Incense in Japan is unique, due to it's place within the country's culture. Primarily, it is known for its religious and meditative purposes, but in Japan, incense is an everyday enjoyment, with its own distinctive lore. Important eras in Japanese history are not known by their religious associations as much as they are remembered by their stories, folklore, and entertainment. Incense as entertainment is quite Japanese. Yesterday we learned about the incense game
, but the amount of stories, romances, and cultural connotations associated with incense are perhaps its best-known contribution to Japanese culture.
I realise that I explained my interest in starting this Year of the Snake in my journal with incense was due to an attempt on my part to not talk about yōkai all the time. After all, there is so much more to Japanese culture that it's unfair to focus primarily on only one obscure facet of entertainment. Lafcadio Hearn is known as "the ghost story guy" and I'm known as "the guy who writes absurdly long-winded dissertations on a gift he received once," but obviously I can't just ignore the sheer amount of stories and superstitions about incense from Japan.
If you want to get technical (which I do), today's stories are not specifically yōkai stories (though one of them features artwork by Sekien, which is usually a good indicator that it is), nor are they just fairy tales, folklore, or superstitions. They have become so commonplace that, in fact, many of the original stories have been forgotten, and only the names and actions associated with them remain. So let's delve into the background of Japanese incense lore.( In Which Much Is Owed to Koizumi YakumoCollapse )
While my previous entries have stressed the Buddhist influence and religious usage of incense in Japan, this is misleading. These factors have greatly led to the spread of incense, but the reason it is so predominant in Japan is because of Japanese culture, and Japanese culture being what it is, incense truly became what it is today due to our fascination with interesting things which could be made into a hobby. The reason why incense in Japan is different from incense anywhere else is because of it's hobby-like collection and lighting, but also by its use in folklore (see tomorrow's entry) and in recreational games. After its initial introduction with Buddhism, incense quickly became a fun and relaxing thing, rising to a point of obsession in both the Heian and Sengoku period, where beauty and refined practices flourished.
It's true, I glossed over the Heian period's point in incense history. In all honesty, I was hoping to put off this entry, because... the Heian Period
Yes, the Heian period, world leader in all things needlessly over-the-top and pretentious. If you thought my devoting a week to discussing how a glorified air freshener changed Japan, the ideology of the Heian period would completely astound and infuriate you in its ostentatious obsessions to the point of making you weep. And then you would feel even worse, because weeping at the overwhelming grandeur of something was a popular sport in the Heian period, and akin to having a really good sexual experience. Dudes everywhere in the Heian period hoped to be moved to tears by how beautiful and sad something was. I cannot express to you how much I'm dreading getting to the point of this.
So, in Japan, we have a few cultural activities that are seen as traditional and classy to the point of elevating the status of its practitioners. Most familiar in the West would be the Way of Tea (incorrectly translated as Tea Ceremony). Perhaps lesser known, but just as significant to those discerning enough to master it, is Ikebana, the art of artful flower arrangement in an artful manner. Most people tolerate them as the beautiful but deceptively difficult to the point of extremism practices to master. The amount of training and subtleties and things you have to remember and do in Tea and Flowers would blow your mind
The third classical art is something I don't think many people outside of Japan are familiar with. Granted, many people inside of Japan are also unfamiliar with it, but this is the art of Incense. No, not making incense. I appreciate you going along with me when I said how difficult it is to make tea and arrange flowers, because even someone with a rudimentary understanding of the terms could see that, if it costs that
much and takes that
much time, there is clearly something
difficult you're trying to learn to master. The art of Incense, otherwise known as Kōdō, (香道), is the art of sniffing incense.
And no, it's not a drug thing. It's a fancy thing.( In Which the Most Dangerous Game Is ManCollapse )
I suppose, then, that my explanation of how incense appears in Japanese folklore would be frowned upon. So, I'll see you tomorrow, along with the conclusion of incense and its place in Japanese culture!!
So yesterday we learned how incense is used in Buddhism. But not everyone in Japan is Buddhist. The vast majority of Japanese people would say that they aren't religious at all. So how do they use incense?
