Japan’s Hidden Christians

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).

Japanese-Christian Terminology

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

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.

Accommodating Christianity

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.

References

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.

What Naruto Gets Wrong: The Real Shinobi

For many anime fans, Naruto introduced the world of the shinobi, or the more familiar word ninja. Sadly, Naruto plays fast and loose with the history of the shinobi. It gets some things right, but it gets far more wrong. This isn’t to beat up on the series. It’s fiction, and fiction makes reality its own. But you may find the reality of the ninja just as interesting as Naruto’s world.

Throughout this article, I’ll use the words shinobi and ninja interchangeably. The words come from the same Chinese word, which traces to the 7th century. Japanese kanji comes from Chinese writing and typically has 2 different pronunciations, the Japanese and the Chinese. The Chinese word, ren zhe 忍者, didn’t appear in Japan until the  15th century (Bertrand, 2006). In Japanese, this is pronounced as nin sha. Ren zhe means “one who endures or hides” in Chinese, but in Japanese, the phrase shinobo mono means the same. Because of this, the words nin ja (or nin sha) and shinobi were used interchangeably (Bertrand, 2006; Man, 2013).

The History of the Shinobi

Nothing is mystical about the true tradition and correct way of ninjutsu

–Natori Masatake, Shoninki.

Ninja enjoyed their height of activity during between the 15th and 16th centuries when Japan was in its Age of the Warring States (1480-1600), a period of conflict between the various samurai families as they vied for power. This period of constant warfare erupted as the shogun and emperor lost their grip on power.  Ironically, the successfulness of the ninja led to their downfall. However, ninja existed long before the province of Iga with its own hidden villages. China had their own version as early as the 600s and perhaps long before. In Japan, the first appearance of a ninja strike dates to the mid-10th century. Ninja don’t become part of the official record until 1488 when government annuals mention the Kawai family’s involvement in a siege. The family originated from Iga province (Man, 2013).

Shinobi reached their apex of ability during the time of Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu, two daimyo who eventually united Japan under a single shogunate. Oda began the effort but died before he could finish it. That left Ieyasu to finish the job and found a 250 year period of peace and isolation.

Oda started employing shinobi after he barely escaped an assassination attempt in 1573. The ninja attempted to kill him in his sleep, but the ninja was captured by Oda’s bodyguards. The ninja killed himself and Oda had his body displayed in the local marketplace to discourage further assassination attempts (Bertrand, 2006). However, the experience taught Oda the value of ninja, and he began to use them to gather information about his enemies.

The effectiveness of the ninja and the independence of the ninja villages led Oda and his son Nobuo to eventually march on Iga province, the heart of the shinobi villages. Iga also stood between Oda and the lands of his archrival, Mori Motonari. Although the ninjas of Iga held off Oda’s armies for a time using their ninjutsu, eventually they succumbed to Oda’s superior resources. Of course, Oda also hired other ninja families to turn against their neighbors in Iga (Man, 2013).

Ieyasu relied heavily on ninja during his final years of unification for reconnaissance and espionage. Ninja had pivotal roles in several fateful points in Ieyasu’s campaign. The information they gathered proved vital for his victories; on October 21, 1600, ninja helped win the victory that allowed Ieyasu to become the first shogun to fully unify Japan and found a shogunate that would last until Commodore Matthew Perry’s visit in 1858. Ieyasu rewarded the ninja by granting them a special status as a security detail in his capital Edo (Bertrand 2006; Man, 2013). This job gave them prestige and wealth, but Ieyasu’s victory began the end of the ninja. Even the eradication of the ninja couldn’t end them, but peace did.

Life as a Ninja

The way a good ninja works is to know about people without letting them know about him.

–instructional ninja poem

Being a shinobi was a family occupation. Few people born outside of a ninja family or village were accepted into training. At a young age, future ninja learned the arts of balance, swordsmanship, camouflage, and wilderness survival. They trained in groups and learned climbing techniques that served as inspiration for stories of ninja’s flying through villages. A shonin (village ninja leader) watched over these ninjas-in-training until they were deemed ready for their first mission when they reached their late teens (Bertrand, 2006).

Contrary to Naruto and other stories, ninjutsu wasn’t a hand-to-hand combat system. Ninja didn’t have specific fighting techniques. Rather, ninjutsu was a set of skills used to infiltrate enemy positions and gather information. Fighting was a final resort (Cummins, 2015). Size and strength wasn’t considered as important as being aware of surroundings and the weaknesses of the opponent (Dawson, 2000). Ninja were unable to stand up against samurai in a direct fight–although most ninja were samurai. The primary weapon of a shinobi wasn’t a sword or fist; it was information.

This isn’t to say ninja weren’t assassins. However, their primary role involved espionage and peacekeeping.

Like their inhabitants, ninja villages appeared normal but were designed for easy defense. Fake walls and trap doors allowed for ambushes, escape, or hidden weapon caches. Most ninja homes had floorboards designed to squeak when stepped on, making it more difficult for intruders to get around undetected (Bertrand, 2006).

Deception marked the central focus of shinobi. Their villages looked like regular peasant villages, and the shinobi used various disguises (Man, 2013):

  • Zen Monk The traditional Zen monk allowed a shinobi a valid reason to travel in an age of travel restrictions. The large straw hat of the monk allowed the ninja to observe without being observed, and people allowed monks to get close to them, making spying and assassination easier.
  • Mountain Priest, Merchant – Similar to the Zen monk disguise, the Mountain Priest and Merchant disguises allowed a ninja to travel without drawing attention. Like the Zen monk, the mountain priest allowed the ninja to get close to people, whereas the merchant was able to mix freely with people.
  • Street Performer, Actor – Allowed a ninja to hide by drawing attention to himself.
  • The Fashion of the Area – Finally, a ninja would have to dress as the town, village, or castle dressed. This regular clothes allowed them to move, but a shinobi would also have to back up the disguise by speaking in a local dialect or know information natives would only know.

