Soybeans and Shadows: Myths of Spring


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“We are meaning-seeking creatures. Dogs, as far as we know, do not agonize about the canine condition, worry about the plight of dogs in other parts of the world, or try to see their lives from a different perspective. But human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.”  ~ Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth

truth

It’s indeed strange how myths East and West can and do converge.  Take, for instance, the idea of the end of winter and beginning of spring, which for each direction, basically comes down to soybeans and shadows.

Let me explain.

An Intimidating Ogre during Setsubun!

An Intimidating Ogre during Setsubun!

Setsubun bean throwing festival at Zoujouji Temple3Setsubun is a traditional Asian ceremony with origins from the Chou Dynasty of China (introduced to Japan in the 8th/9th centuries), designed to dispel demons at the end of winter/beginning of spring, and is usually observed on 3 February.  The practice of scattering roasted soybeans (豆撒き mamemaki) to drive away any malcontent demons that might have been lurking during the cold winter months is one of a number of magical rites performed to ward off evil in Japan.  The term setsubun originally referred to the eve of the first day of any of the twenty-four divisions of the solar year known as setsu (節), but has come to be specifically applied to the last day of the setsu called daikan (大寒, “great cold”), which also corresponds to the eve of risshun (立春, “the first day of spring”), the New Year’s Day of the ancient lunar calendar and the traditional beginning of spring.  Since risshun and the traditional celebration of the New Year fell at about the same time, setsubun became associated with rites of purification and exorcism of evil deemed essential to preparing oneself for the coming year and the spring planting season.  Mamemaki originally began as an imperial event, but later mixed with indigenous customs of throwing beans at the time of rice-seedling planting during the Edo period in Japan (1603-1867).  To this day, in many places in Japan, setsubun rites include those associated with forecasting the year’s crop and spells for a plentiful harvest.

Sounds crazy and superstitious, right?  But no more than our own Groundhog Day….

I chose not to depend on a rodent for the weather.

I choose not to depend on a rodent for the weather.

Groundhog Day, on the other hand, is celebrated on February 2nd, just one day apart from its counterpart in the East, and is to a harbinger of spring.  Amazing how ancient time-keepers managed to independently align these events based on the sun and moon!  According to folklore, if it is cloudy when a gopher emerges from its burrow on this day, then spring will come early (he doesn’t see his shadow); if it is sunny, the gopher will supposedly see its shadow and retreat back into its burrow, and the winter weather will continue for six more weeks.  Given this tradition, setsubun seems not so silly, and, in fact, seems to be a lot more fun!

setsubun-mask

P5211316ONIDuring setsubun soybeans are roasted (peanuts are becoming more popular) and placed in a small wooden box of the type used for measuring rice or sake.  The “fortune beans” are scattered inside and outside the house or building by the male head of household to the common chant of Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi (鬼は外! 福は内! “Out with demons!  In with good luck!”) and the sound of slamming doors.  It is customary for family members to eat the same number of beans as their age for good luck, and then one more for the year ahead.  In more recent years, especially in the Kansai region of Japan, famous temples and shrines host well-known personalities born under the Chinese zodiacal sign for that year that help throw beans at evil spirits during “demon dances.”

Throwing things at masked demons seems a lot more fun than...say...top hats.

Throwing things at masked demons seems a lot more fun than…say…top hats.

The celebration of Groundhog Day in America began as a Pennsylvania German custom in southeastern and central Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it has origins much deeper into ancient European lore wherein a sacred badger or bear was used as the prognosticator of the weather, in preparation for the planting season…much like setsubun is tied to early farmers!  By the way, it also bears (pun intended) similarities to the Pagan festival of Imbolc, the seasonal turning point of the Celtic calendar (lunar-based, just like that of China), which is celebrated on February 1 and also involves weather forecasting.

