Sunday, December 10, 2017

Police: 3 die after sword attack near famed shrine in Tokyo

December 8, 2017 at 17:30 JST
Though I am not in the habit of posting news stories on this blog, I felt I needed to be a bit more timely with this one. All though the facts are not all known, it is obviously a great tragedy. It has all the more meaning for me as I have featured this important shrine in my book and have spent many hours on the grounds and interviewed one of the negi for the book. I would like to extend my deepest sympathies to the family and parishioners, and encourage any readers of this blog to visit this historic shrine and its magnificent festival. For details, please see Shinto Shrines: A Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan's Ancient Religion
Reporters gather near the Tomioka Hachimangu shrine early on Dec. 8 after a murder-suicide incident occurred there several hours earlier. (Takayuki Kakuno)
A bitter sibling rivalry apparently escalated into rampage involving swords that left three people dead and one injured near a renowned shrine in Tokyo on the night of Dec. 7.
One of those killed was Nagako Tomioka, 58, chief priest at Tomioka Hachimangu shrine in Koto Ward.

She was stabbed in the back of her head as well as chest in an ambush perpetrated by her younger brother, Shigenaga, 56, and a woman, according to the Metropolitan Police Department.
Police later on Dec. 8 confirmed the woman was Shigenaga’s 49-year-old wife, Mariko.
After the attack on Nagako, Shigenaga fatally stabbed his wife in the chest and abdomen and then committed suicide by turning his sword on himself.

His body was found with wounds to the left chest and abdomen.
Police suspect Shigenaga remained bitter about being fired as chief priest of Tomioka Hachimangu in 2001. His older sister later took over the post.

According to investigative sources, Shigenaga was arrested and indicted in January 2006 on charges of threatening his sister with postcards that said, “I will kill you,” among other things.
According to Tokyo police, Nagako was driven to her home within the shrine grounds after a meeting with local police officers.

Police said Shigenaga and his wife were hiding by a nearby building.
After the car parked and Nagako got out, Shigenaga attacked his sister with a sword with a blade about 80 centimeters long, according to security camera footage. The time of the attack was 8:25 p.m.
The 33-year-old chauffeur, who had also gotten out of the vehicle, fled the scene but was chased for about 100 meters by Mariko. She slashed his right arm with a sword with a blade about 45 cm long.
He was listed in serious condition, but his injuries were not life-threatening.

Shigenaga then stabbed his wife in front of Nagako’s home before killing himself, the video footage showed. A sword broken in half was found near Nagako’s body. A shorter sword and two knives were discovered near Shigenaga’s body.

According to people who knew the siblings, they were close as young children and often played together at the shrine, which hosts one of the three largest festivals in Tokyo.
Their father served as chief priest until Shigenaga took over.

However, he was suddenly fired in 2001, and several sources said his financial problems likely led in part to his dismissal. A classmate of Shigenaga recalled that he enjoyed a flashy lifestyle.
The father resumed as chief priest before eventually giving the post to Nagako.
After Shigenaga was fired, Nagako consulted with police the following year and said there were problems within the family about the chief priest position.

Police are now looking into the possibility that other recent problems may have triggered the attack.
A shrine member in his 50s recalled a phone call from Shigenaga in July. Over about 40 minutes, Shigenaga laid out his complaints about his sister and the shrine.
“He occasionally broke out crying or began shouting, and I felt that he was emotionally unstable,” the man said.

A woman in her 70s who is a member of the shrine and knew the siblings said the two had argued over money even before Shigenaga was dismissed as head priest.
From five to 10 years ago, shrine members received anonymous letters that criticized Nagako.
“I was always worried that something like this might occur someday, but it is still a huge shock,” the woman said.

Tomioka Hachimangu shrine was established in the early Edo Period (1603-1867) and grew in popularity under the sponsorship of the Tokugawa Shogunate.
The shrine is closely linked with sumo, and several statues erected on the shrine grounds are related to the sport.

