The development of the Japanese geomentality and the sacralisation of mountains

In document The bear as barometer: the Japanese response to human bear conflict (Page 119-122)

As was noted in Chapter One, an animal cannot be viewed in isolation from its habitat: in the case of the bear, the forested mountains. This leads to the question, how was the natural environment viewed by these early Japanese, and how did this conceptualisation develop in subsequent periods? Kobayashi (2004) postulates that the Japanese began ‘socialising nature’ in Jōmon times. Specifically, this involved the division of geographical space around a place of human settlement. Whereas people in Palaeolithic Japan (approximately 200,000 to 10,500 B.C.) lived in a nomadic or semi-nomadic way, moving as the availability of resources necessitated and using temporary campsites largely undifferentiated from their surroundings, Jōmon people practised a more settled lifestyle. They began to use the natural resources available to them to create their own distinctive spaces which they distinguished from the natural environment around them. The establishment of village communities was a very important development in the Jōmon period, and Kobayashi argues that it was at this time that the division of space around the settlement into various spheres was established. He identifies the spheres as follows: the settlement, the nature around the settlement, wild nature, and beyond that the world of spirits (or the ‘other world’). These are the spheres that today approximate hitozato,

satoyama and okuyama in upland Japan. For the Jōmon people, he suggests, their landscape was no longer the wild landscape occupied by Palaeolithic hunters, but an ‘encultured landscape, viewed through the filter of Jōmon knowledge and experience.’19

The Early Jōmon cemetery at Nakanoya Matsubara in Gunma Prefecture is an example of this ‘socialisation’ or ‘enculturing of nature’. At this site, there were a number of pit-dwellings surrounded by a plaza, which contained a cemetery comprising many graves. A tall standing stone stood over the cemetery, and the heads of the deceased people were all positioned pointed towards this marker. What makes the site significant is that when one stands in the village plaza and looks towards the standing stone, the distant, yet distinctive shape of Mount Asama is directly in the line of sight.20 This putatively demonstrates a high degree of planning on the part of the village builders, and shows that the Jōmon people actively incorporated the natural landscape into their ‘socialised landscapes.’ Another example of such ‘landscape design’ incorporating a local mountain is that seen at the Early Jōmon Akyū site in Nagano Prefecture. Here, a series of large stones were positioned in the middle of the settlement. They formed an alignment of two parallel rows pointing towards the distant form of Mount Tateshina. Kobayashi suggests that both examples demonstrate that the Jōmon people did not regard the views from their settlements ‘as simply pleasant vistas, but as meaningful landscapes imbued with special significance.’21

However, the conceptualisation of the natural environment, and particularly mountains, did not, of course halt its development there. It developed in close connection with religious belief systems,

particularly folk religious ones, which permeated every aspect of Japanese life long before the introduction or establishment of ‘formal religions’ such as Buddhism and institutionalised Shinto. In Japanese folk religion, kami (deities) are thought to reside in natural objects such as trees, rocks, plants, or animals, manifesting themselves as natural phenomena such as wind or thunder, by possessing humans, or by making oracles.22 Mountains, forests, beaches, capes, and bodies of water, such as rivers, springs, marshes, ponds and waterfalls, all came to be regarded as particularly sacred places, or the ‘otherworld’—places of mysticism. 23

In particular, mountains (yama) were accorded special significance in folk religion, as the realm of powerful deities, called yama no kami. Blacker (1975) points out that this perception of the yama as the realm of the gods can be traced back to prehistoric times. She states: ‘Archaeological finds of ritual tools have been discovered on sites at the foot of certain hills which unmistakably point to a cult of a deity dwelling on the summit.’24 Worship of the yama no kami is traditionally practised among farmers and those whose livelihoods centre on the mountains, such as charcoal-makers and hunters. Hori (1966) proposes that the yama no kami may have initially been worshipped by the ‘hunting tribes’ as the ‘Divine Mother’, and later, with the advent of agriculture, that its worship was adopted by farmers.25 Naumann (1963) proposes that the dual role of the deity as ‘protector’ of both the mountains and the agricultural fields may have its origins in the practice of swidden (slash and burn) agriculture in the mountains (which is not necessarily inconsistent with Hori’s theory, as for many hundreds of years, people combined hunting with swidden agriculture). According to Naumann’s theory, the yama no kami was the protector of these mountain fields, and so it was merely an extension of this role that it became the protector of cultivated fields outside of the forest also.26 Indeed, this dual role is reflected in the fact that, from at least the Yayoi Period onwards, according to the folk beliefs of farmers and lowland-dwellers, the yama no kami and the ta no kami (deity of the fields) were essentially the same god; the yama no kami was believed to descend from the mountains in spring to become the god (or guardian) of the fields, and then return to the mountains once the crops were harvested.27 In contrast, to the upland hunter, who engaged in a limited degree of agriculture, but not wet-rice agriculture on the lowland plains, the yama no kami was protector of the mountains and did not transform into this deity descending to the plains.28

