Ghosts in the Machine
Simple Flavors of Japan
In the late 60s and early 70s I had the good fortune of being raised in small town Iowa with a Japanese mother, not so fresh off the boat, but not ever-to-be completely Americanized. My scrambled eggs for breakfast and my noodle soup for lunch sometimes looked and, no doubt, tasted a little different than traditional American breakfasts and lunches that I would see on TV or the movies, much less in the neighbor kids’ houses in rural Iowa. This was true, especially, when my father wasn’t eating with us to make sure that food was made to his liking.
In point of fact, my scrambled eggs looked a little darker and tasted of soy sauce and sugar. In more foodie parlance, they had sweet, bitter, salty and umami hints all at the same time. For those in the Japanese egg dish know, think of them as an evolutionary dead-end offshoot of the dashimaki tamago. Of course, this version came without dashi and without maki. Still and all, they were delicious and appreciated! They still are!
My childhood lunch time spaghetti noodles awaited me on cold winter days steaming in a broth of dark liquid that looked a lot like what you see soba or udon noodles rest in at a Japanese restaurant. That restaurant tsuyu (as it is called) often is flavored with dashi, soy, mirin (think very subtle sweet and sour hints), sake and sugar. Now, as I recall, dashi, mirin, and sake weren’t readily available or even ever sold at our local Fareway Supermarket in Iowa fifty years ago. Yet, with some creative substitution (like beef bouillon cubes), a slightly sweet, slightly bitter, a little salty and a little umami-flavored soup broth made that childhood winter lunch time noodle soup memory into an unforgettable treasure.
So, even fifty years later in my kitchen, when I think of getting creative with Japanese flavors, the memories of those childhood staples inform my understanding of the five types of taste bud stimulators in a more concrete manner than, I believe, even an expletive-laden Gordon Ramsay scolding could!
Warning!!!! Sexy stuff follows!!! Advance at your own risk!!
Does the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism suggest that sex is to be avoided?
Are DESIRE/CRAVING and sex inseparable??
Spoiler Alert —— NO!!!
Tantric Union (Coitus) in Buddhism
Tantric union is the central distinguishing feature of the most esoteric and advanced practice of ritual in Tantric Buddhism. The Sanskrit term that refers to the genre of yogic practices done with a partner is karmamudra. (A little smartypants jargon for y’all!!) It is not a single practice, but a category of practices enacted in several contexts, such as wisdom initiation (prajnaabhisheka), which is a secret feast offering in anticipation of a radical tantric lifestyle that is said to express nondual wisdom in everyday life (with sexual union as the key nondual metaphor).
The most typical tantras (the name for these types of Buddhist scriptures) explain that tantric union is necessary for attaining full enlightenment. Sex is required, and so is a partner. One tantra states explicitly that practicing tantric union exercises without a partner, is as useless as “churning water to make butter,” and actually within the tradition, tantric union has often been referred to as, “the method of churning, and the union of the churner and the churned.” (This Buddhist metaphor suggests you gotta get some “milk” somehow, somewhere if you want butter (but what if you can’t digest butter?)). This might bring to mind Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, but I doubt that Brando and Maria Schneider were demonstrating enlightenment for us.
Another tantra addresses the apparent discrepancy between the Buddha’s ascetic lifestyle (no-sex allowed!) and his later advocacy of tantric union as a path to enlightenment (or so these Tantric Buddhists claim!). According to this particular text, Prince Siddartha only renounced his wild sex life in the palace to become a Buddha as a kind of show, or an expedient teaching, if you will, specifically aimed at the type of people who would be inspired by detachment from physical pleasures, because sex isn’t their thing, for whatever reason (the spiritually “lactose intolerant”), and would want to join the religion because of that. This particular text then goes on to add that Buddha actually attained enlightenment before he left his palace (before the traditional meditating under the Bodhi tree story) when he had sex with his wife, Gopa.
Along with Gopa he experienced bliss,
By uniting the diamond scepter (vajra) and lotus,
He attained the fruit of bliss,
Buddhahood is obtained from bliss, and
Apart from women there will not be bliss.
This assertion more than hints at the Buddhist recognition of the power of women. Either as an agent of power or an instrument of power, Buddha’s wife was essential to enlightenment. It might be natural to extend the argument so that sex with an enlightened male Buddha might also put you on the right path. Much sexual abuse has occurred from the “wrong” men spreading that idea (in more than one religion). Anyway, the basic argument by these tantric Buddhists for sex is that the Buddha was actually not a strict follower of asceticism in the sense of total denial of physical pleasures.
