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.

Chōyō no Sekku: The Fall Festival

When following traditional festivals and celebrations in Japan, you find out a few interesting things, such as specific ones may have more than one date depending on the prefecture, or goes by a different name depending on the history of each town. For this article, I will introduce Chōyō no Sekku, a festival with a long tradition.

UNDERSTANDING THE TRADITION

Chōyō no Sekku (重陽の節句 ) is 1 of the 5 seasonal festival that originates from Inyō Gogyo Setsu. Before modern times, this took place on the 9th day of the 9th month based on the inreki (陰暦, old calendar). One of the reasons is that according to auspicious readings in ancient Chinese philosophy, odd numbered days are viewed as lucky, while even numbered days are seen as unlucky days. Since 9 is the highest single-digit odd number, Chōyō no Sekku was designated on this date. After Japan adopted a more modernized calendar, this date was changed accordingly by about a month, and takes place on a different day each year within that month. For example, this year it falls on the 25th of October.

In the old calendar, this festival took place around the same time chrysanthemums were in bloom. According to the adjustments the new calendar brings, this still holds true. Due to this, it also received the alternate name of “Kiku no Sekku” (菊の節句, Chrysanthemum Festival). This isn’t coincidental, but possibly intentional due to what chrysanthemum stands for.

Since ancient times in China, these flowers were believed to give a longevity of good health and fortune by warding away evil spirits. This belief was also brought over to and adopted in Japan. Amongst specific groups, they are deemed valuable and used for important activities, such as in Shintō and Buddhist rituals. There is an old phrase that describes the chrysanthemum as “senkyō ni saku reiyaku¹”, which means “the elixir that grows within the enchanted lands²”. This truly expresses this sense of value the chrysanthemum had in the past.

ORIGIN AND HISTORY

Origins of this festival is said to have 1st passed on as a ritual in China during during ancient times. When it started to become a regularly practiced festival during the start of the Heian period (794~1185) in Japan, it entailed going to designated areas within the Imperial grounds of the Capital and viewing the beautiful gardens that were full of chrysanthemums. This was called “Kangiku no En“ (観菊の宴, Chrysanthemum Viewing Party) or “Kiku no En” (菊の宴, Chrysanthemum Party) for short. Noble families also grew these chrysanthemums on their property as a means to ward away bad luck. Over the centuries, this value for chrysanthemums trickled down to common folks living in different areas of Japan. Due to its wide popularity, it became recognized as an official seasonal festival.

Outside of viewing these flowers, people decorate their surroundings with chrysanthemums. For example, they may be placed on top of certain objects, put inside of a pillow, have petals float on the bath water, or put them in a special pouch within their clothing. Along with its appealing visual appearance, the fragrance from the  chrysanthemums are said to aromatic.

FESTIVE FOODS & DRINKS

This festival is not only just about looking at or surrounding yourself with chrysanthemums; like the other seasonal festivals, Chōyō no Sekku also has the custom of consuming specific foods and drinks.

Pic of kikuzake. From Photo-AC.

One example is kikuzake (菊酒) , which people would drink as they strolled through those beautiful floral gardens an gazed upon at these flowers In the past. Kikuzake stands for “chrysanthemum wine”, which is made with the actual flower. If placed in a cup, then the actual flower or a few petals would be placed inside to float on the surface. This went along with the celebration, as consuming it in this fashion synonymous to getting eternal life and/or warding evil. In actually, chrysanthemums are filled with nutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and Glutathione. Even though these wouldn’t really grant you eternal life, drinking kikuzake would at least help you to stay healthy just for a little bit.

A bowl of kurigohan incorporated in a meal. From Photo-AC.

Another is kurigohan (栗ご飯), which is a simple dish of rice with diced chestnuts on top. Like chrysanthemum, chestnuts grow in the Fall. Being a source of food that was gathered in villages in the past, it was used to make sweets. During preparations for Chōyō no Sekku, kurigohan became a popular dish to eat.

ENDING

With Fall in effect, Chōyō no Sekku is one of the seasonal events that can be participated in different ways, whether through flower viewing, home decor, or through a meal. Take note that while the date from the old calendar may be recognized and referenced, the date on the new calendar is generally followed. As mentioned earlier, this year Chōyō no Sekku will be celebrated on 10/25, but will fall on a different date within October in the following years.



