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Sunday, July 12, 2009
Land of the Sun Goddess
Michael Hoffman traces some fascinating risings and settings in the story of Japan
Special to The Japan Times
The sun was mortally offended — with good reason.
Civilized progress deadens the impulse to see gods in the workings of nature. It's a price we pay, willingly or unconsciously.
To the ancient Japanese, the sun was the goddess Amaterasu Omikami. She was gentle by nature but her brother Susano'o, the Storm God, could be provoking beyond endurance. Subject to tantrums, he "broke down the ridges between the rice paddies . . . and covered up the ditches. Also," reports the eighth-century "Kojiki" ("Record of Ancient Matters"), "he defecated and strewed the feces about in the hall where the first fruits were tasted."
Further depredations followed; finally the outraged Amaterasu took refuge in the "Rock-Cave of Heaven." Japan was plunged in darkness; "constant night reigned."
A re-enactment of that heavenly drama will occur on July 22 — a total eclipse of the sun visible through a narrow swath of Asia that includes parts of Okinawa. Lasting up to 6 minutes 39 seconds, it will be the longest total solar eclipse of the 21st century, not to be surpassed until June 13, 2132. Japan and the sun, the myths tell us, are siblings — elder and younger respectively, both children of the progenitor gods Izanagi and Izanami. Amaterasu in turn became the ancestress of Japan's Imperial house, a family tie celebrated to this day in enthronement ceremonies whose modern paradox has struck many commentators. While pledging to uphold the postwar Constitution, which locates sovereignty in the will of the people, the new emperor simultaneously affirms the ancient myths that identify him as a descendent of the Sun Goddess — and therefore a living god.
"Extreme interpretations of the accession ceremonies," notes historian John Brownlee (in "Japanese Historians and the National Myths, 1600-1945"; 1997), "held that, at one point in the proceedings, the new emperor spent a night alone with the Sun Goddess and had sexual intercourse with her." The incestuous implications, he says, were blithely ignored.
The words "god" and "goddess" are somewhat misleading here. Early Shinto ("Way of the Gods") was most prolific of divinities for which the Japanese word is kami, meaning "upper" or "superior." This falls well short of the exaltation that English generally brings to a religious context.
A kami, explains historian George Sansom (in "Japan: A Short Cultural History"; 1931), is "any animate or even inanimate object thought to have superior qualities. So at one end of the scale the Sun Goddess, that Heaven-Shining-Great- August-Deity, is a kami, and at the other mud and sand and even vermin are kami."
"A nature worship of which the mainspring is appreciation rather than fear," remarks Sansom, "is not to be dismissed as base and fetishistic animism."
There is something characteristically Japanese in the fact that the story of the sun's disappearance and return is funny and playful rather than awesome and terrible. As the "Kojiki" tells it, the 800 myriad kami "assembled in a divine assembly," and Miyabi, the Dread Female of Heaven, "became divinely possessed, exposed her breasts, and pushed her shirt-band down to her genitals." The laughter of the gods shook heaven.
Puzzled by the uproar, Amaterasu approached the mouth of her cave. A divine mirror, held up to reveal part of the scene, tempted her further, until at last she was seized and hauled out. The eclipse was over.
Susano'o, for his part, was fined and "expelled with a divine expulsion." Sun worship in Japan, scholars tell us, long predates the rise of the Imperial Family.
"It was probably fishermen and other seafaring people of Ise to the east of Yamato who originally worshiped the Sun Goddess," writes Takeshi Matsumae in "The Cambridge History of Japan." Yamato, corresponding roughly to eastern Kansai, is an ancient name for Japan.
Matsumae traces to the Ise fishermen the original myth of the sun hiding in a cave and having to be coaxed out. As in the later and more familiar version, she is hiding from her brother after a quarrel — but here the brother is the Moon God, not the Storm God.
Among the various fifth- and sixth- century noble clans, over which the Imperial clan had as yet failed to establish more than nominal supremacy, were several that worshiped an ancestral sun.
The Imperial clan, at this stage, did not. Its primary deity was the agricultural kami Takamimusubi. It was contact with Korea, Matsumae believes, that reoriented the royal family's gaze from the earth sunward.
"Sun worship was common in the Korean kingdoms," he explains, "and royal founding ancestors were frequently named as children of the sun. In order to deal with these kings on an equal basis, the Yamato rulers had to claim lineage of equal dignity."
