shimane — part V: throwing stones

09Oct12

Not too far down the road from Izumo-taisha the last sandy vestiges of the land sprinkle out into the Sea of Japan.  The beach here is called Inasa-no-hama and it is the site where Okuninushi (大国主), the Great Land Master, ceded control of Japan to Amaterasu and her heirs.  According to the Kojiki, the Record of Ancient Matters,  Amaterasu came to desire the land that Okuninushi had developed and made beautiful.  Amaterasu sent her son to ask Okuninushi to give over the land, but her son was impressed by Okuninushi and ended up staying with him.  Hearing nothing, Amaterasu ended up sending another of her sons, but he also sided with Okuninushi and stayed with him.  Finally, Amaterasu sent Takemikazuchi, the god of thunder and swords, to tell Okuninushi to turn over the land.  When he reached the beach of Inasa-no-hama, Takemikazuchi stabbed the handle of his sword into the sand and sat cross-legged on the blade.  When Okuninushi came to see him and Takemikazuchi had laid out the list of Amaterasu’s demands, Okuninushi’s son Takeminakata challenged Takemikazuchi to a test of strength.  Takemikazuchi easily beat Takeminakata, crushing his hand in the process.  The wrestling match between them is often considered to be the origin of sumo.

At this point, Okuninushi agrees to hand over the land to Amaterasu, who is so pleased with him that she builds Izumo-taisha in his honor.  While Amaterasu and her heirs become the rulers of Japan, Okuninushi disappears into the unseen world to become the god of en-musubi, the hidden connections between all beings.

Lafcadio Hearn writes about this myth in Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan:

This shore, now a popular bathing resort — bordered with airy little inns and pretty tea-houses — is called Inasa because of a Shinto tradition that here the god Oho-kuni-nushi-no-Kami, the Master-of-the- Great-Land, was first asked to resign his dominion over the land of Izumo in favour of Masa-ka-a-katsu-kachi-hayabi-ame-no-oshi-ho-mimi-no-mikoto; the word Inasa signifying ‘Will you consent or not?’  In the thirty-second section of the first volume of the Kojiki the legend is written: I cite a part thereof:

‘The two deities (Tori-bune-no-Kami and Take-mika-dzuchi-no-wo-no-Kami), descending to the little shore of Inasa in the land of Izumo, drew their swords ten handbreadths long, and stuck them upside down on the crest of a wave, and seated themselves cross-legged upon the points of the swords, and asked the Deity Master-of-the-Great-Land, saying: “The Heaven-Shining-Great-August-Deity and the High-Integrating-Deity have charged us and sent us to ask, saying: ‘We have deigned to charge our august child with thy dominion, as the land which he should govern. So how is thy heart?'” He replied, saying: “I am unable to say. My son Ya-he-koto-shiro-nushi-no-Kami will be the one to tell you.” . . . So they asked the Deity again, saying: “Thy son Koto-shiro-nushi-no-Kami has now spoken thus. Hast thou other sons who should speak?” He spoke again, saying: “There is my other son, Take-mi-na-gata-no-Kami.” . . . While he was thus speaking the Deity Take-mi-na-gata-no-Kami came up [from the sea], bearing on the tips of his fingers a rock which it would take a thousand men to lift, and said, “I should like to have a trial of strength.”‘

Here, close to the beach, stands a little miya called Inasa-no-kami-no-yashiro, or, the Temple of the God of Inasa; and therein Take-mika-dzu- chi-no-Kami, who conquered in the trial of strength, is enshrined. And near the shore the great rock which Take-mi-na-gata-no-Kami lifted upon the tips of his fingers, may be seen rising from the water. And it is called Chihiki-no-iha.

The rock you can see in these photographs is the Chihiki-no-iha.  There is a small shrine at the top of the rock, and a stone torii gate that stands as tall as a shadow when the sun sets behind.  The rock, somewhere between history and myth, sits in the middle of the tidal plane and becomes an island at highest tide.

Chihiki-no-iha isn’t the only rock in Japan that has become famous because of its roll in a territorial dispute.  The Liancourt Rocks are called Dokdo by the South Koreans, who administer the islands and claim them as part of South Korea’s national territory.  The islands are called Takeshima by the Japanese, who claim the territory as part of Shimane Prefecture.  These rocks take up about 46 acres of ocean space and are almost equidistant between the mainland of South Korea and mainland Japan, though they’re slightly closer to South Korea.  There are currently about 40 people living on the islands, almost all of who are South Korean national police guards (there are also two civilian residents and a few lighthouse keepers).

The Senkaku Islands, which are known as the Diaoyu Islands by the Chinese and the Tiaoyutai Islands by the Taiwanese, are claimed by all three countries, though currently administered by Japan.  The Japanese government, spurred on by threats made by Tokyo’s ultra-nationalist governor Ishihara to buy the islands through a special fund, purchased the islands and nationalized control over them on September 11th of this year.  Here’s Wikipedia’s description of these islands: “The island group consists of five uninhabited islets and three barren rocks. These minor features in the East China Sea are located approximately 120 nautical miles northeast of Taiwan, 200 nautical miles east of the Chinese mainland and 200 nautical miles southwest of the Japanese island of Okinawa.”

The competing national claims to these small clumps of rocks floating isolated in the sea are a result of the imperial history of Japan, beginning with the Sino-Japanese war when the Senkaku Islands were signed over to Japan in the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki.  Japan lost control of the islands after WWII when Okinawa and a myriad of smaller islands formerly claimed by Japan were taken over by the United States in accordance with the Potsdam Declaration.  In 1972, the islands reverted to Japanese control and China and Taiwan began to make their claims of territorial sovereignty.

