Who are the Japanese? Where did they come from? What
are the origins of this unique people?
During the eighth century a scribe named Yasumaro
compiled—at the behest of the Empress—the oldest traditions
that had survived. He produced two books: the
Kojiki (“Records of Ancient Matters”) and the Nihongi
(“Chronicles of Japan”). These provide information about
the earliest days of the nation, and about its cosmological
In the beginning, we are told, the world was a watery
mass—a sea that surged in darkness. Over it hung the
Bridge of Heaven.
One day Izanagi and Izanami—brother-and-sister deities
—strolled onto the Bridge. They peered into the abyss
below. And Izanagi, wondering what was down there,
thrust his spear into the water. As he withdrew it, brine
dripped and congealed into a small island.
Izanagi and Izanami descended to the island. And they
decided to live there and produce a country.
They began by building a hut, with the spear as center
post. The next step was to get married. For a ceremony,
Izanagi suggested they walk in opposite directions around
the spear and meet on the other side. Izanami agreed. But
when they met, she said: “What a lovely young man you
Izanagi grew wrath. The male, he insisted, must always
be the first to speak. For Izanami to have done so was
improper and unlucky. So they walked around the spear for
a second time. “What a lovely maiden you are,” said Izanagi
as they met.
Now they were wed. And they coupled. And Izanami
gave birth to the islands of Japan…to the mountains and
plains, rivers and forests…to the gods and goddesses of
And they created a sun goddess—Amaterasu—and
placed her in the sky. For the islands needed a ruler. And
they created a moon god, to keep her company. But Amaterasu
and the moon god quarreled. So they decided to
separate the pair—one presiding over day, the other over
And they created a wind god, to dispel the mist that
shrouded the islands. And the islands emerged in splendor.
And Amaterasu shone upon them, and reigned as their
But a quarrel arose between Amaterasu and the storm
god. And in a pique, she withdrew into a cave—plunging
the islands into darkness. In consternation the gods and
goddesses assembled. They discussed how to entice Amaterasu
out of the cave. Finally, they came up with a plan.
A mirror was placed in the Sacred Tree. And a party was
held—a raucous affair of wine and song. Mounting an overturned
tub, the goddess of mirth performed an indecent
dance; and the others laughed uproariously at the sight.
Amaterasu peeked out of the cave to see what was going on.
“Why are you rejoicing?” she asked.
Someone pointed to the mirror, explaining that a goddess
more radiant than she had been found. Amaterasu stepped
out of the cave for a closer look. And as she gazed upon her
own radiance, they grabbed her and shut up the cave.
So Amaterasu resumed her place in the sky, illuminating
again the islands of Japan.
But the darkness had left disorder in its wake—had
allowed wicked spirits to run rampant. So Amaterasu sent
her grandson, Ninigi, to rule over the islands directly. As
symbols of authority, she gave him three things: her necklace,
a sword, and the mirror that had enticed her out of the
“Descend,” she commanded him, “and rule. And may
thy dynasty prosper and endure.”
Ninigi stepped from the Bridge of Heaven onto a mountaintop.
And he traveled throughout Japan, establishing his
rule over its gods and goddesses. And he wedded the goddess
of Mt. Fuji. But he offended her father, who laid a
curse upon their offspring:
Thy life shall be as brief as that of a flower.
And so was born man.
And Ninigi’s great-grandson was Jimmu Tennu, the first
Emperor of Japan. Jimmu conquered the islands, established
a form of government, and built the first capital. And
his dynasty would endure.*
This, then, is what the ancient chronicles tell us about
the origins of Japan. They go on to describe the doings of
the early emperors.
And the modern view? What do science and scholarship
have to say about those beginnings?
According to geologists, the Japanese islands rose from
the sea during the Paleozoic era—the result of volcanic
upheavals. And the Japanese people, according to ethnologists,
are the product of a series of migrations. Nomadic
Mongoloids came to the islands via Korea; seafaring Malays
arrived from the south. Eventually they intermingled.†
The Kojiki and Nihongi were written, historians tell us,
- It endures to the present day: the current Emperor is the
125th of the same lineage.
