Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Momote Shiki – Japanese Archery Ritual Video

On Seijin-no-Hi (Coming of Age Day) in early January in Japan, an archery ritual known as Momote Shiki is held at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo for all those turning 20 for that year.10 Archers at a time shoot two arrows at a central target. The ritual is performed by the Ogasawara-ryu school of archery.

Here’s a short clip of a Shinto Priest shooting the Kabura-ya (whistling arrow):

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February 17, 2008 Posted by | Archery, Blogroll, Coming of Age Day, culture, event, japan, japanese archery, japanese culture, kyudo, life, meiji shrine, momote shiki, ogasawara ryu, seijin-no-hi, Shinto, tokyo, tradition, travel, video, youtube | 1 Comment

Momote Shiki – Japanese Archery Ritual

Momote Shiki: Japanese Archery Ritual
Centuries-old ritual held for the fortune of new adults


Archers in old style kimono preparing to shoot n the archery ritual known as Momote Shiki

Seijin-no-Hi or Coming of Age Day is celebrated all throughout Japan on the second Monday of January. Throughout the country, similar ceremonies and activities take place among those newly turned 20 such as the wearing of special kimono, going to shrines, attending speeches, and so on. At Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, a unique ceremony takes place that is often overlooked in favor of seeing the kimono-clad girls that populate the shrine on that day.

Behind the main shrine complex an archery ritual known as Momote Shiki is performed for the good fortune of all those turning 20 and becoming new adults. Archers wearing a style of formal kimono that samurai once wore in olden times shoot two arrows a piece at a central target.


Archers arriving at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo

The Momote Shiki ceremony is conducted by the Ogasawara-Ryu, one of the oldest schools of Japanese-style archery. The Ogasawara family has long been associated with martial arts training most especially archery. The founder of the Ogasawara line was Nagakiyo who was born in the mid-12th century. He excelled as a mounted archer and was granted the surname of Ogasawara by the Emperor after the name of his birthplace in modern Yamanashi Prefecture.

12th century Japan was a transitionary time. In prior centuries, the Emperor’s Court ruled the land from Kyoto. Nobles held the reigns of power but as time progressed they began to lose their power to the emerging warrior class. With the increase of violence, the noble administrators had to rely more and more on the formerly despised warrior class to quell the problems. Eventually the warrior class came into its own in the mid-12th century when the powerful warrior family, the Heike or Taira, came to dominate the Imperial Court.


The archers wear a style of kimono worn by samurai 800 years ago

The Heike became arrogant in their new found power thus breeding many enemies. War broke out between them and their powerful rivals the Genji or Minamoto clan. The leader of the Genji was Minamoto-no-Yoritomo. Yoritomo destroyed the Heike family and came to rule all of Japan as Shogun. He ruled from his capital Kamakura which lies an hour south of Tokyo by train.

Nagakiyo had been Yoritomo’s mentor and instructor in mounted archery. With Yoritomo’s ultimate victory, the Ogasawara’s fortunes rose. Yoritomo was keen that his warriors keep their martial skills honed even during peacetime. The reason for this and his decision to set his capital in Kamakura far from Kyoto was the precedent set by his former enemies, the Heike family.


Before shooting, the archers give reverence

One of the prevailing opinions of the day as to why the once powerful Heike family fell so completely was their descent into decadence. They spent more time worrying about their appearance and their poetry ability than they did on their martial skills. One Heike general was famous for abandoning his position in abject terror when a flight of geese so startled him that he thought the Genji were attacking. A great part of this stemmed from the Heike’s close proximity to the culture of the Imperial Court.

Yoritomo did not want his followers to become soft and weak like the Heike. He wanted to establish a strong legacy so he set his new capital in Kamakura far from the Imperial Court. Furthermore, he avidly supported the Ogasawara clan in training warriors to maintain their skill and discipline. A number of archery rituals still practiced today were started because of Yoritomo’s stern insistence that his followers retain their martial fighting skills.


A Shinto Priest preparing to shoot a special arrow to begin the ceremony

Archery whether mounted or on foot was strongly emphasized because at this time the much-praised samurai sword had yet to truly come into its own. In Yoritomo’s time, the bow was the principle weapon of the samurai and the symbol of his profession and spirit.