The disguises allowed a shinobi to move freely without drawing attention. During the period ninja worked, few people traveled more than a few miles away from their home villages.

The Art of the Shinobi, Shinobi no jutsu

Ninjutsu is escape rather than kill—take shame, take embarrassment, take anything rather than kill if you can. Hone your ability to escape rather than kill…

–Jack Hoban, martial arts instructor (Morganelli, 2011)

Naruto makes a fuss about the martial arts of a ninja, but the art of the shinobi centered on information gathering and deception instead of fighting. Ninja swords, for example, were shorter than samurai katana, and ninja would try to avoid fighting a samurai directly (Bertrand, 2006). Even the famous shuriken wasn’t design to kill, nor could a ninja throw them hard or accurately enough to kill. Rather, they were used to distract or disable opponents so he could be killed with a sword. Caltrops were used to hinder pursuit. The shinobi-gama, or sickle and chain, depended upon deception and distraction to be effective. One strategy, called fukurogaeshi no jutsu, or reversing the bag, involved a shinobi sneaking into a castle and then announcing he was a ninja looking for work. However, the ninja was actually using the ploy to gain the freedom to move about the castle and gather information for his original employer (Fujibayashi, 2016). Sneaky way to earn two paychecks, eh?

This isn’t ninjitsu

Ninjutsu’s focus on deception served both military and civilian roles. Military ninja roles included: establishing spy networks, gathering information, making maps, and planting long-term agents. Ninja also spread misinformation and propaganda, acted as guides through enemy territory. Finally, ninja would command night attack squads, commit arson, destroy supplies, assassinate targets, and defend against other ninja (Cummins. 2015).

As civilians, ninja shared a lot in common with private investigators. People could hire them to spy on relatives and neighbors, mete out revenge, or as personal bodyguards.

While ninja had chants, charms, and hand gestures, these were used as support instead of relied upon.

What Naruto Gets Wrong and Right

Naruto’s world of the shinobi draws from reality, but it makes too much of a fuss over jutsu; it becomes something of a magic system. While real-life ninja had their own charms and hand-gestures, they relied on pragmatic observation. The Hidden Leaf Village fails to be a true ninja village by the fact it stands out too much with its version of Mount Rushmore. The anime, being an action shonen after all, focuses on fighting, whereas ninja would only fight as a last resort. When a ninja traveled, they attempted to blend in with the locals, dressing as a peasant or as a wandering monk. The shinobi of the Leaf Village do not.

Naruto does get some things right. First, deception is a part of their fighting styles, just as a real ninja. Several times throughout the series, Naruto and friends were hired as bodyguards, and the school atmosphere is kind of what villages would do to train their children, barring the modernization shown in Naruto of course. Finally, the politics the series hints at taps the real-life politics that swirled around ninja.

As mercenaries, ninja had a unique and important place in Japanese history. Much of what we know of ninja came from the stories they spread throughout the Tokugawa period as they declined. Naruto and other ninja fiction pull from more from these stories than from history. However, the history of the shinobi contains just as many stories of daring do, despite the reality of ninja being mapmakers rather than mischief makers.

One fact about shinobi Naruto hits and hits well: it’s all about the mind. What made a ninja a ninja was their ability to think, observe, and plan. They didn’t act on impulse; they studied and understood people. The true shinobi would watch and learn instead of jump in and fight. Ninja changed Japanese history, and through Japanese culture, the unseen ninja continues to shape the world.

References

Bertrand, J. (2006). Techniques that made ninjas feared in 15th-century Japan still set the standard for covert ops. Military History, 23(1), 12.

Cummins, Anthony. (2015) Samurai and Ninja : The Real Story Behind the Japanese Warrior Myth that Shatters the Bushido Mystique. Kanagawa, US: Tuttle Publishing.

Dawson, Chester. (2000). Exit the Ninja. Far Eastern Economic Review 163 (20) 58-61.

Fujibayashi, Y. (2016). 1676: Japan. Lapham’s Quarterly, 9(1), 80-82.

Man, J. (2013). Ninja: 1,000 years of the Shadow Warrior. HarperCollins.

Morganelli, J. (2011). Ethical warrior: how the fighting philosophy of Ninjutsu expert Jack Hoban influenced the United States Marine Corps. Black Belt, (6). 54.

Anime’s One-Piece Swimsuit Fetish and the History of Japanese Swimsuits

anime high school swimsuit

Form-fitting, sleek one-piece swimsuits dominate high-school anime’s depictions of girls. Fans demand, in fact, require their anime to feature their favorite female characters in these iconic one-pieces. More than a few fetishes in the fandom focus on this blue spandex swimsuit. The swimsuit features in high-school anime because it is a part of Japanese school life. But where exactly did this one-piece swimsuit come from?

To answer that, we need to look at the history of swimwear in the West. Japan imported Western-style swimwear, along with many other Western ideas and costumes, during the early part of the 1900s.

Casale_BikiniLet’s backpeddle to the first swimsuit: the bikini. Official history states the bikini was designed by French engineer Louis Réard in 1946. The swimwear is thought to be named after the Bikini Atoll, the site of several US atomic tests happening at the time. However, the bikini appears much earlier. A Roman mosaic dating the to the 4th century in Sicily shows Roman women exercising in quite modern-liking bikinis (Spivack, 2012).