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So, spring this year – and each and every year – comes down to customs and traditions East and West:  Soybeans and Shadows.  But, if we take a step back and really look at culture, custom, tradition, and even religion, we can find many more similarities than differences.  It seems that the human condition is inescapable; we all, ‘round the world, live around the same physics, share the truly international language of math, endure all the same trials and tribulations of life, and embrace very similar metaphysical wants, hopes and dreams.  We all need to strive and remember that we all much more the same than we are ever different.

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Punxsutawney Phil, however, seems to be accurate only 39% of the time since 1887 on the length of winter.  I, for one, will embrace the myth of throwing soybeans to ward off evil rather than depend upon the myth of a shadow for the warmth of spring.

“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge.  That myth is more potent than history.  That dreams are more powerful than facts.  That hope always triumphs over experience.  That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.”  ~Robert Fulghum

Okinawan Kijimuna: Mythical “Red Power!!”


Lucille-Ball

“Once in his life, every man is entitled to fall madly in love with a gorgeous redhead.”  ~Lucille Ball

“While the rest of the species is descended from apes, redheads are descended from cats.”  ~Mark Twain

“Red Power!”  ~Eric Cartman, South Park

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myth-gingers-dont-have-soulsRed hair appears in people with two copies of a recessive gene on chromosome 16 which causes a mutation in the MC1R protein.  At least that’s what scientists want you to believe.

Red hair is really because such people are born soulless….

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Alina, Cindy’s daughter

Now, I can say this (and other things about redheads), without fear of repercussion or reprisal.  You see, I have some near and dear Gingers in my very own family:  my beloved cousins Suzanne, Cindy, and her daughter, Alina.  I can assure you, besides being three of the prettiest women I know and being some of the very best human beings on the planet, they all have souls.  Not sure if they were there at birth though (wink).

Red Hair and Green Eyes - Cindy is Beautiful, inside and out

Red Hair and Green Eyes – Cindy is Beautiful, inside and out

ginger-kid-106953-530-804Red hair occurs naturally in only 1–2% of the humanity, and occurs more frequently (2–6%) in people of northern or western European ancestry, and less frequently in other populations – like those of Asia.  Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England have the most redheads. Scotland leads with 13% having red hair and ~40% possessing the recessive redhead gene.  Ireland is next with ~10% redheads, and ~40% carrying the gene.  The U.S. of A is harder to gauge, but let’s take the average of the estimates and say ~4%, which, in total numbers, gives the United States the largest redheaded population at about 12 million.  Now that’s some Red Power!

Red Hair is common in Japanese Anime

Red Hair is common in Japanese Anime

video%20games%20clouds%20trees%20redheads%20long%20hair%20game%20cg%20gym%20uniform%20necklaces%20running%20shorts%20ponytails%20o_www_wallmay_com_92In the Far East, flings with genetically-based red hair are rare, and can really only be found in the Levant, Turkey, the Caucuses, Northern Kazakhstan, and among Indo-Iranians.  The use of henna on hair, along with more modern western hair dyes, are both common in Asia, even if red hair isn’t.  However, such dyes result in various rather unnatural shades of red.

That's *probably* not her natural hair coloring....

That’s *probably* not her natural hair coloring….

Malachi

Malachi

Throughout history, redheads – “ginger,” “auburn,” and “strawberry blonde” – have been feared and revered, loathed and adored, degraded and exalted.  No other single human trait has provoked such a dichotomy of feverish emotions in so many others.  Prejudice and suspicion has always confronted the redhead, along with an almost worldwide belief of fiery temperament, an artifact of the Scots and Celts being such fierce and notoriously violent warriors.  And things appear not much different here in Okinawa….

Only a redhead would turn her own mother into a bear.

Only a redhead would turn her own mother into a bear.

The Kijimuna (キジムナー) are well-known wood and tree spirits, sprites or fairies of Okinawan mythology native only to the Ryukyu Islands. They are said to look around three or four years old and covered in red hair.  They are believed to live in trees, most commonly large banyans called gajumaru, which gives such trees a rather special place in Okinawan’s hearts.

