Bringing home the gods

Bringing home the gods – the Japanese perception of urban space

Fred Thompson

The traditional Japanese perception of urban space is quite clearly different from that of the West, but Japanese spatial sensitivity has very rarely been explained to the rest of the world. Here, Fred Thompson examines ancient rituals still performed in Honshu, and suggests that the notion of place and monument, which is very strong even at sea, is defined by people’s actions rather than by fixed objects.

Across the mountains from Kyoto, on the Japan Sea side of the main island of Honshu, lies the Tango Peninsula, famous for its landscape at Amonohashidate. The village of Kameshima lies in a tranquil inlet called the Bay of Ine. Kameshima is made up of five smaller fishing villages, Takanashi, Hirata, Tateishi, Jibi, and Kameyama, which are strung out along the water’s edge of the Bay of Ine. The bay itself is protected by the island of Aoshima, which lies at its mouth.

Studying Kameshima was a logical step in my quest to understand the structuring of exterior space in Japanese towns. The quest had begun during a visit to Japan in 1969, when I noticed the lack of civic spaces in the form I was used to seeing in the West. Professor Itoh Teiji(1) had drawn my attention to the fact that a public place in Japan is rarely conceived of as hard bordered, but rather as kaiwai, a space that changes with the activities of its users and their intentions. Professor Kojiro Yuichiro(2) further suggested that the centre of a Japanese town does not lie in a clearly bounded space, but rather in a linear time-oriented axis stretching from the mountain shrine, through the village shrine to the field shrine.(3)

The villages distributed around the bay once clung to a little strip of land between mountains and shoreline. Houses were built out into the water so that under the living and working space was a boat house. A second part of the house was built almost against the mountainside. In between the two portions were the household garden and kura (store); as well as being the storage house for seasonal belongings, this space provided a natural firebreak between the two buildings.

With the construction of a road around the bay after the Second World War, the central garden space and kura were taken over. Added landfill at the shoreline meant no housing space was lost, and each household could still find space for its essentials.

Originally there were three fishing villages along the coast: Hide, Takanashi, and Hirata. Around the seventh century, as the village of Takanashi grew larger, the three satellite villages of Tateishi, Kameyama and Jibi formed on the opposite side of the bay. Presently, they have populations of 55, 66, 35, and 50 households respectively.

One of the major fishing activities for the inhabitants of Ine Bay, beyond catching the yellow tail fish for which the area is famous, was whaling. July, when the whales were spawning and little whaling was done, presented the community with a natural time for get-togethers in the form of a matsuri (festival). Until very recently, Professor Kojiro reports,(4) six boats were bound together with squared timbers to make a stage for theatrical performances during festival time. It is curious that ‘progress’ has made this form of entertainment too time-consuming and expensive, so that this type of performance is only given, on average, once every five years.

One of the essential parts of the festival is the preparation tot the deities’ journey from their mountain habitat. That means cleaning up the village streets, repairing roofs on shrines and repairing the steps up to the shrines. The festival was a time of co-operation – but also of competition. Whaling required solidarity: each person was expected to play his allotted role so that when a whale was sighted at sea, everybody knew what to do and was able to do it quickly. Until 40 or 50 years ago, a competition was held during a festival at the beginning of each year to establish the order that would reign for the rest of the year. To decide who would be the leader of the wakamono (‘the young bucks’), all the young men in each kumi (community) would dip their hands into a bucket of dried rice. The one who brought out the biggest handful of rice, and who therefore had the biggest hand, was chosen as the harpoon man for the kumi and hence the leader of the kumi for that year. It was that leader of the kumi who, at the time of the festival, was responsible for the organization to celebrate his kumi’s deities.

The Matsuri that takes place on 27 and 28 July has another facet: the way in which various neighbourhoods are allied. Among the eight shrines of the original Kameshima group, the Ebisu on the island of Aoshima is the oldest and original one. In ancient times it was the shrine for the settlement of Takanashi. But even before Ebisu became the guardian deity of fishing and wealth, Aoshima itself was the object of worship. It would have been the equivalent of a holy mountain to an agrarian community such as Shiraiwa.

Through repeated use of the island as a home of the gods, a temporary sanctuary was gradually made permanent and Ebisu was installed as the guardian deity of the island of Aoshima and therefore common to the villages around the bay. In the meantime, the original settlement of what is now Takanashi imported the Yasaka and Hachiman shrines in the seventeenth century. Although each of the three communities has its own small festival at the local shrine, the major festival unites all. This festival combines the matsuri of the Ebisu shrine with that of the Yasaka and Hachiman shrines for the benefit of the whole community. The present form of this major festival is said to be a mixture of festivals brought into this community from Nagahama (Shiga Prefecture), Ise and Miyajima.

