Category Archives: Japan

A Brief Look At Yoshida Shintoism

Shinto is an interesting religion, somewhat similar to Hinduism, in that there is no formal doctrine and structure to it. Instead, as the native religion of Japan, it arose as a grass-roots collection of traditions and deities that eventually became the Shinto tradition.

However, when Buddhism came to Japan, things changed. Buddhism was a well-organized religion with doctrine, meta-physics, training, practices, etc. The first six schools of Buddhism in Japan were all devoted to study and interpretation of complex Buddhist schools of thought.

Shinto was never able to compete against this, so it became a kind of “secondary” religion in Japan. Shinto kami were often interpreted as manifestations of well-known Buddhist deities and so on.

However, there were attempts to organize Shinto along Buddhist lines in order to protect and preserve its traditions. One of the most well-known, before the modern era, is a Shinto sect called “Yoshida Shinto” (吉田神道) or “Yuiitsu Shinto” (唯一神道) meaning “the one and only Shinto”. It was started by a priest named Yoshida Kanetomo (吉田兼倶 1435-1511), who’s family suffered great misfortune during the dreaded Onin War. In the aftermath of the war, Kanetomo was determined to revive Shinto teachings, and and according to the Japanese Wikipedia entry, he synthesized Shinto, Buddhist and Confucian teachings of the time.

Kanetomo explained the relationship between the three religions using the example of a tree:

  • Buddhism was the blossoms.
  • Confucianism was the leaves and branches.
  • Shinto was the root and foundation.

In particular, Yoshida Shinto used elements of esoteric Buddhist practice but applied toward Shinto teachings and such.

Like most Shinto schools, it bases its teachings of core, ancient Japanese texts such as the Kojiki, Nihon Shoki, etc., but its interpretation of these texts had influences from Buddhism and Confucianism along with folks beliefs.

Today, the influence of Yoshida Shintoism is not very extensive, but Yoshida Jinja, the home shrine is still a venerable shrine within Japan, and otherwise pretty mainstream. The website mostly seems to talk about general Shinto services and practices.

Still, it seems like it was an interesting experiment, one of many that arose during late-medieval Japan, to reconcile Buddhism and Shinto in a way that asserted “native” Shinto religious sensibilities more.

http://www.imakumanojinja.or.jp/media/myweb1014007.pdf

Sumo: A Primer

Hello all,

My family and I have access to some Japanese TV through a local cable-channel here in the US (TV Japan), and they often play Sumo wrestling tournaments.  As an American, I thought Sumo was very strange at first because all I saw were really fat dudes wrestling.  Then, years ago, I saw Sumo champion Konishiki on Japanese TV explaining some of the techniques Sumo wrestlers have to use.  He demonstrated the difference between a regular slap to the face, and a Sumo-style slap.  The target (one of the show’s hosts) was on the floor on the second slap.  It was pretty funny, but it really made me think about how there’s more technique to Sumo then I first thought.

Now that I watch Sumo wrestling tournaments monthly, I’ve started to learn more and more about the sport and wanted to share with readers.

History

Sumo wrestling has deep roots in the native Shinto religion (as opposed to the foreign-imported Buddhism), and so although it is a sport, it does include a lot of Shinto rituals as well.

The origins of Sumo are pretty obscure, but there are examples of Sumo-like rituals in Shinto shrines since antiquity.  Sometimes wrestling has been used in military training as well.  However, true Sumo wrestling as we know it, also known as ōzumō (大相撲), appeared in the Edo Period (1600 – 1868) when wandering samurai were looking for additional income, but then started in certain Shinto shrines before it became an organized sport we know today.

In recent years, foreigners have been allowed to compete as well, so you often see wrestlers from Mongolia, including the current grand champion Hakuhō (白鵬), as well as from eastern European countries like Bulgaria, and the country of Georgia.

Rules

The rules of Sumo are super simple:

  • The first one to step out of the ring in any way loses.
  • The first one to touch the ground with any part of their body besides their feet loses.

