, and learn about what tanzaku is, its history, and other crafts that are similar to it.

MEANING BEHIND TANZAKU

Tanzaku (短冊) means “strips”, as in strips of paper. On the day of Tanabata, kids write their special wishes on strips of colored paper, which are then hung on sasatake (笹竹), which are stalks of bamboo that have sasa leaves. It is a spectacular sight to see bamboo stalks covered with numerous tanzaku. Usually, those who are learning writing, or going to private school at a temple, would do this during Edo period. For the sake of success in their academics and calligraphy, they would partake in this practice of tanzaku.

One of the origins to tanzaku is thought to have started from a unique practice of writing on the large green leaves of sato imo (里芋, type of Asian potato). The practice involves waiting for water from the morning dew to form on these leaves from the cool air the night before. Then one would take ink, and begin writing different kanji as a form to wish for improvement in one’s calligraphy skills.

The reason behind using water that had naturally formed is due to the divine symbolism of sato imo leaves; the water is seen as coming down from the heavens, which the leaves can naturally hold within its center. Plus, the leaves are big enough to be used as umbrellas.

It is said that due to this origin, the wishes made on Tanabata are not the needy ones, but instead are those that are focused on improvement in one’s skills or abilities.

On a separate note, tanzaku is kept up on their bamboo display during an entire day, even throughout the night. On the next day, all the tanzaku are removed and the bamboo stalks are disposed of. In the past, the tanzaku would be cleansed in a river, then brought to a local shrine or temple, where they would then be placed into a bonfire so that the wishes may rise up and reach the gods so they may be granted.

ROLE OF GOSHIKI

Generally, the paper strips used as tanzaku come in 5 colors. This color variation is called “goshiki” in Japanese. The use of the 5 colors is derived from the ancient practice of Inyō Gogyōsetsu, which originated from China. These 5 colors are green (青/緑)¹, red (赤)², gold (黄), white (白), and black (黒). These colors represent the elements (or elemental flow) that influence both life and the world as taught in Inyō Gogyōsetsu. These elements are wood (木), fire (火), earth (土), metal (金), and water (水)³.

Tanzaku in the general 5-color scheme. Click on each one to see their full size.

An interesting note is that for the practice of Tanabata, the color black has been replaced with purple. So it is most common to see the strips of paper in the colors green, red, gold, white, and purple⁴. Here’s what each of the colors stand for, and how they influence what type of wish one would make:

  • GREEN: Improving one’s traits as a person
  • RED: Having the ability to maintain respect to our parents and our ancestors
  • GOLD: Being able to treat others well by improving relations
  • WHITE: Living up to our obligations and responsibilities
  • PURPLE: Excelling in our academics

This was the role the colors originally assumed. Nowadays this practice isn’t followed so strictly, as anyone can freely use whichever one of the colors they choose for their tanzaku.

OTHER DECORATIONS

Along with tanzaku, there are other types of decorations that were used in the past in conjunction to Tanabata. While these are not part of the general format of celebrating Tanabata, some establishments and events may still incorporate these for the sake of honoring traditional practices, such as street parades.

  • Fuki-nagashi (吹き流し): Long strands of different colored papers joined together, sometimes attached to different types of ornaments such as a star-shaped origami. Based off of colored threads that a seamstress would use, it also acts as a type of talisman to ward off evil.
  • Ami kazari (網飾り): A decoration using a long piece of paper cut in an intricate design in the form of fish wire. This is to wish for successful fishing trips.
  • Orizuru (折鶴): An origami crane. Originally the crane represents a long life. So, with this one would wish for longevity and a healthy life.
  • Kamiko (神衣): An origami kimono that looks like it could fit a doll. Along with wishing for improvements in one’s sewing skills, the kamiko also can double as a charm to prevent bad luck by catching it, which can then be passed on to a doll.
  • Saifu (財布): An origami wallet or purse. As one would expect, you would hang these when you want to wish for financial gains.

CONCLUSION

This wraps up our article on the finer details of tanzaku and its significance during the Tanabata celebration. An important one in Japan, it is not unusual to see this practice done in other countries. If you had a chance to participate with your own tanzaku, what qualities would you wish to improve on?


1) In older Japanese culture, the word aoi (青い) stood for both blue & green. However, usually it is associated to what we in the West would call “green”. To avoid confusion in modern times, aoi mainly refers to the color blue, while midori (緑) is used for the color green.

