Japanese honorifics confuse us Westerners. The closest matches we have are Mr., Miss., and other addresses. Unlike English’s polite addresses, Japanese honorifics denote social standing and relationship between the speaker and the listener. They don’t remain constant. I am always Mr. Kincaid in formal Western affairs for example. But in Japan I could be Kincaid-kun, Kincaid-san, or Kincaid-sensei depending on social context. Like Western salutations, Japanese honorifics can be used sarcastically or arrogantly. Ore-sama, for example, roughly translates to “my magnificent self”.
Dropping an honorific is a sign of a close relationship and seen as insulting if you don’t have permission. You see anime characters make a fuss about this and the use of their first name whenever this happens without their consent. The rule of thumb: when in doubt about honorifics, ask.
In anime you see –kun and –chan tossed around as much as the honorific –senpai. The other common honorific –san is used when just being polite. In most translations I’ve read, this honorific is dropped. Calling someone by their surname is considered a sign of respect or fondness here in the West (but then it can also be used sarcastically), so keeping with the Japanese practice of last-name first automatically confers polite respect in Western translations. Calling Hideki Tanashi by his last name Tanashi means we don’t need to attach the san to it. In fact, using honorifics too much in English translations can be off-putting for people.
-kun is reserved for young men. You’ll see female anime characters use it to refer to guys as a signal of endearment or familiarity. Guys will refer to men of lower rank with this honorific. In this regard, –kun replaces the old -kohei honorific of thesenpei-kohei, superior and under-class, relationship. In many cases of anime, the childhood female friend will use -kun to refer to her male friend in public or use his last name without an honorific while in public. You’ll see her refer to him on a first-name basis whenever there is a love interest developing. When she slips in public, it usually makes for an embarrassing scene.
You can notice the levels of closeness between female classmates (who use -kun those most) and the male classmates by paying attention to who uses the honorific and who uses -san. Those who use the more formal -san may not like the male in question, or could be trying to cover up her feelings through polite coolness. Anime, particularly romances, focuses on social subtext. The childhood-friend character type may use -san to show her anger through her polite exterior. Of course, body language and manga/anime’s tendency to over-explain helps make the subtext clear. Remember, Japanese society emphasizes harmony, and this creates subtle ways to express feelings through the use of honorifics.
Now –chan stands as the female version of -kun but with cuter connotations. It is also a sign of closeness and used to refer to girls, pets, and small children. When attached to a nickname, such as Crane-chan, it works closer to saying “Little Crane.” -chan ties to youthfulness, smallness, cuteness, and innocence. As with -kun it shows the social relationship between characters. When a character uses it to refer to pets or objects, the honorific shows she has an innocent personality. It’s something little children do. However, -chan can be used derisively. For example, calling a prostitute by -chan can emphasize her lack of cuteness, youthfulness, and innocence.
Anime girls often refer to each other, particularly if they are friends, by -chan. Guys too may use it to refer to girls they view as cute. A guy using a girl’s first name is reserved in anime as a sign of an intimate relationship, which is why you’ll see characters titter and gasp when a slip happens in public.
–chan refers to children of both genders. Considering it roughly means little, this makes sense. With animals, neko-chan can refer to a cute cat or a kitten. Finally, -chin comes from -chan and is used exclusively by close female friends to refer to each other.
As a story progresses, you can use honorifics as a way to gauge relationship and emotional level. If a character moves from using -chan or -kun to –san, to refer to another character, you know that character is upset over something. First-name basis usually gets attention from other characters, particularly if it is out of the blue. The level of intimacy it denotes, especially in public, can be seen as a declaration of love. It acts as a verbal kiss. Sometimes, a rebellious character, usually a guy, will use a first name in order to break with polite convention and express his rebelliousness. You’ll see characters react with shock to his break with politeness as he verbally gooses them. In many anime, he eventually becomes the protagonist’s significant other.
Characters who are referred to with the -senpai honorific may sometimes reduce to a -chan or -kun when entering a relationship with an under-classmate. This doesn’t happen often, but a shift in honorifics in this way shows the development of such a relationship when the under-classmate starts to use the more familiar -kun and –chan.
For being small words, honorifics carry a lot of meaning. They reveal a character’s affection, or lack thereof, for another character. Shifts in their use helps anime viewers determine how the character’s feelings are shifting while subtext like body language help determine whether or not the honorific is used sarcastically or as a Freudian slip.
Otaku culture likes to use these honorifics. Although not as used as -senpai, many otaku use -kun and -chan. The most common error involves the use of the first name instead of the last name as is proper for Japanese honorifics. But in some cases it works just fine too. “Little Rose” and other diminutives keep the spirit of the honorific–that of affectionate familiarity. However, the use of these honorifics in otaku culture stresses their status as a subculture. In this case, honorifics denote membership more than familiarity between speaker and listener because no other subculture in the West uses Japanese honorifics on a regular basis. So even if they are not used properly in the context of Japanese culture, otaku use of honorifics still marks them as members of the community.
For most Americans, World War II footage acts as their introduction to the banzai cheer. The cheer remains closely associated with militarism and the atrocities of the war. Footage of kamikaze pilots shouting banzai and pumping their arms in unison has a similar chilling effect on people as the Nazi salute. Not to mention the cheer strikes many of us as strange because American culture lacks a true equivalent, except perhaps sport cheers. For anime fans, the cheer appears as a humorous oddity characters perform to encourage others. Finally, for observers of Japan, the cheer appears as a part of politics. You see politicians shout banzai and pump their arms just as the kamikaze pilots had.
According to dictionaries, the word banzai literally means ten thousand years. The word’s origins comes from the Chinese word wansui and dates roughly to the beginning of the Meiji period, around 1890 (banzai, n.d.). Banzai is considered an interjection and related to unused English interjections like hurrah and yippee. Perhaps the best equivalent is the British shout “Long live the king/queen.” It can mean “Long live the emperor.” Today, banzai is just a shout of elation.
Banzai and Japanese Emotion Rules
Japan is known for its concern for social appearance or, in other words, emotion rules. Banzai’s explosion of emotion can be jarring, but in Japanese culture, emotions act as “social glue” (Matsumoto, 1996). After all, they aren’t Vulcans. Outward displays of emotion depend on social context, determining how loudly emotions should be expressed.
A study by David Matsumoto (2002), rated how Americans and Japanese rate external expressions of emotions. Americans rated external expressions of emotion as more intense while the Japanese rated quiet expressions of emotions and louder external expressions equally. The Japanese subjects in the study were also better able to determine true emotions with minimal cues than Americans. This is because Japanese culture contains rules as to how to expression an emotion. For the Japanese subjects, the emotional level remain consistent but the outward expression varied due to social appropriateness. Americans lack such rules so we rate the intensity of emotion based on the intensity of its expression. Japanese aren’t better at emotion reading than Americans. Rather, culture frames the way people read and express emotions.
