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Newsletter: Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition

Delivered on May 07, 2018
Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition [Issue 89] May 7, 2018

Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition [Issue 89]
May 7, 2018
Japanese Traditional Culture Promotion & Development Organization


1. Seasonal Astronomy:
Incarnation of water god: "Rainbow"

:: 1. Seasonal Astronomy

Like the rainbow towering noticeably at the high sluice in Ikaho, I wish
I could stay with her over night until dawn when people see us openly.
(Author Unknown, compiled in Japanese poetry collection, Man'yoshu,
No.3414 in Vol.14 )

According to the 24 divisions of the solar year, it is the time of year
that rainbows start appearing after rain. Rainbows appears due to sun
light in the air reflecting from water droplets in the air when the sun
inclining or declining in the morning or evening. It seems that rainbows
often showed in the high humidity season at warm temperatures or during
passing rain or showers.

Although the seven colours of the rainbow are recognised as a symbol of
hope today, how did the ancient Japanese people feel about?

The kanji character of rainbow is written as "虹". The left part
represents "Mizuchi (snake or dragon god which makes rainfall)" and
the right part represents penetration. The character was created from
from the idea of a snake (or dragon) god penetrating the sky which was
imagined by ancient Chinese people. It is no surprise that they compared
a long rainbow towering in the sky to a snake or dragon and also
acknowledged it as a god of water as rain is inseparable from the rainbow.

This thought was taken over by the Japanese. According to some theories,
rainbow in the Japanese language, "Niji (pronounced as Nuji in old times)"
was originally "Nagi (Naji)" which means snake in archaic language.
Rainbow used to be called "Aminumiya (A creature drinking rain)" in
Okinawa prefecture. It was apparently an incarnation of a snake creature
with red patches on its body which drunk up all the water from the
fountain in heaven. It was a bad luck symbol of drought causing no
rain on the earth.

Stories of a snake or dragon that impregnates woman who then delivers a
noble person exist everywhere in the world. In the oldest chronicle
in Japan called "Kojiki", a woman sleeping by a swamp gets a rainbow
like shine. She then concieves and delivers a red rock agate ball
(incarnation of sun at sunrise) who became a mythological female god
later on called "Akaruhimenokami."

There is also a story in the second oldest history book in Japan called
"Nihon Shoki". A female princess called Takuhata no Himemiko is deeply
saddened because of the fake gossip that she is pregnant. She burys
a devine mirror in the ground and kills herself by the Isuzugawa river.
A rainbow that looks like a giant snake appear in front of the people
who are chasing her and they dig at the bottom of the rainbow. What
they find there are the mirror and her dead body with water and a stone
in her stomach. Either of these stories show us a connection between
rainbow and water (watergod Mizuchi).

The rainbow has been thought of as a bridge connecting between earth
to heaven since the early 8th century and people believed that gods
can come and go over the bridge anytime. "Amanohashidate" is a sandbar
which is over 3 km long in Kyoto prefecture. One myth about the bar
says that a Japanese mythological god, Izanagi, created the bridge to
go back to heaven. It fell sideway and became "Amanohashidate". Rainbows
are believed to be a bridge reaching god's world or heaven everywhere
in the world. It seems natural to think so with its unrealistic beauty.

Isaac Newton asserted that the rainbow was made up of 7 colours in the
17th century in England. However, a 7 colour rainbow was not common in
Japan until the 1860s before adopting Western science. Rainbows had been
depicted as a red and blue flag in the literature of the early Nara
period (early 8C). In a book written in the early Heian era (8,9C), five
coloured cloud reaching to heaven is used as a metaphor of a rainbow.
In the Japanese historical chronicle, "Azuma Kagami (Mirror of the
East)", compiled around 1300 in the Kamakura period, a rainbow which
appeared in western sky at about 6 o'clock in the morning in June is
described as a 5 coloured (Yellow, red, blue, Japanese apricot red and
red again) rainbow.

The rainbow used to signify either bad luck or good luck as an incarnation
of a watergod or a linking bridge to god world. As time went by, it was
gradually not to be seen as a frightening object.

As well as Japan and China, there are many other rainbow snake mythologies
all over the world including North America, Australia and West Africa.
However the common detail that the rainbow resembled a snake is the same,
sequence of the fact varies. It may be interesting to compare each
myth, don't you think?

Translation by: Hitomi Kochi, reviewed by Chan Yee Ting

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Development Organization (JTCO)- All Rights Reserved.

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