Saturday, July 13, 2013

Japanese Incense Culture

Happy New Year!!

...I'm a little late, aren't I?  In all honesty, I began this last December and was just that lazy getting around to it.  At first I thought I might be done in time for Koshōgatsu, then a desperate attempt to finish in time for Chinese New Year, but now it seems the only New Year I'm even with is some sort of ancient Babylonian fertility festival in honour of the goddess Ishtar.  And here we are at Tanabata.

Happy Tanabata!!

Regardless, it is my first entry of the new year, so it still sort of counts.  First procrastination?  First stalling for time?

This year is the Year of the Snake (巳年), isn't it?  It must be good luck for anyone born in another snake year.  For my first entry of this year, I wanted to discuss something pertaining to that, and I don't have to tell you that there are quite possibly as many snake yōkai as there are types of snakes themselves.  But that doesn't seem like a very auspicious start to the year, does it?  Besides, with the amount of horrible things I plan to do entries on in this Year of the Snake, I need all the auspiciousness I can get.

So what's something that is extremely auspicious, has something to do with traditional Japanese culture, and coils and slithers like a snake?

Well, you already know from looking at the title, but it's incense, of course.

Incense in Japan is something that is only vaguely understood, or even cared about, but it's actually a pretty fascinating and esoteric subject.  Incense is fairly common in daily life, or at special occasions, that most people don't even think about, but understanding its use and appreciation in Japanese culture has fascinated anthropologists and enthusiasts of the Orient for quite a long time.

Certainly one of the most famous, if not the most famous, author on Japanese culture is one Mr. Lafcadio Hearn.  I believe I've mentioned him before, but let me bring you up to speed:  A Westerner by birth, he traveled to Japan and recorded his very profound and astute observations on all things Japanese just as the Japan-craze was sweeping over Europe.  Not only is he still one of the sole sources on Japanese culture written in English, but his books were also translated into Japanese, where he is still considered an authority on the subject.  The thing about Lafcadio Hearn is that, as a foreigner, many Japanese people would tell him stories and information and folklore that they assumed everybody in Japan knew, when in fact most of their knowledge had never been recorded or even heard of outside of the village or region of its origin.  Therefore, Hearn also sparked in Japan a renewed interest in Japanese culture.

He also sparked a renewed interest for amazing moustaches.

Perhaps best known for Kwaidan, the study of all Japanese things creepy and strange (effectively sharing with the world and the rest of the country itself a record of ghost stories and the like), this would go on to inspire most of Japan's folklorists and yōkai-ologists, so the majority of information we have on ghosts and yōkai are from around the time of Lafcadio Hearn.  But there are a few modern enthusiasts who stubbornly refuse to let go and continue to obsess and attempt to spread knowledge of creepy Japanese things in order to freak out others or just alienate potential friends.  Hello!

However, Lafcadio Hearn wrote about so much more than Japanese ghosts.  Dutifully recording anything he found interesting, beautiful, or exciting, his writing was as culturally sensitive and appropriate to Japanese sensibilities as it was informative and appealing prose in the West.  Anyone who has an interest in Japan can't go wrong reading Hearn in English or Japanese, though the translations are perhaps not as indicative of the unique voice Hearn has as an author.

Anyway, in an attempt to be a bit more high-brow, I'll begin the year by discussing Hearn's research on incense, which, I'll admit, seems rather boring and trivial, but actually reveals quite a bit about Japanese culture, history, and people.  Also, I will add photos, my own thoughts and experiences, and some updates, since quite a bit has changed in Japan since the time of Lafcadio Hearn.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Kawanabe Kyōsai, Painter of Insanity

I have been asked to do my best to explain this:

I'd love to tell you about the ironic subtleties included to mock the upper crust of Japanese society, the unique use of tools to create images that remind one of the transience of life, the hidden meaning of the work which delves into existentialism and the wonders and amusements of the floating world.

Nope.  It's a fart battle.  That's all.  Sure, there are a few little interesting tidbits.  Feel free to check out the rest of the scroll.  It makes me very nostalgic.  I remember being small and having to trek out to the library and get special permission to go to the back room which smelled of dust and dead caterpillars and appeared to be coated in as much, and painstakingly search for the texts I needed and ever-so-slowly wind through the archives on a big machine that displayed them to me so my grubby little hands didn't destroy the precious originals, all the while the room becoming even more swelteringly hot and choking me.  I hated it until I had to do the same thing for a project recently, and was reminded how much I enjoy the smell of old things.

The university archive these images are from is done in roughly the same process, except for now we can all use the internet from the comfort of our own homes.  I wonder after the people who would need to look up this scroll for reference.

I can smell this one, too.  This is an old scroll I do not want to smell.

However, this is not an exclusive subject matter in any way.  Fart battles are actually a thing in Japanese art of this time.  Several artists actually did their own interpretations of the most ludicrous and powerful farts you'll ever see, everyone from the extremely famous Utagawa Kuniyoshi to a revered Buddhist monk and philosopher.

Many more interpretations, like this one, remain anonymous.  To some extent, the fart battles were a response to the encroaching Westernization of Japan, which I've discussed a few times before.  As Western influence began to seep into everyday society, and Japan was declared crude, distasteful, base and barbaric, many traditional Japanese things were adjusted or done away with entirely to appease the discerning eyes of the Western world.  Brothels were closed, pleasure districts dwindled, geisha were temporarily forced to cease activity until the West could figure out what it was that they did, kabuki plays were infused with Christian morals, and art was, to some extent, censored.  Glorifying nudity and peasant life was crude, it was decided.

So, in a way, the fart battles appear to be a kind of protest, depicting men in court hats doing the most vile and odious things imaginable, their genitals and hind-parts fully exposed and flapping in the wind, farting openly at one another as noble ladies look on with interest and swoon after the most noxious of fumes.