When the Roman Empire collapsed, bathing suits and bathing in general numbered among the collapse’s victims. Up until the 1500s, Europeans believed bathing spread disease rather than prevented it (Tousignant, 2014). Bathing didn’t return until the Renaissance and the Baroque period, and by then people expected female skin to remain covered. For example, in 1687, the English traveler Celia Fiennes described the typical lady’s bathing suit (Spivack, 2012):

The Ladyes go into the bath with Garments made of a fine yellow canvas, which is stiff and made large with great sleeves like a parson’s gown; the water fills it up so that it is borne off that your shape is not seen, it does not cling close as other linning, which Lookes sadly in the poorer sort that go in their own linning. The Gentlemen have drawers and wastcoates of the same sort of canvas, this is the best linning, for the bath water will Change any other yellow.

These bathing gowns sometimes had lead weights sewn into their hems so nothing would float up and reveal an ankle (Tousignant, 2014). Swim gowns persisted until form fitting bathing suits became popular in the early 1900s. Made of wool, these swimsuits covered from neck to ankle. In case you are wondering, men covered almost as much as women. They wore vests and swim shirts up until 1937, when they finally went bare-chested.

Annette Kellerman in a period swimsuit.

Annette Kellerman in a period swimsuit.

Anyway, these form fitting swimsuits caused a scandal. In 1907, Annette Kellerman, the first woman to swim across the English Channel, was arrested in Boston for wearing a form-fitting one-piece that showed skin on her arms and legs. Her arrest backfired. Instead of halting the trend of creeping skin, her arrest encouraged women to show more leg and and arm (Spivack, 2014).  As the years passed, more skin appeared, but the invention of spandex marked the beginning of the modern, form-hugging swimsuits we are familiar with today.

The Japanese Modern Girl and Western Fashion

So what does the history of Western swimwear have to do with the Japanese school-girl one-piece? The answer traces back to the Meiji Restoration and the rise of the modan garu in the 1920s.

The Meiji Restoration marked the end of Japan’s closed-off feudal period and the start of rapid modernization. Japan looked to the West, particularly the United States, for examples. The rapid import of Western ideas sent shocks throughout Japanese society. One group in particular noticed a profound different in traditional views and Western views: women. Women became consumers of new Western forms of media: mass market magazines, movies, radio, jazz, and other imports. A small group of women began to emulate the Western fashions they witnessed in American movies. The modan garu, or modern girl, became the symbol of modernization.

As a symbol of modernism, you’d think the modern girl would be a common sight in the 1920s, just as the flapper was a common sight in America during the same decade. However, a 1925 survey of the Ginza area of Tokyo found 99% of women still wore traditional Japanese clothing. Only 1% of women dressed as modern girls. However, that 1% stood out. The modern girl wore bright-colored one-piece dressed that reached to her knees. She wore high-heeled shoes and sheer stockings that drew attention to her legs. Her bobbed hair was modeled after Hollywood actresses like Clara Bow and Gloria Swanson. The hair style in particular marked a significant change. Traditional Japanese women wore their hair in a bun, and an ordinance from 1872 forbade women from cutting their hair (Sato, 1993). Interestingly, during this period it wasn’t unusual for women to dive nude. Known as ama, this fisherwomen would become popular examples of the “Exotic East” for Westerners. They caused less of  a stir than the modern girls.

So the modern girl was a woman who bucked tradition and embraced the Western fashion she witnessed on the silver screen. Among these fashions was the swimsuit. Postcards from the era sometimes showed Japanese women wearing Western style swimsuits. Swimsuits like the ones Kellerman wore. These women were at the height of fashion and controversy. Just as Kellerman ran into problems in Boston, Japanese modern girls faced backlash for showing too much and being too Western. The modern girl faced real challenges. Novelist Mochizuki Yuriko wrote an account of her experience as a modern girl when she cut her hair (Sato, 1993):

The long kimono was beautiful, but it was no longer in keeping with the age. Long Japanese hair was also beautiful, but that,  too, had become anachronistic. Those were the feelings I had when I decided to cut my hair. . . . You  can’t imagine the shock it gave to the people around me. My mother took one look at me and cried out in indignation, ‘You must be crazy! If you go out,  everyone will call you one of those atarashii onna [new women]’-the  term modan garu was not in use yet.. . . I remember another instance after I returned to my family home in the country. I ran into two girls,  fifteen and  sixteen, living in the neighborhood who had had a short cut. Ours was an extremely provincial, tradition-bound village, and it caused a great sensation. The girls were punished severely and their mothers sobbed and wailed, carrying on as if they were lunatics. My own mother confronted me and said,  ’It’s your fault that this dreadful thing has happened. You’ve lost face with everyone in the neighborhood, so I wish  that you’d just go right back to Tokyo.’ In no time I packed my bag and returned to Tokyo feeling as if I were  escaping.. . . It’s  been almost ten years since I got a short cut. During that time there have been a string of  tragicomedies.

When I think back [to 1918], the painful experiences far outnumbered the comic situations. Even today, it’s appalling how many idiots jeer and hiss at me and are ignorant enough to  label me a modan garu.

