Learning about Ise at Kogakkan: Day 6

As I’ve noted in a previous post, at one point there was only a single pilgrim allowed to visit Ise; a female relative of the emperor called the Saiō 斎王. Today we visited the Saiō’s classical period palace, called the SaikÅ« æ–Žå®®. At the SaikÅ« history museum we watched a video about how a young girl would made the long and arduous trek from the Heian court in Kyoto to this remote palace a day’s walk from Ise. (Nobody knows why the SaikÅ« is so far from the JingÅ«.) The princess had to maintain royal dignity even far from the city, so she was carried the entire way in a palanquin, including a hike over the mountains. Once they arrived at the SaikÅ«, they had to obey the directional taboos and wait for a lucky day to enter. The Saiō would stay in her palace for about five to eight years, then she would be carried back.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In fact this palace hadn’t existed for roughly 800 years before the 20th century. From the mists of the 6th century AD to the fall of the Kamakura shogunate in 1333, a Saiō was continuously appointed, but by the time the Heian court dissolved into civil war, the SaikÅ« was no longer a place for a lady, and it was abandoned in 1274. Around the year 1180, the wandering poet Saigyō stopped by its decrepit remains on the way to Ise, and jotted down a bit of singsongy dustsceawung:

いつかまた いつきの宮の いつかれて しめのみうちに ちりをはらはん

Whither this weathered palace? I wonder whether it will ever again be made pure, if ever the rubbish will be swept from its sacred grounds

About 800 years later, ever-literal moderns did a close archaeological survey to figure out what the palace once looked like, and rebuilt it and swept the rubbish from its grounds. This year, three more buildings will be constructed, placing new wooden pillars precisely where the old ones used to be. We were given a surprise tour of the construction site, which was a surprise to those among us who were wearing high heels.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There’s already both a museum devoted to this complex, and a “history experience hall” in the completed rebuilt building. So this new building will be a space for events, such as the national karuta competition, or traditional arts like Noh plays.

The village where the SaikÅ« was once located is otherwise known for farming. When I was there I saw a farmer driving a tractor down one of the ancient stone paths that the Saiō would have taken to get to Ise. There is very much a countryside feel to this place. If you ever get the chance to visit the SaikÅ«, make sure to go to the little cafeteria across from the “history experience hall”, where you can enjoy a palanquin-shaped bento made entirely of local foods.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The other thing we did today was go to the fish paste (kamaboko) factory and make some fish paste cakes, but I don’t have any good pictures of that. Wait, I lied!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Posted: February 28th, 2015 | Kogakkan


Learning about Ise at Kogakkan: Day 5

Today, Ise Jingū is known exclusively for being a place of Shinto pilgrimage. But up until the Meiji separation of shrines and temples, there was a place you could walk to from the Naikū for another kind of pilgrimage. I once tried to walk from the Naikū across the mountains and found it a rather intense experience. I wish I had known that if I had taken a different direction, there would have been a Buddhist temple complex called Asamayama waiting for me at the end of the trail.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The bus ride to Asamayama took us on a narrow, bumpy road up a steep mountain for about half an hour. As we reached the top there was nothing but wilderness visible in every direction. Our first stop was the treasure house, which had the word CLOSED 閉館 painted on it in large letters using tape. The head priest unlocked the doors and showed us inside; there were some 1000-year-old national treasures, which properly belonged on the altars of the various buildings, kept in the treasure house due to the recent spree of robberies by Korean nationalists. There were also various medieval curios, such as an old set of weights and a artfully carved statue of some warrior Buddha wearing elephant heads for his trousers.