Sword-wielding ex-priest warned shrine about his ‘vengeful ghost’

December 10, 2017 at 17:55 JST
A brother who killed his sister with a sword had demanded that officials of a famed shrine in Tokyo dismiss her as chief priest or else he would “haunt” them as a “vengeful ghost.”

The warning came in a letter received by officials and representatives of shrine parishioners on Dec. 9, two days after the brother fatally stabbed his sister and wife before committing suicide at Tomioka Hachimangu shrine in Koto Ward.

The letter, written by Shigenaga Tomioka, 56, described the trouble he had had with his sister, Nagako, 58, over the years and other matters, according to people familiar with the letter.
The letter, written on eight A-4 size pages, bore a signature that is believed to be his, as well as a postmark showing that it had been dropped off in Tokyo’s Ueno district.

Police believe Shigenaga posted the letter before he went on the rampage on the night of Dec. 7.
In the letter, Shigenaga, who had been fired as chief priest of the Shinto shrine in 2001, argued that Nagako’s character was not worthy of the position. He demanded that she be expelled from the shrine and that his son be named chief priest.

“I am going to haunt you by becoming a vengeful ghost after my death if my demands are not met,” the brother warned in his letter.

Shigenaga and his wife, Mariko, 49, ambushed Nagako near her home on the shrine grounds with swords. Mariko also slashed Nagako’s driver, who suffered serious but non-life threatening injuries.
Shigenaga then fatally stabbed his wife and killed himself.

Police suspect the brother continued to harbor resentment over being fired as chief priest of Tomioka Hachimangu, according to investigative sources.

The siblings’ father, Okinaga, was chief priest of the shrine. But Shigenaga began serving as acting chief priest in November 1994, after his father became ill and was admitted to a hospital the previous month, Toshiji Sato, a lawyer representing the shrine, told a news conference on Dec. 9.
Shigenaga was promoted to chief priest in March 1995.

However, Okinaga resumed the role and fired his son as chief priest in May 2001, after his problems with women and money became a big issue within the family since 1999, according to Sato.
When Shigenaga stepped down, he apologized to family members, shrine officials and representatives of shrine parishioners for causing problems. He also promised “not to cause any trouble afterward.”
The family paid him a retirement fee for stepping down and offered financial support.
Both sides agreed that the monetary support would be terminated if he breached his promise not to cause problems.

But Shigenaga was arrested and fined for sending a menacing letter to his father and shrine officials in 2006. Nagako had reported the letter to police, and he started condemning his sister around this time, according to Sato.

Nagako was named chief priest when her father stepped down in October 2010. Okinaga died in July 2012.

With unanimous backing from shrine officials and parishioner representatives, the shrine proposed Nagako’s appointment to the Association of Shinto Shrines, an influential organization of which Tomioka Hachimangu was a member. The association rejected the proposal.

The shrine sought the association’s approval in June 2013, but again the request was not granted.
When Tomioka Hachimangu made its fourth request for approval of Nagako as chief priest in March this year, it came to light that a letter denigrating Nagako had been delivered to the association.
The letter was sent under the name of Shigenaga’s wife.

Sato believed that Shigenaga played a role in the letter. He said he sent a letter dated April 25 to the brother, warning him against such behavior. On May 29, a board of senior officials at Tomioka Hachimangu adopted a resolution to leave the association. Sato said he was entrusted to take care of procedures following Nagako’s decision to withdraw the shrine’s membership.

The lawyer said he also interviewed Nagako about details of how and why she took the post.
In late June, Shigenaga started denouncing senior shrine officials and some representatives of parishioners over the resolution. It was also learned that he made phone calls that slandered his sister.
Sato said he sent another letter to Shigenaga, dated July 10, warning him to end his series of harassment. The brother was living in Fukuoka Prefecture at the time.

The harassment ended, procedures to leave the association were completed, and Nagako and people involved in shrine affairs had developed a sense of relief.

Shigenaga killed his sister on Dec. 7. “We could have taken measures to respond if new harassment had taken place,” Sato said. “I am sorry about the attack.”