There's a saying in Japan; "Live Shinto, die Buddhist." It's true, the predominant religion in Japan is Buddhism, and so unless you are specifically devoted to another religion, most Japanese have a Buddhist funeral. But what's all this about living Shinto? Shinto is not widely practiced in Japan as a religion. I may have mentioned before how I identify myself as a follower of the Shinto religion, but I'm in the extreme minority.
Shinto is interpreted in one of two ways: first, it is a set of values indigenous to Japan, which can be traced back to prehistoric times as a series of beliefs and rituals in farming villages and tribes. Basically, it is the Japanese code of ethics. The second interpretation of Shinto as a formal religion is an extremely new concept, and it only became known as a religion in the first place in order to differentiate it from Buddhism and Buddhist practice as it was being imported. There are now several different sects of Shinto with their own belief systems and prescribed rituals, mostly organized once again to differentiate and explain in relation to the importation of Western ideas. Putting labels on Shinto beyond this becomes extremely difficult.
Everyone in Japan, be they an extremely old mountain-dwelling priest who has devoted his life to the kami, to a tourist from the American Midwest who arrived in Tokyo yesterday, "practices" Shinto. Everyone.
Shinto, in its earliest forms, has a relatively simple concept: if you think it's something good to do, and it doesn't disturb others, do it! Accordingly, there are countless varieties of Shinto beliefs, ritual, art, and action as new religions and ideas are imported, because when it comes to Shinto, if you personally like that idea, it's now a part of your belief system. One could study Shinto as a religion for years and take many notes on my upcoming books about the history, ideology, and beliefs of Shintoism, but for the most part, Shinto of the first variety in day-to-day life is not considered a religion. The official Shinto religion has its own rules, but its core beliefs have permeated Japanese culture, and this is why I say that everyone practices it. Some of these concepts are well-known outside of Japan, though the meaning and reasoning behind the rituals may not be explicitly stated. When you enter someone's home, you take off your shoes. Before you go into an onsen, you wash yourself off. You have to sign a contract not to disturb neighbors with excessive noise before renting an apartment. Origami and wearing traditional Japanese clothing challenge you to adapt yourself to the material without cutting it. These things may seem obvious, or just a part of Japanese culture in general, and that's because they are. It's not Shintoism anymore, though the principles can be traced back to some form of it if you really wanted to. Shinto is known as an action religion: unless you specifically intend your ritual as a form or worship, it falls into the Japanese ethical code.
Shintoism is so dubious to pin down exactly because it embraces everything. When Buddhism became popular, the elements of Buddhism that appealed to those of the Shinto faith were adopted, and when Taoism and Confucianism came, certain ideas were also taken and added to Shinto. You can be Shinto and still follow a different religion, as long as it makes you happy and you show respect to Japan and to others. Shinto as an actual religion is not as prevalent or all-encompassing in any form. Which is when a friend of mine gifted me with some incense, then learned about its associations with death, she suddenly worried that I would be offended. So, from a strictly religious standpoint, how does Shinto view incense?
It's bad. Very bad. Sorry, Lucy!
As I mentioned before, Shinto as a religion with a set belief system is a rather new concept which arises when something big, like Buddhism or Western influence, is imported into Japan. It's only a defense mechanism for differentiation. When Buddhism first came to Japan, and its strict rules forbade certain practices people happened to do every day, those practices fell under the "indigenous religion" umbrella. As for the "Live Shinto, die Buddhist" mantra, this reinforces the fact that everyone still follows the cultural beliefs that originated in Shinto, but when it comes to death, that's left to Buddhism. Whether or not you choose to follow Buddhism in order to achieve certain things in life and after death is your own decision, but regardless, you will most likely have a Buddhist funeral. This is because Shinto doesn't really have any belief in the afterlife, or funerary procedure. So when Buddhism first came to Japan, the village leaders who had been acting as Shinto priests said "That's great, up until now we've just been sprinkling salt on everything and burying people in huge mounds because it seemed the right thing to do!" Even people who were devoutly Shinto or totally unaware of Buddhism got a Buddhist funeral, because there was really no other way to dispose of a dead body in accordance with any sort of religious doctrine. The fact that Buddhism had several was one of the many other aspects of Buddhism adapted into Japanese daily life. Death, according to Shinto, is the ultimate source of uncleanliness, which is one of the biggest (and only) taboos in the religious practice. Also, once one was dead, that person's soul was no longer present living in Japan or serving the kami (gods/deities of Japan and nature), so it didn't apply to the religious aspects, either. With Buddhism, people who were Shinto now had someone (namely, a Buddhist priest) who would take the polluted dead body away and purify it in accordance with his own beliefs. Problem solved.
