A version of this article also appeared in the Griffith Observer, Volume 63, Number 10, October, 1999, pp. 2-17.
A further revised version appears in The Kyoto Journal, Issue 48, July, 2000.
Despite Chamberlain's (1971) somewhat patronizing view that little if anything "poetic" was ever written about the stars in Japan, historians and ethnographers, notably Uchida (1973), Hara (1975), Nojiri (1973, 1982, 1987, 1988) and Kusaka (1969) have collected an abundance of Japanese lore related to various star configurations. Using interviews with many older Japanese who tell their own and recall stories told by their ancestors, these "ethnoastronomers" have compiled a valuable source of data which provides a mosaic of the daily life of a people, most of whom depended upon cooperative efforts in agriculture and/or fishing for most of their nation's history.
As one of many groups of stars with which Japanese formed associations, Orion is a particularly rich "case study" in the ways in which Japanese historically made the sky a part of their lives. Perhaps Chamberlain's perception of a lack of Japanese "poetry" related to the stars stems from the fact that star lore in Japan differs in some ways from the kinds of myths and legends that grew up around star patterns in many other cultures. In the case of Orion, Japanese have seen few if any individual gods or heroes or even mythological creatures within the constellation as a whole but rather icons of common knowledge or use and symbols of specific cultural values and attributes. [Krupp (1991) provides an excellent survey of Orion based star lore that may be found in many cultures. Including the Greek legend perhaps most familiar to readers, a persona of some type (usually male) is often ascribed to the overall pattern of the constellation. However, Krupp also describes star lore from cultures in which patterns found in Orion served as cultural objects and seasonal markers, some remarkably similar to that of Japanese lore discussed in this article.]
Too, while some star lore reflects a kind of national "consciousness", there is no singular Japanese interpretation of the star patterns but rather a variety of objects, memorialized events, seasonal markers, symbols of religious value, and legends based on particular geographical regions and functional needs of ordinary citizens. [The variety of lore found in star patterns in Japan flies into the face of the stereotypical view that Japan's cultural history, at least from the perspective of common citizen, is one of homogeneity and singular thought. Apart from the emerging historical and archaeological record, see Oguma's (1995) Tanitsu Minzoku Shinwa no Kigen (The Myth of the Homogeneous Nation) for a modern Japanese challenge to this stereotypical view.] While this is not necessarily unique Japanese behavior, it is nevertheless important in understanding the kind of folk poetry that is indeed a part of the culture's heritage.
The trapezoidal form of the stars forming the drum's outer edges are sometimes called Waki Boshi (literally corner edge stars; Nojiri, 1973) and have given rise to another object with rhythmical associations. The striking together of two wooden blocks (Hyoushigi) is a part of many traditional Japanese religious ceremonies as well as entertainment. Probably of native rather than continental origin, the simple sound of the striking of these blocks against one another has added drama to Nou and Kabuki plays as well as signaled the beginning and end of religious ceremonies and even sporting events such as Sumo. Such sound, in all its uses, is said to summon and gain the attention of protective deities. Japanese have found the "drama" of this simple instrument and its "sound" in Orion as Kanatsuki no Ryowaki Boshi (literally striking both sides stars; Uchida, 1973).
Kanatsuki no Ryowaki Boshi Seen in Orion Configuration. (Drawing by Saori Ihara and Steve Renshaw)
Sode Boshi. A Kimono Sleeve Drapes Gracefully toward the Southern Sky. (Drawing by Saori Ihara and Steve Renshaw)
The legendary war that brought the somewhat artistic and gentle Heian era to a close took place between the Taira (Heike) and Minamoto (Genji) families. The colors of Taira were red, and the colors of the Minamoto family were white. Ultimately the Minamoto (Rigel) family won the war and moved the capital to Kamakura, ushering in an era of Samurai warriors and leading to centuries of little true peace. This war gave rise to many famous stories and legends that later became part of Nou drama and Kabuki plays. These two bright stars of red and white still do battle with the steepes of the belt holding them apart.