1) 仙境に咲く霊薬. Senkyō refers to the enchanted and often fairytale-like world that sennin (仙人, miracle workers in the form of monks, holy men, wise men) reside in through mysterious powers. Usually regular people who have “evolved” through enlightenment from their studies and training, they visit the human plane at free will. When given a more realistic spin, senkyō refers to areas where these enlightened individuals choose to reside far away from normal civilization, such as mountains and forests. 

2) Reiyaku is equivalent to an elixir or miracle drug that is said give a person enteral life. This can also be in the form of a drink. Usually associated with concoctions made with medicinal-like ingredients such as herbs, plants, pure water from the mountains, etc.

Experiencing Japanese Festivals ~ PART 2

In part 1, I shared my experience in attending a matsuri, or festival in Japan. For this article, I will elaborate more on one of the main components found in large festivals, which is the dashi. This will include the history, design, differences from the mikoshi, and the many names it is known under based on area.

DEFINITION AND BEGINNINGS

Dashi is written as “山車” in Japanese. At 1st glance one would think phonetically it should be pronounced  “sansha” or “yamaguruma”. Why “dashi” is used is not really known.  From a literal translation you get “rolling mountain” or “mountain on wheels”. This has a deep meaning due to how it originated.

The dashi is associated with festive celebrations that have roots in ritualistic practices. Its purpose is to call down kami (神, usually identified as divine spirits, deities, and gods) that have some connection to ancient Shintō beliefs¹ from the heavens into man-made mountains that were made out of trees, leaves, pieces of lumber, and other natural materials. Through this show of worship, the locals sought protection from evil spirits & calamity, or to receive continual good fortune for their area, which is believed to have been granted by these gods.

An account of the origins and meaning behind the term dashi. From “Me de miru Hachioji no Dashi Matsuri”.

The origins of this ritual is said to come from an ancient belief that certain inanimate objects housed gods, especially for those that are higher up in the sky. This was especially true for mountain tops, as well as rocks & trees that are found high up on mountains. It is thought that people at the time wanted to invite these divine spirits that they worship into a special medium during times of ritualistic festivities. Thus the dashi was invented. Another thought is the dashi was originally brought up a mountain to where it would be tall enough to be the major point of attraction for these divine spirits. In order to do so, wheels were attached to it so it could be pulled up a mountain.

Certain historical documents like the Kojiki (古事記), Zoku Nihon Kōki (続日本後紀), Kiki (記紀), and Ruigu Kokushi (類聚国史) give the notion that ritualistic festivities that incorporate the dashi was normal practice as far back as the Heian period (794 ~ 1185). This ranges from the age-long festivities that took place in Gion, Kyōto (this was originally the capital city where the Imperial family and noble families resided in), to during a ceremonial event called Daijōe (大嘗会)² . In the past, the dashi went under such titles like Shime yama (標山)³ and Yamaboko (山鉾). These different events, in some shape or form, was to ward off misfortune and calamity away from the area and its inhabitants through the protection of the deity being called for.

These festivals were carried out in rich & prosperous areas like Kyōto up until feudal warring for the sake of control over Japan became excessive, such as during Sengoku period. Once Japan was unified under the rule of the Tokugawa clan, festivals featuring the dashi resumed. As different prefectures became developed during Edo period, many towns also adopted this traditional practice as they started their own festivals, which includes building their own unique dashi. Today, the artistic construction of the dashi used throughout Japan is a visual spectacle that attracts much attention, both from the locals to visitors from other countries. It can be argued that much of the ritual/worship aspect is a minor for these festivals, or gone all together from people’s minds. Still, this has not deterred such festivals to continue, and this may be due in part of the dashi.

DIFFERENCES FROM THE MIKOSHI

A common object used during festivals is the mikoshi (神輿). Like the dashi, this plays an important role in accordance to Shinto traditions. However, it shouldn’t be confused with the dashi for they are not the same at all. Below is a list of the differences for both the mikoshi and the dashi.

3 mikoshi of different sizes. From Photo-ac.com

Mikoshi

  • Mini shrine to transport local god to temporary shrine
  • Houses divine spirit that remains closed to the public
  • No humans are allowed in
  • Carried as they are light

A mikoshi is made in the semblance of a mini shrine. It’s purpose is to transport the deity that resides in the main shrine to a temporary shrine during the procession. General public are not allowed to see the inside of the containment on the mikoshi, which supposedly houses the god of the local shrine. This is the same as when visiting the main shrine.  The mikoshi is much smaller than a dashi, and, depending on design and weight,  is generally carried by 2-4 people. 

