Akio Kashiwagi was a whale. No, he didn’t perform tricks at Sea World. Casinos call super-elite high rollers whales. How high did he roll? He would bet $200,000 a hand at baccarat tables. When he visited Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino, he would wager $14 million an hour (Johnston, 1990). Kashigawa worked as a Tokyo real estate investor, and like James Bond he enjoyed baccarat.
His love for the game led to problems with creditors. When he died, he owed $9 million to American casinos (New York Times, 1992).
Kashigawa was said to be a normal Japanese salaryman outside of his high rolling habits. For example, he enjoyed samurai dramas and traditional Japanese furniture. He married a popular geisha who was 6 years older, and they had 3 children together. As a strict parent, he worried about alienating his eldest son, and he owned expensive paintings that he lent to museums (Watanabe, 1992).
At age 54, he was found dead in his kitchen, stabbed 150 times with an object resembling a Japanese sword (Watanabe, 1992; New York Times, 1992).
Japanese media speculated one of Kashigawa’s creditors decided to make an example of him.
His house lacked signs of forced entry, and Kashigawa always locked his home (Watanabe, 1992).
The middle child of 10, he worked as a farmhand and later as a guide at Mt. Fuji. Kashigawa entered real estate just as the market began to explode, but his money-lending business earned him a shady reputation. He was said to disappear on loan-due dates so debtors couldn’t pay. Kashigawa would then seize their property. He seized land a kindergarten stood upon, evicted the children, tore down the school, and built an apartment complex (Watanabe, 1992).
His murder was never solved.
Japanese and American Violence
It sounds like a crime straight out of CSI or NCIS. For those of us in the United States we shrug. Murder is so common in the news that we only blink. Back in 2008, the US saw more than 12,000 gun-related murders. Japan: 11 (Engel, 2014). Kashigawa’s death stands out because of its rarity and circumstances. According to a study by the United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime (2014) less than 1 person in 100,000 is murdered in Japan. In the US, that number is 4.8 per 100,000. The report further explains why:
The country’s homicide rate is associated with a stable and prosperous society with low inequality and high levels of development. Young Japanese males now commit only a tenth of the homicides committed by their predecessors in 1955, and the age and sex distribution of victims tend to be uniform across age groups. This has been attributed by some researchers to, amongst other factors, extremely low levels of gun ownership (1 in 175 households), a greater chance of detection (according to police data, 98 per cent of homicide cases are solved), the rejection of violence after the Second World War, the growth of affluence without the accompanying concentrations of poverty common in many highly developed countries, and the stigma of arrest for any crime in Japanese society.
This isn’t to idealize Japan. If anything, Kashigawa’s death suggests a strong presence of organized crime in Japan, which most people who study Japan are aware of. Rather, I want us to think how we consider crime. TV shows like CSI and NCIS make crime glamorous in many ways. Sure, the bad guys get caught, but crime is shown as an exciting chase, a battle of wits. Criminals appear to be heroes against the government and the status quo. Anime like Psycho Pass and Ghost in the Shell show the same. Crime is generated by society. There is a strong correlation between crime and economic opportunity (Kanayama, n.d.). Money had a hand in Kashigawa’s death. People with fewer economic options (or feel their business is threatened) resort to theft and violence. American society often focuses on having more and better. That pressure stresses those who lack the economic options, and many turn to crime. Ghost in the Shell touches on the higher end of this. Those with wealth often turn to crime because they seek to preserve their lifestyle or feel as if they can get away with it.
In any case, Japan may have lower gun violence than the US, but that is primarily because gun ownership is lower. An act in 1958 limited ownership of weapons by citizens: “No person shall possess a firearm or firearms or a sword or swords,” with a few exceptions (Allemon, 2000). This law didn’t prevent Kashigawa’s murder. This blog post is turning a little political, but these are topics that we need to discuss. Swords and many types of guns are designed for one thing: to kill people.
Limiting access would reduce the number of deaths associated with these weapons. The proof is in the statistics, but it cannot eliminate it. After all, 11 people still died from guns in Japan in 2008. If we could magically make all guns disappear in the United States, we will still see just as much violence. Although we would probably see fewer fatalities. The issue isn’t with firearms (for the record, I come from a hunting family, and I have no issues with owning hunting rifles and shotguns and other hunting-oriented firearms) but with society. Japanese culture’s focus on community and family encourages its lower level of violent crime.
Likewise, American individualism encourages violent crime. Individualism places value of the self above that of the community. It makes selfishness a virtue, and selfishness leads to increased disregard for the welfare of others. However, you can also argue community can encourage violence: gangs. Gangs appear when a sense of belonging is missing. But if American community hadn’t eroded as it has, gangs would have fewer voids to fill.
This is a heavy set of topics for an anime and culture blog, but it is important for us to think about these problems. It is important to set aside all the media hubris on the issues and the political hubbub about gun ownership. We must look at the underlying reasons why violence happens. It will never disappear, but deep societal change, a slight shift away from individualism and toward Japanese-style communal focus, would benefit the United States.
Allemon, M. (2000) The Japanese Firearm and Sword Possession Control Law: Translator’s Introduction. Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal Association.
