It’s funny, I have lived in Japan for more than three years now, and there are still so many times that I feel I am learning aspects of Japanese culture for the first time.
This was the case when someone asked me innocently “how do the Japanese approach religion and spirituality?”
I am no expert on religion, so it’s a tricky question to answer ー and one which I have come to discover a new answer to through my recent work covering the performance of A SEED: Ichi-Ryu Manbai.
Discovering the Origin of the World Through Japanese Legend
Ichi-Ryu Manbai is an on-stage performance which illustrates the origin of the universe through a well-known Japanese legend.
The legend says that all deities were born from one, Ameno Minakanushi, and that from that one, 8 million deities were born that permeate all things and exist everywhere.
It was surprising for me to discover this legend, because in my mind, Japan wasn’t very spiritual at all. We often have a stereotype of Japan as a super modern country, with tons of technology, a finance center, and a well-connected online society.
However, when paying close attention, there are many rituals in everyday life in Japan which recall spirituality. One quickly realizes that spirituality is more pervasive than one might have first thought.
Life and Spirituality
There are some elements in everyday life which have become so common that we don’t stop to think about them, but they arguably go back to showing thanks to deities.
Take one simple example, the expression “itadakimasu”. It’s what people say before eating, showing respect and thanks for the food received.
However, there are some more obvious links as well.
I learned recently that, come the New Year, stock traders and companies listed on the stock exchanges in Japan traditionally go to a nearby shrine dedicated to the god of commerce to pray for a fruitful business year.
As normally one might not associate finance and spirituality, this was a curious image for me to conjure up.
Not only that, I learned that even inside the Tokyo Stock Exchange there is a bell which is rung five times during a stock listing ceremony for auspicious reasons. The practice is inspired by the Japanese word of 五穀豊穣 (gokokuhojo), which means the fruitful harvest of five grains, and by extension a harvest of all things.
This practice in turn indirectly references the god of food, Oketsuhime, simply by ringing that bell.
In some sense, one could almost see the tangible expression of the legend of the 8 million gods, which by extension means the countless deities permeating everywhere throughout our world.
Learning Japanese Culture Through Ichi-Ryu Manbai
These are just some of the aspects that can be traced back to religion and spirituality in Japan.
And it so happens that for those who want to learn more, the theatrical performance of Ichi-Ryu Manbai might be a good starting point.
The fruit of the efforts of Yasushi Matsuura, the drama provides an explanation of the origins of the universe through the use of traditional Japanese theater, music, and even ikebana (flower arranging), meshed together seamlessly with modern dance and music.
Mr. Matsuura explained why he started this project back in 2015, stating:
“To make people understand Japan means to communicate cultureーand the story in the background of that culture. This performance provides a means to pass on the Japanese tradition to the next generation. But, also, I want this performance to be a means for people from all over the world to gain a better understanding of Japan.”
The project has grown over the years with increasingly positive reviews, and is set to be made into a documentary.
On May 30, barring a worsening of the COVID-19 pandemic in Japan, Ichi-Ryu Manbai is set to perform live in Katsuura City, Chiba Prefecture.
Later in the year on October 23, in Yoshidacho, Uwajima, in Ehime Prefecture, there will also be a show to commemorate the third year since the area suffered heavy damage from flooding due to heavy rain.
Make sure to follow the progress of Ichi-Ryu Manbai, and how this performance will deliver its message in Japan and to the world!
Author: Arielle Busetto