Shigenaga also apparently created problems for others after he moved to Fukuoka Prefecture from Tokyo several years ago. Neighbors in the prefecture in Kyushu said disputes erupted between Shigenaga and local residents over his car’s parking space and other issues. “I had not seen his car for several months, so I assumed that he had gone somewhere else,” a woman in the neighborhood said.

Slaying of priest, murder-suicide planned well in advance: police

December 12, 2017 at 15:05 JST

The wife of a murderous former chief priest made arrangements for her death before they carried out a carefully planned sword attack against his sister at Tomioka Hachimangu shrine in Tokyo, police said Dec. 12.
The Dec. 7 attack and murder-suicide at the shrine in Koto Ward left all three dead.
Officers with the Metropolitan Police Department said Shigenaga and Mariko Tomioka used an apartment about 30 meters from the shrine as a base for their plot to murder Nagako Tomioka, 58, the chief priest of Tomioka Hachimangu and older sister of Shigenaga, 56.
A sword with a 66-centimeter-long blade was found in the apartment along with a knife with an 80-cm blade normally used to cut up tuna and binoculars.
Police also found a letter written under Mariko’s name taped to a door frame.
“I, Mariko Tomioka, have decided to murder Nagako Tomioka because of long-standing animosity,” the letter said. “After I kill her, I plan to take responsibility by committing suicide, but if I am unable to do so due to fear, I have asked my husband, Shigenaga, to assist me in that task.”
The letter was dated Dec. 1 and was addressed to the police and media representatives.
Security cameras in the vicinity captured footage of Shigenaga and Mariko leaving the apartment building about an hour before the attack.
After Nagako got out of a vehicle near her home on the shrine grounds, Shigenaga fatally stabbed her with a sword, while Mariko chased and slashed the 33-year-old driver.
Two swords were used in the attack, and shorter knives were also found at the crime scene.
Shigenaga then killed his 49-year-old wife with a sword and committed suicide.
Police said the apartment was on the fifth floor and was rented out on June 30. Roads in the vicinity of the crime scene are clearly visible from the apartment.
Police believe the attack stemmed in part from Shigenaga’s continued bitterness about being fired as chief priest of Tomioka Hachimangu in 2001. His older sister eventually took over the post, and Shigenaga had expressed clear resentment over her promotion.

Shrine ‘cleanses’ murder sites, but worshippers may not return

December 15, 2017 at 18:05 JST

A popular Shinto shrine in Tokyo performed purification rituals at the sites of a double-murder suicide, but parishioners there remain shaken by gruesome assault that involved samurai swords.
At 4 p.m. on Dec. 14, 10 priests gathered in front of the home of Nagako Tomioka, 58, the chief priest of Tomioka Hachimangu shrine who was killed by her sword-wielding brother on Dec. 7.
The priests performed a special “oharae” purification ritual at the front entrance of the house as well as the area where the brother, Shigenaga Tomioka, 56, killed his wife, Mariko, 49, and then committed suicide.
The oharae ritual is usually conducted twice a year--the last day in June and New Year’s Eve.
Police suspect that Shigenaga, who was fired as chief priest of the shrine in Koto Ward 16 years ago, held a grudge against his sister, who had taken over the post. He and Mariko apparently planned the attack against Nagako well in advance.
“They did not hate each other in the past, but the situation somehow ended up with the worst possible ending,” a former employee of the shrine said about the siblings. “I feel terrible for the people who are connected to the shrine and who have worshiped at the shrine for many years.”
The shrine, founded in 1627, is famed for the Fukagawa Hachiman Matsuri festival, one of the three major festivals held in the capital. The imperial couple attended the event in 2012.
Over the New Year’s holidays, Japanese customarily visit Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples for the first prayer of the year. Tomioka Hachimangu boasted about 300,000 New Year’s visitors every year.
Officials of the shrine held an emergency meeting on Dec. 9 to decide on an acting chief priest. Some parishioners said their faith in the shrine is unchanged, but others had different feelings.
“Although a shrine is a place where we receive the purification ritual, this horrendous case has rendered the shrine itself in need of the ritual,” said a woman in her 50s, who has made New Year’s prayers at the shrine for more than 30 years.
A 77-year-old man who lives in the neighborhood said the shrine has usually been swarmed with worshipers on the first three days of the new year.
“But I bet the number will greatly drop (in 2018),” he said.
“A letter written by the suspect was found that said he will curse the place,” the man continued. “I will never visit the shrine again. I feel sad because it was the pride of our town, and the liveliness will be gone.”
Shigenaga’s letter, written before he and his wife ambushed Nagako, demanded that his sister be dismissed as chief priest of the shrine and replaced by Shigenaga’s son.
“I am going to haunt you by becoming a vengeful ghost after my death if my demands are not met,” the letter said, according to police.
Tokyo police recently revealed that Shigenaga had, in fact, made 2,800 copies of the letter for delivery to shrines around Japan and parishioners. Each letter was signed and stamped with Shigenaga’s thumbprint.
Shigenaga left the stack of letters with a commercial handyman and gave instructions on Dec. 7, the day of attack, to “post them on the morning of Dec. 8 from anywhere other than in Koto Ward.”
Police confirmed that 1,000 of the letters were received by shrines around Japan. The other 1,800 were delivered to schools attended by children of Tomioka Hachimangu’s parishioners and eating establishments frequented by the parishioners.
(This article was compiled from reports by Yosuke Takashima and Mika Kuniyoshi.)