2) Quite often, paper that is a pink color is used to represent red.

3) Another set of virtues that comes from Inyō Gogyōsetsu that was attached to the 5 colors was gojō (五常), which means “the natural 5 habits”. Here’s how the same colors represent these virtues:

  • Blue/Green = Respect
  • Red = Benevolence
  • Gold = Righteousness
  • White = Understanding
  • Black/Purple = Belief

With a few exceptions, the color scheme of gojō aligns with that of Tanabata. You can read more on the virtues of gojō in another article on this site here.

4) Depending on preferences, there are variants of this color combination. It is not unusual to also have the following used as tanzaku:

  • blue, red, gold, white, purple
  • blue, red, gold, green, purple
  • green, blue, red, pink, gold, white, purple

The Modern and Older form of Kodomo no Hi

Many older holidays and celebrations from Japan have a deep and intricate background. Nowadays they have been simplified one way or another, with the focus on the core component. This has to do in part with social practices of old do not have the same role in Japan’s society as a whole as it once used to. Still, some areas in Japan pay recognition to the older history of these celebrations, while great efforts are made to preserve their details in documentations.

LOOKING AT KODOMO NO HI

Let’s look one of Japan’s more well-celebrated holidays, “Kodomo no Hi” (子供の日), or “Children’s Day” in English, which takes place on May 5th this year. Kodomo no Hi is a celebration for kids, where parents pray for the to grow up healthy and strong. This is similar to how girls’ healthy future is prayed for during the holiday known as Hinamatsuri. There are different ways to go about celebrating this. One way that has a traditional background is where families place a small display featuring a kabuto (兜, tradition helmet used with armor), yumiya (弓矢, bow with arrows in a quiver), and a tachi (太刀, battlefield sword) out in their home, which is symbolic for protection from harm. Another is shōbuyu (菖蒲湯), where stalks of iris are used in conjunction with water or sake in the form of a remedy to drive away bad spirits.

The more popular practice during Kodomo no Hi is to celebrate with koinobori (鯉のぼり), which are carp-shaped streamers. Koinobori are generally strung together in a large mass on a pole or on a cable in between poles in one’s area or around public places, with a yaguruma (矢車, wheel consisting of arrows) on top. Looking at the history behind the concept of koinobori, we learn that It has a connection with the Chinese myth of carps that are able to swim up a particular waterfall will turn into dragons, which was adapted into Japan’s culture. Carp are also seen as a creature of spiritual significance, where they have a long lifespan, and can adapt to different environments. These traits, and more, are what parents pray for in their children. Adding a yaguruma on top of a pole is symbolic for informing the gods of children’s birth and residence in the area in order to receive their blessings, as well as to drive away evil spirits.

Koinobori are made in different colors. The meaning behind these colors have changed over the centuries since mid Edo period. At first the colors used was based on what was popular in one’s region, such as families in eastern Japan would use gold and silver, while families in western Japan would use black and red. Later, the colors became generalized as koinobori were designed in predetermined sizes and colors. They were displayed in a pack on Kodomo no Hi to represent one’s family. For example, the largest koinobori would be a black color and represent the father, the 2nd largest would be a red color and represent the mom, while the smaller one would be a blue color and represent children. Eventually this would be expanded, featuring much smaller ones in a green or pink color.

As mentioned earlier, the design that is commonly recognized as koinobori was popular in eastern and western parts of Japan. Other regions also adopted different designs and shapes as the practice spread. For example, there are hata sashimono (旗指物, flag banners) such as enobori (絵のぼり, picture streamers) and furafu (フラフ, flags), which consists of images of carps, famous warriors from fairy tales, and other artworks that are related to the theme of Kodomo no Hi.

LOOKING AT TANGO NO SEKKU

Kodomo no Hi is actually a modern naming convention petitioned in 1948, in an attempt for reformation of a new holiday that was more suitable to support the new, younger generation¹. Before this change, it was originally known under the title “Tango no Sekku” (端午の節句). Practice of this starting as early as the Kamakura period (1185~1333), the meaning of this title can be interpreted as “the seasonal celebration of the beginning of the 5th”. However, this title has more components due to its connection to the older Lunar calendar and the Zodiac signs, which can be easily explained If we break down the words individually:

  • Tan (端) = Edge, side (beginning)
  • Go (午) = Horse (Zodiac), fifth month (Lunar Calendar)
  • Sekku (節句) = Seasonal festival or celebration