Engel, P (2014) How Japan’s Murder Rate Got to be So Incredibly Low. Business Insider. http://www.businessinsider.com/why-japans-murder-rate-is-so-low-2014-4
Johnston, D. (1990). “At $200,000 a Hand, He’s Trumps Kind of Gambler, Inquirer. http://articles.philly.com/1990-05-11/news/25887492_1_casino-al-glasgow-atlantic-city
Kanayama, T. an Arichika Eguchi (n.d.) Japan’s Challenge on the Increase in Crime in the New Century. https://www.npa.go.jp/english/seisaku2/crime_reduction.pdf
New York Times (1992). “A Top Gambler is Killed Owing Casinos Millions”, New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1992/01/12/us/a-top-gambler-is-killed-owing-casinos-millions.html
UNODC (2014) Global Study on Homicide 2013 https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/statistics/GSH2013/2014_GLOBAL_HOMICIDE_BOOK_web.pdf
Watanabe, T. (1992) “Global High-Roller’s Trail Ends in a Mystery,” LA Times. http://articles.latimes.com/1992-02-08/news/mn-1383_1_japan-s-real-estate
About one thousand years ago (but according to the dates of the story 744 years ago) the temple of “San-jn-san-gen Do” was founded. That was in 1132. ‘San-ju-san-gen Do”means hall of thirty-three spaces; and there are said to be over 33,333 figures of the Goddess Kwannon, the Goddess of Mercy, in the temple to-day. Before the temple was built, in a village near by stood a willow tree of great size. It marked the playing-ground of all the village children, who swung on its branches, and climbed on its limbs. It afforded shade to the aged in the heat of summer, and in the evenings, when work was done, many were the village lads and lasses who vowed eternal love under its branches. The tree seemed an influence for good to all. Even the weary traveler could sleep peacefully and almost dry under its branches. Alas, even in those times men were often ruthless with regard to trees. One day the villagers announced an intention to cut it down and use it to build a bridge across the river.
There lived in the village a young farmer named Heitaro, a great favorite, who had lived near the old tree all his days, as his forefathers had done ; and he was greatly against cutting it down.
Such a tree should be respected, thought he. Had it not braved the storms of hundreds of years ? In the heat of summer what pleasure it afforded the children ! Did it not give to the weary shelter, and to the love-smitten a sense of romance ? All these thoughts Heitaro impressed upon the villagers. Sooner than approve your cutting it down/ he said, “I will give you as many of my own trees as you require to build the bridge. You must leave this dear old willow alone for ever/
The villagers readily agreed. They also had a secret veneration for the old tree.
Heitaro was delighted, and readily found wood with which to build the bridge.
Some days later Heitaro, returning from his work, found standing by the willow a beautiful girl.
Instinctively he bowed to her. She returned the bow. They spoke together of the tree, its age and beauty. They seemed, in fact, to be drawn towards each other by a common sympathy. Heitaro was sorry when she said that she must be going, and bade him good-day. That evening his mind was far from being fixed on the ordinary things of life. “Who was the lady under the willow tree ? How I wish I could see her again!’“thought he. There was no sleep for Heitaro that night. He had caught the fever of love.
Next day he was at his work early ; and he remained at it all day, working doubly hard, so as to try and forget the lady of the willow tree ; but on his way home in the evening, behold, there was the lady again ! This time she came forward to greet him in the most friendly way.
“Welcome, good friend !”she said. “Come and rest under the branches of the willow you love so well, for you must be tired.”
Heitaro readily accepted this invitation, and not only did he rest, but also he declared his love.
Day by day after this the mysterious girl (whom no others had seen) used to meet Heitaro, and at last she promised to marry him if he asked no questions as to her parents or friends. “I have none,” she said. “I can only promise to be a good and faithful wife, and tell you that I love you with all my heart and soul. Call me, then, ” Higo,” J and I will be your wife.”
Next day Heitaro took Higo to his house, and they were married. A son was born to them in a little less than a year, and became their absorbing joy. There was not a moment of their spare time in which either Heitaro or his wife was not playing with the child, whom they called Chiyodo. It is doubtful if a more happy home could have been found in all Japan than the house of Heitaro, with his good wife Higo and their beautiful child.
Alas, where in this world has complete happiness ever been known to last ? Even did the gods permit this, the laws of man would not.
When Chiyodo had reached the age of five years— the most beautiful boy in the neighbourhood—the ex-Emperor Toba decided to build in Kyoto an immense temple to Kwannon. He would contribute 1001 images of the Goddess of Mercy.
The ex-Emperor Toba’s wish having become known, orders were given by the authorities to collect timber for the building of the vast temple ; and so it came to pass that the days of the big willow tree were numbered, for it would be wanted, with many others, to form the roof.
Heitaro tried to save the tree again by offering every other he had on his land for nothing, but that was in vain. Even the villagers became anxious to see their willow tree built into the temple. It would bring them good luck, they thought, and in any case be a handsome gift of theirs towards the great temple.
The fatal time arrived. One night, when Heitaro and his wife and child had retired to rest and were sleeping, Heitaro was awakened by the sound of axes chopping. To his astonishment, he found his beloved wife sitting up in her bed, gazing earnestly at him, while tears rolled down her cheeks and she was sobbing bitterly.
“My dearest husband,”she said with choking voice, “ pray listen to what I tell you now, and do not doubt me. This is, unhappily, not a dream. When we married I begged you not to ask me my history, and you have never done so, but I said I would tell you some day if there should be a real occasion to do so. Unhappily, that occasion has now arrived, my dear husband. I am no less a thing than the spirit of the willow tree you loved, and so generously saved six years ago. It was to repay you for this great kindness that I appeared to you in human form under the tree, hoping that I could live with you and make you happy for your whole life. Alas, it cannot be! They are cutting down the willow. How I feel every stroke of their axes! I must return to die, for I am part of it. My heart breaks to think also of leaving my darling child Chiyodo and of his great sorrow when he knows that his mother is no longer in the world. Comfort him, dearest husband! He is old enough and strong enough to be with you now without a mother and yet not suffer. I wish you both long lives of prosperity. Farewell, my dearest ! I must be off to the willow, for I hear them striking with their axes harder and harder, and it weakens me each blow they give.
