Appreciating the Moon in Japan, Land of the Rising Sun

Appreciating the Moon in Japan, Land of the Rising Sun

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A rabbit, moon, Tsukimi dango, autumn leaves, and more -symbols of Tsukimi.
Although Japan is the land of the rising sun, with its indigenous religion centering around the sun goddess, we cannot overlook the importance of the moon in Japan's culture.

This week kicked off an important annual period in Japanese tradition with the celebration of Tsukimi — moon viewing. The importance of the moon in Japan is apparent in its prevalence in customs and art forms. From rituals and ancient poems to songs and popular anime (Sailor Moon, anyone?), the moon is a key figure. But where did this love for the moon come from? And how does the portrayal of the moon in Japan’s mythology differ from that of other countries?

Sailor Moon -- a symbol of the importance of the moon in Japanese culture?
The first volume of the iconic manga Sailor Moon. Picture used here under fair use.

The First Moon-Viewing in Japan

The history of moon-viewing in Japan dates back to ancient times. Although Tsukimi itself originated in China, (read more about that tradition here!), similar practices appeared in Japan as early as the neolithic Jomon Period. People in the Jomon Period practiced animism, worshipping various spirits they believed existed in nature. This included animals, plants, mountains, and yes, even the moon. The practices of the Jomon Period (called 古神道/ko-shinto, or ancient Shinto) are what eventually evolved into Japan’s indigenous religion, Shinto, as we know it today. It makes sense to believe that this is where moon appreciation began, as well.

Appreciating the Moon in Japan & China

Moon-viewing grew in popularity during the Heian Period, after the introduction of Buddhism fused the customs and beliefs of both cultures. With no electricity, the land was pitch black after sunset. However, under the bright light of the full moon, Heian aristocrats celebrated with tea ceremonies and poetry. People burned incense to honor the kami, arranged flower decorations, and entertained guests with seasonal foods and sake.

In Buddhism, the full moon represents enlightenment. People in China worshipped and made offerings to the moon goddess, Chang’e. However, in Japan, people directed their prayers to the Harvest Moon itself, rather than to a specific god. It is rare to see mention of Japan’s moon god, Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto, even during Tsukimi. One could say that Japan’s Tsukimi is more of a distant appreciation of the moon rather than direct worship. Why would people exclude the moon god from a festival that honors the moon?

A rare image from antiquity portraying the Japanese moon god Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto.
A rare image from antiquity portraying the Japanese moon god Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto.

The Dark Side of the Moon

Tsukuyomi’s role (and even gender) has often been debated. One of the more popular speculations is that the god’s rare appearences are due to Japanese Shinto mythology, wherein the Kojiki portrays Tsukuyomi as a negative being. Legend paints Tsukuyomi as something of a “fallen angel” expelled from the heavens by the Sun Goddess herself. From a Western perspective, one might draw parallels between Tsukuyomi’s story and the Christian tale of Lucifer, the fallen angel cast out of Heaven for rebelling against God. What’s different between those stories, however, is that Tsukuyomi didn’t merely rebel against a god. He outright killed one.

The Moon in Japanese Shinto

The main figurehead of Shinto is Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess. Amaterasu was one of three offspring of the Shinto gods of creation (Izanagi and Izanami), along with Susanoo (god of the sea and storms), and Tsukuyomi.

The sun goddess Amaterasu famously emerging from her seclusion in a cave.

The name Tsukuyomi literally translates to “Moon Reading” (which makes sense considering the tradition of reading poetry under the moonlight). Tsukuyomi was also regarded as a god of etiquette. However, contrary to the peaceful imagery this description might invoke, Tsukuyomi went to extreme lengths to enforce his ideals, even so far as killing offenders. 

A fourth kami, Uke-Mochi (the goddess of food), lived on Earth and provided food through vomiting and defecating. When Tsukuyomi discovered this, however, he became so disgusted that he murdered her on the spot. News got back to Amaterasu rather quickly. She took action right away, declaring Tsukuyomi an evil being and banishing him from the heavens for eternity. 

This is believed to be why the moon and sun never meet. This is likely also the reason why people worship the moon itself separately from the moon god during Tsukimi.

(Incidentally, despite his lack of popularity as a god to worship, there are about 85 Tsukiyomi Shrines throughout Japan).

The Moon in Japanese Art

“Moonlight on the Yodo River.” Hokusai, 1833.

Aside from the dark imagery the legend of Tsukuyomi the moon may invoke, the moon itself has played an important role in all forms of Japanese art. From folktales to paintings, to architecture, to modern creations like pop music and anime, depictions of the moon abound!

The main character of Japan’s oldest extant folktale, the Tale of Princess Kaguya (or, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter), is herself a princess from the moon. (She’s also the subject of a highly regarded film from Studio Ghibli.)

Architects considered the moon’s position when building shrines and temples. The Katsura Imperial Villa, for example, has a moon-viewing platform from which one could view the moon at all angles, at any date and time, and Ginkakuji Temple had a stone garden called the Sea of Silver Sand that reflected the moon’s light.

The moon also appears in the death poem of Date Masamune, a famous samurai lord of the Warring States Period: 曇りなき 心の月を 先だてて 浮世の闇を 照してぞ行く(“Guided by the light of the moon in my heart, I set out on my path through the darkness of this fleeting world.”) 

The moon also was a common motif in Japan’s traditional art style, Ukiyo-e. It features in the lyrics to an innumerable number of songs. McDonald’s even developed a ‘Tsukimi Burger’ in honor of the moon-viewing festival!

Appreciating the Moon in the Land of the Rising Sun

Although Japan is the land of the rising sun, with its indigenous religion centering around the sun goddess, we cannot overlook the importance of the moon in Japan’s culture. The moon god himself may not be a part of celebrations, and people’s opinions on the moon’s influence may vary. But its significant role in Japanese tradition and as a source of natural inspiration is clear – and unlikely to change anytime soon.

The moon over the five-storied pagoda of Toji Temple. Kyoto.

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Krys Suzuki

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native speaker currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher, Krys now works full time as a J-to-E translator, writer, and artist, with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture. JLPT Level N1. Shares info about Japanese language, culture, and the JLPT on Twitter (SunDogGen).

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