The kanji or Chinese characters used incorporate a bit of play on words in order to grasp the meaning. The use of “tan” here is to identify the start of good weather in the new season, which would’ve been summer according to the old calendar². The word “go” has two sources but line up perfectly in meaning, for while the kanji “午” means horse according to the Zodiac signs, it is designated to the 5th month on the old calendar. On top of this, its pronunciation is the same as the number 5 (五, go) in Japanese. Along with all of these points, Tango no Sekku takes place on the 5th day of the 5th month, which makes it an auspicious occasion to receive blessings from revered gods, as well as has strong ties with divination practice Onmyōdō (陰陽道) and what are considered lucky numbers. With number 5 being one of those lucky numbers, this makes the 5th day of the 5th month an important date³.

Originally, Tango no Sekku was a day to celebrate young boys and pray for their healthy growth. One of the reasons is credited to an older practice of “Shōbu no Sekku” (菖蒲の節句), where shōbu (菖蒲, iris) and other types of herbs & vegetation were used for medicinal practices and environmental purification by Imperial & noble families. As a play on words, “shōbu” (尚武, militaristic spirit) was used to inspire creating a festival were families prayed for boys to grow into strong warriors. Since from the Kamakura era onward the road to success was believed to be in becoming a military family, a large display called “gogatsu ningyō” (5th Month Dolls) was placed within one’s home to represent this belief. On this display were items that symbolized protection from harm and ill fortune, such as a miniature kacchū (甲冑, armor), a musha ningyō (武者人形, a warrior figurine), a toy horse, mock weapons such as bow & arrows and a battlefield sword, taiko (太鼓, drums), kamon hata (家紋旗, banners with family emblems), and so on. Dolls of famous fabled characters were also included, such as Momotaro, Musashi Benkei, and Kintaro. Koinobori is also believed to have been used at some point as well, although not throughout Japan until later in the Edo period.

IMPORTANT DISHES FOR THE CELEBRATION

There are popular snacks and food to eat on Kodomo no Hi today, which were passed down from the older Tango no Sekku:

  • Kashiwamochi (柏餅)
  • Chimaki (粽)
  • Takenoko (竹の子)

Kashiwamochi is mochi wrapped in a kashiwa leaf. Other than mochi being the common treat in many celebrations, the use of the kashiwa was due to the fact that it was a leaf that stayed on a tree for a very long time. This resilience was inspiring, and would symbolize having the ability to keep one’s family line intact. Chimaki is similar to Kashiwamochi, except that it’s made of a sticky rice such as mochikome (もち米), consisting of a variety of fillings, and wrapped in bamboo leaves, which molds it into an elongated or triangular shape. Lastly, takenoko is bamboo shoot that is steamed and eaten in various ways, with it being topped over rice (called takenoko gohan / 竹の子御飯) being one of the more popular ways.

According to the Tango no Sekku theme, these foods are meant to promote a long lifespan for boys using natural ingredients. Of course, this has now been extended to girls as well, as Kodomo no Hi promotes all kids should be taken care of evenly. Note that depending on the region, there are numerous ways in which the following foods are made, with some being more different than others.

ENDING

In conclusion, Kodomo no Hi is but one of the many examples of how a day of celebration can look simple visually, yet possesses layers of deep and complex history once delved into. While its older form, Tango no Sekku, has historical components that are a telltale of how society used to be, this doesn’t take away from the modern development of Kodomo no Hi and how families celebrate it.


1) Along with praying for kids’ health and fortune, Kodomo no Hi also includes giving thanks to mothers for giving birth to and helping to raise kids.

2) While Tango no Sekku was a celebration for boys, there were special events for girls as well almost at the same time. However, they greatly varied depending on the region.

3) These 5 numbers are the following: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9. They make up the positive or yō (陽, yang) numbers of the in-yo (or yin-yang). In turn, there are 5 seasonal celebrations, called Go-sekku (五節句), which take place on the following dates:

  • January 7th
  • March 3rd
  • May 5th
  • July 7th
  • September 9th

Hinamatsuri: Celebration of Girls’ Prosperity with Paper Dolls

March 3rd is the celebration of “Hinamatsuri” (雛祭り), or “Doll Festival”. This is a tradition of praying for good heath, prosperity, and a happy future for young girls. This is an age-long tradition that dates back as far as the Heian period, and is still viewed as an important one even today. For this article, we will look into the components of this celebration, from its meaning, how it’s practiced, as well as were its roots started.

