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TRADITIONAL ETHIC NORMS IN JAPANESE FOLK CULTURE

Author(s): Nelly Tchalakova


Source: Merveilles & contes, Vol. 8, No. 2 (December 1994), pp. 309-320
Published by: Wayne State University Press
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TRADITIONAL ETHIC NORMS IN
JAPANESE
FOLK CULTURE
Nelly
Tchalakova
Basic ethic
categories
and norms are effective as moral
regulations
in different societies and are
accepted
in most
cultures,
at least as
regards
their
generalized
foims
(to
mention
but a few
-
the
concept
of
good
and
evil, justice, loyalty, duty,
courage, etc.).
However,
the hierarchical order of these
norms,
as well as their
interpretation,
differ from one
society
to
another. In this
respect,
the
Japanese
case,
with its distinct
national
peculiarities
connected with historical and cultural
background, religion
and
customs,
focuses
attention,
and the
debates on traditional
Japanese
ethos,
one of the most dis-
cussed issues in
Japanese
studies,
have been
drawing argu-
ments from cultural
anthropology, sociology, linguistics
and
even medical science. Yet this matter has
hardly
been consid-
ered in the context of
Japanese
folk
culture, though
it offers
stimulating examples
of ethos refraction both in a
synchronic
and diachronic
perspective.
Besides,
it is
tempting
to view
from this
angle
the claims that certain
Japanese
ethic norms
are
unique
in their essence or in their manifestations. The
study
of the folk culture
may
add new
arguments
to this
aspect
of the debate as well.
The traditional
Japanese
ethic
system
embraces both norms
that have been formed in the
country throughout
the
process
of social and cultural evolution and those which have been
brought
in
mainly
from China under the influence of Bud-
dhism and Confucianism and after that
adapted
to the
Japa-
nese
way
of
thinking
and behaviour.
Although
it is difficult to
draw a clear line between the
two,
it
may
be assumed that
most of the
categories usually recognized
as
typically Japanese
have,
in
fact,
been borrowed and
"Japanized"
to one extent or
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Nelly
Tchalakova
another. Nonns of
endogenic origin
can be
traced,
in
particu-
lar,
in the Shintoist
mythology legitimized
in the chronicles
Kojiki
and
NihongL
The reference to the two chronicles
compiled
in the seventh
century
as a source for folk culture
study
bears some risk in
view of the fact that
they
are
usually regarded
as an official
mythology,
which
places
them in certain
opposition
to the
popular
beliefs. Yet to discount them on this basis does not
seem
justified,
since
they incorporated myths
which had been
circulating
in
Japanese society
before the
compilation
of the
chronicles.
The Shinto
myths
canonized in
Kojiki
and
Nihongi
follow
a hierarchical order
charged
with
important
ethic connotations.
This concerns
especially
the solar
myth
centered on the
goddess
of the
Sun, Amaterasu-omikami,
which is of utmost
significance
to the
officially adopted
ethic
system,
as well as
the
popular
beliefs in
Japan
since ancient
times,
as it
gives
legacy
to the
imperial
cult and
justifies
the
requirement
for
supreme
reverence to the
emperor
as a descendant of Amate-
rasu.
The
piety
for the
emperor
became
-
through
Shinto
-
a
most
important
social value and an ethic norm of the
highest
degree
in
Japanese society,
and it is one
major
reason for the
stability
of the monarchical institution which survived
through
all the
ups
and downs of
history.
One
may accept
that it
facilitated the
recepii
veness of the
Japanese
to the
highly
hierarchical neo-Confucian ideas
later,
in the
Tokugawa
period.
It is
interesting
to note that in
Japanese mythology
the most
important deity
is not a creator but
just
a divine ancestor with
more or less defined
functions;
thus Amaterasu is not
sup-
posed
to assume
global responsibilities.
She is
not, therefore,
menaced
by
loss of
authority
and dethronement in
popular
ethic conscience in case of eventual failure. The same ethic
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Traditional Ethic Norms in
Japanese
Folk Culture
immunity
was
automatically
transferred to the
emperor,
who,
under the
shogunate,
was
deprived
of real
power
and confined
to ceremonial and
religious obligations.
Hence,
in
spite
of the
great importance
of
piety
for the
emperor
as a moral norm for
all social strata in ancient and medieval
Japanese society,
this
theme has
rarely
been the focus of attention in folk arts and
in local
popular mythology. Certainly
the sense of enormous
distance common
people
felt between themselves and the
divine descendant of
Amaterasu,
as well as the
explicit
and
implicit
taboos
concerning everything
related to the
emperor,
did not
encourage
them to dwell
upon
this social institution
and the sacred
person
of the monarch himself.
