One of the most traumatic experiences in my life was when I was asked to MC at my sister’s wedding.
Sure, it was a happy occasion, but my mind was constantly on the edge as I was not allowed to utter a single word that was not auspicious.
At a Japanese wedding, you cannot use words such as “break”, “end”, “separate”, or any expression that implies that the newly-formed relationship would not last… even if it is used in a completely different context.
At the end of a wedding, we cannot say “This is the end of the ceremony.” but instead we say “we open the ceremony.” (お開きにいたします。)
We have to be careful with the use of numbers as well.
Numbers 4 and 9 are considered unlucky in Japanese culture.
4 (四; Shi) rhymes with “death (死; Shi)”, and 9 (九; Ku) rhymes with “hardship” (苦; Ku).
Even numbers (2, 4, 6…) are considered less lucky compared to odd numbers (1, 3, 5…) as they can be split in half.
If you pay attention to the number of letters used in kabuki/ bunraku titles, nearly all of them are in odd numbers with a very few exceptions (here is the list of kabuki titles in Japanese if you are interested).
For example, the kabuki/ bunraku play “Hirakana Seisuiki” is written “ひらかな盛衰記” even though it would normally be written “平仮名盛衰記” as the former has 7 letters and the latter has 8.
They really made sure that the number of letters used are in an odd number.
Me being me, I did accidentally use a few inappropriate expressions at my sister’s wedding, but she is still with her childhood sweetheart, so really…
[This article turned out really long, so if you are interested in what the picture above is all about, please scroll straight down to the bottom.]
I recently watched a beautiful movie called “Ainu Mosir”, which is on Netflix and I thoroughly recommend to learn how the Ainu people live in modern day Japan.
For those who are not familiar with this subject, the Ainu are one of the indigenous people of Japan who mainly lived/ live in the Tohoku region (the northern part of Honshu, the main island of Japan), Hokkaido, and Russian territories (Sakhalin, Kamchatka Peninsula, etc).
Wajin (和人: Ethnic Japanese) and the Ainu began having conflicts over land, natural resources, etc. a long time ago, and many Ainu were already under the Japanese rule during the Muromachi period (1336-1573).
We don’t know exactly how many Ainu people live in Japan now, but the government estimates there are around 25,000 in the entire Japan. The unofficial estimates reach over 200,000.
Most of them live in Hokkaido. According to the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, there were 16,786 Ainu people in Hokkaido in 2013.
As I grew up in the greater Tokyo area, I met only one person with an Ainu ancestry in my entire life.
He said he had an Ainu ancestry but identified himself as Japanese, not Ainu.
Many Ainu people have intermarried to ethnic Japanese, and from what I know many live as ethnic Japanese like him.
There have been discrimination towards the Ainu for centuries, so his choice was understandable to avoid unnecessary disadvantages.
I guess I am going quite sidetracked (I should be talking about the movie really…), but, dear readers, Japan has never been “mono-racial” as some of us insist.
Along with the Ainu, there are Ryukuans (Okinawans), and there had been Emishi, Kumaso, Hayato to name a few before the Wajin/ Yamato finally united Japan.
There have been intermarriages.
We have an expression “Akita Bijin” (Akita Beauty) to describe women from Akita prefecture. It’s generally said that women from Akita are beautiful (I don’t know about the men from there… 😅)
I don’t necessarily agree with this, but I wonder if this is due to the intermarriages between Yamato and Ainu/ Emishi.
Getting back to the movie, it is the first time for me to watch an Ainu movie in my life.
I am really happy to see that the Ainu culture has been gaining a lot of attention from the mainstream Japanese media due to the successful manga/ anime series “Golden Kamuy” (though I am also aware that some people have pointed out that there are cultural appropriations in the series).
Ainu Mosir really shows what it is like to be Ainu today.
Their identity, every day life, cultural survival and struggle.
The story revolves around an Ainu ceremony called Iomante, which has NOT been performed since 1975 in the Akan Lake community.
In this traditional custom, a brown bear is raised with love and care, but given as a sacrifice at the end of the ceremony.
This concept would probably put off a lot of animal lovers (like myself), but we probably need to see beyond the surface of this ceremony.
It is a reminder of the sacredness of life and thanksgiving to the nature.
In fact, the Ainu have always protected the nature and would’ve never considered profiting from exploiting the nature, say, by mass dairy farming like we do in “developed” countries.
You can watch the movie and decide what it is about.
The reason why I posted the picture from the film at the beginning was because I was really surprised that the actor was wearing a jacket from Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, a Māori-run university here in New Zealand.
I had known that the Ainu people visit New Zealand to learn from the successful cultural preservation/ language revitalization strategies of the Māori people, and I guess he acquired it through one of their exchange programmes.
I was really moved to see the connection between the Ainu and the Māori in such an unexpected place!
One of the most famous landmarks in Japan is Kaminarimon(雷門; かみなりもん) or the “Thunder Gate” in Asakusa, Tokyo.
Along with Mt. Fuji, Tokyo Skytree, and Tokyo Tower, it is no exaggeration to say that it is recognised by virtually all Japanese people.
But did you know that “Kaminarimon” (Thunder Gate) is just a nickname for this gate?
