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Saturday, Sept. 11, 2010

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Benzaiten — Tomboy Goddess of the Sea


Our motorboat skimmed over the smooth water of the Seto Inland Sea. We were on our way to the mainland and I was attempting to apply last-minute beauty aids — nail polish to my fingers and toes. That's 20 appendages and, on a motorboat occasionally met by waves from passing cargo ships, that means 20 distinct possibilities for a nail polish disaster. But I was determined; I had a speech to give that day. I didn't want to look like I had just been swept in from the sea.

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As we passed Benten Island, I caught a glimpse of the Goddess of the Sea laughing at me. Benten lives on her own island and sports long, flowing locks of hair and eight arms which hold an bow, arrow, sword, ax, spear, pestle, iron wheel and a silk rope. Do you realize that's 40 fingernails to paint? Well, I suppose she has to do something all day on that island. And at this point, I envied her.

It did make me wonder though, how does Benten do it? How does the Goddess of the Sea manage to maintain her beauty despite the hardships of sea life?

Benzaiten, locally known as simply Benten, lives among the elements all year long through wind, storms, high waves and even typhoons.

It's not easy trying to maintain a slice of femininity in this sort of environment, and that's not even counting the slimy octopus and sticky seaweed. Although Benten is often pictured with long flowing hair, this can't be possible because they would get all tangled in the salty wind and she'd have a glop of a mop in no time. Long eyelashes? Not a chance! They'd function more like a Venus fly trap, catching all the gnats that fly by in the wind.

When you live on an island like I do, you can only hope to maintain the femininity of a fish. Don't get me wrong. I'm still feminine, just on a different scale. I'm hoping I'll be reincarnated as a mermaid.

After all, the sea is supposed to be full of beauty enhancers. Sea salts are used in skin exfoliation, and sea soaps are said to be good for the skin. Eating fish and seaweed is healthy and good for the complexion. The sea is universally exploited in people's quest to become more beautiful than they already are.

Yet for those of us who live by the sea, it is quite clear that the sea hasn't endowed us with any special beauty. As a matter of fact, fishermen's wives may be the least beautiful of all women in Japan. Akita Prefecture has the "Akita bijin" (Akita beauties) and other parts of Japan claim they have beautiful women as well, but I can't say I've ever heard this about women living in the Inland Sea area.

When you also consider Benten's advanced age of 15 centuries old (in Japan), it just doesn't seem logical that Benten can be so beautiful. And since she is, I want to know how she does it.

Consider that in addition to being Goddess of the Sea, she is also the Goddess of poetry, music, education and the fine arts. She plays the lute. As a side job, she protects against natural disasters, which is what those eight implements she holds are for. I'm sorry, but there is just no way she has time to worry about how her hair looks.

She also doubles as the Hindu goddess "Saraswati," goddess of the river. That's a lot of traveling back and forth between Japan and India. We all know that flying is not good for your skin.

And Benten has one more thing up her eight sleeves — and this one really takes the cake — she can turn herself into a snake! Where's the beauty in being a part-time reptile? I mean, what gives?!

It could have to do with luck. As one of the Seven Lucky Gods in Japan she is also said to bring fortune, and that would include her own. With her fortune, she probably has the money for spa treatments, massages, facials and the sort.

However, I have a hunch it's something different. I think I've finally figured out her secret. It's not wealth and certainly not youth. I have come to the conclusion that Benten, the Goddess of the Sea, is a tomboy. Who else would want to turn herself into a snake? Only a tomboy would use those implements she holds such as a sword, ax and a spear.

She has short hair, and has never even considered painting her 40 finger nails. All this makes her very smart, much smarter than I am.

As a cargo ship passes in front of our motorboat, we skim over its wake. Inevitably, the boat slams down on the other side of the wake, creating a nail polish disaster. It's hard to hide the fact that I have just been swept in from the sea.

Benzaiten, tomboy Goddess of the Sea, just laughs.



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