Just a few thoughts for those of you who like Buddhism, but also like sex!!! Throws new light on that ad slogan, “GOT MILK?”
LANGUAGE LEARNING STRATEGIES: PROS AND CONS
Japanese always lands close to the top of any list of hardest second languages to learn, especially for the adult learner. The Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies in Yokohama offers a nine–month long intensive Japanese language program for adults where students have expert and experienced language teachers offering them instruction from nine in the morning to five in the afternoon four to five days a week.
Unfortunately, most adults are not allowed the luxury of attending a program such as that one. No doubt attending any type of Japanese language school is better than not attending a structured program run by experienced professionals. Those who cannot attend a school, or those that do but wish to supplement or vary their language learning activities, have come up with less orthodox ideas for improving their Japanese.
Making Japanese Friends
The most natural and usually unavoidable non-classroom strategy is shopping and talking. The supermarket or the convenience store will teach you: “Do you need a bag?”; “Warm that up for you?”; “How many sets of chopsticks do you need?” That’s good for a start, but soon you’ll yearn for longer conversations and more interesting dialogue. That’s when you might want to start making Japanese friends.
It’s not uncommon for younger foreigners to arrive with a group or to put into a group of English-speaking foreigners for orientation or training. The great thing about that is you can communicate your feelings and exchange ideas when you first encounter problems. The downside is that sometimes this leads to an overdependence on English speakers and tendency to avoid chance to engage in interactions in Japanese.
Those English speakers attending a university sometimes take a great leap and join a university club or circle. As difficult as this can be, it often leads to fast advances in Japanese speaking and listening comprehension. Those have come for work might not have such an easy avenue for making friends. For the adventurous and gregarious among them one of the first ideas is to find a social scene for singles.
Looking for Love
It is the most common of occurrences for two or more English speakers in similar circumstances to find somewhere where a Japanese stranger might actually want to talk to them, in Japanese. Of course, it is not uncommon for Japanese who are interested in meeting foreigners and polishing their English skills to accost the fresh foreigner and exchange a few lines of strained English, but this kind of meeting has little language learning value for the foreigner.
The usual plan is to find a bar, restaurant or club where they can find a talkative bartender on the way to finding a friend, and perhaps even a love interest. Making a Japanese friend who is interested in doing things with you is like hitting the language learning jackpot. Still, there are a couple of caveats. The first negative is that this friend’s English might be too good. The new friend might not be at all interested in helping your Japanese. The second negative is that your desire to learn Japanese might not be as strong as it needs to be to actually learn it, when you realize that you don’t really have to.
If you stay here long enough and know many members of the foreign community, you will have recognized that marrying and having a family doesn’t guarantee native fluency. In fact, there are quite a few examples of this truth, usually of men who have married Japanese women and even raised families but always conduct their daily business in English. I know of many couples where this is not the case; however, there are enough examples of this stunted Japanese language growth to serve as a caution and reminder that finding someone to speak Japanese for you is not quite as satisfying learning to speak Japanese for yourself.
Osmosis is not an Effective Learning Strategy
These examples of foreigners who operate mostly in English is evidence supporting my rejection of the theory that language is simply “picked up” just by virtue of living in a place. This may be true for small children and maybe even teenagers, but not for normal adults, or even the rare revered genius; for example, Lafcadio Hearn. Language learning requires hard work for those who aren’t polyglot geniuses touched by the gods.
Literacy (just the reading part, not to mention the writing part) is even harder work, especially in Japan. “Picking up” speaking and listening is at best, slow, arduous and heartbreakingly discouraging for most of us. “Picking up” reading and writing is downright impossible. The phonetic writing systems are not so hard to memorize, but the eighteen hundred plus characters needed to read newspapers and magazines takes years, even for Japanese children. The difficulty of becoming literate is certainly one of the reasons foreigners who marry Japanese tend to have their partners take care of all the documentation and paperwork necessary to live for any length of time in Japanese society.
Putting aside the gloom and doom of this deliberation of the difficulties of being a foreigner in a complicated paradise, in the end, you do what works for you, and more power to ya! Good on you for trying at all, and better on you for keeping on trying. The point is to enjoy your life in Japan, as much as you can!!!! And that ain’t that hard here!!! But… it was easier when whiskey, beer and condoms were sold in vending machines.