A dashi in motion. From Photo-ac.com

Dashi

  • Design is a large float-like vehicle
  • Means to attract divine spirit
  • Live entertainment by human inside
  • Pulled as they can be very heavy

As mentioned before, the dashi is a large float-like vehicle that is designed to rival a mountain. They are usually adorned with eye-catchy accessories, which is much different from the mikoshi. The purpose of the dashi is to not only be attractive to the local god to come down and embark inside, but to be as source of entertainment to appease the god. People are allowed to sit inside the dashi, and act as the source of entertainment. To further assist with this, workers may also sit on the sides and/or on top of the dashi. As one can imagine, the design can make for a rather large and heavy vehicle. With wheels attached to the bottom, a dashi is pulled by a good number of people in order for it to move⁴.

MORE THAN ONE NAME

The common name used today to describe this mountain-on-wheels throughout Japan is “dashi”. However there are specialty & colloquial labels used as well. Here’s a list of these unique titles along with the areas in Japan you will most likely be able to hear them.

1) Yamaboko (山鉾) = Previously mentioned, this could have the meaning of “mountain lance” or “mountain that pierces the sky”. Thought as one of the earlier terms for dashi. This title is used in Kyōto.

2) Yamagasa (山笠) = Literally translates as “mountain-umbrella”. Used in Hakata City, Fukuoka. Records on the reasoning behind the term is non-existent. Furthermore, the dashi used do not give a clue, for the dashi used in Hakata City always have a new design every year.

3) Yatai (屋台) = Used in Tochigi Prefecture. A title that actually has the same meaning as dashi, but nowadays acts as a word for booths, stalls, and the like that are set up at festivals and amusement parks where locals can play games and buy food. For the matsuri held in Tochigi, yatai is still reserved for use as the name for the dashi.

4) Hikiyama (曳山) = Can be translated as “a mountain that is pulled along”. Considered an older word, it is still used in certain areas, such as Shiga Prefecture and Saga Prefecture.

5) Saisha (祭車) = An interesting dashi used in Mie Prefecture. One of its unique traits is that it features a 3-wheeled wagon design with percussion instruments such as symbols and drum hanging from the back, and may have many lanterns positioned on top. Unlike other bigger counterparts, the saisha design tends to have it on the small side, with decorations on top of its roof that makes it look taller. This makes it not have a lot of room for anyone to sit on, if at all. Also, performers can play music at the back as they walk along with the saisha.

6) Danjiri (地車, 壇尻) = This label is used primarily in the western part of Japan. Danjiri stands out from the rest of the dashi with its longer shape and somewhat lower roofing. This lends to an older looking architecture that can seat many workers during the festival. Another point worth mentioning is that danjiri are known for their speed, as they are pulled around at a faster pacing.

DECORATING A DASHI

Over time the architecture of the dashi has evolved and has become a work of art. Each prefecture have their own team or hire specialists that craft their dashi according to the vision they have in order to tell their story. As can be seen in the pictures provided, some creativity goes into designing a dashi to be tall & adorned with different accessories, yet still leave ample room for the workers to sit or hang on. Some, on the other hand, are designed where instead of a person, a doll depicting a warrior or a mythical creature sits on the dashi. Architectural design gives credence to this, as some may be shaped like a small building with multiple tiers and roofing which allows many people to board on it. Others may be built like a room or chamber, where individuals dressed like nobles sit during the procession. Then there are those that may bear a design like a stage and have a kabuki actor perform.

The terms dashi gazari (山車飾り) and dashi kanagu (山車金具) are used when referring to decorations & metallic parts for the dashi. These decorations consists of pillars, golden emblems & plates, embroidery fabrics, curtains, ropes, and drums. Some boost decorations similar to that on shrines, while others may have an appears that is wild like something out of folklore. Most of these have a strong Asian motif, with concepts coming from Shinto or Buddhism. Then there are those that make use of dashi ningyō (人形, doll), which can range to it being small to larger than human size.