    Saturday, April 22, 2017

    The Modern History (Controversy) of the Emperor's Succession
    and the Japanese Method of Counting Years (Nengo) (part 2)
    The Emperor of Japan, Akihito, r. 1989– (photo Reuters)
    The answer to the question, "What year is it?" may seem obvious to Americans, most Europeans, and a vast number of people around the world: the answer is 2017. But though we may take for granted that time is the same all over the world, the counting of time is far from consistent. The point I am getting to is that, while in Japan we are fully aware of this Gregorian dating and use it daily, we also have another system which is just as widely employed if not well known outside the country: the nengo or gengo (both pronunciations are used). In terms of the nengo, the current year is Heisei 29. The name Heisei is the Era name and is based two kanji: one in a line from the Chinese shokyo (Classic of History) referring to the wise Emperor Shun, and one from the shiki (Records of the Grand Historian). The combination of the two kanji is intended to mean "peace everywhere". The name was arbitrarily decided, and the era begun, in 1989 when Emperor Akihito ascended the throne. But the true significance of the nengo system is that it preserves the myth that Japan is a sacred land and her ruler is descended from Amaterasu omikami, and that Japan is unique and superior to any other nation because the Imperial line has continued from the beginning of time. This religious-mythological doctrine became a political and militaristic justification for war in the not-too-distant past. More importantly the myth is fundamentally alive and functioning behind many of Japan's doctrines in the present day. (More on this in a later post.)

    Taking a step back, calendar systems basically come down to three types: those based on the earth's revolution around the sun (solar); those based on the phases of the moon (lunar); and those which are based on historical events related to a particular country. In fact, the first two also rely on the third type. The nengo can be considered of the third type. Since the Meiji Era (beginning in 1868) it has been based on the years of reign of the emperor. The current emperor, Akihito, acceded to the throne on 7 January 1989. That year became Heisei 1 or Heisei gannen meaning the first year of Heisei. Then we count from there to get the present year. The previous year (plus seven days) was the last year of his father's reign, Showa 64 (in other words, we went from year 64 [1988] to year 1 [1989] when the previous emperor passed away). In fact, the counting of time based on the reign of a sovereign was typical in many parts of the world in antiquity. In Japan before Meiji, just to complicate things however, a new era could be declared at any time and the numbering would begin again each time. So, for example, during the reign of Emperor Komei, the last emperor before Meiji, there were no less than seven era names within the twenty-four year span of his reign. This, and any number of other traditions, was legislated away by the new government with the stroke of a pen.
    Emperor Showa (Hirohito), r. 1926–1989 (photo Japan Times)
    As I stated above, the vast majority of the world is at least aware of the Gregorian numbering and this is the system most used in international dating and transactions. It is based on a solar calendar with its own system of adjustment to keep the calendar from drifting (the drift occurs because splitting the year into 24 hour units leaves a negative remainder). The primary mechanism of adjustment is to add a day to the year once in every four years (leap year) and change the number of days in February, which was deemed to be the simplest method. But besides the counting of time itself is the all-important question of starting points. The historical founding of a country in the modern age is generally based on some verifiable date. However, in a world that began who-knows-when, an arbitrary starting point must necessarily be decided if you intend to have a consecutive numbering system of years since the "beginning" such as the one that has brought us to the year 2017. To put it another way, no matter the solar or lunar system of measurement, the actual dating always involves some historical, and therefore local and arbitrary, conventions.

