Setsubun no Hi and its roots

I had never considered the need to write about ‘Setsubun’ in my blog as apparently I had forgotten that it might not be very well known outside of Japan. It has only been in the last few years when I have casually talked with Japanese people about ‘Setsubun’, or, ‘Setsubun no hi’ that I realized that many, if not most, Japanese don’t understand it very well themselves. 

First of all, spoken concisely, what is ‘Setsubun no Hi’?

It is a date falling on February 3rd where people all over Japan gather at temples or shrines, as well at their own house or school, and throw roasted soy beans while chanting, ‘Oni ha soto, Fuku ha uchi’ <Happiness in, Demons out >. 

 

 

So, why do the Japanese do this? It seems to be such a strange custom. 

The main meaning behind Setsubun is to celebrate the coming of Spring. Yes, that is right, Spring begins astronomically speaking on February 3rd or 4th. That does not mean it starts on this date in Japan, it means for the Northern Hemisphere winter ends on this date and thus Spring begins. It is easy to calculate this for yourself if you don’t believe me. 

The shortest day of sunlight is December 21 to 23 making it the middle of winter, while June 21 to 23 is the longest day of the year, or the middle of summer. If you calculate out from these days you will come to the fact that Spring starts around the 3rd of February and Fall begins around the 7th or 8th of August. 

Anyway, now that we know astronomically speaking that the 3rd of February is the end of Winter and the start of Spring we can look at why it is called Setsubun in Japanese.

Setsu, or 節, referring to the Fushime, 節目, or connecting part of the stem of a plant like a bamboo shoot. People studying Japanese may also see the connection into ‘Kisetsu’, <季節> meaning season (s). So, now that we know Setsubun means the turning or connecting point leading into Spring we can ask why is it that Japanese throw roasted soy beans while asking the demons to go away. 

The common understanding is that around the time of the changing of the seasons it is easy to catch a cold and so one needs to pay attention to one’s health and ‘throw out’ harmful germs, bacteria, viruses, etc in the name of demons. And that is not by any means a bad concept to have as it does seem that it is easier to catch a cold around the changing of the seasons probably more to due with not adapting properly to the change in temperature in regards to how one dresses, heats the home and on and on. But the roots of why Japanese throw roasted soy beans at demons actually goes way back to the first written history (mythology) of Japan, the Kojiki.

In the Kojiki, the creators of the islands of Japan were Izanami and Izanaki.

As the two gods went about the arduous task of creating the islands and the gods needed to manage the lands the wife, Izanami, died giving birth to the final god of the lands – a fire goddess. 

After losing his wife to the underworld <Yomi no sekai>, Izanaki ventured into the underworld to attempt to lure his beloved wife back to the land of the living. His attempts to do so eventually only infuriated his wife when he looked upon her decaying, worm-eaten body injuring her pride and breaking his promise of not trying to look at her. 

Izanami mounted a full-fledged attack upon him along with her army of little ugly women demons. To flee from her Izanaki threw off the decorative vines he had in his hair to stave off their pursuit. Doing so, the vines turned into grapes which the little ugly women demons stopped to eat. Gaining a bit of time he next threw the bamboo kushi he had used as a decoration in his hair which turned into bamboo sprouts further gaining him some time as the little ugly women demons stopped to devour them. 

 

Safely gaining access to the world of the living he only now had to repel his once beloved wife, Izanami and seal the entrance to the underworld. To do so, he threw peaches, known to have anti-demonic powers at his dead wife and her army and then sealed the entrance with a giant rock. 

 

So, in fact, the most effective way to celebrate ‘Setsubun no hi’ is to throw peaches beseeching the demons to go away. That however, is not so readily possible in modern Japan, so we settle with roasted soy beans. 

I hope this has shed a bit of light on this rather arcane tradition.

Nihongo (日本語) Japanese language and the wiring of the Japanese mind (Part 1)

 

 

 

Nihongo (日本語) Japanese language and the wiring of the Japanese mind (Part 1)

Compared with most other countries or races the Japanese were quite late in coming to use a written form of their language. During the hundreds of years that the Greeks, the Indians and the Chinese were busy writing histories, sacred texts and so on the Japanese were communicating only through an oral form of the language. It is not known in precise detail when the Japanese began to make use of the Chinese characters known in Japan as Kanji (漢字, or literally Han letters or letters of mainland Chinacame to Japan but it seems to have been in the 1st century and came in the form of letters or gold seals printed with Chinese characters. In the early years of the usage of Kanji they were probably used basically by a very few bilingual Chinese or Koreans. It was not until sometime prior to the Heian period in the 8th century that the Japanese began to do what they are so good at, namely, that is to take something from the world outside Japan, study it, change it and reform into something even better than the original.