Banzai cheers appear to be high intensity expressions of elation to Americans, but in reality, banzai cheers are socially acceptable outward displays. The actual emotion during a banzai cheer may be as high as a congratulatory smile, but the smile may be the only socially acceptable expression at the time. The cheer serves as a group expression as well.
Despite being a community-focused culture, the Japanese typically don’t have as strong a reaction to world news than Americans and Europeans. Americans and Europeans make fewer distinctions between ingroups and outgroups than Japanese, which is why negative news affects American and Europeans in a personal way (Matsumoto. 2002). This ties together with how Americans view intensity of emotion as well. Because American culture is self-oriented and values individual thoughts and emotions, group dynamics matter less than collective cultures like Japan. Emotional rules developed in Japan as a way to avoid the disruption of social harmony the expression of negative emotions can cause (Novin, 2014).
Tatemae, Honne, and Banzai
This focus on harmony at the cost of individual expression falls under tatemae, or the outward social appearance. This is the set of rules that governs how emotions are expressed in social situations. Honne, or how a person truly feels, often remains unexpressed because it can threaten harmony. In American culture, we have our own version of tatemae and honne. White lies fall under tatemae. So does the suppression of cursing around children. However, because American culture values the individual above the community, our tatemae rules are less pervasive. American culture states it is unhealthy to bottle up our personal feelings. As a result, American culture can come off as abrasive for many.
At the same time, American individualism prevents us from having something like a banzai cheer outside of sporting stadiums and the few other collective venues we have. When you think about it, the chants and cheers of sports seek to create bonds between fans of a certain team. In the same way, banzai cheers form bonds between participants.
Banzai and Anime
Sometimes banzai is used for comedic effect in anime. A scene from Samurai Champloo comes to mind:
The banzai cheer used in this scene is a way of expressing gratitude to the kami of the lake. Kami are spiritual beings found throughout Japanese folklore and Shinto beliefs. The banzai cheer also serves as a period at the end of the comedic scene. The cheer and its role in the anime depends on context.
The people whom we have met so far, are the best who have as yet been discovered, and it seems to me that we shall never find among heathens another race to equal the Japanese. They are a people of very good manners, good in general, and not malicious.
–Francis Xavier c. 1551
Today less than 1% of Japan’s population are Christian. In the beginning of the 1600s, 1.5% of Japan were Christians (Offman, 2014; Breen & Williams 1996). Christianity has struggled to spread within Japan, and it has had a troubled history. It all began in 1549 when Francis Xavier and Yajiro, a Japanese man Xavier met in Malacca landed in Kagoshima. Two years later, he abandoned Japan to focus on China, leaving the country in the hands of his colleagues Allessandro Valignano and Matteo Ricci. All three decided to change the policies that had devastated the New World–the eradication of the native religions. Instead, they held Chinese and Japanese culture in such high esteem that they tried to accommodate rather than exterminate (Hur, 2007).
Before we dig into this history, we have to discuss some terminology. Depending on who is writing and the time period, these terms can refer to different groups of Christians. The term, Kirishitan, usually referred to lower-class Christians; whereas bateran referred to samurai-class Christians and Western priests. This distinction becomes important during the years of eradication. Contrary to popular belief, most Christian martyrs didn’t come from the peasant classes. Most were samurai (Yukihiro, 1996). For example, in 1587, Toyotomi Hideyoshi issued an edict that placed restrictions on conversion among the higher classes, requiring them to seek permission. Peasants, however, were free of the edict:
…bateran sectarians by their free choice, are of the lower classes, shall be unmolested, this being a matter of Eight sects or Nine sects.
Bateran, here is used to encompass all classes, but we already see a distinction. Over time, the term bateran comes to refer to the upper classes exclusively. In 1638, an edit by Iemitsu was the first time Kirishitan was used to refer to lower-class, lay Christians (Hur, 2007). Now, this seems a little odd. However, the peasant population typically bowed to the desires of their local lords. When their lords converted, many samurai and lower-class people did as well. This, later, causes problems as Yukihiro (1996) explains:
Christianity was accommodated by the populace owed much to its readiness to acknowledge the authority of government in secular matters. Caught in a dilemma between a desire to practice Christianity on one hand, and a reluctance to rebel–for such was the nature of their faith–on the other, Christians had no choice but to recant or to go underground.
By targeting bateran, the Tokugawa government could force this problem on the lower-classes, making many recant. This is why the distinction in terms matters. However, by 1638, the government decided to extend its reach to the rest of the population. For my purpose, I won’t use bateran or Kirishitan in this article. However, I wanted to mention these terms because they are important in the academic literature you may encounter in your own research. For the sake of readability, I’ll just use Christian even though Kirishitan identify as their own branch of Christianity (Kentaro, 2003).
Yajiri, the Translator
Most histories focus on Xavier, but his success in planting Christianity relied on the work of Yajiro, the first Japanese to become a Christian and the first to translate passages of the Bible–sadly his translation of Matthew is lost– from Portuguese into Japanese. However, he ran into various problems with his translations that created problems for Xavier and his early convents. The concept of a absolute God didn’t exist within Japan at the time. The closest was a deity within the Shingon sect of Buddhism named Dainichi. Yajiro uses this name within his translations, so when Xavier thought he was urging people toward the Christian God, he was really teaching about a deity in Buddhism. He later realized this and told his followers not to worship Dainichi, creating confusion and sparking a conflict with the local priests (Mullins, 2003).
The language barrier limited Xavier’s success, but it prompted the Jesuits to create dictionaries and found a school to teach incoming missionaries the language and culture. Valignano started the school at Sakaguchi, and he even urged missionaries to live like the Japanese people they taught. Valignano wrote a manual in 1581 about proper manners, the proper way to eat, the proper way to dress, and even covered architecture for church buildings. It was something of a textbook for the school (Mullins, 2003). Because of the problems Xavier and Yajiro faced with word substitutions, the Jesuits and the Spanish Franciscans took to using Japanese transliterations of Portuguese and Latin terms. But otherwise, they translated prayers and passages in popular language to make them accessible. Sanctos no gosaguyo no uchi nukigaki, printed in 1591 is an example of this. It contains extracts from the Acts of the Apostles, but written in popular language (Kaiser, 1996).
However, this wasn’t to be. Later Protestant incursion after Japan opened its borders in the late 19th century found few surviving references to Portuguese traditions. Christianity, during the closed Tokugawa period all but disappeared.