† That intermingling also included the Ainu (or Hairy Ainu, as
they were once known)—a Caucasian people who were the original
inhabitants of the islands. During historical memory the
Ainu retreated to eastern Honshu, then to the wilds of Hokkaido,
where a few thousand remain to this day. Many place names
are of Ainu origin.
with a political purpose. By the eighth century the Yamato
clan had imposed its rule over rival clans. To legitimize this
ascendency, the clan claimed for its ruler a divine origin—
an unbroken descent from the sun goddess. The scribe edited
his material accordingly. And much of that material
—the stories of gods and goddesses and early emperors—
derived from the tribal lore of the Yamato.
Thus, the chronicles are a fanciful mixture of myth and
history, fable and folklore. And the true origins of the
nation must remain obscure.
Or must they? There is a Chinese legend that could cast
some light on the question. It concerns a voyage of discovery
launched from China during the Ch’in dynasty.
Leading this expedition was Hsu Fu, a Taoist sage.
aim was to locate the fabled Islands of Immortality—with
their Elixir of Life—and settle them. Hsu Fu embarked
upon the Eastern Sea, we are told, with a fleet of ships;
3000 men and women; livestock, seeds, and tools. They
found the islands, but not the elixir. Deciding to stay anyhow,
they settled in the Mt. Fuji area—a colony that was
the nucleus of the Japanese people.*
- Hsu Fu would seem to have been a historical personage. His
tomb is located in the town of Shingu, along with a shrine in his
honor. The locals say he taught their ancestors the art of navigation.
The Chinese called them Jih-pen—the Place Where the
Sun Rises. To the inhabitants of the islands that became
Nippon, or Nihon. And an early emperor—viewing his
domain from a mountaintop and struck by its elongated
shape—dubbed it Akitsu-shima, or Dragonfly Island.
Peaks of a submerged mountain range, the islands form
a chain that stretches from Siberia to Taiwan. They are separated
from the mainland by the Sea of Japan, with its
strong currents. This barrier led to a physical and cultural
isolation, and a unique perspective. It produced a hermit
nation, for whom the dragonfly—with its eccentric beauty
—is an apt emblem.
The Japanese archipelago comprises thousands of
islands. Most of them are small; and it is the four main
islands—Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu—that
provide the nation with living space. Of these Honshu has
the largest population; while Hokkaido, in the north, is still
Japan is basically mountainous—three-quarters of its
terrain. These mountains are covered with forest and largely
uninhabited. The population is crowded into valleys,
coastal plains, and sprawling cities. Every inch of available
land is cultivated; and a bird’s-eye view reveals interlocking
contours of mountain, river, and field.
Swift and unnavigable, the rivers have played a minor
role in the settlement of the nation. Rather, it is the sea that
has shaped Japan—and fed her. (The Japanese consume a
tenth of the world’s ocean harvest.) The coastline meanders
endlessly (its total length approaching that of the equator);
and no cove or bay or inlet is without its fishing village.
- The last refuge of the Ainu, the northern island was originally
called Yezo, or Land of the Barbarians. It was renamed Hokkaido,
or Gateway to the Northern Sea, as a public relations ploy
to attract settlers.
Geologically, the islands are young and unstable, having
been thrust from the sea in relatively recent times. The
legacy of that upheaval is an abundance of hot springs, geysers,
volcanos (240 altogether, 36 of them active), and sulphurous
exhalations from deep within the earth. But the
most common reminder of Japan’s instability are earthquakes.
Daily occurrences, they are caused by movements
of the Pacific Plate beneath the islands.*
Subject to frequent natural disasters—earthquakes, tidal
waves, volcanic eruptions—and short on habitable space,
these islands would seem an unfortunate choice for settlement.
Yet they offer a compensation: ubiquitous scenic
beauty. One is never far from a breathtaking vista—of
mountains or sea or both. The farmer plants below a cloudcapped
peak. The traveler follows a winding mountain
road. The fisherman casts his net into a misty lagoon. And
the poet sighs at a crag with its lonely pine.
