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.

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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 Naikū,” 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.

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Asamayama possibly dates back to the 6th century A.D., making it almost as old as the Jingū 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 Gekū. 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 Kūkai. 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.

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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 stūpa 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 Naikū. 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.

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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 | Comments Off


Learning about Ise at Kogakkan: Days 3 and 4

The past two days have been focused on two things: a guided tour of Ise Jingū, 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 Jingū 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.

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Originally, Ise only had one pilgrim: the saioh 斎王, a female Imperial relative who lived in a house called the saikū 斎宮. 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 Jingū, 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 daijingū 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 摂津 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.

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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 Jingū 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!

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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.

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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 | Comments Off


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 sengū. 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 Jingū, hearing about the history of the Jingū, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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 | Comments Off


Learning about Ise at Kogakkan: Day 1

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Kōgakkan University is a small private college in a city in rural Japan called Ise, home of the most important Shinto shrine, Ise Jingū. 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 Jingū. The Jingū is where the most ancient figures of the Imperial line are worshiped. The kanji for Jingū 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 Jingū. We must stand at the outermost gate. Only the Emperor and his family are permitted to enter.

Ise Jingū consists of two different legal organizations, the Gekū (外宮 “Outer Miya”) and the Naikū (内宮 “Inner Miya”). The Naikū is also known as Kōtai Jingū, or the Emperor’s Jingū. The most important kami at the Jingū is Amaterasu-Oomikami, who is housed in the central miya of the Naikū. The Gekū 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 Jingū 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:

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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 Jingū in 1967. He left a message for the people of Ise where he described his experience at the Jingū 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 Jingū’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:

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Yamatohime-no-miya was just renewed for the 2013 shikinen sengū, a recurring 20-year event where all of the shrine buildings at the Jingū are torn down and rebuilt. As Shimizu-sensei reminded us, the shikinen sengū 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 Jingū shrine system (it’s called a betsugū).

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 Jingū 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 Jingū had been bombed and damaged and the Kōgakkan abandoned, as a “hard blow spiritually” 精神的痛手. But the Jingū was rebuilt with private funds and continues to conduct the shikinen sengū 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 sengū. 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 | Comments Off


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 | Comments Off


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:

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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 »


On the meaning of France

I wrote this post originally as the result of a Facebook discussion. I’ve revised it, adding some material on Russia, for this blog post.

Regarding the attack today on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, there seems to be a misconception floating around that the magazine was “anti-Islam”. In fact it was anti-religion, anti-censorship, and anti-authority generally. Many of its past covers have depicted beloved religious, political, and cultural figures saying or doing obscene things, and would be considered far outside the rules of dignified discourse by basically any American media. I was pleased to see Rachel Maddow outline this simple fact on her show this evening.

I was recently at an Airbnb in Belgium, and one of their coffee table books was a lengthy comic book about penis-shaped fish being force fed to starving Africans by fat capitalists. There is no way such a comic could ever see print in America or Japan, but in France and Belgium it is par for the course in adult cartooning (my parents also own some French cartoons like this). Such absurdly obscene cartoons are not meant to inspire anger or to convert people to the cartoonist’s preferred ideology; they are meant to tear down the walls of your ego, and the things that you believe make you a good person because you hold them sacred, and thereby drag you down to the level of laughing alongside the cartoonist. This is one meaning of Meister Eckhart’s enigmatic saying, “He who blasphemes praises God.”

This intentional and meaningful testing of the limits of freedom of speech is one of France’s great accomplishments, in my opinion. Compare to Russia, where the overwhelming cultural consensus is that nobody benefits from obscenity and blasphemy, and blaspheming the Prophet Mohammed or the Orthodox Church is actually illegal; Pussy Riot intentionally broke this law and were prosecuted for it. Compare to America, where blasphemy is considered distasteful, but plenty of people do it anyway simply to be mean to people and prove how cultured and intelligent they are. The tradition of French cartooning does not try to be particularly clever or prove a political point: it merely looks upon all of the world’s attempts to establish order and narrative with the knowing grin of a Dionysus.

How did things turn out this way in France? Voltaire, Diderot, and the Encyclopédie were a start, but in fact there is much more to the story. For example, during the reign of Louis XVI, peddlers of pornography would gather in a square inside the court where due to an archaic law they were free from all censorship, and sell slanderous erotica about Marie Antoinette. Parisians at this time were naive, and believed the slander being published in these books—which is one of the reasons Marie Antoinette became so hated, and why the constitutional monarchy of 1789 dissolved into violence. The maturity needed for all of society to accept obscene fictions as part of the national character is hard-won, and the result of centuries of battle. An attack on this culture is an attack on France itself.