Heitaro awoke his child just as Higo disappeared, wondering to himself if it were not a dream. No : it was no dream. Chiyodo, awaking, stretched his arms in the direction his mother had gone, crying bitterly and imploring her to come back.
“My darling child,”said Heitaro, “she has gone. She cannot come back. Come, let us dress, and go and see her funeral. Your mother was the spirit of the Great Willow.”
A little later, at the break of day, Heitaro took Chiyodo by the hand and led him to the tree. On reaching it they found it down, and already lopped of its branches. The feelings of Heitaro may be well imagined.
Strange ! In spite of united efforts, the men were unable to move the stem a single inch towards the river, in which it was to be floated to Kyoto.
On seeing this, Heitaro addressed the men.
“My friends,” said he, “the dead trunk of the tree which you are trying to move contains the spirit of my wife. Perhaps, if you will allow my little son Chiyodo to help you, it will be more easy for you ; and he would like to help in showing his last respects to his mother.’
The woodcutters were fully agreeable, and, much to their astonishment, as Chiyodo came to the back end of the log and pushed it with his little hand, the timber glided easily towards the river, his father singing the while an “Uta.” There is a well-known song or ballad in the “Uta”style said to have sprung from this event; it is sung to the present day by men drawing heavy weights or doing hard labor:
Is it not sad to see the little fellow,
Who sprang from the dew of the Kumano Willow,
And is thus far budding well ?
Heave ho, heave ho, pull hard, my lads.
The wagon could not be drawn when it came to the front of Heitaro’s house, so his little five-year-old boy Chiyodo was obliged to help, and they sang :—
Is it not sad to see the little fellow,
Who sprang from the dew of the Kumano Willow,
And is thus far budding well ?
Heave ho, heave ho, pull hard, my lads.
There are many different versions of this story. This is one of the most detailed. Japanese folklore rarely end “happily ever after.” The stories capture the reality of intertwined happiness and sorrow. Even the closest lovers must part for a time when one of them dies. However, these stories aren’t pessimistic. Rather, they seek to teach appreciation. We appreciate what we have more when we know it must end.
Smith, Richard Gordon (1918) Ancient Tales and Folklore of Japan.
Alex continues her review of Mystrade in this mashup of Titanic and BBC’s Sherlock. For those who are not familiar with Mystrade fanfiction, the story concerns a yaoi pairing between Mycroft Holmes and Gregory Lestrade. The original fanfiction is written by somebodyswatson. You can read it here.
Starting off, you immediately share in Mycroft’s displeasure and lack of enthusiasm. Even though the air is humming with excited emotions, (trust me, you can feel them,) you feel as bored as a bookworm at a sporting event. In the middle of wanting to hit your head off of a wall, there is a pause. You can’t help but feel your chest swell with awe and wonder. Almost able to see the magnificent ship rising up in front of you in all her glory and splendor.
Moran is introduced in this chapter, (he is from BBC’s Sherlock for those who are unaware). He is the valet for, of course, one James Moriarty, (also from BBC’s Sherlock). Who struts in as a wealthy pain in the rear. (For our poor Mycroft at least). He flashes his wealth, is openly an arrogant jerk, and you feel the urge to either sock him in the face, or recoil and hope his slimy, high and mighty attitude doesn’t rub off on you. And he just HAS to be the one who says the infamous line, “God himself couldn’t sink this ship”. (…..thanks Moriarty. Thank you very much. Future deaths and tears that I will undoubtedly shed will be on you. A$$).
You continue to share in Mycroft’s unimpressed attitude. Possibly even frowning in slight disgust at the way Moriarty behaves. (He really takes the place of the wealthy, slimeball jerk role quite well. Way to go with that somebodyswatson, thumbs way up from me). You honestly keep swapping emotions throughout this chapter. Switching between bored, unimpressed, feeling trapped and caged, to excitement, awe, wonder, and bittersweet feelings from farewells of every sort. It’s done beautifully, and the feelings don’t overpower the details. And vice versa.
When they’re boarding the RMS Titanic, you’re in absolute awe. The details, the electricity in the air, the grim aura surrounding Mycroft, you’re completely sucked in. It’s like you’re actually there with him, experiencing everything. The throngs of people, the happy laughter of children, the hum of the ships engines and the sounds rising above it, you’re living it all. And the details, oh the details! You glance up from reading, and you half expect to be standing among the passengers outside waiting to board, in the halls of the Titanic, or in the suite the trio will be staying in. It’s amazing, it really is.
( Predestination by Beginte on Deviantart.com )
Sherlock is mentioned again, and here a frown returned to my face once more. Poor Mycroft didn’t really have a choice with whatever is going on. (Well..I mean, he did. But he really didn’t). If you weren’t feeling bleak about his situation before, whatever his situation is, you should at this point. This ship is a prison. Basically a golden cage. From the moment Mycroft stepped from the automobile, boarding the Titanic, viewing their rooming arrangement, it was all a downhill tumble. Whatever happened with Sherlock, it wasn’t good. And it seems to have only gotten worse for our Mycroft from there. This ship is suffocating. This cruise is not a vacation or something to be enjoyed. And I can bet their destination isn’t something to be looked forward to either.
