A LIVING GOD

Of whatever dimension, the temples or shrines of pure Shintō are all
built in the same archaic style. The typical shrine is a windowless
oblong building of unpainted timber, with a very steep overhanging
roof; the front is the gable end; and the upper part of the perpetually
closed doors is wooden lattice-work,–usually a grating of bars
closely set and crossing each other at right angles. In most cases
the structure is raised slightly above the ground on wooden pillars;
and the queer peaked façade, with its visor-like apertures and the
fantastic projections of beam-work above its gable-angle, might remind
the European traveler of certain old Gothic forms of dormer. There is
no artificial color. The plain wood[1] soon turns, under the action of
rain and sun, to a natural grey, varying according to surface exposure
from the silvery tone of birch bark to the sombre grey of basalt. So
shaped and so tinted, the isolated country _yashiro_ may seem less like
a work of joinery than a feature of the scenery,–a rural form related
to nature as closely as rocks and trees,–a something that came into
existence only as a manifestation of Ohotsuchi-no-Kami, the Earth-god,
the primeval divinity of the land.

Why certain architectural forms produce in the beholder a feeling of
weirdness is a question about which I should like to theorize some
day: at present I shall venture only to say that Shinto shrines evoke
such a feeling. It grows with familiarity instead of weakening; and a
knowledge of popular beliefs is apt to intensify it. We have no English
words by which these queer shapes can be sufficiently described,–much
less any language able to communicate the peculiar impression which
they make. Those Shinto terms which we loosely render by the words
“temple” and “shrine” are really untranslatable;–I mean that the
Japanese ideas attaching to them cannot be conveyed by translation. The
so-called “august house” of the Kami is not so much a temple, in the
classic meaning of the term, as it is a haunted room, a spirit-chamber,
a ghost-house; many of the lesser divinities being veritably
ghosts,–ghosts of great warriors and heroes and rulers and teachers,
who lived and loved and died hundreds or thousands of years ago. I
fancy that to the Western mind the word “ghost-house” will convey,
better than such terms as “shrine” and “temple,” some vague notion of
the strange character of the Shinto _miya_ or _yashiro,_–containing
in its perpetual dusk nothing more substantial than symbols or tokens,
the latter probably of paper. Now the emptiness behind the visored
front is more suggestive than anything material could possibly be;
and when you remember that millions of people during thousands of
years have worshipped their great dead before such _yashiro,–_that
a whole race still believes those buildings tenanted by viewless
conscious personalities,–you are apt also to reflect how difficult
it would be to prove the faith absurd. Nay! in spite of Occidental
reluctances,–in spite of whatever you may think it expedient to say
or not to say at a later time about the experience,–you may very
likely find yourself for a moment forced into the attitude of respect
toward possibilities. Mere cold reasoning will not help you far in the
opposite direction. The evidence of the senses counts for little: you
know there are ever so many realities which can neither be seen nor
heard nor felt, but which exist as forces,–tremendous forces. Then
again you cannot mock the conviction of forty millions of people while
that conviction thrills all about you like the air,–while conscious
that it is pressing upon your psychical being just as the atmosphere
presses upon your physical being. As for myself, whenever I am alone in
the presence of a Shinto shrine, I have the sensation of being haunted;
and I cannot help thinking about the possible apperceptions of the
haunter. And this tempts me to fancy how I should feel if I myself were
a god,–dwelling in some old Izumo shrine on the summit of a hill,
guarded by stone lions and shadowed by a holy grove.

Elfishly small my habitation might be, but never too small, because I
should have neither size nor form. I should be only a vibration,–a
motion invisible as of ether or of magnetism; though able sometimes to
shape me a shadow-body, in the likeness of my former visible self, when
I should wish to make apparition.

As air to the bird, as water to the fish, so would all substance be
permeable to the essence of me. I should pass at will through the walls
of my dwelling to swim in the long gold bath of a sunbeam, to thrill in
the heart of a flower, to ride on the neck of a dragon-fly.

Power above life and power over death would be mine,–and the power of
self-extension, and the power of self-multiplication, and the power of
being in all places at one and the same moment. Simultaneously in a
hundred homes I should hear myself worshiped, I should inhale the vapor
of a hundred offerings: each evening, from my place within a hundred
household shrines, I should see the holy lights lighted for me in
lamplets of red clay, in lamplets of brass,–the lights of the Kami,
kindled with purest fire and fed with purest oil.