As I was taking the above picture of the entrance, the head priest pointed the other way, down a very old-looking stone path, clearly of prewar construction. There was a weathered sign reading “Old Pilgrimage Road” towards its start. “This goes all the way to the NaikÅ«,” he said. I wanted to run down and take a picture of where it went, but we were hurrying along to the main Buddha hall. Pictured: a bridge we weren’t allowed to cross.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Asamayama possibly dates back to the 6th century A.D., making it almost as old as the JingÅ« itself. Here, the aristocrats could go into seclusion as monks and nuns; in the early 20th century a metal canister was discovered with a sutra in it, written by a nun in honor of her dead husband, a chief priest at the GekÅ«. At this temple, Shinto and Buddhism are mixed freely. A sakaki tree stands in the main Buddha hall, and behind the enshrined Buddha there is a hidden altar to Amaterasu. Formerly, Amaterasu herself was honored in one of the temple buildings, using a statue of her 16-year-old self, called Uhou-Douji 雨宝童子 or “Rain Treasure Child,” and supposedly carved by the genius philosopher KÅ«kai. This statue is now kept in the treasure house. I would like to know why the sun goddess was given the name “rain treasure,” and why the specific age of the figure portrayed was so important. (Update: Mystery solved) Here is a completely unrelated picture.

amtarerasu

Away from the main Buddha hall, in a secluded part of the mountain, is another building where the monks presumably live. Connecting the main buildings with these side buildings is a path covered in many rows of calligraphy painted onto wooden poles, called sotoba 卒塔婆. This word is quite simply the Sanskrit stÅ«pa स्तूप imported into Japanese through Chinese. The stupas are left to honor the spirits of the dead and help them achieve Buddhahood. The bigger the pole, the more expensive. Many of these poles are the result of a monthly offering by Ise’s fishermen to calm the souls of the fish they catch (below, left). But the largest one of all, a special offering (below, right), was for the soul of the grandmother of the owner of Akafuku, who made the sweet rice cakes we ate outside the NaikÅ«. We have also learned on this trip that Akafuku’s owner has promised over $1 million to build a soccer stadium at Ise. I never knew that rice cakes could be such big business.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

To close out the week, the program director invited us to an all-you-can-drink party at a craft brewery in town. I would love to say more about this but I’m afraid I don’t remember it too well. Anyway, I had never heard about this place on previous trips to Ise, but in fact in the Edo period many pilgrims to Ise would go here as well, due to the temple being 1000 years old and directly connected with Amaterasu. The slogan for the temple was, “If you don’t go to Asamayama, it’s only a partway pilgrimage!”

Posted: February 27th, 2015 | Kogakkan


Learning about Ise at Kogakkan: Days 3 and 4

The past two days have been focused on two things: a guided tour of Ise JingÅ«, and an overview of Ise society focusing on the early modern period. Our professor for these two days, Sakurai Haruo, introduced us to a lot of fascinating things about life around the JingÅ« in the early modern period. Ise was Japan’s biggest attraction, home to the country’s first paper money, first environmental protection policy, community libraries, souvenirs, and coupon books.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Originally, Ise only had one pilgrim: the saioh 斎王, a female Imperial relative who lived in a house called the saikÅ« æ–Žå®®. As the ages passed, eventually other kinds of attendants were allowed in, then Buddhists, then the general public. By the Edo period, Ise was being marketed throughout the country by professional promoters called oshi 御師, which means “great teacher,” but tellingly is a homonym for “pusher” [this is incorrect. For details see this post].

Ise became big as a place to get away to. Sakurai-sensei showed us a memorial to a teahouse in Osaka where people would gather to form groups and start on the road to Ise. In fact, it was not just those from out of town but also those in Osaka who would gather here, in order to get away from their families before starting the trip. In the Edo period, apparently, people from all walks of life desired a break from the everyday, and trying to improve their lives and connect with the heart of the nation at the Jingū was the popular way to achieve this.

Runaways were often punished, but this was rarely severe. It seems to be akin to the modern day situation of a teenager grabbing Mom’s car and going for a joyride, except that in this case the runaways could claim they had important reasons to go to the JingÅ«, and could take a month or two to return. The attitude of shrinekeepers towards the pilgrims and the trials they expected them to face on return is worth noting, as translated in an excellent article by Laura Nenzi in the Japanese J of Religious Studies.

