June 15, 2009

i-ro-ha #4 "ni"

The fourth character to introduce in the "i-ro-ha" series is "ni".
Words that start with "ni":
ni = two
niji = rainbow
ningen = human
not to be confused with...
ninjin = carrot
oh, oh, oh NINJA!
and of course another word that starts with "ni" is NIPPON or NIHON. You know this as JAPAN.
a land of grey buildings and red gates...
Here is the kanji for Nihon
Rice paddy near my mother's home...
I started this series as an attempt to describe Japan, and here I am trying to explain the word Japan (Nihon) in one session.
...uh... not going to happen.

So allow me to focus just a little on religion.

Japan is often called a Buddhist country and although that is not a false statement it only captures one side of Japan's spirituality.
Buddhism was popularized in Japan during the Kamakura Period (1185~1333).
One of the most well known religious figures of the time was a man whose name starts with todays letter "Ni"(に).

Nichiren (1222~1282).
He founded the Nichiren sect which focuses on the Lotus Sutra.
The most influential sect that embraces the teachings of Nichiren would have to be the Soka Gakkai. They are popular overseas as well, with many famous musicians and other celebrities among their followers. They are known in Japan for their ties with the Komeito, a political party that is now one of the ruling parties.

Other Buddhist sects are the Jodo, Jodo-Shin and of course Zen, just to name a few.
So, if Buddhism doesn't have that long of a history in Japan... then, what is an indigenous Japanese religion?


The kanji characters mean "the way (or path) of god".

a shinto shrine I pass during my commute...
I'll try to take better pictures someday.

Two chronicles written in the 8th century (the Kojiki and the Nihonshoki) are known as Japan's first history books. They are books that show how mythology and history are intertwined in this country.

Amaterasu-no-omikami is one of the 3 original gods and is part of the root of Shintoism. There are more gods though...Izanagi-no-mikoto and Izanami-no-mikoto were husband and wife and they gave birth to dozens of gods who also gave birth to gods...

Included in the ranks of the gods, was the Emperor. Emperors were deified up until the end of World War 2, after which religion was separated from government.
(I remember seeing a picture of the Showa Emperor (the current Emperor's father) hanging on a wall at my Japanese grandmother's house when I was about 4 years old... I don't know what happened to it after my grandparents passed away.)

Another aspect of Shintoism that started before the word Shinto was put into use, is the belief in...well...almost everything!
Japan is the land of ... Yaoyorozu-no-kami (八百万の神). It means, 8 million gods.

I'm not kidding.
Eight million gods.

There is a god in everything. Not just the elements like earth, wind and fire, but also in all species.
There are spirits in all things and all spirits are divine, and have powers.

There is another saying in Japan...
Iwashi no atama mo shinjin kara. = Even a sardine's head can be worshiped.
This means that "faith can make anything holy".
Although the saying is rather critical and not used as praise, I think there is a lot of wisdom and beauty in worshipping nature.

This philosophy has enriched Japanese culture (example: paintings and kimono designs.) and literature (example: haiku which has now become quite the phenomenon!).

Although the Japan I know of now seems to be letting these ideals slip through their fingers
new buildings being built all over the place...
I have hope that some of the ancient philosophy will be revived and live on.
Movies like "Princess Mononoke" and "Spirited Away" show the basics of the Shinto philosophy...without the preaching.

oh and another word that starts with "ni":
ninjou = human nature
this is always used in a good way, focused on the warmth and kindness of humans...

Thank you for reading this extremely long post...and thank you for visiting!


Delwyn said...

Hi Tulsa

That was very interesting, I remember hearing that the Japanese were 90% Buddhist and 90% Shinto and I think that echoes what you say.

I love the way that the spiritual permeates so much of Japanese traditional life.

Happy Days

Butternut Squash said...

Another beautiful post. You have so much to teach. Your letter series would really make a wonderful little book as an introduction to Japanese culture.

I_am_Tulsa said...

Delwyn, thank you for stopping by! What you heard does ring is still a very confusing thing for me when we have festivities at my in law's house... o_O
There are shinto rituals that are done alongside Buddhist ones...I used to get frustrated with what felt like an endless chain of rituals and rules...I'm now finally starting to understand the reason for this "chaos".

Butternut Squash,
Ah, you have pushed "the button of the eternal dreamer" in me...
I have always wanted to do something to help bridge Japan with the rest of the world. My notes in preparing these posts are double the length in writing... It would be nice to have them in book form!
Thank you so much for the thought!

Chiara.u said...

Hi Tulsa! I love so much these posts. You're absolutely great in explaining the language, the history... I do love these posts :))

willow said...

I just watched The Seven Samurai the other night. There's such beautiful kanji in the credits before the film.

Ladybug said...

A great, informative post; history always gets me in. The Japanese calligraphy fascinates me; to look at a few strokes of the pen and decipher it, something I've wanted to study but didn't follow through....

June Saville said...

