Professor Stuart D. B. Picken uses two great classics of Japanese literature, the Manyoshu and the Nihonshoki, to glean invaluable insights into the ancient Japanese understanding of the nature of human life and the origins of death in Part 3 of his “Death in the Japanese Tradition” series.
1. The Classical Age of Japan
The formative stages of Japanese cultural history precede the introduction of either a writing system or the creation of literature. However, one early collection of poems and one early history of Japan provide the basic materials for the study of this era.
Two great classics of Japanese literature, the Manyoshu (Collection of the Ten Thousand Leaves), and the Nihonshoki (The Chronicles of Japan), provide us with invaluable insights into the ancient Japanese understanding of the nature of human life and the origins of death. While in style the Nihonshoki may be modeled on Chinese classics, there, as Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), the great Shinto scholar pointed out, the spirit of the ancient Japanese may be discovered. The Manyoshu, composed around the eighth century, soon after the end of the Kofun age, contains some of the earliest renderings of the Japanese spirit in poetic form. Both texts touch quite explicitly on death but with certain important differences. They are expressions of Japan’s spiritual roots, which tradition came to identify as shinto, the way of the kami (divine beings). A kami, for the purpose of this discussion, is understood as any sort of being that may inspire in the beholder a sense of reverence or awe. Rocks, mountains, trees, waterfalls, and some animals (such as the fox) may be kami if they are sufficiently imposing. (See my Shinto: Japan’s Spiritual Roots, Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1980) Shinto as a form a natural religion and as a religion of nature seeking to express reverence for perceived kami should be distinguished from the later State Shinto of the nineteenth century which was little more than a manipulated ideology. There are approximately 100,000 jinja (shrines), sacred areas in which kami are enshrined, celebrated and worshipped throughout the country.
2. The Manyoshu
The Manyoshu deals with themes such as love, life, friendship, beauty and death. The 4,500 poems are perhaps best characterized as expressions of a natural appreciation of life and acceptance of death with no morbid preoccupation. In that sense they reflect the spirit of Shinto in its acceptance of the natural and its affirmation of the value of life. There is a universe of difference between Japanese society in the days of the Manyoshu and the later inhibitions of Confucianized Edo society or the ideology-ridden police state that collapsed with the defeat of the nation in 1945. The people of the Manyoshu were simple, uncomplicated, happy and free. They expressed their emotions naturally and enjoyed life as it came to them. Kakinomoto Hitomaru’s poems about the death of his mistress, his wife and a beautiful girl, and on the eve of his own death, do not find ready parallels in the corresponding writings of the West, especially if compared with the Old Testament image of death. The following examples demonstrate these points.
On the death of a beautiful girl, he wrote:
O Woman, beautiful as an autumn leaf, and supple as a young bamboo,
why did you die so young, when life was long before you?
Dew falls at morn, and disappears at eve,
as men are wont to say and mist, it comes at eve,
vanishing at morn, I have heard the sad word,
and calling you to mind, deplore your death.
How much more will your husband grieve who slept under your arm, and miss you and yearn for you!
Alas, your dying ere your time like the morning dew, live evening mist! (Manyoshu (tr. Honda, HH Tokyo: Hokushindo Press, 1967 p. 217 (Op. cit., p.210)
On the death of his wife he wrote beautiful elegies of her:
Beautiful was the tsuki tree upon the bank my dear wife and I used to view,
which in springtime was bedecked with fresh green leaves, and as beautiful was she.
I loved her with all my heart, but none can flee the inevitable.
The funeral procession started in the morning with white flags fluttering,
and through the wild field where the heat wave shimmered it reached the hill.
Our boy kept crying for his milk since then, but with no food to give,
I only tried to soothe him, carrying him in my bosom.
Now calling for his mother,
I’ve come along the rocky path on Hagai Hill where is her grave. (Op. cit., p.210)
Of his mistress he wrote:
My love lived on the Karu.
I ever longed to see her, but fearing others,
who would spread rumours, I desisited.
Secret as a pool among the mountains she remakied.
But she is gone, gone as the sun does down at dusk,
gone as the shining moon hides in the cloud.
The sad news came,
and thinking mere sight of her village might sooth me,
I roamed about the mart of Karu,
but nowhere could I heard her voice,
not a maid passed by who resembled her.
I vainly cried her name, and waved my sleeve. (Op. cit., p.207).