A collection of miraculous tales associated with the Ise pilgrimage of 1705, Ise daijingÅ« zoku shin’iki 伊勢太神宮続神異記 [Records of the miracles by the gods of Ise Shrine, a sequel] includes episodes that well illustrate how frosty, if not downright hostile, the reception of returning fugitives could in fact be. One such episode narrates the story of a female servant from a household in Settsu æ‘‚æ´¥ Province who sets out for Ise without notifying her master. Enraged, the master’s wife accuses the servant of having committed “a punishable act” (kusegoto 曲事), and vows to reprimand her accordingly. When the servant comes back, she brings amulets and souvenirs, and reassures her masters that she prayed for them at the shrine. Utterly unimpressed, the two kick the amulet box across the room and punch her. Out of the amulet box comes a small snake that rapidly grows in size to horrifying monster-like proportions. Terrified by the supernatural occurrence, husband and wife forgive the servant, beg for mercy, recant their faith in the Lotus Sutra, and vow to go to Ise to expiate their sins. […]

Collected by members of the Ise clergy (hence the reference to recanting the faith in the Lotus Sutra), these tales inevitably end with the triumph of the kami and of religious logic, effectively serving as propaganda for the claim that faith ought to exist above and beyond the practical needs and the laws of “this” world, and would have its ways in the end.

But notice also the concern the Jingū shrinekeepers had for a lowly servant. Such a class of person could not be expected to bring a financial windfall to the Jingū. What concerned them more than economic benefits was ensuring that trips to Ise would be taken seriously and respected as an act of devotion.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Pilgrims carried a ladle to show that they were accepting donations, but for unknown reasons they would discard it when they reached the Naikū. Mothers often came carrying their children, and if they were separated, the monks of Ise would take care of the kids until they were reunited. It was a crowded place, especially in years of okagemairi when millions of people suddenly descended on Ise en masse, and rarely would visitors stay for more than 2 or 3 days. But they might go on to some other, less sacred destination before returning home.

Our tour was led over the past two days by Sano-san, who I posted a picture of on Day 1. He gave us all the stats on every major shrine inside the JingÅ« grounds. The guy really is a walking database. As always, Kogakkan paid for the tour and gave us free Akafuku, the famous Ise treat. I hadn’t had it before and it was delicious!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Today, visitors to Ise get an even more splendid sight than the pilgrims of the Edo period: streets full of well-maintained, beautiful old houses, called Oharai-machi around the Naikū and Iseshiekimae around the Gekū. The restoration of these streets, which took place respectively around the 1993 and 2013 shikinen sengū, cost the city over $400 million. But the attention to detail shows, for example when you look at this unusual convenience store entrance.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

These days, though, the Japanese approach to religion is changing. After the Aum Shinrikyo subway bombings especially, many Japanese people feel “allergic” to religious adherence, but they still want a connection to an unseen “something” outside themselves. As a result, pilgrimage to Ise has skyrocketed, and random spots inside the shrine are now becoming “power spots” where people try to feel some magical energy radiating out. Sakurai-sensei said there has not been a lot of work done in this field yet, but this is something I hope to look into during my own research program in Tokyo.

Posted: February 26th, 2015 | Kogakkan


Learning about Ise at Kogakkan: Day 2

Today we focused on traditional rites, shrine workers, and seasonal festivals and events. Much of what we learned can be summed up in a rare video we watched called The Heart of the Matsuri: an Invitation to Shinto. This video seems to be fairly little known even among Westerners interested in Shinto, as it only has about 10 views on YouTube. But it is quite informative so I will put it right at the top of my post. Please go ahead and watch the whole thing; I’ll be here when you get back.