A Genpei Battle pitting the family of Minamoto (Rigel) against that of the Taira (Betelgeuse). (Drawing by Saori Ihara and Steve Renshaw)
Continued excavation of ancient sites has further reinforced the modern view that three primary "purposes" guided Japan's development in the early Christian era. In essence, within the prime centuries of Japan's formation, most every activity was geared toward (1) unification of sometimes warring petty states through (2) the cooperative cultivation of paddy rice with iron implements in order to (3) establish a singular imperial line of rulers. Importation from and interaction with continental cultures such as China and/or Korea were also filtered through these "purposes" (See Uno, 1991; Kidder, 1993; Kasahara, 1995; Imamura, 1996).
The only extensive records of Japan's early history and myth are found in the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters; see Chamberlain, trans., 1981 or Philippi, trans., 1995) and the Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan; see Aston, trans., 1972). These were both written in the 8th century, some time after a writing system had been imported from China. While these writings functioned primarily to combine local lore (purpose 1 above) in order to reinforce a singular line of rule (purpose 3 above), writers of both works utilized mythology and lore from local states. In the case of the Nihongi in particular, use was made of the Fudoki or gazetteers from each province. [The Fudoki of the 8th century are a collection of reports on the natural resources, geophysical conditions, and oral traditions of each of the approximately 60 early provinces of Japan. They were probably compiled in each province as a "database" for the Nihongi. Very few have survived, but what remains may be some of the only written records of an early ethnography in Japan (See Uno, 1991; Campbell, Noble, et al, 1993; Kasahara, 1995).]
All of these works were written using a combination of pure Chinese characters and characters used to represent Japanese pronunciation. Names used for star formations, though probably having been known, used, and spoken of before writing was introduced to Japan were given the corresponding Chinese character when written in the early histories. The mythology found in the Kojiki and Nihongi places much importance on the deity (sun goddess) Amaterasu, who "conquered" lesser deities (local states) and was considered progenitor of the imperial line. [Krupp (1991, 1997) provides a detailed discussion of this myth and its relation to seasonal change as well as political development in Japan. It should be remembered that this myth was probably the result of combining local ancestral myths in order to unify local states under one imperial line.] While this myth no doubt reinforced establishment of a singular line of rule and was allegorical of seasonal change, it actually had little practical use for common people seeking to know more exact times for planting and harvesting rice or determining advantageous times for fishing. Such signs, symbols, and time markers appear to have developed locally according to each individual province's need.
All of the ethnoastronomers cited earlier have written about the prominent triad, Mitsu Boshi. Due to their alignment, apparent equal "spacing", and relative equality of visual magnitude, these three stars have played a role in the lore of many cultures. Also of great importance in China, the large number of associations made in Japan clearly mirrors the role of agriculture (purpose 2 above) in the culture's early formation as a nation. Before introduction of Chinese methods for determining a lunar calendar and thus more precise means of determining times for planting, harvesting, and fishing, early Japanese farmers and fishermen no doubt utilized stellar configurations as signs for these activities. Combining archaeological evidence, contemporary ethnography, and what remains of the Fudoki, it seems evident that early Japanese had a distinct consciousness of seasonal change and incorporated celestial signs and symbols of this into their daily lives (Uchida, 1973; Brown, 1993).
When viewed in early evening, the perceived angle of the three belt stars seen rising in the East, moving across the sky, and setting in the West at different times of the year, provided the base for particularly interesting lore in which Japanese farmers used Orion as an agricultural symbol (Uchida, 1973; Hara, 1975; Nojiri, 1988). In this lore, the three stars are variously called Awainya Boshi (Millet Stars), Komeinya Boshi (Rice Stars), or Awaine Boshi (Millet and Rice Stars). All of these names relate to seeing Mitsu Boshi as a kind of fulcrum, balancing the yield of rice or millet crops as they move across the heavens. The star Alnilam (Epsilon Ori) is seen as the center of this fulcrum. Mintaka (Delta Ori) being higher or lower than the center indicates the yield of millet; Almitak (Zeta Ori) by contrast represents the yield of rice. In latitudes of Japan, Mitsu Boshi rise in an apparent vertical position. As the three stars move across the sky in the Fall, they appear at an angle that gives rice a strong weight on the balance; this is the time to harvest that grain and plant millet. As the constellation is seen setting in the West in late Spring, Zeta Ori begins to dip lower and lower; this is, of course, the time to harvest millet and plant rice.