On the eve of his own death he wrote:
My wife will still be waiting to see me come home after I have died, and pillowing
my head on rocks of Kamo Mountain lie.” (Op. cit., p. 223).
These lines reflect the thinking found in all the variety of situations depicted in the Manyoshu. They are structurally formed, but not stereo-typed. They are not, like many of the writings of medieval Europe, unsigned, impersonal and usually symbolic. They were written by real people about actual people and they deal in a human and natural way with the issues of life and death, loving and dying, seen as quite natural.
The ‘Natural’ Versus the ‘Moral’ Significance of Death
What is meant by saying that death was viewed as ‘natural?’ I use ‘natural’ here in opposition not to ‘artificial’, but to ‘unnatural’, or ‘moral’. The western Judea-Christian tradition is rooted in ancient Hebrew beliefs, the historical importance of which roughly equates for the West with the importance of the Manyoshu for the ancient Japanese. While not entirely dissimilar, the Hebrew and the ancient Japanese views diverge in several significant ways. For the Hebrew, life was the supreme value, the ultimate good. Death therefore, was bad. In the symbolism of the Book of Genesis, death is seen as ‘unnatural’. In Genesis 3, it is defined as a form of punishment for human sinful behavior in the Garden of Eden. The death of the individual thus bears moral significance – and the time of death is understood as determined by God. Death came into being as the result of human disobedience after trickery by the evil one, a motif found in other ethnological contexts. This view has continued to survive in both Protestant and Roman Catholic forms of Christian thought, but especially in all forms of Puritanism, perhaps the most extreme instance of the ‘death from sin’ concept applied in practical life and belief.
For the Japanese, there is no such stigma attached to death. It is the natural outcome of a much greater and impersonal process that is marked by many stages. It is understood as part of a wider cycle that encompasses all aspects of life. This is the distinctive feature of the Japanese view of death. One need hardly be a poet to feel the difference between the warmth of feelings expressed in the lines of the Manyoshu quoted above and the stern stoic mentality expressed in the Old Testament, especially in the writing of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher:
“There is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that one fate comes to all; also the hearts of men are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. But he who is joined with the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward; but the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and they have no more forever any share in all that is done under the sun.” (Text of the American Revised Standard Version of 1881 Ecclesiastes 9:3-6).
The same passage continues with advice to make the best out of life, which will end in death:
“Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life which God has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. “(Ecclesiastes 9:9-10).
Ecclesiastes teaches that the spirit returns to God, while elsewhere in the Old Testament, the dead are described in Hebrew as elohim, like kami in Japanese. These dead may even have knowledge of the future and may have other powers denied to the living, but Israelite law forbade the living any access to them (Deuteronomy 18:11). The spirits of the dead were frequently invoked illegally. They were thought to be able on some occasions to return to the land of the living and invade the bodies of those alive, or even inanimate objects. The most predominant view, however, was that the dead inhabited a region called Sheol, a place whose location was thought probably to be under the earth. (Sheol is the place in which the dead gather. While its origin is disputed, it dates at least from the era of the monarchy. See Martin-Achard, From Death to Life: A Study of the Development of the Doctrine of Resurrection in the Old Testament London: Oliver & Boyd 1960 p.36 ff.).
It is an abyss far from the place where the God of Israel reigns. It seems to have been imagined as a vast burial ground of which individual tombs are merely particular manifestations. The image of Ecclesiastes is that the dead know nothing; they are not conscious and are unable to do anything. (Ecclesiastes 3: 20-22, 9: 3-6, 9-10). The Hebrews saw the distinctions of this world continued in the next according to the same hierarchical principles. One exception was that the arrogant, the tyrannical and those who committed great crimes would be consigned to the depths of the pit. In these ways, death and the world of the dead have moral significance, a theme noticeably absent from the Manyoshu.
The Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan)
The Nihonshoki presents the ancient mythology of the creation of the Japanese archipelago. It also touches on the theme of death in some very important passages that deal with the kami, with Izanagi-no-Mikoto and his wife, Izamani-no-Mikoto, procreators of the Japanese archipelago. The story is touchingly told, of Izanagi-no-Mikoto’s great grief when his wife dies giving birth to the fire kami. He mourns her death and follows her to the land of the dead, yomi no kuni, the land of pollution. Here more developed thought is in evidence. The status of the dead in yomi no kuni and the polluting aspects of death are identified.
