History of Japan – Part I of VI
Have you ever wondered why the Japanese spend their very short, hard-earned summer vacations tending to their family graves? Or whether the Japanese really believe that the emperor is god? Why do we foreigners receive so much adulation for our handling of chopsticks, our ability to speak a few rudimentary phrases or writing our own addresses in kanji? Why do so many Japanese women spend years studying flower-arranging or the tea ceremony to, what appears at first sight, so little effect?
The Japanese character has long been regarded by many as inscrutable and it will take some history lessons to unravel such imponderables. In this first part of six articles we’re going to look at Japan from the very beginnings through to the seventh century.
As in any society, prehistory and legend are intertwined. The gods of Japanese mythology came into being with the emergence of the universe and after many generations, with the cooling down of the gases and the appearance of earth as a habitable place, the god Izanagi and the goddess Izanami created the islands of Japan. They made the mountains, forests, rivers and lakes, and their numerous children were entrusted with their upkeep: the god of the wind, the goddess of the sea, the god of the mountains and so on. The most important of all was the goddess of the sun, Amaterasu, regarded as the mother of Japan and the grandmother of the first emperor, Jimmu, who was the first human to have the blood of the gods.
Around 15000 years ago hunter-gatherers, the ancestors of the indigenous Ainu people, inhabited the northern islands. The first written accounts are from Chinese sources around 2000 years ago, which described the Japanese as numerous, warring tribes, who believed in spirit gods and whose diet comprised rice, vegetables and raw fish. With the dawn of agriculture, the worship of fertility gods became prevalent. Often mountain peaks, which supplied the water for rice paddies below became the sites for worship. Their phallic shape were the precursor of the more elaborate and realistic models carved out of cypress wood that now adorn a number of shrines throughout Japan. You can do no better than visit Tagata shrine in Komaki, just north of Nagoya, which houses a variety of wooden phalluses, of quite impressive proportions. A visit on March 15th will enable you to observe the Hounen matsuri, commonly known as the ‘penis festival,’ and to sample the delights of penis-shaped delicacies or purchase charms and souvenirs.
Ise in Mie is perhaps the hub of Japanese culture and is the location of the first shrine built in honour of Amaterasu. Since its first rebuilding in 692 it has been demolished and a new shrine, identical to the original re-constructed every 20 years. Therefore the next rebuilding, the 67th, will take place in 2013. It seems timely to examine the significance of this, which we will do in the next article.