Unfortunately, Buddhism became so popular, and many of its ideas seemed to coincide with the beliefs of those who practiced Shinto religiously, that it was often nearly impossible to tell the two religions apart. Someone who casually practiced Shinto, or wasn't necessarily religious at all, could go about his day as he saw fit, taking something from here, doing something from there, and all was well. Those who devoutly believed the teachings of Shinto, worshiped the kami, and depended on the community to support the Shinto shrine, suddenly saw the whole thing done up like a Buddhist temple, complete with the worship of Buddhas who had now become synonymous with certain kami. So once again, a formal set of rules and regulations were drawn up to separate Shintoism from Buddhism.
Somewhere, the idea of incense representing the dead resulted in incense being viewed as unclean, and it was banned from use in Shinto homes. After all, death is unclean, and disturbing others is disrespectful, and what is incense but a tool of the dead in Buddhism which emanates smells that other people may not like to smell? It had been firmly stated by chieftains millennia ago that smoking meat and disposing of bodies with a Shinto village downwind was a surefire way to completely desecrate everything. So incense was outlawed and even accredited with being pleasing and attractive in scent to demons, and an affront and exorciser of kami from your home, which is the exact opposite of everything you're supposed to be doing as a practitioner of Shinto. So says Lafcadio Hearn.
It is worth noting that, even during the time of State Shinto, there was still no set belief system. State Shinto was originally integrated as one of many different ways to provide solidarity and order for Japanese people after the country's period of isolation ended. After WWII, many beliefs and actions were misconstrued and used to cast Shinto in a bad light. However, Shinto only returned to its roots as less of a religion and more as a gentle reminder of how to live and respect yourself, your community, and your home country. The idea of doing whatever you want as long as you didn't disturb anybody was once more the driving force behind religious action, and some people went on to say that they quite enjoyed the calming scent and effects of incense, and therefore, the kami in their home and village must also enjoy it, and it could be used to drive demons away because they dislike good things enjoyed by kami, which you may recognize as the exact opposite of what was once believed.
I think that Shinto at its base is a simple religion that asks very little of its practitioners. While there have been instances when it has been misconstrued, I believe that this happens in all religions, political factions, and cultures simply due to the imperfection of man. After all, if man was perfect, he would have no need for religion. The core values of Shinto teach us to accept these imperfections, but also trust that man can be inherently good. You should know what makes you happy, and any fighting or extremism or need to convert others is at odds with the beliefs of Shinto. If you choose to follow the rituals and devote your lives to the kami, you can, as long as it's making you happy. You can even choose to be a Catholic, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, atheist, or anything else you can think of, or nothing at all, but still respect the beliefs or practices of Shintoism, as there is no need to identify your actions or feelings on a religious level. It's extremely low-maintenance.
So unless you are a member of a religious Shinto sect wherein incense is banned, you're free to enjoy incense around your home if you want to.
Personally, I enjoy any incense that smells like moss.
At last we arrive at the origin of incense's presence in Japan: Buddhism. I mentioned before that much of incense's introduction within Japanese culture owed to it being sent over by Buddhist monks, and likewise, it is used in many aspects of Buddhism. Japan does have a unique relationship with it, however, which I will briefly go into today. While my own research and translation is in no way as skillful and effective as Hearn's, I do have pictures.( In Which There Are Helpful and Instructional PicturesCollapse )
That concludes some of the most well-known uses of incense relating to Buddhism. However, not everyone in Japan is Buddhist. Tomorrow, I'll explain how incense is used by practitioners of Shinto, in addition to those who follow other religions, or those who follow none at all.
