Trampled Torii: Abused by the West


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Capitalism is King, if not god, in the West

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What would his flesh be, Hardees??

What if we used Christian religious symbols in a rather haphazard and nonchalant way?  Worse, what if it was used for purely commercial purposes.  Would you, maybe some of your friends, or perhaps a family or two become offended or even outraged?  I bet some would.  But then again, let he who is without doing the same among us be the first to cast blasphemies….

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I’m not sure the Pakistanis appreciate “The Man” on Their Spiritual Moon

If these graphics have got your dander up, it’s for very good reason.  After doing a recent blog on how the Germans in the 1930s hijacked the Far Eastern swastika for rather dubious purposes (read about it here), it immediately struck me just how oddly inappropriate the West’s use of Japanese “torii” are, especially throughout the American military.  In other words, this blasphemed blade can (and does) slice both ways.

An authentic tori marks the division between the profane and the prolific merchandising of the new base exchange in Okinawa

An authentic torii marks the division between the profane and the prolific (if not sacred) merchandising of the new base exchange in Okinawa

stereoview Kyoto Torii shrineTorii (鳥居, literally “where the birds reside” or “bird abode”) are traditional Japanese gateways at the entrance of Shinto shrines.  In Japan, birds have long mythical connection with the dead, as is true is most shamanistic-based religions or cultures.  The first appearance of torii in Japan can be reliably pinpointed to at least the 10th century (CE); the oldest existing stone torii was built in the 12th century, while the oldest wooden torii dates to 1535.

Huge steel torii marking a Shinto Shrine in Kyoto, Japan

Huge steel torii marking a Shinto Shrine in Kyoto, Japan

Visiting the Fushimi-Inari-Shrine, Kyoto, Japan

Visiting the Fushimi-Inari-Shrine, Kyoto, Japan

Torii are typically made of wood, stone (or concrete in more modern times), and very rarely sometimes metal (steel or cooper).  Wooden torii are usually painted a bright red vermilion, complete with a black upper lintel and contrasting bases, while stone or concrete gates are left in their natural state.  Some of the most profound examples of torii can be round at Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Taisha, where thousands are lined up in close spacing, forming torii tunnels that run for thousands of meters up and down the shrine’s hillside.  Inari shrines typically have many torii because those who have been successful in business often donate in gratitude a torii (of course inscribed with their name) to Inari, the kami or deities of industry and business.  In an ironic twist, the same shrine has as its anthropomorphic mascot a fox, ideally suited for shrewd and cunning business dealings.

A properly fantastic - and spiritual display of torii!

A properly fantastic – and spiritual display of torii!

While sacred as the USMC invasion beach in WWII, this is a fantastically poor use and portrayal of a torii.

While sacred as the USMC invasion beach in WWII, this is a fantastically poor use and portrayal of a torii.

Not all torii are at shrines or temples; the torii in general marks the entrance to a sacred space, and thereby separates the hallowed ground from our more tangible and profane world.  Rarely is it used as a free-standing non-religious symbol placed in non-consecrated plots.  Roads or paths leading to a Shinto shrine are almost always straddled by one or more torii.  If multiple torii are present, they are used to represent increasing levels of holiness as one nears the inner sanctuary core of the shrine, the honden.

At least this religion makes your ass look better, instead of making you look like an ass....

At least this religion makes your ass look better, instead of making you look like an ass….

glossarytoriigateWalking through a torii gateway helps to cleanse a person, along with water purification rituals that are practiced before formal entrance to the shrine’s honden.  Together, both help one make ready to properly pray to the kami enshrined in and around such sacred ground.  While usually seen at Shinto shrines in Japan, torii can also be found at Buddhist temples throughout the Far East.  On maps, iconic torii usually indicate the site of a Shinto shrines.  Interestingly, in a nod to the past when the Emperors of Japan were considered deities themselves, coupled with the enduring relationship between Shinto and the Japanese Imperial family, a torii stands in front of the tombs of each Emperor.

Former Emperor Hirohito's Tomb

Former Emperor Hirohito’s Tomb

The Religion of the Devil Dog

The Religion of the Devil Dog

The torii functions as an explicitly religious symbol when it marks the entry into a sacred arena.  When such an association is absent, such a structure cannot be properly referred to as a torii.  While torii used outside of a religious context are not religious symbols themselves, they still remain approximate copies of religious symbols, an organic facet of the torii that is simply inescapable.

The only sacraments beyond these gates at Torii Station is the Scuba Locker found there....

The only sacraments beyond these gates at Torii Station is the Scuba Locker found there….

Pilots are not the only priests in aviation.  The divine trinity more appropriately consists of:  Pilots, Navigators, and Aircrew.

Pilots are not the only priests of aviation. The divine trinity more appropriately consists of: Pilots, Navigators, and Aircrew.

