A Tradition of Giving

(Pure Land Monks collecting contributions from the public on Shijo in Kyoto on March 16.)

Before I post the second part about Tokyo, I pulled out a post I’ve been working on for a little while now. It’s more on the cultural and historical side, but closer to what this blog used to be about, namely lots of traditional Japanese culture and history. . .

Shortly after the quake, feeling powerless to help, I began reading about charity in the Japanese middle ages (a hard to define period of roughly 400 years that covers from the end of the Heian period to the beginning of the Edo period). At that time, charity was a major means of rebuilding sites of worship and infrastructure. In my own experience, having been involved in the past in various creative and academic endeavors that tried to collect donations for their activities, I became familiar with the common perception that Japanese culture doesn’t include a custom of donation or charity. But considering the history and the response after the quake/tsunami/nuclear reactor disaster, I want to disagree. Japanese do engage in philanthropy, though perhaps justifiably not always for the same causes or in the same way as in other countries.

So, this post is going to be a little bit about my research in relation to my recent experiences. I noticed  already in that first paragraph that I use different vocabulary when I talk about my research than when I talk about recent events. I’ll try to say things clearly, but please bear with me. What I’m writing about has to do with today, not just with the distant past, because I think the past can help us deal with the present. Sometimes simply knowing it has been done before makes it easier to do again.

The first week I was in Kyoto, I met with a friend from Germany for coffee. It happened to be his birthday, so we went to have drinks at his favorite bar later in the afternoon. Although it was his birthday, he ended up paying for my drink (cultural differences). As I was going from the bar to meet with another friend, a former colleague, for dinner, I saw Pure Land monks on Shijo, a major shopping street in Kyoto, chanting and collecting donations. I promptly donated the cost of the drink I’d just had. Then when I saw another group of them, I gave the last of the money in my wallet. Again, not the smartest move on my part, because I couldn’t find an open ATM after that. In the end, my colleague friend paid for dinner. . .

However, what excited me about these monks more than the groups of university students and other volunteers collecting money (although I gave to them as well), was how their activities draw on a long tradition of charitable work that reaches back to the time when their denomination was just developing in the middle ages.

In the middle ages, New Buddhists were some of the most active promoters of charity work (called kanjin in Japanese). This work later developed into huge open air performances of noh and other popular performing arts. The money collected from admissions to the performances were used for various causes. I imagine they must have been something like outdoor benefit rock concerts. (Maybe I can find an illustration sometime to show you what they looked like.)

Pure Land Buddhism was the first of a string of populist Buddhist movements in the middle ages. These are generally called New Buddhism. New Buddhism broke Buddhism out of the institutions that claimed authority over the religion. These already established institutions had temples where participants operated in complex hierarchies with aristocratic members and government support. Pure Land was the first New Buddhist movement. By stripping the religion of its complex rituals and focusing on a simple chant (the nembutsu) and wholehearted faith, Honen, the founder of Pure Land Buddhism, made Buddhism appealing to the masses.

Therefore, the masses began engaging in Buddhism, believing that chanting nembutsu would allow them to be reborn in the Pure Land of the Amida Buddha after death. As a result many also began taking care of their dead within the Buddhist faith. Why is this important when talking about charity? Because most of the charitable causes taken on by Buddhist monks were rather religious. For example, the great Buddha in Nara was rebuilt at the end of the 12th century by a monk named Chogen with donations from religious believers (it had been burned down by Heike warriors in 1180). By donating to the cause, people believed they were helping their own deceased family members. Most donations were small, but Chogen was able to appeal to large numbers of people and thereby gather the required funds.

More secular projects were soon also taken on by the monks who worked as charity organizers (kanjin hijiri), walking all over the land, collecting money, materials, and labor for projects that included rebuilding bridges as well as temples. Considering that monks such as those of the Ritsu sect conducted charitable work for the poor, for lepers and outcasts, I imagine they must have collected donations for this purpose as well although that would be called seeking alms, not kanjin. In any case, since at this time in Japanese history the central government was weak, Buddhist monks, who were seen as reliable and trustworthy, took over this kind of social and infrastructural work (so says my advisor, Matsuoka Shinpei). These monks seemed to function much as non-profit or non-government organizations do today.