The decorations have special meaning. For example, they may tell the story behind the start of that particular area’s dashi matsuri, portray famous individuals or mystical beings, or they may inspire a quality that is synonymous with the town or area. One example is the large festival that takes place in Morioka City, Iwate Prefecture, where some organizations participate with their own specialty dashi. These tend to be based on old Japanese folklore and kabuki plays, such as Urashima Tarō, Bō-shibari, and Yoshitsune Senbon-zakura. As one would expect, creating elaborately fancy dashi meant that they got a special name as well, so their style can be remembered when recorded in each area’s catalogue.

CONCLUSION

This wraps up this article about dashi. One article is not enough to describe the plethora of unique dashi that are rolled out each year in Japan. While seeing them in pictures is great, physically being in the crowds of a festival to see them during the procession is an experience you’ll never forget. Hope this article is convincing enough to make the trip out to Japan if you haven’t (that is, once the world has settled down and traveling becomes safe).


1) Ancient Shintō (古神道, Ko-Shintō) is considered vastly different from modern Shinto today, as it incorporated a more archaic ideology regarding nature, spirits, and how humans interact with them. Form of worship was much more open-ended, as its basis included primitive, esoteric beliefs such as animism. Over time, however, this changed once Taoism and Buddhism were introduced to Japan, and over time Ancient Shintō and other older beliefs started to be pushed away.

2) Also written as Daijōsai (大嘗祭), and can also be pronounced Oonie -matsuri and Ooname-matsuri.

3) Also written as Shime no yama (標の山).

4) At one point in time, cows were used to pull a dashi.

Experiencing Japanese Festivals ~ PART 1

This year I was really looking forward to my summer vacation in Japan. However, due to the current pandemic, this was not possible. Some of the activities my family and I had planned included seeing the street festival that takes place in my wife’s hometown. Street festivals are a great sight to experience, as it really shows the unity and pride in these by the local townfolks. I don’t often take pictures when I travel about or take part in special occasions like this, for I prefer to take in the experience and enjoy every moment without disengaging by taking out my camera. Recently I stumbled upon some actual pics of me and my family taking part in a street festival, and figured I’d share it here.

These pictures are from late summer of 2009. Japan is especially humid around this time, so we could dress in light, comfortable clothing. Many of the town folks, along with my family, gathered late in the day along a busy street in Motoyokoyama Town (元横山町) in Hachiōji City (八王子市), which is located in the western part of Tokyo. We all arrived early while preparations were at hand. This street festival, called “Hachiōji Matsuri” (八王子祭), is done annually in August. The main attraction is the numerous dashi (山車), which are like large floats that are competitively designed and adorned to be the best spectacle to the crowds of people.

The dashi, along with other elements featured during the street festival, are supported by the Hachiman Yakumo Jinja (八幡八雲神社), which is the main shrine of this part of the city. While considered a young tradition since the formal development of Hachiōji during the Edo period, it is recorded that festivals of this nature have been in practice in rich & flourishing areas since the Heian period (794~1185), such as Kyoto.

Wearing a happi (法被, traditional light coat especially used for working) shows one’s support for the festivities at hand. Most participants wore different types of happi depending on their role during the festival. Myself and my daughter (pic above) also wore a happi we received from my parents-in-law.

In these street festivals, a procession takes place. Depending on the celebration, certain objects or equipment will be used. Here we can see a mikoshi (神輿), which is a shintō vehicle designed to house the god that is worshiped and considered the guardian of this section of Hachiōji. There are actually two gods of the Hachiman Yakumo Jinja, which are Hondawake-no-Mikoto (誉田別命) and Susanoo-no-Mikoto (素戔嗚尊).

Take note that although this follows along a tradition, esoteric & religious beliefs may not be so prominent for the festival or even amongst those participating. Instead, the enjoyment and unity such events bring are the winning point for many. As for the mikoshi, it is an adorned vehicle which the inside cannot be seen. It is also a portable size, allowing several individuals to easily carry during the procession. Generally speaking, a mikoshi is a work of art and unique between the many towns and prefectures found in Japan.

Next is the dashi, which is the vehicle that is used to attract the gods from the heavens, and have them be entertained in order to keep their interest to stay for the festival. There were a few present at this street festival. Unlike the mikoshi, a dashi is a very tall vehicle similar to a float. There is usually one entertainer minimum sitting inside the float, but there can be more. Also there can be entertainers riding outside on the sides or even on top of the dashi. Due to their size and weight, the dashi has wheels in order for it to move and has to be pulled by several workers. Dashi also showcase some impressive designs and decorations. They are intricately planned, and have skilled designers craft these decorations. Up close they are a sight to see. Depending on the town, the design and decorations are unique and have special meanings.