Japanese
popular
culture ventured to
approach prohibited topics
much
later,
in the
Tokugawa period
when urban culture
flourished;
but even then the inner barriers remained
higher
and more
solid in
comparison
with
European
culture
(cf.
Mikhail
Bakh tin's
works).
Although
the
supremacy
of Amaterasu is
recognized
undisputedly throughout
the
country,
on a local level other
deities are more
intimately
related with common
people
and
provide guidance
and
support
in their
everyday
lives;
local
deities are thus
extremely important
as moral authorities in
popular
ethical conscience. Local
legends
and folk tales are
abundant
examples
of the
power
kami
possess
as corrective in
human relations.2 One
extremely popular
character in
Japa-
nese folklore
is,
for
instance,
the Shintoist
deity Inary
who
appears frequently
in
legends, fairy
tales,
proverbs, sayings,
etc. This
god
had been
initially
connected with
rice-growing
(and
therefore
extremely highly placed
in Shintoist
beliefs)
but
later
acquired many
other functions as well. Characteristic of
Inaiy
and also of other Shinto deities is that when
they
inter-
vene in
people's
affairs
they usually
correct their mistakes
-
if their
transgressions
are too
serious, punish
them,
but
they
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Nelly
Tchalakova
also reward them for their
good
deeds. Yet it
happens
that
deities themselves take liberties which would be
reprehensible
in ternis of the
commonly accepted
moral norms if the
perpe-
trators were
simply
human
beings (a
definite
similarity
with
the
gods
of Greek
mythology).
The
primitive
ethic conscience
of
people
in ancient
Japan
did not label such divine misdeed
as sins or even serious crimes
-
perhaps
because the deities
were still
perceived
as
personifications
of elemental forces
which cannot
always
be
grasped by
man.
However,
the same
ethic norms which were valid for
people
could be
applied
to
gods
as well if one or more deities
disapproved
of the
transgres-
sor's behavior
(as
was the case with
Susanoo,
who was exiled
from heaven
by
the other
gods
after
committing
a series of
serious crimes connected with violation of the
rice-growing
rules and the Shintoistic
requirement
for
purity).
It has often been noted that Shinto has not elaborated an
ethic
system
in
depth
and
detail,
and this notion
certainly
holds true when
comparing,
for
instance,
the native
religion
of the
Japanese
to the
sophisticated categories,
norms and
principles
of Buddhist ethics
(a tempting comparison,
in view
of their coexistence in the narrow
space
of
Japan).
But it
certainly
does not mean that Shinto lacks ethic
ideas,
even if
it does not dwell so
heavily
on the conflict between
good
and
evil. The moral norms in Shinto are derived
mostly
from the
animistic
cults,
the cult of the
ancestors,
which
gradually
lost
its
mythological
character and became an ethic
code, worship
of nature and
regulator
of human relations in a
primitive
agrarian society.
Man must feel
gratitude
towards kami
(including
dead
ancestors)
and
parents
and strive to achieve
the
goals they
have set for him. Man is
essentially good
but
sometimes
may
be
susceptible
to the
perfidious suggestions
of the evil
spirits (magatsuhi)
from Yomi-no
kuni,
the world
of darkness. Yet if he
prays
to kami and makes constant efforts
to work
hard,
be sincere and tolerant and avoid
conflict,
his
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Traditional Ethic Norms in
Japanese
Folk Culture
life will be in
hannony
with the kami
way.
The
special
stress
on tolerance and
willingness
to for
cooperation
is
usually
explained
with the
importance
of mutual
understanding,
aid
and collective efforts in a
rice-growing
culture.
The numerous and
very popular
rites in Shinto connected
also with the
agrarian cycle
are
widely
known for their reli-
gious
and social functions as
they
contribute
considerably
to
the consolidation of the social
groups,
but
they
also have
distinct ethic dimensions as well.
By
the
homogenization
of
the
community though
all the ceremonies and other collective
forms of
worship, especially
the festivals matsuri
,
group
mentality
and work ethics are
promoted,
and the
regular
participants
in these events feel the
necessity
to conform with
the others in all their actions in order to achieve
harmony
with
the kami. The Shintoist rituals
performed collectively through-
out the
year,
which
symbolize
successive
stages
of the
agrarian
cycle,
the folk dances and other
activities,
even
now,
in
highly
urbanized modern
Japan,
offer innumerable
examples
in this
respect
and
present
a
rewarding subject
for observation of
Japanese group behaviour,
not to mention ethic indoctrination
(of
course,
it should be noted that the Buddhist
festivals,
still
very popular
in
present-day Japan,
follow the same
pattern,
while the traditions of festive
activity
aro,
no
doubt,
pre-
Buddhist).