Orion Rising, at Culmination, and Setting in Latitudes of Japan. (Graphic by Steve Renshaw)
Karasuki Boshi. Three Pronged Plow over belt and M42 Region. (Drawing by Saori Ihara and Steve Renshaw)
The constellation of Orion contains two such sei shuku: the 20th which includes the small Maissa (Lamda, Phi Ori) and the 21st which contains a much larger section of Orion and is most distinguished by the belt stars (Mitsu Boshi). Such were, of course, well known in China, and Chinese characters were used by later Japanese writers to represent these configurations. However, the original Chinese term for the 21st sei shuku was simply "Shin" (three) while earliest records of Japanese nomenclature use Karasuki or plow (See also Ozaki, 1993; Shinmura, 1994). Early Japanese gave little or no significance to the 20th station which was seen as a tuft (on the head of an owl for example). Though continental influence can certainly not be dismissed as a major factor in Japan's agricultural development especially with regard to tools, it would appear that seeing this agricultural symbol in Orion may indeed have been in use before introduction of writing and other imports of more advanced Chinese culture into Japan.
Following massive infusions of culture from China and Korea, Japanese emperors indeed practiced the custom of "plowing the first furrow" around the lunar New Year. However, Japanese lore associating the three stars with a plow seems to have preceded and perhaps only been augmented by the introduction of this Chinese based ritual. [See Krupp (1983, 1989) for a description in English of this and other cultivation related ceremonies that were practiced by the emperor in China. As such were recognized in Japan, some became part of the imperial ceremony, but many never found a place either because they did not fit within the imperial "purposes" mentioned earlier or because they were in direct conflict with native Shinto belief (ritual sacrifice, for example).] "Astronomy" as practiced in China during Japan's early formation as a nation had depended for some time on somewhat more precise estimates of a lunar calendar for fixing dates (Nakamura, 1969; Ho, 1985). Because of its pragmatic use as an agricultural sign (though non-precise), especially its prominent evening setting at what later was called Spring Doyou (the period of 18 days prior to the sectional term "Summer Begins", the official time for preparation to begin planting rice), Karasuki may have indeed been original with early Japanese farmers. Regardless, it's setting has certainly survived as a symbol of planting in most rice producing parts of Japan.
Another symbol for planting does indeed reflect Chinese influence, and this is clearly seen in the incorporation of Kanji or Chinese characters. This symbol, again related to the setting of Orion in the West during the beginning of the rice cultivation season, was yet another reinforcement for use of the belt stars and M42 region as a sign for planting. Uchida (1973) indicates that Japanese in some agricultural areas saw the Kanji for "entry" in the configuration and call it Hoshi no Iri (Entry of Stars). As fishermen saw stars set into the sea, Japanese farmers saw stars set into the western landscape. This symbol of Iri was merely another sign that it was time to plant (enter) rice seeds into the earth.
Kanji for Iri over Belt Stars and M42. (Drawing by Saori Ihara and Steve Renshaw)
While incorporation of a lunar calendar and later complete adoption of a Gregorian calendar in post Meiji era Japan led to more precise methods for determining times for planting and harvesting, many old farmers in rural agrarian areas still use methods that are centuries if not millennia old. According to Uchida (1973), the following time piece is still recited in such areas: "When Mitsu Boshi are one fathom high; it's time to go to bed. when Mitsu Boshi are in the middle, it's the middle of winter; and when Mitsu Boshi lay, it's time to wake up." This of course, refers to the vertical alignment of the three belt stars as they rise in early Fall, the angular position in the middle of the Southern sky in Winter, and the horizontal visual alignment in the West in Spring. The metaphors are related to (respectively): Fall harvest, Winter rest, and Spring planting.