The Danish paper Jyllandsposten commissioned cartoons of Muhammad with the conscious intention of making Muslims angry, and put them all on a single page to prove that they could. This proves only that while Danes may think themselves more courageous than Americans and Germans, in fact they are insensitive and have no sense of humor. None of their “cartoons” were funny anyway. When Charlie Hebdo “republished” the cartoons they were actually importing them into a totally different cultural context. There is no such thing as “reprinting” a Danish idea in Paris: it immediately becomes a French idea. Charlie Hebdo’s idea was not “Muslims are barbarians,” but instead “Muslims are Europeans and French, and we can prove to them how welcome they are by making fun of their sacred cows.”

As one of the guests on the Rachel Maddow show pointed out, France is the most feared nation for Islamic extremists precisely because of their cultural sway; they demand that sacred cows be allowed to burn, and high and mighty egos set aside, for the shared goals of freedom, equality, and brotherhood. This is a clear and immediate danger to ignorant, barbaric, ego-driven terrorism, and the centerpiece of this culture is Charlie Hebdo. This is why all of France says “Je suis Charlie” tonight.

Posted: January 8th, 2015 | Kultur | 4 Comments »


Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West: The 100th Anniversary Update

Over on the Archdruid Report a busy-sounding person asked John Michael Greer to just send him a list of predictions, presumably so the commentator could check them off as the years go by. I suppose you could do this, but it misses the point of describing a historical trend; the narrative is essentially poetic, and you can either grasp some deeper layers of the poetry or you can’t; furthermore the layers you see might be invisible to the author. I think such a list would be of no value at all for Greer, since most of his historical writing took place in the past five years and most of what he talks about has yet to come, but we can get some value from writing up a list of the predictions made by his predecessor, Oswald Spengler. We now have about a century of difference between Spengler and us and can judge the accuracy of many of his statements.

So, I have attempted a 100th anniversary update to Spengler, maybe not quite in the same vein that caused people to write 20th and 30th anniversary updates to The Limits to Growth (“We’re still telling you so, and in 30 more years we’ll say we told you so”), but at least in the same great Western conceit that theories should make testable predictions. It became obvious while attempting this task that Spengler’s claims could not be written in checkbox form, and that if I quoted the entire supporting argument found in the text, this post would be book-length in short order. I have therefore paraphrased Spengler. Let us hope that it does not have to happen again.
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Posted: October 23rd, 2014 | History | 4 Comments »


Inazo Nitobe’s Kojiki translation

Some interesting excerpts from Yasaka Takagi, ed., The Late Dr. Inazo Nitobe’s Unfinished Translation of Lao-Tzu and the Kojiki (Tokyo: Institute for Comparative Studies of Culture, 1963). The Lao-Tzu translation is not very remarkable except for a surprising cross-reference between ch. 28’s comments on “masculinity and femininity” and chs. 21 and 22 of a book called The Secret of Swedenborg by one Henry James.

As for the Kojiki text, it was written circa 1925-6 while Dr. Nitobe was a diplomat at the League of Nations, and is therefore the second English translation of the Kojiki, after the Orientalist effort of Mr. Chamberlain. I believe it is also the third translation ever, after the estimable work of Karl Florenz in 1919. It consists mostly of brisk summaries in sometimes oblique, sometimes welcoming English.

pp. 121-2

A summary of Japanese theories, showing the extent to which the Kojiki was considered a grounds for historical research in the prewar period:

Is this place [Takamanohara –AHM] wholly mythological so that there is no locality on earth to correspond to it? — If, on the contrary, it is a geographical location, where is it? Many conjectures have been advanced as an answer. (1) Somewhere in Central Asia, perhaps at the foot of the Altaian range, whence our race, at least philologically, seems to have come. (2) South Sea Islands. (3) Korea. (4) Japan itself,–in this case, in the South according to one theory; in the middle says another. (5) Armenia. (6) Hittite Kingdom. (7) Are we descended from Sumerians?

p. 127

As above:

The probable date of Susano-wo is given by Prof. Kume as 180-156 B.C.

pp. 135-6

A representative example of the style of writing:

Illuminatrice despatches Great Ears (Osiho-mimi) [Amano-Oshihomi] to the Plain of Abundant Reeds; but seeing that the land is in trouble, he returns to heaven and High Conjoiner and Illuminatrice convoke to a meeting eight hundred myriad Kamis for deliberation and with their counsel and the advice of Thinker, they decide to send down Hohi, a son born of Illuminatrice by Rashling; but he, on coming to the Plain, fawns to Land-Lord and stays with him for three years. For the third time, High Conjoiner and Illuminatrice confer with kamis, and send Young Prince (Wakahiko); but on coming to the Plain, he weds Land-Lord’s daughter and stops for eight years. A general assembly is held again and it is decided that this time a nameless female pheasant should be despatched. The bird alights on a tree near Young Prince’s gate, and delivers the message to him, but a spying woman insists upon Young Prince to shoot the pheasant through in the bosom.

