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Engakuji and the Winds of War

1. Engakuji. Engakuji, in Kita-Kamakura, unusually among war memorials, honors the fallen of both sides, the vanquished along with the victors, extinguishing rights and wrongs, grievances and triumphs, injuries received and inflicted. The entire temple of Engakuji was dedicated by Regent Hojo Tokimune in 1282 to the memory of the Mongols who had recently invaded Japan, and of the Japanese defenders. I once asked where is the memorial monument, and was told by a gate attendant that it is the entire temple. Engakuji is one of the Five Great Temples of Kamakura, consisting of 28 buildings. The exquisite gardens and ponds were designed by Muso Kokushi, who also designed Zuisenji and Saihoji.

Engakuji Shariden

The Shariden is the oldest building in Engakuji, and the oldest building of Sung-Dynasty architectural style in Japan. It was built in the 15th century after its 13th-century predecessor burned down. It is the only building in Kamakura designated as a National Treasure.

2. Nichiren. From all accounts including his own, Nichiren was a charismatic curmudgeon who insisted on the exclusive rightness of his cause. His cause was the Lotus Sutra, a back-to-basics Buddhism that became increasingly popular in the 13th century in opposition to the Esoteric sects favored and supported by the government of the day, the Hojo regime. In 1260 he submitted a treatise to the Hojo Regent entitled ‘Pacifying the State by Establishing Orthodoxy’, namely the Lotus Sutra. Not surprisingly, the Regent rejected it; Nichiren took his message to the streets of the capital, Kamakura, preaching it to whomever would listen. Quite a few people listened, delighted to learn they could dispense with esoteric sects and Government decrees. Hojo Tokiyori, who had initiated a series of persecutions of Nichiren, died in 1263. The next Regent, Hojo Tokimune, continued them. Nichiren’s popularity only grew. By 1271, Tokimune had had enough; he sentenced Nichiren to be beheaded at the execution grounds of a place later known as Ryukoji, where a graceful five-story pagoda in honor of Nichiren now stands. At the appointed time, as Nichiren awaited his fate, a lightning bolt smashed the executioner’s sword to bits. As it happened, Hojo Tokimune reconsidered his execution order even before receiving word of heaven’s message, and commuted the sentence to exile on remote Sado Island. Nichiren’s health prospered there, but a series of earthquakes, plagues, and severe typhoons swept through Japan in the ensuing years. Soon Nichiren was back to Kamakura preaching on street corners — adding that if the Hojo Government failed to change its ways, further disasters including foreign invasions would follow.


Ryukoji / 竜口寺, photogravure etching, Peter Miller (1995)

The prophecies in Nichiren’s treatise were based on astrological conjunctions similar to those that happened to coincide with prior disasters. An earthquake ‘of unprecedented magnitude’, he writes, occurred in 1257 when Jupiter was near the fourth sign in the Chinese zodiac. Typhoons, famines, and epidemics raged through Japan during the next three years. He then ventured to predict that ‘these are omens indicating that this country of ours will be destroyed by a foreign nation.’

3. The Mongol Invasions. Descendants of Ghengis Khan had amassed an empire ranging from Korea to Hungary. Kublai Khan, a grandson, was busy subduing China’s Sung Dynasty. Nichiren may have put two and two together and figured Japan would be next on Kublai’s wish-list. Six years later, in 1266, Kublai Khan invited Japan to be a vassal state of his empire. His envoys were sent back with no response. The offer or threat was repeated in 1269 and 1271. Impatient of the lack of response, in 1274 Kublai and his Mongol warriors attacked two offshore islands, killing all the defenders, then advanced to Kyushu. Despite their initial success, a Yuan general was severely injured, and their inexperienced seafarers became concerned about an approaching storm, and withdrew with the intention of retreating. But as they did so, a typhoon destroyed many of their boats, the remainder returning across the storm-tossed ocean to Korea. Nearly half the invading force perished.

Kikuchi Yoosai, Mongol Invasion

The Mongols persisted, sending five envoys to Kamakura in 1275. Hojo Tokumine had them all beheaded, at the execution site with a view of Enoshima. Five more Yuan emissaries got only as far as Hakata (present-day Fukuoka) where they landed in 1279, before being dispatched in the same way. Kublai Khan, having finally defeated the Sung Dynasty, in 1280 began assembling a much larger force, using Chinese and Korean shipyards to build a large fleet. By May 1281 all was in readiness. Two fleets, one from China, the other from Korea, crossed the Sea of Japan, and after several naval battles approached Kyushu. There as a violent typhoon approached, they sought shelter in Imari Bay. The typhoon smashed their boats to splinters, leaving tens of thousands clinging to pieces of driftwood, to drown or be slaughtered by the Japanese defenders. Between one-third and one-half of the Korean and Chinese invaders did not return. Again the ‘divine wind’ worked its magic. The Mongols never invaded Japan again.

Hojo Tokimune did not celebrate Japan’s victory. Instead he dedicated Engakuji the following year, 1282, to the repose of all the tens of thousands who had lost their lives, with no distinction between invaders and defenders, Japanese and Mongols. Nichiren died that same year, and Hojo Tokumine followed his old adversary in death in 1284.

4. A shakuhachi concert. Some years ago I attended an outdoor shakuhachi concert. The shakuhachi is a bamboo flute with a warm mellow tone, with great variation of timbre depending on the force and direction breathed into it. Midway through one piece, a gust of wind scattered the pages of sheet music into the air. Gathering them up, the shakuhachi player, somewhat flustered, said ‘I guess the wind is angry’. As it happened, a former Defense Minister was in the audience. He observed ‘No, the wind is jealous’. What a perfectly gracious remark, praising the performance and setting the shakuhachi player at ease. In what other country, I wondered, would a Defense Minister be capable of such sensibility. But then I realized the role of the ‘Divine Wind’ in Japanese history must be famliar to someone charged with defense of the realm. The shakuhachi concert continued without further interruption.

Printed from: https://kamprint.com/views/winds/ .
© Peter Miller 2024.

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