(Note: You might be familiar with the story of the Noh “Ataka,” the same story as that for the kabuki “Kanjincho.” In it, Yoshitsune and his retainers, including Benkei, pretend they are kanjin hijiri, so that they might be able to pass a check point along a road.)

Later, Buddhist monks began to create massive performance spectacles to bring in money for community projects. (Performers were in a very, very low social class, so this work had a socially supportive aspect as well.) A lot of the performance content incorporated themes based on the missionary work and memorial services for the dead of New Buddhism. That is why my advisor says so many Noh plays deal with the dead, but explaining that belongs in another post. . .

Since the East Japan Earthquake, there have been benefit concerts like the Concert for Japan by the New York Japan Society, in which performers of traditional Japanese arts performed, but that tradition is different since it is based on a Western, secular, high society tradition of bazaars, auctions, and benefits for charity. The monks I saw in Kyoto, then, are the only people I’ve seen so far who are really drawing on the Japanese tradition of charity in their work. (Please tell me if you are aware of something else!)

What I would like to see is traditional actors and performers joining in, supporting the relief efforts, and giving  new meaning to the tradition of kanjin. In the process, I imagine support for the traditional arts would improve. As long as representatives of the traditional arts keep to themselves and their communities and don’t engage in contemporary issues, they are seen in the wider public as irrelevant to society. If they want to bring in new audiences and new participants, the traditional arts better reach out and help people, thereby creating community beyond their own base through activities such as charitable work (examples of which may be found in their own tradition). Building community is based on a mutual give and take, and also on a willingness to listen. Traditional artists, are you watching the news? Can we count on your support in the relief and rebuilding efforts?

Taro Bove

(Images of Taro Bove’s performance of Kakitsubata in 2010. This is not the performance I saw, but the style, stage, and his costume were similar. The photo is from Bove.)

On Thursday for the first time, I was at KAAT, the brand new performing arts center in Yokohama that has just opened. It is a beautiful, very large space, and I hope to see more of it soon.

I arrived just in time to attend a performance by Taro Bove in the lobby of the building. A white, square stage and two black felt-covered platforms were set up. As I arrived, noh instrumental music (hayashi) played quietly. Eventually, three professional noh instrumentalists entered and took their places on one of the platforms, and then a single professional noh actor (and singer) came and took his place on the other platform.

The four noh performers began to play and chant music to “Izutsu.” In the play the ghost of the wife of famous Nara period philanderer and poet Ariwara no Narihira appears. She recounts her story as the wife of Narihira. Left behind during one of his visits to another woman, she expresses her loneliness and her faithful love for her husband through poetry. In the culmination of the piece, she dances in her husband’s robes and then looks into a well they played at as children. In her reflection in the water, she sees her husband. . .

As if appearing out of nowhere through the audience, Bove slowly entered. Continue reading “Taro Bove”

Watching Noh

(Kanze Tetsunojo’s noh stage, across the street from Cartier, Prada, and D&G in Omotesando.)

Yesterday, I attended the first day of a workshop with Kanze Tetsunojo, a noh performer and the head of a very influential family of noh actors within the Kanze school.  One very simple question of his provoked a fascinating series of thoughts.  That question was,

Is noh chant hard to understand?

Continue reading “Watching Noh”

Irises are now out of season, but. . .

(The irises at Heian Shrine a few years ago.)

My undergraduate advisor Tom Rohlich was so nice in pointing out that Ogata Korin’s Irises were inspired by a poem by Ariwara no Narihira, which appears in the Tales of Ise, that I simply had to post it.


Karakoromo kitsutsu narenishi tsuma shi areba harubaru kinuru tabi wo shi zo omou

Having come so far on this trip, I yearn for my wife, who is as familiar and intimate to me as my worn clothing.

Despite the melancholy atmosphere of the poem, something that is untranslatable about it is that it puns on the Japanese word for irises, kakitsubata.  Like the anagrammatic poems I remember writing in elementary school, in which each line began with the next letter of a word, Ariwara no Narihira’s poem begins each line with a syllable of kakitsubata (the fourth syllable of kakitsubata, “ba,” becomes the unvoiced variant of the same phonetic character, “ha,” in the poem).