From here, the challenge for the professional Sumo wrestler is to figure out how to either push out, throw out, or topple their opponent, who is trying to do the same thing.  Sumo wrestlers are deceptively fast and flexible (they have to practice doing the splits, for example), and employ many techniques when toppling their opponent.

At the end of the match, after an opponent loses, you’ll see on TV which technique the winner used to defeat them.  Common techniques include:

  • Yorikiri (寄り切り) – pushing the opponent straight out of the ring with your body.
  • Tsukidashi (突き出し) – pushing the opponent out of the ring forcefully with both hands.
  • Oshidashi (押し出し) – this technique involves lifting the opponent out of the ring by hooking under their armpit for leverage.
  • Nagete (投げ手) – a group of techniques involving grappling your opponent, often by the belt, and throwing them out.  One example is uwatenage (上手投げ) which is a throw with the outer-arm.
  • Tsukiotoshi (突き落し) – while grappling an opponent you flip them over to one side causing them to lose balance.

There’s a great website in Japanese that shows different techniques and other basics of Sumo here.  I used it as a reference for some of the techniques above.

Before the match starts, it is customary for Sumo wrestlers to throw salt into the ring.  This is related to Shinto rituals for purifying a space, but some wrestlers also like to put extra gusto in their throws to show of.  It’s fun to see certain wrestler’s style.

Sumo Matches

Sumo matches often take place in periodic tournaments through the country. These are called honbasho (本場所) and take place according the following schedule (source: Wikipedia):

Honbasho Nickname City Venue Opening Day
January Hatsu (Opening) Basho Tokyo Ryōgoku Kokugikan 1st or 2nd Sunday
March Haru (Spring) Basho Osaka Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium 2nd Sunday
May Natsu (Summer) Basho Tokyo Ryōgoku Kokugikan 2nd Sunday
July Nagoya Basho Nagoya Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium 1st or 2nd Sunday
September Aki (Autumn/Fall) Basho Tokyo Ryōgoku Kokugikan 2nd Sunday
November Kyūshū Basho Fukuoka Fukuoka Kokusai Center 2nd Sunday

Apart from this, there are also various other exhibition tournaments and such, but only the six official tournaments count toward one’s official ranking (more on that later).

I took some photos from one of the matches we watched recently.  Here you can see the next two wrestlers are being introduced:

Both of these wrestlers are maegashira rank (前頭), but the guy on the left is 9th rank, while the guy on the right is 11th rank.  Lower number means higher rank. Both are from Kumamoto Prefecture (熊本), though from different cities.  Their professional Sumo names, or shikona (四股名) are often contain dramatic images from Japanese culture, or just sound somewhat poetic.  They are often read in native-Japanese “kun-yomi” if you study Japanese, though not always.  For example, wrestlers from certain stables will have 琴 (koto) in their name, as in the musical instrument.  Others will have 富士 (Mt. Fuji) in their name.    Foreigners will often have names that reflect where their from in some clever way, or maybe something about their culture.

The two wresters above are 佐田の海 (sada no umi) on the left, and 正代 (shōdai) on the right. The name on the left is read kun-yomi style, while the name on the right is an on-yomi (Chinese-style) reading.

Here you can see the wrestlers facing off. The guy in the red is the referee. He has the dual-responsibilities of determining who wins, but also firing up the wrestlers to keep the match from getting stale. Sumo matches are typically very short, and shouldn’t last more than a minute or two.  You can hear the referee yelling or chanting things over and over. At the beginning of the match, he’ll also say ‘hakkiyoi!’

Finally, when the match is over, the loser will bow and exit.  When the tournament is sponsored, sometimes the winner will crouch, while the referee hands him a stack of money which is the prize money.  The wrestler makes a couple ritual gestures, takes the money and exits the ring.  For higher-ranking wrestlers, the stack of money is quite large, while lower-ranking wrestlers might not receive any at all.