COMPONENTS OF HINAMATSURI

For this celebration, cute “hina-ningyo” (雛人形), or paper dolls, are bought and arranged on a “hina-dan” (雛壇), which is a multi-tier display covered in a red cloth, along with other accessories. As the theme of this is the Imperial court of old, the dolls are placed on the tier according to their rank, with the emperor and empress on top, and others such as attendants and musicians descending lower. On this day, this hina-dan is displayed in one’s home, followed by other festivities.

Hinamatsuri was a celebration first practiced by those of noble families, which would then later spread amongst the populace as Japan started to modernize. Those who specialized in making the dolls, mulit-tier display, and other accessories were able to turn this into an important business. Large hina-dan with many tiers became expensive overtime, so it is not unusual for some families to opt for ones that have fewer, or just one tier. In these cases, fewer dolls may also be used.

ROOTS AND MEANINGS

The original practice of Hinamatsuri was to use paper or hay to make simple dolls, and place them on the hina-dan as a means to absorb bad luck. At the end of the celebration these dolls would be placed in rivers and sent afloat, in hopes that whatever bad energy was absorbed would be cleansed and discarded away.

Over time, higher quality dolls with more impressive craftsmanship were made, so families become less inclined to discard the dolls, but instead would pack them away securely after Hinamatsuri, and keep them for use for the following years. Of course, in keeping these dolls the parents had to encourage their daughters to practice good manners and staying clean, or else it is thought that bad luck would return and prevent them from getting married. These higher quality dolls were also durable enough that in some rare cases little girls were allowed to play with. Attachments like this turned them into heirlooms that could be kept within one’s family for generations.

The concept behind the original Hinamatsuri practice comes from China centuries ago, where water was viewed as a purifying source. It is recorded that back then people would step into lakes and rivers to cleanse themselves if they felt they had bad luck. The idea of using paper or hay dolls for dolls comes from Onmyōdō (陰陽道), which is a divination system utilizing the theories of yin & yang and the five elements. Onmyōji (陰陽師), or diviners, spent much of their time visiting the Imperial palace or people’s homes performing ceremonies to rid of negative energy, read fortunes, and to cure those afflicted with illnesses thought to be related with evil spirits. At times, dolls made out of paper or hay was used, which would serve as a medium to trap bad energy, then discarded away from the house.

CULINARY ASSOCIATED WITH THE CELEBRATION

Along with the paper dolls, there are special foods and treats associated with Hinamatsuri. These unique dishes include the following:

  • Hina-arare (雛あられ)
  • Hishi mochi (菱餅)
  • Chirashi-zushi (ちらし寿司)

Hina-arare are sweet small rice crackers that features the colors pink, green, yellow and white. Hishi mochi is a 3-layer diamond shaped rice cake that has a pink top, white center, and green bottom. Chirashi-zushi is the main dish for this celebration, which consists of sweet yet vinegary sushi rice topped with renkon (蓮根, lotus roots), ebi (海老, shrimp), mame (豆, green beans), and strips of fried tamago (卵, eggs).

These dishes feature elaborate colors and ingredients, which all are symbolic with special meanings. For example, the 3-layers of the hishi mochi each are to promote fortune for girls, with pink warding away evil, white symbolizing purity, and green representing good health. The colors of the hina-arare represent the 4 seasons, which is symbolic for a full year of good luck. Lastly, more than the ingredients of the chirashi-zushi being nutritious, they are selected for what they represent in Japanese culture, with the shrimp being longevity, the lotus roots being foresight to a good future, and green beans for healthy body.

Note that depending on the family or the part of Japan one’s from, some of these dishes may have slight arrangements. For example, it is not unusual to find ikura (いくら, salmon roe) or other seafood added to chirashi-zushi, or the inclusion of sakura mochi (桜餅, sweet redbean paste in the center of pink mochi wrapped with a sakura leaf) as a treat on this day.

ENDING

Here concludes this article on Hinamatsuri. It is quite astonishing to see how some traditions transcend centuries and continue to be in practice, even with how technologically advanced Japan has become. One thing’s for certain, it’s easy to see how little girls would find this day enjoyable, for the dolls, the multi-tier display, and the foods are all visually appealing.

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”.

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.