LESSER KNOWN “MEN” OF JAPAN
Foreigners enamored of Japan love to try new Japanese food, but often their choices or understanding is limited. For example, a typical Southern California supermarket will have loads of dry ramen noodles, but little else. Fortunately, there are also Asian supermarkets that have aisles of different kinds of noodles. Still, to a Japanese noodle neophyte a little basic introduction to the world of lesser known Japanese men (noodles) could be a world-shaking culinary and gustatory revelation
- Harusame: It’s Raining Men!
The first noodle I would like to introduce is called harusame (spring rain). The small and delicate size and texture of these noodles inspire the poetic delicacy of the image of a light rain on a spring day. Spring rain has been romanticized in Japanese paintings, as well as in Japanese literature as Harusame Monogatari is the title of an early twentieth–century collection of stories by Ueda Akinari.
This noodle is transparent, sometimes called cellophane, and is usually made from mung bean or potato starch. It is low in calories and gluten free. Like ramen it is said to have been imported from China in the medieval period and used mainly in vegetarian meals for Buddhist monks. Today it is most often used in cold noodle salads, but when dried it is sometimes served as a deep-fried noodle side.
- Somen: The Slippery Wet Men of Summer
The second noodle offered up for the spotlight is called somen in Japan. This noodle is also not exclusive to Japan, it too traveled from China long ago, but it does have a strong following in Japan. The name is not particularly significant except that it is descriptive of being a thin white rope. The main ingredient is wheat and its slender and long shape make it easy to slurp up cold with a tsuyu (dipping sauce).
Somen is also commonly served in a hot soup broth, so it can and is eaten throughout the year. However, it is particularly popular as a cold dish in the summer. This cold somen can be served family style at the dinner table with each family member dipping into the serving bowl in the center as they so desire.
There is also a fun summer tradition associated with eating somen. A long miniature waterslide is set up and cold water runs down the long and sometimes winding structure. Diners stand with their chopsticks at the ready to catch the somennoodles sliding down to their waiting chopsticks. The somen does go into a dipping sauce before being consumed.
- Soba: The Rustic Brown Men
It’s hard to say enough about the wonders of soba. It’s a noodle that is light brown in color, also earthier and more rustic in flavor. What sets soba apart is that its main ingredient isn’t wheat or egg. In its purest form it is made of buckwheat, which isn’t wheat. It’s actually a grainy seed. Of course, some types of soba do include wheat and they too are delicious. So, if you were hoping for a gluten-free noodle option you will have to check on the ingredients.
Soba can be eaten hot or cold. In the Summer time stacks of soba trays are delivered to workplaces all over Japan to be eaten cold with a dipping sauce. When the temperatures go down just as much soba in hot broth is either delivered or served up over the counter for a quick satisfying meal.
A nice traditional Autumn option might be a tsukimi (moon-viewing) soba eaten on a moonlight night somewhere outdoors. Waxing poetic on an Autumn night viewing the moon while enjoying soba with a raw egg representing the moon in your soup might be the best way to relish the season.
- Udon: The Hot Fat Men
Udon is a thick white noodle made of wheat flour. Its thickness and its consistency or chewiness varies according to the noodle maker’s tastes and preferences. This is another noodle that is eaten both hot and cold. In the hot summer the choices vary with the season.
A couple recent popular ways of eating hot udon are yaki udon (pan-fried noodle) and curry udon (curry-flavored soup broth). In the winter time family style dishes such as shabu shabu (dipping hot pot) might include udon as a noodle component. Another welcome winter udon noodle family-style classic is nabeyaki udon (Japanese hot pot).
5. Shirataki: The White Men of the Waterfall
The shirataki noodle is appropriately named white waterfall because the noodles do resemble that image. It is a gelatinous noodle made out of konnyaku (konjac yam). It is also called Devil’s Tongue or Elephant Yam. The negative criticisms of this noodle are that when it is taken out of its water packaging, the odor is slightly repugnant. Washing the noodles can fix that. A second complaint is that the noodle has very little flavor.
On the plus side, it is gluten–free and has very few calories. In fact, the noodle consists of a few yam carbohydrates and the other ninety–percent plus is water. The fact that it has little flavor works to its advantage as the noodle will soak up the flavor of the sauce it simmers in. It can also be delicious in a cold salad if similarly flavored in a sauce.