Not too get off-track too much but we see this time and time again with the Japanese. Apparently after firearms first arrived in Japan in the later part of the Sengoku era it did not take the Japanese very long to reverse engineer the arquebuses and start producing their own form of rifle, or Teppou (鉄砲)It is said that these were even better than the Portuguese originals and that within a few decades there were apparently more rifles in Japan than in any other single country in the world.

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We see this again with the automobile. This certainly does not need to be spelled out as anyone who has owned both Japanese-made and American-made cars can attest to what the Japanese have done with automobiles in terms of reliability, comfort and efficiency is truly amazing.

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And it would not be my blog if I didn`t make one more point before returning to the main topic. And that is what we saw happen in the last few years. That is right, that is the incorporation of Heavy Metal obviously coming from Europe and America and combining it with the uniquely original Idol genre of Japan to create the most amazing band in History, Babymetal!

 

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Anyway, back to the story. So along with the Japanese using Chinese for writing in much the way it was used in China but with some added Japanese readings added on there also started to develop a system of writing known as Man’yōgana. This made use of some of the Kanji but using them strictly as phonetic characters devoid of their original meaning. While official and state documents were written in Kanbun, or Chinese writing, and done by men, this other form of writing, Man’yōgana was used by women and thus was also called Onnade (女手、lit. woman`s hand) and evolved into what is no known as Hiragana. The world`s first novel, `The Tale of Genji` was written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu, and entirely in this style of writing.

The `Tale of Genji`

 

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Kabun-Chinese writing used in Japan

 

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Onnade (女手)or Hiragana

 

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A couple of brief examples of how the Chinese characters evolved or changed into Hiragana are as follows.

加 ー>か

(Ka meaning `to add` changes to the Hiragana Ka)

天 ー>て

(Ten meaning `heaven` changes to the Hiragana Te)

女 ー>め

(Me, or Onna, meaning `woman` changes to Me)

 

Kanji adapted to Hiragana

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It was in this way that Hiragana came into being. And remember that the Hiragana do not retain any of the meanings associated with the Kanji from which they evolved.

Next to come along to the family of Japanese writing is Katakana. It was created probably alongside Man’yōgana and Hiragana and was originally a sort of shorthand for the Man’yōgana characters and thus is called `Kata`kana since `Kata`(片) means partial or fragmented. Originally used as kind of a shorthand it soon came to have its own significance as the writing style used to indicate words for things or concepts that have come from outside of Japan. Things like,

Coffee ー>  コーヒー  (Ko-hi-)

T.V. ー>    テレビ   (Terebi)

Shampooー> シャンプー (Shanpu-)

The Katakana characters themselves in some cases look very much like their counterpart Hiragana characters as with:

や (Hiragana `Ya`) and ヤ (Katakana `Ya`) as they both were adapted from the Kanji ``.

Yet sometimes they look very different as they come from differing Kanji as with:

あ (Hiragana `A`) coming from the Kanji `安`、

ア (Katakana `A`) coming from the Kanji ``.

 

Kanji adapted to Katakana

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So, are you still with me? Up to this point we have covered most of the difficult parts of the development of the written side of the Japanese language. So at this point we have 3 forms of writing, Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana. The next aspect we have to look at is the way the Kanji are read. A single Kanji will usually have 1 or more `On` readings and 1 or more `Kun` readings. The `On` reading is the Chinese way of reading a Kanji and the `Kun` reading is the Japanese way of reading it.

I will give a simple example of this that my Aikido teacher, Touhei Kouichi would often use when explaining a deep aspect of Aikido but which will serve fine here as well.

The Kanji for mirror is .

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The Chinese, or `On` reading for this is Kyou. But a Japanese person would never look at a mirror and say, `Hand me the Kyou`. This reading would be used in combination with other Kanji as in:

万華鏡 (Mangekyou) Kaleidoscope

三面鏡 (Sanmenkyou) 3-sided mirror

To a Japanese person a mirror is called using the `Kun` reading of `Kagami`. Now, this is interesting in that long before the arrival of Kanji on the shores of Japan the Japanese had a word for looking at their reflection in say a still body of water. And that is this word Kagami which broken down reveals an interesting make-up.

`Ka` relates to `Kari` (仮)which means virtual.

`Ga` means `me` or the `self` ().

`Mi` is short for `to see` (みる/見る).