How this landscape has affected—has shaped—the
Japanese soul may only be guessed at by an outsider. Lafcadio
Hearn (see page 148) has attributed the artistic sensibility
of the Japanese to the mountains in whose shadow
It is the mists that make the magic of the backgrounds;
yet even without them there is a strange, wild, dark beauty
in Japanese landscapes, a beauty not easily defined in
words. The secret of it must be sought in the extraordinary
lines of the mountains, in the strangely abrupt crumpling
and jagging of the ranges; no two masses closely resembling
each other, every one having a fantasticality of its own.
When the chains reach to any considerable height, softly
swelling lines are rare: the general characteristic is abruptness,
and the charm is the charm of Irregularity.
Doubtless this weird Nature first inspired the Japanese
with their unique sense of the value of irregularity in decoration,—taught
them that single secret of composition
- Quakes were once attributed to the movements of a giant fish.
This creature was believed to be sleeping beneath Japan. From
time to time it would stir, striking the sea floor with its tail and
causing an earthquake. When it merely arched its back, the
result was a tidal wave.
which distinguishes their art from all other art.…that
Nature’s greatest charm is irregularity.
This most aesthetic of peoples does appreciate the charm
—as well as the sacredness—of its mountains. Indeed, its
unique insight may be that the two are mysteriously linked.
In ancient times the mountains of Japan were sacred
places. Their shrouded peaks were deemed a gateway to the
Other World; their wild recesses, the dwelling place of gods
and ghosts. They were revered, too, as a divine source of
water. The streams that flowed to the rice paddies below
were a gift from the goddess of the mountain. Few mountains
were without such a goddess, or a pair of shrines in her
honor (a small one near the summit; a more elaborate one
—for prayers and ceremonies—at the base). And adding
to the mystery of mountains were their sole inhabitants:
the yamabushi (“mountain hermits”). These ascetics were
reputed to possess magical powers, and to be in communication
with supernatural beings. They were sought out as
Today only a few mountains have retained their sacred
status. But one of them—a dormant volcano 60 miles north
of Tokyo—has become the subject of a national cult. It has
inherited the reverence once accorded to one’s local mountain.
I am referring, of course, to Mt. Fuji.
The high regard in which Fuji is held is suggested by the
characters used to represent its name. They signify “nottwo”—that
is, peerless, one-of-a-kind. The name itself
derives from Fuchi: the Ainu goddess of fire who inhabited
the volcano. One can imagine the awe inspired in the Ainu,
and in the Japanese who supplanted them, by a mountain
that spewed fire. And in its day, Fuji was fiery indeed.
Tradition has it that Mt. Fuji rose out of the ground—
amid smoke and fire—during an earthquake in the fifth
year of the Seventh Emperor Korei (286 B.C.). Geologists,
it is true, scoff at this account, insisting on a much earlier
formation. But there were witnesses. A woodsman named
Visu is said to have lived on the plain where the mountain
emerged. As he and his family were going to bed that night,
they heard a rumbling and felt their hut shake. Running
outside, they stared in amazement at the volcano that was
- The woodsman Visu was to become the Rip Van Winkle of
Fuji. It seems that witnessing the birth of the mountain left him
exceedingly pious—so much so that he did nothing but pray all
day, neglecting his livelihood and family. When his wife protested,
he grabbed his ax and stalked out of the house, shouting that
he would have nothing more to do with her.
Visu climbed into the wilds of Fuji. There he wandered about,
mumbling prayers and denouncing his wife. Suddenly he came
upon two aristocratic ladies, sitting by a stream and playing go.
He sat down beside them and watched, fascinated. They ignored
him, absorbed in their moves and caught up in what seemed an
endless game. All afternoon he watched, until one of the ladies
made a bad move. “Mistake!” he cried out—whereupon they
changed into foxes and ran off. Visu tried to chase after them,
but found, to his dismay, that his legs had become stiff. Moreover,
his beard had grown to several feet in length; and his ax
handle had dissolved into dust.
When able to walk again, Visu decided to leave the mountain
and return to his hut. But upon arriving at its site, he found both
hut and family gone. An old woman came walking by. He asked
her what had become of the hut and told her his name. “Visu?”
she said. “Impossible! That fellow lived around here 300 years
ago. Wandered off one day and was never seen again.”
