30a, b
Ikebana, usually translated as 'flower arrangement' verbally means 'life-flower' and therefore seems to be close to 'life-tree', 'tree of cognition' and the like. With these it has in common that it is a type of art which uses mainly fibrous non-durable plant materials. Two simple examples showing 'pro-portion, that is, the contrast between a lower static and artificial element and an upper part of dominantly natural character, protruding relatively freely upwards into space.


Today Ikebana is considered as some sort of 'hobby' in the Japanese household. But this was not always so. Originally it was dominantly practiced by monks and followed a very elaborate system of aesthetics which in the wider sense used the arrangement of flowers and plant materials as a model to establish harmony among opposite forces. In this wider framework cosmological principles were integrated. The materials presented in 30c-f show aesthetic theories. Note that still today there are various highly honoured Ikebana schools which all have their specific and very secret theory of flower arrangment.


30g, h
Historical examples of some Ikebana types.



For the Western mind Japanese popular art is often surprisingly imaginative and original like this rural doll scenery or the small netsuke style tobacco box. With most simple means a very particular atmosphere is created which is considered 'typically Japanese'.


However, the principles behind these creations can be understood to some extent, first from the fundamental human disposition for the perception of opposing categories like 'above and below', 'movement and rest' etc., and, second, from the fact that this 'relationism' played an important role in the process of cultural evolution. Most impressive is the example of 31d. A bamboo stick is cut up into thin fibres at its top which is then knotted in analogy to a woman's hairstyle. The metaphor is perfect, the bamboo stick becomes an elegant Japanese woman. Similarly the fascination with the whirling woman on top of the pot and other similar mobile objects often producing surprising noises while in motion.


The Japanese Sumo wrestling as sport has developed from a ritualised territorial fighting which can still be seen in places where Sumo wrestling is part of local Shinto festivals. The sport has retained the character of sacrality which is shown by the holy rope around the waist of the wrestler. The upper part is naked and smooth, the lower part is characterised by stability.
In many mountainous villages the 'Namahage' are monstrous figures with frightening masks, clad in straw, with the sacred rope around their waist, forming part of the local tradition. At a certain festival during wintertime and usually in pairs they come from the wilderness of the mountains, breaking into the orderly village. They have torches, often also huge knives to frighten people, particularly children when they go from house to house. The figures are sacred and represent the wild counterpart of the settlement, at the same time they allude to territorial markers and the chaos implied during the period of their dynamic renewal.


31g, h
Many villages or small towns have processions with carts as their festival features. Local deities or their most important attributes are mounted on these carts. Usually made by various districts they are then at the festival date pulled towards the main or central shrine of the region or town. Often these carts are also miniaturized and thus become souvernirs or toys for children like on this picture. Note how the fish is tectonically interpreted, its tail being presented as pro-portion.
Very impressing is the buddhistic object (goraigô) 31h. A rectangular staff is pushed in a way that an element of folded golden or silver paper or cloth pops up at the top and finally forms a shiny aura with a Buddha figure in its centre. The picture at right shows the final phase. The object represents the coming of Amida Buddha to welcome the spirits of the dead. The same word also means mountaintop sunrise. This may have led to the particular design.


This is an illustration from a Japanese schoolbook representing a monster in the landscape. It is black like a storm, represents a deformed human or a grotesque animal. Evidently it is a categorically antithetic interpretation of the norm.


This mysterious dancing performance held in Ise city in two places (Enzacho and Sojicho) at mid August, that is at the time of the Bonfestival, is another example that very ancient traditions survive in Japan and can accumulate with elements of later import. It is fairly evident that the 'design' of the costumes for this dance (Kanko odori) alludes to something which, during the year was considered stable, but which, during festival time, gained dynamism. This leads us to the next paragraph of cult festivals in general and, later, to a particular type. The reader should keep the present dancing dresses in mind for later comparisons.


Japan has about 40'000 settlements, villages and city districts. Each settlement unit has at least one Shinto shrine related to the corresponding settlement deity (ujigami). And each of these shrines has its own festival calendar with at least one annual main festival related to the main deity, and numerous other festivals related to other events with their other specific deities. In the framework of Shinto religion these festivals are still fully intact. To one part they correspond to the official Shinto codex which reflects in certain parts of the cult. But, maybe to the extent of 90% these festivals have accumulated elements of the local history since most ancient times and are therefore of an enormous variety of behavioural patterns, formal expressions and values.

