Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ikuta Shrine, Kobe

The Ikuta Shrine stands at the origins of Kobe, so it could not be more right that it also stands in the middle of the Sannomiya shopping center of the modern city.


[Ikuta Shrine]

But that is not its original location. The Ikuta Shrine used to be situated at Sunayama, a hill near Shinkobe (Shinkansen) Station , close to the Nunobiki Falls. Indeed, a hill enclosed by rivers and close to the majestic waterfalls - that is a more fitting location for a shrine than in the middle of flat land. After all, before humans filled them with human deities, Japan's shrines were dedicated to the abstract forces of nature. They were born out of awe for the universe. The original site was also the location of a village from the Yayoi period (300 BCE - 300 CE). The shrine was forced to move because of a flood that damaged its buildings, perhaps as early as 1200 years ago.

Legend has it that the shrine at this time was damaged by a pine tree and that the deity therefore took a great dislike of such trees. When the shrine was relocated, it was rebuilt in a forest of camphor trees.

But also the new location is filled with meaning: the road to the shrine leads directly to the sea. In other words, on its new location the shrine must have become a shrine where prayers were said for safe sea travel. In that respect it is associated with two other shrines from Hyogo, Hirota and Nagata, and with the Sumiyoshi Shrine from Osaka as well - all shrines for seafarers. They are also linked in Japanese mythology, where the (purely mythical) Empress Jingo, when experiencing troubles at sea after her return from an attack on Korea, was advised by an oracle to establish these shrines.

[The torii gate of the Ikuta shrine]

The name Kobe also comes from the shrine: in the past pronounced as "Kambe," these were families who performed services for the upkeep of the shrine and who planted rice for the sake to be offered to the gods. Kambe-mura or "Kambe village" became Kobe-mura and then finally Kobe.

In history the shrine and its forest again figure in the famous Battle of Ichinotani between the Heike and Genji clans, in the 12th c., something now difficult to imagine when you see the sparse trees of what once must have been a real forest.

The shrine now stands in the middle of the Sannomiya shopping and bar district. Perhaps for that last reason, it is popular with young people as a love shrine, although there is nothing in its history to support this. But this function was reinforced by the marriage here of popular model Fujiwara Norika in 2007.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Himukai Daijingu, Kyoto (Hatsumode 2009)

Hatsumode, the New Year's visit to a Shinto shrine, this year took us to the Himukai Daijingu shrine in Kyoto. It was my first visit to this shrine. I had seen pointers to it during visits to the nearby Incline near Nanzenji, but actually never followed the path into the hills above Keage.


Visiting on the fourth of January, Himukai was a great surprise - even after so many years, Kyoto still has a lot of discoveries to offer! It is a beautiful and pure spot in the hills, seemingly far-away from the dusty world of haste. Hiking paths start here to Daimonji in the one direction, and to Bishamondo in Yamashina in the other.


The shrines are simplicity itself, in the Shinmei style of Ise, and likewise dedicated to the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu.


The shrine legend which claims a founding of about 1,500 years ago, when a sacred stone was brought from Mt Takachiho in Kyushu, is unreliable. The first documented existence of the shrine is actually only in the middle of the 15th century. In the ensuing Edo-period the relatively new shrine grew in importance as it stood at the place where the Tokaido Highway enters Kyoto. The Edo-period was also the time that Ise itself developed into a shrine of the people instead only of the imperial clan.


In the grounds is a grotto called Ama no Iwado, recalling the legend of the hiding in the cave of the Sun Goddess.

But the shrine is beautiful as it is, a place of natural purity, and we do not need any false histories to forcibly hook it up into the network of Japan's mythology.

[The way to the Himukai Shrine passes the Lake Biwa Canal]

10 min walk from Keage Station on the Tozai subway line in Kyoto. Take the exit for Nanzenji, turn left into the street and left again into the hills when you see a large torii-gate. Grounds free.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb

Fear and Trembling is the imposing, almost Biblical title of a small novel (originally published in 1999) in which Amélie Nothomb describes the experiences of a young Belgian woman who works for a year in a large Japanese office in Tokyo. The protagonist, who is also called Amélie, is a well-intentioned and eager person, who was originally born in Japan - like the author, who is the daughter of a former Belgian ambassador to Japan. Working at the giant (fictional) Yumimoto Corporation, which seems to manufacture, import and export just about everything, on the 44th floor of a skyscraper, is a dream come true for her. Because she speaks Japanese, Amélie looks forward to an opportunity to use her language skills. Until cultures start clashing.