    In the case of 2017 that choice was the supposed birthday of Jesus Christ. This starting point for the numbering of years was gradually adopted over a long period of time, beginning with its proposal by Dionysis Exiguus in 525, becoming widespread initially among Roman Catholic countries. He also proposed the term Anno Domini (the year of our Lord). He calculated the year of the birth of Jesus Christ, based on the Gospel of Luke, which states that Jesus was "about thirty years old" shortly after "the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar" (Wikipedia), calling this year AD 1. Of course, he recognized that actual time did not begin at that point. Without going into details, he was simply replacing an old convention with a new one that he felt was more pleasing to the increasing number of Catholics. A fairly arbitrary, fairly local concept based on sketchy history. But if you are going to count, no matter what system you use, you have to start somewhere. Of course, there are a number of sources that corroborate the dates of Tiberius life and reign and that he existed is not in doubt. A number of historical sources exist as well that corroborate the existence of a man named Jesus of Nazareth. Relating the two gives some basis for dating the later though, in fact, the exact year of the birth of Jesus is unknown.

    While I find the topic of calendars and dating quite interesting, I will return to my original topic of the Japanese counting of time (hopefully before exhausting my readers' attention). As I mentioned above the traditional system in Japan involves dating according to the reign of Emperors. Underlying this is the same system of lunar measurement that was used in China and much of the world prior to the adoption of a solar-based system. Therefore Japanese New Year essentially coincided with Chinese New Year, which is reckoned as the beginning of spring. Since the lunar and solar calendars do not coincide, by the solar calendar New Year falls on a different day each year ¬– between 21 January and 20 February – when the new moon occurs. By the way, Shinto festivals, which by in large are still calculated by the lunar calendar, fall on different dates each year. Again, this is just the system of measurement and has nothing to do with the starting point, which is a historical-cultural choice.
    Japanese Crown Prince, Naruhito (photo by Zimbio from
    In the case of Japan, there has generally been no great interest in the sequential dating of years as in the Gregorian style – except during the war years when the Koki system was also employed. (Accordingly, for example, 1940 was deemed to be the year 2600.) But there has been a burning interest in the starting point, which relates to the beginning of the reigns of emperors. By this calculation, the first emperor of Japan is deemed to have been Jimmu (or Jinmu) and his reign is considered to have been from 660BC to 585BC; a total of 75 years (2600 was calculated form the first year of his supposed reign). This is according to the Kojiki, Japan's oldest existing record of legend, myth, and history, which was finished around AD712. It also relates that Jimmu was the great-grandson of Ninigi-no-mikoto, who was himself the grandson of the sun goddess, Amaterasu, and descended to earth to rule by her command. Why he ultimately did not rule, and why it took two more generations and several hundred years (yeah, those guys were as old as Moses) for the first Emperor to emerge, is not clear. Apparently the world was left in such disorder by the descendants of Amaterasu's brother, Susano-o, that it took several generations to straighten it out – though almost nothing is recorded of how this was accomplished. At the end of this time Jinmu and his brother(s) began a march from their native Kyushu, conquering and deposing – with divine assistance – along the way, until he arrived at the land of Yamato and established the "country". According to the Kojiki, Jimmu was 126 years old when he died and Japan reckons that the current emperor is the 125th in a direct line of decent from Jimmu. Japan still celebrates National Foundation Day (kenkoku or previously kigensetsu) on February 11, based on the nationalistic fantasies of the Meiji leaders and the foundation myth of Jimmu.