Japanese modern girls faced real problems for their decisions to embrace Western fashion. They not only faced problems with their families for breaking tradition, but they also faced the label of sexual deviant. Their embrace of Western fashion marked them as a sex object and women of poor sexual morality. Despite police investigations in 1923–which found nothing sexual or immoral going on in modern-girl cafes and other hang outs–the idea persisted. Some of this persistence is because of the exoticism of Western dress at the time. These women represented something new, different, and modern. In a word: exotic, and exotic women stimulate male libido–just as the ama and geisha did for Western men. The sexual attraction of the 1920s modern girl continues with the attraction for Japanese high-school one-piece swimsuits. Much like panty fetishes were caused by Westernization, the fetish for the one-piece started with the sexual objectification of early modern girls and their Western swimwear. And the association stuck.

Modan garu kept up with American fashion changes up until World War II. By the time the war ended, the American Occupation cemented America’s influence on Japan. However, there is another piece of the puzzle. The high-school one-piece isn’t merely a result of Japan copying America. The one-piece is distinctly Japanese. It resulted from the influence of the modern girl merging with the distinctly Japanese school uniform.

The Uniform Swimsuit

This is just one of the examples of how the high school swimsuit for ladies is fetishized. The abnormal pose shows off her lolita figure. The high-school swimsuit and lolita fetish often converge.

Besides the one-piece swimsuit, anime focuses on the Japanese school uniform. The Japanese school uniform, like the modern girl, came out of Japan’s rapid Westernization. Japanese school uniforms are as iconic as the samurai, and Japan engineered that iconography. When Japan entered the world stage, it was obsessed with how other nations perceived it. Japan wanted to present its military as modern, and military uniforms are the way to do just that. Military uniforms are designed to impress foreign nations, after all.

Japan took its modernization so seriously that it extended military dress to its school system. Female school uniforms were modeled after the Japanese Navy uniform, and male school uniforms were modeled after the Japanese Army. These uniforms were a way of advertising how Japan became modern across all levels of its population.

Beginning in the 1950s, school uniforms became associated with morally wholesome children. That is, until the Lolita movement and the push toward fashion started in the 1980s. During the 1980s, private girl schools began to use uniform styles to attract students. This pushed school uniforms into the public eye, including school swimsuits. In 1985, the book Girl Uniform Fieldbook by Mori Nobuyuki outlined various school uniform fashions and which schools featured each uniform (Kinsella, 2002). This, in combination with the shift in using school girl as advertising, brought the school uniform and school swimsuit back into the realm of sexuality. The long running strand of sexuality introduced by the modern girl back in the early 1900s had returned.

Kosaki Onodera from Nisekoi

Anime picked up on this return of the swimsuit as a subject of sexual attraction. The one-piece became an iconic fetish because for many Japanese men it was the first exposure to the female body. First exposures leave lasting influence and tap into nostalgia. The one-piece dredges memories of high school and junior-high, times when you had more freedom. Nostalgia is a powerful feeling, especially when it is combined with sexual attraction.

The Japanese Male Swimsuit

So far, I’ve focused on the female one-piece. Although it is not as iconic, the male swimsuit shares similar DNA. However, it doesn’t the same potent sexual symbolism as the female swimsuit in popular culture. Some of this is because female sexual interests tend not to be as public as male. Marketing hasn’t capitalized on female sexual attraction as long as it has on male sexual attraction. This is changing as more marketing and anime aims at titillating women through male objectification. I’ve written about female objectification many times so I won’t get into it again here. If you want to read more check out these links: breast obsession, magical girls and sexism, otaku culture is sexist. The male swimsuit follows the same trail as the female. As women adopted Western fashion, awareness of Western male fashion also increased. Male swimwear has undergone fewer changes than female swimwear. Depending on your perspective, Westernized societies place a higher value on female skin than male skin. This is why males tend to have fewer controversy with swimwear. Female skin is more valuable as a commodity and therefore shouldn’t be shared as readily as male skin. For the record, I firmly disagree with this view, but patriarchal views hang on. This view is changing, however, as female sexual attraction and homosexual male sexual attraction becomes more accepted.

The Revenge of the One-Piece

Anime’s focus on the female one-piece swimsuit traces back more than a century, back to the opening of Japan to the rest of the world. For decades, Western fashion has influenced Japanese, but in recent years that has begun to reverse. The one-piece has returned in many American magazines. While the one-piece hasn’t completely disappeared, it played second-fiddle to the bikini. That is changing. In a 2015 article of InStyle, many women are returning to the one-piece as a backlash against the ever-shrinking bikini (Cheng, 2015).

I suspect Japan’s high school one-piece has had a small hand in this shift as well. Manga and anime enjoyed a period of booming popularity between roughly 2004-2008 here in the States. Many of these fans are now at an age where they can influence fashion. While anime and manga fans are a small cohort, their views cause ripples among nonfans. The constant exposure to one-piece swimsuits in anime and manga–not to mention how anime portrays the one-piece as sexier than bikinis–will shift ideals of fashion. I have to be clear: I don’t have data on this. It is merely a suspicion.

In any case, the one-piece swimsuit sits on a line of influence stretching all the way back through the Japanese modern girl movement, back through the swim gowns of yesteryear, back into the Roman Empire, and back even further into history. The one-piece shows how even a simple piece of material is connected to a web of ideas and people stretching back into time.

References

Cheng, A. (2015) Proof That One-Piece Swimsuits Are Now More Popular Than Bikinis. InStyle. http://www.instyle.com/news/celebrities-in-one-piece-swimsuits

Kinsella, S. (2002). What’s Behind the Fetishism of Japanese School Uniforms? Fashion Theory 6 (2). 215-238.

Sato, B. H. (1993) The Moga Sensation: Perceptions of the Modan Garu in Japanese Intellectual Circles during the 1920s. Gender & History. 3(3) 361-381.

