A Final Resting Place 針の安らぎの場

Just recently returned from Kamakura City (Kanagawa prefecture). On February 8th, at the Egaraten Shrine, the annual memorial service for needles (針供養 hari kuyo) was held. Women bring bent, rusted, broken, and otherwise exhausted needles to the shrine. One by one the participants gently prick the surface of a large, specially made tofu (bean curd) cake. Pressing their palms together, the women then offer a silent prayer for the repose of the souls of the needles, now at rest in the soft, soothing tofu. Gratitude is expressed for the needles, who busily assist in the work of the housewife, seamstress, and hobbyist, selflessly sacrificing their tiny steel bodies, even to the point where they collapse and break, hewn asunder.

Speaking of everyday objects 民具と言えば

Speaking of everyday objects, at first I couldn’t figure out what these wood blocks  were used for. Located just outside the temple precincts of Eiheiji Temple in Fukui prefecture was a restaurant for temple visitors/tourists. On the brick facade facing out to the parking lot were these neatly displayed blocks. On the day in November when I visited, there were only a handful of tourists who had made the trip to the temple. And the restaurant was all but empty. So what were these blocks for?  As there were no tourist buses on that day, it was difficult for me to make the connection at first. Answer: homemade wheel chocks.

A message of hope 被災地からのメッセージ

img_7060-2An image of the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami in the city of Minami-Soma,  Fukushima prefecture. As can be seen, all the homes and businesses in this coastal neighborhood  were washed away. Only the cement of the streets,  foundations, and telephone poles could resist the sheer force of the water. Afterwards, a flag was erected on which people expressed their determination to overcome. img_7062

The “Cancer Stifling Temple” がん封じ寺

In Mikawa City, Aichi Prefecture stands a temple named Muryoji 無量寺, which is said to have been established during the Heian Period (794-1185). It is widely known as a place that provides efficacy toward the act of fujiru 封じる (sealing, suppressing, blocking, throttling) against some negative aspect in our lives, for example, ending habits such as gambling or smoking. This temple is alternatively named  ganfuji-no-tera (the “Cancer Stifling Temple”) because of the belief in its power to cure or control illness.

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The temple priests can provide a religious service for those suffering from some ailment and/or proscribe the purchase of  omamori お守り (religious charms). However, it appears that many of those suffering from cancer choose to offer a prayer on an ema (wooden votive prayer tablet, pronounced “eh-mah”). On the ema they write their name, age, address, and optionally a written prayer. Moreover, they indicate the place or places which are affected by marking a diagram of the body. Instruction from the temple suggests that they circle rather than blacken in the affected areas of the body. In the case where the illness (cancer) has spread throughout the body they are instructed to simply write “whole body”.

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Looking through the ema on display at the temple I was unable to find any not mentioning cancer, although there may be some. The sheer number of ema offered at the temple attests to the fact that illness, in this case cancer, is not as uncommon as we might want to believe. And although many petitioners are older, being in their 60s, 70s or 80s, those in their 20s and 30s were also represented. Notwithstanding that the majority affected were adults, there were also prayers made by and on behalf of children. Cancer does not discriminate between men and women, the old and the young.

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When I read through the prayers of all these people, I felt compelled to add my own silent prayer for their quick recovery. And although I was saddened to envision their suffering, I was also encouraged. And this is perhaps one message that might be conveyed through this folk custom of offering prayers to “stifle cancer”: a collective message of perseverance and hope.

Truck Art デコトラ

The truck is king of the road in Japan. And there is a special breed of truck that is both distinctively fearsome, yet elegant: kind of like Las Vegas on wheels. These trucks are called decotora, which is a melded abbreviation of the words “decorated” and “truck”.  Decotora can be seen all throughout Japan though it is said that the original decotora was driven by a trucker from Aomori prefecture.

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A burdensome amount of of glittering chrome with protruding attachments excitingly transforms the standard factory issue body. Many of the trucks look like they could have been used in the Road Warrior. At night many light up like a marquee due to a heavy compliment of exterior lighting in various colors.  And the rough bass rumbling sound that emerge from their mufflers make there presence known before they can be seen.

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Accessorizing these rolling behemoths requires a significant financial investment. As I heard from the men and women who drive decotora, the added weight of the decorations pulls down the gas mileage greatly, adding to their expense. Needless to say, the customization of these trucks goes far beyond practicality. So why do they make them? To borrow folklorist Simon J. Bronner’s words, they are a “public show of labor”*.  This is true in the sense that truckers drive to earn the money which is then invested into their trucks,  and also in that conceivably a considerable amount of creative effort is put into designing a decotora, and then finally there is the actual physical act of labor that goes in to customizing these rigs.

*Simon J. Bronner, Grasping Things: Folk Material Culture and Mass Society in America (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005), p.130.