However, the torii is widely used by the West well outside of all and any religious contexts.  In fact, it is most often used by the US military in directly antithetical ways to those of the Far East.  For example, it is not just the symbolic entrance of “Torii Station,” an Army base on Okinawa, it is the very name of the base.  Similarly, it is used by Commander, Fleet Activities Okinawa (CFAO), and can be found framing rather pedestrian street signs, building names, and lessor commands and organizations throughout the American footprint in the Far East.

This is where the liberty rule blasphemy is, in part, produced.

This is where a sailor’s liberty is blasphemed

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Mr. Don's 80th Birthday Party

Mr. Don’s 80th Birthday Party

In a personally interesting tangent, one of the most well-known army units, the “Rakkasan,” uses a Torii in its coat of arms.  Rakkasan derives from the Japanese word for umbrella, and in the context of this airborne unit, can be loosely translated to, “man falling under umbrella.”  The Rakkasan are the only military unit whose nickname that is still in use was designated by an enemy, and is the only unit in the military whose guidon does not bear a finial but a torii.  I know very well a veteran of this unit, a man named Mr. Don Cripps, who has TWO combat jumps with the Rakkasan during the Korea War.  I have had the honor of skydiving with him almost weekly since I learned to jump in 2006; Mr. Don, as we all refer to him, is now 83 and continues to skydive just about every weekend.  Read more about him here.

Me and Mr. Don skydiving back in Elberta, Alabama.  Not his airborne patch.

Me and Mr. Don skydiving back in Elberta, Alabama. Not his airborne patch.

No doubt religion sells, but I doubt the veracity of their shirts' claims.

No doubt religion sells, but I doubt the veracity of their shirts’ claims.

Hell, it's even on our money!!

Hell, it’s even on our money!!

I wonder if we Westerners have ever stopped to think about how the Japanese – and those throughout the Far East – view our rather insensitive (at best) and probably offensive (in general) use of such religious icons.  While Capitalism may be King in America, and for some, it substitutes as their religion of choice, it still provides no right for hijacking such meaningful symbology, rich in myth in legend.  Particularly when these symbols of peace and the divinity are used to represent violence and death, things which both defile and soil the notion of purity in Shintoism.

If only our wedding chapels were this nice.

If only our wedding chapels were this nice.

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Modern Missions of the Far East

Modern Missions of the Far East

But, as I always like to say, the truth is always somewhere in the middle.  Western weddings are all the rage in Japan, and with Okinawa providing the fabulous backdrops of blue skies, sand beaches, lush greenery, and turquoise waters, Western-style “wedding chapels” can be found at all the resort hotels.  Yes, while they are completely modeled on a Christian theme, these wedding venues have little to do with religion.  It is, like for Christmas in Japan (see my blog on this concept here), it is the very notion of the Western Wedding that appeals so to the Japanese, not any aspect of the religiosity of the nuptials.

The Occult of the Mouse, Far Eastern Flavored

The Occult of the Mouse, Far Eastern Flavored

I guess much like the beauty and lines of the torii appeal to those of us lucky enough to flirt with the Far East.  Touché Japan, on this one; I find no grounds for blasphemy or negligent disrespect by either culture.  Still, we all should strive to be more mindfully aware of our surroundings, and what our actions convey and deeds mean to others.  After all, the whole idea of religion is to coexist.  That, my friends, should be the same, East or West, Torah or torii.

What the gods really think of all our stress over religion!

What the gods really think of all our stress over religion!

Surprising Swastikas of the Far East


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Nazis in Kyoto?  I mean, my son and I joke about how most things bad or evil in the world today are, or can be traced back to roots in the Nazi party (at least in pop-culture and through mass-media), but seriously, what are these symbols doing everywhere in Japan’s cultural capital?

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The swastika (卐) is a symbol instantly recognizable worldwide.  In the West, this is predominantly due to Hitler, Germany, and their Nazi party of the 19th century.  However, in the Far East, as most things are, such preoccupations are quite a bit different….

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Symbol of the Gods…

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…and Samurai alike.

The earliest archaeological evidence of swastika-shaped ornaments dates to 3300-1300 BCE in the Indus Valley Civilization of modern day India & Pakistan, but can also be found with the ancient Greeks and Romans, the early Indians of North America, and throughout Paleolithic Europe.  Swastikas have been widely used in various ancient civilizations around the world, including Turkic, India, Iran, Nepal, China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea, and remains widely used in both Hinduism and Buddhism.  The word swastika comes from the Sanskrit svastika – “su” (meaning “good” or “auspicious”) combined with “asti” (meaning “it is”), and originally translated as “it is good.”  It is not a German word, nor is it a German symbol; in German it is called the hakenkreuz, or “hooked cross,” in an odd attempt to tie it to perhaps to the more Christian traditions of the West.  As used in the Far East (primarily China and Japan) as a homonym for the number 10,000 (much like banzai, see my blog on that idea here), it more appropriately means “all,” “whole” or “eternity.”