Special prize money is sometimes awarded for exceptional performances, or at the discretion of the judges or the tournament officials for other reasons.  In any case, a good wrestler can expect various bonuses and rewards for his efforts.

Rankings

The rankings in Sumo are pretty complex and hierarchal.  Here is the rankings in descending order:

  • Yokozuna (横綱), grand-champion
  • Ozeki (大関), champion
  • Sekiwake (関脇)
  • Komusumi (小結)
  • Maegashira (前頭)
  • Jūryō
  • Makushita
  • Sandanme
  • Jonidan
  • Jonokuchi

Any from maegashira or higher is considered makuuchi ranking (幕内), which is like the ‘major leagues’.  Literally, makuuchi means “within the curtain”, because in the old days these were the rankings that could sit within the tent/curtain, while lower-ranking sumo were stuck outside waiting.

Rankings in general are based on winnings and loses over time in the official tournaments.  If you win a lot, you tend to go up; if you tend to lose, your ranking goes down.  Becoming a Yokozuna or grand-champion requires winning two consecutive tournaments and approval from the Sumo association, so it requires not just a winning record, but also a good reputation.  Yokozuna are champions for life, and it’s possible to have more than one living, but overall, it’s a very long road to becoming a grand-champion.  Once you reach that level though, you can’t lose it.  Also, you get to wear a special belt during the tournament, and take part in special ceremonies at the start of the tournament.  The current Yokozuna is Hakuhō (白鵬), whom I mentioned earlier.  You can see an example match (skip to 04:00 if you are in a hurry) of Hakuho:

Also, ranking has privileges too.  If you’re stuck in a lower-rank, you often get stuck doing more menial tasks at the stable, and wear simpler clothes, while higher-ranking sumo have fewer chores and can wear warmer, nicer clothes.

Conclusion

This is not an exhaustive look at the sport of Sumo, but for a foreigner like me, it’s what I’ve figured out so far.  Sumo is definitely not what I expected it to be, and personally I find it pretty fascinating.  I hope readers get a chance to watch a sumo match too.

Osechi-Ryori: Japanese New Year Food

Japanese Osechi-ryori

One tradition that’s pretty universal in Japan during the New Year is eating osechi-ryōri (おせち料理). The individual foods might be eaten throughout the year, but for New Year they are arranged in a more special way to symbolize hopes for an auspicious year to come.

I’ve posted before about osechi-ryori, but strangely, I don’t think I ever actually explained it (if I did, I can’t find the post). So, this article is an example of what osechi-ryori might look like. Different families will do different things, depending on how much effort they want to put into it, and available resources.1

The presentation my wife did this year is pretty typical of our home, but again may be somewhat different than other families.

The first dish here is a baked snapper or tai (鯛):

Japanese Osechi-ryori

Baked fish is a common dish in Japanese culture, but I grew up eating deep-fried fish and chips, so I never really tried regular baked fish until recently. Snapper isn’t my personal favorite (baked mackerel is good), but my wife did a nice job here. There hardest part of baking fish is how to deal with the smell. In Japan, they have special ovens for baking fish that can siphon the smell away, but we have an older, American oven and so the main trick is to bake in a little bit of water. If the fish gets to dry, the smell worsens.

The next dish, using a Mickey Mouse-shaped bento box we bought in Japan, is nimono or stewed vegetables (煮物):

Japanese Osechi-ryori

Nimono is a common winter dish, but it’s really yummy because you can make it with all kinds of vegetables. Here we used chicken, lotus root (which looks like little wagon wheels), carrots, burdock root, and konyaku which looks like black jello, but is actually made of sweet potato. I love my wife’s nimono. It’s great.

Also, my wife made ozōni soup:

Japanese Osechi-ryori

Ozoni soup is something you might enjoy any time during the winter, but it’s often served during New Year’s Day as well. Here you can see my wife used chopped spinach, mochi rice cake which melts nicely in the soup, chicken and a slice of the pink and white kamaboko (see below).