    Of course, myth is central to the foundation of any country or people whether or not their origins predate written history, as Japan's certainly do. Stories or myths were all that existed before the practice of writing, archeology, paleontology, et al., began to present physical evidence of the lives of men of the past. But in regard to evidence, Japanese myths face some formidable problems. For all intents and purposes Japan had no writing system until it began to adopt the Chinese system in the 6th century. The earliest written reports about the country actually come from Chinese envoys who visited the country in the 3rd century (and apparently got a number of their facts wrong, adding to the confusion). Archeological evidence points to the existence of a group of city states from about the third century but nothing that could be called a unified country under a single monarch or group of monarchs until the fifth century if then. In other words, the supposed origin of the myth antedates the recording of it by some 1,300 years.

    So, the mythology dictates that Jimmu was the first emperor in 660BC, and that by the fifth century, Japan already had its seventeenth Emperor, Richu. Of course, mythology is not to be taken on face value and certainly must be distinguished from history. And there's the rub: since the Meiji period, the Japanese have essentially – in many respects – refused to distinguish reality from myth. All the more so since the end of WWII when a new round of denial of history began which continues until today. This is because – to those most insecure about their own self-worth – to do so has the potential to diminish the position of the Emperor, and thereby the prestige and pride that has been invested in the myth of the country's history as a whole. The definition of diminish, in this case, simply means modifying the insistence on the "longest continuous line of emperors of any country in the world."

    It is obvious to historians and archeologists alike that there is no way that Japanese history as a country begins anywhere remotely near 660BC. Yet at the dawn of the Meiji period, the leaders who had deposed the last Tokugawa Shogun and were desperately trying to build a modern nation-state on the Western model, used the myth of a country older than any other as their unifying theme. Since then, in some quarters, the Japanese self image has had too much invested in these Imperial/national myths to let them go. To my knowledge the question, "should Japan change the unfounded dating of its National Foundation Day and the wholly manufactured myth of 125 consecutive Emperors," has never come up, or has been shouted down so vehemently that no amount of evidence can give any alternative any traction. Yet, the very fact that the foundation day of the country is based on pure fiction makes for more, not less, insecurity vis a vis other countries.

    As one who has lived in Japan for a very long time, I would describe the character of the people as generally lacking in introspection. To put it in a more positive light people do not like to dwell on the past. They also do not like to point the finger of blame at anyone – both admirable traits to be sure. However the other side of the coin is that placing real responsibility and correcting errors such that they never happen again, becomes virtually impossible. This for the simple reason that the "feelings" of others must be considered as paramount (not truth; not right or wrong). Of course, the feelings, in this case, are those of other Japanese and especially those intent on maintaining the myths that were created in the Meiji Era. Especially, when it comes to correcting history relating to the Emperor and the country, it is the nationalist elements whose feelings might be hurt, potentially making them angry – often violently so. In the past, these “feelings” could result in political assassinations by militaristic, nationalist elements. But such so-called feelings today are only a cover for the less violent but equally vehement powers that be, who are the ones currently employing these myths when it suits their purpose. This includes the Liberal Democratic Party and the still existent aristocracy that runs the country. In other words, one thing that is always behind Japanese inaction or seeming ambiguity on any thorny historical issue is the fear of disunity and violence from within.