We stayed for several hours, as the festival continued in the night. In preparation for this, the street lamps came on. Along with this, the glowing lanterns and lights on the dashi added an eerie yet mystical aura as darkness slowly draped around us.

On the side of the streets were vendors selling food and drinks. These were handy if you needed some form of nourishment to keep going, or if you just wanted to have a good time and enjoy the street food.

We’ve come to the end of this little walk down memory lane regarding Japanese street festival. Hope you all enjoyed a glimpse into it through the pictures provided. In my next post, I will continue to discuss about festivals that place dashi as the main attraction, which will include the lore and the distinguishing points that put it in a class of its own.

Evolution of Bunbu Ryōdō

Many who have spent a good number of years studying Japanese martial arts have probably heard the term bunbu ryōdō (文武両道). It is one that was used to identified individuals who were true warriors of the military family class. While purists of the martial arts today still make use of this term, bunbu ryōdō has also evolved for use in modern times for those exemplary individuals who display the same excellence as warriors of old…but in the field of sports and education.

EARLY USE OF THE TERM BUNBU RYŌDŌ

Bunbu ryōdō is a term which has been in use in early times, possibly going much further than Heian period (794 ~ 1185). In a simple definition, it refers to the dedicated study in both military affairs and cultural areas of interest¹. This comes during a period when nobles, military families, and those of the imperial line, were structuring a sophisticated lifestyle based off from many kinds of teachings gained from literature, religion, and cultural influences. In the case of individuals who, coming from a clan with a background in military affairs, were being groomed into a profession of a warrior, they were expected to develop their physical abilities and mental fortitude as much possible to be a complete package.

When looking into what bu (武), or military-related topics, pertain to, it involved not only the physical training in the instruments utilized for war, (i.e. bow & arrow, sword techniques, pike techniques, equestrian skills) but it was also important to understand the ideology and tactics of war. This included studying from the Chinese military classics (i.e. “Art of War” by Sun Tzu and “36 Stratagems” of the Southern Qi Dynasty), as well as understanding the Japanese methodology towards warfare, which entailed such tasks like shiro tori (城取, setting up an encampment during expeditions), jin tori (陣取, strategic occupation of an area with troops), kōjōsen (攻城戦, laying siege on & capturing an opposing castle), and shinheiki no tōjō (新兵器の登場, adapting new technologies for warfare). Shifting roles and being able to engage in domestic affairs during peaceful times, all the while being prepared & able when it was time to go back to war (generally labeled as heiji [平時]), was also a must. This did not mean that a warrior had to be physically unbeatable, but versed in all aspects pertaining to military affairs that they could be overall effective in either small matters to large matters.

As for bun (文), or cultural-related topics, one of the areas usually dotted on is literacy. For a warrior to be balanced, it was viewed as a good thing to be able to read & write, as well as be versed in renown works made by famous poets and writers, understand senseigaku (占星学, astrology), uranai (占い, divination), and tenki yohō (天気予報, meteorology). All these were a part of everyday society in the past in every right. In the later periods such as the Middle century, having an appreciation of the arts, such as shodō (書道, calligraphy), kadō (華道, flower arrangement), chadō (茶道, tea ceremony), and suiboku-ga² (水墨画, ink-wash painting) were also seen as important activities for developing a balance. Famous figures from history such as Miyamoto Musashi, Hosokawa Fujitaka, and Uesugi Kenshin are viewed as those who exhibit talent as role models of bunbu ryōdō.

MODERN DAY ADAPTATION

In modern Japan, bunbu ryōdō is still being utilized to inspire excellence as in the past…but in a completely different field. With the warrior class abolished and a reformed government from a military state, the current generation is not mandated to study combative arts. Instead, as a civilized country, citizens are expected to focus their energy by getting a good education and getting into the workforce to help drive businesses forward. As a means to see this happen, many educators have adopted the term towards students and encourage them to excel in both sports and education.