Christianity under Tokugawa Ieyasu
Under Ieyasu’s government, the Christian population doubled from about 150,000 to 300,000. It was also the only period (from about 1598-1614) when a Roman Catholic bishop was allowed to reside in Japan. Ieyasu’s tolerance of the religion was a part of his plans to develop a trade network that connected Japan with Manila and New Spain (Mexico). The Franciscan order, at first, helped him establish these connections. The missionary Jeromino de Jesus Castro had official permission to teach in Edo and establish a church in 1599. In return, trade from Portugal and Spain entered Japan. It’s unclear how well Ieyasu understood Christianity. He, like many others at the time, likely thought it was a branch of Buddhism (Nosco, 1996; Hur, 2007).
However, soon a scandal that reached right into Ieyasu’s home fired his suspicions toward Christianity, leading him to reverse his tolerance and begin the age of expulsion. Under Ieyasu, even after the scandal, didn’t execute Christians (Nosco, 1996).
The event known as the Okamoto Scandal of 1612 began back in 1608 with a clash in Macao between the crew of the Christian vessel of the daimyo Arima Harunobu (1567-1612) and Portuguese sailors. Sixty Japanese died in the clash. A few years later the Portuguese vessel, captained by Andre Pesoa, returned. When Harunobu heard of this, he appealed to Ieyasu for permission to avenge the 60 slain Japanese. This sort of grudge holding was common for the samurai class, even its Christian members. Seeing his chance, Harunobu and the Nagaski magistrate attacked Pesoa for 4 days, eventually sinking the vessel and all of her crew. The scandal begins after these events, which while they would strain relations between the Shogunate and Portugal, wouldn’t have been too off base from Japanese customs at the time.
However, Harunobu and his co-commander Hasegawa Fujihiro believed they should’ve been rewarded for their good deed of defending Japanese honor. The retainer Okamoto Daihashi saw an opportunity and made the two believe he was lobbying for a reward. In return, Harunobu and Fujihiro offered him the usual bribes. Daihashi then forges a letter from Ieyasu, a serious crime. Well, this goes on for a time before Harunobu decided to speak with Daihashi’s lord Honda Masazumi about why the land transfer was taking so long. Of course, Masazumi had no idea a land transfer was happening and launched an investigation that ended with Daihashi being burned at the stake for his forgery.
The scandal should’ve ended there, but Harunobu and Fujihiro, who was a shogunal deputy of Nagasaki, clashed over the mistaken reward. Harunobu tried to murder Fujihiro, which was an attack on the shogunate itself. Harunobu was ordered to commit seppuku, and an investigation was launched. The investigation revealed how Christianity has spread throughout the ruling class and even among Ieyasu’s personal bodyguards. It also discovered a conspiracy to undermine the shogunate.The investigation ended with the exile of 26 Christian vassals (Hur, 2007).
This convoluted scandal turned Ieyasu against Christians. In a letter, Ieyasu laid out his resistance to Christianity by grounding his government in a pledge toward the gods and buddhas (Hur, 2007):
Since the creation, [the Japanese people] have worshiped kami and revered the Buddha. The Buddha and kami are like…traces of each other, identical and not different. The matters of solidifying loyalty and righteousness between the lord and vassals, of ensuring no perfidy, and of building up a strong nation in unity are all pledged to the kami. This is the proof of mutual trust.
Ieyasu’s statement laid the groundwork for the persecutions to come. In response, the Society of Jesus attempted to bride lords to reverse the policy. Under their pressure, a Portuguese trade ship refused to unload its Chinese silk, causing a jump in prices. But their brides and trade threats didn’t move the government–Christian deportations increased (Hur, 2007).
The Shimabara Rebellion and the Wrath of the Shogunate
Gradually, Ieyasu’s deportations changed to executions as the government felt threatened by Christian lords. The government worried about colonization by the armies of Spain and Portugal. The Shogun was well aware of how the armies followed the first missionaries in the New World. They also feared popular uprisings inspired by Christians. These fears didn’t reflect the reality of Christianity of the time, however. Missionaries in Japan had little to do with the armies of Spain and Portugal, and they confirmed to the rules set by the Shogunate. Christian thought at the time also didn’t want to disrupt the governmental order (Yukihiro, 1996). But these fact did little to ease the fears of the Shogunate.
Christian executions picked up in substantial numbers around 1620. Before then, the government focused on the samurai class. One such samurai was Adam Arakawa, the Christian leader of Amakusa, who was executed in 1614 (Kaiser, 1996). I’ll list some of the major execution events.
In 1622, 21 missionaries and 34 lay people were decapitated and burned at the stake.
The Great Martyrdom of Edo in 1623 saw 50 people killed, including the Jesuit Girolamo de Angelis and the Franciscan Francisco Galvez.
In 1623, at least 60 people died in Takoku, including Diogo Carvalho. They were sent to Sendai prison nude. All of them froze to death.
Among the government’s many inquisitors, Mizuno Morinobu was most known for his cruelty. More than 300 people died by his orders, many thrown into the boiling hot spring at Unzen (Hur, 2007). Despite these incidents, the government didn’t fully set out to kill the low-class Christians. That is, until events in the regions of Shimabara and Amakusa.
The Shimabara Rebellion erupted in 1637 as a result of these persecutions, taxation, and general discontent among the peasants and ronin, masterless samurai, of the region. Led by Amakusa Shiro, the uprising shook the Shogunate enough that the government raised an army of over 120,000 soldiers. The rebellion ended about 6 months after the rebellion began. Amakusa Shiro was executed. The rebellion had a lot more to it, but covering the rebellion would require more space than I have to spare in this article. But the most important fact to keep in mind: the Shimabara Rebellion made the Shogunate realize the danger of Christian peasant rebellions and began to crack down on Christians across all classes.
Two years after the failure of the Shimabara Rebellion, the once-quiet region of Amakusa rebelled (Yukihiro, 1996). As you can imagine, the Shogun wasn’t pleased and set about the total eradication of Christianity. In 1639, only 150,000 Christians lived in Japan, from the high of around 300,000. When Japan opened to the rest of the world, an estimated 40,000 Christians were discovered in the 1860s (Breen & Williams, 1996).
The Jesuit Inquisitor
Cristorias Ferreira (in Japan between 1609-1650) was a high-ranked Jesuit, and he became the first apostate in 1633. As an apostate, he became one of the main inquisitors of the Shogunate. The torture that broke him involved being trussed and hung upside down in excrement. After he converted to Zen Buddhism, took on the name Sawano Chuan, and married a Japanese woman, he had a hand in executing and breaking several of his former brethren. The first group that tried to save him from his apostasy died in prison after he captured them. He handed the second group over to the same man that broke his faith, Inoue Masashige. Masashige forced this group of Jesuits to apostatize as well, and they lived out the rest of their lives in prison (Hur, 2007). The events of the novel and movie Silence are based on this.