There is one
aspect
which
provides particularly
ethic
connotations to
Japanese mentality
based on Shinto beliefs
and folklore in the context of modern
society
in which the
relationship
between man and nature has
acquired extremely
important
new
dimensions,
both
ecological
and ethical. The
centuries-old
worship
of
mountains, trees,
stones and other
elements of the natural
surroundings
-
that animistic
part
of
the ancient
religious heritage
which
represents
one of the most
archaic elements in
mythological thinking
-
has made the
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Nelly
Tchalakova
Japanese very susceptible
to the threats human civilization
created for nature in the twentieth
century.
In
fact,
paying
divine honors to nature has
always
had an
ethic touch in
Japanese society,
and
maybe
this is best
mirrored in ancient
poetry.
The folk
songs
of
Japan
are a
delicate world in which the
loving
heart's
longing
and its
fusions with nature are themes
occupying
almost all of the
poetic space.
One
extremely powerful
illustration
(in
terms of
quality
and
quantity)
is the collection
Manyoshu compiled
in
the
eighth centuiy, containing
folk
songs
from the
past
several
hundred
years.
Human love and the natural environment are
most
intimately interrelated,
and all
feelings,
desires and
hopes
resonate with nature's
rhythm.
Nature's role is not
only
to echo them as
background,
but to
provide
a moral
support
and consolation for the
suffering
heart. Here the ethic
aspect
of nature's
worship
is linked
closely
to the aesthetic
experi-
ence
and,
even more than
that,
the aesthetic itself becomes an
ethic nonn. To
ignore
the aesthetic side of
things
and to
go
below a standard level of
sensitivity
to
beauty
was
implicitly
considered
disrespectful
to the kami
way,
and this attitude was
by
no means limited
only
to aristocratic
culture,
as is some-
times
considered,
but was also
present
in the folk
arts,
as
exemplified by
folk
songs.
It is
interesting
to note that in
Manyoshu
and the other
poetic
collections where folk
songs
are
included,
there are no
songs
in
praise
of brave warriors
(the
battle
theme,
so common
in Chinese folk
songs,
was not considered
by
the
Japanese
as
appropriate
for
songs),
but later it
occupied
its due
place
in
the
gunki genre,
in which warrior ethics became the central
theme.
Surprisingly,
folk
songs
related to work are rather
scant,
and whenever work does become an
object
of
poetic
concern,
it is
nearly always
mentioned as matter of
marginal importance
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Traditional Ethic Norms in
Japanese
Folk Culture
(the
reason
being, evidently,
that it is too
prosaic
and does not
fit into this
exclusively lyrical genre). Many
scholars
(cf.
Nakamura
Hajime,
Nikolai
Konrad,
and
others)
consider that
since the
Japanese
have a natural
disposition
to emotional
perception
of the
phenomenal
world,
they
were late to rational-
ize
(a process
which was stimulated
by
the massive Chinese
influence).
In the framework of this
reasoning
it
may
seem that
moral norms
concerning working
activities are not
present
in
folk
songs
because
they
still were not
consciously emphasized.
Yet it is more
probable
that this bizarre absence is due more
to concern about the
peculiarities
of the
poetic genre
than to
lack of
profound
reflection and
rationalizing.
There
are,
for
instance,
numerous tales in which ethic norms related to work
are in the core of the narrative.
Many
similarities can be found
if a
comparison
in terms of ethic norms is made with other folk
cultures. The stories about
Taketori,
old Hanasaka and other
industrious
people
who are rewarded for their hard work and
good
deeds
belong
to the most
widely spread group
of
Japa-
nese tales.
Less common for
Japanese
tales is the case of the
idle,
even
lazy,
but
quick-witted
character who meets his luck because
he is clever
enough
to make the best use of circumstances
(a
plot
found sometimes in other folk
cultures,
in
Russian tales,
for
instance).
As Eleazar Meletinskii
remarked,
the most
important requirement
for a Russian folk tale
protagonist
portrayed
in a
positive way
is to
give
sufficient
proof
of his
kindness, intelligence,
wit,
eventually politeness.
Hard
work,
however,
remains somewhat
insufficiently emphasized
as a
moral asset. On the other
hand,
in
Japanese
folktales it is
always
considered to be a
high-quality
virtue,
whether the hero
in
question
is defined as clever or not.