Visu related what had happened; and the woman said he
rising out of the earth.*
Perhaps this account was inspired by a major eruption
that changed the shape of the mountain. For Fuji has erupted
frequently—eighteen times—in historical memory.
Each blast enhanced the supernatural awe in which the
mountain was held. On one occasion (in 865), a palace was
seen hovering in the flames. Another time precious gems
were reported to have spewed from the mountain. And a
luminous cloud was occasionally glimpsed above the crater.
It was believed to surround the goddess Sengen. Apparently
she hovered there and kept an eye out for any pilgrims to
the summit. Those deemed insufficiently pure of heart she
hurled back to earth.
The last eruption took place in 1707, adding a new hump
to the mountain and covering distant Edo (present-day
Tokyo) with a layer of ash. Fuji is now considered dormant.
But the geological underpinnings of Japan are unstable; and
one never knows. The fire goddess could return.*
Mt. Fuji (or Fujisan, as it is called) is an impressive sight.
Its bluish cone is capped with snow and mantled with
clouds. The highest mountain in Japan, it can be seen for
hundreds of miles. The Japanese are connoisseurs of this
view, which alters subtly, depending on the direction, distance,
weather, and light. With its unique shape, historical
associations, and mystic aura, Fuji has become the nation’s
It has also been a frequent subject for poets and painters.
The eighth-century poet Yamabe no Akahito wrote:
Of this peak with praises shall I ring
As long as I have any breath to sing.
900 years later Basho, gazing toward the mountain on a
- For a cinematic imagining of that return, see Godzilla vs.
Mothra (1964). As the monsters battle it out at the foot of Fuji,
the mountain suddenly erupts. Even Godzilla is taken aback.
deserved such a fate—for having neglected his family. Visu nodded
and looked contrite. “There is a lesson here,” he said. “All
prayer, no work: lifestyle of a jerk.”
He returned to the mountain and died soon thereafter.
It is said that his ghost appears on Fuji whenever the moon is
rainy day, composed a haiku:
Invisible in winter rain and mist
Still a joy is Fuji—to this Fujiist!
And Hokusai paid tribute to the mountain with a series
of color prints, in his 36 Views of Fuji.
Accepting these accolades with modesty has been Sengen,
the goddess of the mountain. She continues to reside
on Fuji, ready to hurl from its heights any unworthy pilgrim.
And pilgrims have continued to climb the mountain,
and to pray at shrines in the vicinity.
Of the origin of one of those shrines—built beneath a
tree in the village of Kamiide—a tale is told.
During the reign of Emperor Go Ichijo, the plague had
come to Kamiide. Among those afflicted was the mother of
a young man named Yosoji. Yosoji tried every sort of cure,
to no avail. Finally he went to see Kamo, a yamabushi who
lived at the foot of Fuji.
Kamo told him of a spring on the lower slope of the
mountain. Of divine origin, its waters were curative. But
getting to this spring was dangerous, said Kamo. The path
was rough and steep; the forest, full of beasts and demons.
One might not return, he warned.
But Yosoji got a jar and set out in search of the spring.
Surrounded by the gloomy depths of the forest, he trudged
up the path. The climb was strenuous. But he pressed on,
determined to obtain water from the spring.
In a glade the path branched off in several directions.
Yosoji halted, unsure of the way. As he deliberated, a maiden
emerged from the forest. Her long hair tumbled over a
white robe. Her eyes were bright and lively. She asked Yosoji
what had brought him to the mountain. When he told
her, she offered to guide him to the spring.
Together they climbed on. How fortunate I am, thought
Yosoji, to have encountered this maiden. And how lovely she is.
The path took a sharp turn. And there was the spring,
gushing from a cleft in a rock.
“Drink,” said the maiden, “to protect yourself from the
plague. And fill your jar, that your mother may be cured.
But hurry. It is not safe to be on the mountain after dark.”
Yosoji fell to his knees and drank and filled the jar. Then
the maiden escorted him back to the glade. Instructing him
to return in three days for more water, she slipped away into
Three days later he returned to the glade, to find the
maiden awaiting him. As they climbed to the spring, they
chatted. And he found himself taken with her beauty—her
graceful gait—her melodious voice.
“What is your name?” he asked. “Where do you live?”