Besides being a fascinating collection of real festival videos, this video shows an idealized picture of how Shinto ought to work according to Jinja Honcho, which organizes most of the shrines in the country. Of particular note is their emphasis on the ujiko system, in which people take care of shrines to which they have a blood connection — shrines connected with their historical or legendary ancestors. Because there are only 20,000 shrine workers in Japan for 80,000 shrines, Jinja Honcho likes the volunteer work done by ujiko. But in fact, despite how it is described in the video, many Japanese people are not aware of being connected with an ujigami, especially when they have moved away from their home villages.

Because the professor-priest who showed us this video was clearly involved in Jinja Honcho, I was curious and asked him what Jinja Honcho recommended for when people move from the countryside to Tokyo. He said that even if they have no uji in the area, they still have ubusuna 産土, the particular neighborhood they live in that ties them to a local kami. But he did not seem to think it plausible that people would seek out a local association to become ubuko, 産子. He said that this is something they would have to learn about by talking with local people, and so he concluded that regrettably it would be hard for urbanites to remain in this idealized Jinja Honcho system if they don’t work to create social ties binding them to their local community, kizuna 絆.

This video was from roughly 1998. We also received another, much more recent attempt to introduce Shinto to foreigners: the book Soul of Japan, produced to commemorate the 2013 shikinen sengÅ«. This book made some headlines in the Japanese press for the fact that words like jinja and kami were officially decided to be left untranslated. However, it is only offered as a PDF and a pamphlet available in Ise itself, and you can’t really order a copy online.

Other things we did today included learning all of the annual rituals performed at the JingÅ«, hearing about the history of the JingÅ«, talking about Ise’s attempts to promote itself to foreign tourists, and dressing up in the outfit worn by shrine workers (神職) of various kinds during the most elaborate ceremonies. Here’s an embarrassing photo of myself in full shrine regalia.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was interesting to experience wearing this kind of clothing for myself. It took about half an hour to put on, and we were instructed to handle ourselves carefully when we were walking around with it on, but once I took it off I had the distinct feeling that my Western clothing was informal and slovenly, a feeling that was shared by many of my classmates. Here’s a photo of some of my classmates being instructed in the way of doing full ritual sanpai for women.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We learned how to walk and move gracefully in a space used for practicing shrine rituals. The professor-priest showed us the difference between the worship area (拝殿 haiden) of the shrine, where people ascend a staircase and pay their respects, and the main hall (本殿 honden), which is open only to priests. When he raised the curtain and allowed us to enter the practice honden, everyone piled in and had a look around. Of course, there were no secrets there, just a table used for making offerings. The actual object representing the enshrined kami (神体 shintai) would be behind another, closed, door, which is visible in the background in this photo.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It is interesting to consider a great difference between Western and Japanese instincts in this regard. I think many Westerners get unreasonably curious about what can be found in secret places. We all want to get a peek behind the curtain. But at Ise Jingu, thousands of Japanese every day content themselves with praying to the curtain. It only costs $10 to get a special sanpai and get yourself a little closer to the honden, but very few Japanese people are interested in this. After all, the important thing is that the kami is there, not the kind of mirror or object it resides in.

Posted: February 24th, 2015 | Kogakkan


Learning about Ise at Kogakkan: Day 1

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Kōgakkan University is a small private college in a city in rural Japan called Ise, home of the most important Shinto shrine, Ise JingÅ«. This month, I join other masters’ students on a Shinto studies program at Kōgakkan. We’ll be touring all over the city and surrounding countryside, hearing lectures in Japanese from some notable scholars in the fields of Japanese history and religion. I will be sharing much of what I see and hear, so this blog will have more updates than usual.

There are thousands of Shinto shrines across Japan, but there is only one JingÅ«. The JingÅ« is where the most ancient figures of the Imperial line are worshiped. The kanji for JingÅ« 神宮 is “kami + miya”, where a miya implies something like an Imperial palace. If a shrine (jinja) implies a dilapidated old altar on the side of the road, a palace (miya) is a new building, regularly rebuilt to prevent decay, that can only built on Imperial grounds. Indeed, ordinary citizens are not allowed inside the central building, or honden 本殿 of the JingÅ«. We must stand at the outermost gate. Only the Emperor and his family are permitted to enter.