There are many different varieties of incense used in Japan, which you may not be familiar with. Once again, this area of interest was completely ignored by Lafcadio Hearn, and probably for very good reasons, but I still think the diversity in types of incense sold in Japan is pretty unique, especially because I've never seen many of them outside of the country, and in fact, most traditional shops that pride themselves on their incense selection or sell incense exclusively usually put out a little pamphlet detailing the assortments, history, and usage of the different types, so apparently this information is particularly riveting to somebody
. Enjoy the knowledge!( In Which You Can Also Learn About the Types of Artistic Pictures of Incense that People Like to TakeCollapse )
So those are some of the most common forms of incense in Japan. Of course, there are many other types I haven't gone into, notably those used for religious purposes. These, of course, deserve their own entry, as it was the form and reason why incense was brought to Japan in the first place. So please look forward to tomorrow's entry, which will focus on one of the most prevalent uses for incense in Japanese culture: Buddhism.
For today's entry, beginning a series on how incense (香, kō) is used in Japan, I think I should first give a bit of information on the history of incense. A brief history, you will be pleased to know.
While Lafcadio Hearn didn't much approach the history of incense and its introduction to Japan in his writings, I think it's a pretty interesting glimpse into something not generally discussed or thought about in history. How and why something was introduced and how and why it managed to hold on instead of fade into obscurity tells us a lot about the culture(s) involved and is often overlooked in favour of attempting to memorise dates without any real understanding of what it all means. Yes, I am
that annoying kid in history class who keeps asking questions that have nothing to do with the lecture or the test, because I want to know why
. Yes, I am aware that I'm going to be discussing something I researched that even an anthropological author from the 1800's didn't care to include. Why in the world would anyone care? Well, why the hell not?
First of all, what do you know about incense? Growing up in America, my experience has been that (most) people think of it as something that you light to make your room smell, but not as well as a scented candle would. Or it's used in the Catholic religion for purposes unknown to me which makes the temple smell. This smell, according to roughly 75% of the people I ask, is not a good smell. Some people, however, think it is a wonderful smell, but these people are almost exclusively interested in Asia, Buddhism, and/or pot. So there's that.
I think incense smells wonderful. Unless it's really bad, cheap, pseudo-incense, and then yes, the stench is quite awful. You can get 500 sticks for like a dollar at the Oriental Vogue store at the mall, please don't get the "sensual dream incense" in the home goods section of Wal-Mart. Of course, there are much more expensive types and brands which are worth it if you know what you're looking for, so let me give you a little context so that you too will know about how Japanese incense originated.
While Japan had for the most part used a fragrant wood called aloeswood or agarwood (沈香, jinkō) for whatever purpose it was required, incense was introduced along with the importation of Buddhism (more on that later). Buddhism, clothing, culture, writing, and all sorts of vogues were brought in from China and eagerly copied by the Japanese nobility. While the concept of incense was known to the Japanese, an early record from 551 which notes a king from the Kudara kingdom in Korea sent an envoy bearing Buddhist sutras, icons, paraphernalia, and actual incense. During this time, incense was used exclusively for Buddhist rituals.
Much of the incense was then imported from China, as knowledge pertaining to the usage of incense in Buddhist ritual increased, and for some time, from India, where Buddhism originated, and the distinct smell of Indian incense enjoyed a brief popularity. Shortly after, a Chinese monk by the name of Ganjin traveled to Japan and brought with him the technique of blending woods to create incense. Incense appreciation became more widespread as more than a solely Buddhist tool, and what we now consider Japanese incense was born.
Eventually, the spread of Buddhism was so profound that those in power felt that the influence of China, Buddhism, and Buddhist monks were threatening to Japanese culture, and shifted the capital from Nara to Heian-kyo, a period of insanity that would use incense for its own insane purposes and so deserves its own entry which you may look forward to later in the week.
Predictably, the fervent beauty-worship of the Heian Period had reached the point of dangerous over-saturation, and plunged the country into a state of civil war. That's honestly true. But you may recall that, during this Sengoku Period, high refinement and arts were practiced by samurai and their daimyō lords. The chaos and uncertainty of the times, where you could be promoted to the lord's assistant one day and have your eye gouged out and your arm torn off and get stuck in a cell to rot until you go insane the next (第三の影武者 Daisan no Kagemusha
is a great movie), left many warriors in search of some kind of respite from it all, or a temporary time to feel peaceful. I think I've mentioned before how Zen and studying the Way of Tea became a near obsession with men of this time.