Shirataki doesn’t seem to fit naturally into a seasonal pattern of choosing Japanese food. In fact, most of the noodles mentioned above are eaten throughout the year. Still, I might suggest that the shirataki is best eaten in the season that you have decided to lose weight, given that all those delicious Japanese noodles come at the expense of your waistline. Starting the path of enjoying the lesser known Japanese noodles might bring to mind that wistful eighty’s musical lyric, “so many men, so little time!”
Let’s get academic! Shall We Ponder “Ritual”?
Do we all meditate and experience the same thing?
Do we all get possessed in the same way?
Using the term “ritual culture” I am talking about the full range of ritualized practices in a group of people, both social and religious. Ritual culture provides a unifying category that allows for considering the interrelations between mundane, secular ritual practices, religious art and symbols, in ways that considering them as separate categories does not. From the perspective of the study of Japanese religion and the use of meditation in Japanese religion, not only ritual practices but also religious art and symbolism must first be contextualized within the overall ritual culture before being interpreted from other theoretical perspectives, such as aesthetics, art history or psychology.
Their ritual culture is also of primary importance to our understanding of the actualities of Japanese religion as it is practiced by the vast majority of people. Asian religions generally and certainly Japanese religion gives greater importance to ritual practice than to doctrine. It is practice which makes it possible for one to attain one’s goals, whether those be defined as liberation, awakening, harmony, prosperity, longevity, purification or protection. Contrary to the intellectualist presumptions of probably the vast majority of Western language treatments of Asian religions, doctrine is of lesser importance that practice. The idea that one needs proper belief – or intellectual orthodoxy – is only rarely considered to have any direct efficacy in attaining the goal sought. Further indication of the primacy of practice over doctrine is the way in which ritual practices persevere over time and across cultural boundaries, even while the doctrinal rationales for their efficacy changes.
In contemporary Japan the relative ease with which people participate in rituals, ceremonies, and festivals conducted by Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, folk practitioners, or new religions also evidences the greater concern for practical efficacy than for doctrinal purity. Much less casually, women who were raised in a Buddhist family feel no particular compunction about changing their religious practices upon marrying into the family of a Shinto priest. The new religious practices are seen as simply a matter of family custom.
This analysis also applies historically. It was, for example, the similarity between existing ritual practices and those performed by Roman Catholic missionaries that was essential to the introduction of Christianity to Japan in the sixteenth century. Specifically, baptism became easily understood because of its similarity with both purification by water, a Japanese practice called misogi and Shingon initiation, kanjo or abhiseka, which also includes unction with water as part of the ritual.
So, scholars will say that this indicates the primacy of practice over doctrine in Japan. Consistent with this symbolic interplay between baptism and other practices is the way in which the ritual practices of nineteenth century hidden Christians showed a convergence of the Eucharist (communion) and indigenous Shinto and Buddhist practices. You know, Japanese people giving a symbolic share of a meal with the gods (kami) or the ancestors. This concept of ritual culture is also a way of emphasizing the fact that rituals do not exist in isolation, but rather are embedded in a network of practices. For example, one of the most enduring practices in Japanese ritual culture is the duo of possession and exorcism. One example is dramatically recorded in the 11th century novel Tale of Genji. Two centuries later we see it playing a pivotal role in the life of a famous medieval cleric Myōe who upon the advice of a medium in a trance possessed by the kami of Kasuga, his home shrine, changed his plans to go to India. And, possession today continues right into the present day as part of the practices of Japanese New Religions, such as Mahikari, as well as in the little-known “trance oracles” (shamanesses?) working in or around small village shrines.
This possession ritual practice is identified as the historical background of the rehearsed festival dances performed by female shrine attendants (miko) in contemporary Shinto shrines. Possession by fox spirits, traditionally evidenced by unusual eating habits, inappropriate use of language, inability to follow social norms or newfound abilities in literacy, etc., as well as other asocial and eccentric behaviors are also part of the ritual culture. It was only in the Meiji period that treatment of the malady of fox possession by female shamans was displaced by Western and male-dominated, medicine and psychiatry. And, despite the increasing likelihood of such behaviors being treated as medical or psychological problems, exorcism of fox spirits continues in corners of contemporary Japan.
