[An adaptation of this article also appeared in Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy News, Quarterly Bulletin #19, March, 1996; Center for Archaeoastronomy, College Park, Maryland]
Interested in historical Japanese skylore, we decided to read about Subaru from Japanese sources. One particularly delightful book we found was written by Takeshi Uchida and titled (roughly translated) Dialects of the Stars and Cultures (1973, Iwasaki Bijutsu Co.). Reading the book's content, the title's reference to "dialects" and "cultures" seems more related to differences in locales within Japan rather than more international cultural differences in skylore (Despite an often held Western perception of homogeneity in Japanese culture, there are wide differences in subcultures and local areas of Japan, and these are quite noticeable in Japanese historical views of the Pleiades).
Most people in the West know "Subaru" as it is used by the automobile company; most readers probably recognize the company's use of the stars in its logo. According to Uchida, the term Subaru may have Buddhist roots; the meaning is generally thought to be "united" or "getting together". The Chinese character (Kanji) for Subaru also has connotations of being "bright"; thus the "bright" Subaru stars seem to "get together in one place".
As with other historical aspects of Japanese culture, much of the myth of Subaru came to Japan from China. However, through the centuries, lore was adapted to local Japanese prefectures and towns based upon seasonal needs (when to plant, when to go fishing, etc.), local religious customs, and just individual differences in the perception of what the stars look like. Uchida lists over 60 different Japanese names for the Pleiades, all with subtle and not so subtle differences in local lore and nuance. Here are just a few examples:
In some agricultural areas of Japan, the word Suharu ("group tied") has been used instead of Subaru. Imagine looking from the top at shocks of grain tied in a bundle; this was historically one of the agricultural images of Suharu. In other farming areas, the stars of Subaru were simply seen as seeds, and their rising with the sun in Spring signaled a time to plant "seeds". In some coastal areas, Japanese fishermen saw a kind of fish net made of stones and bamboo (Sumaru), and in a similar way, used rising and setting of the bright "net" to determine when to cast their own nets into the sea.
Interestingly, as in Western lore, Japanese often saw seven stars instead of six in Subaru. Travelers to Japan may be familiar with Shichifukujin (literally "seven happy gods") which are often seen at temples and in miniature at souvenir shops throughout Japan. Locals in some prefectures of Japan still call the Pleiades "Shichifukujin".
When I was growing up in Texas, I often thought of the Pleiades as a "mini dipper". Imaginary lines drawn by Japanese connecting the stars of Subaru visualize such things as a strainer (Kozaru), a somewhat square sake cup (Masuboshi) pouring out that delicious rice wine, and even something like a person's elbow joint (Tsutokkoboshi).
Saori's grandmother (growing up and living her whole life in Kochi Prefecture) calls the Pleiades "Houki Boshi" (pronounced 'hoe-key' 'boh-she') which literally means "brush star" or "brush stars". Interestingly, this is also what meteors are called in Japan. Yes, in a sense, a meteor is like a quick but fleeting brush stroke on the sky... and, if you can imagine, the Pleiades appear as though someone took a brush and daubed a bit of bright white paint on the heavens. Next to the term Subaru, this is probably one of the more widely used Japanese names for the Pleiades... the "Brush Daub".
In going out to look at the sky at night, we have always been awed by the fact that in a sense, we are not only looking at the same basic things Galileo and Kepler gazed at, but also the same basic scenes all of our near and distant ancestors viewed, regardless of culture. There is a shiver we get from this that is not from the November cold; it is a somewhat paradoxical feeling of both nearness to humanity and vastness of the universe.
When you go out tonight and take a look at the Pleiades, see if you can discern some of the Japanese lore of the "Brush Daub" [but avoid drinking in the beautiful sake if you're going to observe for long].
By the way, for five years, the National Observatory of Japan has been constructing the Japan National Large Telescope. This winter, dome construction at Mauna Kea will be finished. The telescope is called (you knew it or guessed it) "Subaru".
[There is a wealth of historical material concerned with Subaru, some associated with the early mythology of Japan and much related to the pragmatics of daily life in this primarily fishing and agrarian oriented culture. In the future, we hope to expand this piece to include at least the most significant aspects of Subaru's place in Japanese Astronomical Legend and Lore.]
Steven L. Renshaw
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