Many Japanese do not even know this, but its real name is “Furaijinmon” (風雷神門; ふうらいじんもん) or “The Gate of the Gods of Wind and Thunder”.
If you look closely at the picture above, you’d probably notice that there are two deities displayed on the sides of the gate.
The one on the left with the drums is Raijin (雷神 らいじん) or the god of thunder. He makes thunder with those drums.
I remember as a child I was told to hide my belly button as Raijin likes to eat it for whatever reason…
The one on the right is Fujin (風神 ふうじん) or the god of wind.
Therefore, the official name of Kaminarimon is Furaijinmon.
In fact, if you look at the giant red lantern from the other side, its official name is actually written on it.
Asakusa is one of the destinations that I definitely recommend you to visit once the Corona crisis is over.
The remnants of the Edo period (1603-1867) can be still felt in this area, and it is widely considered the heart of the Edo culture. For rakugo lovers, it is also known as the home of Asakusa Engei Hall (浅草演芸ホール), one of the four full-time rakugo venues in Tokyo.
I am so looking forward to visiting Asakusa again myself!
This year I’ve had an honour of working closely with a multi-talented artist, Fiona Amundsen.
About two months ago, our short film, which incorporates rakugo, the Aikido concept of “zanshin” (残心), and remembrance of WWII, was released on Asia New Zealand Foundation’s digital platforms.
This work was a part of “IN TOUCH arts commissions” by the foundation, and I feel very privileged to be a part of this project.
You can still view this film/ artwork, but before you watch it, I’d like you to know a few things:
My family’s experience in Nagasaki is only a personalised way of remembering our mistakes as humanity as a whole. I am deeply ashamed of what my Japanese ancestors did to many Asian nations and others, and this is no way our attempt to victimise Japanese.
It is our way of finding the universal message of peace in the ordinary, everyday things.
Part 1 is very dark and many may give up watching the rest, but Part 2 has some humour in it based on my own experience with my grandfather. But Part 2 only makes sense if you watch Part 1…
I decided to write this first because someone who probably hadn’t watched the work nor read the interview commented as below on the foundation’s SNS:
“Great idea! Let’s remember Nanking, Rangoon, Singapore, Jakaraka [sic], Port Moresby, and many many others too shall we?”
This work was created to do exactly that!
Here is the link to our work. You can also find our interviews on the page. Some of the super intellectual comments are by Fiona 😁
At Japanese festivals, four banners with the pictures of the four divine beings are sometimes displayed.
You might have also seen them at a ceremony at the imperial palace.
They are the defenders of Shin’iki (神域 しんいき) or the sanctuary of the shrine.
These four defenders are: Blue Dragon (青龍 せいりゅう Seiryu; the defender of the east), White Tiger (白虎 びゃっこ Byakko; the defender of the west), Vermilion Bird (朱雀 すざく Suzaku; the defender of the south), and Black Tortoise (玄武 げんぶ Genbu; the defender of the north; usually entwined together with a snake).
Together these four flags are called “Four Godly Flags/ Banners” (四神旗 しじんき Shijinki).
But in the Edo period (1603-1868), they were also called “Four Godly Swords” (四神剣 しじんけん Shijinken) in the Tokyo area as they put swords at the tips of the flags.
There is a hilarious rakugo story that involves a set of “Four Godly Swords”, which is based on a true story that happened at a restaurant called Momokawa (百川 ももかわ).
Unfortunately, it is one of those stories that would get lost in translation, but I will attempt explaining it another time!
If you are a speaker of British English, you might be slightly confused if I’m talking about an adult female human with a child/ children or a preserved human body that could’ve been a mummy… or a daddy.
If you are a speaker of American English, you are right I meant a mummy by “mummy”.
The Egyptian kind of mummy, who could’ve been an Egyptian mummy before her passing (OK, I’ll stop annoying you!).
I recently learned a shocking fact about a Japanese medicine during the Edo period (1603-1868), and I couldn’t resist sharing this particular one!
Kaibara Ekiken* (貝原益軒1630-1714) was a very well-known Neo-Confucianist philosopher (じゅがくしゃ 儒学者) and botanist who studied the medicinal herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine.
Ekiken is especially known for his books called Yojokun (ようじょうくん 養生訓), which was a collection of his health advice, and Yamato Honzo (やまとほんぞう 大和本草) that introduced medicinal plants from China and Japan.
Kaibara Ekiken* (貝原益軒1630-1714)
In Yamato Honzo, mummies… or mummified human bodies probably from Egypt… are introduced as a medicine!!!
Mind you, Ekiken himself opposed to the use of mummies as a medicine for ethical reasons, but researches suggest that they were widely used as all-purpose cure though they cost a fortune.
We don’t know exactly where they were imported from (and how they were sourced), but it was likely to have been via China or Netherlands as Japan only traded with these two countries then. It could’ve also been from Korea (via Tsushima), Ainu (via Matsumae/ Hokkaido), or Ryukyu/ Okinawa. **
According to Yamato Honzo, mummies were good for toothache, headache, chest pain, high fever, antidote for poisonous insects, and others.
* Some people also call him “Ekken”.
** If you know the answer to this question, please comment below!!!