What is a “Pillow” in Rakugo?

Can you spot his pillow? And… I wonder who the creepy man under the vase stand is…

Today I learned that the Māori word for a pillow is urunga, which also means “act of entering”, according to Te Aka dictionary.

I don’t know about you, but I found this extremely fascinating!

As some of you may know, the prologue for a rakugo story is called a makura (まくら, 枕), which also means a pillow.

Delivering a good makura is an art form.

You are allowed to talk about literally anything in it.

Some use it to explain some words or old customs that are now hard to understand.

Others use it to warm up themselves and the audience.

You can talk about what happened to you on your way to the performance.

You can make a political statement or even tell some dirty jokes if you wish (though you may lose your fans).

Some performers are so good at makura that they sometimes only do their makura without performing rakugo stories.

This is just my personal interpretation, but I’ve always thought it is called a “pillow” because it acts as the portal to guide the audience members to the dreamlike world of rakugo.

Just like a pillow is the portal to the dream world.

Like the Māori word urunga, makura is the entrance to the world of rakugo.

Weird Professions of Edo No.2: Ear Wax Remover

I have a confession.

I once was an ear cleaning addict until my specialist ear nurse rather strongly told me to stop using the traditional Japanese ear pick.

It is usually made of bamboo, and it often has a “fluff” made of bird feather on one end.

Traditional Japanese Ear Pick

If you are into Japanese film, manga, and anime, you might have seen that a couple cleaning each other’s ears (usually a man laying his head on a woman’s lap, getting his ears cleaned by the woman).

Somehow ear cleaning is considered an intimate act, even romantic, in Japanese culture.

By the way, my western wife doesn’t think it’s romantic and just tells me to stop using it, but this is another story.

Ear-cleaning being such an important part of Japanese life (slightly exaggerated), some people even made a full-time living from cleaning people’s ears during the Edo period (1603-1867).

In fact, the profession of Ear Wax Remover (耳垢取) is recorded in Kotto Shu (骨董集) by Samuru Iwai (岩瀬醒), which was published in 1814/ 1815.

Japanese life in Edo seems to have been much more laidback than how it is now.

What are some of the strange professions from your country? Please let me know in the comment section below. I am very keen to learn about them!!!

Photo Attributions

Ear Pick: Mochi, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

Kotto Shu: National Diet Library Digital Collection

Weird Professions of Edo No.1: Cat’s Flea Remover

I recently heard of a Japanese movie called “Flea Remover Samurai” (のみとり侍), which was released in 2018.

It is based on a short novel by Shigeo Komatsu by the same title (the original title uses a kanji for the word flea: とり侍).

The premise of this story is that the main character, who once was an elite samurai, resorts to the side hustle of removing fleas from cats to supplement his income.

But here’s a twist.

His real business is a male courtesan.

I’d love to watch the movie sometime, but did you know that the profession of flea remover (蚤取り屋) actually existed during the Edo period (1603-1867)?

As far as I know, they were not covert courtesans, though!

This strange occupation is sometimes introduced in rakugo, usually in a makura or a free talk before commencing rakugo.

According to what I have heard in rakugo, they wrapped up a flea-infested cat with wolf’s fur, which was warmer and more comfortable than the cat’s, so that the fleas abandoned the cat for the wolf’s fur.

It is said that they made enough money to make a full-time living.

What are some of the strange professions from your country? Please let me know in the comment section below. I am very keen to learn about them!!!

Japanese Concepts of “Hare” and “Ke”

Onbashira Festival

If you have ever visited Japan, you probably know that we are quite mellow people.

Those dead quiet trains make us look well-behaved and civilised.

Yet, when it comes to festivities, we go overboard and know how to celebrate (not in the Latin American, Spanish, or Italian ways, but hey…).

Celebrations have kept Japanese civilisation going since time immemorial.

You may have heard of a festival called Onbashira Festival (御柱祭) where 16 fir trees (16-19 metre-long each) are pulled downhill by a group of people.

Every year, many people get injured and sometimes even die… but they still keep going regardless as festivals are crucial in Japanese life.

According to Kunio Yanagita (1875-1962), a renowned scholar and folklorist, all our activities can be divided into two categories: Ke (け; 褻) and Hare (はれ; 晴れ; 霽れ).

Ke refers to the ordinary.

Things or activities that you do every day like family life, work, school, etc.

Hare, on the other hand, refers to things and activities that are out of the ordinary such as festivals and rituals like wedding, coming of age, and Shichi-Go-San.

It is the balance between these two kinds of activities that have maintained Japanese life.

Even though many people assume that ke is from the word kegare (impurities), but this is not the case.

The concept of kegare was only added in the 1970’s to this hare-and-ke dichotomy.

Working hard on the ordinary (ke) and looking forward to the out-of-the-ordinary (hare) is how Japanese have coped with our rather stressful social life.

Photo Credit

Si-take. at Japanese Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Reference

Onbashira

ハレとケ

Superstitious Japanese: Lucky Numbers

Japanese are superstitious people.

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.

Now…

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…

Superstitions are superstitions after all.

The True Name of the “Thunder Gate”

Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate)

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.

Furaijinmon (風雷神門; ふうらいじんもん)

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!

Asakusa Engei Hall

Photo Credits

Asakusa Engei Hall: Kakidai, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Furaijinmon: Moyan Brenn from Italy, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Kaminarimon at night: Steve Collis from Melbourne, Australia, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons