Home > Japan In-depth > Cultural Quintessence > KIE > Moon Over Japan > Origins of a Reflective Culture

Origins of a Reflective Culture

Cultural Quintessence

Japan In-depth

Kateigaho International Edition

Origins of a Reflective Culture

Moon Gazing From Both Inside and Out

Strolling through the Shisendo garden in Kyoto, the eye glimpses inside a small building the image of the moon painted on fusuma doors. Such accidental moon-viewing evokes wonder at the sensitivities of the master who enjoyed such a spectacular moon within his living quarters.
Shisendo was built in 1641 by Ishikawa Jozan, a military commander and poet exiled from Edo by the Tokugawa when he was 59 years old. This was his retreat until age 90, and reflected his literary and garden interests. He designed a dry landscape garden and bamboo forest, among other plantings. His retreat takes its name, Hall of Poetry Immortals, from the portraits of 36 Chinese poets he commissioned for the foyer of his living quarters.

photography by Tadayuki Naito

Moons in Print

Many of the books on prominent display in a large Tokyo bookstore in midsummer 2003 focused on the moon. There were publications on moon-related culture, story books with the moon as a character, and a wide range of writing genres treating the subject—from paperbacks by best-selling authors to manga cartoons, essay collections, and works of fantasy. Fewer than half were photographic presentations. The moon appeared on the covers of Japanese translations of foreign literature; designed in Japan, they reflect the national affection for the image. The prevalence of the moon in Japanese bookstores is further testimony to that affinity. While the moon is not as prominent in art and poetry as in the past, the unconscious attraction to the moon lives on in other forms.

photography by Tomoyasu Naruse

Seigo Matsuoka
Director, Editorial Engineering Laboratory

Born in Kyoto in 1944, Seigo Matsuoka is a graduate of Waseda University School of Literature. He founded the publishing house Kosakusha and began publishing the objet magazine Yu in 1971, effecting genre-bending editing and groundbreaking graphic arts. He established the Editorial Engineering Laboratory in 1987, where he applies results of research in such diverse fields as Japanese culture, economic culture, storytelling, design, textual culture, iconography, and nature to develop information culture techniques. He has produced, supervised, and directed numerous studies and development projects. He is a prolific author, whose works include Lunatix (Sakuhinsha), Japanese Style (Asahi Shimbunsha), and Sansui Shiso (Landscape Ideology; Gogatsu Shobo).

In Junichiro Tanizaki's essay "Tsuki to Kyogenshi" (Moon and the Kyogen Artist), one night someone calls out, "Wow, the moon is really lovely tonight. Quick, come and look!" This prompts the whole gathering to race to the window and lavish praise on the aforesaid moon. Witnessing this, a Swiss guest who happens to be there comments that it is indeed lovely but wonders why the Japanese make such a huge fuss about it.
Ever since ancient times, Japanese have contemplated the combination of snow, flowers, moon, and kacho-fugetsu—the beauties of nature (literally, the flowers, birds, wind, and moon). And not only have they contemplated such scenes, they've also made them favored themes for paintings and poetry.
Ordinary people delighted in viewing flowers, snow, and the moon as much as poets and artists. But the moon enjoyed special status: according to the custom of chushu no meigetsu (mid-autumn moon), the full moon in the eighth month of the lunar calendar was singled out for particular admiration. That our Swiss friend should be skeptical about this is not surprising; given that the moon is a natural phenomenon, there is no reason it should be more beautiful on one night than on any another. In Japan, however, this made perfect sense.
In fact, it is not only in mid-autumn that Japanese historically focused such admiration skyward over the centuries. They have also been interested in the new crescent moon of two or three nights, and the moon on its 16th and 17th nights. Nor is this interest confined to the moon during the eighth month of the lunar calendar. As a bright orb poised behind cherry trees shedding their blossoms, and as a razorthin sliver in the frozen depths of winter, the moon has encouraged numerous waka and haiku verses; similarly, it features prominently in essays and stories.
For example, in the Heian-period Pillow Book, the talented Sei Shonagon, who was in the service of the Imperial court in the 11th century, weaves a glittering aesthetic that portrays the landscapes and cultural life of the seasons in Japan. Described with marked admiration is "the moon viewed hazily through the mists of spring." Later, in Ueda Akinori's masterpiece Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Ugetsu), the towering 18th-century novel made into a famous black-and-white film by Kenji Mizoguchi, the plot features an "invisible moon" that drizzles on the hearts of the characters throughout.
In short, the moon only needed to appear in the night sky to be the object of contemplation by one and all. And even if fog or clouds or rain obscured it, people found reason to be fascinated by it anyway. When the attraction of the moon reaches this degree, people are truly carrying the moon in their hearts.
Just why the Japanese express such extraordinary interest in Earth's lunar companion is something yet to be analyzed from either an ethnological or sociological perspective. Books such as Kacho-fugetsu no Kagaku (The Science of Kacho-Fugetsu) and Lunatix ascribe this interest to manifestation of an important ethnic consciousness and a particularly Japanese view of nature.
The Japanese were intrigued not so much by the power of the sun as a light source, but by those things that, like the moon, receive and reflect that light. This has made them a reflective people, a people who love to see subtle change. They love to watch the moon in continual change as it waxes and wanes.
Here are a couple of other examples.
Japan originally had no written language. Then kanji were introduced from China. Normally, one would expect these characters to be read as they were read by the Chinese. But in Japan, although the characters remained the same, they were assigned native readings for words that had been spoken since ancient times. The Japanese took this modification even further, simplifying kanji written with a brush to create hiragana, a phonetic alphabet of just under 50 characters; they then devised another character set of similar length that became known as katakana, using kanji elements. They chose to create a native script by reflecting and altering the original Chinese characters.
At around the same time, a style of ballad known as wakan-roei (recited Japanese and Chinese poems) took hold in Japan. These ballads were also a reflective response, in this case to marvelous Chinese poems. The Japanese used them to create waka verse that retained a meaning similar to that of the original but was richly endowed with the Japanese affection for landscape and perspective on everyday life. The original Chinese poems were then put aside and waka alone were modified into multiple versions.

The Japanese are truly a "people of the moon": a people who would like to attribute everything in life to the moon.

autumn's the season
tonight's the night
a splendid full moon
in the perfect spot
and you gazing up at it


(C) Kateigaho International Edition All Right Reserved.Top