Finally the pièce de résistance:

Japanese Osechi-ryori

This is the main osechi dish and includes the following (clockwise from upper-right):

  • Black beans or kuromamé (黒豆), sweet.  According to wikipedia the name “mamé” is a synonym for health.
  • Chestnut paste or kurikinton (栗きんとん).  This too is kind of sweet and tasty.  The golden color also implies wealth and happiness.
  • Stir-fried burdock root and carrots, julienne, or kinpira (キンピラ).  These are slightly spicy, and one of my favorite winter dishes.
  • Pink and white fish cakes or kamaboko (蒲鉾).  The name doesn’t sound appetizing, but they’re actually quite good, especially in soup.  The colors are festive, and the round shape looks like a rising sun implying the new year.2
  • Wrapped konbu (昆布) rolls.  Again, this is similar to the word yorokobu, the verb to enjoy something.  Konbu seaweed is thicker and chewier than nori seaweed, but still good.
  • Salmon roe eggs, or ikura (イクラ).  Popular in sushi, but also good over rice with soy-sauce.  But since they’re very salty, don’t eat too many or you’ll get indigestion.
  • Shredded daikon and carrots with vinegar (?).  More of a salad-type dish, but very tasty.
  • In the middle is herring roe or kazunoko (数の子), which is also a word-play for kazu (number) and ko (children).  This implies a household with many children.3

This page in Japanese has a more comprehensive explanation of different osechi dishes and their meaning, and the Wikipedia article is pretty helpful too.

If you buy the fancy, catered ones, the dishes will be much more elaborate, and in nice bento boxes (like the ones we enjoyed in Japan in past years), but this year my wife wanted to make it herself, and keep it fairly simple so we don’t have a lot of wasted food sitting around for days.  This year the amount was just right, and was almost gone by the 2nd.

In the past, I’ve seen big elaborate osechi dishes, and the “good” foods get picked clean very quick, but the less appetizing choices tend to linger for days.  So, sometimes less is more.  ;)

Anyhow, that’s a brief look at osechi-ryori.  :)

1 We know some Japanese wives who live overseas in places where these ingredients are pretty hard to obtain.

2 We bought some fancier kamaboko that had pictures inside. This photo, taken a few days later when my wife made leftovers, shows a slice of kamaboko with a picture of an umé (plum) branch.

3 People have been asking if we are going to have a third child, and although we would like to have a third child, I don’t think we can realistically afford one. Plus we’re getting old enough that it’s not such a good idea anynore.

Happy New Year 2016

Hello Dear Readers,

This is my first post written in 2016 (my last post was actually written in late 2015 ;p ).  I’ve been missing the blog lately and wanted to write a little bit about the New Year’s celebration.  First we did mochi-making (お餅つき) at the same house as last year.  We were hosted by the same local artisan and mochi-making expert featured here in this newspaper article.

Mochi Making 2015

You can see me here helping my son to pound mochi rice.  Daddy did most of the work. Here my daughter decided to try too:

Mochi Making 2015

A few days later we enjoyed New Year’s Eve or Ōmisoka (大晦日) in Japanese with some friends.  Lots of good food:

IMG_2250

New Year's Eve 2015

And as usual we watched the yearly Japanese special Kohaku Uta Gassen. Little Guy seems to enjoy watching the Japanese girl idol groups.

Idol Groups and Son

This might be AKB48, but I can’t recall. Plus, there are so many similar groups: HKT48, NMB48, etc. I can’t keep track anymore. Also, I was pretty sick that night:

Sick

However, I did enjoy some delicious toshi-koshi soba (“End of Year Soba”) before going to bed:

Toshi-koshi soba

Finally, the next day, my wife had osechi-ryōri ready, which I will talk about in a later post.  We did not do hatsumode this year at the usual temple because I am a minister’s assistant now with a specific temple, so it seemed a bit strange to go visit other temples instead, plus I had to help lead the service that day.1

Anyhow, it was a nice end to a very nice year.  During 2015, I got to become a minister’s assistant with the Buddhist Churches of America, and got a new job, which I like much better than my old job with a certain company that sells things online.  Finally I took the JLPT N1 exam for the first time.  I’ve definitely gotten over the long “funk” I had for a few years, and am looking forward to another year of blogging fun with you all.

