Posted in Esotericism, Literature
June 22, 2020

The Cultural Turn To The Material – Where The Crawdads Sing, Witches, And Japan, Part 2 (Marianne Kimura)

The following is the second of a two-part series. The first can be found here.

Given the intense focus on the material and the deep and scientific knowledge of the material of the author in Where the Crawdads Sing, it is interesting to ask if there is a connection between witchcraft and Kya, the main character in the novel.

In other words, is Kya a witch of some sort? She collects shells, feathers, stones and bones in a way that seems to be similar to the witches making altars today. She is deeply and spiritually connected to them. In addition, she stays away from Christianity and other patriarchal Abrahamic religions, which stress the separation of people and “nature”, and where heaven is a remote space accessed through an official mediary such as a priest, or other clerical figure, who has power within the structure of the religious institution. Nowhere in the novel does Delia Owens mention a Christian church or send Kya to visit one.

Instead, like so many witches, Kya accesses her spiritual side alone and independently in material nature while gazing at the moon and the stars, looking at fireflies or swimming in the ocean. By focusing on and drawing shells, feathers, stones, and other natural items, she brings both love and money to her side, since Tate, before becoming her lover, helps her publish her drawings of shells, from which she earns a small income.

Another trend which is also involved in new materialism and witchcraft is the popularity of Japan as a tourist destination. For example, Google recently released its list of places in 2019 that Americans searched with “trip to ―”.

While “trip to Maldives” was ranked first on the list, “trip to Japan” placed second: “the list shows what’s trending — not necessarily what’s most popular — so don’t be surprised if your favorite Caribbean island or mouse-themed amusement park didn’t make the list. Instead, Google taps into the changes in the travel zeitgeist, revealing the places where Americans went — or simply aspired to go — more in 2019 than previous years.” Japan has been experiencing a tourism boom (and some cities, such as Kyoto have been suffering from ‘overtourism’, along with some other famous and old cities in the world such as Venice, Paris and Barcelona).

The number one tourist destination within Japan for several years in a row (according to TripAdvisor[2]) is Inari Fushimi Taisha, the Grand Fushimi Shrine, in Kyoto. It is a hugely popular place that has topped the TripAdvisor ranking for five consecutive years.

The foremost attraction at this shrine is the Senbon Torii, a path with countless torii gates creating a bright vermillion tunnel that contrasts beautifully with the green of the surrounding trees. It is crowded during the day, so the best time to see it at leisure is early in the morning when you can thoroughly enjoy the fresh morning air and sacred atmosphere and take photographs without the crowds.

Of the other 30 top tourist attractions in Japan listed on TripAdvisor, almost all are either Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples or castles. All of these, along with the thousands of other Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples here in Japan have one thing in common: the materials they are made of are predominantly wood, usually Japanese cypress, or hinoki, Japanese cedar, or sugi, and thatch from the bark of nutmeg-yew, or kaya.

Builders use traditional and ancient construction techniques avoiding the use of nails and even sometimes, as in the case of Shikinensengu (the 20-year re-construction ceremony used by some Shinto shrines), avoiding the use of fossil fuel powered transport and any modern power tools, such as even a chain saw, during the construction process.

There is a devotion to, a zeal and a passion for materials which cannot be separated from Japanese culture and Japanese religion.  Anyone living in or visiting Japan will notice the importance of stone in gardens, the way food is presented so that contrasts in textures (materials) are emphasized: a red leaf on top of a salted grilled fish, a chewy mochi rice cake with soft red bean paste inside, cloudy miso soup with a white shining slice of daikon. Obi (the belt of the kimono) should clash sharply with the pattern, color, and texture of the kimono in order to set off both.

Materials escape direct notice: tourists won’t say “we came here to Japan because of the materials” because materials are something that people don’t comment on; they comment on the “culture”, the “cuisine” (wa-shoku is the term for Japanese cuisine), the “traditions”, the “clothes”, the “gardens”, and so forth, but one thing that makes the culture here in Japan so distinctive is the attention paid to materials (in Shinto, Buddhism, traditional wa-shoku, kimono, etc.), from top to bottom, from start to finish, deep attention is often paid, and this is something that may not always be the case in other countries, where expedient, cheap or serviceable synthetic substitions are standard.