Mycroft is depressed, unimpressed, and living in a mini Hell. And, when he’s mentioning Sherlock, your heart aches. He loves his brother dearly. He did this, whatever this is, to save him. No regrets are held about saving his little brother. Mycroft loves Sherlock. Always has. Anything that has ever needed to be done to protect his brother, he has done. Anything that will ensure Sherlock’s safety, Mycroft will do. But..it doesn’t mean that Mycroft can’t mourn the loss of his freedom. Of his life. And you feel that. With all the excitement going on, through the events slowly unfolding, you share in Mycroft’s distress. His despair. His loss. But, Sherlock is alive. And Sherlock is safe. Losing him would have been worse than this Hell and the future that it seems to hold. And so, it’s on that note, that we continue on to chapter 3. (Impatiently awaiting the appearance of our dear Gregory).
Photographs are everywhere. Every cell phone has a camera stuffed into it. Selfies and photos in general are so ubiquitous that they often lack impact. Even the most stunning photos make us shrug and click on to the next website. But if we stop and consider photos, they are a marvel. Photography captures a moment in time. The moment may be contrived, posed, or spur-of-the-moment, but it is still a glimpse at a time period. It is a glimpse at a person long gone.
The number of photos floating around the Internet combines with our ever-onward rush to consume information. How often do you stop to contemplate a picture for more than a few seconds? I am guilty of rushing onward too.
Japanese woman wearing Western clothing c. 1900
Why is this woman wearing Western style clothing? What was her name? What was her favorite food? She was a predecessor to the moga of the 1920s. Moga is short for modan garu, or modern girl. She was a hip, liberated woman for her time. Moga typically wore one-piece dresses that ended at the knee, high-heels, and sheer stockings. A hat made of soft fabric accented her short hair styled after popular American film stars (Sato, 1993). Our lady has the hat, but her dress looks Victorian. We can only speculate about how she viewed herself. Many of these photographs are for postcards meant to be sold in the West. But they are still glimpses of people and periods lost to time.
Moga on the beach. 1920. Notice their Western-style swimsuits. These ladies were fashionable for their time and they threatened traditional womanhood in Japan.
A pair of sumo going through ritual movements for a Western audience (These postcards targeted Western visitors). A hand tinted photograph from 1865.
We can’t forget the people not seen in these photographs: the photographers. The names of photographers are sometimes as mysterious as the people depicted. What made the photographer set up this shot? What relationship did the photographer share with the people in the picture? We can rarely answer these questions.
Japanese mother with her sleeping child. c. 1865 hand-tinted.
These people are gone. These frozen moments tantalize. The toy cat on the right side of the photograph and the thick blankets surrounding the child speak of the mother’s love. The ink paintings in the background are lovely. What do they tell us about the family?
A lovely hand-tinted photograph of a woman washing her hair taken by Felix Beato. c.1863.
We happen to know who took these hand-colored photographs. Felix Beato, an Englishman, used glass plate negatives coated with egg whites. This technique allowed photographers to capture detail but at the cost of long exposures. It took 4 hours to make a photo. However, Beato figured out a way to reduce the exposure time to 4 seconds. He took photographs in Egypt, China, and many other locations. He lived in Yokohama (Nobuo, 1972).
A samurai in full armor, a relic of the past even when this photograph was taken.
We rush about both online and offline by our societies. We bounce to and fro, forgetting how to look deeply. Look at these photographs for several minutes. Look into the eyes of these people. Perhaps someday someone will look at photographs of you with the same questions you have. Who is this? What was their favorite food? Favorite color? What were they thinking? Why was the photograph taken?
Or perhaps they will only spend a few seconds glancing into your eyes before moving on without thinking of these questions.
We live in an exciting time. A few clicks pulls up hundreds of frozen memories, but appreciation for this remains low. It’s human nature to grow accustomed to the everyday. It takes effort to cultivate thankfulness and mindfulness. These photos of people long gone reach across time if we stop and listen. I find this exciting and humbling. Even contrived postcards offer a glimpse of a different era and way of thinking. Japan was opening to the world after a long period of isolation under the Tokugawa. These photos suggest anxiety and excitement, a curiosity for the new, and a desire to reach out to the West. For the Japanese at the time, the West was just as alien as Japan was to the West.
Edo period women
A Buddhist monk. c. 1870
A geisha poses for a postcard. Hard-tinted.
A Japanese mother with her child.
Nobuo, I. (1972). BEATO IN JAPAN. Image, 15(3), 10-11.
Sato, B. (1993). The Moga Sensation: Perceptions of the Modan Garu in Japanese Intellectual Circles During the 1920s. Gender & History, 5 (3). 363-381.
You probably expect me to talk about Japan’s infamous panty vending machines. Alright, alright. I will, but there is more to the story. Did you know vending machines were once considered a threat to Japanese tradition? Do you know why Japan historically has the densest concentration of vending machines in the world?
Beyond panties and bras, vending machines in Japan dispense a staggering variety of products: frozen beef, hamburgers, soft drinks, eggs, cigarettes, alcohol, ice cream, soup, porn, towels, flowers, bus tickets, train tickets, toys, batteries, coffee, DVDs, and even dates…the kind that involves people, not the fruit.
Back in 1993, there were 50 machines in every square kilometer (Minshall, 1993). In 1998, Japan had over 5.4 million vending machines (Mak, 1998).
