Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Kami 紙 (1)

Right so, I mentioned that kami 神 has two homonyms: not just kami 髪 (hair) but also kami 紙 (paper). What are some religious uses of paper, you ask (as I imagine you)?
Here's one you're likely to encounter: shide--the folded paper that is attached to the straw rope (or shimenawa) that marks the boundary of a sacred space (you can see two of them in between the rope tassels in the photo here).

Shide can also be attached to a willow branch, and used as a harai gushi. This is often translated as "shaking stick"--sweeping the stick with the shide attached has the effect of purifying a space--because the word harai can mean "shaking," but guess what--that's right, another homonym at play. Harai also has the sense of exorcism. So the question is, why does paper folded in a zig-zag pattern function to exorcise powers that are improperly situated? Idle speculation in class is welcome.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


In one of the discussion sections I was in last Thursday, we spent some time arguing about the views of the bioethicist Peter Singer--for me it was really fun, and serendipitously, the next day somebody sent me the link to the trailer for Astra Taylor's new film Examined Life which features conversations with some really significant contemporary philosophers, including Singer. Philosophy types, please check out the trailer below.

Kami 髪 (2)

We've talked in class a bit about the division of the body into the upper half, which is pure (or masculine) and the lower half, which is impure (or feminine). One of the things that has captured the religious imagination across Asia is the possibility of interpreting the upper and lower halves of the body as mirror images, and so perhaps it's not surprising--since we've seen so much interest in the hair that grows from the head--that we also see some interest in other instances of body hair, including sosoke.

In his 2003 Power of Denial Bernard Faure tells us of two Buddhist temples said to have enshrined sosoke, and one Shinto shrine that claimed to possess the sosoke of the deity Benzaiten (or Sarasvati). In contemporary Japan, there is a shrine associated with a new religious movement which is also said to have enshrined three thousand samples of sosoke. Good heavens.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Black hair / white hair

We've been talking in class about the dichotomies of living / dead, human / animal, and upper / lower, and we noted that in Ohnuki-Tierney's account, this gets supplemented by another dichotomy--male / female. In the Japanese context, it's also possible to think about that male / female, living / dead dichotomy in terms of the colours white and black.

In one case that I'm aware of, the hair of a dead person is considered to become 'white' once a certain period of time has elapsed. This means that the hair is no longer a source of impurity, and can safely be transported beyond the border that marks a separation between the sacred realm of the dead and the ordinary world of the living. This is a border that women aren't allowed to cross while alive, but their hair can make that journey once it has become white. In this context, 'white' is obviously given a positive value--in some sense it indicates exactly that the hair is now thoroughly removed from the process of decay, and so wonderfully, inertly pure.

It's also the case however, that in some communities it is understood that a female shaman's powers of transgression, which allow her to negotiate the worlds of the living and the dead, are localized in her long, unbound hair. In this case, the blacker the hair, the better--'black' is afforded an ambiguous value but that ambiguity is desirable somehow. I was thinking about this in light of what we were talking about in class--it seems to me that hair must fall in the same category of materials--old blood, human excreta, trash--that Ohnuki-Tierney identifies as polluting, and yet, it seems to have yet another level of ambiguity in that it is ambiguous even in its ambiguity. What do you guys think?

(The image above is from the NYPL Digital Gallery)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Kami 髪 (1)

In premodern Japan, hair is identified as a special locus of generative power, and of personality. For this reason there are a number of ways in which social power gets bound up with hair, and a lot of reasons to bind up hair. Here, for your consideration, are four examples:
(1) Hair is incorporated into embroideries of the Buddhas as a way of forging a link between the devotee and the Buddha represented in the embroidery (see ten Grotenhuis 1999);
(2) The American Orientalist Lafcadio Hearn reports seeing locks of hair bound to the gates of the Izumo shrine, which specializes in marriage (see Hearn 1894);
(3) Hearn also notes the circulation of stories in which wives unbind their hair when they go to sleep, whereupon the hair promptly transforms into serpents--symbols of poisonous desire, repressed during the daytime (see Hearn 1894; Matisoff 2002);
(4) Folklorist Yanagita Kunio also reported a number of folk practices and beliefs revolving around women's hair--the practice, for example, of boat captains keeping the hair of their wives or daughters onboard ship as a protective talisman (see Faure 2003).

This association of hair and a generativity which is at once the source of a lot of interest and a lot of anxiety might help to explain in part the concern we noted in Landor with the "hairiness" of the Ainu.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Kami Kami Kami

My next project is on the incorporation of the human body into memorial objects in modern Japan. One of the objects I'll be looking at is this rope made of human hair, enshrined at Higashi Honganji in Kyoto. In Japanese the rope is called a kedzuna, which means exactly what you would think it would mean: hair rope. According to the explanations provided by the temple, human hair was used to make the rope because it was the only material strong enough to move the massive wooden beams used in the construction of the temple. My hunch is that this is probably not quite true—or not the whole truth anyway. I had the opportunity to present some of my thoughts on the hair rope at a conference a couple of years ago, and Leslie Kawamura suggested at that time that one of the things that might underlie the choice to use human hair in the rope was the fact that the Japanese word for human hair (kami 髪) is a homonym for kami 神. It just so happens that the Japanese word for paper (kami 紙) is also a homonym for kami 神. This month we’ll be spending quite a bit of time in class talking about kami 神, so I’m going to try to put some things up on the blog about kami 髪 and kami 紙.

Monday, January 5, 2009


Welcome back to school everyone, and welcome to the Japanese Religions and Material Culture blog!

This project was inspired by Adrienne Hurley's amazing use of blogs in her classes at McGill and elsewhere. I will be blogging throughout the semester, and each of the students taking Japanese Religions this year will eventually contribute a guest post on an object of his or her choosing. By spring, we'll have a valuable archive of information for future students. Nice, right?