Posts tagged Nara period

Link: Wax-resist Dyeing

I just found a cool description of Japanese wax resist (“batik”) dyeing (rōketsuzome/ろうけつ染め) at Blue Lotus. This way of adding a design to cloth goes back to the Nara period (710–794)(ja.wp:ろうけつ染め) and is one technique that was used to put designs such as mon on kimono. This is something I’ve been wanting to experiment with for a while, and it’s nice to see an easy-to-read description of the modern process in English.Watch movie online Logan (2017)

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: Japanese Crests

Mon, or Japanese crests, are one of my favorite Japanese design elements. Mon served much the same purpose as European heraldry: they were used for identification on the battlefield, to mark personal property, and to show family relationships, and sometimes they were given by a superior as a mark of honor. Mon are much simpler, design-wise, then European devices, however. For one thing, mon are monochromatic: color is not considered part of a mon, and the same mon could be drawn white on black, blue on yellow, or any number of other combinations. Secondly, while European devices can be divided in all sorts of different ways and incorporate a large variety of charges, mon tend to be of a few simple designs: one to eight or so copies of a single element, possibly in an enclosure of some sort. There are some patterns that incorporate two elements, but mon never reached anywhere near the density of European devices. Mon favor plant motifs, with the animal motifs favored in Europe quite rare, with the main exception being occasional birds.(JM:Heraldry)

Design elements that would later be mon date back to the Nara period (710–784). These designs were initially used on carriages and clothing, and first saw widespread use in battle in the Kamakura period (1185–1333).(SH:7,12) They were used by the court nobility and by samurai up until the Edo period (1603–1868), when their use, under strict regulations, spread to actors and merchants. Mon are still used today, their clean designs lending themselves to corporate logos such as that of Mitsubishi, which is actually named for the mon used as its logo (“three diamonds”).

There are many interesting categories of mon I could discuss, but let me start with the big, obvious one: Imperial mon. The 16-petaled chrysanthemum has long been the symbol of the Imperial family. Some historians think it actually originated as a stylized sun, referring to the Imperial line’s heritage as descendants of the sun goddess. This was one of the few mon that had usage restrictions on it even before the Edo period; the mon proper was restricted to the Emperor’s household, with the variant of a 14-petaled chrysanthemum seen from the rear for imperial princes, and other variations used by other members of the imperial family at various times. Those who one the favor of the Emperor would sometimes be given permission to use a mon incorporating the chrysanthemum, such a crest being a symbol of imperial favor but also loyalty to the Emperor. Similarly, during their rule of Japan the Ashikaga shōgunate was given use of the paulownia (kiri) mon by the Emperor, and in turn would grant the right to use mon based on it to loyal followers.(SH:6)

16-petaled Chrysanthemum mon

Variations on the paulownia crest

Still, most mon were much less strictly defined, and I’ll discuss more about mon and variation another time.

Pillow Talk

The word “pillow” (枕 or ‘makura’) seems to have been a popular metaphor in Japan. We have the concept of a pillow book, a ‘public journal’ prose form conceptually similar to a modern blog, the most famous of which is The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. There’s also various pillow-related imagery in Japanese poetry, for example the idea of a ‘grass pillow’ as a temporary bed while traveling. Finally, there’s the pillow word (枕詞 or ‘makura-kotoba’), the topic of tonight’s discussion.

Pillow words are conceptually similar to the epithets used in classical Greek and Roman epic poetry. They were descriptors with a fixed form frequently applied to certain words. In a Roman poems, you wouldn’t just talk about the dawn; you’d often say something like “rosy-fingered dawn”. Similarly, in Japanese poetry, you might talk about the “red-shining sun” (あかねさす日/akanesasu hi).(CJAG:364)

These descriptors share some of the same purposes as classical epithets. Epithets were chosen to fit into the strict meters of epic poetry; similarly, pillow words are generally 5 syllables, to fit easily into Japanese forms, almost always made up of 5- and 7-syllable lines. In addition, they let you show off your familiarity with poetic traditions, remind your audience of the associations of a place1, and simplify the poetic process by providing solid ready-made material. Unlike classical epithets, pillow words are rarely applied to people or gods; they more frequently are used with elements of nature, places, or other poetic imagery.Movie Fifty Shades Darker (2017)

Pillow words first show up in the Man’yōshū, the oldest extant collection of Japanese poetry, dating to the Nara period. Most makura-kotoba that show up in later poetry are taken from Man’yōshū poems, since the set forms and strong tradition behind these descriptors was their main purpose. In fact, because these phrases are so old and were held constant as the language evolved, the exact intended meanings of many are unclear. This and the fact that their primary purpose was not a denotative meaning can present challenges when translating poems with makura-kotoba.(en.wp:Makurakotoba)

To close, here is an example from Hundred Poets, Hundred Poems. Read the rest of this entry »