You may recall the way that the "frightening" and "awful" Demon Lord Oda Nobunaga
became a great enthusiast of the Way of Tea, collected many fine sets of implements, and hosted tea gatherings for his high-ranking soldiers to come and enjoy. Nobunaga's successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, also became a Tea fanatic, and also inherited his tea master Sen no Rikyu, the man who would make chanoyu what it is today, and their relationship became absolutely crucial in Hideyoshi's life, up until Hideyoshi decided for some unknown reason that Sen no Rikyu must die and had him kill himself. But anyway, doing Tea, studying calligraphy and art, and being around anything that gave off the Zen feeling of peace and tranquility became a must for everyone dealing with the stresses and horrors of war.
Incense was just such a hobby, and Oda Nobunaga was a notable fan of that as well, and is recorded to have received specially-cut pieces of wood to blend with different types of ingredients to make Japanese incense for his own amusement.
Shortly after this, in about 1600, and unlucky for Nobunaga, as he'd just died, a new type of incense was brought over from China: stick incense (線香, senk
ō). This is the type of incense most people are familiar with, and for good reason. Stick incense was affordable (unless you got a type made of extremely rare ingredients), and many common people were now able to purchase and enjoy the smell and endorphin-releasing benefits of lit incense in their own homes.
A curious trend also showed up in Japan's red-light districts. Many of the courtesans in the nicer houses of ill repute would require a payment of whatever their fee was in addition to a stick of incense. This incense served as a timer: when the stick burned out, your time was up. So, naturally, men would save up their money to get the nicer, non-cored incense that burned as long as possible. Classy.
Regardless, by the late 1800s, having and lighting some incense whenever you wanted was simply a way of life.
In modern times, incense is enjoying a revived popularity in Japan, and worldwide as well. However, the history of incense in Japan is distinct, and its use as a hobby is not what it's best known for to Japanese people. There is an entire significant area of life with its own set of rules and philosophies that shapes the way and reasons incense has been incorporated into Japanese life and culture. And I'll cover that later. But tomorrow, I'll explain a bit more about the different types of incense used in Japan, many of which hopefully you've never even seen or heard of.
Happy New Year!!
...I'm a little late, aren't I? In all honesty, I began these entries last December and was just that
lazy getting around to this. At first I thought I might be done in time for Koshōgatsu, then a desperate attempt to finish in time for Chinese New Year, but now it seems the only New Year I'm even with is some sort of ancient Babylonian fertility festival in honour of the goddess Ishtar. And here we are at Tanabata.
Regardless, it is my first entry of the new year
, so it still sort of counts. First procrastination? First stalling for time?
This year is the Year of the Snake (巳年), isn't it? It must be good luck for anyone born in another snake year. For my first entry of this year, I wanted to discuss something pertaining to that, and I don't have to tell you that there are quite possibly as many snake yōkai as there are types of snakes themselves. But that doesn't seem like a very auspicious start to the year, does it? Besides, with the amount of horrible things I plan to do entries on in this Year of the Snake, I need all the auspiciousness I can get.
So what's something that is extremely auspicious, has something to do with traditional Japanese culture, and coils and slithers like a snake?
Well, you already know from looking at the title, but it's incense
, of course.
Incense in Japan is something that is only vaguely understood, or even cared about, but it's actually a pretty fascinating and esoteric subject. Incense is fairly common in daily life, or at special occasions, that most people don't even think about, but understanding its use and appreciation in Japanese culture has fascinated anthropologists and enthusiasts of the Orient for quite a long time.
Certainly one of the most famous, if not the
most famous, author on Japanese culture is one Mr. Lafcadio Hearn. I believe I've mentioned him before, but let me bring you up to speed: A Westerner by birth, he traveled to Japan and recorded his very profound and astute observations on all things Japanese just as the Japan-craze was sweeping over Europe. Not only is he still one of the sole sources on Japanese culture written in English, but his books were also translated into Japanese, where he is still considered an authority on the subject. The thing about Lafcadio Hearn is that, as a foreigner, many Japanese people would tell him stories and information and folklore that they assumed everybody in Japan knew, when in fact most of their knowledge had never been recorded or even heard of outside of the village or region of its origin. Therefore, Hearn also sparked in Japan a renewed interest in Japanese culture.
He also sparked a renewed interest for amazing moustaches.