The Liancourt Rocks dispute is equally as convoluted, with authorities on both sides citing sources going back over 400 years, a period of history when nothing resembling the contemporary states of South Korea and Japan even existed.

The disputes over these islands — and we haven’t even touched on the Kuril Islands dispute between Japan and Russia — have recently been increasing in intensity, to the point of endangering relations between the three countries and potentially even erupting into outright conflict.  So far there have been riots in China that have destroyed Japanese businesses, and Chinese citizens who use Japanese products (especially cars) have been attacked.  Japan has deployed its navy, technically only to be used for self defense, in order to police the hundreds of fishing boats that left Hong Kong, with the tacit support of the Chinese government, in order to protest the Japanese purchase of the islands.  Water cannons were used by the Japanese navy against the fishing boats, and it is to be hoped that this is the heaviest weaponry that gets used in the course of this escalation.  Meanwhile, back at the Liancourt Rocks, a Japanese naval training exercise — clearly intended as a show of force — could have led to dire consequences when a Japanese helicopter strayed into territory claimed by South Korea and the Korean military scrambled their F-15s.

If you want to know more about the Senkakaku/Diaoyu/Tiaoyutai dispute, the Japan Times has an excellent collection of articles giving all the latest news, expert opinion, and in-depth historical context.

There are two levels of engagement with these island disputes.  One is material — fishing rights, gas rights, naval access — but the other is mythic, the comforting fable of inviolable national sovereignty. This fable, the idea of ‘nation’ hypostasized almost to the point of divinity, is being used by all three countries to shore up national identity, help consolidate the position of those in power, and deflect attention from the pressing internal problems being experienced by each of these countries.  That there’s been very little public complaint in Japan over the fact that the government just spent two billion yen to buy some rocks while tens of thousands of people are still homeless after the earthquake and tsunami, while there’s an ongoing nuclear crisis, and while 90 percent of the Tohoku region’s fishing fleet needs to be replaced, shows just how effective a tactic it is to use the islands to distract attention from the nation’s real problems.

The almost provincial nature of these spats is easy to make fun of, but nationalist politicians from all countries involved have inflated the symbolic importance of these disputed territories to the point where even a small puncture could result in a dangerous blow out.  As Haruki Murakami wrote in a front-page column for the Asahi Shinbun,

When a territorial issue ceases to be a practical matter and enters the realm of ‘national emotions’, it creates a dangerous situation with no exit.  It’s like cheap alcohol. It gets you drunk after only a few shots and makes you hysterical. It makes you speak loudly and act rudely … but after your drunken rampage you are left with nothing but an awful headache the next morning.  We must be careful about politicians and polemicists who lavish us with this cheap alcohol and allow things to get out of control.

If I were writing my own myth about these island disputes it would involve three nations able to rise above schoolyard posturing and make the decision to nullify their claims to the island territories, in much the same way that Okuninushi eventually ceded control of his lands to Amaterasu.  This giving, rather than being a show of weakness, would instead be a display of national strength and an acknowledgment that international ties and the strength of international cooperation are far more important than a claim to a few almost entirely uninhabited islands.  All three countries would come to this decision simultaneously and all three would come to the immediate conclusion that the best thing to do would be to simply let the islands alone.  The islands would be designated as a nature sanctuary upon which no one would be allowed to set foot, and over time an immense rookery of seabirds would establish itself.  The flight lines of these birds, traversing all three countries in the course of their natural orbit, would end up forming an immense connective webwork between them, the avian analogue of a newly international en-musubi.

Even though the Liancourt Rocks are claimed as a part of Shimane Prefecture, there’s little sign of the dispute in Shimane proper, one of the most beautiful prefectures in Japan.

When the sun sets over the ocean it reminds me of all the places in Shimane I still want to visit, including the Oki Islands, home of the White Hare of Inaba, or the mysterious underwater ruins off the coast of Izumo that some experts think must be the remains of an ancient shrine dedicated to sun worship.  But the place I’d like to visit most of all is the sea cave described by Lafcadio Hearn in Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan:

Suddenly as we advance the boatwoman takes a stone from the bottom of the boat, and with it begins to rap heavily on the bow; and the hollow echoing is reiterated with thundering repercussions through all the cave. And in another instant we pass into a great burst of light, coming from the mouth of a magnificent and lofty archway on the left, opening into the cavern at right angles. This explains the singular illumination of the long vault, which at first seemed to come from beneath; for while the opening was still invisible all the water appeared to be suffused with light. Through this grand arch, between outlying rocks, a strip of beautiful green undulating coast appears, over miles of azure water. We glide on toward the third entrance to the Kukedo, opposite to that by which we came in; and enter the dwelling-place of the Kami and the Hotoke, for this grotto is sacred both to Shinto and to Buddhist faith. Here the Kukedo reaches its greatest altitude and breadth. Its vault is fully forty feet above the water, and its walls thirty feet apart. Far up on the right, near the roof, is a projecting white rock, and above the rock an orifice wherefrom a slow stream drips, seeming white as the rock itself.

This is the legendary Fountain of Jizo, the fountain of milk at which the souls of dead children drink. Sometimes it flows more swiftly, sometimes more slowly; but it never ceases by night or day. And mothers suffering from want of milk come hither to pray that milk may be given unto them; and their prayer is heard. And mothers having more milk than their infants need come hither also, and pray to Jizo that so much as they can give may be taken for the dead children; and their prayer is heard, and their milk diminishes.

At least thus the peasants of Izumo say.



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