Building bridges

Trends & Culture - June 27th, 1975

by Yurie Horiguchi

The Japanese—except per­haps for the young, urban, blase generation—are on the whole quite a superstitious people.

This may be due to (he fact that, for centuries, they were taught mythology about their origins and the land itself, rather than fac­tual history.

Today, except for the real die-hards, the people realize that the Emperor is not a direct descendant of the Sun Goddess, and that the gods Izanagi and Izanami did not give birth to the islands of Japan.

But because of its panthe­istic past, when the sun and the moon, the mountains and the rivers, trees and rocks, and even the beasts and insects were all personified as deities, and when all the vicissitudes of nature on her natural course were attributed to the works of these various gods, superstitions are still embedded in the national character, especially among rural and fisher folk.

A distinction, however, could he made between folk faith and folk superstitions, although it is sometimes difficult to distinguish one from the other.

The modern young Japan­ese who says he has no superstitions, or does not believe in them, would be surprised to learn that the very taken-for-granted act of dedicating a building site is part faith and part super­stition.

If the site is not properly dedicated, with all the reli­gious ritual it entails, some laborers would refuse to work on the project because of the superstition that the land god must first be ap­peased for the desecration of his property.

Laborers believe that un­less the site is properly de­dicated, untold catastrophes will befall them while they work on the project.

Mr. Komatsu, the self-made “bulldozer king,” has proudly erected a “golden” bulldozer on the roof of his Tameike building. We hope that on the same roof there is also a small shrine, such as those to be found on the roofs of many large build­ings here in Tokyo, dedicat­ed to a protective deity.

In the face of awestruck wonder at the bounties—and terrors—of nature, primitive Japanese endowed all na­tural objects and natural phenomenon with a god-character, to be sanctified and worshipped. 

There are shrines dedicat­ed to the god of thunder, and small shrines erected beside sources and wells, and along river banks, to the gods of water. I have just mentioned the land god. and I wrote earlier of the hearth or fire god. And be­fore that, I told you about the field god who protects farmlands from spring into late autumn, then takes a one-month holiday at Izumo Shrine in November, before flying off to the mountains to become the yama-no-kami in the winter.

Those are only a few of the principal ones.

There are rocks that have been deified, such as the two reefs standing in the water off Futamigaura beach, near Ise Shrine. They are joined with a straw rope and are worshipped as the “wedded gods.”

As for beasts, perhaps the shrines that have caught your attention are the many with small statues of a dog­like animal, generally wearing red bibs. These shrines are dedicated to the fox which was believed to be the chief messenger of the harvest god, or Inari.

There is also a belief that a godly spirit resides in sword blades. There is a superstition concerning cer­tain “cursed swords.” It is thought that once such a sword is removed from its scabbard, its spirit will not rest in peace without tasting blood.

There must have been a lot of cursed swords in the days when samurai went about chopping off people’s heads at the slightest pre­text, if one is to believe today’s television dramas.

Trees, too, were once wor­shipped when they attained great height or great age, and it is absolutely forbid­den to cut down such sacred trees. They are recognizable by their “belt” of corded straw, often hung with white prayer papers.

Then there are the amu­lets that are also faith/superstition based. They are sold in temples and shrines and are believed to protect wearers or posses­sors from specific harms, depending on the amulet chosen and the shrine or temple from which it comes.

You often see such amu­lets dangling from the dash­board of taxis and private cars. They are the Japan­ese equivalent of the St. Christopher medal.

Other fetish/superstitions include a wooden paddle used to cure eye diseases and persistent coughs. There is the broom that is stood upsidedown in the genkan (entrance) to hasten the departure of unwelcome guests. Ashes are used for protection against snakes, and salt is sprinkled on mourners returning from a funeral, to chase off the evil spirits that may have ac­companied them home.

Among the more frighten­ing superstitions is that of the tatari, or curse, or- if you prefer divine punish­ment. This curse follows on the violation of a sacred taboo, and it is frightening because it is inflicted not only on the person who commits such an act, but sometimes on innocent peo­ple for some evil or profane deed enacted by their ances­tors or relatives in the dim distant past.

To top this injustice, a taboo can be violated in all innocence, yet it will still call down the wrath of the gods.

The curse falls on you if you desecrate any shrines or stone statues of gods, such as those found by the way­side in rural areas. It will also strike you if you cut down a holy tree, as I just mentioned. And heaven for­bid (literally!) that you kill such beasts as snakes, cats, foxes, badgers, or monkeys, all of which are messengers of the gods.

If you commit such a crime you will most likely be haunted by the spirit of the murdered beast, and eventually you will go off your rocker.

Tatari also takes the form of blindness, lameness, dumbness, madness, disease, injury and the like.

So watch it!

Speaking of taboos, or kinki, there are quite a few that are still observed in this modern day and age, which are really plain super­stitions.

Take the choice of a wedding-day, for instance. It is an absolute must to be married on a tai-an, or day of “great peace,” or a tomobiki, literally, friend-pulling day.

The latter day, however, is to be avoided at all costs for a funeral as there is fear that the departed one will try to “pull his friends,” generally taken to mean close relatives or bosom pals, into the grave with him.

Almost without exception, crematoria are closed on a tomobiki day. 

There are taboo words too, called oki-kotoba, which differ according to dialect and region. Such words may never be used when at sea, or in the mountains, or on farmland, for fear of dis­pleasing the gods.

Substitute words are generally found to replace them such as, nami no hana (wave flowers) for shio (salt). And my favorite is the “lady in the ceiling” or tenjo no gofujin, which re­places the word “mouse.”

These are only a few examples of the thousands of superstitions that the Japanese still live with, by and large. But they couldn’t care less about the dangers of a Friday the 13th, or the passage of a black cat, or walking under a ladder.

This, after all, is Japan.