But the tales of heroes who
perform great
miracles are also
numerous in
Japanese
folklore
(the
stories of Monotaro or
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Nelly
Tchalakova
Issumboshi are
good examples),
and
they
are
among
the most
popular.
The heroes succeed in their mission thanks to the
timely help
of animal friends or some other
supernatural
forces,
which
by
no means can diminish their worthiness in
the
eyes
of the audience.
The
fairy
tales often deal with
gratitude
and
returning
a
favor
-
on-gaeshi (the
famous
stoiy
The Gratitude
of
the Crane
[Tsuru-no on-gaeshi ]
is a notorious
example
of the
special
importance
attached
by
the
Japanese
to the act of thankful-
ness).
In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries a
great
number
of tales were collected and written down
by
monks in the
monasteries,
and this
naturally
contributed to the direct
introduction of Buddhist motifs in the narrative. But this does
not seem the
only
reason for the
appearance
of such ideas in
the
tales;
the narrators themselves lived in a world in which
Buddhism was
already very familiar,
so the stories must have
included elements of its
teaching
before
they
were
actually
written down. Buddhist deities became
popular protagonists
in the folk narratives. The boddhisatva
Kannon,
for
example,
appears
in numerous
legends
and tales
(such
as the
story
about Princess
Flowerpot Hachikatsugihime
and
many
others),
and often acts as a
mighty
deus ex machina who
grants mercy
to common
people
and
helps
them in a miraculous
way.
The introduction of Buddhism from China in the seventh
century
and its
propagation opened
the door for
many
new
values and norms which
later,
in the
eighth through
twelfth
centuries, began
to
penetrate
into wider social strata.4 The
ideas of kanna and
reincarnation,
Buddhist
concepts
of
justice
and virtue became familiar
topics
in
legends
and
tales,
in
epic
sagas
about
great
heroes in battle.
By
this time
Japan
was
ruled
by military
lords who were
fighting
for
power
and
devastating
the
country.
From the late Heian
period (twelfth
century)
until the establishment of the
Tokugawa Shogunate
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Traditional Ethic Norms in
Japanese
Folk Culture
(seventeenth centuiy) many
calamities befell
Japanese society,
and
periods
of unrest lasted
longer
than the intervals of
peace
between them. These
are,
in
brief,
the circumstances when the
great
war
sagas appeared,
such as Heike
monogatari
. "It seems
that at this time
only
war could
inspire
sustained
flights
in
literature,
writes G.
Sansom,
the Heike
monogatari,
which was
intended for
chanting
to musical
accompaniment,
has the
power
to move a
Japanese
listener to tears or to martial
ardor".5 This new form of
popular
narrative which
provoked
such a
profound
emotional reaction in the audience was based
on
specific
Buddhist moral
conceptions.
The ethic norms
observed
by
the samurai
germinated
from the
Japanese-style
Soto
Zen,
which admonished the warriors to look into their own
nature for self-reliance and
courage,
to be
loyal
to their lords
and to be
ready
to sacrifice their lives in the battle. The
military sagas
were
popular
not
only among
the samurai but
also
among
other social
strata,
since the warriors were the
heroes of the
age.
The
system
of ethic norms in
Japanese
medieval folk
culture is most
directly
revealed in the numerous
legends
and
stories about miraculous events related to the Buddhist
teaching.
This
genre presents astonishing parallels
to
religious
legends
in medieval
Europe by
its didactic
pathos,
moral
lessons and even
by
the structural characteristics of the
discourse. Buddhist literature of the
type
of Nihon
ryoiki ,
a
big
collection of
legends
about
miracles,
introduces a new
phase
in the formation of ethic norms in
Japanese
folk culture. It
gives
more
sophisticated
models of the social and
psychologi-
cal evolution of human
beings.
Man is not
only
influenced
from the
outside,
but he is able to find the
right way
in this
world
through
reflection and meditation as
well,
and his
good
deeds can
bring
him closer to the final
goal
of human exis-
tence
-
salvation.
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Nelly
Tchalakova
Popular
beliefs are reflected also in
plastic
folk arts which
are an
important
instrument for
training by
visual means. The
figures
of the
boddhisatvas,
the
sculptures
of
legendary
characters,
the netsuke etc.
convey
moral ideas and
principles
by evoking
an emotional
response. Praying
in front of
Jizo,
the
boddhisatva-guardian
whose small
figures,
made of
stone,
stand
along
the
roads,
often dressed in real human
clothes,
is
a
way
to shorten the distance between man and
deity:
this act
of
prayer
creates a
feeling
of
intimacy, maybe
much
stronger
than does the more formal communication with
gods
in shrines
and
temples
which
are,
after
all, places
of
public worship.