The roles in which make up the term bunbu ryōdō have now switched from military and cultural activities, to sports and education. Since competition in many types of sporting events is a huge driving force around the world, educators encourage kids to participate in sporting activities from a young age, such as baseball, soccer, basketball, and volleyball. They are expected to dedicate much of their time in their respected sporting activity on a daily basis, from early in the morning to late in the day after school is finished. During the school year there are numerous games against other schools’ teams which kids are expected to participate in, all in an effort to help their school stay on top of the rankings. The competitive nature found in sports, along with the rigorous training, is liken to that of a warrior training for war, similar to how principles of war were incorporated in business as a means for business men and women to gain success against their rivals³.

As for education, it doesn’t differ a great deal from cultural studies in the past. In actuality, education was already being applied to bunbu ryōdō little by little from the Edo period (1603 ~ 1868) onward, as a component to bring balance to everyone who were actively engaged in their occupation, whether you were born in the warrior class or a commoner such as a farmer. Fast forward to today’s world, education is a driving force in society, with it being available to all throughout Japan. Yet, different incentives are put into place to identify those who are the cream of the crop. Kids generally go to an elementary school closest to them within their neighborhood learning fundamental skills such as mathematics, reading, science, as well as life skills such as cooking, health, and crafts. However, they will eventually need to prepare for good high schools, which requires them to not only have good grades, but study a great deal to pass entrance exams. The same for when they pursue top colleges and universities, where once admitted, they will need to choose a major such as Engineering, Economics, and Agriculture. Those who have a full schedule keeping up with sporting activities aren’t the exception; they need to excel in their studies no matter what little time they have between practice sessions and traveling to take part in competitive games in their respected sports. A grueling task for those who want to keep up in the sports they enjoy indeed.

To have an exemplary school career can lead to a brighter future with plenty of opportunities opening up to each individual. Being both a great athlete and a grade A student who attended a top university is the new face of bunbu ryōdō⁴. Examples of those who’ve achieved this level present-day include professional soccer player Kawashima Eiji, former pro ice skater Yaginuma Junko, and swimmer Tominaga Kohei.

CONCLUSION

The ideology behind bunbu ryōdō was to inspire a balance for those involved in military-related activities with and literary-cultural studies in ancient Japan. It was a reflection of the times and what was deemed as important in the structural makeup of society. In modern times the term continues to bear its aged meaning by those who specialize in Japanese martial arts, but on a national level it has evolved in accordance to the change in society to be geared towards the youth and inspire them to do good physically and mentally during their school career as an athlete and a scholar. In essence, athletes today are liken to that of warriors, and their training regiment to excel in competition is similar to that of how warriors refined their skills for the battlefield. Yet, just like a warrior being versed in finer cultural arts, an athlete who is educated is viewed as one who is balanced, and can be a good role model to all.


1) This duality is usually summarized with the phrase “pen and sword”. This complies more with the samurai during Edo period who carried a katana (刀, sword) in preparation to fight, and held the fude (筆, pen) to write and create documents.

2) A more familiar term for this is sumi-e (墨絵).

3) In the late 20th century, many of the philosophies and advice from Miyamoto Musashi’s Gorinsho (五輪書) were being adapted in how businessmen could succeed in their ventures, how they interacted with clients, surpassing potential “rivals”, and so on.

4) A word that is said to truly express the meaning behind today’s use of bunbu ryōdō is “student-athletes”.

Sakura and Kiku: Iconic Flowers of Japan

Out of the many colorful and visually appealing flowers of Japan, which would be considered Japan’s national flower? Many would consider cherry blossoms (known as sakura¹ in Japanese) due to its popularity culturally and socially, as well as its symbolic use in pop culture. Yet, would you be surprised to hear that it may have a contender for that position, which can be chrysanthemum (pronounced as kiku² in Japanese)? Could it actually be both? For this post, we will look at both cherry blossoms and chrysanthemum’s growing presence from Japan’s ancient past to the modern age of present times, and how they’ve been incorporated into the culture as iconic flowers in their own rights.

BEGINNINGS OF THE CHERRY BLOSSOMS

It is said that cherry blossoms became popular around the middle of the Heian period (794 ~ 1185). At the time, it was dotted on by Emperor Daigo in the use of poetry from the year 905. Before that, a flower that caught the eye of the upperclass was the plum blossom known as “ume” (梅). Researchers have determined this through the review of an older text called “Manyōshū” (万葉集), which features many poetic songs based on various topics including flowers. Many of these songs pertain the word plum blossoms in them. On the other hand, there isn’t at many songs regarding cherry blossoms. Since this book has been actively used among the imperial family years in advance, we get an idea that the cherry blossom’s popularity was initially not as old as one would think.