Today’s Understanding of Warrior Virtues of Old

In these modern times, warrior virtues are associated with Japanese martial arts. These virtues are said to help build character, fine tune one’s spirit, and make you an exemplary being in modern day society. The fact that these are taught in many martial schools around the world is a good thing, as it helps us to be a better neighbor to those around us in these relatively peaceful times. Yet, were virtues also valued the same way during times of war & strife many centuries ago in Japan’s history? Let’s look at the different listings of virtues, their origins, their roles from a historical standpoint, as well as how they are interpreted in today’s generation.

SANTOKU

One of the earliest set of virtues is said to be based on the theme of 3 simple principles called “santoku” (三徳). This concept called santoku¹ originally comes from Confucianism, a belief developed first in China way before Japan started developing its culture as we know it. Within 4 major texts used in the study of Confucianism, such as the 10-volume series called “Lúnyǔ” (論語), and “Zhōngyōng” (中庸) are examples of values people are instructed to follow. When Confucian teachings were brought over to Japan in its earlier years, it slowly was integrated into the lifestyles of nobles and the Imperial household. They also were adapted by those in the warrior class.

There are 3 virtues that stand out the most, which are said to make up santoku as known in Japan. They are the following:

  • Chi (知) = Knowledge
  • Jin (仁)  = Benevolence     
  • Yū (勇) = Bravery

These were virtues that were highly regarded, and expected to be followed not only by warriors, but those in leadership positions. When analyzing these, one can see how influential and essential they can be, especially for those who have to deal with conflict. Those involved in military activities stress the necessity of knowledge in many things concerning going to battle, including strategies, preparing troops, scouting, and so on. For benevolence, despite taking up a violent profession, a warrior was expected not to lose their humanity, as well as keep order for those around them and when entering other lands. As for bravery, this is a valued virtue necessary to go into battle and face the enemy that threatens their border. This scope ranges within the different territories in Japan when the military clans were becoming a powerful group as early as 1100s.

The idea of santoku doesn’t just stop here, as the concept of “3” continued to have a great influence in Japanese culture. Religious systems like Buddhism and Confucianism are known to employ 3 principles related to food, personality, and so on. There are even modern-day usages as well.

GOJŌ

Next is another set of virtues said to be followed by those who took up military profession during the Medieval period in Japan, called “gojō” (五常)². Translated as “the 5 natural habits”, gojō also comes from Confucianism. The concept of 5 habits were devised by Dong Zhongshu, who was known as a philosopher, politician, and Pro-Confucian supporter in the early Han Dynasty.

The 5 virtues under gojō are the following:

  • Jin (仁)  = Benevolence / Humility
  • Gi (義)    = Righteousness
  • Rei (礼)   = Respect
  • Chi (智)   = Understanding
  • Shin (信) = Belief

Like many lessons influenced by religious beliefs, gojō was meant as an example everyone must follow, as it outlines the most natural traits of humans that must be maintained. Depending on those interpreting it, how these 5 virtues play a role in one’s daily life is different. For warriors during the Sengoku period, they were outlined in a way in which how to conduct themselves both on and off the battlefield. On another note, gojō is an example of how the number 5 was a significant number in Asia, as there is plenty of other examples similar to gojō. For example, there is “gogyō” (五行), which outlines five elements that represent the creation of life, cycle of death, parts of the body, medicine, and so on. There is also “gorin” (五倫), which is seen as a precursor of gojō, as it has a similar focus on values based on a person’s relationship other people in their lives.

Many generals in Sengoku period are said to have expressed the concept of gojō during their military career, especially during the 1500s. Date Masamune is one of those generals, who also had his ow way of expressing this. His version was called gojōjun (五常順), where he warns not to be over-absorbed in the 5 virtues of gojō, possibly hinting the need of ruthlessness at times.

Interestingly, gojō was paired with santoku at some point in time, for while gojō was a set of virtues a warrior mustn’t forget, santoku was a set of virtues a warrior needed to ingrain within his/her being.

BUSHIDŌ

Last, we come to a very well known and popular set of virtues known as “bushidō” (武士道). Usually interpreted as “the code of the samurai”, it is a word 1st seen in the “Kōyō Gunkan” (甲陽軍鑑), a historical recordings of the Takeda clan which was compiled by Kasuga Toratsuna during early 1600s of Edo period. The following are the 7 virtues of bushidō:

  • Gi (義) = Righteousness
  • (勇) = Bravery
  • Jin (仁) = Benevolence / Humility
  • Rei (礼) = Respect
  • Makoto (誠) = Honesty
  • Meiyo (名誉) = Honor
  • Chūgi (忠義) = Loyalty

There are a few not-so-well known facts that are important even today when referring to bushidō as representing 7 virtues of the warriors in the past³. For starters, the word was written after wars were rampant, and when the Tokugawa shogunate ushered in centuries of relative peace. Whether or not the word was actually in use beforehand can be debated. Also, since it only appeared in this sole documentation known as Kōyō Gunkan, it may have been a specialty word made up for use by the feudal lord Takeda Shingen and his retainers. Furthermore, there was no list of virtues accompanying the term bushidō, so what was it truly dotting on in terms of what made an exemplary warrior is pretty much a mystery.