I can't think of a more disturbing and downright hilarious way to fully embrace the whole absurd idea of Japan's inferiority.  "We Japanese are a simple and vulgar people with no regard for your manners?  Well, take a look at THIS!"

But there is one man who produced some fart scrolls who did not wish to remain anonymous.  In fact, fart battles are almost synonymous with him.  Many anonymous works are accredited to him, or said to be "in the style of" him, and he in fact produced not one, but several fart battle scrolls of varying degrees of obscenity.

I've never really done an artist spotlight before, even though I have heavily mentioned and featured the work of Yoshitoshi, and showcased Sekien a few times in my entries on yōkai.  But since I'm here, I think I will expand the entry to show you some pictures and tell you a bit about my other favourite Japanese artist.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ubume, the Yōkai Who Was Once Human

And now we have come to the end of our week of element-based yōkai.  Today's yōkai features that most crucial element of all, the human element (a neo-Japanesque thought if ever I had one).

I've stated before that yōkai are unlike anything else in any other country's lore, and even within Japan.  They are not revered like kami, they are not feared like ghosts, they are not avoided like demons.  Ghosts are one thing, monsters another, and yōkai are just yōkai.  They're kind of the lower rung of odd Japanese beasts, as the humourous stories many possess show.  They may attempt to explain or personify a natural phenomenon, they may just be mischievous being who wants to mess with humans, or they may just be some random, distinctive creature who happens to live in Japan.  Like I said in this week's first entry, just because we don't see yōkai so much anymore doesn't mean that they aren't still there.  Today's yōkai is no exception.

While yōkai are just inhabitants of the country, be they natural or supernatural, the creatures themselves are simply different than most things that roam Japan:  that's what makes them yōkai.  However, we've seen Tesso, who was once a man that let his unnatural death turn him into an onryō, except that it became rather monstrous, so he is viewed as a yōkai instead.  But that is a single happening: there is only one Tesso, and he only really wanted to spook one or two people.  So he isn't a breed of yōkai, he's just a guy that became monstrous in death.  That's pretty common in Japan.

What is uncommon is that certain element of humanity that enables anyone to become a yōkai.  There are only two such yōkai that I can think of, and today I will discuss one of them.

What is it about the human spirit that holds such unique power?  Today's yōkai exemplifies this quandary.  Japanese live in a wonderful country inhabited from great gods to lowly demons to bugs to pesky yōkai to ghosts to wolves to people.  Everything lives there and interacts with one another on different levels.  We know that some animals can be born, or some objects can be improperly purified and cared for and, after a long time, they become yōkai.  Some humans live unfortunate lives and have no power to control their own destiny until they are dead, wherein their spirit lingers on, hoping for some retribution.

But what if a human spirit is able to pass on, their body properly purified and cared for, but their feelings remain?  What if those feelings then manifest themselves into something frightening?  What if those feelings are able to change themselves into a yōkai all its own?  While incredibly rare, this sort of transformation is exclusively human.  What makes a human being become a yōkai?  Let's let the ubume tell us.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Raijū, the Shinto Storm God's Lightning Companion

So now it's Day 6 of Yōkai Week, and I've run out of the Five Elements of Chinese Philosophy.

"Well, that's obvious," you may be saying, "we were wondering why in the world you made such a big deal about the five elements when you knew you had a week's worth of entries to do. That was a pretty bone-headed decision."

Hey now, no need to be hurtful. I can just switch over to the Five Elements of Japanese Philosophy, which conveniently have two different elements.

"Why didn't you just do that in the first place?"

Good question. Actually, that would mean that today's element would be air (風) or nothingness (空).

"Hey, nothingness, that sounds pretty scary. What a great concept for Halloween!"

Yes, I do have projected conversations with myself quite a bit, but it's nothing to worry about. But you're right, nothingness is an extremely terrifying concept. Too terrifying for me to cover, in fact, without a bit more religious education.  Though some insight can be gained from people like Miyamoto Musashi or a high-ranking Zen monk like the one in Lone Wolf and Cub, it only really reinforces the fact that I am nowhere near capable of understanding it myself, let alone possessing the capacity to explain it to you, accompanied by witty comments and interesting pictures.

I think instead I'll just combine the remaining two elements, air, and use the alternate reading of nothingness for sky or heaven, and how about the additional element of electricity, for all you Pokemon fans out there?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Umi-bōzu, Monster Monks from the Sea

Our next element is water, 水.  I did a water ghost before, and in fact, the Funa-Yūrei have a bit in common with today's yōkai, but they are vastly different in appearance, location, lore, and whatnot.  They are, however, sometimes considered to be partners-in-crime, if for no other reason than because a lot of really freaky things exist in the ocean.

This is not a yōkai.  This thing is definitely swimming around in the water right now.  Tastes damn good, though.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Tesso, the Iron Rat

Today's yōkai represents the Chinese element 金.  As we've seen before, this means gold.  However, since I've already talked about a gold yōkai, it also means, and is taken here in the gogyou ideology to mean metal.

So let's talk about Tesso (鉄鼠), the Iron Rat!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Konaki Jijii, A Yōkai Ripe with Superstition

Today's element is earth, 土.  Today's yōkai is also kind of popular in Japan.  Though perhaps best known from the ever-popular and all-encompassing series, Mizuki Shigeru's GeGeGe no Kitarō, sightings and stories of today's yōkai have been related all throughout the country.  Commonly attributed to Tokushima Prefecture in Shikoku, because of that island's association with the wild, natural locations in which this yōkai is known to dwell, in fact he has been spotted nationwide, and many rural villages have their own superstitions regarding... the Konaki Jijii (子泣き爺).