Who invented the first vending machine is up for debate. In 1867, the German Carl Ade is believed to claim the first patent. But in 1888, Yoshiichi Tawaraya was said to produce the first automatic vending machine (Minshall, 1993). In either case, Japan took the idea and ran with it.
Why Were Vending Machines so Popular in Japan?
Japan loved vending machines for many reasons. Convenience dominates these reasons. Etiquette rules Japanese society. Many people get tired of obligated small talk and social requirements. Vending machines let you avoid that.
“Because of traditional attitudes it can be psychologically awkward to walk into a shop to buy something small, like a pack of cigarettes, and just leave.” (Sterngold, 1992)
Japanese businesses have a reputation for lavishing attention on customers and smothering them with personal service. Small neighborhood shops thrived because they provided intimacy and trust people once demanded (Sterngold, 1992). But over time, this changed. The increasing pace of life drove people toward the immediacy of vending machines. The Japanese tradition of elaborate courtesies smashed against a world that doesn’t have time for them. Vending machines, at first, appeared to be another threat to tradition. They allowed people to avoid traditional interactions with their rituals. But they can also be seen as a middle ground between retaining traditional social etiquette and throwing it away. They carve out a middle ground.
Busy people can use them instead of pressuring the culture to drop traditional etiquette. Busyness can’t be underestimated as a changing force. Japanese workers put in long hours, often off the clock. Vending machines allow people to circumvent cultural expectations in other ways too. They help people avoid social embarrassment associated with buying certain products. For example, in the 1990s flower machines allowed young men to avoid the embarrassment of admitting to shopkeepers they were buying a nice gift for a sweetheart. Such a gesture of affection was unusual in Japan for the time and rather embarrassing (Sterngold, 1992).
Vending machines soon developed a wide variety of products to accommodate long work hours and avoid the embarrassment of trying to placate a wife a salary-man rarely sees. Even better for the customer, prices between different machines remained the same. On the business side, vending machines save on overhead. Land and labor in Japan cost a bundle. Vending machines produce more revenue for each square meter of space compared to a retail store (Mak, 1998). Competition zeroes in on location. Because product prices remain the same, vendors seek the best locations for their product selection. Volume creates profit, so the best locations in the busiest areas yield the best profit. Vending machines encourage impulse buying and immediate need. That is why underwear machines are found in saunas (Sterngold, 1992).
Japan’s low crime rate helps. Businesses can place machines all over and not worry about vandalism (Mak, 1998). Here in the US, we place vending machines in front of established businesses because of the real threat of vandalism. You will rarely see a vending machine standing alone in a street. In Japan, vending machines appear nearly anywhere.Vendors need to place their machines where the consumers need them to maximize impulse buying. Even if this means the machine stands along on a hiking path in the middle of a forest (selling insect repellent, of course). Access to electricity limits placement more than anything.
Finally, vending machines have return policies. People can fill out a form (paper back in the day) if a machine ate your money, and the product was delivered to you (Minshall 1993).
Weird Vending Machines
Here’s the part you were waiting for! Because vending machines sell such a wide range of products, you will get a few strange varieties.
Back in the 90’s vending machines peddled dates for those who lack time to meet people. Remember, this was before online dating. Japanese men would submit an application with a photo including information about their blood types, height and weight, astrological sign, and job. Guys paid $40 to make 30 copies of their forms destined to be randomly placed in 30 “Happy Guy” vending machines around Tokyo. Women put in $2 to receive the info (Thornton, 1992).
In 2013, a bra vending machine debuted, but it sold few. The bras it sold cost 3,000 yen — about $30.
Used Panty Vending Machines
They kinda look like Pokeballs. Gotta catch them all?
Vending machines that sell underwear worn by teens are one of those stories that refuses to die. These machines did exist in Tokyo, but they were never a common way of buying such (Waterstreet, 2014). The whole thing started back in the 1990s during a teen school-girl craze that swept through parts of Japan. It rode on the waves of the exploding j-pop idol movement. Worn school uniforms and underwear were sold in specialty adult stores (Ashcraft, 2012). School girls would sell their clothes to these shops. This didn’t last long. Japan’s health departments cracked down, and the practice became illegal. But new underwear can still be sold.
As you’ve seen, the 1990s were something of a golden age for vending machines. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind some Japanese style vending machines here in the States. No, I don’t mean the panty-machines. The ability to buy little things like batteries and other odds without fighting checkout lines would be great! But the US has a lot more theft and vandalism than Japan, so I don’t see this ever happening. What would you like to see in a vending machine?
With this post, I’d like to start a new series in which I want to consider the use of religious tropes and images in either well-known or current Anime. Since I am a self-confessed lover of monsters and magic, this first blog contemplates the fascinating hybrid known as onmyōdō 陰陽道, and its portrayal in Sōsei no Onmyōji (2016, currently airing).
The Way of Yin and Yang
…is what a literal translation of the word onmyōdō amounts to. The hybrid nature of this (for lack of a better term) religion is already apparent from its name, which mixes Chinese and Japanese concepts.
Yin Yang Symbol
In‘yō, as the kanji陰陽 can also be read, is the combination of yin and yang energy. These two opposites, each containing the seed of the other, and each in the process of transforming into the other, are the components and the manifestation of dao 道 (jp. dō… but more on that later). The dao is something which resists definition but amounts to a kind of world energy. Or so the ancient Chinese religion of Daoism teaches us. Its circular symbol is probably familiar to everyone, though the explanation might not be. More on the Daoist influence on onmyōdō later.