“Such things you need not know.”
He filled his jar at the spring. And she told him to keep
coming for water until his mother was fully recovered. Also,
he was to give water to others in the village who were ill.
He did as she said. And it was not long before everyone
had recovered from the plague. Grateful to Kamo for his
advice, the villagers filled a bag with gifts. Yosoji delivered
it to the yamabushi.
And he was about to return home, when it occurred to
him that the maiden—whose identity he was still curious
to learn—needed to be thanked, too. Nor would it be amiss
to offer prayers at the spring. So once again Yosoji climbed
This time she was not waiting in the glade. But he knew
the way and continued on alone. Through the foliage he
caught glimpses of the summit of Fuji and the clouds that
surrounded it. Arriving at the spring, he bowed in prayer.
A shadow appeared beside him. Yosoji turned and gazed
upon the maiden. They looked into each other’s eyes; and
her beauty thrilled him more than ever.
“Why have you returned?” she said. “Have not all recovered?”
“They have. I am here simply to thank you for your help.
And to ask again your name.”
“You earned my help, through your bravery and devotion.
As to who I am.…”
She smiled and waved a camellia branch, as if beckoning
to the sky. And from the clouds that hung about Fuji came
a mist. It descended on the maiden and enveloped her.
Yosoji began to weep. For he realized that this was Sengen,
the goddess of the mountain. And he realized, too, that
he had returned not merely to express his gratitude. Nor to
satisfy his curiosity. Nor to pray. But to gaze upon the maiden
with whom he had fallen in love.
Sengen rose into the air, the mist swirling about her. And
dropping the camellia branch at his feet—a token of her
love for him—she disappeared into the clouds.
Yosoji picked up the branch and returned with it to
Kamiide. He planted and tended it. And it grew into a great
tree, beneath which the villagers built a shrine.
The tree and shrine exist to this day. The dew from the
leaves of the tree is said to be an effective cure for eye ailments.
To the bewilderment of Westerners, a Japanese may
adhere to several religions. Generally, these are Buddhism,
Confucianism, and Shinto. Each has a province in the life
of the individual. Buddhism focuses on death and the soul’s
future. Confucianism is concerned with ethics and social
matters. And Shinto—an ancient faith indigenous to Japan
—oversees daily life.
In examining Shinto, we may become further confounded.
For it does not conform to our expectations for a religion.
It has no hierarchy, theology, or founder—no sacred
scriptures (although theKojiki andNihongi serve as authoritative
sources for many of its traditions) or Supreme Deity.
And while Shinto translates as “the way of the gods,” it
offers scant information about those gods. What it does provide
is a way of connecting with them—an elaborate set of
rituals and folkways with which to access the divine.
That is to say, to commune with the kami.
What arethe kami? They are the native gods—the sacred
spirits—the supernatural powers—of Japan. Taking their
name from a word meaning “above” or “superior,” they are
the forces that matter. They are the arbiters of destiny, and
are worshiped as such. A Shintoist prays and makes offerings
to the kami. He seeks to please and obey them. They
are the ultimate sources of good and ill—spiritual forces
that to ignore or offend would be folly.
Reckoning with them, however, is no simple matter. For
the number of kami is endless—myriad upon myriad of
them—and their form diverse. The most common type are
nature spirits. These inhabit notable features of the landscape.
A cave, mountain, island, giant tree, junction of
rivers, deep forest, secluded pond, rock with a curious shape
—any of these are likely to harbor a kami. Also having a
kami are natural phenomena such as winds and storms. An
unusual animal may have one. In short, anything that
inspires awe or mystery may be possessed of a kami, and
must be dealt with accordingly.
Yet not all kami are associated with nature. A particular
territory (or the clan that occupies it) may have its kami—
its guardian spirit. An occupation, sphere of activity, or special
problem may have one, protecting or aiding those who
call upon it. There is, for instance, a kami for healing; one
for help in exams; one for fertility; one for defense against
insects; one for irrigation. A number of these were once
living persons. For a kami can be some great personage of
the past—a saint, a shogun, a scholar—who was deified
upon his death.*
Finally, there are kami that resemble the gods of Greek
and Roman mythology. The foremost among them is Amaterasu,
the sun goddess, who rules over heaven and earth.
