Sunday, May 17, 2015

Christianity In Japan & A Noh Theater Prayer For Peace

Scenes from Holy Mother in Nagasaki
A woman in a white mask emerges on stage and slowly glides down a narrow path. Clad in a vibrant blue veil and robes of blue and shimmering gold, she stops and turns. Beneath the pulse of drums and intermittent shrieks of flutes characteristic of the music of ancient Japan, the fluid hum of Gregorian chant gives the scene an otherworldly feeling—eerie, incongruous, mesmerizing.

Slowly, the woman begins to kneel, then rises, extending her hand. She walks center stage, quickening her pace as she approaches the audience. Finally, she shields her face with her arm and begins to slowly dance about the stage, alternating slow and fast gliding that ends in a dramatic flip of her long sleeve above her head. With a giant cross looming behind her, a revelation is at hand: The Holy Mother has arrived.

So ends Holy Mother in Nagasaki, a noh play of the classical tradition written in 2005. Part of Japan Society’s new and traditional noh presentation commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, the story unfolds at the famous Urakami Cathedral, as a priest tells a traveler the tale of Nagasaki’s suffering following the dropping of the second atomic bomb in Japan. The majestic cathedral rose as a beacon of hope and religious freedom in the late 19th century after years of Christian persecution in Japan, and then was completely destroyed in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.

The priest recounts hardships the survivors faced, and the resolve they had to rebuild the cathedral. He also shares the story of a woman who appeared the evening of the bombing to console the victims. No one knew who the woman was, but many believed she might be the Holy Mother returned.

In addition to being true to noh theater traditions that go back over 600 years, the tale is deeply rooted in the history of Christianity in Japan. (Nagasaki was the first port open to foreigners, so it has an unusual history of foreign influx compared to other locations in Japan. For example, at the height of Christianity’s spread to Japan, so many churches were built in Nagasaki that it became known as “Little Rome”.)

The Urakami Cathedral before and after the bombing. Via.

Christianity was introduced to Japan in 1549 by Francis Xavier of Navarre (modern-day Spain)†, who would later become the patron saint of missionaries, baptizing an estimated 30,000 people over his lifetime.

Furthering the spread of Christianity, Sumitada Omura became the first of Japan’s daimyo (feudal lords) to convert. He ceded Nagasaki and Mogi to the Society of Jesus in 1580, which began to worry then-shogun Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who began his crusade against Christianity in 1587 when he demanded that all foreign missionaries leave the country.

Tensions came to a head in 1597, when Toyotomi ordered the execution of 26 Christians on a hill in Nagasaki by crucifixion. From there, sanctions against Christianity only grew stricter, as in 1614, Christianity was banned by Tokugawa Ieyasu, Toyotomi’s successor.

Japanese Christians were forced to practice in secret while pretending to be Buddhist, a practice that would continue for nearly 250 years until the Meiji government officially lifted the ban in 1873.

The most shocking part of the ordeal, however, came eight years earlier, when a group of these so-called “Hidden Christians” visited Oura Cathedral, newly built by a French missionary and reserved only for foreigners, in order to proclaim their faith. Father Bernard Petitjean, the priest at the cathedral, was extremely excited to discover that there in fact existed towns and villages full of Christians in Nagasaki, encouraging the Hidden Christians to practice their faith openly.

But Christianity was still illegal, which meant that 3,400 of these newly found Christians were arrested, some tortured, and 36 put to death. The Hidden Christians would have to remain that way for a few more years.

When it was finally safe to do so, approximately 30,000 Hidden Christians finally emerged, their faith having survived nearly two and a half centuries in secrecy. In a letter to Japan’s bishops written in March, Pope Francis said, “If our missionary efforts are to bear fruit, the example of the 'hidden Christians' has much to teach us.”

But even after their religious freedom had been won, the struggle of the Hidden Christians was not over. Due to years of persecution, many of them had been and were still living in poverty. Despite this, they decided to build churches, reducing the cost as much as possible by using lime they had made by burning shells, and drawing patterns on window glasses instead of using stained glass. Due in large part to their efforts, today there are more than 130 churches in Nagasaki Prefecture, more than anywhere else in Japan.

A Noh Theater Prayer for Healing and Peace

When programming the performing arts portion of Japan Society's Stories from the War series commemorating the end of WWII, Artistic Director Yoko Shioya felt that one of the most important “stories” Japan can share with the world is the aftermath of the atomic bombings.

In the program notes, Shioya writes that Holy Mother in Nagasaki "not only speaks about this sorrowful story, but also conveys the strong belief in the resilient spirit of humanity."

The play was written by the late Dr. Tomio Tada, an internationally renowned scientist (in the 1970s he discovered the suppressor T cells that subdue immune response) and respected author. Of several noh plays, he wrote two about the atomic bombings: Holy Mother in Nagasaki, and Genbaku-ki (Atomic Bomb Mourning) about Hiroshima.