The story begins with the death of Izanami and Izanagi-no-Mikoto’s pursuit of her to the land of the dead. She asks him not to look at her, but he lights a torch and sees her body in an advanced stage of decomposition. In horror, he runs away and she, in anger, pursues him, assisted by the ugly females of the land of yomi.
While the Ugly Females of Yomi were preparing to cross this river, Izanagi-no-Mikoto had already reached the Even Pass of Yomi. So he took a thousand-men-pull-rock and having blocked up the path with it, stood face to face with Izanami-no-Mikoto, and at last pronounced the formula of divorce. Upon this, Izanami-no-Mikoto said:
“My dear Lord and husband, if thou sayest so, I will strangle to death the people of the country which thou dost govern, a thousand in one day.” Then Izanagi-no-Mikoto replied, saying: “My beloved younger sister, if thou sayest so, I will in one day cause to be born fifteen hundred.” (Nihonshoki (tr. W.G. Aston, Tokyo: Charles Tuttle, p.25 I:19). A comment is added: “Some say that the Even Pass of Yomi is not any place in particular, but means only the space of time when the breath fails on the approach of death.”
These passages indicate a number of interesting points. Firstly, it seems to have been believed that there was a boundary or point of transition between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Secondly, the living have access to the dead and they can communicate with each other. (op. cit. p.26 I:20).
The death of Izamani is touchingly related and has parallels in the Manyoshu where husbands mourn the passing of wives. The idea of the living divorcing the dead, even symbolically, is a concept remote from the Old Testament denial of any connection, or any form of communication, between the living and the dead.
After Izanagi’s visit to Yomi, he washes himself as follows: When Izanagi-no-Mikoto had returned, he was seized with regret, and said, “Having gone to Nay! a hideous and filthy place, it is meet that I should cleanse my body from its pollutions.” He accordingly went to the plain of Ahagi at Tachibana in Wodo in Hyuga of Tsukushi, and purified himself. (The liturgy of the Obarae in the Engishiki (c.927) refers to it. Motoori Norinaga identified it as unazaka “the slope of the sea”: cf. footnote 11).
This account relates to the practice known in earlier eras of ritual purification after attending a funeral ceremony. It also matches the Sui Dynasty account. While this point belongs to later discussion of funeral rites, it is relevant here to the belief in the land of the dead as a place of pollution. The physical aspect of death (the corpse) is distinguished from the spiritual (the soul) that may be consulted freely and naturally.
The foundation of the modern view of death is to be found in the classics and in Japanese mythology. Death is natural; it is not a punishment. It is, however, in physical terms, a form of pollution or impurity for those who come into direct contact with it. (Nihonshoki op. cit. p.26 I:20-21). In its spiritual aspect, the souls of the dead continue to exist and the living may maintain contact with them. Unlike the roots of the Western tradition, there are no moral aspects and no pessimism. These characteristics give the Japanese view of death its three characteristic and traditional distinguishing features.
Image | ishisukeshimeha
This is Part 3 of Professor Stuart D. B. Picken’s serialised monograph, “Death in the Japanese Tradition: A Study in Cultural Evolution and Transformation”, to be published every Thursday.
The next instalment, “Folk Religion and Death” will be published next Thursday on April 07, 2016.
Part 1: Death in the Japanese Tradition: An Introduction
Part 2: Buddhism & Burial: Attitudes to Death in Ancient Japan
Part 3: Death and the Dead in Japan’s Literary Classics
Part 4: Folk Religion and Death
Part 5: Kami and Ancestors
Part 6: Buddhism and Death in Society
Part 7: Buddha and Kami
Part 8: Popular Buddhist Death Cults
Part 9: The Death Poem and Buddhism
Part 10: Cross-Cultural Comparisons on Mourning and Object Loss
Part 11: Japanese Buddhist and Christian Images of Death: Comparisons and Contrasts
Part 12: Bushido: The Way of Death
Part 13: Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism and the Neo-Samurai
Part 14: Militarism – Meiji to Showa
Part 15: Nogi Syndrome, Workaholism and Karoshi
Part 16: Suicide in Contemporary Japan
Part 17: Lingering Images in Popular Culture
Part 18: Terrorism, Violent and Tomorrow’s Citizens
Part 19: The Death and Burial of Emperor Showa
Part 20: The Modern Ritualized Death System