The second part of the name, 道, literally means way or path. It alludes to religion only in so far as that two other religions in Japan, which were also influenced by Daoism, use the same character: the indigenous Shintō (神道, Way of the Gods) and the syncretistic Buddhist sect of Shugendō (修験道, something like Way of Practice). However, 道 also designates various arts, from tea ceremony to sword fighting to incense-smelling to karate. It indicates a discipline which demands faithful practise over a long time in order to achieve various grades of mastery. Therefore, we can understand onmyōdō as ‘the (religious) discipline of mastering yin and yang’, and that already gives us some idea of what it (originally) entailed.
Some Background on Daoism
One cannot pinpoint a founding date for Daoism and even the existence of a founding figure is debatable.
Ancient statue of Lao-tzû. Curtesy of wikipedia.
Concepts of an all-encompassing force (not one involving lightsabres) probably predate the oftentimes quoted sage Lao-tzû and the ancient Book of Changes (I Ching). The more magico-religious strand of Daoism even claims the mystical Yellow Emperor as its founder. However, definitions usually fall back to the works of Lao-tzû, since he is the closest thing to a reliable source 😉
“Lao-tzû tells us that Tao (Way) is just a convenient term for what had best be called the Nameless. Nothing can be said of it that does not detract from its fullness. To say that it exists is to exclude what does not exist, although void is the very nature of the Tao. To say that it does not exist is to exclude the Tao-permeated plenum. Away with dualistic categories.”[i]
The Five Phases or Elements and their relations.
Another important aspect is the idea of constant change occurring in repeating patterns, such as the seasons in nature. Here another concept bears introduction: namely, the five phases or elements. Wood feeds Fire, Fire’s ash fertilizes Earth, Earth contains Metal, Metal attracts Water (as in condensation), and Water nourishes plants, that is, Wood. In this fashion, the elements form a circle. If you now consider which element conquers or destroys another, you get diagonal lines crossing the circle: A Wood plough conquers Earth, Earthen dikes beat Water, Water extinguishes Fire, Fire melts Metal, Metal chops Wood.[ii] A pentacle appears inside the circle, and this pentacle still appears in places associated with onmyōdō in Japan, such as the Shrine of the most famous Japanese yin-yang magician, whom we’ll discuss later.
Daoists’ goals and means
So, what did Daoists want? Superficially, magical powers seem valid objectives, and feats such as invulnerability, prolonged life and youth or the ability to expel demons or foretell the future all have been attributed to Daoist adapt of the ancient and recent past. These powers, however, are only secondary to the true believer, who aims to become one with the Dao and, for example, simply needs to live a very long life in order to achieve this.[iii]
Meditation and Outer Alchemy
Several methods to prolong life existed. Once could make use of breathing techniques and meditation to manipulate the energies within one’s own body, so that drops of a mystical essence ascended to one’s crown. Alternatively, one could experiment in a more commonly alchemical way with specific (often toxic) ingredients to create the ‘Golden Pill’ or ‘pure essence of spirit’, which would not only confer immortality but also transform base metals into gold… so yes, Daoism has its own philosopher’s stone.
One can read some alchemist texts, such as the Ts’an T’ung Ch’i mentioned by Blofeld, as tantric manuals, where the union of yin and yang means sexual union.[iv] This type of ritual involves careful control of movement, breathing and rhythm. It also hinges on the male adept avoiding ejaculation since that amounts to a loss of precious yang energy, the “ultimate goal [being] the production of an embryo of a perfect being” through the union of yin and yang inside one’s body.[v] This perfect embryo seems to me to be just another image, like of the golden pill of outer alchemy or the holy drops of mysterious essence produced by meditation and energy control. It seems merely a symbol of perfection attained by religious practice. However, the series Sōsei no Onmyōji may be taking this a bit more literally, as I will discuss below.
Onmyōdō isn’t Japanese Daoism
One additional, astonishing aspect of Daoism I would like to mention: as recounted by Blofeld, an intense pacifism permeates of the whole exorcism business. “One does not like to destroy genuine demons except as a last resort. They love their lives as much as we do and have the same rights to existence”, he let one of his characters say.[vi] In many portrayals of Japanese onmyōji, by contrast, they do not treat demons this kindly. However, even in Daoism, curse-created sprites are an exception. They have “no life to lose, being a mere extension of the magician’s mind.”[vii] Such a creature born of evil intent is a curse taking physical form; and this concept is a staple of onmyōji lore – mostly presented as shikigami, which we’ll come back to later.
Indian and Chinese religion and philosophy entered Japan via the Korean kingdoms from the fifth century AD. But whereas Buddhism became prominent in the country’s power struggles, and experts, texts and statues were imported from China to furnish Japanese Buddhist monasteries, there is no clear evidence for any attempt to install organized Daoist religion in Japan. Instead, its texts and concepts, methods and deities were appropriated in Buddhist and Shintō contexts.[viii] Thus evolved the Japanese magical religion called onmyōdō, with onmyōji as its practitioners and “priests”.[ix] In the medieval Japanese state, these specialists had a well-defined set of tasks to perform; they were courtiers and officials in addition to their quasi-priest role.[x]
The “Golden Age”: Court Onmyōji and the Divination Office
Shikiban divination board
The Japanese government of the Heian era – the “high middle ages” of Japan, origin of much of its classical literature – was built to resemble Chinese models and employed complex ranking systems. It is thanks to these rankings and the lists needed to keep track of them that we know about the organization of the official court onmyōji.[xi] The Yin-Yang-Office (onmyōryō) “was set up to handle affairs in the four areas of yin-yang-cosmology, astronomy, calendar calculation and time keeping”.[xii] The four fields, despite being assigned specialist “doctors”, are intertwined. Yin-Yang and Five-Phase thought pervades the calendar and time settings with twelve animals, which also double as star signs.