Star lore related to fishing is somewhat more rare than that which is related to crop cultivation. It was primarily through cooperation of local farmers along with their local ancestral kami or gods in the production of rice that early Japanese rulers were able to fulfill their purpose of unifying the country under singular rule. Still, incorporating the legends of families of fishermen was an important part of this unification, and a mix of agrarian and fishing lore is sometimes found (See Nojiri, 1988).
In some fishing areas, the three belt stars are called Kanatsuki which is a name given to a spear with three prongs used in fishing (Nojiri, 1973; Uchida, 1973). We can note some similarity in pronunciation of Karasuki (plow) and Kanatsuki. As a sign, Kanatsuki was used as a time piece for favorable catches. When prospects for such seemed to be particularly good in the Fall, old fishermen were often heard to say "Let's wait for Kanatsuki" before going out for the evening's catch.
Perhaps one of the most significant relations to "fishing" found with Mitsu Boshi of Orion relates to their designation by some fishermen as Sumiyoshi Boshi. Sumiyoshi were the three deities mentioned in the Kojiki as being created from the ocean and being particularly favorable to seafarers (Nojiri, 1988). Incorporation of these deities in the Kojiki was no doubt designed to find favorable reaction from the be or local families of fishermen. However, their use in legends which also included allusions to agricultural symbols make them a significant aspect of the way in which Japanese developed celestial allegories.
Mythology in Japan was primarily created to reinforce the direct lineal descendancy of the emperor, and the native religion of Shinto played an important role in this reinforcement. Shinto kami (gods, deities) were closely related to nature and could be found in most anything unusual, be it a rock outcropping or gnarled tree, but most certainly in ones ancestral lineage. Astrology was a definite import, used primarily in its Chinese form as a reinforcement or aid to imperial decision, and only in much later centuries of Japan's history did it find much use by common citizens. Even with the infusion of Buddhism into Japan, religion in the country really never took on the kind of moralistic tone of many Western religions or even the kind of "life beyond death" beliefs of Buddhism as it was found in many areas of the Asian continent. Kami were seldom if ever seen to be persona who could wreak vengeance on "non-believers" or provide for a benevolent life hereafter. Rather, they served a kind of "here and now" protective and/or disruptive social function on both local and state levels as outlined earlier. They provided a foundation of "consciousness" through which the common person was expected to form his or her way of life.
Brown (1993) provides a paradigm for understanding early "religious consciousness" which involves three primary aspects: "linealism", "vitalism", and "optimism". [Explanations of these three aspects of early Japanese "consciousness" are meant to give a general view of the concepts. The reader is encouraged to read Brown's (1993) entire essay in order to fully understand the bases for this paradigm.] Linealism emphasizes ancestral descendancy, duty to ones nation, locale, and family (often in that order). [While the infusion of Confucianism reinforced many aspects of this "consciousness", especially with regard to the development of somewhat lineal bureaucracies, the Confucian idea of a cyclical rise and fall of dynasties was never really accepted in Japan and stood directly against the idea of a singular imperial line.] Vitalism emphasizes life and the abhorance anything that has to do with death. [Related to comments made in the introduction to this section, 4th and 5th century infusions of Buddhism directly contradicted this "consciousness" with beliefs in a life hereafter. The Confucian idea that virtuous or non-virtuous behavior could change the "natural way" was at variance with the idea of life giving kami.] Optimism places emphasis on being concerned, not so much with the distant past or future, but rather with moving forward through seasons and cycles of life, regardless of ones "station" in life. [The Buddhistic idea of eventual decay as well as the Confucian idea of a "glorious past" were incongruent with this idea.] These Shinto based "values" formed the basis for Japanese views of the world prior to the great infusion of continental culture in the 4th through 9th centuries, and it was through these aspects of native belief that most every foreign concept or idea was filtered, often with what seems to Western eyes to be contradictory and/or paradoxical results. From an ethnographic standpoint, it is difficult to argue that these bases of Japanese consciousness have not continued even to the present time to be a primary part of the nation's psyche. Such religious values found their way into lore associated with Orion.