Okinawan Kijimuna Tree Fairy

Okinawan Kijimuna Tree Fairy

010In fact, my first time on Okinawa, in 1999, an officer I was stationed with here was having serious plumbing problems in the home he was renting not far from where we elected to live out in town.  When the plumber’s reports were finally translated, it was found that the large banyan tree in their tiny yard had expressed its roots all through the home’s underground plumbing.  When we in the west would most likely haul up and out a tree causing such problems, here in Okinawa, such a course of action was simply out-of-the-question:  the tree would stay; the innards of the house would be dug up instead.  You know, least they disturb and anger the Kijimuna….  To keep the spirits in the trees, however, many such gajumaru near homes and schools will have nails driven into their trunks.

It appears this one used the nails...to build a home.

It appears this one used the nails…to build a home.

ijimuna are described as being child-sized, they are said to have unusually large heads topped with red hair, which sometimes covers their whole bodies.  Often they are depicted as being red all over, hairy or not.  Being excellent fishermen, they only eat the left eyes of their easy and abundant catch.  Another name for the kijimuna is bungaya, which means roughly “Large-Headed.”  The Kijimuna can be very mischievous, playing pranks on and tricking humans, but are generally innocent and friendly.

A Different Perspective on Kijimuna.  They really dislike octopi....

A Different Perspective on Kijimuna. They really dislike octopi….

kijimuna_fears_tako_by_chichapieOne of their most well-known tricks is to lie upon a person’s chest, making them unable to move or breathe, a condition known as kanashibari.  And even though they have been known to make friends with humans, such relationships don’t last and often go sour.  The kijimuna dislike people passing gas while riding on their backs (as odd as that sounds), and absolutely hate octopus, with which humans often have to drive kijimuna away after relationships have turned!

Like much of Japan, orthodontic care is not a priority for the Kijimuna

Like much of Japan, orthodontic care is not a priority for the Kijimuna

vampire-redheads-factSuch beliefs related to redheads do seem to permeate many cultures.  The ancient Egyptians played both sides, exalting many redheaded pharaohs while burning gingered-maidens.  The Greeks believed that redheads became vampires at death; isn’t that the plot of varied and highly successful teenybopper movies of late?  The Romans paid a premium for red-haired slaves, a symbol of strength and vitality.  During the Spanish Inquisition, known for its objective due process and impartial judges, red hair was literal evidence of hell’s fire, and usually was extinguished by being burned as a witch.  In the Middle Ages – not a rich period of enlightenment, redheads were associated with the Devil; it was thought that a child born with red hair was conceived during a woman’s “time of the month…”.  How silly; astrologers have all but proved that it’s primarily due to the undue influence of Mars-rising….

She knows why.

She knows why.

ron gingerBiblically speaking, red figures supremely.  The Hebrew “Adam” can mean “to be red” or “ruddy,” but in all fairness this probably refers to skin color rather than hair.  Judas Priest – not the band, but the original poster boy of zealotry gone bad, sometimes has red hair.  And, the original bad gurl Mary Magdalene is often portrayed the same way (but with no biblical reference to her hair color).  Similarly, red hair has been thought to be a mark of a beastly sexual desire and moral degeneration, both positives in my ‘lil black book…which if they came in red I’d own one.  It is a common belief that redheads are highly sexed.  Oh behave!  Are redheads bad, or are they just drawn that way??

BOTH

BOTH

Of course anything seen as evil in the world couldn’t be comprehensively described without some reference to the Nazi’s, who, as the logical stewards of developing the master race felt that ginger-kids shouldn’t wed or reproduce.

Too late.  A breeding pair.

Too late. A breeding pair.

Such beliefs, if unchecked, can give rise to “gingerphobia” (fear of redheads) or “gingerism” (prejudiced against redheads).  Redheads are sometimes disparaged with the moniker “carrot-top,” and for one, it seems discretely applicable.