A similar network of practices is based on fear of the threat posed by those dead people who, lacking any family connections by which they will be transformed into ancestors, become hungry ghosts. Likewise, there is the danger that one’s own ancestors are for one reason or another dissatisfied and causing afflictions among their living heirs. Such concerns about the threats posed by hungry ghosts and dissatisfied ancestors are similar to concern about the fate of aborted fetuses and the threat they can pose for spirit attacks (tatari), leading to the recent creation of memorial rituals for the spirit of the aborted fetus (mizuko kuyo).
Then there are ritual types of offering worship, either for living beings or for material culture, that is, offerings for sentient beings, or for things like natural or manmade objects. These kinds of rituals exist in forms such as: eye opening ceremonies for new statues, prayer offerings for new copies of religious scriptures or new bells and other religious tools. All these things are honored because they have a chance of helping the salvation of the donor. The doctrinal explanation for these rituals is that they generate merit which includes protection from spirit attacks and possession by the threatening dead.
Possession is often seen as a lived, unexpected religious experience. But the way possession usually happens in Japanese culture is more like a planned and staged ritual. That is, this type of possession can be turned on an off, and often it is sought after. Possesion “professionals” know how to bring down the possessing spirit and how to send it away. This leads to a distinction we can also make when we talk about meditation ritual, that is, is meditation religious experience or is it ritual process? The easy answer is to say both, but then you can still question (if you want) if you can separate which part fits which label?
The idea of religious experience often comes with a 19th century American mystic/philosopher/psychologist William James conception of the mind as the passive recipient of religious experience. “I was minding my own business and a chill went through me and I felt the presence of the supernatural.” “Some thing was there and I could sense it, it wanted me to sense it.” That’s a common notion of religious experience that doesn’t always work in East Asian possession experiences.
Of course, there are experiential qualities with East Asian possession, but the source of the experience is not necessarily something separate and external to an individual who is merely receiving outside stimulus. In other words, the possessed often has control, or at least some “agency.” Anyway, at least, the possessed individual is involved intimately with moving along the process of the possession experience.
This idea of ritual culture denies the 19th century view of religious experience as something totally individual and autonomous. This ritual culture idea is suggesting/contending that religious experiences themselves exist as part of a network of practices, beliefs and experiences. That network of practices is socially sustained and is learned in the course of socialization.
In other words, this possession experience is learned behavior from prior societal models. Now, not everyone can do it, but sometimes powers to induce possession are (seem to be) passed down through families. But I will let you decide if this means these tendencies are genetic or learned family traits. So, what might this mean for Buddhist meditation? It should suggest that the content of the experience of the meditator is culturally determined, that there is no universal experience of enlightenment that all enlightened beings can share.
Some Buddhists contend that the “non-universal” message may be part of the very message that the original Buddha was passing along though. To sum up then, maybe the usual Western “Gomer” can practice seated meditation in his room, or in the gym, or even the local Zen center and sit for a long time and then claim to have had the universal experience of Buddhist meditation. Still, it should be easy for Gomer to admit that some of his experience of meditation is culturally constructed, and to a great extent, but not completely (legs tired, you sleep, you have visions). Still, so to study Buddhist meditation traditions does just not mean doing it, sitting and chanting. It should also mean trying to get inside the mind set of the particular culture at a particular time, and then go even deeper to try to understand that particular individual meditator’s story at that certain age when he was at that certain place about which he recorded his story.
One’s personal present belief systems, which are an integral part of one’s network of practices, serve not only to interpret the meditation experience, but they also serve to create the context for any possession experiences which might have occurred, molding them and defining them as possession experiences. Thus, possession, when seen in the Japanese ritual culture light, is not separable from the diagnostic rituals, that is, trance possession that is purposely induced by a professional possession ritualist in order to determine the source of the unwanted spirit attack or possession, and which results in recommended ritual procedures for relief or cure are prescribed and administered.
One last point, (really!!!), possession experience in Japan is also marked by gender. While there are cases in which men in Japanese history have been possessed, for example by female fox spirits, the majority of those who either suffer from possession or engage in possession professionally have been women. Of course, every rule like this has a few exceptions that “prove” it.
In conclusion, the concept of ritual culture provides a new way of interpreting Japanese religion, especially in the study of the way ritual is practiced. This concept also helps re-evaluate and interpret symbolic and artistic representations in Japan. One thing’s for sure, in Japan ritual takes priority over doctrine!!! As Columbo might say, “just one more thing(s),” the idea of ritual culture allows for seeing the interrelations between ritual practice and religious art and symbol more clearly than if the three subjects were considered as existing in isolation from one another.
(IN A NUTSHELL) Ritual practices, religious art and symbols necessarily exist with socially maintained networks of practices, beliefs, and experience.
That’s out of my system!!! I feel exorcised of the spirit of academia!!! Hallelujah!!
Happy New Year From Three Old Yokozuna!!
July 6, 2022
This is a picture I snapped from a sumo calendar I bought in 1991, I think. It probably was the January photo, duh. On the left is yokozuna Onokuni, who retired not long after that. He still occasionally can be seen as a color commentator on sumo broadcasts. On the right is yokozuna Hokutoumi. He can be seen on sumo broadcasts, but I think in the last few years he has held some executive position in the sumo world so gets to hang out with the emperor and probably met dumb Donald a couple years ago. In the middle is yokozuna Chiyonofuji who passed away a few years ago. Not only was he great, but he proved that sumo was not just a “debu dance” as my mother used to call it. I got into this back then and wouldn’t miss a tournament (on TV). Besides Chiyonofuji my favorite was Kirishima, who eventually made ozeki, because he had this great tsuridashi technique at the edge on the rope that was very impressive to watch. At that time the three Hawaiians were fun to watch, but not necessarily for their great skills. This was also a time when sumo was gaining in popularity, relatively speaking, partly because of the Hanada brothers, because of their sumo pedigree and also their great skills at so young an age. But, of course, that was due to their pedigree.
This the view from my office window looking north across the street at the Komine cemetery and also the water pumping station on Mt. Tatsuda behind and above it. If the big one hits I am going to one or the other places.
Eli’s coming, hide your heart girl! Just messing around telling things the way I see them from the top of my perch in Kumamoto!
The university is just down the street from where I live. Now that people here are pretty used to the idea of getting covid and living through it, it’s a bit lively. It was a ghost town for the last couple of years, at least compared to what it was four years ago when I first arrived. The whole city is coming back little by little with more outdoor festivals being held again. Japan is not Japan without outdoor stalls selling tasty summer food and cold beer. But it’s going to be super hot here. I never root for rainy season, but if the heat and humidity of the dog days, (and aren’t they all) of summer is the option, then maybe…. or maybe not.
Tried and true things to do in Kumamoto
If you’re ever in the Kumamoto area for an extended stay, and you have already completed the standard tours; what do you do? Let’s say you’ve done the castle tour, breathed the smoke of Mount Aso, and even checked out the actual location of Johnny Depp’s Minamata disease movie. After you have eaten your fill of mustard-covered lotus root, world-famous oysters, and raw horse sashimi, and then washed them down with the artesian water that Kumamoto residents are quick to tout; what then? Could Sakurayama Shrine snuggled cozily in a wooded area at the base of a mountain in northern Kumamoto be just what the doctor ordered?
Kumamoto is not without its share of quality cultural activity. There are music and theatre venues, as well as museums featuring “commoner” folk art and “elite,” nearly priceless, classical collections. There are numerous shrines and temples in the prefecture that offer unique and not so unique festivals throughout the calendar year. However, it might be difficult to argue convincingly to all excepting locals, that such Kumamoto cultural offerings surpass the options provided by the larger population centers of Japan. Yet, Kumamoto can boast of culture with unique historical and literary associations.
Maybe your travel quest in search of the mysteries of Japan originated, at least in part, from your first college course in Japanese culture. Or else, maybe they are associated with your first visit to Kinokuniya or Maruzen where you discovered the section on Japanese literature in translation. You suddenly realized the train commute didn’t have to be spent exercising your thumbs on your smartphone. Possibly you picked up the scary book Japanese Ghost Stories by Lafcadio Hearn. Maybe you were already aware of the more famous twentieth-century Japanese authors, Natsume Soseki and Yukio Mishima.
Even if none of this is true for you, and remember it’s never too late to become more literate, no gaijin worth his zairyu card could have avoided hearing the story of Chushingura, the forty–seven ronin. Upon hearing that tale I suggest all foreigners are viscerally impressed and affected by this expression of extreme loyalty, extending to the last true measure of devotion; or else at least, they are deeply puzzled by the image of dozens of men choosing to commit ritual suicide by slicing open their bellies and exposing their bowels.
Therefore, I suggest that once the obvious tourist haunts of Kumamoto have been exhausted, you should pick up a copy of Hearn’s Kwaidan, scan the story Hoichi the Earless, and head over to Hearn’s house in the middle of the downtown shopping area; maybe while enjoying another few slices of raw horse. Then, pick up Soseki’s Grass Pillow and read it at the Kumamoto onsen he describes in the novel. Then head to Kumamoto University, where both Hearn and Soseki taught English. You can admire their statues, but the newly restored buildings in the late nineteenth–century style architecture of the campus is much more impressive. The campus was severely damaged by the 2016 quake, but is now looking better than ever.
Now, the most esoteric literary, political, religious, and historical gem on this tour of Kumamoto culture is just minutes away. Kumamoto University campus is just a short walk from Sakurayama, at the foot of which sits the shrine commemorating the remains of the samurai rebels who died in battle or committed ritual suicide in the 1876 one–day uprising.
Tom Cruise’s Last Samurai was not historically accurate. Most likely that was never of great concern to its creators. However, it is a historical fact that before the Seinan War in 1877, which the movie uses as the basis for its story, there were a handful of samurai rebellions against the fledgling Meiji government. The reason for the rebellions was the impending elimination of the samurai class. The samurai were to lose their stipends. They would not be allowed to carry swords. Furthermore, the new government military was to be made up of conscripts, many of whom were from the peasant class. For the samurai, these changes were concessions to Western barbarians, and would effectively destroy the only way of life they knew.
In 1876 a samurai society who called themselves the “League of the Divine Wind,” claiming to have been directed to save Japan by the kami, through a shrine divination ritual, rose up and attacked the Imperial government forces in Kumamoto castle. This “kamikaze” Japan saving rhetorical trope first appeared when a typhoon rescued Japan from Kublai Khan and the Mongol hordes in the thirteenth–century. It was of course revived toward the end of World War II. But clearly the political power of the rhetoric was also recognized by these rebels. Using only traditional weapons, that is, no firearms, the rebels managed to kill three hundred government soldiers. They controlled the castle until the next day when more soldiers armed with guns arrived to squelch the rebellion. The surviving samurai retreated to the shrine where they committed ritual suicide.
This rebellion was also celebrated in late twentieth–century literature by the prolific writer and controversial nationalist Yukio Mishima. The story of these rebels appears in Runaway Horses, the second book of Mishima’s final opus, his tetralogy Sea of Fertility. This last work was finished just before Mishima himself took over a government military office and then committed ritual suicide.
The expat lover of Japanese historical and literary esoterica must visit the shrine to pay their respects. An added attraction on the shrine grounds is the League of the Divine Wind Museum, which contains not only all the data and drawings chronicling this rebellion, but also material commemorating Mishima’s research visits to the shrine when his was in Kumamoto flying for the Japanese Self–Defense Forces. The current curator was not there in 1969 when a picture of Mishima on the grounds was taken, but he knows the story well. If Western Japan has an answer to Sengakuji and Chushingura, it lies in the Sakurayama Shrine.
Statues to See on the Way to Sakurayama Jinja
Kumamoto University has honored these two giants of early twentieth–century literature in Japan. The first guy is Natsume Soseki and the second is Lafcadio Hearn. What they also have in common is that they both taught English at Kumadai. It seems that one was more popular than the other.
Not too far from the University is Sakurayama Shrine I mentioned earlier. It has a couple of distinctive features on the grounds.
There’s a museum to the right of this shrine. It’s the Shimpuren Shiryokan. The nativist followers of the teachers that inspired the uprising collected data and drew a series of pictures describing the events of the short rebellion. There’s a photo of Mishima taken when he visited, and there are books and pamphlets for sale. I have a feeling this is the main source of revenue for this hidden little shrine.
Mishima Yukio wrote about these rebels and their group, the League of the Divine Wind (Shinpuren神風連) in the second book, Runaway Horses, of his final work, the tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility. He visited this shrine and its museum dedicated to this movement in the late sixties when he was in the SDF in Kumamoto. In a couple years he would perform his own little rebellion and follow it with his own ritual suicide.
I really do like some of his books. Others are not my cup of cha. His weird “coup” attempt was a kind of performance art. My best way of understanding him is by comparing/equating him with Andy Kaufman. Boundaries are important, or least, that’s what I was taught.
This was the view from my veranda at about 5PM.