Confucian ideas have also contributed to a
significant
degree
for the formation of the ethic
concepts
both in
Japanese
official and
popular thinking.
The norms of filial
piety
and
obedience to the authorities are much more
pronounced
in
comparison
with cultures outside the East-Asian
region
precisely
of the
strong impact
Buddhism had on
Japan.
The
idea that the
good
feudal lord is a fair
judge
and an
impartial
arbitrator in cases of conflict is
persistently
met in
Japanese
folk
tales,
especially
those which have been created or revised
during
the
Tokugawa period.
The
spread
of Confucian
philosophy
and its
adoption
as an
official
ideology by
the
shogunate
had
complex implications,
as some scholars
(G.
Sansom,
D. Keene
etc.) points
out: on
one
hand,
it
successfully
enhanced
loyalty,
but on the other
hand,
it led
paradoxically
to the
appearance
of a
parallel
ethic
system, opposing
the official totalitarian
principles
to a certain
degree.
Indeed,
the urban culture of
Tokugawa Japan
dis-
played
at times some criticism towards the
authorities,
mild
and veiled as it
might
be. There are a few folk tales which
could also be
regarded
as a
departure
from the
officially
prescribed way
of
thinking.
For
example,
The
Wife9
s Picture
tells the
story
of
Gombey
and his wife who outwitted the
mighty daimyo,
and The
Wife from
the
Dragon
Place is a
318
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Traditional Ethic Norms in
Japanese
Folk Culture
similar
example
of critical attitude towards feudal lords.
However,
the
predominant
ethic
concepts
in folk tales re-
mained in
conformity
with the demand for utmost
respect
and
obedience to the authorities. On this basis it can be assumed
that the Confucian
spirit
had
penetrated deeply
into the folk
ethos and reinforced the moral rules
underlining
traditional
Japanese society throughout
the centuries. It could be a
gratifying
work to make a
comparison
from the
point
of view
of attitude towards social
hierarchy
with folk tales in cultures
which have a different
religious
and historic
background
and
this will
eventually
become the task of a future
study.
It is evident that
although Japanese
folk culture in its
different forms
certainly
carries the moral
principles
which
have
regulated
human and social relations in
Japan's past,
the
way
these
principles
are reflected in it makes them as a whole
less
rigid
than the
officially proclaimed
ethic norms of those
times and richer in nuances and
heritage,
due to the
continuity
in
traditions,
customs and beliefs.
Notes
1. The theories of
Japan's uniqueness (Nihonjiron)
will not be an
object
of attention
here,
but
they certainly
have to be taken into consideration in the
academic
aigument
when the
Japanese
traditional ethos is
being
discussed.
2 The
deities,
kami
,
are the essence of Shinto beliefs
("kami" meaning
"upper, ""superior,
"and hence
"godly").
Kami
may
be natural
objects,
animals,
the souls of the
dead,
etc.
-
practically anything
considered to
possess
a
quality
which makes it
superior
to other
things
of the same order.
3 See S.
Ono,
Shinto
,
The Kami
Way , Tokyo, 1962, pp
102-110.
4 Its influence was at first limited to the
literati,
the
aristocracy,
and the
monks. But
gradual (although partial)
fusion of Shinto and Buddhism into a
syncretic complex
called "dual Shinto"
(i ryobu Sfiinto)
contributed to the
penetration
of Buddhist ideas and values into the whole
society.
This fusion
was facilitated
by many circumstances,
for
instance,
certain
parallelism
in
symbols:
the solar character attributed to Buddha Vairochana
(Japanese
name:
Daiichi)
who came
eventually
to be identified with the native
goddess
of the
sun,
Amaterasu.
5 G.
Sansom, Japan,
A Short Cultural
History , 1943, p.
346.
319
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Nelly
Tchalakova
Bibliography
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shoten,
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Manyoshu ,
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(selected
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nelly Tchalakova,
a native and citizen of
Bulgaria,
obtained her
doctorate in
Japanese history
from Moscow State
University,
in the
former USSR. She has
taught Japanese history
and culture at the
Center for Eastern
Languages
and Cultures
at the Sofia
University
"Saint Kliment
Ochridki." She is the author of numerous
articles on
Japanese history
and culture in
Russian, Bulgarian
and
English,
as well as
the translator from the
Japanese
of
eight
works, notably
a novel of Oe Kenzaburo
(1994 recipient:
Nobel Prize for
Literature).
320
This content downloaded from 182.178.246.250 on Fri, 25 Apr 2014 04:47:12 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions