[Houei Nojiri]

A Tribute to Houei Nojiri

Gentleman, Scholar, and Eclectic Ethnoastronomer

By Steve Renshaw and Saori Ihara

Setsubun, February, 2000

A translation of this page into Danish by Einar Solbakken may be found here.


Readers who have perused the articles on our web page or read some of our publications related to star lore in Japan are no doubt familiar with the name Houei Nojiri (pen name of Masafusa Nojiri). Anyone who seeks to research the ethnoastronomy of Japan will quickly come across the writings of this scholar. From a brief scan of literature related to research on Japan's past, it is evident that amateurs made and continue to make significant contributions to scientific literature. As a case in point, Imamura's (1996) synopsis of archaeological literature, Prehistoric Japan, reveals that many significant finds contributing to the understanding of Japan's pre-recorded past have come from astute amateurs willing to stand guard and take on the exacting and meticulous job of preserving and studying sites doomed by the ever increasing destruction of urban development. Through the early parts of the 20th century, Nojiri performed a similar task in gathering a huge database of known but "hidden" ethnographic star lore, maxims, and rituals, many passed down for centuries but now lost in their indigenous form due to destruction of war, modernization of language, and an almost obsessive desire to incorporate anything Western and distance modern Japan from its past.

In all, Nojiri wrote some 70 books, ranging from collections and texts on astronomy and star lore for young people to scholarly analyses of data related to Japan's ethnoastronomic heritage. Respected by professional astronomers, other scholars in cultural astronomy such as Hirose, Hara and Kitao also trace their original inspiration to probe Japan's cultural astronomical heritage to the pioneering work of Houei Nojiri.


Houei Nojiri with his favorite writing companions. (Nojiri Collection, Jirou Osaragi Museum)

Western readers familiar with Leslie Peltier, whose Guide to the Stars has accompanied many an amateur observer and whose Starlight Nights was recently republished by Sky Publishing, may find some parallels with Nojiri's life and love for astronomy despite cultural difference and diversity of research interest.

From the start, Nojiri seemed destined to travel an eclectic path. Born in Yokohama in 1885, he often referred to himself as Hamakko (beach boy), a colloquial term applied to people who were born and grew up in that area. He recalled that in 1899, at the age of fourteen, the term "Leonid" was firmly planted in his mind. While he witnessed no storm or even a rise in hourly count on the nights he watched, he combined what he felt was a mysterious sounding foreign term with an enchantment for the sky. Two years later, while in the hospital for a severe cold, looking out the window of his room, he made the first contact with what would be a continuing love affair with the "magic" of Orion.

With academic interests in both humanities and sciences, graduation from Waseda University in 1906 brought Nojiri to Yamanashi Prefecture where he taught English in Koufu Junior High School. The school had an unused telescope in the science room, and Nojiri took this as an opportunity to further his interests in astronomical observation. Having a knowledge of English and Greek literature, he also began to inspire his students not only with ancient history of Western astronomy but Western mythology of the stars as well. While in Yamanashi, he married the daughter of the principle of the school.

Further exercising his eclecticism, Nojiri moved to Tokyo in 1912 and began to write original articles and produce translations of foreign material for several publications whose readership ranged from junior high school students to professional astronomers and literary scholars. In the autumn of 1918, his wife passed away after a bout with flu, leaving him with three children. Perhaps with such an event and further maturity, his interest in his own cultural roots, indigenous star lore, and astronomical history of Japan took hold. This was further inspired and augmented by his reading the work of Izuru Niimura, a scholar of linguistics and Japanese word origins. As a challenge to readers of his articles, Nojiri asked that people send in lore, sketches, and copies of artifacts related to local legends and myth. He was rewarded with overwhelming response leading to his first publication of Japanese ethnoastronomy entitled Seiza Jyunrei (Constellation Pilgrimage).