    The aversion to "rocking the boat" taints the Japanese experience of history. It impacts especially on relations with China and Korea, which have never been truly healed as a result. Even the bombing of Pearl Harbor has never truly been atoned in the national conscious, unlike the yearly remembrance of the bombing of Hiroshima (a contradiction that, as an American, I feel acutely). It also results in the government editing history books to be sure that they maintain the 'correct view' of history, the one which takes great pains not to offend the national(istic) myths. The audacity to state in public, for example, that Emperor Showa shared responsibility for the war (which he obviously did) earned the Mayor of Nagasaki a bullet in the chest in 1990. The statement that got him shot was this, "Forty-three years have passed since the end of the war, and I think we have had enough chance to reflect on the nature of the war. From reading various accounts from abroad and having been a soldier myself, involved in military education, I do believe that the emperor bore responsibility for the war..." Few dare to make such a statement even today. So long as the legitimization of Japan as a country is linked to the myth of an unfaltering and infallible line of emperors, the country can never come face to face with its true history. Though it might not be apparent at first glance, this is the crux of the issue surrounding the controversy of the current emperor's resignation as well.

    I would like to end this brief discussion by quoting extensively from Klaus Antoni, professor of Japanology at the University of Tuebingen, who has researched and written extensively on Japanese religion and society. The entire text can be downloaded free from as well as other places on the net.

    "Unlike the situation in post-war Germany, in Japan the year 1945 has never been seen to the same degree as a historic turning point in the sense of a new beginning unencumbered by history. The break provided by the Japanese defeat in the war indeed had lasting effects on Japanese society, for example, in the form of a modern(ized) Constitution and a political turn toward the United States, and yet continuities remain in Japan that can only be understood historically.

    This is especially clear in the fact that Japan still uses its own calendar system [to count] years. The official Japanese calendar is not the Gregorian, or Western calendar, but the traditional Japanese system based on the periods of rule of the Japanese emperors (gengô, traditionally nengô). The psychological importance of this calendar in Japan can be seen, for example, in the fact that after 1945, the year of Japan’s defeat, the emperor not only retained his position, but also the era name – and thus the cycle of year numbers – remained unchanged. Only after the death of Emperor Hirohito (Shôwa-tennô) on January 7, 1989, was a new era name (Heisei) declared, marking the beginning of a new calendar cycle.

    This calendar system has the effect that in Japan history is not viewed as a linear progression, but rather in an insular manner.  One cannot tell how far back in history an event lies simply from the calendar date on which it took place – for example, in the year Taihô 1. Only after placing it in a linear chronology is its true historical distance revealed, as in the case of Taihô 1, which corresponds to the year 701 A.D.

    Obviously, this concept of time results in a different view of history, in which history becomes a kind of ocean with individual events scattered across it like islands. In extreme cases, an event’s historical distance from the present is of only secondary importance. In the context of religions, this fact results in a general indifference toward an objective historical chronology. Taken to the extreme, this can allow the age of myths to be directly linked to the present.

    A further characteristic of Japanese culture that continues to be influential to this day is the fact that the country’s history has always been shaped and edited by large families, dynasties or clans – and a government which continues the practice until today. Whether for the imperial household, which proudly claims to have reigned without a change of blood lineage since the beginning of time (although this is viewed much more critically by any historian worthy of the title), the important families of the court nobility (and above all, the Fujiwara clan), the military nobility (especially the Minamoto and Tokugawa houses) or merchants and farmers, the crucial factor determining one’s position and reputation has always been one’s genealogical family membership – that is, one’s bloodline (though, in another twist which I won't get into, this also includes outsiders brought into the family when there are no blood descendants). Stated in the extreme, the power of genealogy can be seen as the driving force in Japanese cultural history and is especially important in the religious legitimization of ruling power."

    Wednesday, March 29, 2017

    The Modern History (Controversy) of the Emperor's Succession
    and the Japanese Method of Counting Years (Nengo) (part 1)

    Shinto Shrines of Japan the Blog Guide, Emperor Jimmu
    The legendary first Emperor Jimmu,
    supposed reign 660-585 BC
    On December 1 2001 a daughter was born to the Crown Prince of Japan, thereby stirring an old controversy on the right of succession to the Chrysanthemum Throne. Princess Toshi, whose given name is Aiko, is the only child of the eldest son of the current monarch, Emperor Akihito. The Emperor's eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, will succeed his father to the throne: no problem there. If Prince Naruhito had a son, his son would be next in line to succeed. However, women are barred from succession and this is where the old controversy has been revived. Until September of 2006, the controversy was more acute. That is because the Crown Prince's younger brother, Fumihito, also had two daughters who were barred from succession. In other words: only female heirs. But in that year, some sixteen years after his marriage to Princess Akishino, a son was born to Fumihito. The new nephew, Prince Hisahito is now next in line to the throne after his uncle. Why the controversy: simply because, like so many aspects of traditional, Japanese culture, the succession law is a modern invention disguised in traditional clothes.