Spivack, E. (2012). How Bathing Suits Went From Two-pieces to Long Gowns and Back. Smithsonian.

Tousignant, M. (2014). The History of Swimsuits, from Togas to Bikinis. The Washington Post. June 2, 2014.

Ama: Japan’s Sea Diving Women

Ama come from a tradition that dates back over 2,000 years, and the tradition is dying. Today, about 2,000 ama dive off the coast of Japan, and fewer dive each year. Most ama are well into their 60s and 70s (LeBlanc, 2015; McCurry, 2016). Before we continue, I have to leave you with a disclaimer. This article contains nudity. Before the 1900s, ama dived naked except for a traditional loincloth. The earliest images of ama, naked from the waist up, appear in 18th century ukiyo-e. Ama have worn wetsuits since the 1960s (LeBlanc, 2015).

The Ama Tradition

No one knows exactly how women became deep sea divers. Westerners assume ama dived for pearls, but most dived to collect seaweed, fish, and shellfish to supplement their meals and sell on the marketplace. Ama are almost exclusively women. They dive in the cold sea without the aid of scuba gear, using only rocks to help them sink as far as 30 feet below the sea. Most traditional ama were wives of fishermen. They would dive so they can earn extra money while their husbands were away on prolonged fishing trips (Martinez, 2004; LeBlanc, 2015; Tanaka, 2016).

On Shima peninsula, ama once dominated. After World War II, 6,000 of the 10,000 total divers lived in the area. Today only 750 live there (McCurry, 2016).  Ama break with Japanese culture norms, particularly the ama of Shima. Since feudal Japan, women were relegated to a limited role, based upon class. In samurai classes, women were shut off from society and were expected to manage the household and raise children. The lower classes granted women more freedom, but she was still subject to her husband. Merchant class women, for example, were expected to help manage the household and provide help with the family business. Farming class women helped plant the fields in addition to her household duties.

However, ama in the Shima area flipped these expectations. In some situations, the husband assisted her. He would wait topside for her to tug on her safety rope. Then, he would haul her up and help with her catch. During the Tokugawa period, these women were seen as strong and a match for their husbands. Many started their profession as children to continue to dive well into their 80s (LeBlanc, 2015).

When the husbands were away, ama dived in groups. Each woman would tie themselves to a wooden bucket that acted as a float. Diving in groups helped reduce danger, but whenever you dive up to 30 feet in cold water for up to 2 minutes, people can die. In a typical day, these women dive 100-150 times (Tanaka, 2016). Ama developed a culture of beliefs and practices to help reduce this danger.

Superstitions of the Ama

Ama fishing villages feature a special temple for the women to pray before heading off and their own communal warming huts for when they return from a cold day’s work. They developed their own protective symbols. The seiman, or 5-pointed star, adorn their head scarves and tools. Written in a single stroke, starting and ending at the same point, the star represents their safe return to the surface. Another design, the dohman,  a lattice design that keeps danger away and represents watchfulness. Before each dive, the women knock on the side of the boat with their chisel and recite a short mantra (LeBlanc, 2015).

Ama diving. Photo by Fosco Maraini 1954.

Men ama divers exist, but the profession is dominated by women. Diving is done relatively close to shore. While men took trips out into open waters, women could dive nearby to help the family’s income. Men would take the best boats, while women could make do with less seaworthy craft. Women were also thought to be better at diving than men. First, women have an extra layer of fat that helps them tolerate cold water better than men (LeBlanc, 2015). Women were also thought to be better able to hold their breath and for longer than men (Tanaka, 2016).

Today’s Ama

Ama is a dying profession. Several reasons go into this. First, young women don’t have any interest in learning the special breathing techniques ama have perfected. Second, the profession doesn’t pay. While their staple crop abalone can net $80.00 for 2lbs, abalone are getting harder to find due to overfishing and environmental changes (McCurry, 2016). Ama is a sustainable fishing system. It allows the diver to be selective. While the lack of nets and other gear protects the environment, oceans face pressures from industrial methods that impacts the ability of ama to find their catches. The profession may soon disappear because of these factors.

Topless Diving and the Mysterious, Exotic Orient

I have to comment on the images I chose to use. For a good portion of Japanese history, nudity among women carried little shame, particularly for the lower classes. Nudity is natural. I selected these images because they are a part of history. It was a part of who the ama were. That said, these photos were often intended for Western audiences. Soon after Japan opened, postcards of the exotic East began to be sent by visitors. Geisha, samurai, and ama numbered among the topics Westerners considered strange. Topless women who dived in cold waters. How strange! How erotic!

Never mind they dived nearly nude for safety. Clothing could snag on rocks. Although after the 1900s, many wore cotton gowns.

The exoticness of Japan was fetishized by the West since Japan modernized in the late 1800s. Today, Japanese women face continued fetishes by many Western men. These photos are not intended to cater to either fetish. Rather, I decided to use them to give a glimpsed of the women called ama while pointing out how these glimpses need to be understood. Today we sexualize far too much.  The women you saw in this article felt the cold salt water on their skin. They knew hunger and joy. They were mothers and grandmothers. These photographs provide a small window in their lives, a window distorted by Western exoticism and by modern sexuality.

References

LeBlanc, P. (2015). UT professor studies group of traditional Japanese pearl divers. Austin American-Statesman.

McCurry, J. (2016) “Japan’s women of the sea hope G7 will boost their dying way of life; The ama divers of the Shima peninsula, who harvest shellfish from the seabed, see the nearby gathering of world leaders as a chance to promote their culture”. The Guardian (London).