The pictorial definition of "Gingerphobia"

The pictorial definition of “Gingerphobia”

So, if clichés are to be believed, while brunettes may be smarter, and blondes may have more fun, neither are wrapped so tightly in mystery and intrigue that they become an enigma enveloped within an enigma.  And, in an ironic twist of time and Mother Nature, most redheads go from red to blonde to white, with hardly ever a grey hair to show.  So, while the rest of you color-challenged cohorts start covering your grey in your 30s or 40s, those redheads that have been the center of so much drama will remain gorgeous, but with time, as strawberry blondes.  Karma is a wonderful thing.

Maureen O'Hara:  Timeless

Maureen O’Hara: Timeless

The kijimuna however, do not age.  And as long as there are flourishing banyan trees and tall-tale telling grandmothers in Okinawa – less any proximity to octopi – the bungaya will live on, fiery as ever, forever.

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(Read more myths about red hair here)

O Christmas Half-of-a-Tree!!


“The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree:  the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.”  ~Burton Hillis

“Never worry about the size of your Christmas tree. In the eyes of children, they are all 30 feet tall.”  ~Larry Wilde quotes

“Remember, if Christmas isn’t found in your heart, you won’t find it under the tree”  ~Charlotte Carpenter quotes

(See Christmas is…for Lovers…in Japan for even more fun Japanese Christmas music)

Everyone seems to almost instinctively know what a Christmas tree is, and that is now no different here in Okinawa than say, in Duluth, Minnesota.  Such icons universally consist of a decorated tree (usually an evergreen), real or artificial.  But how many of us really know or understand the roots (pun intended!) of The Christmas Tree?

Nothing says Christmas Tree like a Bonsai Bush!

Nothing says Christmas Tree like a Bonsai Bush!

Christmas trees have long been traditionally decorated with foods widely available, such as apples and nuts, but today can consist almost of anything with strong emotional or sentimental value, but often include garland, tinsel, and candy canes.  In the 18th century candles were often added, which then morphed to modern lighting with the wide introduction of electricity.  An angel or star often tops the tree, usually in representation of the Star of Bethlehem (from Jesus’ story).

An Origami Overture to Christmas and its Tree

An Origami Overture to Christmas and its Tree

Our current cultural and religious custom of the Christmas tree comes from 15th and 16th century devout Christians (including the reformist Martin Luther) who resided in the area of Europe now associated with modern Germany.  However, what most of us may find rather surprising is that the Christmas tree didn’t acquire popularity beyond this area until the second half of the 19th century, or well into the mid-to-late 1800s!  The Christmas tree has also been known as the “Yule-tree” (or Tree of Life), especially in discussions of its folkloristic origins.

Original Sin.  It's her fault.  Are modern ornaments still symbolic of forbidden fruit?

Original Sin. It’s her fault. Are modern ornaments still symbolic of forbidden fruit?

tumblr_mxnxjvkXQ61qdg05vo1_500While the origins of the modern Christmas tree are clear and undebated, there are a number of speculative theories of such custom and tradition prior to the 1400s.  Such icons are frequently traced to the symbolism of evergreen trees in pre-Christian winter pagan rites and rituals.  Such use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands has long been utilized to symbolize eternal life by widely diverse cultures, including ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews.  Thus, a type of “tree worship” became common in ancient times and thus was common among the pagan Europeans when Christianity started to sweep the continent.   And, luckily for us, the rite and ritual survived the pagans’ conversion to Christianity (mostly through its continued use as the “Tree of Paradise” stage prop in the popular Paradise Plays of the 11th century), and became decorations for the house and barn alike (sometimes as wintry homes for song birds at Christmastime), and were sometimes used at the New Year to scare evil.

Now that's a tree, Japan!!

Now that’s a tree, Japan!!

I hope she doesn't celebrate ANY other holiday....

I hope she doesn’t celebrate ANY other holiday….

