Material Religion in Japan

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Kuchikamizake, rice wine made from the spit of a shrine princess, depicted in the film Your Name(2016)

Pearly, white rice is a staple food and religious substance in Japan, once named “1500-Autumns-of-Rice-Land.” Hard, soft, and liquid forms are offered at every ancestral shrine, in forests, cities, and in homes, at every graveyard and Buddhist temple, in bowls, on plates, in kegs, jugs, jars, and in shot glasses (so, really, any young person can go out and get drunk at night for free). Wine bottles litter the entire landscape. Shinto shrines and sake manufacturers maintain a symbiotic relationship.

If we step way back and look at history from the perspective of deep time, human-centered agency is replaced by larger forces, and familiar roles reverse: we see rice grow and domesticate humans. Rice flows into national identity and fundamental cultural institutions. Many Japanese people do not know this, but the traditional role of the Emperor is not chief of the military (that’s the Shogun), but is “Protector of the Rice-plants.” He must enact the Onamesai, a secret and erotic ritual that takes place on a special bed that ensures the continual flow of divine rice into our realm. Not unlike Jacob in the TV series Lost, for countless generations the unseen, private Emperor of the island protects a hot, white liquid light living within the mountain. This ritual probably has something to do with semen, whose physical appearance coincidentally is exactly that of sticky rice-gruel (just watch the trailer for the film The Birth of Sake).

Sake is the essence of the seed, the distilled spirit, the wine, the cream, the semen of the rice. A bride and groom must sip it in front of everyone in order to consecrate the Shinto marriage: visualizing “two souls, one flesh.” The English term “spirits” is used for the distilled essence of various seeds, probably on purpose. The spirit of the human is not just a “breath” after all; it’s a full body-mind wine — clear, potent, inherent yet maturing. Each one of us is a vast, fermenting sensorium. The human soul’s journey to enlightened revelation is also sometimes described in terms of fermentation — an earthy process that depends on help from friends, on countless beings working together. Teamwork makes the dream work! George Santayana: “The soul is but the last bubble of a long fermentation in the world.”

Fermented substances associate with primal magic and kinship stories in the West, too. Remember that Melchizedek, the first emperor-priest of the Judeo-Christian genesis story, arrives in time to break bread and to share wine. That’s all! And yet, this ordinary act instigates a binding new covenant between humans and God, humans and the Land, between “self” and “other.” In a sense, Melchizedek’s bread and wine ritual jump-started the Abrahamic religions. Christ Jesus, “a priest in the order of Melchizedek,” also uses this ritual, “so that I may live in all of you forever.”

Likewise, as Tetsuo Hasuo of the Japan Sake Brewers Association notes, sake has always been “a way of bringing gods and people together.” He says, “In some of this country’s oldest texts the word used for sake is miki, written with the characters for ‘god’ and ‘wine.’ People would go to a shrine festival and be given rice wine to drink, and they would feel happy and closer to the gods.” This is not just because god-wine is hallucinogenic; sake is fermented from a shared substance that both symbolizes and literally is the Japanese people and the products of the Japanese landscape.

In winter, the deity or spirit force retreats into the mountain, and in spring it comes out to bloom the plum and cherry trees before descending into the rice fields beds where it congeals into rice aka soul-seeds, the radiance of the skin, the superiority of the Japanese race, and ultimately, into precious body substances like blood, milk, and semen. Asian folk medical note: six bowls of rice replaces one drop of semen.

During autumn festivals, neighborhoods parade portable shrines half-naked while singing and drumming to recapitulate the Onamesai. The Emperor’s life-force returns to his body, and the rice god is captured and carried back into the mountain shrine by the neighborhood elders, where it waits, listens, and heats up the bathhouses until next year. People on sake have semi-public sex in the dark, empty rice paddies; there is always rape, and a spike in abortions is reported after harvest festivals.

Rice and rice wine bring us together. Anything that brings us together, that re-binds us, can be considered “religious.” Examining shared cultural foods, like bread and wine in the West, or rice and rice-wine in Japan, can interrogate our hard-won boundaries. We are not merely who we think we are — our bodies and minds are surprisingly porous, malleable, as fluids “inside” the self and “outside” the self transform into each other.

I feel unique and separate, but then at dinner, I look up and see everyone eating from the same dish, and drinking from the same bottle. I see my people, all made of the same substances. Shared foods, like shared body fluids, become metaphors for kinship, unity, and sameness. This is because, with substances, individual parts can be separated from the whole without ever losing the essential quality of the whole. A spoonful of rice is the same as the entire cooker, as a drop of blood can be connected to a lineage way beyond an individual life-span. Commensality — eating and drinking together — materializes the soul. We are what we eat, and if we’re open to it, certain food rituals can lead the imagination out of the separate self, and into another story.

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David Titterington, Pearl Gate, 30" x 30" oil on wood, 2015

See Part 2: Death By Cherry Blossoms

Painter and Art Instructor at Haskell Indian Nations University

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