It comes as no surprise than that astrological divination was used to determine fortunate and dangerous days for each year’s calendar, and the directions (each linked to an element) one needed to avoid every day. In addition, Heian court intrigue might cause supernatural retribution, from which one needed protection. This was also a task of the onmyōji, who could divine the origin of an ailment and exorcise the demon or repel the curse which caused it. In addition, they performed Daoism-inspired rituals for the longevity of aristocrats.[xiii]
Possibly the first magical tool we now imagine in the hands of an onmyōji is the shikigami (式神/識神). It is most commonly depicted as a paper effigy which, once infused with spiritual power, transforms into a monster-like entity and does the caster’s bidding. However, onmyōdō texts do not even mention them.[xiv]
The name itself is ambiguous; shiki can be written as either “ritual” or “consciousness”, whereas kami, here written as “god“” is a homophone of 紙, “paper”. So, this is paper is infused with the caster’s conciousness or will in a ritual, which acts as a supernatural being. Japanese language is so much fun! Anyways. Divination using the shikiban, a two-piece divination board with inscriptions referring to yin-yang, calendrical animals, and the I Ching hexagrams, makes use of 12 Guardian Deities of the months, in the “heaven” half. Seimei allegedly made these his shikigami. Alternatively, he commanded two very powerful ones, each representing one realm of the board (earth and heaven).[xv]
Initially, though, Shikigami may have been a mere divination technique.[xvi] The foretelling of future ills through the shikiban may have involved a god of the shiki-board, a shiki-gami. This entity then became the means of inflicting, rather than the announcer, of misfortune. Thus, the shikigami as manifestation of a curse was born. In turn, an onmyōji could recognize the occurrence as an action of an enemy magician and repel the curse. The caster then dies of his own rebounding spell. This technique was another specialty of Seimei’s.
The ambiguity of the shikigami may be best summarized in Pang’s words: “the shikigami is actually a means through which the onmyōji controls the innate energy in natural elements with magical incantations.”[xvii] This fits all aforementioned manifestations.
Abe no Seimei as Ideal and Prototype
Seimei Shrine in Kyôto. I took this photograph spring 2012.
Abe no Seimei is the most famed and, legend has it, most powerful onmyōji of all time. Some tales claim his mother was a kitsune, a magical fox spirit, [xviii] because this power seems inconceivable for a mere human being. However, he did not do his deeds in a vacuum, but rather represents the craft as its most prominent practitioner. Onmyōdō was an institution of the Heian-era Court, as I mentioned above.
The historical Seimei, or Haruaki, as his name would have been read prior to his popularity, was initially a court official of mediocre rank.[xix] It was his aptitude at performing the tasks expected of an onmyōji, combined with a long life, that enabled his rise to high rank and office, as Shigeta delineates. Seimei’s repertoire included purifying buildings before use, summoning rain, explaining occurrences, divining fortunate days, performing healing rituals, and repelling curses. For the effectiveness of his rituals he received promotions.[xx] Shikigami, however, are not even mentioned in regard to him in any of the official sources.[xxi]
From the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period and Beyond
Since that time, the Abe clan and (being pushed to second rank after Seimei’s success) the Nara-based Kamo family were the traditional onmyōji linages, until the extinction of the latter. In the Edo period, whoever wanted to perform divination, no matter his or her religion or self-description needed a certificate in order to do so. These certificates were granted by the Tsuchimikado family of onmyōji: the descendants of the Abe line.[xxii]
From this we can see how far onmyōdō departed from its Daoist influences and transformed to satisfy the demands of Heian-era court nobility, and yet, how it survived to the early modern period. Meiji’s emphasis on western scientific thought brought the practise to an end. But in the 1990s, onmyōdō celebrated a sort of revival in the Abe so Seimei-Boom caused by Yumemakura Bakus Onmyōji novels. Its numerous appearances in popular culture until now then can probably be traced back to this event. Anime series such as Kekkaishi and Mononoke draw on onmyōdō lore without naming it, whereas a monster-focused tale such as Nurarihyon no Mago casts onmyōji (initially) as antagonists. The most extensive focus on onmyōdō I know of, however, is this year’s Sōsei no Onmyōji, “Twin Star Exorcists”.
Sōsei no Onmyōji – Twin Star exorcists
The main characters.
Sōsei no onmyōji takes up a number of the abovementioned symbols and concepts. The title hints at the importance of astrolog, and the chief onmyōji, Arima, performs divination. He bears the historically correct title, onmyō no kami.[xxiii] In addition, his family name, Tsuchimikado, reveals his descent from the Abe family. The two main characters also have names which allude to historical onmyōji or sites of magical ritual. Enmado Rokuro may be named for Roku Emaro, a seventh-to-eighth-century “doctor of onmyōdō” from the continent who was commanded to renounce religious orders and found a dynasty.[xxiv] Adashino Benio’s surname maybe alludes to the Adashino temple near Kyōto, which celebrates a ritual for uncared-for souls (a raw material for monsters) every year.[xxv]
The series’ exorcists main task is to exterminate monsters called kegare. Usually, the noun kegare refers to abstract spiritual pollution rather than a monster-type entity, though. Therefore, the whole business of exorcists can be interpreted as a sort of metaphorical exorcism. However, despite the intelligence and emotion evidenced in higher forms of kegare, onmyōji do not grant them mercy and a right to exist, as Daoist exorcists might have done. Instead, two high-ranking onmyōji exterminate a very touchingly human kegare in what amounts to one of the most tragic moments of the series. Among the exorcists’ skills, shikigami feature regularly, most prominently in Benio‘s pet fox (who however does not seem to have any fighting properties). Head onmyōji Arima uses one as a replacement for himself, and commands two immensely powerful fighting shikigami, in a call-back to his ancestor.