    Shinto Shrines of Japan the Blog Guide, Empress Jingu
    Legendary Empress Jingu (r. 201-269) 
    Mother of Emperor Ojin
    and worshiped together as the kami Hachiman
    Historically, the Emperor's succession has been male dominated, but not exclusively so and not legislated as such.  Some male and female Emperors even ascended the throne more than once. The Emperor also, traditionally, never stepped outside the palace grounds and most people had no idea who the Emperor was at any given time. This changed, as so many of Japan's "immutable traditions" did, after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. As most readers probably know, this is the beginning of the modern period when the Shogun was deposed and the Emperor "restored" to primacy as head of state – a position he had neither officially or unofficially occupied since the Kamakura Period beginning about 1185. Of course, after being restored, he was still, and is today, only a figurehead. Rather, the "restoration" ushered in a semi-democratic form of government. And that government not only legislated for the people, it legislated for the Emperor too. The Imperial House Code, established in 1889, and heavily influenced by Meiji leader's newfound love affair with Prussia, instituted a number of the changes that have continually returned to haunt the country.
    Shinto Shrines of Japan the Blog Guide, Empress Genmei
    Artist's impression of Empress Genmei (r.707-715)
    Shinto Shrines of Japan the Blog Guide, Empress Gensho
    Empress Gensho (r.715-724) the only
    Empress in history
    to have succeeded her mother
    who was also an Empress (Genmei

    The first change I have already mentioned (no female succession). The second change was to forbid agnatic succession whereby another relative – usually a brother – could succeed. The third change was that an adopted child could not succeed. The last adopted child to become Emperor was Emperor Kokaku (r.1780–1817) who stepped in because the previous Emperor, Go-Momozono, died childless. He was also the last Emperor to abdicate, which he did in favor of his son Emperor Ninko. Which brings us to the fourth change: abdication is also forbidden by the same law of 1889. Herein lies another controversy: the current Emperor Akihito, age 83, has decided to abdicate by 2017 (now postponed to 2019) due to health issues. This has sent the government scrambling to change the law and opponents scrambling for ways to convince the Emperor to die in office.

    Shinto Shrines of Japan the Blog Guide, Emperor Komei
    Emperor Komei (r. 1846-67) the last feudal
    Emperor and last to reside in Kyoto
    Shinto Shrines of Japan the Blog Guide, Emperor Meiji
    Emperor Meiji (r.1867-1912) First Emperor to preside over a parliament in Tokyo.
    The law was rewritten again in 1947, mostly because Japan adopted a new American influenced constitution. However changes were minor and it was pretty much kept the same, except to further add the restriction that illegitimate children also could not succeed. Which might have been a moot point since another change from the 1889 law forbade Emperors to have concubines. It also abolished collateral houses which could have otherwise contributed princes in a pinch.

    But like most thorny problems in the land of the rising sun, the problem of the Emperor's abdication is already being solved. This is simply because the Emperor insists he will abdicate – and who is going to stop him? Which demonstrates very clearly that tradition, religion, law, hell and damnation aside – where there's a will there's a way. So why all the fuss about succession? Simply change the law to allow daughters to succeed as well. This law is not based on Japanese tradition other than the tradition, among a not-so-small segment of the public, that men are superior to women. Of course, this is fr from an unusual belief, not only in Japan but also in America – as was clear in the recent presidential election. In fact, the majority of the population is in favor of the change, as a number of polls have shown, but among the Japanese ruling class – I mean the permanent ruling class – "not over my dead body."