This is the 8th novel in a large oeuvre and not a documentary. So what follows is fiction and often caricature, and should not be taken too literally. All the same, there is insight and truth in the book as well, and some descriptions though seemingly exaggerated, are not far from the reality of Japanese corporate life as it was in the early nineties (the book is situated in 1990) - especially when you are a woman and a foreigner on top of that.

The strict corporate hierarchy is still firmly in existence, though - and that is the main cultural theme of the book. "Fear and Trembling" is the attitude with which to approach your superior in such a highly hierarchical society. At the start of the book, Amélie puts it like this:
"Mister Haneda was senior to Mister Omochi, who was senior to Mister Saito, who was senior to Miss Mori, who was senior to me. I was senior to no one."
Amélie, too, has to observe the intricate, rigorous codes that govern corporate life and especially the relations between employees and their superiors in Japan and from the first day she stumbles. It already starts when she first admires the view over Tokyo from a high window instead of immediately announcing herself at the reception desk.

Also typical for Japanese companies, certainly up to the nineties (and depending on the company, even today) is the fact that she does not have a job description. Nobody tells her what her responsibilities are. Initially, she has nothing to do. So, eager to find a role, Amélie begins to distribute the mail... only to find she is usurping the job of the mailman. Indeed, in Japan you can fill your formless job to a certain extent with own initiatives, but you should in all cases consult your boss... beforehand.

She next starts updating every calendar in the office but is told to stop because it is a distraction. As a punishment Mr Saito (the boss of her boss) fills her time with useless and even sadistic assignments. She has to write a certain letter on his behalf, but he tears up every new draft without even looking at it. Next she has to photocopy the thousand page rulebook of his golf club, a truly Sisyphean task, but he discards every new version (to the detriment of Japan's forests) as the text is not absolutely parallel to the edge of the page. He even forbids her to use the automatic feeder.
Where's the problem?" He smiled. "You didn't have enough to do as it was.
Another funny episode is where she has to serve tea when Mr Omochi (the boss of the boss of the boss) has important guests. She thinks she does it to perfection, uttering the correct phrases in polite Japanese. But she ends up making both Mr Omochi and Mr Saito furious:
"How could our business partners have any feeling of trust in the presence of a white girl who understood their language? From now on you will no longer speak Japanese."
But the main theme of this novel are not the cultural clashes. It is the relation between Amélie and her immediate superior, another woman. When Amélie first arrives at Yumimoto, she is fascinated by Miss Mori, whom she initially regards as a friend and protector. Miss Mori  also is an immaculate beauty:
She was ravishingly svelte and graceful despite the stiffness to which she, like all Japanese women, had to sacrifice herself. But what transfixed me was the splendor of her face. [...] She had the most beautiful nose in the world, a Japanese nose, an inimitable nose, whose delicate nostrils would be recognized among a thousand others.
Miss Mori is the highest female in the company. Relations with her quickly go awry, however, especially after Amélie takes on an assignment from the manager of another division, Mr Tenshi. She is asked to write a marketing report about low-fat butter in Belgium and does it to the perfect satisfaction of Mr Tenshi and herself. It is the only meaningful task she has in a whole year of working at Yumimoto, although it was a job above her status. But Mr Omochi is livid and accuses her of sabotaging the company. He is explodes even louder after she, a Westerner and - the hight of injury - individualist, dares talk back to him.
The content was incredibly insulting. [...] I would have been capable of anything to stop the hideous screaming - invade Manchuria, persecute millions of Chinese, commit suicide for the Emperor, hurl my plane into an American battleship, perhaps even work for two Yumimoto Corporations.
But the most shocking thing is that she has been denounced to Mr Omochi by the beautiful Ms Mori, whom she so admired. As Mr Tenshi puts it:
"Miss Mori struggled for years to get the job she has now. She probably found it unbearable for you to get that sort of promotion after being with the company only ten weeks."
By the way, this is something I have observed myself in Japanese surroundings: you sometimes come across small-minded superiors who refuse to give their staff any meaningful work until they prove their loyalty by just sitting at their desk for a number of years. Much human and other capital is wasted in this way. Another thing I have noticed in certain Japanese work environments is that office politics play such a large role - much more than in Holland. Perhaps that is because of the hierarchy and the fact that there is little mobility. This can lead to bitter competition between colleagues, envy, and suspicion. Japanese employees are also quick to build factions.

Amélie tries to talk it out with Miss Mori, but as Miss Mori only asks for an apology which Amélie of course refuses, their relations are on a downward slope from this moment on. Things collapse completely when Amélie makes another "well-intentioned" blunder. At a certain moment it is Miss Mori's turn to get the dressing down of the century from Mr Omochi. All colleagues can hear the terrible shouting of The Obese One and the small whimpering voice of Miss Mori imploring the boss of her boss not to be angry with her. Afterward, Amélie follows Miss Mori to the toilet room, to console her... where she catches her crying. Miss Mori almost kills her, because she has been seen in her moment of weakness and shame.

The story then seems to turn into caricature as Miss Mori puts Amélie through a terrible series of torments and degradations. Amélie herself makes mistakes too - she can't handle numbers and botches a simple accounting task. She thinks that the German abbreviation GmbH (Co., Ltd.) is the name of a company... this is all part of the slapstick.

Any normal person would have quit, but Amélie stays on... she wants to sit out her year, she thinks it is a shame to quit... but above all, although it is nowhere said in so many words, she wants to stay close to the beautful Miss Mori.  Amélie firmly settles in a sadomasochistic relation with her boss:

Eventually she literally gets the lowest position possible: she is assigned to clean the toilets and she spends the last months of her life at Yumimoto changing paper in the loo.

Again it should be emphasized: this is a novel, a work of fiction. It is not a true account of the circumstances in a Japanese company, although some facets are true, as the strict hierarchy, the lack of job description, and the prevalence of office politics. But the main theme is not only Japan, it is just as much the sadomasochistic relation of Amélie and Miss Mori.

As such, it is a perfect little jewel, written in a sparse but concentrated language in which not a word could be changed - in the best tradition of the French novel.
Fear and Trembling was filmed by Alain Corneau with Sylvie Testud as Amélie and Tsuji Kaori as Miss Mori.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Legends of Tono by Yanagita Kunio

It is almost 100 years ago that Yanagita Kunio (1875-1962) wrote his famous "Legends of Tono" (Tono Monogatari) and to celebrate this the 1975 translation by Ronald A. Morse has now been republished in a beautiful expanded version. It is an excellent translation that captures the terseness and realism of the original. In addition, there are several introductions: a new one by the translator, and previous ones by him and Richard Dorson about the author, the book and its significance. There is also an extensive new bibliography and the text has been enhanced with some well-chosen photographs.

Yanagita Kunio was one of those privileged persons who married a well-to-do partner and could spend most of his life dabbling in his hobbies: literature and (increasingly as a real vocation) folklore studies. The early (1910) Legends of Tono stands on the borderline of these two activities: it is excellent literature but also a precious record of peasant life in the rural Tono area.

I would not in the first place call it legends, though - as Dorson says in his introduction, many of the 119 short pieces are rather "memorates," i.e. "remarkable and extraordinary experiences told in the first person." Although two fairy tales have been included as well, many of the records are not even stories, but flimsy pieces of things heard or seen. That makes the book all the more interesting as a real account of the world of Tono - both things seen and unseen... much space is taken up by the fear for the supernatural.

We find the mountain god and deities who guard the home, such as oshira-sama; goblin's like kappa and tengu; weird behavior by monkeys and wolves; cases of kamikakushi, strange disappearances of people; and the superstition that whoever gets rich, the choja, must have had supernatural assistance. But there is also a story of a son who murdered his mother, a real and shocking happening.

We also can see Yanagita's fascination with mountain folk religion start in this book. The "memorates" were told to Yanagita by Sakai Kizen, a young native of Tono whom he met in Tokyo. Subsequently, Yanagita also visited the area, riding on horseback through the villages.

Countless memorates like the above must have existed, but they have been wiped out with the brains that contained them. Thanks to the record Yanagita Kunio so carefully took only those about this small northern group of villages and market town of Tono have survived. It is no surprise that Legends of Tono is by far the most popular among the hundreds of scholarly books Yanagita wrote. The town of Tono now lives off these legends - it has based its tourist industry on them.