Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Image Matters

Just how much power is there in a physical image?

The Second Commandment that God gave to Moses reads:

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
(Exodus 20:4-6)

There has been a lot of controversy over the ages as to what this really means. It's generally accepted that it's a ban on idol worship, whether to an animal or human representation of a pagan deity or the Judeo/Christo/Islamic God himself. Historically, some more fundamentalist branches of Islam, Judaism, or even Christianity have taken it to be a blanket ban on making a physical image of ANY living thing for ANY reason. (Indeed, having a doll in your possession could get you hanged in 17th century New England.)

But what about in other cultures, such as here in Japan?

For more than 1500 years, the two principal religions of Japan have been Shinto and Buddhism, which are totally unrelated and yet strangely compatible. The two faiths coexist even though they couldn't be more different, and one of the more obvious distinctions is in how they use images.

Buddhism came about as an offshoot of the Hindu religion and thus is built on the same foundations. It shares the Hindu principle that the cosmos is filled with all kinds of deities, saints, helper spirits, divine messengers, etc., none of which is the supreme power, and all of which are really just lesser manifestations of the supreme power (referred to as "The Godhead" or even simply "God" in Hindu, but generally not referred to at all in Buddhism.)(Oh, and Buddhists do NOT believe that Buddha is God). The belief is that these many deities exist as a result of our own thoughts and perceptions. In other words, the Hindu/Buddhist deities are simply images we can comprehend formed from something beyond our comprehension. That means they have no identity save that which human beings give them...or, more accurately, that to which we confine them (just as the identity of one's own soul is defined by the physical body which confines it). That is why images are so important in Hindu and Buddhism; they allow worshipers to interact with a power that is otherwise far beyond the human scope. Therefore, when people pray to a Buddhist deity, saint, helper spirit, or Buddha, they direct their attention to an image which provides the means of direct interaction. The prayer ritual is simple and direct.

Shinto takes an entirely different approach. It resembles Native American shamanism in that it believes everything has a spirit. That includes not only living creatures but also inanimate objects, actions, words, and even thoughts. Shinto believes that everything began with a single God creating the universe in a big bang. (I kid you not!) Anything coming into existence in the wake of that Creation, i.e. anything identified as a thing, is the birth of a corresponding spirit. (Hmm...sounds kind of like quantum physics!) It is also believed that spirits exist on several levels ranging from the tiniest particles to actual deities. However, though Shinto deities are given names, their identity is not confined to any kind of physical manifestation. Therefore, in Shinto, prayer is ALMOST NEVER directed at any kind of image. That's also why Shinto prayer rituals are more elaborate; since there is no image to establish the spirit's identity and focus its presence, one has to get its attention by ringing a bell and/or clapping the hands and bowing a set number of times.

The importance of images in Japanese culture doesn't end with religious observance; it also manifests itself in everyday life. Of particular interest is the way the Japanese treat dolls. Dolls are as much a staple of childhood life here as they are in any other country if not more. Even teenagers and young adults, particularly women, tend to be fond of collecting "cute" molded or stuffed figures and can often be seen with such items attached to their purses or piled in the backs of their cars. However, though Japan has long been a trendy, consumerist culture obsessed with throwing away the "old" and buying the new, dolls tend to be given special treatment. You have to understand that this is a country where it's considered normal to replace one's car and/or computer every few years, to sell if not throw away CDs after listening to them for only a month or two, to find illegal garbage dumps filled with like-new appliances and furniture, and so on. But dolls are generally not something one just throws away.

Whether it's the Buddhist belief that an image is a portal for spirits, the Shinto belief that an image with identity has a spirit with identity, or a combination thereof, there is a reluctance among Japanese to abandon dolls the same way they abandon thousand-dollar stereo components. One example was when we were cleaning up at Ye Olde Academy in preparation for entrance examinations this week. I found a little, stuffed Care Bear that someone had apparently dropped and forgotten long before. Not sure what to do with it, I gave it to one of the chief teachers, who tried to find someone to take it. No one did. The chief teacher then fed the bear to the bin, but not before saying a quick Buddhist sutra first. Yes, it was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the fact that the bear was given even a mildly sarcastic prayer for its afterlife showed a level of respect not usually shown to anything bought. Another example was my wife's decision finally to dispose of my daughter's Ricca-chan (the Japanese Barbie) collection. My protests that some of the dolls were now collector's items fell largely on deaf ears. Still, the dolls were not simply tossed in the trash. My wife put the whole collection in a box and took it with us to Kashima Shrine when we went there for hatsumode (see previous post). Apparently it's considered proper to burn a doll at a shrine so as to release its spirit safely. Unfortunately, at Kashima Shrine there was a big sign saying that the big bonfire was restricted to holy items only, and dolls were prohibited. There were also guards posted to enforce the ban. Grumbling, my wife nevertheless brought the box of dolls back home and put it back on its shelf. The potential wrath of doll spirits tends to be taken very seriously here.

On the other hand, as with just about everything else here, the respect for dolls in Japan sometimes leads to some very weird things. There are actually Shinto shrines in certain, isolated locations that are notorious for people leaving or hanging dolls; considering the remoteness (and just plain spookiness) of these shrines and the manner in which dolls are piled or hung around them (some of them apparently with the intent of cursing someone), one can only assume that people have traveled long distances to put them there...which leaves one to wonder why. There are also shrines created specifically in honor of dolls. It also happens that people sometimes bring dolls they believe to be cursed to Buddhist temples, which then store them in rooms designated for the purpose. Some such dolls have weird properties, such as moving around apparently of their own accord or having hair that seems to grow. (Some such dolls have been the subject of televised investigations, and some of them have stumped scientists.) Perhaps most disturbing is a reported trend among girls in which they mark their loss of childhood innocence (i.e. becoming a bratty teen) by beheading or otherwise mutilating their Barbie or Ricca-chan. Thankfully, my own daughter never did that...

Speaking of dolls, when I got married, both my mother and my sister got dressed up in Japanese kimonos. As they walked around in the hotel where the reception was held, my sister in particular got mobbed by men from another event wanting to take her picture. They kept saying, "Ningyou mitai! Ningyou mitai!" ("You look like a doll! You look like a doll!") My sister didn't complain, and why should she? After all, it's all about image!


  • The Addams family's girl Wednesday had a doll... Marie Antoinette. Her brother Pugsley used a mini guillotine on it.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 5:49 PM  

  • Thus history repeats itself in miniature.

    I wonder what psychologists would make of that...

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:52 AM  

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