So much wisdom in this post Tulsa - thank you. Just as you thought about my post, my brain processes are working as a result of yours. I certainly hope as well that some of the old wisdom in the world remains and is not thrown out. Perhaps today's crises may slow the process. I believe we are all being forced to think a little more clearly these days. Do you?

I will look out for 'Spirited Away'. Looks as though Disney is doing something good in encouraging our youngsters in this way ...

I also love your information on Japanese characters ... they are so beautiful.

Polly said...

Another fascinating post, thanks for this lesson.

Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away are two of my favourites from Studio Ghibli collection, I never saw that link with Shintoism but it's clear now. Thanks!

I_am_Tulsa said...

Chiara.u, thank you so much! I'll do my best to keep these posts interesting, although I wish I had better pictures like you!

Willow, ooooh the Seven Samurai...way cool. Kurosawa movies are full of hints to explain the Japanese culture and history!

Ladybug! I gave up calligraphy rather early...I got so frustrated! lol
I think that now that I have a better knowledge of the language, right about now would be a good time for me to start again.

June, thank you so much for the kind words. I agree totally. This is the perfect time for people to learn. Especially when it concerns taking care of the earth and our body and souls....

Polly, many of the gods and spirits portrayed in those movies are based on Japanese (and Chinese) mythology/spirituality and although a lot of people do not worship them like the ancient days, there are still many shrines and rituals that pay respect to those gods. I'm so happy to hear that you are already familiar with Studio Ghibli!

julochka said...

wow, i didn't realize that about japan. i've visited once, but i'll admit i really came for the sushi. oh, and a cargo simulator, but the sushi was what did it for me. :-) thank you for the quick lesson in japanese religion. shintoism--i think i may have to check that out. :-)

I_am_Tulsa said...

Julochka! Sushi is a good reason to be in Japan...although the cargo simulator sounds intriguing too! Let me know if you get to visit Japan again, I will take you on a tour of shinto shrines AND sushi!

lucyslounge-dee said...

hi tulsa, thank you for your very nice comment do come to dublin someday. i'd love to show you around. thats a great post about japan. thank you

richard said...

Maybe it will sound off topic, but i shall dare to quote what Mac Arthur said leaving Japan:" The Japanese are like a bunch of 12 years old kidds." And Kurosawa himself said something, bu he was not so kind, so i shall hold my tongue.Gomen kudasai.

B said...

Great post! Japan fascinates me more and more. Tradition and innovation so entangled together! I'm hoping to visit soon (sushi being another reason I want to go too, of course!).
And, oh, love the human-carrot thing!

I_am_Tulsa said...

Richard, you speak Japanese!
Interesting quote you mention since I was thinking about breaking down the Japanese society into different age groups in order to explain aspects of the society (still working on it!).
Here's my quote, Japanese are like a bunch of 12 year olds and Americans are like a bunch of 16 year olds! lol (Of course this could be just me and my Peter Pan Syndrome!)
Komento mata omachi shite imasu.

B, tanjobi omedeto (happy birthday)!
Thank you! I would love to show everyone around one of these days!

richard said...

I never was in Japan, and I know just a few words. Lets say my path led me to learn much more than others about Japanese. Lets say that i said to someone in Hungarian a compliment (kiraly no) and she understood kirai= hate you.Lol. Kiraly no means Queen.

I_am_Tulsa said...

Richard, this is my very first lesson in Hungarian, thanks! Isn't it awful when languages sound similar but mean totally different things?!
This sort of reminds me of the word "ajo" in Spanish (garlic), in Japanese "aho" means "dumb"!

Polly said...

Just thought I'd let you know that I couldn't resist rewatching Spirited Away last night. Oh, I love this film sooo much!! All those funky gods, they are so abstract for us but make for a great story. Plus the music. Plus wonderful animation... I love the scene when Chikiro goes on a train to see Zeniba... aaaaah...

richard said...

Japanese is a difficult language regarding the right expresion to chose in a given situation.And by sex of the person. You know that, obviously. I am glad You fitted in somehow, and You know what I mean, thats sure.

I_am_Tulsa said...

Polly, I love that scene too! I also like the bath scenes, the gods make me laugh! Now I want to see the movie again too! LOL

Richard, choosing the right expression is always a tough one...I've figured out a lot of things but the older Japanese still give me a hard time sometimes!
I suppose you could say I have found my niche...there's always a way to fit in, it just depends on how much you really need to and how much you are willing to try. It wasn't easy at first and I'm not sure what consequences it will have in the long run. Now I am not so sure if I would be able to live in the States without being a bit awkward! LOL It's a funny thought, isn't it!?

richard said...

Yes, i ve met a person who lived there 7 years. DEFINITELLY not European anymore.

I_am_Tulsa said...

I think when you live in a different country for a long time it lets you be more of yourself instead of confined into one stereotype. That's what I like about being outside of the States...but it can be difficult when you go back since people notice the difference...some are ok with it but some may be confused.