Pic of Emperor Daigo. From Wikipedia.

When appeal shifted in the favor of the cherry blossom, it’s possible that Emperor Daigo’s liking of this flower contributed to this through the following episode. In a 6-volume collection of recorded historical events called Kojidan (古事談), there is an entry regarding the 4th son of Emperor Daigo, Shigeakira (重明), who greatly admired cherry blossoms when he was little. He liked it so much that within his living quarters he had cherry blossom trees grown there. In the Shishinden (紫宸殿), the ceremonial grounds where the children reside within the Imperial palace’s, had plum blossom trees grown all around, which was commonplace. One day, the Shishinden caught on fire and was burnt down, including the plum blossoms trees. In some time it was rebuilt, but in place of the plum blossom trees, Shigeakira moved his cherry blossom trees to inhabit the new Shishinden. It was because of this incident that cherry blossoms grew to be among the Imperial families and noble families.

Eventually, cherry blossoms became popular among the populous throughout Japan. Cherry blossom trees were grown in different regions. Many admired its beauty, as well as its characteristics. For example, after cherry blossoms have fully bloomed, their petals fall off gradually. The falling petals are liken to snow, and if they are present during a snowy day³ they tend to be labeled as “yukizakura” (雪桜). Appreciation for its beauty was often shown as prints on clothing, as well as in ukiyo-e (浮世絵, woodblock painting). Bushi, or warriors of old also took favor of this flower in numerous ways during the Sengoku period (1467~1615), such as likening the wondrous bloom and slow, yet delicate, petal falls of the cherry blossoms to the the short life of a warrior who can claim greatness, yet have his life disappear at a moment’s whim. A popular phrase representing this is the following:


「花は桜木 人は武士」
(Hana wa sakuragi hito wa bushi)

“among flowers, the cherry blossom tree
among men, the warrior”


This basically refers to the cherry blossom being the best compared to other flowers, just as the warrior class was viewed as the more superior class of them all.

Cherry blossoms would be used as a sign of nationalism in various ways even by the Imperial army during the Meiji period (1868~1912) onward. This would last until the ending of WWII.

BEGINNINGS OF THE CHRYSANTHEMUMS

Chrysanthemum is a flower which was incorporated into the lifestyle of Japan by those who brought it over from China. This was around the time when the fashion, art, and etiquette of Chinese culture had a great influence in the development of Japanese society. There are different types of the chrysanthemum, which are listed in different ancient Chinese texts such as “Liji” (礼記, Book of Rites). It’s speculated that chrysanthemum was introduced to Japan around the 5th century, close to the ending of the Heian period. It’s 1st appearance within Japanese documentation is said to be in a 25-volume set of historical texts entitled “Ruiju Kokushi” (類聚国史, Topics related to National History of Japan), compiled in 892. One of the well-known lines that mentions it is located on the 11th page within the song verses in the 12th volume, section #715, which goes as the following (accompanied with my own English interpretation):


「己乃己呂乃 志具礼乃阿米爾 菊乃波奈 知利曽之奴倍岐 阿多羅蘇乃香乎」
(Kono goro no shigure no ame ni kiku no hana chirizo shinu beki atara sono ka o)

“Around this time, as the Autumn rain falls on the chrysanthemums
they will be scattered and surely die
oh so tragic what will befall their fragrance.”


On a literacy level, familiarity with the chrysanthemum can be said to have been among those who were wealthy and educated, such as the Imperial and noble families. It may have been appreciated by them as early as Nara period (710~794). For example, in the Manyōshū there are few poetic songs about it.

Popularity for this flower continued to grow, as the chrysanthemum would later appear within waka-style poetry⁴ in a Heian period book called “Kokin Wakashu” (古今和歌集, Collection from Ancient and Modern Times), which was a text conceived by Emperor Uda (宇多天皇), and later published through the order by his son & successor Daigo. Since it was an Imperial text, it too had great influences on other nobles, who would also grow to appreciate chrysanthemums a great deal.