Martinez, D. (2004) Identity and Ritual in A Japanese Diving Village: The Making and Becoming of Person and Place. University of Hawaii Press.

Tanaka, H. and others (2016) “Arterial Stiffness of lifelong Japanese female pearl divers.” Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol 310.

Photos are by Yoshiyuki Iwase unless otherwise noted.

The Life and Influence of Matsuo Bashō

Each day is a journey, and the journey itself home

Matsuo Bashō was born in 1644 in the town of Ueno to a minor samurai family. While he is best known for his haiku in the West, his travel journals broke ground in Japanese literature. In his teen years, Bashō entered the service of Todo Yoshikiyo, who was also a poet. According to traditional accounts of his life, Bashō worked as part of the kitchen’s staff before being introduced to Kitamura Kigin (1624-1705), one of the best poets of Kyoto at the time. Through Kigin, Bashō was able to become a professional poet and move to Edo (Carter, 1997). He began as a haikai poet. A haikai is a type of poem made of linked verses (Norman, 2008).  Bashō went by many names before settling on the one we know: Kiginsaku, Toshichiro, Tadaemon, Jinshichiro, and Munefusa. His first haiku was published under the name of Tosei, which translates to “green peach.” The name pays homage to Bashō’s favorite Chinese poet Li Po (or “white plum”) (Norman, 2008). Bashō wrote over 1,000 haikus in his lifetime. Unlike other poets of his time, Bashō focused on the everyday moments. He tried to capture the moment a bird took wing or a frog jumped (Biallas, 2002). He never claimed there was a single way to write good haiku. Instead, he argued a good poem came from a flash of insight and jotting it down immediately (Heyd, 2003).

Let me digress a moment. Haiku is a 19th century contraction of hokku no haikai. A haiku is a 3 line poem that follows a specific pattern of ji-on, or symbol-sounds. Ji-on are made up of a single vowel or a consonant + vowel. Haiku lines follow this pattern: 5-7-5. Let’s look at an example from Bashō.

Autumn deepens—
The man next door, what
does he do for a living?
aki fukaki
tonari wa nani o
suru hito zo

I highlighted every symbol-sound to help you see how the 5-7-5 rule works. Haiku doesn’t try to rhyme. It focuses on the symbol-sound pattern and its imagery. Haiku often use  a word or expression (called a ki-go) to pin down the time of the year. This sets the mood of the poem. Autumn, for example, has a lonely feeling. Ki-go act as shorthand to convey feelings, ideas, or meaning in as few words as possible….if you understand what feelings, ideas, or meanings are associated with the ki-go. Weather conditions and animals can act as ki-go. Weather conditions and animals have strong associations with certain seasons. Such as rain showers and spring here in the United States. Before Bashō, haikai poetry fixed on the tastes of the courtly elite or funny topics that appealed to the merchant class. Bashō’s poetry focused on common, everyday experience. Basho defined what we know of as haiku.

In 1680, Bashō gave up his practice in a way that amounts of professional suicide. He gave up his professional status and moved outside of Edo. He wrote this poem the same year:

On a bare branch
A crow has settled down to roost.
In autumn dusk.

His students followed him and built him a home. They also gave him basho trees (a type of banana). He began writing under that name, and it stuck with him: Basho. During this time, he studied Zen but struggled with spiritual beliefs. In 1682, his house was caught in the fire that burned most of Edo (Norman, 2008). He mourned the event:

Tired of cherry,
Tired of this whole world,
I sit facing muddy sake
And black rice.

Part of the reason he moved was to avoid his fame, but people still followed and pestered him. He had to resort to locking his gate to escape. Of course, he wrote about it:

Only for morning glories I open my door—During the daytime I keep it tightly barred.

One of the trails Basho may have walked. Photo by Michael Yamashita. National Geographic Magazine.

Despite people calling him a master poet, Basho felt dissatisfied with his writing. Many times he wanted to give it up altogether. He called his writing “mere drunken chatter, the incoherent babbling of a dreamer” (Biallas, 2002). His discontent seemed to be one reason why he decided to take to the road starting in 1684. His first journal, Journal of a Weather-Beaten Skeleton, captures the difficulty of travel at the time. That hardship becomes a reoccurring theme in his later journals. He traveled several times between 1687-1688 and wrote about the experiences in Kashima Journal and Manuscript in a Knapsack. The journals combined prose and haiku, a combination called haibun (Heyd, 2003; Norman, 2008). He often focused on little things he observed while on the road:

Stillness—
Piercing the rock
The cicada’s song.

It is hard to us to imagine the difficulty of travel at the time. People traveled on foot with few rest stops and exposure to wind, rain and lice. Bashō even wrote about the trouble lice caused him: “Shed of everything else, I still have some lice I picked up on the road—Crawling on my summer robes.” He wrote about how rice-planting songs were a part of poetic tradition and wrote about the refinement of people found in rural villages. At the time, only those who lived in cities and belonged to the upper classes were thought of as refined. Equating country farm songs with samurai class poetry was also a break in the thinking of that time.