But in my yashiro upon the hill I should have greatest honor: there
betimes I should gather the multitude of my selves together; there
should I unify my powers to answer supplication.

From the dusk of my ghost-house I should look for the coming of
sandaled feet, and watch brown supple fingers weaving to my bars the
knotted papers which are records of vows, and observe the motion of the
lips of my worshipers making prayer:–

_–“Harai-tamai kiyomé-tamaé!_ … We have beaten drums, we have
lighted fires; yet the land thirsts and the rice fails. Deign out of
thy divine pity to give us rain, O Daimyōjin!”

_–“Harai-tamai kiyomé-tamaé!_ … I am dark, too dark, because I have
toiled in the field, because the sun hath looked upon me. Deign thou
augustly to make me white, very white,–white like the women of the
city, O Daimyōjin!”

_–“Harai-tamai kiyomê-tamaé!_… For Tsukamoto Motokichi our son, a
soldier of twenty-nine: that he may conquer and come back quickly to
us,–soon, very soon,–we humbly supplicate, O Daimyōjin!”

Sometimes a girl would whisper all her heart to me: “Maiden of eighteen
years, I am loved by a youth of twenty. He is good; he is true; but
poverty is with us, and the path of our love is dark. Aid us with thy
great divine pity!–help us that we may become united, O Daimyōjin!”
Then to the bars of my shrine she would hang a thick soft tress of
hair,–her own hair, glossy and black as the wing of the crow, and
bound with a cord of mulberry-paper. And in the fragrance of that
offering,–the simple fragrance of her peasant youth,–I, the ghost and
god, should find again the feelings of the years when I was man and
lover.

Mothers would bring their children to my threshold, and teach them
to revere me, saying, “Bow down before the great bright God; make
homage to the Daimyōjin.” Then I should hear the fresh soft clapping
of little hands, and remember that I, the ghost and god, had been a
father.

Daily I should hear the plash of pure cool water poured out for me, and
the tinkle of thrown coin, and the pattering of dry rice into my wooden
box, like a pattering of rain; and I should be refreshed by the spirit
of the water, and strengthened by the spirit of the rice.

Festivals would be held to honor me. Priests, black-coiffed and
linen-vestured, would bring me offerings of fruits and fish and
seaweed and rice-cakes and rice-wine,–masking their faces with
sheets of white paper, so as not to breathe upon my food. And the
_miko_ their daughters, fair girls in crimson _hakama_ and robes of
snowy white, would come to dance with tinkling of little bells, with
waving of silken fans, that I might be gladdened by the bloom of their
youth, that I might delight in the charm of their grace. And there
would be music of many thousand years ago,–weird music of drums and
flutes,–and songs in a tongue no longer spoken; while the miko, the
darlings of the gods, would poise and pose before me:–… “Whose
virgins are these,–the virgins who stand like flowers before the
Deity? They are the virgins of the august Deity.

“The august music, the dancing of the virgins,–the Deity will be
pleased to hear, the Deity will rejoice to see.

“Before the great bright God the virgins dance,–the virgins all like
flowers newly opened.” …

*

Votive gifts of many kinds I should be given: painted paper lanterns
bearing my sacred name, and towels of divers colors printed with the
number of the years of the giver, and pictures commemorating the
fulfillment of prayers for the healing of sickness, the saving of
ships, the quenching of fire, the birth of sons.

Also my Karashishi, my guardian lions, would be honored. I should see
my pilgrims tying sandals of straw to their necks and to their paws,
with prayer to the Karashishi-Sama for strength of foot.

I should see fine moss, like emerald fur, growing slowly, slowly, upon
the backs of those lions;–I should see the sprouting of lichens upon
their flanks and upon their shoulders, in specklings of dead-silver, in
patches of dead-gold;–I should watch, through years of generations,
the gradual sideward sinking of their pedestals under-mined by frost
and rain, until at last my lions would lose their balance, and fall,
and break their mossy heads off. After which the people would give me
new lions of another form,–lions of granite or of bronze, with gilded
teeth and gilded eyes, and tails like a torment of fire.