The festival starts on the night of the 27th when floats from Kameyama, Jibi and Takanashi row slowly out into the bay. Each float is made up of two boats strapped together by a large platform on which the musicians, dancers and village leader stand. The boats are filled with lanterns and the sound of drums and flutes. As they make their way across the bay to Takanashi they row in circular movements about the bay. When they arrive at Takanashi, everybody scrambles ashore and climbs the mountain to the Hachiman shrine. They walk around the shrine banging the walls with their hands and shouting loudly to wake up the deities: ‘god-calling.’ From here, revellers return to their communities across the bay.

Next day, young boys in a group begin to move through the streets of Kameyama and Jibi performing kagura dances in front of the various houses of the prominent citizens of the village. Small mounds of sand are placed on the street between the dancers and the houses. Later the dancers are joined by another group, this time of young men who perform the lion dance shishimai. To this is added a portable shrine (or omikoshi) which, whenever it is carried further down the street, is made to appear to move in wild and frantic movements as if it were completely out of control and had a life of its own. Little by little, the procession grows in size until it climbs the steps of the mountainside to the Azino shrine and then to the Benzaiten shrine. From there it comes back down to the shoreline and sets off on the boats with drums, flutes and dancers.

The portable shrine, a big umbrella-like canopy, is taken for a set of wild circlings in the bay and eventually arrives at the far shore to visit the Hachiman and Yasaka shrines. Then the procession rollicks into the streets of Takanashi. As the day comes to an end, players rest, eat and drink at one of the inns on the shoreline of Takanashi. Afterwards, three people dress up with masks on their faces. The crowd of spectators gathers around the three and before long they are dancing and jumping around chaotically and charging at the young girls in the crowd to scare them.

Just before sunset, the young men leave on boats for the island of Aoshima to pay their respects to the Ebisu shrine. Halfway up the steps to the Ebisu shrine are bones left from a whale hunt. At the tops of the steps, the exhausted and drunken young men put on kagura and shishimai dances with erotic fervour. There are no women here, only young men, and the dances continue to become more and more frantic. Finally, boats take everybody back to their respective communities for more performances to send off the gods.

The grammatical model of festival used in the case of agricultural communities, such as Shiraiwa, is not as clear where the path of movement is on water. However, if we imagine the gods’ descent from the mountain, through the village to the rice fields, replaced by the same series of movements on the surface of the water, we can see the same action taking place on the water as in the rice fields. The dancers, in this case, are on a movable stage – a boat performing circular motions to ‘cut out’ a sacred space for the gods. So, the gods are present to guarantee the fertility of the fishing stock for the survival of the community, just as the space cut out in the rice field of the agricultural community ensures the fertility of the fields to bear the annual rice crops.

The Latin words templum (a sacred space) and tempus (a sacred time) come from the Greek root temenein – what is ‘cut out.’ What happens in Inc is the temporary cutting out of a space: boats filled with music and dancers circle in the bay to create a place of welcome for the gods. The Japanese notion of temporary sacred space precedes and exists alongside our Western habit of constructing sacred spaces in permanent materials to defeat time and decay.

The space cut out by the motion of the boats is in fact the invisible centre of the community made visible through the festival. Two axes intersect: the everyday axis (from one side of the bay to the other) and the festive axis (between the sea, the island of Aoshima and the bay). The intersection can be exemplified by an excerpt from the Noh play Hagoromo (The Robe of Feathers), which states: ‘I will dance the dance that makes to turn the towers of the moon’.(5) The moon does not turn the dancers but the dancers turn the moon: they are an integral and harmonious part of its very functioning. Their dance energizes the space once again and the fertility of the crops (fish, in this case) continues.

Unlike the town of Kakunodate, the village of Ine is made up of six communities, none of them subdivided. Rather, each is considered to constitute a kumi, an action trait by itself. In this case, the action unit is called a sha.

The term sha now means any association formed for a certain purpose, whether religious, business or political, this applies to everyday circumstances as well as festival times.(6) In the ancient Chinese village, according to Sogabe, the term sha was used to denote a guardian god of the village land and the god was symbolically represented by a natural tree. Ancient Chinese villages are said to have formed around one of these sacred trees or sha as its spatial as well as spiritual centre.