How to Spot a Christian
Christianity went underground in response to all of this violence. They took on practices that appeared to be Buddhist or Shinto on the surface, such as the veneration of Kannon and other Buddhist deities. Kannon became a stand-in for the Virgin Mary. Images of Bosatsu became stand-ins for Jesus (Kentaro, 2003). This made spotting a Christian rather difficult, so the Shogunate developed a test. Each year, inquisitors would visit the various villages with images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and various other icons. They would then order people to step on them. Those that refused were labeled as Christians and were either executed, imprisoned, or forced to recant.
In response, the Christian community rejected martyrdom in order to survive. The yearly denial of their faith created a dilemma that shaped their beliefs. Over time, the Virgin Mary was elevated into the Trinity, taking on the role of the Holy Spirit (Breen & Williams, 1996; Kentaro, 2003):
…only a mother figure, limitless in her compassion, could understand the anguish caused by denial and, moreover, forgive it.
Of course, the Shogunate knew this test, called efumi, wouldn’t be enough. A spy system known as the 5-family group developed. This system grouped 5 households together, making them mutually responsible for helping each other…and spying on each other. If a member of the group denounced a family within the group as Christian, the other 4 families were free of suspicion. But if someone outside of the group accused a member, all members of the 5 families were executed (Mullins, 2003). In 1687, the government began watching the families of martyrs for Christian activity, requiring the families to submit written notices for births, deaths, marriages, moving, change of name, and other family events.
And to make sure the government didn’t miss anyone, it forced everyone to undergo a Buddhist funeral. This made sure that any Christians they missed would become Buddhist when they were laid to rest.
Japanese Christian Beliefs
As I’ve mentioned, as the executions increased, the Christian community turned away from venerating martyrdom. Instead, they went further underground, hiding behind Buddhist and Shinto practices to avoid complete extermination. Unlike persecutions during the Roman Empire, Japanese Christians had nowhere to go. They couldn’t escape the islands of Japan or the reach of the Shogunate. In this isolation, Japanese Christians developed various beliefs and rituals of their own. First, their faith moved away from a strict God to a motherly one–Mary. Because of the forced Buddhist funeral practices, the habit of holding a second, secret funeral developed. The members would recite prayers to counter Buddhist sutras. The Christians still observed traditional Christian holy days like Easter, Christmas, and Palm Sunday, but they also absorbed the rhythms of Shinto-Buddhist Japan. Agricultural rituals, birth celebrations, offering thanks for the stopping of wind, and expelling evil from a house became a part of the many daily practices of these Christians (Kentaro, 2003).
Baptism remained a vital part of their practice. Men assigned to be a baptizer in the local Christian community were called ojiyaku and served as the local leader. These baptizers had special purity requirements: bathing first, laundry washed separate from the rest of the family, separate wash basin, soap, and towel. Baptizers couldn’t care for cows or even hold a baby. He couldn’t be peed upon. Before baptizing someone, the ojiyaku would be doused with cold water and not dry with a towel. Instead, his wife handed him a special baptismal kimono, no underwear allowed. He also had a special mat to keep from sitting on a tatami floor before baptizing. All of these ideas to avoid becoming polluted came from folk beliefs of the time (Kentaro, 2003).
Japanese Christian Documents and Confusion
Other Christian beliefs mingle with native Japanese beliefs. For example, Satan’s demons and Judas Iscariot were believed to be tengu, half man, half crow goblins found in Japanese folklore. Unlike Christians today, these Christians relied on oral tradition. They didn’t have a Bible as Christians today know it. Instead, they passed down the teachings of the Jesuits through stories which were later recorded. There was one known document that circulated among some Japanese Christians: “Concerning the Creation of Heaven and Earth,” which consists of 15 chapters. It’s considered the secret Bible of the underground Christians but some scholars believe it wasn’t written down in its entirety until the 1820s (Trumbull, 1996). The book acts like a time capsule that preserved many of the ideas the Jesuits taught in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The work begins with a version of Genesis and jumps into the New Testament. It mentions nothing of Jesus’s teachings, but it has a long Passion narrative with the Resurrection and Ascension. The long version of the book goes into the Communion of the Saints, the End of the World, and the Last Judgment. Segments of the Rosary is also found in the book along with non-canonical materials the Jesuits used to teach simple theology to new converts. For example, a short story involving Mary appears in a similar form in the “Arabic Infancy Gospel” (Turnbull, 1996):
When three days had passed, Mary asked for a bath. Then she recommended that the son of the house take a bath in the same hot water. The house-wife said, “Although I appreciate your thoughtfulness, our son is suffering from the pox, and in danger of his life. Please forgive me.” But Mary insisted he took a bath, and was suddenly cured of the pox and lived, to the great thanks of all.
Some scholars believe some of the passages and traditions may be memories of images like the pieta. For example, Mary conceives Jesus when a butterfly enters her mouth, but this could come from the memory of icons that depicted a dove flying in the background near Mary’s mouth. Time could’ve muddied the memory slightly. The book also has passages that have been localized (Turnbull, 1996):
They tied him [Jesus] up as they had been ordered and flogged him hard enough to break his bones until the bamboo rods split into pieces. They pushed various things that were bitter and hot into his mouth, and pressed an iron crown onto his head. Blood ran down from his body like a waterfall.
The book tries to explain various Japanese cultural practices. The custom of women shaving their eyebrows and blackening their teeth was thought to date from the time of Noah.
General Research Division, The New York Public Library. (191-?). Armour and Weapons of Ancient Warriors. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-83bf-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
As the Tokugawa period ended and Japan opened to the rest of the world, serious thought was given to making accommodation toward Christianity. Okuni Takamasa (1792-1871) proved to be the most influential. He believed Christianity was a branch of Shintoism, if a distorted one, and while it shouldn’t be vilified, it also shouldn’t be allowed inside the center of Shintoism. The 2500th anniversary of the 1st emperor of Japan marked an epoch, according to Okuni, where Japan would become the center of a new global order centered on Shinto. He thought the Western science Japan was adopting were a legacy of Sukunahikona, one of the deities involved in the creation of the world.
Okuni examined Christianity through his Shinto beliefs and through his political beliefs. He considered the story of Genesis in the Bible as an example of spirits born from Shinto deities. Adam came from Itakeru no kami. Even Jesus, to Okuni, came from the deity Takamimusubi (Breen, 1996). He accepted Christianity and then attempted to explain it, a shift from the past rejection of the religion. However, despite his belief of accommodation, he believed Christianity had no place in Japan as a distorted branch of true Shintoism and for political reasons (Breen, 1996):
The reason for the frequent visits of foreign vessels to our shores is quite simply that they wish to disseminate throughout Japan the Christian way of friendship and love. It is a frightful prospect. It is not that Confucianism, Buddhism, and Christianity have nothing to say about the virtues of loyalty, piety, and chastity. It is simply that they dilute them. They are diluted by comparisons with loyalty, piety, and chastity here in Japan.