The purification talisman.
When calling forth enchantments on body and weapons, these exorcists use a genuine Daoist spell, 急急如律令[xxvi] (kyūkyū nyo ritsuryō, if read in Japanese), though the type of application shown in the anime is, to my knowledge, original. Additionally, Benio’s swordplay calls to mind “a Chinese discipline that utilized swords and magic spells to exorcise evil spirits”[xxvii] mentioned in the context of Daoist imports, though I could not confirm the use of the aforementioned spell in this art.
Exorcism in the classical sense also features strongly in the second arc of the series. Whenever portals to the Magano (the demon realm) open, the vapours sicken the human population of the surrounding area, who then need the assistance of onmyōji. Healing requires purification spells, perhaps an allusion to the longevity rituals of Heian court onmyōji but surely a part of the exorcists’ basic task, erasing impurity. The most impressive cleansing, however, is an early use of the main characters‘ special power or “resonance”: With their joint energy, they manage to return a friend to normal after she transformed into a kegare, using the supreme purification spell – a feat previously considered impossible.
The 12 Heavenly Guardians of the shikiban, the legendary shikigami of Seimei, also appear in the series in the form of the 12 most powerful exorcists, who directly serve Tsuchimikado Arima, Seimei’s heir. Each of them bears the title of one of the twelve and has corresponding abilities. This fits with Pang’s view of shikigami as, ultimately, a kind of energy to be manipulated by those capable of the feat.[xxviii] Those who have enough spiritual energy, that is, in this series.
What makes protagonists Rokuro and Benio stand out is not so much their individual power. Although they are considered strong, especially for their age, they are repeatedly shown to be massively inferior to other characters. Their potential lies, in the first part, in their capability of “resonance” or joining their (male and female?) energy. In the second arc, however, even with resonance they are clearly outmatched by evolved Kegare (Basara) and Guardians alike. This seems to suggest that, after all, it will be not their resonance but their child, the Miko of the prophecy, who saves the world.
Miko – Child of Prophecy
In the second episode, Arima reveals the backstory of the series’ title. He claims to have received an oracle telling him about the immanent appearance of the Miko, the divine child foretold to end Magano and free the world of kegare monsters. The Miko is the child born of the Twin Star exorcists, as whom he has divined Benio and Rokuro, to the annoyance of both. This idea reminds me of the concept of the perfect child conceived by Daoist adepts in a ritual of sexual alchemy. This being „controls and registers the multitude of spirits. Summoning them by name according to the Registers, he lets none of them escape.”[xxix]
Benio’s kegare-granted legs.
Summoning by name seems to be an important phrase: exorcist techniques have to be called by name – they are essentially spells – and individuals are painstakingly introduced with their name, displayed in a freeze-frame next to their face. It might just be an anime staple, but I would like to see it practically applied in a story-relevant manner. For example, the Miko, if she[xxx] is eventually born, might call all the Basara by name and purify them in that way.
Alternatively, perhaps the two energies the Miko is going to unite are not Benio and Rokuro’s female and male spiritual energy. With their kegare-infected arm and legs respectively, both heroes harbour in themselves some kegare-aspect, the same way the white and black halves of the yin-yang-symbol contain a drop of its opposite. Similarly, Basara have clearly human features, despite their exaggerated cruelty. It stands to reason that the elimination of Magano, which is the final goal of the exorcists, is as unreachable as the Basaras’ aim to take over reality. “Away with dualistic categories!”, as Blofeld put it.
I have the theory that the child of Rokuro and Benio might be a natural human-kegare hybrid and that she will end Magano by fusing it with reality, releasing both kegare and exorcists from their fate – by annihiliating the magic energy they work with. I don’t think she will make anyone immortal or produce gold, though ;).
[ii] see Watts, Alan. Tao, the Watercourse Way (1975), which I read in the German edition, so I omit page numbers.
[iii] Again elaboreated by Blofeld, esp. in Taoist Mysteries and Magic (1983), where he condenses his experiences with different stands of Taoism into interesting if ficticious accounts. It seems our univerity librarian had a liking for his books 😉
[v] Mollier, Christine. „Conceiving the Embryo of Immortality: ‚Seed-People‘ and Sexual Rites in Early Taoism“. In: Andreeva, Anna & Dominic Steavu. Transforming the Void. Embryological Discourse and Reproductive Imagery in East Asian Religions. Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2016. 87-110. 90.
[xxix] Translation of a Daoist manual in Mollier 2016:91.
[xxx] The sex of the child is unknown, but since Shintō shrine maidens are called miko even today, I have a feeling it might be a girl. In any case, there is no reason to assume it has to be a boy (except the tendency of action anime to sideline women, but here we have at least a male and a female protagonist, so hopes may be entertained, I dare to hope ;))