Given this backdrop, and having no tangible ties to any particular strong religious tradition (I think of Christmas and all its trappings, including the trees, as more symbolic of a generalized spirit of love and giving), we decided to leave all our more conventional holiday decorations at home during our move to Japan.  Sure, we brought a Santa hat and our stockings (we both still have our Mother-made stockings from our childhood!), but not much else, including our tree.  We decided to let the spirit of Okinawa and our living space dictate a new holiday rite for me and Jody.

When space is an issue....

When space is an issue….

First thing we had to do was find a tree.  Not a real one – those are hard to come by in Okinawa, a relatively remote sub-tropical island in the Pacific Ocean, but an artificial one.  But, we had to contend with our relatively low condo ceilings, along with a want for space.  On top of this, we find out that the initial artificial tree shipment to the base exchanges sold out in mere days…and, of course, we missed what only could’ve been a mad rush for trees.  Lucky for us we meandered one afternoon into the base craft shop looking for extraordinary ornaments for our as of yet unsourced tree, and behold:  a room full of artificial, pre-light, small-ish Christmas trees!  Expensive ones, but we were in luck.

Whole or Half:  You Decide

Whole or Half: You Decide

11491260433_bd0d618afe_bWe actually found (and purchased) a “half-tree.”  And yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like:  a half of an artificial tree, with a stand that will support its lopsidedness, but which also has an anchor point/hook high up on the trunk in case you have to deal with, say, an unruly cat who may decide to climb the tree when no one’s looking….

Charlie Brown's Tree, the Japanese interpretation

Charlie Brown’s Tree, the Japanese interpretation

11491247796_7593c905da_bThe tree works perfectly in our place!  It is maybe 6.5 feet in height, and since it’s only half a tree, we were able to push it back into a corner to conserve space while allowing us to fill in the visibly accessible part of the tree that much more.

For once all our decorations fit into ONE normally-sized box!

For once all our decorations fit into ONE normally sized box!

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11491176634_19e24c83fc_bFor decorations we went with our initial Asian, Japanese, and Okinawan-inspiration.  So, our ornaments consisted mainly of origami art (cranes, butterflies, and angels), paper crafted shapes, wooden dolls, miniature obis, and other flirtations with the Far East.  These, combined with the minimalistic white lighting of the tree, results in a quite unconventional appearance by most western standards.  We love it!

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11491244823_1861dafb41_bBut, to top off our tree, we wanted truly spectacular and of local custom and tradition.  What we found was perfect for the occasion:  a Hanagasa.  The Hanagasa is a brilliantly colored, flowered-adorned hat worn in many areas of Japan, but here the Okinawans have developed their own particular tradition regarding this type of headdress.  Worn by Okinawan women performing a dance called Yotsudake (“four bamboo,” referring to the bamboo castanets played by the dancers), the large and unique silk hat features a gold-trimmed design of a stylized lotus flower and ocean waves, set against a backdrop of blue skies.  It’s mesmerizing to watch one dancer on her own with her slow, graceful movements; it is breathtaking to see five or six woman so adorned move as one.

...Cleo waits patiently....

…Cleo waits patiently….

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11491181675_17fb20f702_bWe found a smaller version of the Hanagasa designed for display on dolls, and it worked perfectly to complete our tree.  Like the symbolism that a topping star may hold for others, our Hanagasa makes for an unforgettable sight, and its harmonious flowers seem to sway in time to the carols we often play in the background, things which should remind us all of the beauty, resilience and connectedness that we all share, with each other, and with every other living thing, during this spiritual time of love and giving.

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11615344235_28dcdd1a5c_bMerry Christmas, Season’s Greetings, and Happy Holidays.  Whatever YOU prefer to say, please don’t forget to pause your daily grind, express your thanks to those that deserve it, be giving to those that need it, and let Love and Hope win for just a few fleeting moments as you gaze upon your own tree, or other perhaps more appropriate symbolic icon of the season.

coexist-holiday

How are you celebrating Christmas this year??

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