Yoritomo’s shogunate government lasted until the early 14th century. After his Spartan policies were ignored, the Kamakura Shogunate leaders became lax with luxury and in the end they fell to more determined and stronger enemies. The Ogasawara survived the downfall of the Kamakura shogunate and went on to serve the new shogunate government establish by the Ashikaga clan.


A Shinto Priest loosens and removes his left sleeve so it will not hinder his shooting

Sometime after the power of the Ashikaga shoguns declined, the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu established a new shogunate government set in Edo (today Tokyo) in 1603. He requested Ogasawara Tsunenao, the head of the clan at the time, to be a mentor and instructor to his son.

The Tokugawa Shogunate ushered in an unprecedented two centuries of peace. Fighting skills were no longer in great demand; however, practice of the martial arts continued but took on a new form. Archery and other martial skills became less about the physical and more about the spiritual. Archery became viewed as a way to self-improvement; of disciplining the mind and soul.

The Ogasawara clan continued to serve the Tokugawa shogunate until 1868 when the shogunate was abolished. In the midst of a rapidly modernizing Japan of the late 19th century, the Ogasawara continued to teach their traditional arts. However, since there were no more samurai to train in Japan’s new society, the Ogasawara opened their school to the general public.

Today the Ogasawara perform a number of archery rituals throughout the year at a number of shrines. Every spring in the Asakusa district of Tokyo, they perform the mounted archery ritual of Yabusame.

The Momote Shiki ritual is carried out on Seijin-no-Hi, Coming of Age Day though the ritual predates the holiday by centuries. Momote – means “hundred hands.” The ritual is a bit of Shinto mathematics: ten archers at a time shoot two arrows a piece. The number of archers times the number of arrows equals 100. The type of arrow used has white fletching or feather. This is the same type of arrow which is sold as good luck charms at shrines during New Years. The Momote Shiki ritual is the origin of this arrow charm. The Momote Shiki ritual used to be held in private until the Edo Period (1603-1867) when it became open to the general public.

Before the archers begin, a Shinto priest shoots a Kabura-ya, a special red-colored arrow with an turnip-shaped head. The arrow makes a whistling noise as speeds along. The noise is believed to drive away evils from all four directions.


Archers draw the bow above their heads before bringing it down to aim

The archers wear a type of kimono known as a kariginu. The kariginu was the everyday dress of the samurai of the Kamakura Period (1192-1333) and was based on clothes worn on hunting expeditions. On their head is an eboshi — a type of hat worn by court nobles in earlier centuries.

The traditional way of shooting the bow is very slow and meticulous. The archers begin by slowly uncovering their left arm and shoulder leaving them and the left side of the chest completely bare. The purpose for this is practicality rather than for ritual purposes.

Traditional kimono robes are loose and flowing which could easily inconvenience the shooting of the bow. Female archers however do not reveal their shoulders and chest. They put their arm through a specially designed hole on the sleeves of female kimono then tie up the sleeve.

The bow is raised upwards and brought slowly down while the arrow is pulled back past the ear. Then at last the string is let loose and the arrow speeds towards the target. The emphasis of the ritual and Japanese archery in general is not on striking the target accurately but on the spiritual repose the archer achieves and maintains throughout the whole ceremony. Balance is sought between spirit and bow when the mind is empty but not dwelling on emptiness.


Archers receive a ceremonial serving of sake after the ritual

A Zen Master of the Kamakura Period once wrote:

No target’s erected
No bow’s drawn
And the arrow leaves the string;
It may not hit,
But it does not miss!

Once all the archers have shot the required number of arrows, they receive a small portion of sake and the ceremony is considered concluded. The health and good fortune of the new adults is thus spiritually assured for the year.


February 17, 2008 Posted by | Archery, Blogroll, culture, event, history, japan, japanese archery, japanese culture, japanese history, kyudo, life, martial arts, meiji shrine, momote shiki, ogasawara ryu, samurai, seijin-no-hi, Shinto, tokyo, tradition, travel, zen | 10 Comments

Setsubun – Japanese Spring Cleaning Exorcism (Vlog Video)

https://samuraidave.wordpress.com/2007/02/06/setsubun-devils-driven-out-in-japanese-spring-ritual/
Setsubun is February 3rd and it’s kind of like Groundhog Day, New Years, and Halloween all rolled up into one. It’s a day where Japanese seek to drive Oni or Devils from their homes by throwing beans at them. Oni don’t like beans – makes them go blind apparently.