In his mid-40s, Basho grew tired of his fame. Despite his frail health, he decided on taking a pilgrimage to locations important to Japanese religious, literary, and military history.  In May 1689, he set out with his friend Sora, a backpack, writing materials, and a few changes of clothes. We walked for 5 months, during which he penned his masterpiece, Narrow Road to a Far Province. The book spoke of a spiritual journey while Basho made his living on the road as a teacher (Carter, 1997). The entire journey involved walking 1,200 miles through some of the roughest terrain of Japan. Some of the roads were little more than trails.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. (189). Mogi Road Retrieved from New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Here are excerpts from Narrow Road:

The months and days are the travelers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float away their lives on ships or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them. Many of the men of old died on the road, and I too for years past have been stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind to ceaseless thoughts of roaming.
Last year I spent wandering along the coast. In autumn I returned to my cottage on the river and swept away the cobwebs. Gradually the year drew to its close. When spring came and there was mist in the air, I thought of crossing the Barrier of Shirakawa into Oku. I seemed to be possessed by the spirits of wanderlust, and they all deprived me of my senses. The guardian spirits of the road beckoned, and I could not settle down to work.
I patched my torn trousers and changed the cord on my bamboo hat. To strengthen my legs for the journey I had moxa burned on my shins. By then I could think of nothing but the moon at Matsushima. When I sold my cottage and moved to Sampû’s villa, to stay until I started on my journey, I hung this poem on a post in my hut:

kusa no to mo
sumikawaru yo zo
hina no ie

Even a thatched hut
May change with a new owner
Into a doll’s house.

This is the introduction to Narrow Road (Keene, 1996). Moxa was a medical treatment of ground mugwort used to treat or prevent various diseases. Notice how he combines prose with haiku. The next excerpt has Bashō visiting a castle.

The three generations of glory of the Fujiwara of Hiraizumi vanished in the space of a dream.  The ruins of their Great Gate are two miles this side of the castle; where once Hidehira’s mansion stood are now fields, and only the golden cockerel Mountain remains as in former days.
We first climbed up to Castle-on-the-Heights, from where we could see the Kitagami, a large river that flows down from the north.  Here Yoshitsune once fortified himself with some picked retainers, but his great glory turned in a moment into this wilderness of grass.  “Countries may fall, but their rivers and mountains remain.  When spring comes to the ruined castle, the grass is green again.”  These lines went through my head as I sat on the ground, my bamboo hat spread under me.  There I sat weeping, unaware of the passage of time.

His travel journals read a little like modern day travel guides. Bashō visited major military, literary, and religious landmarks. The bits of history help give a context.

Bashō died in 1694. He remains one of the most important poets in Japanese history, and his work are the first school children learn. His travel journals inspire pilgrimages in an effort to reconnect with a literary tradition. Many anime like Samurai Champloo pull inspiration from a travel tradition Bashō made famous. He wasn’t the first traveling poet, but he stands as one of the best loved. The calligrapher Soryu wrote this epilogue in the Narrow Road:

Once had my raincoat on, eager to go on a like journey, and then again content to sit imagining those rare sights. What a hoard of feelings, Kojin jewels, has his brush depicted! Such a journey! Such a man!

References

Biallas, L (2002) Merton and Basho: The Narrow Road Home. Merton Annual. 15 77.

Carter, S. (1997) On a Bare Branch: Basho and the Haikai Profession. American Oriental Society. 117 (1). 57-69.

Heyd, T. (2003) Basho and the Aesthetics of Wandering: Recuperating Space, Recognizing Place, and Following the Ways of the Universe. Philosophy East and West. 53 (3) 291-307.

Keene, D. (1996) The Narrow Road to Oku.

Norman, H. (2008) On the Poet’s Path. National Geographic. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/02/bashos-trail/howard-norman-text

Japanese Public Baths – Anime’s Staple for Awkward Humor

pokemon-team-rock-hot-springThe hot spring scene, a staple for any romantic-comedy anime. So predictable and so traditional.  Baths are an important part of Japanese cultural identity.  Until the mid-1960s, 60% of Japanese homes had bathtubs. Everyone else went to communal bathhouses.  Japan’s oldest text, the Kojiki — written in the 8th century–mentions public baths (Wynn, 2014). Anime’s public bath scenes pull from a long history. In the 1580s, Luis Frois, a Jesuit who lived in Japan for over 30 years, wrote (Loureiro, 2000):

“We bathe at home to completely avoid the eyes of others; In Japan, man, woman or monks alike bathe in public baths or, by night, in front of their homes.”

History of Public Bathing

When Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th century, bathing was already established with the elites of Japan. Buddhism brought the idea of purity to the custom. At first, bathhouses were enjoyed only by monks and the elites who could afford to build them. In Zen monasteries, the bath became a place to meditate and attain enlightenment. Over time, temple baths opened to the poor, and rich elite would sponsor these bathhouses. The best known was Empress Komyo (701-760), the consort of Emperor Shomu (701-756) who vowed to personally wash 1,000 beggars and did so at the Hokkeji bathhouse in 747.

Eventually, these developed into the social gathering places of the Edo period. These commercial baths allowed people to rent the space for special occasions and business meetings. Women also rented these spaces. A record from 1405 mentions court ladies renting a bath far enough away that it required them to travel by cart to reach it (Butler, 2005).

Now you’d think with all this public nudity shenanigans would break out at some point. After all, as anime suggests, mistakes happen! These “mistakes” were just part of attending bathhouses for a time. During the Edo period, male bathers enjoyed the attentions of yuna, or bath girl. These young ladies would help men bathe and take care of…other needs for added cost. But this didn’t happen as much as you may suspect. Bathhouses were important social centers, not brothels. In 1657, the Shogunate banned yuna (Wynn, 2014).

Types of Bathhouses

sakura bath scene

Much like the Greek and Roman baths, Japanese sento were places to conduct business and make alliances. Clans and families would meet to conduct negotiations. Bathhouses were one of the few places in feudal Japan where social status wasn’t as much of a factor.