Between the trunks of the cedars and pines, between the jointed
columns of the bamboos, I should observe, season after season, the
changes of the colors of the valley: the falling of the snow of winter
and the falling of the snow of cherry-flowers; the lilac spread of
the _miyakobana;_ the blazing yellow of the _natané;_ the sky–blue
mirrored in flooded levels,–levels dotted with the moon-shaped hats of
the toiling people who would love me; and at last the pure and tender
green of the growing rice.

The muku-birds and the _uguisu_ would fill the shadows of my grove with
ripplings and purlings of melody;–the bell-insects, the crickets,
and the seven marvelous cicadas of summer would make all the wood of
my ghost-house thrill to their musical storms. Betimes I should enter,
like an ecstasy, into the tiny lives of them, to quicken the joy of
their clamor, to magnify the sonority of their song.

*

But I never can become a god,–for this is the nineteenth century;
and nobody can be really aware of the nature of the sensations of a
god–unless there be gods in the flesh. Are there? Perhaps–in very
remote districts–one or two. There used to be living gods.

Anciently any man who did something extraordinarily great or good or
wise or brave might be declared a god after his death, no matter how
humble his condition in life. Also good people who had suffered great
cruelty and injustice might be apotheosized; and there still survives
the popular inclination to pay posthumous honor and to make prayer
to the spirits of those who die voluntary deaths under particular
circumstances,–to souls of unhappy lovers, for example. (Probably the
old customs which made this tendency had their origin in the wish
to appease the vexed spirit, although to-day the experience of great
suffering seems to be thought of as qualifying its possessor for divine
conditions of being;–and there would be no foolishness whatever in
such a thought.) But there were even more remarkable deifications.
Certain persons, while still alive, were honored by having temples
built for their spirits, and were treated as gods; not, indeed, as
national gods, but as lesser divinities,–tutelar deities, perhaps, or
village-gods. There was, for instance, Hamaguchi Gohei, a farmer of the
district of Arita in the province of Kishu, who was made a god before
he died. And I think he deserved it.

[Footnote 1: Usually _hinoki_ (Chamœcyparis obtusa).]

II

Before telling the story of Hamaguchi Gohei, I must say a few words
about certain laws–or, more correctly speaking, customs having all
the force of laws–by which many village communities were ruled in
pre-Meiji times. These customs were based upon the social experience of
ages; and though they differed in minor details according to province
or district, their main signification was everywhere about the same.
Some were ethical, some industrial, some religious; and all matters
were regulated by them,–even individual behavior. They preserved
peace, and they compelled mutual help and mutual kindness. Sometimes
there might be serious fighting between different villages,–little
peasant wars about questions of water supply or boundaries; but
quarreling between men of the same community could not be tolerated in
an age of vendetta, and the whole village would resent any needless
disturbance of the internal peace. To some degree this state of things
still exists in the more old-fashioned provinces: the people know
how to live without quarreling, not to say fighting. Any-where, as a
general rule, Japanese fight only to kill; and when a sober man goes so
far as to strike a blow, he virtually rejects communal protection, and
takes his life into his own hands with every probability of losing it.

The private conduct of the other sex was regulated by some remarkable
obligations entirely outside of written codes. A peasant girl, before
marriage, enjoyed far more liberty than was permitted to city girls.
She might be known to have a lover; and unless her parents objected
very strongly, no blame would be given to her: it was regarded as an
holiest union,–honest, at least, as to intention. But having once made
a choice, the girl was held bound by that choice. If it were discovered
that she met another admirer secretly, the people would strip her
naked, allowing her only a _shuro-leaf_ for apron, and drive her in
mockery through every street and alley of the village. During this
public dis-grace of their daughter, the parents of the girl dared not
show their faces abroad; they were expected to share her shame, and
they had to remain in their house, with all the shutters fastened up.
Afterward the girl was sentenced to banishment for five years. But at
the end of that period she was considered to have expiated her fault,
and she could return home with the certainty of being spared further
reproaches.

The obligation of mutual help in time of calamity or danger was
the most imperative of all communal obligations. In case of fire,
especially, everybody was required to give immediate aid to the best
of his or her ability. Even children were not exempted from this duty.
In towns and cities, of course, things were differently ordered; but
in any little country village the universal duty was very plain and
simple, and its neglect would have been considered unpardonable.