Also many temples and shrines have mami-maki which is where people throw beans and other items at gathered crowds. To catch these items is to bring you good luck all year.

This Setsubun a sudden snowstorm struck in Tokyo. A rather ominious sign as the Setsubun is a Spring Ritual and exorcising the devils is like driving Winter out. I think it was a sneak attack by the Setsubun Devils myself. However the ritual must have worked because the next morning the sun was out.
Background music by Super Girl Juice:
http://www.sgchannel.com

February 7, 2008 Posted by | culture, demons, devils, event, festival, folklore, japan, japanese culture, life, oni, Setsubun, snow, spring, tokyo, tradition, travel, video, vlog, winter, youtube, zojo-ji | Leave a comment

Devils Make Sneak Attack on Japanese Spring Ritual – Setsubun

Sudden Snowstorm Interrupts Japanese Spring Ritual
Sneak attack by Setsubun Devils?

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Setsubun Devils enjoying the sudden snowstorm in Tokyo

A sudden snowstorm swept in silently and swiftly during the early morning hours in Tokyo this Feb. 3. Three centimeters of snow covered the capital in a fairly heavy snowfall. Train services were disrupted, traffic backed up, flights were cancelled, and at least 100 people were injured. Although snow is not unusual in Tokyo, these days, however, snow has become less common over the years. Last year it only snowed once and very briefly at that.

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Sudden snowfall in Tokyo at Senso-ji Temple

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Shrine attendants work to clear a path

What makes this snowfall particularly significant if not ominously suspicious was the date. Feb. 3 is the Japanese holiday of Setsubun, a day when Japanese seek to drive bad luck out of their homes and bring in happiness. Setsubun is a more active version of Groundhog Day where Japanese take matters into their own hands to try and bring an earlier end to winter. On the old Japanese calendar, Setsubun was considered the day before Spring – despite the real Spring being a few more weeks away.

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Praying to a snowy Buddha for perhaps warmer weather

The bad luck is represented by Oni – Japanese devils. There are many devils in Japanese folklore which can be good, bad, or neutral. The Setsubun Devils are known for being one of the bad ones. They are typically believed to be invisible intangible spirits that will inhabit places to bring misfortunate to all if they are not driven out. Their visible appearance is that of a shirtless devil with horns, shaggy hair, sharp claws and teeth, and wearing tiger pants. They come in red, green, and blue colors. If their sharp teeth and claws aren’t enough, they have heavy iron-studded clubs as well. This fierce creature is partially based on the Chinese Zodiac signs of the ox (ushi in Japanese) and tiger (tora in Japanese). Ushitora is related to “North Gate.” North was considered a very unlucky direction in Ancient China (probably because so many invaders came from that way) and this belief was adopted by the Japanese in the 8th and 9th Centuries.

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A Snow-covered Kabuki Star

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Snow at Senso-ji Temple is Asakusa, Tokyo

Along with bad luck, Setsubun Devils represent Winter and the old year too. The ceremony of driving the devils out symbolizes the ending of Winter and the coming of Spring while making everything new for the New Years. Setsubun is close to the Chinese New Years and before Japan switched to the Western calendar system, Setsubun was the day before the Chinese New Year. Japanese want their homes to be free of all the old bad feelings of the previous year. Setsubun is a bit of “out with the old; in with the new” of New Years, spring cleaning, and exorcism at the same time.

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Zojo-ji Temple in Tokyo

This Setsubun if one were inclined to see the supernatural in everything and believe in omens as people did in olden times this, they might believe the sudden snowfall to be devil-wrought. Perhaps the snow was a diabolical sneak attack by the devils in the early morning hours to thrawt the Setsubun exorcism activities at shrines and temples. In these places, beans and other such items are thrown “to” not “at” gathered crowds. This is known as mame-maki. It is believed that to catch such items, a person will have good luck all year.

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Some Ninja and a walking bag of chips prepare to do Mame-Maki at Zojo-ji

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Ninja Chips – crunchy and deadly snackfood for the assassin in all of us

Although the devils threw quite a bit of snow which caused a number of train delays, there were still crowds of people at temples and shrines, their hands outstretched looking for a bit of luck. I went to my favorite temple for mame-maki: Zojo-ji in Hamamatsucho. Zojo-ji always has a few celebrities and a sumo wrestler doing mame-maki. Their mame-maki has more than just a handful of tossed beans. I got several bags of snack food, two wash clothes, nine packets of bean, and six health bars. the health bars were dangerous! I got hit in the head twice and once right smack in my face.

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Snowfall at Kanda Myojin Shrine

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Decorations at Kanda Myojin Shrine

After that I went to Kanda Myojin Shrine where I saw two Setsubun devils prance about on a catwalk seeming to enjoy the mayhem the weather had caused. At Kanda Myojin Shrine they do a traditional mame-maki where they throw handfuls of individual beans rather than packets. The beans were rather difficult to pick out from the heavy snow flakes that were coming down. No one bothered to pick any of the beans up that had fallen on the ground. At Zojo-ji because everying is in a package, you have people going up and down for mame-maki. This makes for a writhing crowd as some people are jumping up to catch packages while others are diving down to get the fallen ones and getting bumped heads in the process.

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A Devil revels in the mayhem of an unexpectant snowstorm

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A Kimono-clad girl indulging in mame-maki at Kanda Myojin shrine

After Kanda Myojin’s mame-maki, we were lead into a room where we could choose small packages of beans, candy, and oranges. All in all I had a decent Setsubun mame-maki haul by the end of the day.

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A decent Setsubun Mame-Maki haul

In the end despite the weather, the Setsubun exorcism ritual must have worked. The next morning the sun came out and melted the snow away. Better luck next year, devils!

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February 7, 2008 Posted by | Blogroll, culture, demons, devils, event, folklore, japan, japanese culture, life, ninja, oni, Setsubun, snow, spring, tokyo, tradition, travel, winter, zojo-ji | 1 Comment

Seijin-no-Hi Pictorial Montage Video

The following video is a pictorial montage of Seijin-no-Hi from 2006-2008 taken at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. The shrine holds an archery ritual which is pictured here known as Momote Shiki in honor of the new adults.The music is by The Sushi Cabaret Club, a band based in Nagoya, Japan:
The Sushi Cabaret Club

January 21, 2008 Posted by | Archery, beautiful girls, Blogroll, Coming of Age Day, culture, event, furisode, japan, kimono, life, meiji shrine, momote shiki, montage, photographs, seijin-no-hi, tokyo, tradition, traditional art, travel, video, vlog, youtube | Leave a comment

Kimono Girls on Japan’s Coming of Age Day – a Dying Tradition?

Japan’s Coming of Age Day
Kimono-Clad Girls a dying tradition?

Kimono-Clad Girls at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo on Coming of Age Day
D.Weber
D.Weber

It was the second Monday of January and once again Japan’s new adults were out and about enjoying their new-found adulthood on the national holiday of Seijin-no-Hi: Coming of Age Day. Many young women sported their decorative kimono with the long-sleeves called furisode. While most young men wore suits, there were a few here and there that wore the formal male kimono known as a hakama.

Japan especially likes marking the ages of its populace and Seijin-no-Hi is no exception. In November, the little ones are all decked out in pretty kimono. Girls ages 3 and 7 and boys aged 5 are honored every year on the Shinto holiday, Shichi-Go-San. Another national holiday is Keiro-no-Hi in September which is respect for elders day.

As for Seijin-no-Hi, the national holiday is only a little over half-a-century old having started in 1948. Now the focus is mainly on the young women in their stunning kimono while the boys get second billing. In the past, however, the emphasis was on the boys. Young men had two coming of age celebrations in which they would change their names. At 12 and 16 they would individually go through their own private special ceremonies. For samurai households, this was a big deal with much pomp and ceremony.

As I usually do every Seijin-no-Hi, I went to Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine which serves as a magnet for kimono-clad girls and avid photographers. Meiji Shrine’s courtyard was packed with people. Disappointingly most of them were visitors and photo-hunting photographers. Occasionally, the dull visage of the monotonous fashion of the throng would be broken up with the arrival of brilliantly colored kimono-clad girls either alone or in small groups. A declining population, rising kimono prices, and a growing disinterest in traditional culture has led to fewer sightings of Seijin-no-Hi’s main attraction.

D.Weber

The price of kimono has risen sharply over the years especially handmade ones. A number of the furisode kimono worn on Seijin-no-Hi are family hand-me-downs, rented, or pre-made from China. The overall cost can be quite staggering. A full-fledged new furisode can be as much as $10,000. And the accompanying beauty make-over with hair styling can run up to a thousand dollars. The appointments have be made months in advance.

Kimono-Clad Girls become celebrities for one day
D.Weber

Why all the hassle and expense?

D.Weber

“For the parents it is their desire. From the day a girl is born they have the desire to dress her in furisode when she becomes 20 in the seijin shiki, take her picture, and send it to relatives as custom requires. In some cases, the mother herself also wore a furisode she received from her mother in her seijin shiki…

D.Weber

“If they have the possibility of dressing their daughter in a Y1,000,000 kimono it is proof that they have worked hard all their lives and can afford it. It is the result of their life work…But the girls do not always understand their parents’ feelings and they say they would prefer a car.”

(from A Companion to the Anthropology of Japan – Fashioning Cultural Identity: Body and Dress by Ofra Goldstein-Gidoni)

Kimono-Clad Girls entering Meiji Shrine
D.Weber

A growing percentage of young women are opting for evening gowns which while still expensive are far less expensive than the furisode and more practical.

D.Weber

At Meiji Shrine, two girls attracted their fair share of attention by their bold mixing of traditional fashion with modern goth chic. For footwear, they eschewed the normal sandals and tabi socks for trendy boots. One of them sported a red heart shaped bag while the other had a death’s head dangling from hers. One of them had braided hair and the other’s hair was short with a streak of red running through it.

A bold mixture of modern and traditional
D.Weber

In this reporter’s humble opinion, I hope that the tradition of wearing the furisode kimono continues. Evening gowns are a dime a dozen throughout the world but the wearing of the furisode kimono is a unique Japanese phenomenon.

D.Weber
Hopefully not the last of the Coming of Age Kimono-Clad girls

January 21, 2008 Posted by | Blogroll, Coming of Age Day, culture, event, furisode, japan, kimono, life, Meiji, meiji shrine, photographs, seijin-no-hi, tokyo, tradition, traditional art, travel | 7 Comments

New Year’s Activities at a Japanese Temple in Tokyo Video

January 2, 2008 Posted by | buddhism, culture, event, festival, New Year's Eve, New Years, tokyo, tradition, travel, video, youtube, zojo-ji | 1 Comment

New Years at a Japanese Temple

New Years at a Japanese Temple
Prayers, Fires, and Rice Cakes ring in the New Year at Zojo-ji in Tokyo
 


Zojo-ji and Tokyo Tower

In the waning minutes of New Year’s Eve, I was able to get to one of the major temples in Tokyo, Zojo-ji, with less than 5 minutes to spare before the clock struck midnight. The place was packed with people and balloons.

Zojo-ji was once the principle temple of the Tokugawa Shoguns and six of them are buried there.


Balloons fly off marking the arrival of 2008

In the last minute of 2007, all the lights went out. Some people started a wrong countdown to the left of me and when they reached zero, nothing happened. (shmucks). When the real countdown hit, the lights popped back on and hundreds of balloons hit the sky.


Tokyo Tower – the Japanese version of the Eiffel Tower

The priests of Zojo-ji began the long ceremony of ringing the temple bell. For New Years, the bell is run 108 times. 108 represents the 108 sins of man according to Buddhist belief – and we Christians thought we had it bad with a measly 7 (granted they are Deadly).


The Bell is almost 400 years old and is rung twice a day

Thousands of people lined up to do their hatsumode – New Years Prayer. Japanese will pray for happiness and health for the new year. Over the next three days, millions of Japanese will visit temples and shrines thoughout the country to do hatsumode.


Buddhists Priests of Zojo-ji doing Prayers

Away from the Temple and its long line of people, I watched Mochi-making. Mochi is a traditional New Years food that is a type of chewy rice cake. Some people die every year from it because it gets lodged in their throat. This usually happens to the elderly and the very young who can’t chew their mochi so well. One resourceful housewife save her mother from choking to death by sticking a vacuum cleaner tube down the poor woman’s throat and sucking the mochi out.


Mochi dough inside wooden steam boxes being prepared for a pounding

The traditional way of making mochi I discovered was to put the doughy substance in a bowl then beat the hell out of it with a wooden hammer. Bits of mochi would fly out and strike the gathered spectators. I had a hard piece hit my cheek rather hard. While one guy wails away, another one kneads the dough inbetween hits. The dough kneader must have a lot of faith in the hammer-wielder’s ability or be on very good terms with him.


Got to beat the mochi to make it nice and chewy

A large fire was blazing and thousands of written prayers and sayings were tossed into it by the box load. This was in order to cut out the middle men and send the messages straight towards the heavens (where they can read smoke apparently).


Prayers and such are sent heavenwards with a large fire

Another year has come and gone but the memories and fun always linger – unless you get hit with that mochi hammer.


Old and New Japan blending together

January 2, 2008 Posted by | buddhism, event, festival, japan, life, New Year's Eve, New Years, tokugawa ieyasu, tokyo, tradition, travel, zojo-ji | 4 Comments

Celebrating the Japanese Emperor’s Birthday

Celebrating the Japanese Emperor’s Birthday
Japan’s Emperor: Man and Institution


Well-wishers wave Japanese flags in honor of the Emperor’s birthday.

Japanese Emperor Akihito celebrated his 74th birthday Dec. 23. The emperor’s birthday is a national holiday in Japan. On this day, the emperor greets assembled visitors in an area of the Kokyo or Imperial Palace on his birthday. In 1950, his father, Emperor Hirohito began the traditional by making public appearances every birthday.

Emperor Akihito, son of the controversial Hirohito, has “ruled” since 1989. Unlike previous emperors, he was sent to school with commoners. He shocked Japan and his mother by marrying a woman who was not an aristocrat, and later in defiance of tradition, chose to raise his children at home rather than send them to be cared for by others.


Nijubashi Bridge – normally off limits most of the year

Emperor Akihito addresses controversy

“Japanese people must strive to properly understand their country’s history when they deal with the rest of the world,” Akihito said in his public address at his 72nd birthday in 2005 to the gathered assembly. <This year he commented on global climate change> With relationships between Korea and China deteriorating, these words touch on a sore spot of controversy, a controversy in which the institution of “Emperor” was used to spearhead military conquest in the early 20th century.

History, or rather the presentation of history, is a key issue in the relationship between Japan and the rest of Asia. Many feel that Japan has not seriously owned up to its past misdeeds while at the same time adding salt to the wound by putting forth history textbooks that gloss over some of these past horrendous actions. It doesn’t help matters either with politicians such as former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi making official visits to Yasakuni Shrine, the Shinto shrine which contains the spirits of Japanese war dead including noted war criminals. <Emperor Hirohito stopped visiting the shrine since the war criminals’ enshrinement in 1978. Emperor Akihito has declined to visit as well instead sending only a lesser official in his place.>


Visitors walk past the seldom seen Fushimi Yugura guardtower

A Brief History of the Emperors of Japan

The cult of the emperor, which was the fountainhead of Japanese nationalistic fervor during the early half of the 20th century, is actually of recent origin, despite the long history of the Imperial institution.

Prior to the mid-19th century, emperors were secluded from the public to the point of being virtual prisoners. The shogun government restricted their movements and kept them confined in Kyoto, away from the people. The few foreigner visitors to Japan during its isolation period often referred to the shogun as the emperor and they had little reason to think otherwise. When the American statesmen Townsend Harris came to Japan to discuss a treaty, he too thought at first the shogun was the Emperor of Japan.


Visitors enter the assembly area outside of the Imperial Palace

According to Japanese mythology, the emperor is descended from Jimmu, a semi-divine being whose grandmother was Amaterasu-Omikami, the Sun Goddess. Jimmu reigned in 600 B.C. However, there is little evidence to support this. Most scholars believe the Imperial system developed from the Yamato culture in central Japan around the 3rd century A.D. with Chinese influences.

The emperor was seen as the divine manifested in the flesh; a representative of the gods on earth. To oppose the emperor was to oppose Japan itself. This made it quite risky for any usurpers not of Imperial blood to try and take the throne.


A depiction of Emperor Jimmu the legendary first Emperor of Japan

The Soga family in the 7th century were powerful ministers who basically governed the country while the Emperor attended to the necessary rituals of his or her position. The Soga family pushed too far and it was believed they conspired to take over the Imperial throne itself. This belief gave their enemies just cause in destroying them utterly.

The fate of the Soga made an impression on ambitious men and taught them a valuable lesson — that in order to effectively rule Japan, one must do it from behind the throne in the emperor’s name. In addition, the office of the emperor could be used as a weapon against political enemies. The most dreaded crime a lord could commit was treason against the emperor. Since the emperor was in effect Japan, a clever minister could create enemies of the state by claiming his rivals defied the emperor.


Section of the Imperial Palace from where the Emperor greets visitors

By the 9th century, actual ruling power rested in the hands of the Fujiwara clan while the emperor was regulated to administering to court ceremony. The Fujiwara had risen quickly to power in the aftermath of the destruction of the Soga clan. The Fujiwara ministers often manipulated the succession to the Imperial throne for their own gain – yet always they would claim their actions were in the name of the emperor. One of the most famous and powerful of the Fujiwara ministers was Fujiwara-no-Michinaga (966-1027). He married his daughter to the reigning emperor, which produced his own grandson as heir.

Quote:
The Man who would be Emperor
Rebel Taira-no-Masakado sought the divine Throne


A Monument to Taira-no-Masakado in Tokyo

Still even with the gods and powerful ministers on the Emperor’s side this did not stop certain aspiring usurpers. In the mid-10th Century, the Imperial Court faced its gravest threat from a distant cousin several times removed known as Taira-no-Masakado. Masakado rebelled against the court and went so far as to name himself Emperor issuing decrees and appointing governing officials in the Eastern provinces. He was eventually killed in battle but supposedly his spirit is still a force to reckon with.

According to legend his head not being content to remain on display in Kyoto, flew off on its own accord. A priest in Nagoya shot the flying head down which came to land in the eastern part of Tokyo. His head was buried and a small shrine was erected. This tiny shrine still stands in the shadows of huge office buildings. Supposedly those who have tried to remove the shrine in the past have met with unfortunate fates.

Emperors tried to keep some control of state by creating the office of the Cloistered Emperor, which was an abdicated emperor in the robes of a Buddhist monk. It was often the custom for emperors to abdicate young — sometimes they were pressured to do so. Ironically, though, an ex-emperor often had more freedom and power than a “ruling” emperor.

Although an emperor theoretically did not have power, succession issues were still a great matter of concern. In the mid-12th Century, the cloistered emperor made his son abdicate the Imperial Throne in favor of his younger half-brother. When the cloistered emperor died, the ex-emperor made advances to regain the throne. He was able to draw on a lot of support from samurai families. This sparked off the Heiji Rebellion which, while only lasting a day, had major ramifications. The ex-emperor’s attempt failed and many of his military supporters were executed. The balance of power shifted amongst the ruling samurai families of the day which eventually led to the Gempei War (1180-1185).


The Imperial Palace was once the the castle stronghold of the Tokugawa Shoguns for over two centuries

Following the end of Gempei War, the first Shogun government was set up in Kamakura (one hour south of Tokyo). The first shogun, Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, was concerned that his eastern warriors would become weak with the luxury of Kyoto and the Imperial Court so he set his capital far from Kyoto. Though power had long been out of Imperial hands, this move made the illusion all the more apparent. Technically, the shogun did everything in the emperor’s name, but it was definitely not with the emperor’s voluntary say-so.

An attempt was made in 1221 by Emperor Go-Toba to overthrow the Shogunate government, which itself was now, ironically, controlled by ministers, the Hojo Regents. The attempt failed miserably and the emperor was forced to abdicate and suffer exile.


The Emperor with his family speaks to the gathered assembly of elder Japanese and foreigners.

In the 14th century, Emperor Go-Daigo also attempted to restore Imperial power. After a few initial setbacks, Go-Daigo was eventually able to overthrow the Shogunate government and re-establish the Imperial Court as the governing body of Japan. The Go-Daigo Restoration only lasted a few short years. Samurai, dissatisfied with the rewards for their aid and fed up with haughty tones of court nobles, grumbled incessantly. One powerful ally, Ashikaga Takauji, turned against him and set up his own shogunate dynasty.

Go-Daigo fled to the mountain retreat Yoshino and set up a rival imperial court known as the “Southern Court.” For the next half century, Japan had two Imperial courts: one in Kyoto controlled by the Ashikaga Shogunate and the other in Yoshino which was without much authority. Supporters of the two courts fought off and on continuously until close to the end of the 14th century when the last emperor of the Southern Court abandoned Yoshino and submitted to the Imperial Court in Kyoto.


Fujimi Yagura Gatehouse

Though the Ashikaga Shogunate deteriorated towards the end of the following century, little attempt was made to restore the Imperial system. Instead Japan plunged into an age of unremitting warfare known as the Sengoku Period (Warring States), in which various warlords schemed and fought to increase their personal territories. The greatest warlords dreamed of uniting Japan under their banner and working in the emperor’s names as the previous shoguns and Fujiwara ministers had done before.


A helpful Boy Scout collects flags for visitors

Oda Nobunaga was able to realize this dream when he marched into Kyoto in the 1560s. He supported both the powerless emperor and the defunct shogun and worked to enhance their prestige with great building projects. The Ashikaga Shogun, however, rankled by being in the power of a warlord schemed against Oda. Oda eventually turned him out and no shogun was appointed until 1603.

Despite removing the shogun, Oda did not restore the Imperial system of governance. Instead, he ruled pretty much as the shoguns had before him but he lavished the emperor and his courts with gifts. After his death, one of his generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, ruled in the similar manner.


Visitors exiting the Imperial Palace grounds from the normally closed Sakashita Gate

In 1600, two years after Hideyoshi died, a great battle was fought at Sekigahara. The warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated his rivals and was named shogun three years later. His shogunate dynasty lasted until the 1867 when the last shogun stepped down from power.

At long last the emperor was free to govern the country without interference, or so it would seem. Very little had changed, really, since the days of the Fujiwara ministry. Still, it was those around him that implemented policy — in the emperor’s name, of course.

The fanatical devotion to the emperor that led to the atrocities of WWII, banzai death charges, and kamikaze attacks developed partially in the wake of Imperial restoration. Under the new constitution, the emperor was placed above and beyond the law. But it wasn’t until Emperor Hirohito took the throne in the 1920s that imperialist propagandists began to make serious efforts to promote the cult of the emperor, particularly in the school system and military training institutions.


Russian girls celebrating the Emperor’s birthday

One of the myths floated about at the time touted the amazing fact of the long unbroken line of Imperial succession that stretched back to the time of the gods. Nothing could have been further from the truth, however, given the long history of manipulation by ministers and shoguns with the Imperial succession. The exiled court of Yoshino was the senior line of the Imperial office and it was never re-established.

Like the Fujiwara ministers from ages past, the position of the emperor was tightly controlled and utilized by others — in this case the military. The official civil government at that time was little more than a sham. There is still debate today as to whether Hirohito was just a puppet like so many emperors have been in the past in the decision-making process that led to war in Asia and the Pacific, or if he was a key mover in these affairs, or at least an active participant in them.

Hirohito escaped the noose that many felt he deserved after the war. Under the terms of the American Occupation he was forced to renounce his divinity. When he publicly announced the surrender of Japan, it was the first time that the public actually heard him speak.


Two small children take a break after seeing the Emperor

The “Cult of the Emperor” Today

Today, interest in the emperor has decreased significantly with younger Japanese generations to the point of nearly vague indifference. The majority of those attending the emperor’s birthday these days are mainly older Japanese and a number of curious foreigners. The notorious black van right-wingers make an appearance as well, shouting slogans in the parking lot that very few people pay attention to.

While those who still hold a keen interest in the affairs of the Imperial family wrestle with the notion of a female emperor ascending the throne in the future, other Japanese wonder if the Imperial system should continue at all.


Kikyo Gate
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December 24, 2007 Posted by | akihito, birthday, Blogroll, castle, culture, event, Gempei War, hirohito, history, japan, japanese emperor, japanese history, japanese imperial palace, kokyo, koukyo, life, samurai, Shinto, tenno, tokugawa ieyasu, tokyo, tokyo imperial palace, tradition, travel, yasakuni shrine | 4 Comments

Vlog on Emperor of Japan’s Birthday Celebration

The following are two vlog blogs on attending the Japanese Emperor’s Birthday celebration. The current Emperor is Akihito and his birthday – December 23 – is a national holiday.

The Imperial Palace area – Koukyo – is normally off limits to visitors except on December 23 and January 2 when the Emperor gives his New Year’s address.

A Recounting of the Emperor of Japan’s Birthday Celebration: Part I

A (True) Recounting of the Emperor of Japan’s Birthday Celebration: Part II

December 23, 2007 Posted by | akihito, Blogroll, event, history, japan, japanese emperor, koukyo, life, party, tall tales, tenno, tokyo, tokyo imperial palace, tradition, travel, video, vlog, youtube | Leave a comment