Ise JingÅ« consists of two different legal organizations, the GekÅ« (外宮 “Outer Miya”) and the NaikÅ« (内宮 “Inner Miya”). The NaikÅ« is also known as Kōtai JingÅ«, or the Emperor’s JingÅ«. The most important kami at the JingÅ« is Amaterasu-Oomikami, who is housed in the central miya of the NaikÅ«. The GekÅ« houses Toyouke-Oomikami, who was called to Ise to prepare Amaterasu’s food. As is common across all ancient societies, the offering of food to the highest ancestor is a very serious matter: in this case, so serious that part of the JingÅ« is dedicated to the kami who would prepare that food.

Kōgakkan, located between the Naikū and the Gekū, is one of only two universities in Japan that has the promotion of Shinto as its founding mission. Shrine priests are also trained here. This means that some unusual groups are coming through; today in the Kōgakkan lunchroom, there were a bunch of young men dressed in shrine priest robes who sang a Shinto prayer before and after eating. I am sure that I will see and learn many more interesting things in the days to come.

This program has assembled a motley crew of Japan scholars from across Europe and the US. It includes a Romanian comparative literature student with an interest in Jungian archetypes, a Spanish guy who quit his job (a rare thing in Spain these days) to make a serious study of early modern cultural exchange, and two Poles from the same school who do a remarkable job of being a tsukkomi and boke. When he introduced himself to our professors, the boke insisted that they call him “Micchan”, so I’ll refer to him by that name on this blog. The people at Kōgakkan have been very nice and showered us with gifts as we started the program today. They’re also paying for all of our meals and a free guided tour of Kyoto. Below, some of the books they gave us:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After the opening ceremony today, we heard a lecture from the president of the college, a Shinto historian named Shimizu Kiyoshi 清水潔. Shimizu-sensei explained that Kōgakkan was founded in 1887 as a reaction to Tokyo University having no Eastern readings in its original curriculum. To give us a taste of the early Meiji love of all things Western, he related the episode of the Rokumeikan, where Japanese nobles built a modern dance hall and attempted to hold fancy dress parties in a perfect copy of European fashions, only to trigger harsh critique from Westerners who found the empty imitation of their social rituals uncomfortable and eerie.

Japan had a need to blaze its own trail and assert itself as a developed country, without endlessly imitating Europe. Shimizu-sensei quoted from German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann’s 1865 account of his visit to Japan. Schliemann was apparently impressed with Japan’s mastery of Western technologies, but felt that Japan lacked “spiritual development” — that is to say, Christianity. In this context, the philology and classical studies promoted at Kōgakkan could be helpful to Japan in demonstrating its moral worth as a nation. Shimizu-sensei is of the opinion that even today, Japanese people need a firm grounding in their own language and history in order to explain their culture to foreigners.

Shimizu-sensei discussed briefly how Kōgakkan was closed in 1945. He only briefly mentioned that the primary reason for the closure is that the town of Ise was razed to the ground by American bombing. This began with, in January 1945, the destruction of several Gekū buildings, and continued into the summer with severe damage to Kōgakkan. The school did not reopen until 1962, with the support of alumni who had become wealthy in the postwar years. No longer would it be a public Shinto institute; now it was a private college, which has focused increasingly on education in recent years.

Sir Arthur Toynbee visited the JingÅ« in 1967. He left a message for the people of Ise where he described his experience at the JingÅ« as affirming the “underlying unity of all religions.” Shimizu-sensei apparently found this phrase very moving and he repeated it several times. Maybe he should read Frithjof Schuon.