A curious fact is that this obligation of mutual help extended to
religious matters: everybody was expected to invoke the help of the
gods for the sick or the unfortunate, whenever asked to do so. For
example, the village might be ordered to make a _sendo-mairi_[1] on
behalf of some one seriously ill. On such occasions the Kumi-chō (each
Kumi-chō was responsible for the conduct of five or more families) would
run from house to house crying, “Such and such a one is very sick:
kindly hasten all to make a sendo-mairi!” Thereupon, however occupied
at the moment, every soul in the settlement was expected to hurry to
the temple,–taking care not to trip or stumble on the way, as a single
misstep during the performance of a sendo-mairi was believed to mean
misfortune for the sick….

[Footnote 1: To perform a _sendo-mairi_ means to make one thousand
visits to a temple, and to repeat one thousand invocations to the
deity. But it is considered necessary only to go from the gate or
the torii of the temple-court to the place of prayer, and hack, one
thousand times, repeating the invocation each time; and the task may
be divided among any number of persons,–ten visits by one hundred
persons, for instance, being quite as efficacious as a thousand visits
by a single person.]

III

Now concerning Hamaguchi.

From immemorial time the shores of Japan have been swept, at irregular
intervals of centuries, by enormous tidal waves,–tidal waves caused by
earthquakes or by submarine volcanic action. These awful sudden risings
of the sea are called by the Japanese _tsunami._ The last one occurred
on the evening of June 17, 1896, when a wave nearly two hundred miles
long struck the northeastern provinces of Miyagi, Iwaté, and Aomori,
wrecking scores of towns and villages, ruining whole districts, and
destroying nearly thirty thousand human lives. The story of Hamaguchi
Gohei is the story of a like calamity which happened long before the
era of Meiji, on another part of the Japanese coast.

He was an old man at the time of the occurrence that made him famous.
He was the most influential resident of the village to which he
belonged: he had been for many years its _muraosa,_ or headman; and
he was not less liked than respected. The people usually called him
_Ojiisan,_ which means Grandfather; but, being the richest member of
the community, he was sometimes officially referred to as the Chōja. He
used to advise the smaller farmers about their interests, to arbitrate
their disputes, to advance them money at need, and to dispose of their
rice for them on the best terms possible.

Hamaguchi’s big thatched farmhouse stood at the verge of a small
plateau overlooking a bay. The plateau, mostly devoted to rice culture,
was hemmed in on three sides by thickly wooded summits. From its outer
verge the land sloped down in a huge green concavity, as if scooped
out, to the edge of the water; and the whole of this slope, some three
quarters of a mile long, was so terraced as to look, when viewed from
the open sea, like an enormous flight of green steps, divided in the
centre by a narrow white zigzag,–a streak of mountain road. Ninety
thatched dwellings and a Shintō temple, composing the village proper,
stood along the curve of the bay; and other houses climbed straggling
up the slope for some distance on either side of the narrow road
leading to the Chōja’s home.

*

One autumn evening Hamaguchi Gohei was looking down from the balcony of
his house at some preparations for a merry-making in the village below.
There had been a very fine rice-crop, and the peasants were going to
celebrate their harvest by a dance in the court of the _ujigami._[1]
The old man could see the festival banners (_nobori_) fluttering
above the roofs of the solitary street, the strings of paper lanterns
festooned between bamboo poles, the decorations of the shrine, and the
brightly colored gathering of the young people. He had nobody with him
that evening but his little grandson, a lad of ten; the rest of the
household having gone early to the village. He would have accompanied
them had he not been feeling less strong than usual.

The day had been oppressive; and in spite of a rising breeze there
was still in the air that sort of heavy heat which, according to the
experience of the Japanese peasant, at certain seasons precedes an
earthquake. And presently an earthquake came. It was not strong enough
to frighten anybody; but Hamaguchi, who had felt hundreds of shocks in
his time, thought it was queer,–a long, slow, spongy motion. Probably
it was but the after-tremor of some immense seismic action very far
away. The house crackled and rocked gently several times; then all
became still again.

As the quaking ceased Hamaguchi’s keen old eyes were anxiously turned
toward the village. It often happens that the attention of a person
gazing fixedly at a particular spot or object is suddenly diverted by
the sense of something not knowingly seen at all,–by a mere vague
feeling of the unfamiliar in that dim outer circle of unconscious
perception which lies beyond the field of clear vision. Thus it chanced
that Hamaguchi became aware of something unusual in the offing. He rose
to his feet, and looked at the sea. It had darkened quite suddenly, and
it was acting strangely. It seemed to be moving against the wind. _It
was running away from the land._

Within a very little time the whole village had noticed the phenomenon.
Apparently no one had felt the previous motion of the ground, but
all were evidently astounded by the movement of the water. They were
running to the beach, and even beyond the beach, to watch it. No such
ebb had been witnessed on that coast within the memory of living man.
Things never seen before were making apparition; unfamiliar spaces
of ribbed sand and reaches of weed-hung rock were left bare even as
Hamaguchi gazed. And none of the people below appeared to guess what
that monstrous ebb signified.

Hamaguchi Gohei himself had never seen such a thing before; but he
remembered things told him in his childhood by his father’s father, and
he knew all the traditions of the coast. He understood what the sea was
going to do. Perhaps he thought of the time needed to send a message to
the village, or to get the priests of the Buddhist temple on the hill
to, sound their big bell…. But it would take, very much longer to
tell what he might have thought than it took him to think. He simply
called to his grandson:–

“Tada!–quick,–very quick! … Light me a torch.”

_Taimatsu,_ or pine-torches, are kept in many coast dwellings for
use on stormy nights, and also for use at certain Shinto festivals.
The child kindled a torch at once; and the old man hurried with it
to the fields, where hundreds of rice-stacks, representing most of
his invested capital, stood awaiting transportation. Approaching
those nearest the verge of the slope, he began to apply the torch to
them,–hurrying from one to another as quickly as his aged limbs could
carry him. The sun-dried stalks caught like tinder; the strengthening
sea-breeze blew the blaze landward; and presently, rank behind rank,
the stacks burst into flame, sending skyward columns of smoke that
met and mingled into one enormous cloudy whirl. Tada, astonished and
terrified, ran after his grandfather, crying,–

“Ojiisan! why? Ojiisan! why?–why?”

But Hamaguchi did not answer: he had no time to explain; he was
thinking only of the four hundred lives in peril. For a while the
child stared wildly at the blazing rice; then burst into tears, and
ran back to the house, feeling sure that his grandfather had gone
mad. Hamaguchi went on firing stack after stack, till he had reached
the limit of his field; then he threw down his torch, and waited. The
acolyte of the hill-temple, observing the blaze, set the big bell
booming; and the people responded to the double appeal. Hamaguchi
watched them hurrying in from the sands and over the beach and up
from the village, like a swarming of ants, and, to his anxious eyes,
scarcely faster; for the moments seemed terribly long to him. The sun
was going down; the wrinkled bed of the bay, and a vast sallow speckled
expanse beyond it, lay naked to the last orange glow; and still the sea
was fleeing toward the horizon.

Really, however, Hamaguchi did not have very long to wait before the
first party of succor arrived,–a score of agile young peasants, who
wanted to attack the fire at once. But the Chōja, holding out both
arms, stopped them.

“Let it burn, lads!” he commanded, “let it be! I want the whole _mura_
here. There is a great danger,–_taihen da!_”

The whole village was coming; and Hamaguchi counted. All the young men
and boys were soon on the spot, and not a few of the more active women
and girls; then came most of the older folk, and mothers with babies
at their backs, and even children,–for children could help to pass
water; and the elders too feeble to keep up with the first rush could
be seen well on their way up the steep ascent. The growing multitude,
still knowing nothing, looked alternately, in sorrowful wonder, at the
flaming fields and at the impassive face of their Chōja. And the sun
went down.

“Grandfather is mad,–I am afraid of him!” sobbed Tada, in answer to a
number of questions. “He is mad. He set fire to the rice on purpose: I
saw him do it!”

“As for the rice,” cried Hamaguchi, “the child tells the truth. I set
fire to the rice. … Are all the people here?”

The Kumi-chō and the heads of families looked about them, and down the
hill, and made reply: “All are here, or very soon will be…. _We_
cannot understand this thing.”

_”Kita!_” shouted the old man at the top of his voice, pointing to the
open. “Say now if I be mad!”

