Archive for July, 2010

Element of the Week: Tomoe

This week, we look at another religious symbol that’s a mite less controversial. The tomoe (巴) is a comma- or swirl-shaped design with a variety of possible origins. It resembles ancient Japanese curved jewels (such as the jewel that serves as one of the three Japanese imperial regalia).(en.wp:Tomoe) Other possible origins associate it with a wrist guard (tomo/鞆) used by archers, Chinese snake depictions and the ying-yang symbol. Although dating to the Nara period (710–794), it only became widely used in the tenth or eleventh century, but at that point it became immensely popular, becoming the second-most-popular motif for family mon by the start of the Edo period (1600). Whatever its origin, it developed additional meanings: its resemblance to a whirlpool caused it to be used to protect buildings from leaks, and it later developed general religious connotations and became specifically associated with Hachiman, Shintō god of war.(Dower:145–146)

Here are three tomoe crests, each using three tomoe, the most popular number. From left to right, a crest used by Maeda Toshiie at the Siege of Suemori in 1584,(SH:F4) one used by Kobayakawa Takakage at the Battle of Pyokje, Korea in 1593,(SH:60) and one used by Itakura Shigemasa at Shimabara in 1638.(SH:J9)

Maeda TomoeKobayakawa TomoeItakura Tomoe

Three tomoe mon

Element of the Week: Swastika

Today we discuss a controversial mon element (and one you definitely cannot use in the SCA): the swastika. The swastika (卍 or 万字/manji), among many other symbolic uses, has always represented Buddhism in Japan, a use that dates back to the 5th century BCE in India. In Buddhism, the swastika represents dharma, harmony, and the balance of opposites.(en.wp:Swastika) Its use in Japan dates back to Buddhist use in the Nara period (710–794), and it acquired additional auspicious connotations due to phonetic associations with the word “man” (万), meaning “ten thousand”, and the idea of the virtues held by a Bodhisattva.(ja.wp:卍) After Christianity was banned following the Shimbara Rebellion in 1638, this was one of several mon popular among the “hidden Christians” who continued practicing in secret due to its subtle cross-shape.(Dower:148) Even in modern Japan, Buddhist temples are indicated on maps with a swastika icon. (While the Japanese swastika today generally points left, unlike the Nazi right-pointing swastika, both directions were used historically.) Due to the distance between Japan and Germany and Japan’s own wartime government basing its legitimacy on Shintō, not Buddhism, the fascist connotation is mostly absent.

Of course, in the Sengoku period, Buddhist connotations were the only connotations known to the Japanese, and samurai who wanted to display their religious faith might choose the swastika from the many religious symbols used in mon. Here we have two examples: the mon used by Tsugaru Nobuhira at Hirosaki Castle in 1610, and that used by Hachisuka Iemasa, who died in the Shimabara Rebellion in 1638.(SH:I,62) While the image of armies of soldiers marching with swastikas painted on their helmets may seem alarming today, it was no different than marching under the Christian cross in Europe.

Yellow swastika on red background White swastika on a black disc

Two swastika mon

Period Award Scrolls

Just a quick one this week, since I’m off to the war. I was looking through translated excerpts of the Nihon Shoki(SoTJ:48), and I came across some imperial edicts very similar in style to the award scrolls used in the modern Society for Creative Anachronism. Since the Nihon Shoki, as an early Nara period work, is written in Classical Chinese, I’m not going to even consider trying to put together a parallel translation. These edicts are attributed to the Empress Shōtoku.

Notable in this edict are the focus on family merit over individual merit, reflecting the clan-oriented nature of Japanese society, and the focus on both religion and on engineering.(SoTJ:48)

It being my desire to encourage the Inner Doctrines, I was about to erect a Buddhist temple, and for this purpose sought for relics. Then thy grandfather, Shiba Tattō, offered me relics. Moreover, there were no monks or nuns in the land. Thereupon thy father, Tasuna, for the sake of the Emperor Tachibana no Toyohi, took priestly orders and reverenced the Buddhist law. Also thine aunt Shimame was the first to leave her home and, becoming the forerunner of all nuns, to practice the religion of Shākya. Now we desired to make a sixteen-foot Buddha and, to that end, sought for a good image of Buddha. Though didst provide a model which met our wishes. Moreover, when the image of Buddha was completed, it could not be brought into the hall, and none of the workmen could suggest a plan for doing so. They were, therefore, on the point of breaking down the doorway when thou didst manage to admit it without breaking down the doorway. For all these services of thine, we grant thee the rank of Dainin, and we also bestow on the twenty chō of paddy fields in the district of Sakata in the province of Afumi,

This next one has more political subtext, and also shows how much those who notionally retired from political life to become monks or nuns could retain political influence.(SoTJ:119)

It has been represented to us, in view of the master’s constant attendance on us, that he has ambitions of rising to high office like his ancestors before him, and we have been petitioned to dismiss him from our court. However, We have observed his conduct and found it to be immaculate. Out of a desire to transmit and promote Buddha’s Law, he has extended to us his guidance and protection. How could we lightly dismiss such a teacher?

Although our head has been shaven and we wear Buddhist robes, we feel obliged to conduct the government of the nation. As Buddha declared in the Sūtra, “Kings ye who take up thrones, receive the ordination of the bodhisattvas!” These words prove that there can be no objection even for one who has taken holy orders in administering the government. We deem it proper therefore, since the reigning monarch is ordained, that the chief minister should also be an ordained monk. Hearken, all ye people, to our words: We confer on the Master Dōkyō the title of chief minister and master, though the title is not of his seeking.

And with that, I’m off. Mata raishū!

Mon of the Week: Natagama

Here we have an interesting mon. Unlike many of the mon we’ve discussed recently, this mon has died out, and is no longer in use. In fact, finding information about this mon at all is quite challenging! It was used by Ōno Harufusa in the Battle of Ōsaka.(SH:62) What do you think it is?

Natagama Mon

My initial source for this mon, Stephen Turnbull’s Samurai Heraldry, describes this mon as a ‘hatchet’. But it doesn’t look like any hatchet I’ve ever seen. Perhaps this was some sort of traditional Japanese hatchet? Looking into it, however, it seems that Japanese hatchets are pretty similar to Western ones. What then?

After an extensive search, I found the mon in a Japanese collection of Sengoku period mon. Here it is identified as a “nata” (鉈).(SSS) This turns out to be a traditional forestry knife similar to a small machete used by woodcutters and for wilderness survival.(ja.wp:鉈) (The same kanji can also be used to mean “hatchet” in compounds, and a nata can be used for splitting wood like a hatchet, to give Turnbull some credit.) What this mon most resembles, however, is not the ordinary nata, but a variation called a “natagama” (鉈鎌) or “billhook”, which, unlike the plain nata, includes the hook at the end. It is mainly suited for cutting brush and branches, but could also be used as a weapon.(en.wp:Billhook)

As to why this mon didn’t catch on? One possibility is that, straddling the line between a weapon and a tool, once mon representing tools became associated with lower classes it was seen as not suitable for a samurai. Of course, the fact that our friend Harufusa seems not to have had any children(ja.wp:大野治房) may also have something to do with it.

Here’s a picture of an actual natagama, for comparison.