Buddha with a Swastika

Buddha with a Swastika

swastikaswastika-flag2_thumbIn more modern times, however, following a brief surge of popularity as a good luck symbol in Western culture in the very early 20th century, the swastika was adopted as a symbol of the Nazi Party of Germany.  After Adolf Hitler came to power in the 1920s, a right-facing 45° rotated swastika was incorporated into the flag of the Nazi Party, which was then made the state flag of Germany during the Nazi era.  Hence, the swastika in the West has become almost impossibly associated with Nazism and related concepts such as anti-Semitism, hatred, violence, death, and murder, and is now largely and permanently stigmatized.  Not surprisingly, it has been outlawed in Germany and other countries (primarily EU) as a symbol of violence and hate.

Dumb-Ass Modern Neo-Nazis.  Be Glad they are Easily recognizable!

Dumb-Ass Modern Neo-Nazis. Be glad they are readily identifiable by their Nazi-inspired flags and tattoos.

How did a peaceful religious symbol used around the world become so perverted?  Easy:  Political Spin.

Nationalism at its Absolute Worst

Nationalism at its Absolute Worst

Heinrich Schliemann, a late 19th century German archeologist, discovered swastikas during digs at age-old Troy and associated it with ancient migrations of early Germanic peoples.  Making a rather egocentric and culturally-selfish leap, he connected the symbols in Greece with similar shapes found on ancient pots in Germany, and theorized that the swastika was a “significant religious symbol of our [Germanic] remote ancestors….”  Why everything to archeologists has to have a religious or ceremonial use or meaning is beyond me.  Don’t you think that maybe someone thought the symmetry of the swastika was, perhaps, just…pretty??

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Not a Nazi, but a Member of the Red Swastika Society 世界紅卍字會, a voluntary association founded in China in 1922 based in philanthropy and on moral education.

This proposed connection of ancient migrations across Europe with Germany helped to establish a long Germanic/Aryan history then demanded by growing nationalistic pride in an only recently unified Germany of the 1860s.  The swastika quickly became the symbol of the “Aryan race”, a Nordic (Northern Europe) master race, an idea perverted from its original meaning of “noble.”

Nothing Noble about this CosPlay Wedding in Japan.

Nothing Noble about this CosPlay Wedding in Japan.

Anime doesn't make it any better.  Quite the opposite.

Anime doesn’t make it any better. Quite the opposite.

42691e9ff8ca5bee10eab8512be17be8f3df731bef05ce51d26f532fbaa342a1In 1920, a red flag with a while circle and black swastika became the official emblem of the Nazi Party.  In Mein Kampf, Hitler describe the new flag:  “In red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalistic idea, in the swastika the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man…as such always has been and always will be anti-Semitic” (pp. 496-497).  What is it about sooooo many people hating the Jews (and I’m 1/4 Jewish, passed from my Grandfather’s side, so it COUNTS!)?

I'm not sure this is valid, special (get it), or...RELATIVE.

I’m not sure this is valid, “special” (get it?!), or even…RELATIVE.

It’s interesting to note that an abbey school that Hitler attended as a child had a swastika of medieval origin chiseled into the monastery portal (main entry) and also on the stone wall above a spring grotto in the abbey’s courtyard.  Makes one think how much of an impact, conscious or other, this rather random intersection of man and symbol may have had on what has become one of the most infamous brands ever devised by humankind.

Copycat and All-Around General Asshole.

Copycat and All-Around General Asshole.

google-maps-kyoto-shrinesThe Buddhist swastika however lacks such strong association with things bad.  In Asia, it became standardized as a Chinese character “卍萬” (wàn), and from there entered other East Asian languages, including Japanese, “卍字” (manji).  And while the swastika remains a core symbol of Neo-Nazi groups in the West, it is used today in the East as a symbol for Buddhism and marks the site of Buddhist temples, both in stone and on modern tourist maps!  To help differentiate East and West, please note that in Asian a flat or squared counter-clockwise (left-facing) swastika is most often used, allowing for some relief and distinction from the oppressive clockwise-rotated, right-facing symbol of the Nazis.  In a rather absurd and humorous thought, I wonder during the Japanese alliance with Germany and the other Axis powers during World War II if any Japanese official ever intimated about the Germans have it backwards…and crooked!

Swastika Banner at a Buddhist Temple

Swastika Banner at a Buddhist Temple

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It’s time for us in the West to understand and disassociate pop-cultures of fear and pervasive paranoia with fact, tradition, and history.  Much like the re-establishment of the Rising Sun flag in Japan in 1954 after that symbol was similarly conjoined with the brutally violent Japanese conquest and occupation of much of the Pacific and East Asia in the 1930s and 1940s, it’s time to reclaim and take back this proud ancient symbol of more reasonable meaning.  Be slower to react, judge and label, especially without all the facts.  If you do these things, you and the world will be better for it.

And please, don’t confuse the monks in Japan with Nazis!!

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