So put together the original Japanese Kagami means something like, `Looking at a virtual me`.

Are you beginning to catch a glimpse of the depth of the Japanese language?

So in a big nutshell that is the skeleton and backdrop of the Japanese language at least in its written form.

So now let`s look a bit at just how amazing it is especially when we consider that 99 percent of the Japanese population can read, write and speak this incredibly complex language.

By the time the average Japanese national reaches the 3rd year of Jr. High school they are able to read and to some degree write the 2,100 or so JouyouKanji (常用漢字).

Keep in mind that these are just the Kanji themselves and that contained with each of them will be multiple `On` and `Kun` readings.

Let`s just pull a random Kanji out of the sky…sky…yes, how about the Japanese word/Kanji for sky-Sora/空.

Sora/そら/ソラ/空

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`On` readings for Sora are: Kou, Ku, Kuu

`Kun` readings for Sora are: Sora, Aku, Akeru, Sora, Kara, Munashii, Ana.

Sora means everything from `The sky`, `Nothing inside`, `Empty`, `Wide and expansive`, `Big`, `Void`, `Gap`, `Missing`, `Hole`, and `an emptiness of feeling`.

Some words formed with this single Kanji are as follows:

空間ー Kuukan- empty space

空気ー Kuuki- air

空軍ー Kuugun- air force

空想ー Kuusou- creative imagination

空けるー Akeru- to make a hole, to make space, to vacate, to be in a blur, etc

空しいー Munashii (There is a more standard way of writing this 虚しい but Sora is also used) – a feeling of emptiness, of being in vain.

And there is nothing better than hearing Su-metal sing `Yozora` (夜空)or night sky in `Akatsuki` (紅月)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjQsayrmMoU

So let`s move on into the next level of Japanese that is the most difficult for those outside of the culture to understand. That is the levels of politeness or correctness regarding what could be called respect or correctness in  the Japanese society. In Japan, one must always adjust one`s way of speaking according to whom one is dealing with. This is called Keigo (敬語)and the various aspects of it are called first of all,  Sonkeigo (尊敬語), Kenjougo (謙譲語)and Teineigo (丁寧語). At first glance they are the same animal but upon close examination they are different and both are quite different from what can be found or not found at all in other societies.

Sonkeigo- To elevate the behavior or existence of the subject to an elevated level showing respect.

Kenjougo- To lower one`s behavior or existence to show respect to the other.

Teineigo- To show respect to the other`s behavior or existence in a polished or well mannered way.

And please don`t ask me to distinguish these in detail as not even most Japanese can do so.

Let us take a simple word and see how it works in these 3 frameworks.

Let us look at the simple word, eat. 食べる (Taberu-to eat)

In Sonkeigo that would change to [召し上がる] (Meshiagaru).

This means of course `to eat` but it says it in a way that shows that you feel the act of eating by the other party is a refined and elegant, respectful act.

In Kenjougo it would be [頂く] (Itadaku) indicating a respect to the other and indeed all acts involved in the preparation, loss of life (the sacrifice of the animals, plants involved), delivery and presentation of the food. In other words, showing oneself as being a small and thankful part of the whole process of partaking in the food.

In Teineigo it would be (食べます)(Tabemasu) or just a polite way of saying `to eat`. And even this Teineigo is a refined way of speaking. In casual or even coarse ways of speaking this would change further to [食べる)(Taberu) or (Kuu). These later two ways of speaking are not wrong in any sense of the words, but are considered very run of the mill or even rude in many situations in Japanese daily life.

Like I say, even Japanese living their whole lives in Japan often make mistakes in these usages and remember this is just one very simple verb `to eat` and yet the incorrect usage of it can often result in making you look very barbarian or conversely make you seem to be refined.

I really do not want to go deeply into this concept of polite usage of Japanese as whole books and volumes could easily be written and have been written about it. I merely want to acquaint you will the complexity of the Japanese language and culture. Without beating this point to absurdity I will add one more brief example.

When I was dating my wife, Eriko (a true saint and real human being if ever there was one), I went to visit her parents for the first time some 20 years ago.

I was of course nervous and wanting to make a good impression. So, when I approached the house and met her parents I said in my best Japanese `Ohayou Gozaimasu!`. Well you could feel the relief of my wife and her parents at seeing such a well mannered Gaijin speaking good Japanese. Anyway, we had lunch and had a great time together. I have no idea upon remembrance whether I spoke with them in Sonkeigo/Kenjougo or whether I used the casual form of Japanese that I was already skilled at or not. The next day or next week, we went to their house again and I bellowed out, `Ohayou!` to Eriko`s mother. I was met with an elbow to my ribs (and Eriko being about as small and slight as a human can be and yet still move around on the planet) that caused me to double over. `Thomas what the crap are you saying?` (In Japanese of course). She whispered strongly to me, `You can not, nor will you ever until the day you die talk to my mother in such vulgar Japanese`. It was at this point that I understood no matter how close you come to an elder person or someone above you in the vertical society of Japan you may not use casual Japanese. This of course goes against all I had learned in America where we try to get on first name terms and nicknames and casual speaking as quickly as possible. In Japan this simply does not float.

Years later I remember going to have Sushi with Eriko`s father. When we sat down and the first serving of Maguro was placed in front of me I said, to him, [いただかせていただきます] Itadakimaseteitadakimasu) or, (Thank you for allowing me to be allowed to partake of this food). And he smiled at me and said, `You have truly become Japanese. I am so proud to consider you part of our family`. I felt I had come full circle in understanding the importance of the proper usage of words in Japan.

Now, I have only touched upon the basics and background of the Japanese language and will label this as part 1 of a continuing series.

I know that if you have read this far that at least you have an interest in understanding Japanese. This post may have been from one point of view way too long and from another painfully short and almost insulting in its shortness. Anyway, if you have enjoyed this please leave a comment or send me an email to let me know what you think.

The great character of Japan!

 

This will cause you to well up with tears if you are Japanese (or even if you are not)

Japan is a great country.

 

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This is based loosely on a Japanese piece of writing that gets copied and pasted all over the Net that originally was posted on a site where the following topic had come up. Namely, `There is a country that has fought the Soviet Union, Europe and America`.

The Japanese Imperial line is more than 2,000 years longer than any other lineage in the world.It goes back to 660 BCE and stretches unbroken until the present day. That is a succession of 126 Emperors.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0B3jcsSWeM

The succession of Emperors (and Empresses) is based not on a religion but rather on the possession of 3 items found in Japanese mythology based on the Kojiki.kojiki-z3s

 

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Those items are the Sword found by Susanuo in the gut of a 8 headed snake,

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the mirror used to draw the Sun Goddess Amaterasu out of her cave and the hair ornaments she used to fight off her brother,

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Susanuo, known as Magatama.

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Nowhere in the Kojiki, or record of ancient affairs, does one find anything similar to the Bible, or the Koran or really any other book used as the basis of a religion. In other words, one of its most amazing aspects is that it never demands its readers or followers to do or not do anything. If there is a thing that you must obey to be considered as being a follower of the Kojiki or what is presently rather mistakenly known as Shintou, it would merely be the request that you stay clean in all aspects of that word. That is it. The current top of the Shintou `faith`, the Emperor Akihito or Heiwa Emperor

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makes an annual appearance on the first day of the year. At that brief ceremony he does not ask the Japanese to do anything. He merely waves and greets them on the beginning of the new year. At this time you get the overwhelming feeling that he trusts the Japanese to do what is best.

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If you have even a small amount of knowledge about your home country you will know that foreigners look upon Japan a bit differently than they do other countries.

First of all, it is remarkable that Japan has almost no natural resources.

This is a handicap that is like having your arms and legs snipped off.

Further, Japan has a population that is one third that of the United States living together

on a land mass that is 1/25th that of the US. On top of that this extremely small land area is 70% mountains, mountains, mountains-very difficult to deal with, mountains.

Thus it is not even possible to grow an excess of agricultural products to export overseas.

Based on these conditions it would not be illogical to write Japan off as a likely candidate for the poorest country on Earth. 

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This country that could easily have developed into the poorest of them all just around 100 years ago defeated the most powerful countries of the day, Russia and China. In the usual course of affairs this non-caucasian nation would come under the governance of the caucasian sphere of control but conversely Japan went to war with the U.S. and went on to be the only country in modern times to attack American soil, make mincemeat of the invincible British navy, overthrow Holland and become the only country to be bombed with an atomic bomb-not once but twice. All events that can scarce be imagined. And while Japan is considered to have been a defeated country in World War 2 it was because of Japan that the colonial rule of Asia by the caucasians was eliminated.

Moreover, what is most hard to fathom is that this country that was defeated in the war and which from the outset had no remarkable natural resources had had its infrastructure totally wiped out, was saddled with monstrous compensatory demands left this weakened and tiny country without hope revitalizing itself. Indeed the world thought they had relieved themselves of seeing the cheeky, yellow monkey`s face reveal itself for a few centuries to come. However, almost immediately over the short span of a couple of decades Japan joined full force into the economic battles of the caucasian society and in almost no time at all rushed past the United States to become the world`s number 1 economic power. The world was left with its jaw on the floor as Japan became a super economic power that resulted in the land value of Tokyo alone being of level of more value than that of the entire United States. Following this for quite some time Japan maintained its economic ranking of number 2 in the world. Moreover this economy was based on 80% coming from its own domestic market. And this happened in the financial markets before Japan make huge strides in exporting cars, household electronics and other manufactured items. We are in the realm of the outrageous. Japan`s successes in the 60 years following the conclusion of World War 2 all came without firing a shot or invading another country.

Japan almost never has electric blackouts. If it happens it is on a scale of `once in a few years` at most. Wherever you go, `water and kindness are available free of charge` and there are areas of Japan so free from thieves that they don`t bother to lock their doors. 99% of the population can read and write Japanese and moreover can read and write Kanji.

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The ratio of greenery in Japanese land is 2nd only to Finland. Further, with a population that is only 2% of the world`s total and in possession of a mere 0.25% of the world`s land area and natural resources Japan produces 17% of the world`s total GDP. Japan has also quietly become home to the world`s longest lived people. Then there are the incredible art forms of Manga, anime and games. Before anyone has noticed Japan has approached the scale of Hollywood. The number one term used in American search engines is Japanese anime. The most popular movies around the globe are Japanese anime.

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When the March 11th, 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami devastated the North-east region of Japan the high moralistic and ethical standards in the Japanese character prevented the occurrence of rioting, looting and even much of a degree of displays of panic. The world was also amazed at the speed and efficiency, indicating a high level of technological and managerial skill, in which the roads and infrastructure were largely restored.

For 21 years straight, in 2010 Japan was once again rated as having the highest amount of net assets of any country in the world with around 2.5 trillion dollars. In other words it would be fair to say that Japan is the wealthiest country in the world.

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In the world of cuisine Japan also has the largest number of Michelin 3-star restaurants in the world.

 

 

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Looking at Japan in terms of transportation we see that the extremely sophisticated and speedy Shinkansen (bullet train) has never had an accident resulting in death.

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The train system in Japan is always regarded as being the most precise and well run one in the world as anyone who has spent anytime in Tokyo can attest to.

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The cities in Japan are usually referred to by overseas visitors as being, clean, safe, convenient and filled with kind, helpful and just generally pleasant people.

 

If Japan was like any other country in the world all of these together would make it a terrifying country that no one would want to have anything to do with. But yet we see millions around the world yearning to come to Japan and soak up its wisdom and if that is not possible they absorb the movies, anime, games, history and culture that make this truly I feel the greatest country on this planet.

God, I wish Utada would study, or should I say teach, Aikido

I could have sworn I was reading one of Tohei-sensei’s books when I ran across this comment written by one of the loveliest singer/songwriters (Let us never forget, Babymetal`s Su-metal)

 

10848816_930172166994928_6896331159124417170_o to ever grace this planet-Utada Hikaru.

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Pure Aikido is this.

From Utada Hikaru’s book, Sen (線)

いろんな人が『腹筋を鍛える!きつい!』とかって言ってるけど、わたくし、宇多田ヒカルはぜんっぜん何も考えて歌っておりやせん!ぜんぜん腹に力入れてないよ (笑)むしろ、カラダの力全部抜いて、頭のテッペンから口、のど、肺、食道、胃袋、おなか、足のつまさき、までがぜんぶつながってて、一つの楽器みたいに歌うかな。集中することと、力を入れてふんばっちゃうのはぜんぜん違うことだと思う。

ただら、歌うのってぜんぜんつかれない。いっくら歌ったって声あれないし、しゃべったり笑ったりした時のほうがノドすんごいつかれるー!

My translation:

A lot of people say, “It must be tough to strengthen your abdominal muscles”. As for myself, Utada Hikaru, I am not thinking anything when I sing! And I certainly do not put tension in my abdomen (laughs). To the contrary, I release all the tension from every part of my body and sing with every part of my body from the top of my head to my mouth, throat, lungs, wind pipe, stomach, intestines to the tips of my toes as one single connected musical instrument.

I feel that concentrating, and digging in by filling your body with tension are TOTALLY different animals.

So, when I sing I don’t get tired at all. I could sing all day without my voice giving out. In fact talking and laughing tire me out way more than singing.

 

-Obviously I feel that this reflects exactly how Su-metal approaches and achieves her incredible performances as well. But for now we can only wait until the day when speaks more about this in her own words.