Realm of the Rising Sun

11 Feb

In Japan, as in China, there is a large pantheon of gods and demons, but whereas the Chinese mirror the bureaucracy of Earth in heaven, the Japanese pay homage through their state religion of Shintoism to a sun goddess, Amaterasu. Shintoists believe that almost 3,000 years ago Amaterasu sent her grandson down to Earth to be Japan’s first ruler, thus making the emperors of Japan her direct descendants – an actual divine family and not just a divinely chosen one. The persistence and survival of Shinto beliefs are remarkable phenomena in a country in which the majority of people are practising Buddhists. In part Shinto owes its longevity to political factors – it has been used periodically to bolster the authority of the state. Equally significant, however, is the way in which Shinto beliefs are meshed into the very fabric of Japan: into the physical landscape as well as the mental hinterland of traditions. For Shintoism (literally “The Way of the Gods”) has its roots in ancient nature worship: its first deities were the innumerable spirits – the kami or “beings of higher place” – that resided in mountains and waterfalls, or sacred groves of trees. Yet even now, when the emperors have renounced their claim to divinity, the gods have retained a place in Japanese affections. While, today, most these beliefs are consumed as entertainment – in manga or anime – there is nevertheless a sense in which for many Japanese they form an important part of national identity.

Mirrors are common at Shinto shrines, constituting one of the religion’s three main emblems alongside a necklace and a sword. By venerable tradition the mirror used to tempt Amaterasu out of the rock cave is the very one that is worshipped in the goddess’s primary temple at Ise in Mie Prefecture. The clearness of a mirror’s surface and the sharpness of its reflections represent an ideal for worshippers, who are encouraged to clear distorting clouds of passion from their minds and hearts so that they present untroubled images of their souls to the deity. The Kojiki recounts how the god Izanagi himself gave a mirror to his divine children and instructed them to view themselves in it morning and night; if they fixed their minds on the celestial and pure while driving out wickedness he said they would see a pure consciousness reflected. A mirror was often said to hold the very soul of its owner. In one celebrated story, a dying mother left a mirror to the daughter who had nursed her through a long illness that destroyed her good looks. The mirror was a marital gift from the dead mother’s husband – the girl’s father – and the faithful daughter was later comforted by the mirror’s reflection, in which she believed she saw her mother with her youth and beauty restored.

There is a Japanese custom of charms and talismans, or omamori. Some are worn, while others are pinned up on the gateway of a house to offer protection against contagions. One explanation for this protective practice attributes the god Susano with power over disease and foul plagues. The tale recounts how one stormy night Susano wandered across the lands of the Central Reed Plain, his poor clothing offering him scant protection from the elements. At the house of Kotan-Shorai, Susano knocked and asked for shelter. But Kotan was unimpressed by the stranger’s scruffiness and refused to grant him entry. Then Susano went to a nearby house, that of Somin-Shorai, Kotan’s brother. Opening his door Somin saw a sad traveller with the wind howling at his back and at once asked him in. He fed his guest and gave him sake to warm him, then showed him into a sleeping area to rest. The next morning, when Susano came to leave, he revealed his true identity and pledged that to the end of time Somin and his descendants would be free of the wicked spirits that cause disease, as long as they hung a sign at their gatepost to ward off the spirits. And since that day the Japanese have displayed notices on their gateposts identifying them as the descendants of Somin-Shorai.

Japan is a land of extremes: topographically varied and breathtakingly beautiful yet violently volcanic. For 600 years it was ruled by clan-based shogunates drawn from the samurai warrior class, men whose ethos derived from centuries of militaristic values first articulated in the traditional mythic tales of warring clans, heroic leaders and feats of valour and endurance – particularly the idealised role model provided by Yamato-takeru, the heroic son of an emperor. They glorified war and fearlessness, emphasising selfless sacrifice and total loyalty to one’s lord or daimyo. Bushido, a code developed in the mid-1600s, emphasised the duty of everyone to respect and honour those above them in the social pyramid. It built on Zen meditation’s philosophical strands; advocating concentration, discipline and sudden inspiration, Zen had a natural appeal for men who made ready for battle by preparing the mind to transcend the fear of death. But at the same time artistic culture was gradually encouraged to flourish and a governing class was set in place, which enabled modern Japan to emerge.

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