In the early decades of the 20th century, the line between professional and amateur astronomer was even more gray than it is today in Japan, and Nojiri took an additional position as a planetarium instructor while developing professional ties with astronomers at both Tokyo and Kyoto Observatories. While he spent time observing and recording his work with precision, his obsession with Japan's astronomical heritage continued to grow. He was seen by many as a bridge, not only between the often contentious Tokyo and Kyoto observatories, but between the professional astronomical community and the public.

In 1925, Nojiri added another job, that of providing a weekly radio broadcast centered on both Western and Japanese astronomical history and heritage. Still the eclectic, his translation of Treasure Island in 1928 brought him enough money to buy another telescope which he named "Long Tom". In 1930, his translated name for the newly discovered Pluto, Meiou Sei (King of the Underworld), became part of standard Japanese nomenclature. With his radio broadcasts, he once again inspired the public from Hokaido to Okinawa; listener response allowed him to add to his immense collection of folk tales and local legends associated with the stars. In 1936, he published his seminal collection of traditional Japanese lore and legend associated with star names, moon stations, and asterisms titled Nihon no Hoshi (Japanese Stars). This book, long out of print, still stands as a primary source of Japanese star lore. Fortunately, sections found their way into the work of subsequent scholars as well as further publications of Nojiri himself. As standardization of Japanese did and continues to develop, such material has become the only relatively direct link to many long held legends and cultural astronomical icons.


Nojiri with the neighborhood "kids" and "Long Tom". (Nojiri Collection, Jirou Osaragi Museum)

War brought tragedy to many in Japan, and the end of the war brought an especial tragedy to Nojiri's life, the death of one of his daughters in 1945 due to illness. Perhaps the culmination of all events took its toll; he stopped writing. Only with the encouragement of the professional astronomer Hideo Hirose did Nojiri continue to revise and analyze his compilations and continue to add to his immense list of publications, an activity that lasted until his death.

That he was an eclectic and meticulous scholar is evident in the thoroughness of his work, hampered only by the fact that he was unable to completely verify before his death all material through analysis using other scientific, historical, archeological, and literary sources. That he held a love for astronomy and a sensitivity for the human side of scientific endeavor is witnessed by disclosures he made in some of his writings. His personal life obviously had tragedy. Yet his work reflects a sense of awe and optimism relative to his own and humanity's place within the cosmos. At this time of Setsubun, it is worth recalling something he wrote in one of his last books:

    On Setsubun...

    My young grandchildren are now Toshi Otoko [see our article on Setsubun]. Since they came to my study where I am writing, I tried to scare them making horns with my index fingers. They were screaming with delight while they threw beans at me. The radio in the background tells of scattering beans in the city, and they also talk about the moon having a ring. I thought I would go out, have a smoke, and look at the moon. As I walk out, the moon indeed has a ring though it is very vague. The moon is about 10 days old, and Jupiter is shining under the twins' two dim stars, one gold and one silver. It is a warm night, the earlier rain now gone. There are voices of Setsubun in the distance.

    I don't want to go back in. I stand in the backyard, smoking my cigarette, looking at the moon. The legs of the twins reach close to the moon while Orion culminates underneath. The nebula is too dim to see. It makes my heart warm to think that spring begins tomorrow, but the plum trees won't bloom for at least another month. As I look at the old plum tree in the corner, I remember a Setsubun night some decades ago. My oldest daughter, who was 12 at the time, wore a plastic ogre mask and hid herself under the shadow of that tree. She jumped out saying "I'm an ogre!" and scared her younger brothers and sisters who were enjoying throwing beans on the porch. It surprised me too, so I really scolded her. She took off the mask and held her head down.

    My daughter died a few years later. Now, as I look at the shadow of that plum tree, I almost think I see my little girl standing there. She passed away to hide herself there. She might come out tonight. It surprises me to realize that I fantasize about that.