p. 149

A note to the reign of emperor Sujin:

The erection of numerous shrines throughout the country means perhaps not that they were newly built where nothing had existed before, but that the “earthly” (native or local) objects of worship were acknowledged or adopted by the reigning house. One may consider it as an absorption of a native religion by the ruling family or a religious assimilation of the conquering and the conquered races.

p. 154

A nice turn in translation:

The Emperor having heard of the beauty of certain two sisters in Mino, despatched Oh-wusu, one of his elder sons to summon them to the court; but Oh-wusu, on reaching their home, took them for himself and sent two other women under the name of the sisters. When they arrived, the Emperor knew they were not the right ones, never married them but only subjected them to long glances so that they felt exceedingly embarrassed.

Posted: August 27th, 2014 | Excerpts | 1 Comment »


Good quality editions of the Chinese classics

If you go to Amazon looking for the Chinese classics you will find a total mess. A bunch of publishers have ripped public domain books from Google Books and are selling them at various prices.

Why should you avoid these? (1) The original editions of what you are buying were bilingual, but the cheap books might have removed the Chinese. If you are really going to read these texts seriously you need the accompanying Chinese. (2) Even worse, these editions might be bad OCRs replete with typos and missing pages. (3) You will want to hang on to these print editions for many years, and the cheap publishers will likely give you a version with an ugly cover, and no guarantees on the quality of binding glue. (4) Any markup you are charged on the printing costs is done out of utter greed and adds no value to the book at all.

Here is the solution: buy print-on-demand versions from Google Books, thanks to the Espresso Book Machine. However, it is hard to find what you are looking for on Google Books’ search engine. So, I made this blog post.

The classics, by James Legge

This might sound kind of strange but some of the authoritative translations of the Chinese classics were made in the 1850s. I know, who was even reading them back then? The fact of the matter remains that James Legge still towers above any classical Chinese translator who has lived since, with the exception of maybe Burton Watson. There is still no other full translation of the Rites, Odes, or Documents. Furthermore, Legge’s books include the full Chinese in beautiful woodblocks, something that will probably never happen again.

Legge’s books can all be found on Google Books for free. The Espresso machine in the Harvard Book Store is the cheapest and shipping is also very cheap. I have included links for that order form as well, although you could just click the “Get this book in print” link available on the Google page. I also include a link to the Dover editions. These are rather good reprintings made in the 1970s that carefully mimeographed the original texts instead of swiping them under a digital camera. But they apparently did not find it profitable to reprint the more obscure books.

I have linked as well to any superior modern translations that are available so you can compare their merits with the Legge. The exception is the Mencius, for which there are other translations out there but I did not find any of them comparable.

英名 Google Harvard Dover Compare to
論語 Analects Schiller
孟子 Mencius N/A
易經 Changes Rutt, Lynn
詩經 Odes - Waley
尚書 Documents - N/A
左傳 Zuo Zhuan - Watson
儀禮 Rites - N/A
孝經 Filial Piety - Chen
道徳 Tao Te Ching 全* 全* 全* D.C. Lau
荘子 Zhuangzi 下* 下* 下* Watson

* The Taoist texts were translated a little differently. They were in Max Müller’s Sacred Books of the East series and he apparently didn’t like including original texts. So, no Chinese, the Zhuangzi begins in the Tao Te Ching volume, and the translation is not the best. Might be better to consider alternatives.

What Legge didn’t translate

Legge translated the complete Confucian canon of the medieval era. However, Confucianism is more than just the canonical texts. Actually, Legge employed a scholar named Zhu Xi who was responsible for a major innovation in the way the texts were read. In order to really understand Confucianism it is necessary both to read texts that are outside the canon, and to read Zhu Xi and his detractors. Accessible translations of the unorthodox and medieval books are still in the works as we speak. Here is a list of what’s currently available for general audience readers.

Ancient books

Surprisingly, the Hanshu 漢書 has never been translated in full.

Zhu Xi

Unorthodox schools

Bonus: 19th century translations of Chinese literature!

繡像正徳皇遊江南傳 1842 original Englished
玉嬌梨 182? original Englished

Posted: July 21st, 2014 | Books, Confucius | 6 Comments »