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Newsletter: Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition

Delivered on December 02, 2019
Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition [Issue 108] December 2, 2019

Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition [Issue 108]
December 2, 2019
Japanese Traditional Culture Promotion & Development Organization


1. Seasonal Plant:
An evergreen guardian deity: Hiiragi (Holly osmanthus)

:: 1. Seasonal Plant

Here is a "Haiku" in "Kikaku Hakkushu (Haiku collection)" written by
TAKARAI Kikaku in 17c.
"Hure mizore Hiiragino hanano Nanokaichi"
Interpretation: The petite white flowers are flying down just like
falling sleet onto the street in Nanokaichi.

When we start to feel a winter atmosphere in the cold weather, we begin
to notice red and green Christmas decorations and Christmas event posters
in town. European holly with red fruits is what Japanese people imagine
as typical "holly" in Japan today. However, the "holly" in ancient times
in Japan meant a different holly. It was "Holly Osmanthus" which blooms
many white flowers from November to December. As Holly Osmanthus and
European holly both have similar spiny leaves, European holly was named
after the same, "Hiiragi", when it was brought into Japan. However, they
differ in some aspects, Holly Osmanthus is the Oleaceae family while
European holly is the Aquifoliaceae family. For example, leaves come
out in different ways, as a matter of fact that they are not the same

Because of its spiny leaf, it was named as "Hiiragi" from the Japanese
verb, "Hihiraku" meaning "prickling pain after being stung". Its small
white flowers are in season at the moment in Japan and it is often seen
that the flowers fall down and cover the roads like early snow just
like the depiction in the opening paragraph.

Holly has been regarded as a tree which can defeat enemies and also
has a magical power to drive away evil spirits. The first appearance
in literature is in "Kojiki (the oldest extant chronicle in Japan
composed in 712)", and there is a description of a pike made with holly.
Because the stem is not only firm but also elastic, it withstands shocks
very well. It is used as a handle of a large hammer today but was
probably used for handles for weapons in the past.

Although decorating "Gate pine" or "Shimenawa (rice straw rope)" in
front of homes on the New Year's has been a traditional custom in Japan
since ancient times, pine had not been used before the later Heian
period (11c). It used to be a custom that people stuck a holly branch
in the Shimenawa rope in the evening on New Years eve. In the "Tosa
Nikki (Tosa Diary)" written by Japanese poet, Ki no Tsurayuki, in 12c,
there is a scene in which he is wondering about his home while he stays
in a lodging place on New Year's day.

"I can't stop thinking about my home in Kyoto. I wondered and had a
conversation with my people about what the decorations look like with
the head of mullet and holly leaves in the Shimenawa rope in front of
our houses."

In the "Setsubun (traditional ritual to cleanse away evil spirits)"
event, there are still some areas where people make a decoration of a
talisman in which a sardine's head is penetrated with a holly twig.
Although it was a mullet's head originally, people used to use a holly
and a fish head to protect themselves from evil spirits on New Year's
day in the 9th century. It has been carried on as the Setsubun custom
today. All the evergreen plants being used in rituals are generically
called "Sakaki". Along side pine trees and Cleyera Japonica, a holly
is recognised as a good luck tree therefore it was often planted in
front of people's houses as well as on the road approaching a shrine
or temple.

On top of being a good luck charm, Holly was chosen to plant because
of its practicality. Its spiny leaves protected houses from burglars
and also was used to fight off bandits. It is very understandable that
people believed holly had a magical power to ward off evil spirits.
Since the Kamakura period (12c), there were samurai families that
selected a holly as the family crest as they wish the holly to bring
them fortunes of war.

Also, European holly is not the same species as Holly Osmanthus, it
still grows into green leaves and bears bright red berries in winter.
It was considered as a Sacred tree with supernatural power among ancient
Celtic and Roman people. Their belief about the tree was adopted by
Christians and they used it for Christmas decorations to symbolize Jesus.
Even though those two hollies had different backgrounds, they are
considered to have very similar meanings. Isn't this interesting?

Translation by: Hitomi Kochi, reviewed by Chan Yee Ting

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Development Organization (JTCO)- All Rights Reserved.

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