In this way, he also refers to the location he has traveled to, Yatsuhashi, now in Aichi Prefecture near Nagoya, an area famous for its irises.  Therefore, although the poem doesn’t mention irises directly per se, the irises embody Ariwara no Narihira’s desire to see his wife.

As this poem inspired Ogata Korin’s iris screens, the irises, which take up the whole screen, may be said to be more than a representation of the natural world.  Rather, it embodies or represents human emotions. Continue reading “Irises are now out of season, but. . .”

Character Definition in Hagoromo


The pine tree at Mio.

Recently, I’ve begun writing a paper about Hagoromo, which I will be submitting for my application to the master’s program at the University of Tokyo. A lot of what I’ve written will be revised multiple times, especially when I translate it in Japanese, before I hand it in.  Following is just one section of my paper.  I would love everyone’s feedback on my ideas.

In this section, I’m writing about standard plot and character development patterns.  I have never written about this before, so please correct me if any of my statements are oversimplified or plainly wrong.

Character development in Hagoromo

First, a quick run through of the story line: The supporting actor, a fisherman, comes onstage and presents himself.  He finds a feather cloak hanging from a pine branch on Mio beach and takes it with him.  Thereupon, the owner of the cloak appears.  She is an angel from the moon and wants the cloak back to return to her home in the sky.  The fisherman refuses.  Here is the first and most obvious conflict of the play.  Eventually, the fisherman feels compassion for the angel and returns her cloak in exchange for a dance.  This dance takes up the majority of the play and might be said to represent a more psychological conflict between the two characters leading up to their parting ways again.

Please note that the focal character, the angel, is not a dynamic character.  She gets her own way in the conflict, therefore, does not undergo a change, and returns to her previous state of existence.  It is the lesser, supporting character, who undergoes development, but this development is understated.  Instead, the effect of the resolution on the main character is emphasized in the protracted dance at the end of the play.  Why might this be so? Continue reading “Character Definition in Hagoromo”

Hagoromo in 2010


A recital performance at the Kongo Noh Theater in Kyoto.  My teacher, Udaka Michishige, is the chorus leader just below my fan.

A long time ago on Mio cape, near present day Shizuoka, a man of low birth is cursed with the bad karma from taking the lives of animals for a living.  He is a fisherman in this life, but his name indicates a more glorious past.  White Dragon.

In the ancient Chinese collection of stories, “Garden of Tales” from the 1st century BC, is a story an adviser tells the king as a warning not to take on the guise of one of his own subjects.  The adviser tells about a white dragon who turned himself into a fish and lived in a pond on earth until one day a fisherman shot him in the eye with an arrow.  The dragon flew away to the king of heaven to complain, but the king of heaven replied that fishermen shoot fish for a living and there was nothing he could do.

And so, it is said by some that the dragon died and was reborn, this time as the object of his hatred, the fisherman.  Of course, the fisherman has no knowledge of his past life as a dragon and lives in ignorance of a greater good, except for a strange affinity for natural beauty.   This is the point in the story from which the play “Hagoromo” begins. Continue reading “Hagoromo in 2010”

The End of Summer at Horin-ji


The priests’ prayers before the Noh performance.  Their robes were sumptuous purple and orange silks.  Only one of them wore black silk.

The temple Horin-ji annually holds a Noh performance on September 9th.  I wrote a little about it two posts ago.  Usually Udaka Michishige performs, but two years ago I was too busy with work to go watch, and last year September 9th landed on a weekend, so Udaka-Sensei was too busy to perform.  Finally, I had another opportunity this year and made sure I was able to take time off from work to go to the temple in Arashiyama.

I joined Sensei and a troop of young people who study with him and generally support his activities, including his two sons, Tatsushige and Norishige, who are actors in their own rights, his daughter, Keiko, who carves masks, his daughter-in-law, Haruna, who is also a semi-professional actor, and Natsuko, who also studies mask-carving, but has taken on a leading role in organizing events and working PR for Sensei.  We made an excursion out of the event, for the weather had grown sunny after a few rainy days that had brought an end to the summer heat.

Continue reading “The End of Summer at Horin-ji”