Although this divinity is portrayed as both male and female, scholars suggest that it was originally thought to be female.29 Hori suggests that this probably stems from the notion that the mountain has the power to cause the birth or rebirth of human beings and animals; the mountain goddess was originally the goddess of reproduction both of plants and animals.30 The perceived gender of the yama no kami appears to have depended to a large extent on people’s occupation and lifestyle: while lowland villagers tended to the see the deity as male, upland dwellers (those engaged in hunting, swidden farming, woodcutting and charcoal-making) tended to see the deity as female.31

Parenthetically, among the matagi hunters of Tōhoku, it was not only believed that the deity was female, but also that she was extremely ugly. It was believed that she would become jealous and bad- tempered if those more beautiful than her entered the mountains. (Stormy weather was thought to be one manifestation of her bad temper.) For this reason, matagi hunters would carry with them such things as the (particularly grotesque) dried body of an okoze, or stone fish, to keep her in good temper.

Another belief concerns the relationship between mountains and the souls of the dead, beliefs which have played an important role in the development of ancestor worship in Japan.32 This belief stems from the ancient custom of burying the dead in the mountains. Connected with this belief is the idea that the mountains are a meeting ground between the mortal world and the ‘other’ world, which is itself predicated upon the belief that the other world exists somewhere beyond or above the mountains.33 The close connection between burial and mountains is also reflected, Hori suggests, in the ancient practice of burying emperors in natural hills, or constructed mounds resembling hills, called kofun . Even in the Heian period, when kofun were no longer constructed, the emperor’s mausoleum was still referred to as yama (mountain) and the official responsible for erecting the mausoleum was called yama tsukuri no tsukusa (literally, ‘the official who erects the mountain’).34

In the ninth and tenth centuries, a mountain-based religion, Shugendō (literally, way of the ascetic) centred on the mountains deemed to be particularly sacred, became established. Shugendō is an amalgamation of folk-religious, Taoist and Buddhist beliefs and spiritual practices relating to sacred mountains. In particular, Shugendō has a close relationship with Japanese folk religion, and shares similar notions regarding mountains.35Shugendō shrines were established on sacred mountains throughout Japan, but became particularly prevalent in the Tōhoku region.36 While it is not clear why

Shugendō is so pervasive in Tōhoku, Hori highlights the fact that there is an intimate connection between mountain ascetics (shugenja or yamabushi ) and the matagi hunters of this region.37 For example, according to the legends associated with Shugendō’s sacred sites, many of the founders of these sacred places first ‘discovered’ the mountains after being led there by animals or hunters (an aspect which will be discussed further in the next section).38 Hori also suggests that there is some evidence that the sacred mountains which are now Shugendō sites were at first sites of magico-religious rites by shaman-leaders among the hunters.39

In contradistinction to this view of the mountains as the realm of powerful deities and death, the realm of satoyama, discussed earlier in the context of human-bear conflict, came to be seen as a realm which acts as an intermediary, or buffer zone, between the ‘other world’ of mystical and frightening beings and the relatively safe and ‘known’ realm of human-inhabited villages.40 Kitamura (1995) suggests that the pivotal role of the satoyama in Japanese culture is reflected in the fact that it is the

satoyama, rather than the okuyama, that is the setting for most Japanese folktales (mukashibanashi

) which feature animals and aspects of nature. Kitamura further suggests that the word yama

encompasses within it the meaning of ‘far from human habitation’ (hitozato o hanareta

), and folktales which feature characters going into this realm of yama often emphasise how remote these places are from human habitation.41 Kitamura argues that it is the semi-domesticated, familiar realm of the satoyama which has most strongly influenced the Japanese perception of nature, suggesting that the much vaunted ‘Japanese love of nature’ is borne out of the traditional Japanese interaction with satoyama (as opposed to the ‘real nature’ of the okuyama).42

The conceptualisation of the landscape, and especially the mountains, is significant in the Japanese relationship with the bear—both in the case of the upland and lowland dweller—though their respective perceptions of both the mountainous landscape and the bear are traditionally very different, as will be seen.

In document The bear as barometer: the Japanese response to human bear conflict (Page 119-122)