Unlike most kami, this group has distinctly human characteristics.†
The kami, then, are the supernatural forces to which one
turns when in need. And how does one do that? How does
one establish contact with a kami? How does one enter into
its presence and seek its aid?
By visiting a shrine.
There are more than 80,000 shrines in Japan. Each provides
a dwelling place for a particular kami. One goes there
to pray or worship or renew oneself; to celebrate a birth or
marriage; or simply to experience awe and mystery. Standing
in front of a shrine, the poet Saigyo remarked: “I know
not what lies within, but my eyes are filled with tears of
A typical shrine will be located in a grove of trees. This
may be the scene of the kami’s original manifestation, or
simply a pleasing locale—a quiet, isolated site conducive to
- The ordinary dead also were important in the Shinto scheme
of things. Their function has been taken over, however, by Buddhism.
See “Festival of the Dead.”
† These gods and goddesses reside at their respective shrines,
scattered throughout the country. But once a year they gather for
a conference at the ancient Shrine of Izumo. The main order of
business is to arrange marriages for the coming year. The conference
lasts for most of October. So October is known as the month
without gods: absent from their shrines, they are unavailable for
a spiritual experience. A sakaki (the sacred tree) may grow
nearby. A spring may gush from the earth. The natural surroundings
are important, and are considered part of the
Important too is the approach to a shrine. The path leads
through an arch called a torii. (The word means “bird
perch.”) The torii serves as gateway to the sacred precincts.
Passing through it, one begins to feel the presence of the
divine. The mundane world has been left behind.
The sanctuary itself is a simple building—unpretentious
yet elegant. It is old and made of wood (to harmonize with
the surrounding trees). Guarding its entrance may be a pair
of stone lions. Out front are colored streamers (to attract the
kami); a water basin; and a box for offerings. But the key
element is kept in the inner sanctum, where only the priest
may enter. It is an object called the shintai—generally a
mirror, jewel, or sword. In this sacred object resides the kami.
Without it the shrine would be an ordinary place. With it
- In cities shrines are sometimes built on the roofs of office
buildings. Yet it was deemed crucial that they retain a connection
with the spirit of the earth. The solution has been to run a soilfilled
pipe between the shrine and the ground.
the site is sanctified.*
No regular services are held at a shrine. Instead, worshipers
come when they feel the need. They begin by kneeling
at the basin and washing their hands and mouth. This
purification rite (known as misogi) is fundamental to Shinto,
which sees man in terms of pure and impure rather than
good and evil. One cannot connect with a kami unless spiritually
purified—cleansed of polluting influences—rid of
unclean spirits. In ancient times purification involved
immersion in a lake, river, or waterfall. The rite has been
simplified, but remains essential.†
After ablution, one bows and claps twice. The claps
attract the attention of the kami. (A bell may also be rung.)
One then drops a coin in the box, and offers a silent prayer
—communes with the kami. One may pray for health, fertility,
a good harvest, protection from fire or flood. It is also
customary to inscribe a prayer on a wooden tablet. Finally
one stops at a stall on the grounds and makes a purchase:
an amulet, a slip of paper with a fortune on it, or an artifact
for one’s kamidana.**
At least one priest resides at any sizeable shrine. But
unless it is a special occasion or time of day, the worshipers
will have no contact with him. For the Shinto priest con-
- For anyone other than a priest to gaze upon the shintai would
be an impious act. A certain Lord Naomasu once visited the
Shrine of Izumo and demanded to be shown its sacred object.
The priests protested; but Naomasu forced them to open the
inner sanctum. Revealed was a large abalone, its bulk concealing
the shintai. Naomasu came closer—whereupon the abalone
transformed itself into a giant snake and hissed menacingly.
Naomasu fled, and never again trifled with a god.
† According to the Kojiki, ritual purification originated with
the gods. When Izanami died and went to the Underworld, Izanagi
followed her there. He unwisely gazed upon her and became
polluted. To restore himself, he hurried home and engaged in
water purification. The rite was passed down to men.