He goes on and writes “the headquarters of Christian religion are sited overseas; this could mean the national wealth is transported out of Japan, and the nation could suffer impoverishment as a result.” For Okuni, Christianity would dilute both Japan’s spiritual code and political welfare, but that didn’t mean he was against it. He viewed it as “a rather good religion.”
Okuni and other thinkers at the time–along with pressure from the Western powers like the United States and Britain–helped Japan move from persecution to a wary accommodation. The historical memory of Christian uprising and meddling by Christian nations remained in their thinking. However, their limited acceptance eventually allowed Japan’s hidden Christians to come out of hiding. Some groups merged with the Catholic Church, while others preferred to remain separate and continue their distinct practices. However, they no longer had to fear eradication at the hands of the samurai.
Breen, John (1996) “Accommodating the alien: Okuni Takamasa and the religion of the Lord of Heaven.” Religion in Japan. Cambridge: University Press.
Breen, John & Williams, Mark (1996) Japan and Christianity. Impacts and Responses. MacMillan Press: New York.
Offman, Michael. (2014) Christian missionaries find Japan a tough nut to crack. The Japan Times. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/12/20/national/history/christian-missionaries-find-japan-tough-nut-crack/
Hur, Nam-lin. (2007) “Death and Social Order in Tokugawa Japan.” Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Kaiser, Stefan. (1996) “Translations of Christian Terminology into Japanese 16-19th Centuries: Problems and Solutions.” Japan and Christianity. Impacts and Responses. New York: MacMillan Press.
Kentaro, Miyazaki (2003) “The Kakure Kirishitan Tradition.” Handbook of Christianity in Japan. Boston: Koninklyke & Brill.
Mullins, Mark. (2003) Handbook of Christianity in Japan. Boston: Koninklyke & Brill.
Nosco, Peter (1996) “Keeping the faith: bakuhan policy toward relgions in seventeenth-century Japan.”Religion in Japan: Arrows to Heaven and Earth. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Turnbull, Stephen (1996) “Aculturation among the Kakure Kirishitan: Some Conclusions from the Tenchi Hajimari no Koto.” Japan and Christianity. Impacts and Responses. New York: MacMillan Press.
Yukihiro, Ohashi (1996) “New Perspectives on the Early Tokugawa Persecution.” Japan and Christianity. Impacts and Responses. New York: MacMillan Press.
Women are the emissaries of hell; they cut off forever the seed of buddhahood. On the outside they have the faces of bodhisattvas, but on the inside they have the hearts of demons.
A woman’s talk does not go beyond one village.
A smart woman ruins the castle.
Japanese medieval literature teemed with deceptive and dangerous women–devils in disguise with insatiable passions. Among these fantasies and frustrations caused by celibate life among literate monks were the Rasetsu. The Rasetsu were a race of shape-shifting cannibal women who seduced men and ate them alive. The women lived on Rasetsukoku. The island’s location changed throughout different periods, first appearing in Konjaku monogatari shu, a collection of stories about India in the 12th century (Moerman, 2009). “How Sokara and the Five Hundred Merchants Went to the Land of the Rasetsu” explains one of the first encounters with these women. It begins with a group of merchants setting sail in search of treasure.
They are shipwrecked on an island of beautiful women where each man takes a wife and enjoys a life of bliss. But Sokara, the sailor’s leader senses something is off and investigates. He finds a prison of men and signs of cannibalism. One of the prisoners tells him how he had enjoyed the same pleasures until a new ship washed ashore. Then, he and his mates were set aside for food. Sokara manages to get all but one of his crew to safety. However, 2 years later one of the women visits him at home, but Sokara wasn’t tricked. The King, however, falls for the beautiful she-demon and after spending three days with her in his bedchamber, she breaks out with a blood-stained mouth. All that was left of the king was “a pool of blood and hair.” In response, Sokara gathers an army and attacks the island. After destroying all of the demon-women he is made king of the island.
This land of demon women appears in a Ming Chinese encyclopedia of 1610:
The Land of Women is in the southeastern seas. The Water flows to the east. Lotus flowers one foot across bloom once a year and the peaches have stones two feet long. Long ago a ship drifted there and the women gathered together and carried the ship off. The sailors were all close to death. But a clever man among them stole the boat back at night and they were able to escape. The women conceive children by exposing their genitals to the sound wind. According to others, the women become pregnant by looking at their reflection in a well.
The Land of Women shifted from a fantasy sexual amusement park to a land of she-demons throughout different time periods, but it provides an early example of a cultural view of women that challenged feminist movements in the modern period. Women were relegated to a child rearing role and as household managers.
Women’s Rights and Legal Status
During the Tokugawa Shogunate (1602-1868), women did not legally exist. They could not own property and were subordinate to men. However, women in different classes had more rights than others.For example, samurai class women had fewer rights than the farming class, which needed women to help run the family far. The urban class allowed women to manage businesses. In fact, wives of merchants were expected to be literate. However, by today’s standards women lacked equality. A woman was still under the authority of men who decided the course of her life–who she married and more. Birth control didn’t exist as we know it. Midwives had their means, but women were expected to have children to continue the house.
Equality became more of a concern during the Meiji Restoration, when Japan pushed to catch up with the Western nations in terms of military and technology and law. Japan looked toward Enlightenment ideals, exemplified by John Locke, when it examined its laws (Okin, 1998). These ideals later shaped the Universal Declaration of Human rights (1948), the Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights declaration, among others by the United Nations that proclaim equal rights of human beings regardless of sex. However, women remain discriminated against in differing ways. As Okin (1998) writes: “Indeed, discrimination on the grounds of sex is frequently justified as being in accordance with many of the cultures—including religions aspects of these cultures—practiced in the world today.”
However, both the 1948 declarations and Meiji Japan pulled from a 17th century system that was designed for male heads of households. Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers didn’t have women’s private rights in mind when they wrote their ideas of law and equality. For example, Locke states no one should interfere with a father’s decision to whom his daughter should marry:
In private domestic affairs, in the management of estates, in the conservation of bodily health, every man may consider what suits his own convenience and follow what course he likes best. No man complains of the ill-management of his neighbour’s affairs. No man is angry with another for an error committed in sowing his land or in marrying his daughter. Nobody corrects a spendthrift for consuming his substance in taverns.
This male bias sits deep in human rights thinking. Women have different life experiences than men that these old systems fail to take into account: rape—marital and war, domestic violence, reproductive freedom, valuation of childcare and domestic labor, unequal opportunity in education, unequal housing opportunities, unequal credit opportunities, and unequal healthcare. Okin (1998) points out how inequality can be obscured by cultural norms and what people consider natural, such as motherhood. Cultural norms against certain things, such as single motherhood, also obscure inequality.
This male-centric view of rights appeared in various Meiji Reformation laws. For example, in the Criminal Code of 1880, adultery applied to women only. Men couldn’t commit adultery on his wife, only with another man’s wife (Sasamoto-Collins, 2017):
Article 353: A wife guilty of adultery shall be punished by imprisonment of no less than six months and no more than two years. Her lover shall receive the same punishment.
The punishment shall be imposed only if the family formally lodges complaint. If he has tolerated adultery, his complaint has no effect.
Article 311: If a husband has discovered his wife’s adultery and killed or injured her or her lover immediately at the actual place where they were discovered, the crime is excusable.
However, this provision does not apply if the husband has tolerated the adultery.
In other words, women were punished for adultery solely based on her status as a wife. For the lawmakers at the time, this was a natural part of womanhood and Japanese culture, as Okin discussed. Men had to be certain their wives’ children truly carried their genes. Of course, prostitutes and other women didn’t fall under the law as their children didn’t factor into the family system.
One Woman’s Observations of the Meiji Period
Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto, born in 1878, wrote an autobiography that examined the differences between this type of environment and that of the United States. She married an American man and moved there to live with their daughters until he died. Afterward, she returned to Japan. The cross-cultural experience allowed her to write about both Japanese and American feminism at the time. She thought American women immodestly exposed their bodies “just for the purpose of having it seen” while Japanese women covered theirs from neck to ankle. When she returned to Japan with her two daughters she accounts (Kuo, 2015):
As I sat and thought, I wondered if Hanano was ever really happy anymore. She never seemed sorrowful, but she had changed. Her eyes were soft, not bright; her mouth drooped slightly and her bright, cheery way of speaking had slowed and softened. Gentle and graceful? Yes. But where was her quick readiness to spring up to my frst word? Where her joyous eagerness to see, to learn, to do? My little American girl, so full of vivid interest in life, was gone.
During Sugimoto’s life, the concept of ryosai kenbo, good wife and wise mother, was the focus of post Meiji Restoration (1868) education of girls. Before compulsory education passed in 1872, Confucian ideals prohibited women from getting an education. Girl’s education was seen as helping the nation as a whole, but it did little to break women from their traditional roles. In fact, education was seen as enhancing mothers’ abilities to produce patriotic, able citizens and supporting husbands. (Kuo, 2015). This education system, although a small step toward equality despite its failure to allow for different roles, contributed to the West’s misconceptions of women.
Sugimoto tried to correct this misconceptions–that Japanese women were less able to protect themselves and were less independent than American women. Japanese women were thought to be gentle and meek and needing American feminism to come in and liberate them. However, Sugimoto writes: “Although our women are pictured as gentle and meek, and although Japanese men will not contradict it, nevertheless it is true that, beneath all the gentle meekness, Japanese women are like—volcanoes.”
Sugimoto also illustrates how Japanese women had more rights than American women. Japanese women were the bankers of the family—responsible for both the family and for the family’s wealth. The husband must ask the wife for money, not the other way around like in the US at the time. She writes: “It was one of many exaggerated ideas that we had of the dominant spirit of American women and the submissive attitude of American men.”
American and Japanese Feminism Movements
Kato Shidzue and Margaret Sanger
In fact, during the early 1900s, American and Japanese feminism inspired each other. An early birth control advocate in Japan, Kato Shidzue, worked closely with American birth control activist Margaret Sanger. Shidzue brought Sanger to Japan in 1922 to speak on the topic (Kuo, 2015). The New Woman Association (NWA) in the early 1900s pushed for more rights, including a revision to the adultery law we examined which would allow women to file for a divorce if she discovered her husband or fiance had a venereal disease. The association framed their arguments in terms of protecting women’s family role–allow women to become better wives and wiser mothers through increased political awareness. They didn’t seek to completely break from ryosai kenbo. Most advocates focused on the improvement of women’s lives through better health, elimination of poverty, better work conditions, protection of motherhood, and similar goals instead of political ends. Political liberation was seen as a path to these ends (Molony, 2000).
In a 1920 article, Ichikawa Fusae, a leader of the NWA, wrote:
Aren’t we treated completely as feeble-minded children? Why is it all right to know about science and literature and not all right to be familiar with politics and current events? Why is it acceptable to read and write but not speak and listen? A man, not matter what his occupation or educational background, has political rights, but a woman, no matter how qualilified, does not have the same rights…If we do not understand the politics of the country we live in, we will not be able to understand conditions in our present society.
She pushed for absolute rights instead of women’s rights based on education or maternal roles–which laid the groundwork for later feminist activism after World War II.
Speaking of World War II, the good wife and wise mother role carried forward throughout and into today. Motherhood and housewife roles remain highly valued, but they leave little room for self-development and work-family balance. A survey of female seniors in 561 Japanese universities in 1992 found women expected and didn’t mind sexism at work. 91% said they don’t mind being treated as “office flowers” and 25% considered that to be a woman’s role (Thornton, 1992). This shows how strong the male-dominated view remained.
Modern Japanese Feminism
Today, young Japanese women postpone marriage. Intimate relationships with other women also increase in appeal—free from the motherhood association (Enns, 2011). The idea that a man should be dedicated to work and the good wife supporting him at home affects men in addition to women. Three-fifths of men between the ages of 25-35 remain unmarried. 53% of men in their 20s have never gone out with a woman. In contrast, 64% of American men claim to have had sex by the age of 20 (Homegrown, 2017). Women’s withdrawal from relationships to focus on career shows how they have moved beyond being “office flowers” in the 1990s. However, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), World Economic Forum, and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Japanese women lag behind other developed countries in terms of labor participation and political representation. They have higher than average education rates, but many women don’t return to work after having children (Japan, 2016). Children remains an all-in affair for many Japanese women, which explains why so many are postponing or foregoing marriage and expectations of motherhood marriage brings.
When asked why young men aren’t looking for a girlfriend, they answer that it’s too much trouble. Japan’s social segregation by gender doesn’t help matters. The combination of low self-esteem in men and fear of rejection by women opens the doors for teen idols, anime, sex dolls and sex pillow. Misogyny is a strange loop of love and hating because you love what you can’t have. And that idea of possession remains a problem too. The tension between feminism, traditional ideas of good wife and wise mother, and men’s views–which is a topic to itself–all add up to this trend.
Throughout all of this, the Japanese feminism movement worked. However, many of its leaders today are discouraged by how slow the progress over the past century has been despite the shift in marriage and the focus on career. Maternity harassment, sexual harassment, and employment discrimination remain real problems. Some progress is being made: there is greater acceptance of mothers returning to work and fathers taking on more child care responsibilities (Japan, 2016).
