Peculiar Institutions

9 February 2013


Torii gate of the Meiji Jingū.

Torii gate of the Meiji Jingu.

In the antebellum American south, slavery was called the south’s “peculiar institution,” so it is perhaps unfair to use this particular phrase to describe anything other than antebellum slavery. Also, the word “peculiar” has taken on insulting connotations, so that its use is generally avoided. However, it would probably be worse to try to speak in terms of, for example, “autochthnous institutions” or “indigenous institutions” while “parochial institutions” or “provincial institutions” both definitely carry the wrong connotations. So I visited two peculiarly Japanese institutions, and they are definitely peculiar institutions — or indigenous, or autochthnous, or whatever other phrase you’d like to employ: the Japanese Sword Museum and the Meiji Jingū (the shrine to the Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken). Both are as narrowly conceived as the Tokyo National Museum is grandly and comprehensively conceived. Their great value lies precisely in this narrowness.

Color lables on sake donated to the Meiji Jingū.

Color lables on sake donated to the Meiji Jingū.

The ethical code of the Samurai has been given an explicit formulation in the form of Bushidō (武士道), a confluence of Shinto, Confucianism, and Zen Buddhism, although (as is the case with most explicitly formulated doctrines) Bushidō is only the late culmination of an ancient tradition that goes deep into the history of a people, intertwined and integral with a way of life. And the way of life is ultimately more fundamental that any particular expression of that way of life. Thus the meaning of Bushidō must ultimately be sought in the lifeways of the Japanese people and the traditions of Japanese civilization, rather than being understood as an exclusive expression of the elite class of a rigid feudal system (which it unquestionably was as well). The austerity of Bushidō, its aestheticized asceticism, must then be attributed to the wider culture in the same way that the Christian ideal of a medieval European knight is to be sought in the culture of medieval Christendom. And indeed a trip to the Japanese Sword Museum is an experience in keeping with the austere Zen ethic of the Samurai who wielded the swords, and one would be perhaps equally justified to speak of a Zen aesthetic as of a Zen ethic.

Meiji shrine 4

The Japanese Sword Museum consists of a single room constructed as a museum vault (like the Gold Museum in Peru) with a glass case running around the walls of the single room. Behind the glass are a series of blades. Only the blades. There are a few swords with grips and scabbards, but most of the swords are displayed as blades only. There is nothing here to distract from the austere purity of the sword blade presented in splendid isolation. The oldest blades on display from the 12th century looked nearly as new as the 19th century blades on display. Most of the blades were signed including many of the earliest blades. Even in the 12th century the sword makers were signing their work, like some of the most famous Greek potters in ancient Athens.

Meiji shrine 5

If you visit a European museum of armaments (and I have been to several, though I should mention that housed with the Gold Museum in Peru, mentioned above, there is also an armaments museum, so it isn’t just in Europe) you will be confronted with a bewildering display of every imaginable weapons design. There are swords (and guns) of every possible design and description. This is not what you will see in the Japanese sword museum. Here the swords are displayed as the blade only, and all these blades are to essentially the same design. This is not to say that there are no differences among the blades. Some are longer or shorter, more or less curved, and there are slight slight differences in tempering visible by the particular coloration of the blade. It is as though each individual blade were striving to approximate the ideal Platonic Form of a sword, and the individual, contingent details of each were mere mundane deviations from the ideal and perfect sword.

Meiji shrine 6

After the Japanese Sword Museum a walk through Yoyogi Park will bring you to the Torii Gate that marks the entrance to Meiji Jingū, an extensive shrine to the Meiji Emperor and Empress Shoken. Set in a large forested park, the Meiji Shrine is a wooden structure of noble proportions, by which I mean that it was large and elegant, but not overly large or excessively elegant. I read that the whole shrine had been destroyed in the Second World War and was subsequently rebuilt. It is structurally similar to many of the monumental wooden shrines in Kyoto (which was not bombed and burned in the Second World War). The whole architectural ensemble has a wonderful serenity that belies its relatively recent rebuilding; it would be easy to imagine that this shrine has stood here undisturbed for centuries.

Meiji shrine 7

If I understand what I saw and what I read, people come here to worship the spirit (kami) of the Meiji emperor. After washing at stations outside the shrine itself — first the left hand, then the right, the left again and finally one’s mouth — one approaches through a large gateway, passes through a spacious quadrangle and approaches another quadrangle that one does not enter. There is a box to collect coins that acts as a (closed) gate to this second quadrangle. The ritual appeared to involve tossing a 50 Yen coin into the collection box, clapping twice, bowing twice, and closing one’s eyes and bowing one’s head forward in prayer. These prayers lasted anywhere from a part of a second to several minutes in length. One suspects that the duration of prayer corresponds to detail and care with which the wish or desire has been formulated, like an exercise in creative visualization. Usually those who approached the shrine and made an offering and a prayer would give another small bow before walking away, a step or two backward first before turning around.

Shinto wedding 1

I have tried to describe the visitors to Meiji Jingū and their rituals as plainly as possible, since Western monotheistic distortions usually seriously misunderstand non-Western religious traditions, and especially those traditions of the far east of Asia — Buddhism and Confucianism — which are in no sense supernaturalistic, though both incorporate vaguely animist elements. To the Westerner unable to transcend his own traditions, praying to the spirit of a deceased emperor represents the worst kind of idolatry and superstition, but if you actually visit Meiji Jingū it doesn’t feel or appear the slightest idolatrous or superstitious. It is, on the contrary, supremely dignified.

Shinto wedding 2

At the Meiji Shrine I happened to be present for a procession of a traditional Shinto wedding, which was an impressive sight that got the attention of all the cameras in the immediate vicinity (mine included). Later I saw a second traditional Shinto wedding, and later still I saw an office that arranges weddings at the shrine, so it appears that traditional Shinto weddings are an industry for the Meiji Shrine.

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Shinto wedding 3

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Grand Strategy Annex

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