Incidentally, Japan has Christian churches (about 1% of the population is Christian) and these churches are just built using expedient, inexpensive, common types of materials (plastic, resins, metals, synthetics, glues, concrete, etc.) that the ordinary construction industry uses in linkages with global material markets in its capacity to build and design ordinary homes and offices and other standard buildings. The god who is represented in this religion, is, needless to say it, not materially present in the materials, so the materials are irrelevant and any plastic waste or environmental issue is considered irrelevant as well.

Shinto (Shin+to=神道, the way of the gods) is considered totally apart from the global markets and its purist approach to materials, shared also by Buddhism here and the traditional craft industries of many types, stresses natural materials (silk, wood, rice straw, ceramic, mud, reeds, etc.) and old techniques, where substitution of cheaper materials is considered a violation threatening the craft.

The importance placed on materials is intrinsic (especially in Shinto but also in related crafts) since Shinto developed as a religion of nature spirits in forest groves, and spirits are considered to inhabit trees, rocks, springs, mountains and other natural features. The Shinto religion is strongly related to nature, and many nature elements, such as rocks or trees, are considered places where kami, the Shinto gods, are dwelling.

These places are called yorishiro, and they are visibly marked with shimenawa rice straw ropes, which besides indicating a sacred place are also protecting them against evil spirits. Photographed here is one such yorishiro, a sacred tree (shinboku) of the Wakamiya Inari Shrine in Nagasaki.

“Spirits” or “gods” residing inside materials, residing in these trees, stones, springs, even mirrors, dolls, sewing needles (in Shinto, tools can also be inhabited by spirits, and theoretically, any materials can be inhabited by spirits), and so on certainly resonates or chimes with the “dynamic agency” in the academic world of “new materialism”.

Materials have a powerful ability to move us, to change us, to cause history to be made, to put an end to us or to give rise to us. Why should we not recognize and acknowledge their dynamic agency? Or why, indeed, can we not worship these spirits inhabited in these materials? Bowing before the spirits of these elements, people put themselves into a mutual and respectful relationship with nature and materials, mirroring or approaching (in a spiritual way) somewhat the “enmeshment” or “entanglement” of humans in the academic “new materialism”

Shinto is said to have yayorozu no kami, which is roughly or vaguely “8 million gods”, (it is a vague number meaning “uncountably many”), including, of course, many goddesses (including Amaterasu, the sun goddess). Therefore Shinto fits in not only with “new materialism” but also with witchcraft. Witchcraft, the spiritual side of the material, fits easily into its practices, though the term “witchcraft” is not used, obviously. Shinto also has seemed to avoid the “patriarchal” label which has alienated witches from the Abrahamic religions.

As an example of one sort of magical “witchcraft” possible to accomplish at Shinto shrines, I’ll describe the good luck charm or o-mamori. The word mamori (守り) means protection, with omamori being the sonkeigo (honorific) form of the word, “to protect”. Originally made from paper or wood, modern amulets are small items usually kept inside a brocade bag and may contain a prayer, religious inscription of invocation. Omamori are available at both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples with few exceptions and are available for sale, regardless of one’s religious affiliation.

Omamori are then made sacred through the use of ritual, and are said to contain busshin (spiritual offshoots) in a Shinto context or kesshin (manifestations) in a Buddhist context. While omamori are intended for temple tourists’ personal use, they are mainly viewed as a donation to the temple or shrine the person is visiting. Visitors often give omamori as a gift to another person as a physical form of well-wishing.

The amulet covering is usually made of brocaded silk and encloses papers or pieces of wood with prayers written on them which are supposed to bring good luck to the bearer on particular occasions, tasks, or ordeals. Omamori are also used to ward off bad luck and are often spotted on bags, hung on cellphone straps, in cars, etc.