We were given a tour of the campus — I was especially interested in the JingÅ«’s private archives, the Japanese equivalent of the Vatican Secret Library, which are located right next to the library — and enjoyed a free lunch. After lunch, a shrine otaku showed us around the nearby Yamatohime-no-miya and explained how to do sanpai (paying respects). Here he is with my classmate Jonathan:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Yamatohime-no-miya was just renewed for the 2013 shikinen sengÅ«, a recurring 20-year event where all of the shrine buildings at the JingÅ« are torn down and rebuilt. As Shimizu-sensei reminded us, the shikinen sengÅ« has been going on for over 1300 years. Our otaku guide, Sano-san, gave us some very complex and technical information about the circumstances surrounding Yamatohime-no-miya’s founding (it’s actually a new shrine) and its ranking in the internal JingÅ« shrine system (it’s called a betsugÅ«).

Following this, we had two lectures on the history of Ise from Okano Tomohiko 岡野友彦, a medievalist with a specialty in reading premodern Japanese literature. By this point my hike had worn me out, but I was awake enough to understand the important point that for much of its history before the 20th century Ise was dominated by two alliances, the Yamada Triad and the Uji Assembly, which controlled the pilgrimage businesses around the Geku and Naiku, respectively. He described a 1486 event where the Yamada refused to allow visitors to pass to the Naiku, which caused the Uji in return to call upon a neighboring warlord, Kitabatake Masasato, to give the Yamada an ultimatum. When they ignored him, Kitabatake and his crew set fire to the entire Gekū pilgrimage area and murdered the Yamadas indiscriminately. Some of the Yamadas were murdered inside the Gekū, which caused it to fall into a state of impurity. Okano-sensei did not mention this, but the Yamada and Uji actually called the Kitabatake warlords to intervene in their disputes (i.e. help kill each other) about ten times from 1400 to 1600, something which should have pleased the Kitabatakes very much, as it allowed them to build their power base in the Jingū area. It is not surprising in this context that the only time in history that the shikinen sengū was interrupted was the period from 1460 to 1580. The shrinekeepers must have been remarkably impoverished at this time.

After the Meiji Restoration, Ise JingÅ« took on renewed importance, and by 1930, with the expansion of the imperial cult, there were plans to turn it into a sacred city, similar to how the Saudis have attempted to renew Mecca. In 1940, the 2600th anniversary of Japan’s founding, a plan was approved to completely remodel the area. But in a typically shortsighted way for the time, the people who signed off on this plan did not realize that Japan’s increasing disregard for Western interests had set it on a path to total war. Okano-sensei described the postwar atmosphere at Ise, in an era when the JingÅ« had been bombed and damaged and the Kōgakkan abandoned, as a “hard blow spiritually” 精神的痛手. But the JingÅ« was rebuilt with private funds and continues to conduct the shikinen sengÅ« today, with increasing interest from the Japanese public. Over the course of 2013, 13 million pilgrims came to see it happen.

Another thing we learned from Okano-sensei is that it always rains on or near the day of the Naiku sengÅ«. After class we had a welcome party where I tried and failed to strike up a conversation with my professors, and then we students enjoyed a nijikai (second party) with all the extra beer and liquor left behind from the party. Okay, that’s it for today!

Posted: February 23rd, 2015 | Kogakkan


Silicon Valley Viewed from the East

Here is a guide to Bay Area culture, by and for East Coasters. All of these articles are really good.

Nick Bilton on the Silicon Valley “bubble” for the New York Times (2012)

Rebecca Solnit’s San Francisco diary in London Review of Books (2013)

Charlotte Allen’s “Silicon Chasm” in the D.C-based Weekly Standard (2013)

Joel Kotkin on “America’s New Oligarchs”. Kotkin lives in Orange County, but he has a keen eye. (2013)

The New Yorker on A-list programmers in the Bay Area (2014)

New York magazine on a 16-year-old tech entrepreneur (2014)

Sam Frank meets the LessWrong people for the New York-based Harper’s (2015)

Posted: February 17th, 2015 | Kultur


Gizen does not mean “hypocrisy”

When you look up the word gizen 偽善 in a Japanese-English dictionary, the word “hypocrisy” often comes up. But the two words are very different.