The sun's majesty was self-evident; the earth's apparently was not.
"So," continues Matsumae, "the Yamato court looked around the regions under its control for a sun kami suitable as an Imperial ancestor. Kami venerated by already powerful clans were ruled out. Then the court's attention was drawn to Ise Shrine, dedicated to a sun kami worshiped since ancient times by fishermen.
"The shrine's location — to the east of Yamato, in the direction of the rising sun — was a suitable place for the enshrinement of a sun kami."
A century later the predominant foreign influence was no longer Korea's but China's. Both China and Japan were then in ascendant phases — China reunified and renascent under the Sui Dynasty (589-618), Japan in the full flower of its Asuka Enlightenment (552-645).
A leading light of that age was Prince Regent Shotoku Taishi, who in 607 dispatched to the Chinese court a letter famous above all for its salutation. It seems a brashly confident assertion of equality, if not superiority: "From the sovereign of the land of the rising sun to the sovereign of the land of the setting sun."
Thus did Yamato become "Nihon" or "Nippon," the Japanese readings of the Chinese characters meaning "sun source." We rarely think "sun source" when we say "Japan," but that name derives from the Chinese pronunciation, "Jihpen," of those same characters. The sun was eclipsed by the moon.
A moon kami is conspicuously absent from the Japanese pantheon, and yet it is the moon rather than the sun that presides over traditional Japanese culture. Japan was a cultivator of the pale arts, prizing restraint over brilliance, elegant poverty (wabi) over proud display, suggestive obscurity (yugen) over clear-cut definition. The symbol of the enlightenment (satori) at the heart of Zen Buddhism, Japan's most culturally fruitful religion, is the moon, not the sun.
"The moonlight singularly attracts the Japanese imagination," observes the modern Zen master Daisetsu Suzuki (in "Zen and Japanese Culture"; 1959), "and any Japanese who ever aspired to compose a waka or a haiku would hardly dare leave the moon out."
The passage occurs in a meditation on Saigyo (1118-90), the most moon-struck of all classical poets: "Not a soul ever visits my hut Except the friendly light of the moon . . . ''
What of the sun? Where was the Sun Goddess Amaterasu in the meantime? Not hiding again?
Not hiding but overshadowed — and ironically it is Shotoku Taishi's letter, pregnant with sun imagery, that is the key to the mystery.
The bold opening aside, the letter amounts to a declaration of apprenticeship, not of independence. A devout Buddhist and an earnest Confucianist, Shotoku enrolled his own relatively backward country in China's school of civilization. The pupil-teacher relationship, rare if not unprecedented in the history of nations, would last centuries, during which Japan in effect Sinicized itself. Buddhism, Confucianism, Chinese writing, Chinese art — all were swallowed whole and, for a time, uncritically.
A century after Shotoku's death in 622, the resplendent Nara Period (710-784) was bathed in its first luster. It was overwhelmingly Chinese, overwhelmingly Buddhist. The native Shinto kami, with Amaterasu at their head, slipped into oblivion.
When smallpox struck Nara, the capital, in 735, the Emperor Shomu's thoughts turned not to them but to the Buddha. The course of action his piety suggested to him was to order the casting of a giant bronze image of Roshana Buddha.
But he hesitated. As Sansom explains, "To erect a great Buddha in the middle of the capital . . . was, on the face of it, a serious blow to the native divinities, unless some means could be found of reconciling (Shinto and Buddhism)."
The reconciliation was entrusted to a monk named Gyogi, who journeyed to Ise and for seven days and seven nights prayed at the threshold of the Sun Goddess' shrine — to good effect, evidently, for in a dream "the Sun Goddess appeared to the emperor as a radiant disc," writes Sansom, "and proclaimed that the Sun and the Buddha were the same."
The bronze statue required years of work but was finally completed in 752. This is the enormous Great Buddha — 48.7 meters high — whose serene presence graces Nara's Todaiji Temple to this day.
Only as Japan approached modern times did the Sun Goddess peek through and finally burst the clouds of indifference that had enveloped her. How thick those clouds were may be gauged from a passage in the 11th-century "Sarashina Diary," written by an anonymous noblewoman. Troubled by a strange dream, she is advised "to pray to the heavenly goddess Amaterasu. I wondered where this deity might be and whether she was in fact a goddess (kami) or a Buddha," she wrote. "It was some time before I was interested enough to ask who she actually was."