"In the program notes from the Nagasaki premiere Tada explained that while the latter was written as a requiem, the former was written as a paean for revitalization, and he intentionally decided on these two different themes based on his observations of both of the A-bomb-ravaged cities," writes Shioya.

In an interview after performances of Holy Mother in Nagasaki began at Japan Society, Shioya posited that perhaps it was the element of Christianity that gave the play its inherent message of hope. Religious themes of classic noh are typically derived from Buddhism, which sees the soul go through an eternal cycle of rebirth, whereas Christianity sees the spirit set free in an eternal afterlife.

Shioya also feels that the centuries-old stylized noh might be one of the best art forms that addresses eternal challenges for human beings. Shimizu Kanji, lead actor in Holy Mother in Nagasaki and a designated Intangible Cultural Asset by the Japanese government, explains further in his portion of the program notes:
In many stories of noh drama, a ghost appears and recounts the story of his life—what events occurred, how he died, who mourns for him and where he is buried. I think these elements must be important for human beings. This consideration led me to realize that there are countless outrageous ways in which people lose their lives—by the blast of a single bomb or in a massive battle, through an earthquake, a tsunami or a hurricane.
Shimizu recounts the first performance of and how it affected him :
The new noh piece, Holy Mother in Nagasaki, premiered at the Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki City on November 23, 2005. It was held on the site of the cathedral that was destroyed by the atomic bomb, and on the exact 60th anniversary of the first mass and memorial service held after the bombing. I knew that nothing would be able to reenact that tragic day realistically, yet I wore a noh mask and costume in the role of the spirit of an A-bomb victim and walked slowly down the long aisle toward the altar to read my lines, which narrated "that day." While I was performing, I felt the Gregorian chant sung by the choir run through my body. Since then, we have performed this piece in many cities, and we have now arrived at the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII.
Shimizu says he is humbled to present the noh performance to an American audience, especially during the once-every-five years Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons international assembly at the United Nations, and his hope is that the performance helps those who have lost their lives in such catastrophes to rest peacefully and restores those catastrophically damaged sites back to life. But he notes, "world peace has not yet arrived and the souls of the hibakusha [atomic bomb survivors] remain unhealed."

Telling stories is one of the most powerful forms of communications, and it is well documented that sharing personal stories can have health benefits and help psychological healing. It can also help transmit a message through generations.

In Holy Mother in Nagasaki, the traveler listens to the priest's story and finally says, “I have resolved to mourn the victims and pray for world peace.” Once can only assume audiences will do the same.

--Mark Gallucci, Lara Mones, Shannon Jowett
†The portions of this article detailing the history of Christianity in Japan were informed by "Churches and Christian Sites in Nagasaki", published by the Nagasaki Prefectural Government.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Lessons From Another World: Three Timeless Folktales From Japan

Life's a mukashi banashi! Illustration by Benjamin Warren.

Whether it’s a turtle ride to an underwater palace, bamboo-born princesses, or a thumb-sized samurai besting beasts, Japanese folklore conjures worlds unlike any other where truly anything is possible.

In his fourth volume of Japanese Fairy TalesProfessor Keisuke Nishimoto of Showa Woman's College of Tokyo writes, "[these tales] are more than just entertaining; they also address some of life's enduring themes: how to live a good, kind life; how to achieve happiness; and the price to be paid for cruelty, greediness, and cowardice."

Today Japan Society marked Kodomo no hi, Japan's annual festival to celebrate children's happiness and wellbeing with its first-ever Folklore Family Day, transforming three floors of its landmark building into immersive worlds of Japan's most enchanting and enriching mukashi banashi (folktales).

“We want to share the mystery of stories from a different culture,” Jeffrey Miller, director of Japan Society's Education and Family Program told The New York Times, adding that children would see that “the humanity in these stories is common to all cultures.”

Japan Society brought to life several folktales, including stories familiar throughout the world such Momotaro (Peach Boy) and Kintaro (Golden Boy). Other featured stories just as beloved and time-honored in Japan, but perhaps less well known outside the country were Urashima Taro, Kaguya-hime (Bamboo Princess) and Issun-bōshi (One-Inch Boy).

Fathoming A Treasure More Valuable Than Time

One day the son of a modest fisherman, Urashima Taro (1) comes across a group of mischievous boys taunting and torturing a tortoise. Thinking quickly, Urashima offers to buy it from them, then releases it back to the sea as soon as they have gone. The following day while out fishing on his boat, Urashima is greeted by the tortoise, who expresses its gratitude with a trip to the Dragon King’s Palace at the bottom of the sea. Once they arrive, the tortoise transforms into a beautiful princess and asks Urashima to marry her, which he accepts.

A few short days later, Urashima begins to miss his family, whom he had nearly forgotten during the adventure, and asks the princess to let him go see them. She obliges, giving him a precious keepsake: a box which he must promise never to open. He agrees, returning to the surface, where he finds that more than 300 years have passed. Realizing that he’s outlived all of his friends and family, he opens the box in his grief, releasing a small cloud of smoke. He starts to feel weak, with his hair turning grey and his face wrinkling up, as the box had contained his old age.