** The kamidana (“god shelf”) is a small shrine found in traditional
households. It contains talismans (one for Amaterasu,
another for the local kami); memorial tablets for one’s ancestors;
and offerings such as sake, rice, or cakes. Domestic prayers are
recited at the kamidana.
ducts no service, delivers no sermon, offers no sage advice.
He is solely a ritualist—a mediator between kami and worshiper.
His duties include the recital of prayers, the performance
of rites, and the overseeing of offerings. Garbed in
headdress and robe, he blesses infants and performs marriages.
And, of course, he presides over the annual matsuri, or
Many shrines are the focus of an elaborate festival. Held
in honor of the kami, these festivals go back centuries.
Their origins are diverse. Some began as a plea to the kami
for protection—against plague, enemy, earthquake. Or as
propitiation for an abundant harvest. Or as thanks for a
boon bestowed on the community. Others commemorate
some historical incident—a military victory, say. Others
simply pay homage to the kami.
Such festivals evolved locally. So each acquired its own
theme and imagery. There is a Sacred Post Festival, Whale
Festival, Welcoming the Rice Kami Festival, Laughing Festival,
Open Fan Festival, Spear Festival, Dummy Festival,
Sacred Ball Catching Festival, Lantern Festival, Umbrella
Festival, Ship Festival, Kite Flying Festival, Fire Festival,
Rock Gathering Festival, Naked Festival—and hundreds
more. But for all their individuality, Japan’s festivals share
the same set of rituals. And all have the same aim: to renew
the bond between kami and worshipers.
A festival takes place throughout town. But it begins at
the shrine. The sanctuary has been specially decorated with
flowers, banners, and streamers. Elsewhere on the grounds
the priests have been preparing themselves: bathing repeatedly
and abstaining from certain acts. They gather now at
the sanctuary, along with a select group of laymen, and conduct
a purification ceremony.
Then priests and laymen approach the inner sanctum
and prostrate themselves at the door. Sacred music is
played; an eerie chant is intoned; and the door is opened.
Revealed is the shintai—the mirror, sword, or jewel in
which the kami resides.
An offering of food or sake is brought forward: an invitation
to the kami to attend the festival. The door is closed;
and the group adjourns to a banquet hall. There they hold
a sacred feast, which begins with a ritual sipping of sake.
But the event soon becomes more informal—and the sake
flows. Guests of the kami, they commune with it in a joyful
Now comes the high point of the festival: the procession.
Priests and laymen return to the sanctuary, bringing with
them the mikoshi, or sacred palanquin. The mikoshi is a
miniature shrine attached to poles. It is ornate, gilded, and
hung with bells. Atop it is a bronze hoo.*
Again the inner sanctum is opened. And in a solemn ritual,
the kami is transferred to a substitute shintai inside the
mikoshi. Here it will reside for the duration of the festival.
Hoisting the mikoshi onto their shoulders, the laymen—
directed by the priests—begin the procession. The idea is
to transport the kami throughout the town, that it may
bestow its blessings upon all. Exhilarated by the nature of
the occasion (and having drunk large amounts of sake), the
laymen dance and reel and sing as they go.
But the mikoshi bearers are only the vanguard of a larger
procession. For they are soon joined by a collection of floats.
On these wagons are giant figures—dragons, fish, samurai—that
have been crafted from paper; historical tableaux;
displays of flowers; and costumed maidens, dancers, and
musicians. To the beat of drums, the procession winds
through the streets.
Lining the route are local residents and visitors. These
festival-goers have also been enjoying puppet plays, game
booths, fortunetelling birds, sumo bouts, tug-of-war
matches, exhibitions of classical dance. They have been
buying toys, amulets, sake, snacks. Such amusements are
considered an offering to the kami. As the crowd eats,
drinks, and socializes, a rare loosening of restraints is
allowed—a dispensation from the kami. The bond between
kami and worshipers is being renewed; and it is a joyful
Also being renewed is a sense of community. For the fes-
- The hoo is the legendary phoenix of the Orient. It is said to
appear in a country only when a wise king rules.
tival serves to bring together the local parishioners. (Even
those who have moved away return to their hometown for
its annual festival.) They have gathered to receive the blessing
of the kami—to pray for health and prosperity—to celebrate
their solidarity as a group.