Chrysanthemum is an Autumn flower, since that is the time it blooms. It was a favorite of Emperor Gotoba (後鳥羽) during the early Kamakura period (1185~1333). So much that it was chosen to be the Imperial crest. It would also gain a good amount of attention during the Edo period (1603~1868) and was shown off throughout many areas in Japan.

THE MANY IMAGES OF FLOWERS

The following are examples of images inspired by both cherry blossoms and chrysanthemums.

Cherry Blossom-themed Family Crests / 桜家紋 (from Hakko-Daioda.com )

Chrysanthemum-themed Family Crests / 菊家紋 (from Wikipedia)

Woodblock Art / 浮世絵 (from ukiyo-e.org and Wikipedia)

EVERYDAY USE IN MODERN TIMES

Out of the 2 flowers, cherry blossom is greatly beloved by the general public in Japan. Cherry blossom is a Spring flower, which coincides with hanami (花見), or flower viewing festivities which take place early during the same season. During flower viewing, the blooming of cherry blossoms attract the largest crowds, and get a lot of press & advertisements. Some of the attention comes from products promoting it as a flavor for candy, drinks, and so on.

Cherry blossom is visually used in various mediums in pop culture. For example, it is not uncommon to see an exquisite character make an appearance in a scene in one of many anime, accompanied by cherry blossom petals. Or, they may fall and dance around the screen of one of many video games which may have a samurai-like character do an impressive barrage of attacks with a katana.

Chrysanthemum, on the other hand, grows during the Fall. Depending on people’s lifestyle, chrysanthemums are used in different ways. For starters, it is popular flower art and in ikebana (生け花, flower arrangements). There is a type that is also called “shokugiku” (食菊), as it is used as decoration for meals. Chrysanthemum has auspicious meanings, such as longevity and rejuvenation. Thus, one can find it as patterns on kimono, accessories, good luck charms, dishware, porcelain, even on the 50-yen coin. Depending on the occasion, different colored chrysanthemums (minus white ones) are given as gifts.

Chrysanthemums play an interesting role in religious-related activities. For example, there is a national day with Shinto origins called “Chōyō no Sekku” (重陽の節句), that falls on September 9. It is also called “Kiku no Sekku” (菊の節句), or Chrysanthemum Day. It is a festival of happiness. The holiday was established in 910 AD when the first chrysanthemum show was held. In another instance, this flower is used in Buddhist-related traditions for honoring the dead. White chrysanthemums are offered to deceased loved ones’ graves.

While cherry blossoms are viewed as the flower for the populous, chrysanthemum tends to be seen as the Imperial flower. For hundreds of years the Imperial family have decorated their grounds with this, that it was eventually made the official seal to represent them. A special seal called “Jūroku yae Omotegiku” (十六八重表菊, 16-Petal double-layered Chrysanthemum) is used, which was later made forbidden for use by any one other than those of the Imperial family at one point in history. In the 1920s, as a showing of national pride, Japanese citizens are issued a passport with a different chrysanthemum seal on it, called “Jūroku hitoe Omotegiku (十六一重表菊, 16-Petal single-layer Chrysanthemum).

Yet, another example of chrysanthemum emblems can be found in shinmon (神紋), which are special seals that belong to shrines. Just like family seals, shrine seals have been in use for centuries, and vary in appearance depending on the shrine. In this case of the chrysanthemum, there are many types of shrine seals that use this flower, which are still in use today. The same can be said about cherry blossoms being used as shrine seals as well.

ENDING

Flowers have had a great influence on Japanese society for ages. Cherry blossoms and chrysanthemums are possibly the most iconic, for whether we look back to the past or gaze around us in present times, they both stand out almost identically. There is no clear distinction on which of these two are considered the #1 flower of Japan, but it’s safe to say that, whether you admire one or the other, they both serve their purpose in representing the spirit of Japan.


1) 桜. A much older kanji of this would be “櫻”.

2) 菊. The modern way of writing this kanji (菊) is derived from an older one, which is “鞠”.

3) It wasn’t unusual for some cherry blossom trees to grow during Winter.

4) Waka is written as “和歌” in modern times, but used to be written as “倭歌” in ancient times. They both mean relatively the same thing, “Japanese songs”. Waka consists of unique poetic patterns, which includes tanka (短歌, short poems that follow a 5-7-5 pattern), and choka (長歌, long poems which follow a 5-7-7 pattern). Another name for this style of poetry is Yamatouta (大和歌), which also has the same meaning.