Happy New Year Everyone!

明けましておめでとうございます。今年もよろしくお願いいたします。

1 Jodo Shinshu Buddhism is somewhat against the practice of omamori in Japanese culture, so naturally I didn’t get one. I might pick up one or two when I visit Japan this summer though. Even though it’s kind of a superstition, I just like collecting them anyway.

For The Sake of Even One

One of my favorite Buddhist sutras to read is the Mahayana sutra called the Golden Light Sutra. It was very popular in early-medieval Asian culture, but is less well known now outside of maybe Tibetan Buddhism. In particular my favorite chapter is chapter four, where the Bodhisattva Ruchiraketu speaks a long, long litany expressing his desire to help all beings, expressing regret for his past misdeeds, and finally expressing praise of all the Buddhas. In particular, I was reading again recently when this passage jumped out at me:

“Until I am capable of freeing them all
From countless oceans of suffering,
For ten million eons I shall strive
For the sake of even one sentient being.”

A very simple, but beautiful exposition of the Bodhisattva path to assist all beings, to not abandon them. If you get a chance, definitely read the first four chapters of the Golden Light Sutra, or at least chapters 3 (very short) and 4. They are very inspirational.

Namu Amida Butsu

P.S. Not sure what a Bodhisattva is? Start here. :)

Happy Otsukimi Moon-Viewing 2015

Hi Everyone,

Otsukimi moon viewing children's art

This weekend there are a lot of Autumn-festivals going on across places like China, Korea and Japan. I’ve talked about Korean Chuseok before, so today I wanted to post about the Japanese festival of O-tsukimi (お月見). Compared to Chuseok or Chinese Autumn Festival, Otsukimi is a little more low-key, but fun for the family.

All three holidays occur traditionally on the full moon (the 15th day) of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. In Japanese this is known as chūshū no meigetsu (中秋の名月, “harvest moon”) and people traditionally have a night of moon-viewing, eating dango snacks and drinking saké.1 It’s a nice family event. The word otsukimi literally just means “moon-viewing”.

To celebrate Otsukimi this year, I wanted to share a poem from the ancient poetry anthology, the Kokin Wakashū:

秋の月 Aki no tsuki
山辺さやかに yamabe sayaka ni
照らせるは teraseru wa
落つるもみぢの otsuru momiji no
数を見よとか kazu wo miyo to ka

Which is translated as:

The autumn moon shines
brilliantly upon the
mountain range to show
us the very number of
the fallen colored leaves.

Happy Moon-Viewing/Autumn Festival Everyone!

P.S. My son, now almost 2 years old, helped decorate this picture above. According to Japanese legend, a rabbit lived on the moon, and pounded mochi until the moon was full. Then, the rabbit would eat it, until the new moon, and repeat the cycle. Little Guy helped decorate the white “dango”. :)

P.P.S. This page has helpful schedules for Otsukimi up through 2020.

1 Apparently there is also a lesser-known tradition, unique to Japan only that is celebrated on the 13th day of the 9th month of the lunar calendar. During this day, roasted chestnuts and edamame are offered along with dango. This is variably called nochi no tsuki 後の月, jūsanya (十三夜) and/or kuri meigestu (栗名月).

Ohigan and Crossing Over

Hi guys,

I had some free time recently and put together a small video about what Ohigan means and how it fits into Buddhist themes in general:

It is pretty short but talks about Shan-tao’s famous Parable of the Two Rivers among other things. Instead of just talking into a camera, I thought it would be more fun to use “slides”. It’s pretty low-tech, though.

Enjoy and Happy Ohigan!