Perhaps best known for Kwaidan
, the study of all Japanese things creepy and strange (effectively sharing with the world and the rest of the country itself a record of ghost stories and the like), this would go on to inspire most of Japan's folklorists and yōkai-ologists, so the majority of information we have on ghosts and yōkai are from around the time of Lafcadio Hearn. But there are a few modern enthusiasts who stubbornly refuse to let go and continue to obsess and attempt to spread knowledge of creepy Japanese things in order to freak out others or just alienate potential friends. Hello!
However, Lafcadio Hearn wrote about so much more than Japanese ghosts. Dutifully recording anything he found interesting, beautiful, or exciting, his writing was as culturally sensitive and appropriate to Japanese sensibilities as it was informative and appealing prose in the West. Anyone who has an interest in Japan can't go wrong reading Hearn in English or Japanese, though the translations are perhaps not as indicative of the unique voice Hearn has as an author.
Anyway, in an attempt to be a bit more high-brow, I'll begin the year by discussing Hearn's research on incense, which, I'll admit, seems rather boring and trivial, but actually reveals quite a bit about Japanese culture, history, and people. Also, I will add photos, my own thoughts and experiences, and some updates, since quite a bit has changed in Japan since the time of Lafcadio Hearn.
Therefore, I've decided to embark on a week-long series of entries pertaining to incense and its place in Japanese culture, since there are so many different types, uses, stories, motifs, and things like this which can be easily separated and written upon in a (relatively) non-rambling manner on my part.
So please look forward to the first entry starting tomorrow!!
- Music:Snake Eater - Cynthia Harrell
Fulfilling my first-ever request! See, I do get around to them. So I was asked to do my best to explain this
I'd love to tell you about the ironic subtleties included to mock the upper crust of Japanese society, the unique use of tools to create images that remind one of the transience of life, the hidden meaning of the work which delves into existentialism and the wonders and amusements of the floating world.
Nope. It's a fart battle. That's all. Sure, there are a few little interesting tidbits. Feel free to check out the rest of the scroll. It makes me very nostalgic. I remember being small and having to trek out to the library and get special permission to go to the back room which smelled of dust and dead caterpillars and appeared to be coated in as much, and painstakingly search for the texts I needed and ever-so-slowly wind through the archives on a big machine that displayed them to me so my grubby little hands didn't destroy the precious originals, all the while the room becoming even more swelteringly hot and choking me. I hated it until I had to do the same thing for a project recently, and was reminded how much I enjoy the smell of old things.
The university archive these images are from is done in roughly the same process, except for now we can all use the internet from the comfort of our own homes. I wonder after the people who would need to look up this
scroll for reference.
I can smell this one, too. This is an old scroll I do not want to smell.
However, this is not an exclusive subject matter in any way. Fart battles are actually a thing in Japanese art of this time. Several artists actually did their own interpretations of the most ludicrous and powerful farts you'll ever see, everyone from the extremely famous Utagawa Kuniyoshi
to a revered Buddhist monk and philosopher
Many more interpretations, like this one, remain anonymous. To some extent, the fart battles were a response to the encroaching Westernization of Japan, which I've discussed a few times before. As Western influence began to seep into everyday society, and Japan was declared crude, distasteful, base and barbaric, many traditional Japanese things were adjusted or done away with entirely to appease the discerning eyes of the Western world. Brothels were closed, pleasure districts dwindled, geisha were temporarily forced to cease activity until the West could figure out what it was that they did, kabuki plays were infused with Christian morals, and art was, to some extent, censored. Glorifying nudity and peasant life was crude, it was decided.
So, in a way, the fart battles appear to be a kind of protest, depicting men in court hats doing the most vile and odious things imaginable, their genitals and hind-parts fully exposed and flapping in the wind, farting openly at one another as noble ladies look on with interest and swoon after the most noxious of fumes.
I can't think of a more disturbing and downright hilarious way to fully embrace the whole absurd idea of Japan's inferiority. "We Japanese are a simple and vulgar people with no regard for your manners? Well, take a look at THIS!"
But there is one man who produced some fart scrolls who did not wish to remain anonymous. In fact, fart battles are almost synonymous with him. Many anonymous works are accredited to him, or said to be "in the style of" him, and he in fact produced not one, but several fart battle scrolls of varying degrees of obscenity.