Pic of the 1st cover design for “Bushido: The Soul of Japan”

Possibly the biggest fact worth mentioning is bushidō was not a general term publicly known in Japan, so it didn’t have any real influence on the populous. Instead, the word first was introduced in an English book from the early 1900s called “Bushidō: The Soul of Japan”, which was written by Nitobe Inazō. Mr. Nitobe’s intentions was to teach the West about Japan, and how they were both civilized and peaceful to the world. He also included a list of virtues that outlined what bushidō stands for. At a later date, the book would be translated into Japanese and sold in Japan.

THE BAD…AND THE GOOD

One of the issues primarily with bushidō is that it is a modern invention, yet is declared as being the virtues followed by Japanese warriors during warring times. This isn’t true at all. There was much criticism even by the Japanese after the book came out, which still exists today. For starters, Mr. Nitobe, despite descending from a samurai family, was not raised as a warrior, but instead as a scholar⁴. He also studied much about Western culture, and made his faith in Christianity. Some critics express that the virtues made for bushidō and how they were presented were inspired by his Christian beliefs, and how the West viewed soldiers at war at the time. On top of this, Japanese scholars, and later many of the general public in Japan, did not sit well with bushidō and what it stood for, as it was a contradictory of the factual behavior of warriors and those of the samurai class, as there was plenty of examples from historical documents & stories of uncivilized behavior they have shown. This even proves true up till the mid 1800s right before the samurai class was finally abolished due to the violent end of the Tokugawa reign, followed by the induction of Imperial control through the Meiji Restoration.

Despite whether or not the virtues mentioned above where truly influential historically, they play a very large role in today’s world. As many countries have governments that focus more on non-violent means for economical growth and citizens live together in environments that promote peace & prosperity, having santoku, gojō, and bushidō act as vehicles that can inspire people to be humane and live together in harmony, whether they are your neighbors or from overseas, is definitely a good thing. This holds true for those who study martial arts; where a person learns skills that can be lethal if used for the wrong purpose, being taught alongside with virtues designed for warriors can help to keep practitioners on the straight path and become exemplary individuals within their community. Even bushidō has been accepted in Japan society today, as the term, along with its virtues, are beneficial in promoting Japanese culture to other countries around the world.

From a different perspective, it can be argued that bushidō and the virtues that represent it are nothing more than a collection of the same virtues revered in the past. While this is actually true (excluding meiyō and chūgi), it is still argued that warriors did not actually have a list as such that they had to live their lives by. This can be said even for santoku and gojō; while these virtues were built into Japanese society and valued by certain military experts, how warriors behaved during war and how leaders engaged in power struggles against one another were not guided by these virtues many times. Although virtuous praise of certain famous warlords and legendary fighters are often written in stories and recited in songs & theatrical plays, it is usually done so by those who are the victors and by those who support them.

ENDING

Warrior virtues, although considered a piece of history, can be very inspiring and help guide people to be civil amongst one another in these modern times. Like most things from the past, however, certain pieces of history may become romanticized, thus taken out of context. While warrior virtues may have been conceived in the past, it is important to understand their factual use on a historical level, lest we view them in a skewed manner today. This wraps up this discussion on warrior virtues. I hope this helps clear the air and bring light on understanding warrior virtues associated with Japanese martial arts.


1) There is a santoku from Buddhism, but the ideas in this version is different

2) Also known as “gojō no michi” (五常の道)

3) There is actually an 8th virtue associated with bushidō, which is called “jisei” (自制). Jisei is the final product of those who uphold the 7 virtues by exhibiting restraint and self-control. While it is a demonstration of a fine quality, jisei (self-control) is said to not stand on its own like the other 7 virtues, thus it tends to be omitted from the list.

4) Nitobe Inazō was about 7 years old when the Meiji Restoration took effect (1868), which came along the end of the samurai class.