The Thousand Character Poem

Hi guys,

Recently my family and I were watching another episode of the Korean family show Return of Superman (we watch every Sunday morning together), and in this episode the children stayed overnight at a traditional Korean, Confucian-style etiquette school called a seodang (서당, 書堂). According to Wikipedia, these villages existed in the Korean countryside during the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties so this is a historical recreation. I recommended watching the whole episode, it’s a great, but if you’re short on time, go to 26:50 or so. Also, click on “CC” in Youtube so you can see English subtitles.

During the first evening the children learn the first four characters of something called the “Thousand Character Classic”:

天玄地黄
Cheon ji hyeon hwang

The romanization above is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese characters.

Anyhow, I got confused because I assumed this was a four-character yojijukugo phrase, but I couldn’t find much information or a clear explantion of what it meant. Literally it means “Heaven is black, the Earth is yellow.” But that doesn’t make sense, right? I even looked it up in Japanese, but it just kept telling me it was the first line of a the Thousand Year Classic.

It turns out the Thousand Year Classic (千字文) is a special poem composed in the short-lived Liang Dynasty in China for the purposes of learning Chinese characters.1 The poem has a strongly Confucian theme, but each character in the poem is used only once, and they are neatly divided into 250 lines, 4 characters each. The idea was that practicing writing out this poem would give a student a solid foundation in the basics of Chinese calligraphy. Pretty clever. By the Song Dynasty, it was part of a trio of books used for literacy along with the Three Character Classic and the 100 Family Surnames. These were known as the S&257;n Bǎi Qiān 三百千 or “Three-Hundred-Thousand”. These formed the core of Chinese literacy education up until the modern period.

Anyhow, it’s a fascinating example of Confucian education even in modern times. ;)

P.S. I thought the teacher at the seodang school was great. He was good at teaching kids the “traditional way”, but behind his fierce demeanor, it’s clear he likes kids a lot. :)

1 The poem is called cheonjamun (천자문) in Korean and senjimon in Japanese (same
kanji).

Happy Day of the Chrysanthemum 2015

Hi Guys,

September 9th is the Day of the Chrysanthemum in traditional Japanese culture, one of the 5 sekku (節句) in calendar year.

To celebrate I wanted to share a couple poems about autumn chrysanthemums from the Kokin Wakashu poetry anthology. In the second a “Autumn” section, there are a surprising number of poems about chrysanthemums. Apparently it was a popular topic for courtiers in those days.

This poem, number 270 by Ki no Tomonori, captures the spirit of the Chrysanthemum Festival:

露ながら tsuyu nagara
折りてかざさん orite kazasan
菊の花 kiku no hana
老いせぬ秋の oisenu aki no
久しかるべく hisashikarubeku

Which Professor Rodd translates as:

To wear in my hair
I plucked a chrysanthemum
which dew still clinging
to it — oh may this present
autumn’s youth last forever.

And also poem 272, by Sugawara no Michizane (who later became the God of Learning):

秋風の akikaze no
吹上に立てる fukiage ni tateru
白菊は shiragiku wa
花かあらぬか hana ka aranu ka
浪の寄するか nami no yosuru ka

Which Professor Rodd translates as:

White chrysanthemums
standing in the rushing winds
on autumn beaches
at Fukiage — are they
blossoms, or are they breaking waves?

Have a fun, youthful Day of the Chrysanthemum and consider giving some of the ones you live. :)

Goodbye Summer

I found this delightful, anonymous poem from the Kokin Wakashu poetry anthology, number 172, that I wanted to share:

昨日こそ kinou koso
早苗取りしか sanae torishika
いつのまに itsu no ma ni
稲葉そよぎて inaba soyogite
秋風の吹く akikaze no fuku

Which is translated as:

“Only yesterday we filled the fields with young plants unaware of time and yet it has passed; rice leaves rustle in the autumn wind.”

For people in the US, have a restful Labor Day weekend!