A valued symbol reflective of native religious belief that is seen in Mitsu Boshi is expressed in the term Oyakoukou Boshi (Nojiri, 1973, 1988). This term, reflecting both linealism and vitalism, implies a kind of filial duty one has to ones parents. The three stars are viewed as the child holding up his/her parents or the three (parents and child) standing together. This familial symbol of "three" is found in many legends of Japan, and the belt stars of Orion are but one place in the heavens where this reminder of Japanese "consciousness" is seen.
The idea is further augmented in various Japanese star legends which concern persons dealing with oni (ogres) and finding their way to the heavens after some kind of chase. These legends include one in which brothers become the tale stars of Scorpio and another in which seven brothers become the seven stars of the "Big Dipper" or "North Seven Stars" (Uchida, 1973). The legend that includes the belt stars and M42 region of Orion involves two sisters. According to Uchida, one day the sisters were walking down the road, the younger dutifully following her older sister and shouldering a tub of water. Being chased by an ogre, they found a rope leading to the heavens and began to climb. Though the sisters escaped the ogre, the younger sister sadly had her foot bitten off. These days, we see the bamboo pole (Take no Fushi) with which she continues to carry water as she follows her sister (the moon) around the sky. Her remaining foot (M42 region) peeks from the folds of her kimono. Western readers may find the end of this legend disturbing or even somewhat cruel. However, all the fundamental values of Japanese "consciousness" are found in this story: filial duty, strength and courage, and a will to "go on" within ones present condition to an immediate brighter future. It is also interesting that this legend is one of the few related to the three belt stars which indeed makes allusion to its heritage as sei shuku or moon station. [As an aside to this legend, the area around M42 was seen to have three stars and was sometimes called Ko Mitsu Boshi or "Little Three Stars". Obviously, much of the lore associated with Ko Mitsu Boshi was developed in relation to the three bright stars of the belt (Uchida, 1973; Nojiri, 1973, 1988). This association is sometimes called Muzura Boshi (six related stars). It was often said that the "three" stars of the M42 region "follow" the big Mitsu Boshi; hence they are called Mitsu Boshi no Tomo (Mitsu Boshi's Companions). Other names applied to the region include Kage Sanjyo (shadow 3 stars), Tomo Boshi (associates stars), and Inkyo Boshi (retired or inactive stars).]
The Younger Sister with Bamboo Pole and Tub follows her Sister, the Moon. Her Remaining Foot Peeks from her Kimono. (Drawing by Saori Ihara and Steve Renshaw)
The first festival, Spring Higan, occurs in the period starting three days before and ending three days after Spring Equinox. Though it is an indigenous Japanese festival in which ritual purification is practiced to invoke the benevolence of ancestral kami for the coming season of rice cultivation, it was augmented by appropriate Buddhist teachings such as the idea that Spring Equinox signals entry into the "ideal" world, the concept of Higan itself. Buddhist ideas seemed to fit perfectly with the native belief that the sun had returned and another season of cultivation would be beginning. The setting of Mitsu Boshi in the West with symbolism outlined earlier, was a significant part of this "entry".
The second festival, Ura Bon, shows a somewhat more complex interweaving of Shinto and Buddhist practice. This festival occurs during a lunar based 7th month, 13th through 15th day, and also involves ritual purification and confirmation of ancestral kami life (Shinto vitalism). Ancestral spirits are welcomed back to their home and are given offerings to alleviate their "suffering" and thus are ritually "saved" and set upon their spiritual "life" for yet another year (A Buddhist concept).
