Birth in the land of the rising sun
Birth is a time of celebration for every person. So much so that in most Western cultures it is celebrated each year on one’s birthday. But there’s a culture in which the sense of ritual, more than in Western cultures, was never lost: it’s the Japanese culture, where to this day there are many, often propitiatory rituals being celebrated with reference to birth. And in these very days, on July 17th, they celebrate Amaterasu, the goddess that best represents birth and the “land of the Rising Sun”. This is why we asked Yuto Nakamura to tell us more about these rituals in a piece that appeared on Birth – you can read the entire volume here [LINK] – and which we post below.
No country has a stronger connection with the concept of birth than Japan. The overlapping of meanings appears in the very name of the archipelago: nihon (or nippon, Japan) is a word formed by adding two kanji, namely ni (which stands for sun or day) and hon (origin, birth). The myth of Japan as the “land of the Rising Sun”, the condition of every possible knowledge, has its root here, and from this it amplifies in countless directions. One of the most interesting ones is represented by goddess Amaterasu, a crucial figure in the Shinto religion. When she got out of the cavern, after Susanoo, the god of tempest, had obscured the sun, the “goddess shining in the skies”, or “she from whom everything descends”, returned to shine over the universe. And disclosed fields of rice, wheat and silkworms, three pillars of the Japanese civilization. For this reason, she’s still widely celebrated all over the country, on July 17th each year. In a country where birth has a great importance in mythology and religion, even the birth of every human being of course offers the excuse for great celebrations: after the arrival of every new-born, relatives and friends visit a sanctuary or temple (omiyamairi) and toast with sake. Interestingly, there are numerous other rituals that wish babies a happy life. For instance, obiiwai is the custom according to which, during the fifth month of pregnancy, the mother’s abdomen is wrapped with a belt of cotton, hoping for protection. This must be done on the “day of the dog”, because of how easily dogs give birth. The name of the new-born baby is officially announced 7 days after its birth (oschichiya): the father writes the ideograms on a white veil, and then hangs it on the entrance to the house. One hundred or one hundred and twenty days after birth, they celebrate okuizome, a sort of weaning or ritual that wishes abundance: parents in turn serve their child a complete meal, made of many small tastings, served on a set of small red plates for boys, and black for girls. Every girl and boy are also celebrated respectively on the first 3rd of March (hinamatsuri) and 5th of May (hatsuzekku) of their life: depending on the gender, they decorate dolls or samurais, and everyone celebrates with sushi and sake. Yet birth is also a burden, just like the almost 2 kilos of mochi (the traditional dessert) which some children are forced to hold on their shoulders for a few steps, without receiving any help, on their first birthday.