There are three types of baths:

  • sento – the public bath we discussed
  • onsen – the hot springs anime rom-coms love
  • ofuro – the private bath

Hot springs have certain requirements before they can be called onsen. They have to have 19 different types of minerals, meet certain levels of hydrogen and flourine ions, and meet certain temperature requirements (Wynn, 2014). Ofuro also appear in anime. These are private baths common to Japanese households now. In the past, only the rich could afford them.

Japanese people typically wash in the evening after dinner. Baths are associated with nighttime and relaxing instead of getting ready for the day like here in the United States. Some households follow old ofuro rules. The head of the household gets first dibs, while the water is at its hottest and cleanest. Then male members take their turn by descending age. Finally, females take their turn also by descending age. Just as many households bathe in order of convenience: who has to go to bed early and the like (Wynn, 2014).  It’s not unusual to spend as much as 45 minutes washing and soaking.

Unlike Greeks and Romans, Japanese custom is to wash before getting into the bath. That is why in anime you see people sitting on little stools washing before soaking. Baths are meant for relaxing not for washing off dirt. A study in 2000 looked into how a hot relaxing bath benefits sleep: it induces quite a good sleep actually (Kagamimori, 2000).

Bathing Etiquette

anime bathLike every aspect of Japanese culture, there are rules to follow when you visit onsen or bathhouses. Understanding these rules will help you better understand some of the more subtle jokes anime likes during their onsen scenes. These notes are from an American military dispatch I found (Targeted News Service, 2013). First and foremost, onsen are for soaking only, not for washing.

Next is the small towel rule. You are given 2 towels at onsen. People use the full-size towel for drying off, and you take the small hand-sized towel with you into the hot springs, but it cannot touch the water. It is used to wipe sweat from your head and face. When you aren’t using it, it is folded on top of your head or, for ladies, wrapped around your head to keep your hair out of the water. Rising and wringing the towel in the water is taboo.

While onsen are gender segregated, children can attend opposite-gender baths with their parent or guardian.

Most bathhouses have pools with different temperatures. The main pool is hot, while other pools have lower temperatures. Custom recommends people move to lower temperature pools to prevent dehydration from the heat or heat-stroke. You see many anime characters stay in the hot pool until they pass out because they are too embarrassed to move to another pool.

You need to be comfortable being in the buff, seeing others in the buff, and seeing naked children of both genders. Japanese customs have a different view of nudity than us in the West, at least when it comes to communal baths.

Finally, don’t be surprised if you are barred from public bathing areas  if you have tattoos. Tattoos are not mainstream in Japanese culture, and they have long association with crime, delinquency, and the yakuza. More then half of Japanese hotels (56%) do not allow people with tattoos into their bathing facilities (Demetriou, 2015).

Body Image and Public Nudity

persona-4-body-imageSpeaking of public nudity, Raimy Shin accounts of her experiences in mokyoktang, or Korean public baths. She writes that her first visit to a public bath opened her eyes. It was the first place where she saw a wide range of female body types: those with large breasts, those with small breasts, those with body hair, those without body hair. Before her experience, like most of us in the West, she mostly had exposure to ideal body types through media.

“Every single woman I saw out there was unblemished and thin. Thin thin thin, to the bone. The women in the magazines are, of course, still like that. Way too spotless to be real. When I look at them for too long I start to believe that women really look like that, and that I should also aspire to look like that.”

Anime scenes touch on this, particularly with female characters. Most of the time they will compare their breast sizes, but the comments still suggest a disconnect between reality and expectations. Flat-chested characters will feel inadequate next to their buxom friends. This is both commentary on modern body ideals and also serves to reinforce them. Public baths shed the clothing media places on our minds and reveals reality with all its lumps and droop. Men also struggle with media-forced body images, if to a lesser extent.

Understanding the long history of Japanese bathing customs helps us better understand the humor of onsen scenes in anime. Trips to hot springs and bathhouses connect the characters to the past, connects them with each other, and helps the characters relax. Of course, it provides the natural setting for fanservice and hijinks.

References

Butler, Lee (2005) “Washing Off the Dust”: Baths and Bathing in Late Medieval Japan. Monumenta Nipponica, 60 (1) 1-41.

Demetriou, Danielle (2015) Majority of Japan hotels ban tattooed tourists from public baths;
Most Japanese hotels refuse to allow visitors with tattoos from entering their public baths. The Telegraph. October, 2015.

Kagamimori, S., Sekine, M., Izumi, I., Ohmura, S., Liu, Z., Matsubara, I. and Sokejima, S. (2000), Effects of taking a Japanese-style bath on sleep. Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 5: 91. doi:10.1111/j.2042-7166.2000.tb02351.x

Loureiro, R.M. (2000) Turning Japanese? The Experiences and writings of a Portuguese Jesuit in 16th century Japan. ÉCOLE  FRANÇAISE  D’EXTRÊME-ORIENT

Shin, Raimy. I Learned to Love My Body in A Mokyoktang. Tufts: Jumbo Talk http://admissions.tufts.edu/blogs/jumbo-talk/post/i-learned-to-love-my-body-in-a-mokyoktang-aka-a-big-nude-public-bath/

Targeted News Service (January 25, 2013  ). Japan Travelers’ Onsen Etiquette Notes.

Wynn, L (2014) Self-Reflection in the Tub: Japanese Bathing Culture, Identity, and Cultural Nationalism. Asia Pacific: Perspectives, 12(2), 61-78.