Land of the Rising

In modern Japan, ancient traditions coexist with the many emanations of modern Western culture. In centuries past, too, Japanese culture continually absorbed influences from abroad—namely from mainland Asia—and yet retained a distinct identity. Even the Japanese language, when it was first written down in the middle of the first millennium C.E., used kanji characters imported from the Chinese.

For a millennium and a half, from the fourth century until the end of World War II, the principles of Shinto religion forged unbreakable links between cosmology, political structure, and the sun. Successive emperors traced their ancestry directly back to the Sun Goddess, helping to forge a national identity linked with the sun that is still evident in the national flag. Shinto persisted despite the strong influence of Buddhist traditions from China that have coexisted in this island nation from the sixth century onwards. This coexistence involved some remarkable compromises, for instance, in locating and aligning temples and palaces. In the Shinto tradition this would be done with respect to places of spiritual power in the landscape, whereas in the Chinese tradition they would typically be aligned cardinally, reflecting the principle that spiritual and imperial power derived from the north celestial pole as the pivot of the heavens, and ensuring that the emperor would be approached, like the celestial pole itself, from the south. The plan of ancient Kyoto, for example, built in c.e. 794, with its palace complex approached from due south, reflected such principles every bit as faithfully as Beijing itself.

Aside from institutionalized astronomy, elements of star lore and folk calendars have been transmitted through countless generations of ordinary people, and some have persisted in rural areas despite the introduction of the Gregorian calendar. For example, the changing patterns of appearance of the Pleiades (Subaru), Hyades, and Orion's belt provided a succession of seasonal rules of thumb for rice farmers. One of these was that when Subaru—which resembled a collection of rice seedlings—set progressively earlier in the evening sky in the spring, this indicated the time for planting the actual rice seeds in the ground.

Archaeoastronomy is in its infancy in Japan. The Asuka plain, to the east of Osaka, contains several tombs (kofun) of high-status individuals that were erected in the seventh and early eighth centuries. Two of them, only about a kilometer (half mile) apart—Takamatsu Zuka Kofun, excavated in 1972, and Kitora Kofun, probed in 1998 using a miniature camera—contain paintings with strong astronomical associations. The ceilings depict the twenty-eight lunar "mansions" (known in Japan as shuku) and other constellations, while the walls show the animal gods associated with each of the cardinal directions. The two tombs demonstrate clear but nonetheless different Chinese and Korean influences. The region also contains a number of granite megaliths carved in the shape of human figures. These are of uncertain origin, date, and purpose, and while some have attracted archaeoastro-nomical interest, interpretations are far more speculative.

See also:

Archaeoastronomy; Orion; Power.

Chinese Astronomy and Astrology.

Celestial Sphere; Heliacal Rise.

References and further reading

Krupp, Edwin C. Skywatchers, Shamans and Kings, 196-207. New York: Wiley, 1997.

Renshaw, Steven, and Saori Ihara. "Archaeoastronomy and Astronomy in Culture in Japan: Paving the Way to Interdisciplinary Study." Archaeoastronomy: The Journal of Astronomy in Culture 14 (1) (1999), 59-88.

-. Astronomy in Japan: Science, History, Culture.

Selin, Helaine, ed. Astronomy across Cultures, 385-407. Dordrecht, Neth. Kluwer, 2000.

Walker, Christopher, ed. Astronomy before the Telescope, 267-268. London: British Museum Press, 1996.

Xu Zhentao, David Pankenier, and Jiang Yaotiao. East Asian Archaeoastron-omy: Historical Records of Astronomical Observations of China, Japan and Korea. Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach, 2000.

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