In the decorations of these tricked out rigs we may find many auspicious symbols which is of personal interest to me as a religious folklorist. On the back door of these two trailers are images of fortuitous deities. On the right truck are painted the Seven Gods of Good Luck; on the left are Daikoku and Ebisu (two members of the Seven Gods of Good Luck). These images are believed to bring fortune (in business) and protection when driving, from traffic accidents and the like.t-shichifukujin

The door design of a frog is another example. A frog in Japanese is ka-e-ru, which has the same pronunciation with the word for “to return home”. This play on words coupled with the Chinese characters buji (safely, without incident) written on the back of the frog means “to return home safely”.  This frog image therefore acts like a talisman to protect the driver from accidents. t-frogemblem

This decoration extending from the side of the cab has written koi ni koi shite (“fall in love with love”)  reveals the romantic side of the driver.

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This is a Toyota van all tricked out.  ↓

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These are two popular singers, Ayumi Hamasaki on the back door, and Yazawa Eikichi. It is not unusual to see decotora painted in this fashion. The owner has likely chosen to emblazon their images out of a sense of appreciation or reverence as a fan. Some drivers have explained that these images are also thought to bring good luck.

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School crossing

In Japan, children crossing a busy street on the way to school may be greeted by a friend who stands waiting to hand over yellow safety flags. Actually, the friends are inacrossing street schoolboy flag holder (full figure)nimate and made of fiberglass, but nonetheless worthy of our praise. The pair of schoolboy safety flag holders pictured here were photographed at a heavy-traffic intersection in Shirakawago, Gifu prefecture. Wearing a bright yellow coat and boots, along with a bright red hat (once again for safety) and sporting a school bag slung on the back, these statues resemble the actual look of many first grade elementary school students in Japan, who dress (particularly the first year) to be seen by motorists.  Before crossing the street to go to school, childrenDSCF2072 take a flag and then proceed across the street holding it high. Having crossed the street they would place the flag in the statue standing on the other side. Then the school children would perform the same action on there way home. Leaving the flag on the side closer to their home ready to be used the next day when crossing the street again. On the top of the statues’ heads is a slot where I presume the flags had once been. Weathered by years of service the statue on the right missing one hand is literally on its leg, having had been broken off from the base and now resting against the traffic light. Gokurosan.

“No Trash” Shrine

The sign to the left is written poi sute kinshi (“discarding of cigarette butts is prohibited”) in an effort to stop forest fires. And on the right is a miniature version of the torii 鳥居 (gateway arch to a shrine) ordinarily seen at Shinto shrines. Here, however, it is found on an uninhabited stretch of rural road, not in the precincts of a shrine. Written along the top bar of the torii is gomi nashi jinja (“No Trash” Shrine).

Due to the surcharge incurred when disposing of household appliances and furnishings, some people simply choose to dump illegally. This clever placement of the torii sacralizes the space and forces the illegal dumper to think twice before abandoning their refuse. What penalty would befall someone who dare litter on sacred ground? (Photo: Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture, 2008)gomi nashi jinja (Small)

Itasha (Anime Cars) 痛車

Anime Cars, known as itasha 痛車 (compound of the word itai 痛い meaning “pain” coupled with the sha 車 meaning, in this case, “auto”). Itasha are automobiles decorated with manga and anime logos, characters, and so forth. The meaning of the name itasha then is in effect expressing the idea that the cars being so unabashedly adorned actually hurt the sensibilities (of even the otaku, fan).

Generally, two techniques are used to create an itasha. Designs may be painted on thDSCF4506e cars and professional auto painters are often employed for this. Or, a more popular method calls for applying printed adhesive labels (stickers) to the car body. These may be purchased or self-produced. In the latter case, the images may yet again be downloaded and scanned images, or self-designed. Larger images may require the printing of several sheets, which are then carefully aligned together. When printed adhesive  are used great care is given to not damage the design, a wax coat is applied over the labels and automatic car washes are avoided.

Itasha owners often assemble their cars at places such as Comiket (Comic Market). But the photos shown here are of cars assembled at one of the Japan’s many anime pilgrimage sites. In this case, the Washinomiya Shrine in Washimiya City, Saitama Prefecture.

Fans of the Lucky Star anime series are said to gather throughout the week. The setting of the anime is based on locations within Washimiya City, and the shrine also appears in luckystar backdoorthe anime. A Lucky Star decorated wan bokksu ka (one box car), which is a popular style of automobile with a smaller size engine (less than 660 cc).  A look at the rear hatch door. Notice the round yellow sticker from the Washinomiya Shrine. Not just for itasha, but many drivers place stickers from shrines and temples on the back of their cars in order to receive protection from traffic accidents.

Additionally, motorcycles and bicycles are also decorated in similar fashion. Motorcyles are known as itansha, and bicycles are called itajitensha. It should be noted that bicycles are heavily used for commuter transportation not only by students, but working people, and DSCF8292housewives, particularly in metropolitan areas. This is an itajitensha (pictured left), a bicycle decorated to commemorate the Lucky Star anime. Like itasha the owner wants it to be conspicuous. One motivating reason for creating and displaying these artistic spectacles is the desire to attract  attention. Photographs of seiyu 声優 (voice actors) or the singers of anime songs are also sometimes affixed as we can see on the back wheel.