According to Daijirin, gizen means “a good deed that doesn’t come from the heart, but is only for appearances’ sake.” But Merriam-Webster defines hypocrisy as “the behavior of people who do things that they tell other people not to do”, and Wikipedia defines it as “the practice of engaging in the same behavior or activity for which one criticizes another.”

DictJuggler gives gizen the amusing psychological translation of “dissimulation.” Gizen refers to good deeds that do not match an inner attitude, and modern “hypocrisy” refers almost exclusively to bad deeds that do not match an outer attitude. How did this happen?

In fact, a shocking thing has happened to the English language. The Japanese-English pairing given would have been accurate 100 years ago, which is likely where dictionaries get their definitions. For example, this is an accurate translation of Edward Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart“:

I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer!
偽善者め、こんな作り笑いにはもう我慢できない!

(Mr. Poe’s narrator uses the word “hypocrite” to indicate that he was not being taken seriously and he knew it.)

But this is no longer an accurate pairing for modern usages, because the original meaning of “hypocrisy” has been changed, and a French loanword has been introduced into the English language to take its place: rôle. In modern English, gizen means “playing a role,” which is a behavior that sociologists somewhat crudely attribute to all human beings.

Before 1880, the word “role” was barely even used in English, as this Google Ngrams chart shows:

adoption graph

Nor was it common to think of people carrying out their duties as mere actors playing roles. This was described, before 1880, as “hypocrisy” — a word that meant behaving in a way not in accordance with your true feelings. Hypocrite comes from the Greek hypokrites ὑποκριτής, which simply means an actor in a play. From ancient times it was also used in such a derogatory fashion, in accordance with the traditional disdain for actors–a centuries-old prejudice which came to an end, perhaps not coincidentally, around 1900.

True, there was a character in a Shakespeare play who at one point mused, “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.” This character (Jaques, from As You Like It) was meant to be melancholy and forlorn, to a humorously exaggerated extent. Even in this sentence, his use of the world “merely” reflects how this statement offers a cynical and depraved view of humanity.

Rôle came to English through French, not in the works of any specific author, but as a slow trickle that eventually became a flood around the turn of the 20th century. Given that the French language also uses the word hypocrite, and presumably pre-20th century France had enough Greek speakers to know what it meant, how did the comparable word rôle come to take on a neutral connotation?

To answer this, I looked at an online dictionary of French, and discovered to my amusement that the earliest citation they have for the word rôle being used in a social or political sense is from the year 1789. To wit:

Mon rôle, à moi, est celui de tous les écrivains patriotes ; il consiste à présenter la vérité.
My rôle, to me, is that all of patriotic writers; it is to present the truth.

Abbé Sieyès, “What Is the Third Estate?” (1789)

Why does Abbé Sieyès use the word rôle here instead of devoir (duty)? There are two obvious reasons for this:

1. Abbé Sieyès was a faithless clergyman who got a job at the Second Estate simply to fatten his bank account and further his writing career. He was already playing a rôle, and was a hypocrite in every sense of the word. It would not be too hard for him to see radical pamphleteering as just another rôle to play.

2. During the Revolution, perhaps, people recognized that they were not executing any duties. Even if they disingenuously claimed to be “presenting the truth,” in fact they were only actors playing rôles in enabling the disintegration of the monarchy.

In conclusion, I urge you to stop translating gizen and gizensha as “hypocrisy” and “hypocrite,” and instead to find more appropriate words that bring the point of the Japanese home. Also, I urge you to help fix the English language by referring to people who do good deeds for ignoble reasons as “hypocrites.” Minds will be blown.

Posted: February 14th, 2015 | Rectification of Names 1 Comment »