(Searching for the many meanings hidden in this tale, it's important to understand the rich history of Japan's fishing culture. Up until just one hundred years ago, one out of every twenty Japanese were fishermen.)

Lunacy In Not Letting Go

Discovered in a bamboo stalk by a childless elderly couple, Kaguya-hime, the Bamboo Princess (2) wishes for nothing more than to spend the rest of her time on Earth with her parents. She grows up to be one of the most beloved women in the land, but with no desire to marry, she sends every suitor off to complete impossibly difficult tasks before they can win her hand in marriage. Several men set out on their journeys, with some attempting to deceive the princess, and others simply realizing the futility of their efforts. None complete their tasks (and not all of them make it back alive).

Though the princess manages to avoid marriage, she realizes she won't be able to stay with her parents forever. She tells them she must go back to the moon, her true home. Her parents are devastated, and eventually word reaches the Emperor, who sends his troops to prevent the princess from returning to the moon, to no avail.

Kaguya-hime puts on a special robe that erases her memories as she walks to the carriage sent to take her to the moon. Before she leaves, she hands the Emperor’s servant a letter and a portion of the elixir of eternal life that she herself has imbibed. Upon reading the letter, which proclaims the Princess’s desire to marry the Emperor if only it were possible, the Emperor, still in love with her, orders his servant to climb the highest mountain in all of Japan, then burn the potion and the letter at its peak, so that the smoke carries his sorrows to the heavens. That mountain eventually became known as Mt. Fuji, and on days when smoke rises up from the mountain, it is believed the letter and potion continues to burn its message for the princess.

(Another story deeply intertwined with meaning, especially when you consider the history of marriage in Japan.)

Big Benefits For The Steadfast Brave

Another elderly couple have been praying at a local shrine every day for a child, when Issun-bōshi, or One-Inch Boy (3) arrives. No bigger than a man’s thumb, he is nevertheless determined to become a samurai. When he comes of age, he asks his parents for a needle to use as a sword, a straw for a sheath, a rice bowl for a boat, and a chopstick for an oar, and sets off for adventure. Riding his bowl down the river and fending off a hungry fish with his chopstick-oar, he eventually makes it to the city and starts working for a wealthy man, whose daughter he quickly befriends. One day, while the two are playing outside, they are approached by a group of ogres who intend to kidnap the girl, who was actually a princess.

One-Inch Boy resists and one of the ogres swallows him whole. He responds by poking the ogre’s stomach full of holes with his sword. In incredible pain, the ogre spits out One-Inch-Boy and flees, dropping his magic mallet in the process. The princess picks it up, chants, “Grow, One-Inch Boy, grow!” Soon enough, One-Inch Boy quickly outgrows his name, rivaling the princess in height. The story ends with him marrying the princess and becoming a samurai as he had always dreamed.

Enduring Lessons From The Monstrous Mystery

In their delightful (and deceptive) simplicity, folktales, fables and myth are ancient tools to help us cope with life's difficult twists and turns. On the surface, Urashima Taro shows us there are rewards for doing right; but dive deeper into the story and we find that the act of doing right is its own reward: peril awaits those who are distracted by meaningless treasure. Kaguya-hime teaches the importance of loving and appreciating your family, and the difficulty and inevitability of having to let go (imagine a grief so profound it causes Mt. Fuji to bellow!) Sharing many similarities with Tom Thumb from English folklore, Issun-bōshi stresses the importance of inner strength and self-sufficiency, regardless of how immense the challenges one may face.

"The great ideas of courage, duty, beauty, desire, cause, man and animals are themes throughout western literature and many also appear in Japanese children's stories," notes Miller.

According to maverick mythologist Joseph Campbell, there are four purposes to myth (4): to inspire awe of the "monstrous mystery" of existence; to present the inner and outer cosmos in a way that simultaneously dazzles and describes the universe; to advance a society (or community or family) through a shared understanding of right and wrong; and to "carry the individual through the stages of his life, from birth through maturity through senility to death… in accords with the social order of his group, the cosmos as understood by his group, and the monstrous mystery."

Through its Folklore Family Day, Miller says, "Japan Society's Education and Family programs share the great wealth that comes from considering tales that cause children and adults to be in awe and wonder. The imagination of a child is not a small thing and we desire to share stories that excite."

Miller points to a quote from Anthony Esolen's Ten Ways to Destroy Your Child’s Imagination: "Fairy tales and folk tales are for children and childlike people, not because they are little and inconsequential, but because they are as enormous as life itself.”

--Stories adapted by Mark Gallucci

1. Adapted from "The Story of Urashima Taro, the Fisher Lad", Japanese Fairy Tales, Yei Theodora Ozaki.

2. Adapted from "The Moon Princess", as told by Tetsuo Kawamoto, translated by Clarence Calkins. (Read the full pdf.)

3. "One Inch Boy", Old Stories from Japan, Masahiro Kudo. (Read another version here.)

4. Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation, Joseph Campbell.