Through the twilight eastward all looked, and saw at the edge of the
dusky horizon a long, lean, dim line like the shadowing of a coast
where no coast ever was,–a line that thickened as they gazed, that
broadened as a coast-line broadens to the eyes of one approaching it,
yet incomparably more quickly. For that long darkness was the returning
sea, towering like a cliff, and coursing more swiftly than the kite
flies.

“_Tsunami!_” shrieked the people; and then all shrieks and all sounds
and all power to hear sounds were annihilated by a nameless shock
heavier than any thunder, as the colossal swell smote the shore with
a weight that sent a shudder through the hills, and with a foam-burst
like a blaze of sheet-lightning. Then for an instant nothing was
visible but a storm of spray rushing up the slope like a cloud; and the
people scattered back in panic from the mere menace of it. When they
looked again, they saw a white horror of sea raving over the place of
their homes. It drew back roaring, and tearing out the bowels of the
land as it went. Twice, thrice, five times the sea struck and ebbed,
but each time with lesser surges: then it returned to its ancient bed
and stayed,–still raging, as after a typhoon.

On the plateau for a time there was no word spoken. All stared
speechlessly at the desolation beneath,–the ghastliness of hurled
rock and naked riven cliff, the bewilderment of scooped-up deep-sea
wrack and shingle shot over the empty site of dwelling and temple. The
village was not; the greater part of the fields were not; even the
terraces had ceased to exist; and of all the homes that had been about
the bay there remained nothing recognizable except two straw roofs
tossing madly in the offing. The after-terror of the death escaped and
the stupefaction of the general loss kept all lips dumb, until the
voice of Hamaguchi was heard again, observing gently,–

_”That was why I set fire to the rice.”_

He, their Chōja, now stood among them almost as poor as the poorest;
for his wealth was gone–but he had saved four hundred lives by the
sacrifice. Little Tada ran to him, and caught his hand, and asked
forgiveness for having said naughty things. Whereupon the people woke
up to the knowledge of why they were alive, and began to wonder at
the simple, unselfish foresight that had saved them; and the headmen
prostrated themselves in the dust before Hamaguchi Gohei, and the
people after them.

Then the old man wept a little, partly because he was happy, and partly
because he was aged and weak and had been sorely tried.

“My house remains,” he said, as soon as he could find words,
automatically caressing Tada’s brown cheeks; “and there is room for
many. Also the temple on the hill stands; and there is shelter there
for the others.”

Then he led the way to his house; and the people cried and shouted.

*

The period of distress was long, because in those days there were no
means of quick communication between district and district, and the
help needed had to be sent from far away. But when better times came,
the people did not forget their debt to Hamaguchi Gohei. They could
not make him rich; nor would he have suffered them to do so, even
had it been possible. Moreover, gifts could never have sufficed as an
expression of their reverential feeling towards him; for they believed
that the ghost within him was divine. So they declared him a god, and
thereafter called him Hamaguchi DAIMYŌJIN, thinking they could give him
no greater honor;–and truly no greater honor in any country could be
given to mortal man. And when they rebuilt the village, they built a
temple to the spirit of him, and fixed above the front of it a tablet
bearing his name in Chinese text of gold; and they worshiped him there,
with prayer and with offerings. How he felt about it I cannot say;–I
know only that he continued to live in his old thatched home upon the
hill, with his children and his children’s children, just as humanly
and simply as before, while his soul was being worshiped in the shrine
below. A hundred years and more he has been dead; but his temple, they
tell me, still stands, and the people still pray to the ghost of the
good old farmer to help them in time of fear or trouble.

* * * * * * * * * * *

I asked a Japanese philosopher and friend to explain to me how the
peasants could rationally imagine the spirit of Hamaguchi in one place
while his living body was in another. Also I inquired whether it was
only one of his souls which they had worshiped during his life, and
whether they imagined that particular soul to have detached itself from
the rest to receive homage.

“The peasants,” my friend answered, “think of the mind or spirit of a
person as something which, even during life, can be in many places at
the same instant…. Such an idea is, of course, quite different from
Western ideas about the soul.”

“Any more rational?” I mischievously asked.

“Well,” he responded, with a Buddhist smile, “if we accept the doctrine
of the unity of all mind, the idea of the Japanese peasant would appear
to contain at least some adumbration of truth. I could not say so much
for your Western notions about the soul.”

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