      From Hoshi Sanbyaku Rokujyu Go Ya (365 Starry Nights)

Though his written scholarship was inspiring and impeccable, like the 19th century amateur astronomer and novelist Kenji Miyazawa, Nojiri often expressed a kind of mythical mix of traditional values and fact to describe his personal relation with the sky. He once remarked that when he died, he wanted to be buried "three centimeters from Gamma Orion... There's an Amazon warrior there, you know, and that warrior guards Orion Park". Nojiri died at 2:45 on the morning of October 30, 1977 having outlived two wives and some of his children. Even the empirically meticulous Megumi Hara could not help but note that Gamma Orion (Bellatrix) reached culmination over Japan at about that time.

Unfortunately, none of Nojiri's works have been translated into English in full form. As the interdisciplinary nature of the study of Archaeoastronomy and Culture in Astronomy continues to challenge those of us who seek to understand our collective ancestors' historical relations with the sky, it is worth noting the number of tributes which continue to be made to this outstanding scholar, most recently in a delightful article by Ueda (2000) appearing in Sky Watcher. Nojiri appears to have been a scholar whose eclecticism led Hara to remark "He was a bridge. He practiced interdisciplinary study before there was even a term known for such in Japan."

For much of the public, Tadashi Ishibashi, a ship's captain who recalled first reading Nojiri when he was fifteen, fondly recalls Nojiri's influence (Ueda, 2000):

    In those early years, astronomy was the most advanced science. Boys who loved stars jumped into the scientific pursuit of astronomy by reading the books of Kanda and Yamamoto [professional astronomers of high stature]. Nojiri Sensei started a different limb of the astronomical tree, and preserved it very well. I read all the really scientific books, but I couldn't get Nojiri's books out of my mind. They were like a searchlight. What I especially liked about Nojiri was that he didn't write just to give information or make money. He wrote because he loved it.

    I met Nojiri Sensei two months before his death. He asked me "How old are you now?" I told him I was fifty one. Nojiri replied "I envy you; you can still work for another forty years." I knew he really meant it.


Houei Nojiri, 1885-1977. (Nojiri Collection, Jirou Osaragi Museum)


REFERENCES AND CITED WORKS

Hara, M. (1989) Hoshi no Bungaku Shi (Literary Journal of the Stars). Tokyo: Chikuma Shobou.

Imamura, K. (1996) Prehistoric Japan; New Perspectives on Insular East Asia. University College London: UCL Press.

Ishida, G. (1989) Nojiri Houei; Bunsho Hoshi no Bunjin Den (Houei Nojiri; Documentary Biography of the Literary Artist of Stars).Tokyo: Libro Port.

Nojiri, H. (1992) Hoshi Sanbyaku Rokujyu Go Ya (365 Starry Nights). Tokyo: Kouseisha Kouseikaku.

Nojiri, H. (1936) Nihon no Hoshi (Japanese Stars). Tokyo; Kenkyu Sha.

Nojiri, H. (1925) Seiza Jyunrei (Constellation Pilgrimage). Tokyo; Kenkyu Sha.

Morikubo, S. (Eds) (1995) Nihon Amateur Tenmon Shi (History of Amateur Astronomy in Japan). Tokyo: Kouseisha Kouseikaku.

Peltier, L.C. (1995) The Binocular Stargazer (Formerly published as Leslie Peltier's Guide to the Stars). Waukesha, Wisconsin: Kalmbach Books.

Peltier, L.C. (1965) Starlight Nights; The Adventures of a Star-Gazer. New York: Harper and Row.

Ueda, E. (2000) Sanran taru Orion; Nojiri Houei no Isan (Glorious Orion; The Legacy of Houei Nojiri). In Sky Watcher, January, pp.24-pp.30. Tokyo: Rippu Shobou.

In addition to the above, we consulted numerous articles in The Heavens, the Journal of the Oriental Astronomical Association where Nojiri's work is frequently quoted, and his influence oft remembered. Nojiri's works themselves are too numerous to list in this brief article.


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Steven L. Renshaw

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