Among those present are a growing number of persons
who have abandoned Shinto—who view it as an outmoded
set of superstitions. They have come for the carnival; and
they smile tolerantly upon the religious aspects of the festival.
Yet as modern-minded as they are, they find themselves
affected by the aura of mystery that hovers about the mikoshi.
By the transcendental gleam of the sacred palanquin.
By the power of the kami as it passes among them.
A thousand years after the Indian prince Gautama had
become the Buddha—the Enlightened One—while sitting
under a bo tree, Buddhism (the codification and elaboration
of his teachings) reached China and Japan. There it
flowered into a number of sects. One of these—known in
China as Ch’an (“meditation”) Buddhism, and in Japan as
Zen—was to be a major influence on Japanese civilization.*
What is Zen? The question can be a dangerous one, as
novice monks in Zen monasteries can attest. Putting it to
their Master, many have been answered with a slap, kick,
or bop on the head. The luckier ones were answered nonsensically,
told to go chop wood, or called “Blockhead!”
Those who persevered have spent years trying to comprehend
the nature of Zen—sometimes succeeding, sometimes
not. What they have never succeeded in doing, however,
has been to get a straight answer from their Master.
“What is the fundamental teaching of the Buddha?”
asked one monk. “There’s enough breeze in this fan to keep
me cool,” replied his Master.
- The founder of the Zen sect was Bodhidharma, an Indian
monk who had wandered into China. Legend has it that Bodhidharma
was summoned to the palace at Nanking, and brought
before Emperor Wu. A fervid supporter of Buddhism, the
Emperor boasted of his accomplishments in behalf of the faith—
building temples, copying scriptures, securing converts—and
asked what his reward would be, in this world and the next. No
reward whatsoever, said Bodhidharma. Frowning, the Emperor
asked what the basic principle of Buddhism was. Nothingness,
vast nothingness, said the monk. Taken aback by these puzzling
replies, the Emperor asked: “Who are you, anyhow?” “No idea,”
Departing the palace, Bodhidharma made his way to a cavetemple
in the mountains. There he sat in meditation for nine
years, staring at a wall. As his followers grew in number, Zen
Buddhism was born.
“What is the Buddha?” asked another monk. His Master
replied: “I can play the drum. Boom-boom. Boomboom.”
What is going on here? What sort of religion is this? And
who are these so-called Masters—these antic churls, so
enamored of absurdities and seemingly indifferent to the
progress of their pupils?
The answer is that they are the eloquent spokesmen of a
worthy tradition. But that tradition has charged them with
a difficult task; and in seeking to perform it, they often
resemble slapstick comedians.
That task isthe communication of the ineffable. The teaching
of a truth that cannot be expounded. The imparting of
a Higher Knowledge that is beyond words. For such (in a
few useless words) is the aim of Zen.
Now a quest for enlightenment is not unique to Zen.
denominations of Buddhism seek to understand the Universe,
and to enter into a harmonious relationship with it.
To that end they have employed both intellectual and ceremonial
means. In the temples and monasteries of the Buddhist
world, logical discourse has flourished. Elaborate rituals
have evolved. Endless volumes of theology have been
written, circulated, and diligently perused.
But Zen alone has disdained such activity—in favor of
an intuitive approach.
Learn to see with the inner eye, Zen urges seekers of
enlightenment. Forsake reason, logical discourse, and books
(and while you’re at it, toss in dogma, ceremony, and icons).
For a keener faculty than the intellect is available to you.
There is a direct route to the Highest Truth—to the vital
spirit of the Buddha. And that is via intuition. Via the
heart, not the mind.*
- Westerners may find it difficult to conceive of a non-rationalistic
mode of philosophizing. The story is told of the abbot of a
Zen monastery who gave to an American a gift of two dolls. One
doll was a Daruma (the Japanese name for Bodhidharma). Daruma
dolls are weighted at their base, the abbot explained. Pushed
over, they spring back up. But the second doll was weighted in
the head—pushed over, it stayed down.
“It represents Westerners,” said the abbot, “with their top-
What Zen offers is a “hands-on” brand of enlightenment
—a moment of perception—an experience of the Highest
Truth. And it calls that experiencesatori.