This tremendous manifold of cultic festivals does not enter into the Western concept of Japan, mainly because such traditional cults have been wiped out in the West by a long history of Christianisation. If such cults are described in Western Japanology the age old apriori devaluating jargon of the missionary history is applied (Mathias Eder, Nelly Naumann).
Unfortunately the Western position is not aware that it is conditioned by three extremely critical points of its own religious history. First the highly abstracted verbal representation of religion in the Mosaic concept in regard to the thentime Egyptian situation based on cult. And second the scholastic absolutism based on Neoplatonism completely blurrs the view. And third the illegitimate projection of modern universal cosmology on the ancient texts, the interpretation of their settlement foundation concepts as world creation is not an ideal scientific prerequisite to deal with the religions of other cultures.

If thus, in contrast to these very unscientific attitudes we acknowledge the scientific value of the traditional cults of Japan, we gain an enormously rich field for research. Shinto cult festivals do not only reveal their strong territorio-constitutional traits, they also show a very strong aesthetic component which acts socially with a strong identification factor. The main category is not belief, but participation in the cult.

If we manage to develop an awareness for the tremendous speculations involved in the Western history of religions, then the Japanese Shinto cults become tremendously important as an objective and comparative field. Doubtless, as in the case of other religions, popular Shinto was politically exploited too, e.g. by illegitimate macrocosmic speculations, but, by reconstructing such procedures objectively and scientifically, we can gain important insights in the positive - and negative - social impacts of human worldviews.


In a coastal village of Kagoshima prefecture sacred women (Southern 'Noro' women) have mounted on a sacred rock located at the beach that is between land and sea, and are, because the rock somehow 'lives' through their dance, saluted by men and women taking part in the cult on another rock at the right side. The ceremony makes sense. With their dance the Noro women reenact the harmonious principle of their worldview.

Throughout the year Shinto shrines have a relatively static function: they represent the peaceful existence of the settlement. In contrast to this, the cyclic festival period implies dynamic processes according to a traditional 'deep structure' (renewal of fibrous demarcation). On the level of durable wooden shrines this is usually enacted with mobile shrines (o-mikoshi). The symbol of the deity is brought into a smaller mobile shrine which is then carried to outer places mostly with some historical meaning (o-tabisho). This dynamic phase is explicitly emphasised in many ways (competitions, fights etc.). One type is dominantly formal and consists in decorating the mobile shrine with a highly protruding elastic and flower like bamboo structure (hana mikoshi) which visually emphasises the movements of the deity on her way through the settlement.


A similar formal element is applied to persons with ritual functions. Either this construction is protruding colourfully from their heads or it is being mounted on their backs. The humane and aesthetico-psychological dimension of this religion is evident! To persons who act in such roles such events transmit a great identity with the place and its traditions.


32g, h
Divine boats decorated with lanterns at the Tsuhima festival of Tsushima city. Mobile shrines are mounted on the boats. Above them a central pillar to which the protruding structures are fixed which support the lanterns arranged in spherical form. Note that there is a clear logic of form involved, a kind of local 'cosmology'.
Individuals balance these huge structures densely packed with paper lanterns along the festival procession. Antithetic to the norm there are endless possibilities for the category of risk, of the exalted (Kantô no matsuri, Akita city)


32i, j
Japan still cuiltivates an unbelievable wealth of dances, masked or unmasked, dynamic or elegant and refined, wild or tremendously poetical, dances imitating birds of various kinds, but also other animals like lions, tigers, deer, frogs, foxes, monkeys, horses, bulls, turtles or simply unidentifiable monsters and so on. Suddenly these wild or poetic dimensions take hold of the usual everyday spaces in the settlements and thus create a strong identity of the inhabitants with their place. Hirosagi no mai. white heron dance at the Asakusa temple, Daitoku, Tokyo. The men's cult association of various districts of Yokote city produce beautiful sacred signs called 'bonden' each representing their own district. At the main festival day the signs are brought to the Asahiokayama shrine in a communal procession for dedication to this shrine's deity (Feb. 17).

The mount 'Wakakusa' behind the Kasuga shrine in Nara is considered as a sacred mountain. Every year in the framework of a great ceremony (Yamayaki) its dry grass is set afire. The whole mountain burns. The concept of cyclic renewal is transferred to a natural 'tectonic' object.
All over Japan sacred huts are built by sacred associations for the settlement god (ujigami) or another deity and celebrated on New Year or later. Often the population of the settlement brings the New Year's decoration from their houses. These sacred decorations are filled into the huts and all is burnt on the 'little New Year' of the moon calendar (koshogatsu). Influenced by Western folklore such agrarian 'customs' are trivialised by Japanology (Nelly Naumann) and consequently often also by Japanese themselves. In fact they were the cyclically reinstuted territorial constitutions of prebuddhistic agrarian village cultures. Note the pro-portion of the form which implies high value worldview!

Next part
Back to homepage