During the Chou Dynasty (1122-256 BC), the term sha became an official name to denote a geopolitical settlement of 50 households. Although this usage was discontinued during the T’ang Dynasty, the sha came to mean a religious community bound together by common beliefs.(7)

The T’ang system was imported to Japan during the seventh and eighth centuries and officially adopted in two acts of legislation (Taiho in 707 and Yoryo in 718), It is not known whether, with the implementation of the system, the Chinese practice of establishing a religious sanctuary as a spatial and spiritual centre in every village might also have been brought to Japan,(8) but by the early eighth century, virtually every Japanese village was formed around a shrine.

As Kameshima demonstrates, the Japanese village, like the ancient Chinese village, was the sha or the religious community bound together by common belief and formed around a village shrine.(9) The physical form of the villages that surround the Bay of Ine conform to a system of societal bonds which has its roots in the history of communities centred on the Shinto shrine in the community. There are two overlapping systems: the system of sha (a religious community bound together by commonality) in the case of each of the six communities; and kumi (a socio-economic neighbourhood unit). In the Bay of Ine, each kumi has its shrine and sha, while together they have one shrine in common: the Ebisu on Aoshima.

Beyond the festival, which unifies the communities of Ine, there are diverse systems and levels of community organization. For example, women are restricted from certain aspects of community life, but privileged in others. Women are not allowed to take part in the matsuri. And when a woman gives birth, her body is considered to be impure, so she is not allowed into any room covered with tatami matting. While a woman is menstruating she is not allowed to come close to the kamidana (Shinto altar) in the house. At festival time she must purify her children by sprinkling them with salt. To counterbalance these taboos, there is a winter camp called komori when all the women in the village gather at a building beside the komori-do (village shrine) for enjoyment. During this period, the women only go home to prepare meals.

During the main festival, taboos of purity are evident. All houses where a child has been born, or someone has died, are considered unfit for a visit by the gods and so are passed by. Small children, however, are brought to the shishimai dance and suddenly thrust into the gaping jaws of the lion mask from which they emerge screaming.

The communities of Ine operate at different levels of participation, in different parts of the village, and especially in the bay. As in Shiraiwa and Kakunodate, whose streets are energized at festival time by the presence of the gods, the waters of Ine Bay themselves become a public, sacred space. Like the dances of the shrine maidens who ‘dance to turn the towers of the moon’, bending and unbending, clockwise and counter-clockwise, the boats circle in the bay and the performers circle with the gods. The water supports no fixed monuments, but becomes monumental and memorable through the actions that take place on it.

The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Chris Burbidge and Fiorella Dinoi with the graphics, Nicole Langlois with editing and Yasumasa Someya with the original research.

1 Unpublished manuscript, The Japanese Approach to Urban Space, Tokyo, 1973, p44.

2 Kojiro Yuichiro, Japanese Communities, Kashima-Shuppan, Tokyo 1977. Originally published as a special addition to SD NO.7: 1975 from the same publisher.

3 The Architecture Review, October 1997, ‘Japanese Mountain Deities’, Fred Thompson, pp 78-83

4 Ekistics, May 1975, #234, pp339-354

5 Fred Mayer writes that, in Japanese theatre: ‘The dancer is of the ancient tribe of Orpheus and the even older tribe of the shamans, they who by the power of music, of song and dance, keep the universe moving on its course. Fred Mayer, Thomas Immoos, Japanese Theatre, Studio Vista, London 1997, p16.

6 For much of the information in this section, I am indebted to Yasuma Someya, who assisted me in my research.

7 This discussion is based on Shizuo Sogabe, ‘The Relation between Village and Shrine in Ancient China’ in Nihon Rekisha, No 162, Dec 1961.

8 ‘Sha no Kenkyu (Study of Sha)’ in Shigaku Zasshi, Vol 59, No 7, by Mitsuo Moriya, quoted in Sogabe, 1961.

9 To find the origin and nature of the Japanese community in the ‘Sha’ seems to explain many otherwise obscure cultural phenomena in Japanese society. For instance, in Japan, business companies of all kinds are called ‘Kai-Sha’ where ‘Kai’ simply means an association. Members of a company are called ‘Sha-in’ and ‘Sha-in’ and the president ‘Sha-cho.’ In Kameshima, as already noted, village members are called ‘Sha-in’ and the village leader, ‘Sha-cho.’ This seems to suggest that, in Japan, even a business company is a quasi-religious group held together by a religious sentiment towards their common shrine, the company. From this perspective it is not surprising that Japanese workers are loyal to their companies, and there are very few strikes in the country – it would be like a strike against the Church!

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