But the progress Japanese women have made toward equality remains tenuous. Misogyny and objectification of women remains rampant. Part of this is a result of culture. Japanese culture idealizes quiet, stoic endurance, which extends to sexual violence against women. They are expected to be Japanese and endure without complaint. Sexual harassment on commuter trains is an example. In the early 2000s, two-thirds of women surveyed reported being groped while riding crowded trains. In response, train companies introduced women only cars, but no other action was taken (Hayes, 2016).
Many Japanese women are victims of unwanted photographs, typically up-skirt photos on trains and other public places. Japanese cell phone manufacturers are even required to make cameras with audible shutter sounds meant to deter men from taking these photos of women in public places. All of this points to how a dominating, objectifying attitude toward women remains strong in Japanese culture. Despite efforts since the 1920s, oral birth control is still hard to get–doctors often prescribe low doses for one month at a time (Hayes, 2016). All of this extends from the traditional, deep-rooted view of women.
Manga and anime carry on this view in many stories. Many sexually explicit, male-focused manga are violent toward women. They show women as sex toys and many of the stories of these comedies focus on the loss of male virginity while reinforcing men’s superior social status and women’s traditional status. This was a problem when Ito studied images of women back in 1994. From my own observations, this still remains an issue within anime and manga.
In fact, feminist scholar Chizuko Ueno looks at the pay gap between men and women (men are paid 26.6% more in a 2013 OECD study), media, and these attitudes and writes:
We struggled, fought, but unfortunately were incapable of making real change.
Japan isn’t alone in this problem, and the problem even extends onto the Internet in the form of gendertrolling. You are likely familiar with the word trolling, but I’ll go ahead and define it– “disrupting a conversation or entire community by posting incendiary statements or stupid questions for the person’s own amusement or because they have a quarrelsome personality.” The word first appeared in the 1990s, and most trolls on the English-speaking web are white, male, and somewhat privileged (Mantilla, 2013). Now, gendertrolling is a little different. . It involves numerous people who are often coordinated and the attacks persist online and offline—sometimes for years. Usually happens in response to women speaking out about some form of sexism. I’ll give you a few Western examples from Mantilla’s (2013) paper.
Melissa McEwan in 2007, who runs a feminist blog Shakesville, had her address and other information published online and received rape and death threats.
Anita Sarkeesian saw this when she started a Kickstarter to fund a project to point out sexist representation of women in the video game community. She received rape and death threats. The gendertrolls made pornographic images of her being raped, tried to have her social media accounts suspended, and tried to disable her website. They also released her personal information, including home address.
In 2012, Zerlina Maxwell, on the FOX News show Hannity, spoke about how the focus on ending rape should start with men instead of women carrying guns to defend themselves. The rape and death threats rolled in. Maxwell said, “Do not feed the trolls’ is really easy for people to say when you’re not getting 100 rape threats, when you’re not getting 100 death threats.”
Sexual harassment, including gendertrolling, tries to keep gender boundaries in place–preventing women from competing with men at work and preventing women from feeling safe in public places without a male companion. Japan’s problems with groping on subways and with inappropriate photos are good examples of this. Gendertrolling tries to keep these gender-boundaries in place online by attacking women who speak out online in male-dominated spaces, such as online video games. Not even Japanese women who serve in the Japanese government are safe from this problem. 52% report being targets of sexual harassment at least once (Osumi, 2015). The survey reports:
“Some respondents said they had been neglected or forced to buy cigarettes for their male coworkers, while others had endured taunts such as: “Why don’t you strip?” or “You must get excited by being groped.”
Some of these women work in Japanese legislators.
Feminism and misogyny are bound together. Misogyny results from women gaining some measure of equality and the perceived threat this can bring. Japanese women have come a long way from the Tokugawa Era and the Meiji Restoration, but many of the same problems back then continue today. Women in the United States still struggle with similar issues. Even when they are online, women have to face people who threaten them just for voicing an opinion or their experience.
Media adds to the pile. Manga and anime sometimes caters to sexist ideas, which only reinforces those ideas. Objectifying otherwise strong female characters through upskirt camera angles and other techniques that reduces them to sex objects encourages the thinking behind the problems women face. Yellow fever and orientalism, waifuism, and moe can all add to the headwinds.
Of course, feminism also has its own problem. Some activists look down upon women who want to be traditional wives and mothers. Women should have the freedom to choose this route if they want. In any case, with the issues of gendertrolling and continued pay inequality and continued objectification, Japanese women and women in general still do not have equal rights.
Recently, I heard about a genuine Zen garden hidden away in Ohio. So of course I had to take a look. The garden was originally designed and built in 1963 by Dr. Makoto Nakamura of Kyoto University as a cultural exchange program. It has all the traditional Zen elements: a raked gravel garden with islands of stone, a koi pond with islands and bridges and a tea garden with stones that leads to a meditation house. The meditation house was a great place to relax and enjoy some frozen custard, by the way. The garden nestles in a larger garden and preserve complex (nearly 2,000 acres) with woodlands, grasslands, wetlands, swamps, lakes, rare Chinese redwoods (part of a preservation project), and more. I also browsed their bonsai collection that included a tree that was first planted in 1958.
Takagi Umanosuke and the Ghost of a Woman By Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japan, 1839-1892).
The Dark Presser. The Old Hag. The Ghost Presser. Alien Abduction. No matter what cultural form it takes, kanashibari excites and terrifies. Between 40-50% of people will have at least one experience of kanashibari in their lifetimes (Schegoleva, 2002). In the West, we know it as sleep paralysis.
Nightmares and sleep paralysis happen together during the second half of the night–REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. During this phase, the body disconnects from the brain so you don’t enact your dreams. Even automatic reflexes, such as kicking when the knee is tapped, are shut off. This isn’t a problem unless the brain wakes up before the body reconnects. This is what is called sleep paralysis or kanashibari (Schegoleva, 2002). When the brain wakes in this state, it is still dreaming, but your eyes are open and seeing the dreams. The brain struggles to understand what’s going on by substituting explanations from your culture–aliens, ghosts, demons, vampires, and other creatures. When the body and brain reconnect, the dreaming stops, but it can take seconds to 20 minutes for them to talk to each other again (Cox, 2015). Until then, you are at the mercy of the experience (Cox, 2015):
“I had one patient who was lying in bed and woke up to see a little vampire girl with blood coming out of her mouth,”says Brian Sharpless, a clinical psychologist at Washington State University and author of the book, Sleep Paralysis: Historical, Psychological, and Medical Perspectives. “This is an example of a really vivid, multi-sensory hallucination. She could feel this vampire figure grabbing onto her arms, pulling her, and saying she was going to drag her to hell and do all these terrible things to her.”
The first recorded experience appears in Al-Akhawayni’s 1st century Persian manuscript Hidayat. In 1664, the Dutch physician Isbrand van Diemerbroeck reported a case of sleep paralysis in a 50-year old woman. But it wasn’t until 1755 that nightmares and sleep paralysis became linked when Samuel Johnson defined the word nightmare. The earliest recording of sleep paralysis in Japan dates to the 12th century. The Japanese Emperor Konoe Tonno (1139-1155) experienced the sensation of chest compression sometimes associated with sleep paralysis. “Every night the emperor was oppressed by a mysterious agony which the holiest monks, working all their healing rites, seemed unable to relieve.” In 1153, Minamoto no Yorimasa (1104-1180) saved the emperor by killing a winged demon called Nue with an arrow (Orly & Haines, 2014).
The association of sleep paralysis and spirits is found across cultures. The most common story is the Old Hag, which appears in Japan and in Europe. Typically, it involves an ugly woman, often dressed in white, sitting on the sleeper or making eerie sounds. The English word haggard comes from this experience. In some European stories, witches descend onto sleepers who are trapped in their beds. Haggard means “ridden by the hag” (Cox, 2015). However, other supernatural creatures are said to cause sleep paralysis. In Japanese folklore, kanashibari happens whenever a person is about to encounter a supernatural being. It’s something of a premonition (Yoshimura, 2015).
The Ghost of Seigen Haunting Sakurahime By Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japan, 1839-1892)
The word kanashibari comes from a medieval Japanese spell called kanashibari no ho, a paralysis magic practiced by priests of Onmyodo Shugendo of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. It’s thought the ability can be attained through intense ascetic training, and different groups developed different ways of casting the spell. In the book Shoku nihongi, the founder of Shugendo, En no Ozumu (634-701) used the spell to punish spirits who failed to collect water and firewood for him. Most often, the spell was used to subdue an opponent or expel an evil spirit by invoking Fudomyoo, the patron deity of Shugendo (Yoshimura, 2015). Kanashibari means “to immobilize as if bound with metal chains.” Kana means metal. Shibaru means to bind.
Who Experiences Kanashibari
While anyone can experience sleep paralysis, women and students are more prone to it (Arikawa & Templer, 1999). As many as 43% of Japanese students report at least one episode. It’s thought women and students are more prone to kanashibari because both have less control over their environment and because they have more disruption in their sleep cycles (Arikawa & Templer. 1999; Schegoleva, 2002).
Kanashibari’s nightmares focus on lack of control. After all, you can’t move during it. The frustration of not having control over your circumstances can come to the fore during your dreams. Despite this discomfort, students want to experience kanashibari. Some attempt to induce the experience by sleeping on their backs, which can help cause it. Others write “Get lost!” on a piece of paper, tear it up, and throw it away in an effort to anger spirits enough to visit that night. In fact, when researchers asked how to avoid kanashibari, students couldn’t offer solutions. They wanted to experience it rather than avoid it (Schegoleva, 2002). Here is an interview Schegoleva had with an 11-year old boy to give you an idea about kanashibari:
‘Yes, it happened when I was five. I remember lying in my bed, my body being pressed by someone in long white clothes. I could see my brother sleeping but could not move to free myself or scream for help.’
‘Was it a male or female figure?’
‘I immediately decided that it was a female. I don’t know why.’
‘You remember it quite well. How did it end?’
‘I felt that I could move my toes, and the same moment the ghost disappeared.’
‘Do you think it was a ghost?’
‘My brother told me next morning: so you had kanashibari and saw a ghost!’
‘Did you tell the other members of your family what had happened?’
‘No, but a few years later my mother asked if I had had kanashibari, and I said yes, and told her about it.’
‘Has it happened to you just once?’
‘In fact, the second time it happened soon after I spoke to my mother about kanashibari.’ [Laughs.]
‘How old were you?’
‘Well, it was about two years ago, so I was nine, I think. But I did not see anything, there was just this
strange annoying noise, like a glass breaking.’
‘Like glass breaking? Was there actually anything like glass around?’
‘No, and the noise was constant, not real, like glass broken into pieces – crrraasshhhh, as if something
big and fragile was being dropped on the floor.’
‘Were you frightened?’
‘No, the second time I knew what was happening and even found it funny, though the noise was …bothering me.’
‘And the first time, when you were five?’
‘I do not remember very well, but I think I should have been afraid.’
‘Do you know why people get kanashibari? Or how to get kanashibari?’
‘I am not sure, but some of my classmates should know, ask them.’
Media and Kanashibari
Media impacts kanashibari. When the brain is confused, it will reach for the best explanation for the experience out of its library, and for most of us, media has stocked this mental library. While we can know sleep paralysis is caused by stress, fatigue, and sleep disorders, the sleeping mind taps into the subconscious–the realm of spirits, hags, and aliens. In Schegoleva’s 2002 paper, she reported how one student had seen the ghost girl Sadako from The Ring during the student’s kanashibari experience. While in Japan and parts of Europe people dream of kappa, hags, and ghosts, Americans experience sleep paralysis differently. Susan Blackmore, in 1998, linked alleged experiences of alien abduction with sleep paralysis. The experiences match: the out-of-body sensation, luminous presence, and other associations. But why aliens? Well, in American society it’s more acceptable for people to believe an alien abducted them than a ghost or hag sat on them. Aliens are as much a part of American folklore as the kappa is for Japanese folklore. And it is out of this folklore that the mind pulls its understanding of the nightmare world.
Kanashibari can be a terrifying experience if you don’t know what’s happening, or it can be a something a student seeks for a thrill similar to watching a horror movie. If you’d rather avoid the experience, sleep on your side and try not to stress. A regular sleep pattern helps too. About half of us will have at least one episode of kanashibari in our lifetimes. Kanashibari is one of the more mysterious parts of the human experience, one that links modern people with folklore that had long since understood what we are just coming to know.
Arikawa, Hiroko & Templer, Donald, et al. (1999). The Structure and Correlates of Kanashibari. The Journal of Psychology 133 (4) 369-375.
Cox, David (2015) Vampires, ghosts, and demons: the nightmare of sleep paralysis; tales of things that go bump in the night have existed for centuries, but they may in fact be a part of a surprisingly common neurological phenomenon. The Guardian. Nov. 2, 2015.
Orly, Regis & Haines, Duane (2014) NEUROwords Kanashibari: A Ghost’s Business. Journal of the History of Neuroscience 23 192-197.
Schegoleva, A. (2002). Sleepless in Japan: the kanashibari phenomenon. Electronic Journal Of Contemporary Japanese Studies, 2
Yoshimura, Ayako (2015) To Believe and Not to Believe: A Native Ethnography of Kanashibari in Japan. Journal of American Folklore 128 (508) 146-178.