I've never really done an artist spotlight before, even though I have heavily mentioned and featured the work of Yoshitoshi, and showcased Sekien a few times in my entries on yōkai. But since I'm here, I think I will expand the entry to show you some pictures and tell you a bit about my other
favourite Japanese artist.
And no, it's not because of the farting scrolls.( In Which the Line Between Genius and Insanity Becomes NonexistentCollapse )
Please note that all photos in this entry are clickable to a high-resolution image. You are also welcome to request a link to any other image I've posted, and I can give you a high-res link if I still have it. You can make a request for more of Kyōsai's art, or anything else you'd like me to do an entry on, here at the request post
. Because I will eventually get around to doing them.
I hope you've all enjoyed this foray into the world of fine Japanese art, and one of my favourite artists. Also, farts are funny.
And now we have come to the end of our week of element-based yōkai. Today's yōkai features that most crucial element of all, the human element (a neo-Japanesque thought if ever I had one).
I've stated before that yōkai are unlike anything else in any other country's lore, and even within Japan. They are not revered like kami, they are not feared like ghosts, they are not avoided like demons. Ghosts are one thing, monsters another, and yōkai are just yōkai. They're kind of the lower rung of odd Japanese beasts, as the humourous stories many possess show. They may attempt to explain or personify a natural phenomenon, they may just be mischievous being who wants to mess with humans, or they may just be some random, distinctive creature who happens to live in Japan. Like I said in this week's first entry, just because we don't see
yōkai so much anymore doesn't mean that they aren't still there
. Today's yōkai is no exception.
While yōkai are just inhabitants of the country, be they natural or supernatural, the creatures themselves are simply different
than most things that roam Japan: that's what makes them yōkai. However, we've seen Tesso
, who was once a man that let his unnatural death turn him into an onryō, except that it became rather monstrous, so he is viewed as a yōkai instead. But that is a single happening: there is only one Tesso, and he only really wanted to spook one or two people. So he isn't a breed
of yōkai, he's just a guy that became monstrous in death. That's pretty common in Japan.
What is uncommon is that certain element of humanity that enables anyone to become a yōkai. There are only two such yōkai that I can think of, and today I will discuss one of them.
What is it about the human spirit that holds such unique power? Today's yōkai exemplifies this quandary. Japanese live in a wonderful country inhabited from great gods to lowly demons to bugs to pesky yōkai to ghosts to wolves to people. Everything lives there and interacts with one another on different levels. We know that some animals can be born, or some objects can be improperly purified and cared for and, after a long time, they become yōkai. Some humans live unfortunate lives and have no power to control their own destiny until they are dead, wherein their spirit lingers on, hoping for some retribution.
But what if a human spirit is able to pass on, their body properly purified and cared for, but their feelings remain? What if those feelings then manifest themselves into something frightening? What if those feelings are able to change themselves into a yōkai all its own? While incredibly rare, this sort of transformation is exclusively human. What makes a human being become a yōkai? Let's let the ubume tell us.( wobareu, wobareuCollapse )
So now it's Day 6 of Yōkai Week, and I've run out of the Five Elements of Chinese Philosophy.
"Well, that's obvious," you may be saying, "we were wondering why in the world you made such a big deal about the five elements when you knew you had a week's worth of entries to do. That was a pretty bone-headed decision."
Hey now, no need to be hurtful. I can just switch over to the Five Elements of Japanese Philosophy, which conveniently have two different elements.
"Why didn't you just do that in the first place?"
Good question. Actually, that would mean that today's element would be air (風) or nothingness (空).
"Hey, nothingness, that sounds pretty scary. What a great concept for Halloween!"
Yes, I do have projected conversations with myself quite a bit, but it's nothing to worry about. But you're right, nothingness is an extremely terrifying concept. Too terrifying for me to cover, in fact, without a bit more religious education. Though some insight can be gained from people like Miyamoto Musashi
or a high-ranking Zen monk like the one in Lone Wolf and Cub
, it only really reinforces the fact that I am nowhere near capable of understanding it myself, let alone possessing the capacity to explain it to you, accompanied by witty comments and interesting pictures.
I think instead I'll just combine the remaining two elements, air, and use the alternate reading of nothingness for sky or heaven, and how about the additional element of electricity, for all you Pokemon fans out there?( It"s ElectricCollapse )