Omamori have changed over the years from being made mostly of paper and/or wood to being made out of a wide variety of materials (i.e. bumper decals, bicycle reflectors, credit cards, etc.).] Modern commercialism has also taken over a small part of the creations of omamori. Usually this happens when more popular shrines and temples cannot keep up with the high demand for certain charms. They then turn to factories to manufacture the omamori. However, priests have been known to complain about the quality and authenticity of the products made by factories.[4]

Different omamori are used for different purposes, for example:

Omamori may provide general blessings and protection, or may have a specific focus such as:

  • kōtsū-anzentraffic safety—protection for drivers and travelers of all sorts
  • yaku-yoke: avoidance of evil
  • kaiun: open luck, better fortune
  • gakugyō-jōju: education and passing examinations—for students and scholars
  • shōbai-hanjō: prosperity in business—success in business and matters of money
  • en-musubi: acquisition of a mate and marriage—available for singles and couples to ensure love and marriage
  • anzan: protection for pregnant women for a healthy pregnancy and easy delivery
  • kanai-anzen: safety (well-being) of one’s family, peace and prosperity in the household

Customarily, omamori are not opened in order to avoid losing their protective benefits. They’re carried on one’s person, or tied to something like a backpack or a purse. It is not necessary, but amulets are customarily replaced once a year to ward off bad luck from the previous year. Old amulets are usually returned to the same shrine or temple they were purchased at so they can be disposed of properly.

Amulets are commonly returned on or slightly after New Year’s. This way the shrine/temple visitor has a fresh start for the New Year with a new omamori. Old omamori traditionally should not be disposed of, but burned, as a sign of respect to the deity that assisted the person throughout the year.

Once again, as with a spell cast by a witch, the purchase of an omamori may influence the material brain of the person who owns the omamori, preparing this person mentally for dating and marriage (in the case of an en-musubi omamori), or it may actually influence the gods who then possibly arrange romantic dates and marriage for the omamori holder.

Disparate trends, such as the boom in travel to Japan, a bestselling novel by a scientist, or the rise in the number of witches, as well as the interest in artisanal or handmade tools, clothes and food are thus all very likely related to renewed interest in materials and the desire to be spiritually and philosophically closer to them.

In the background is climate change and other environmental problems (all material related) and also the fact that the International Energy Agency has admitted that conventional crude production peaked in 2008. Crude oil is used in many synthetic substitutes for natural materials, so changes in its supplies and price reflecting scarcity would provide market signals to revert to natural materials.

Some materials promote the circulation of values that are more durable than those values which are associated with current markets. The sun is clearly a material that promotes the circulation of values that are more durable than those seen in current markets. Even after current markets, based on oil, coal, concrete, economic growth, digital currency, etc., evolve away from fossil fuels (this could take decades or centuries), the sun will still be shining and (we hope) that trees will still be growing.

Thus natural materials, stones, wood, shells, promote the circulation of values more durable than those values which are associated with current markets. The new interest in natural materials and in “ambassadors from the land of natural materials”, such as Delia Owens, reflects this idea.

Therefore, this trend to get closer to materials is not merely a market/economic phenomenon. The popularity of Where the Crawdads Sing symbolizes the desire of people to find more harmony in their material and natural world, as Tate finds with Kya. Japan is known as “the land of wa(和)”, where wa means harmony. And witches are looking for ways to improve their lives using spiritual methods which will empower them and also, at least in part, bring them into harmony with the material world, whose aspects are changing quickly as oil becomes scarcer and climate change brings uncertainty.

The cultural turn to the material has started and if you understand it, you will see it everywhere.

Marianne Kimura is a faculty member in English at Kyoto Women’s University in Japan.  She writes Shakesepare-related fiction under the pen name Gemma Nishiyama and has a special interest in supernatural characters in her writing, particularly witches.  She is the author under that pen name of The Hamlet Paradigm

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