The Lister List

Paper and Religion in Japan

I am reluctant to enter further into this discussion, because it is a specialist field, about which I have little knowledge, quite apart from being a member of a vastly different culture. I feel that true answers can only be given by Japanese scholars. Unfortunately, despite all the growing together in recent years, the Japanese mind works in a different way from the western mind and a Japanese often does not understand our questions or why we should ask them. I have, however come across one or two relevant references, albeit in books written by westerners, and I thought I should pass them on to you.

One such book is "The Art of Japanese Paper" by Dominique Buisson, a Frenchman, who has written several books on Origami, although I have heard it said that he and MFPP have their differences. The book was originally written in France, but I have a translation into English, published by "Terrail" in 1992. It is a large and sumptuous book, with numerous beautiful illustrations in full colour on every page. Buisson is, of course, a Frenchman, not a Japanese, so what he writes must be treated with caution. He has, however, thoroughly immersed himself in Japanese culture and his views should at least be considered. Here are a few extracts from the book.

Page 35. "From the time when paper was introduced in Japan, the priests of the shinto religion were fascinated by its beauty, purity and perfection. Since these qualities were also attributed to the gods, the folding of paper henceforth became symbolic of prayer and offering. " Although the etymology is different, the identical pronunciation of kami (paper) and kami (shinto deity) produced in the ancient Japanese an emotional association between the two words. Since the idea of purity is inextricably linked with that of virginity, they considered natural paper to be both a symbol of bliss on earth and also the very essence of shinto. Thus, spotless paper was the ideal medium of expression for divine nature. When folded, it became the sign of its presence. Paper was easy to shape and easy to destroy, which suggested the seasonal cycle of life and death. Once burnt, paper enabled rebirth, as in the case of shinto shrines which are rebuilt exactly as before every twenty years. The folding of paper was thus perfectly adapted to annual celebrations and to fertility rites in particular."

Page 47. "Buddhism, an imported religion, became established in Japan in the 16th century. Its attraction was immediate, as it is the expression of civilisation itself. In addition to statues and monumental architecture, it gave Japanese princes their greatest treasure: writing. Japanese paper naturally became the medium for memory, and above all, the vehicle for the sacred word. The magnificence of its rites was echoed by the sumptuousness of paper. Nothing was neglected in reflecting the richness of Buddhist mysteries. Copying sacred texts became an art which went beyond the simple teaching of the monks.".

Page 53. "Buddhism only produced a few outstanding folded paper shapes. However, the religious syncretism which was the rule for many centuries allowed them to coexist with the ritual objects of the Shinto religion. Kami paper could be found side by side with Buddhist statues, and it is likely that the few esoteric folded shapes of Buddhism were only a late development of shinto models. Conversely, the plastic art invented and developed by Buddhist monks gave rise to a mini shinto statuary, usually made from papier-mache in the image of popular deities, like the fox, the emblem of tradesmen."

There is much more of great interest in Buisson's book. It would be well worth the effort to search it out in a library.

The French seem to have made a study of Japanese paper in recent years. Another splendid, cased book of large size, with a dust cover of exquisite washi, is "Papiers Japonais" by Francoise Paireau, published by Adam Biro in 1991. Unfortunately, so far as I know, it has not been translated into English. Whereas Buisson's book deals both the religious and cultural uses of paper in Japan, Paireau's book deals with the paper cultural, social and practical uses. The two books complement each other and together reveal the enormous richnesses of the use of paper in traditional Japanese culture.

I was struck by the suggestion that paper is much more employed in the Shinto religion than in Buddhism. I now regret that when I paid my all too brief visit to Japan eighteen months ago, I did not make a point of observing this point. However, as far as I can recall, this is true. The two religions are ,in fact, intermingled in Japanese life and it is not easy for a casual visitor to know whether a place, he is visiting is Buddhist of Shinto (except that a shrine is usually Shinto, and a temple Buddhist). So far as I can recall, however, I saw many paper "gohei" at shrines, nut I do not remember them at any of the temples I visited. It's something for future visitors to Japan to look out for. To query Buisson, do the Japanese rebuild their shrines every twenty years?

Kristine Tomlinson suggests that most of the Japanese festivals still celebrated today, where paper is still used ceremonially. are traditional Chinese in origin. Could we have this list please? Presumably it does not include secular festivals like the Girl's Festival, the Boys' Festival or the Star Festival (Tanabata), where origami is often used y children.

Kristine also ask about the Rokoan temple, associated with the priest who wrote the "Chushingura Orikata"; (Incidentally, this is not a book like the "Senbasuru Orikata". "Chushingura Orikata" is printed on a large sheet of paper, which folds up, with the scenes from the Chushingura play crammed together side by side, together with the folding instructions). I have looked through all the books l have likely to give information about the temple, but, to my surprise, it is not listed in any of them. Another quest to pursue!

"Chushingura Orikata" does refer to the Kanadehon Chushingura play based on a historical incident, about how forty-six out of forty-seven loyal Samurai retainers avenged their master's death, and then took their own lives.

Kristine recommends "Paper as Art and Craft" by Thelma R. Newman, J.H.Newman and L.S.Newman, published by Allen and Unwin, apparently in the United States and Britain simultaneously in 1973. I commend this book as being full of interest, though, be warned that although it deals with a wide variety of papercrafts, it does not contain any origami.

An excellent book about paper itself in the West, including its manufacture and some important historical information is a paperback, "Which Paper? by Silvie Turner. First edition1946, second edition1994, and published in England by Design Books. The United Sates distributors are: Lyons and Burford, Publishers, 31, West 21st St., New York, NY 10010. An excellent book recommended to me by John Smith.

David Lister.
Grimsby, England.

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