At these two "festivals", ancient native practices still hold sway as ancestral tombs are washed and purified in Shinto custom. The festivals act as an invocation for ancestral protection of both planting and harvesting. Along with the role of Mitsu Boshi as a sign in the West at the beginning of rice cultivation and in the East at Fall harvest, it is also significant that at the end of Ura Bon, in the early hours of the next day, when the "full" moon is setting and the three stars of Orion's belt are nearing culmination, Japanese believe that this is the time for ancestors to return to the "other world". In a sense, Mitsu Boshi served as a celestial sign both for the beginning and the "culmination" of the rice cultivation season. [Okada and Akune (1993) and Miyata (1996) give full explanations of the ways in which these festivals were celebrated as well as the manner in which native and Buddhist concepts were combined; their work is followed here. Of interest is the fact that Higan is based on solar reckoning while Ura Bon (loosely in modern times) that of a lunar based calendar. An explanation of the full significance of this is beyond the scope of this article. However, it is important to realize that both the Sun and Moon were of importance in early Japanese consciousness of seasonal change. It is also worth noting that prior to more precise reckoning methods introduced from China, times for the Higan and Ura Bon festivals were based on signs such as the three belt stars and approximations of solar and lunar position.]
One other Buddhist symbol seen in Orion is worth mentioning. Though the relation of Buddhism to native Shinto belief has always been paradoxical and even contradictory at times, most Japanese felt comfortable with both systems by the Edo Era (1603-1864). According to Uchida (1973), many Japanese came to call the three belt stars of Orion Taishikou San Daishi. Taishikou refers to Winter, and San Daishi refers to three great preachers or teachers. Around the 11th month of each lunar calendar year, on the 23rd and 24th days, various celebrations were and still are made honoring three particularly significant Buddhist teachers who founded sects of that religion in the Nara and Heian eras of Japan: Tendai Daishi (founder of the Tendai Buddhist Sect), Saichou (follower and teacher of the Tendai sect), and Kobo Daishi (founder of the Shingon sect and also famous for establishing the 88 temples of Shikoku around the 9th century). On these days (January 10th and 11th in 1999), before midnight, many Japanese will see the three great teachers come to the top of the sky.
For Japanese, the trapezoidal nature of the three belt stars with Eta and Sigma Ori elicited images of various kinds of measuring "cups" including Sakamasu Boshi (a measure of alcohol). This "measure" gave rise to a rather humorous legend. According to Nojiri, (1987), one time Supai (dialectical name for Subaru) came to a liquor establishment and began to drink. He drank and drank until he was completely intoxicated and became Muzura (6 connected). He then left without paying for a drop. Sakamasu (the sake measure) chased and chased the drunk Supai until he caught up with him in the West. The celestial counterparts to this story are the Pleiades (Subaru) and the trapezoidal outline of Sakamasu Boshi in Orion. Subaru is also called Muzura in the story; this refers to the six "visible stars" in Subaru and, of course, to the rather humorous image of how a person gets when very drunk. In any regard, as they first rise, Muzura is far "ahead" of Sakamasu; but when they get to the West, Sakamasu seems to be "catching up" and it looks like Muzura will be caught after all. Again, in latitudes of Japan, this is exactly the configuration and "timing" that occurs in the rising and setting of the Pleiades and Orion.
Sakamasu Boshi. (Drawing by Saori Ihara and Steve Renshaw)
On the other hand, as history, archaeological evidence, and this review of lore indicates, Japanese were obviously not a people who blankly stared at their rice fields and never looked up nor a people who merely waited around to receive enlightenment from China or the West. While formal scientific concepts and even more precise means of charting celestial phenomena were slow in coming to the country, Japanese people, especially common citizens, developed their own relations with the sky. Evidently, such relations served pragmatic seasonal functions and also served as repositories for the culture's unique icons, purposes, and native conscious. The Yowatashi Boshi of Orion were but one configuration in the sky that functioned in this way.
As is so often missed by lay person and historian alike, the primary concerns of farmers, fishermen, and other "common" citizens of Japan changed very little throughout the centuries leading up to the present, regardless of the political swings of government or the type of work that became a part of daily life. It is also obvious that the relation Japanese developed with the starry sky was and continues to be varied and bountiful. Though little if anything was written by average citizens, their myths, legends, folk tales, and celestial signs were passed from generation to generation, often finding their way into the formal record. The lore we have viewed shows only a bit of what is a complex cultural psyche echoed in deep respect for the sky. As such, cold winter nights find the Yowatashi Boshi of Orion weaving their own cultural poetry in the sky.
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Steven L. Renshaw
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