The name “Heian-kyou” (平安京,  meaning “tranquility and peace capital”) was supposedly of popular origin, having the Emperor changed just the selected kanji; nevertheless most Japanese people in the following centuries didn’t  use that name and rather called it simly “Miyako” (京 or 都), which means “capital”, or “Kyou”, which is another reading of 京.  京 or 都, or sometimes 京師 were used in hstorical documents. “Kyoto” (京都) was eventually a combination of the two characters for “capital”, thereof the modern name.

There were several other Chinese-derived names used of the city. Among the most common were “Rakuyou”, abbreviated as “Raku”, a reading of the characters for Loyang, the name of the Eastern Capital of theT’ang dynasty as paired with the Western Capital at Ch’ang-an. Since the model for Heian was neither Loyang nor Ch’ang-an (as it has been erroneously argued), but
on the earlier Japanese capital at Fujiwara (which was inspired to Chien-k’ang), the use of the name might be surprising. But Japan had also known a period of dual capitals – this happened when in 809 Emperor Heizei after abdicating moved to Nara (aka Heizei-kyou) and started being known as “the Emperor of Nara”; although that period was over with the establishment of the capital at Nagaoka, the tradition was revived in terminology under the reign of Emperor Saga, when the literati started referring to the western half of the city (Ukyo) as Chdan (i.e., Ch’ang-an) and the eastern half as Rakuyo (Lo-yang). As the western half withered and failed and the eastern half became the heart of the capital, Rakuyo began to function as a name for the whole.


Golden Week

May 12, 2011

I realize that I’ve missed the chance to talk on time about the Golden Week (April 29th – May 5th). So – I’ll write on the topic *now*.

Golden Week (ゴールデンウィーク), also known as Ōgon shūkan (黄金週間, “Golden Week”) or Ōgata renkyū (大型連休, “Large consecutive holiday”) is a collection of four national holidays within seven days and one of the busiest Japan’s holiday seasons. Not all the days are officially holidays, so many Japanese people take paid time off on the intervening work days to fully enjoy this time; anyway, some companies also close down completely.

After the promulgation of the National Holiday Laws in July 1948, the week spanning from the end of April to early May, in which so many of them were concentrated, became the luckiest time for leisure-based industries. After the film Jiyuu Gakkou, in 1951, recorded higher ticket sales during this week than any other time in the year, the director of Daiei Films named it as “Golden Week”, based on the Japanese radio lingo “golden time,” which denotes the period with the highest listener ratings.

The holidays included in this period are:

  • April 29: Showa-no-hi (Showa Day)
  • May 3 : Kenpou-kinen-bi (Constitution Memorial Day)
  • May 4 : Midori-no-hi (Greenery Day)
  • May 5 : Kodomo-no-hi (Children’s Day)

April 29th was originally the Emperor’s birthday. Then, after Emperor Showa’s death in 1989, the holiday was renamed “Greeneray Day”, which lasted until 2007, when it was changed again, into a memorial day of the late Emperor.


May 1, 2011

Yesterday, at the Far East Film Festival (Udine), I’ve seen “Villain” (悪人) by Lee Sang-il, based on the homonymous novel by Yoshida Shuichi, in which a girl falls in love with a murderer and runs away with him.

Now I am not talking about the film, but about another “crazy thing people do for love”, that is to say shinjuu or double suicide.

In common parlance, the world shinjuu  (心中) is used to refer to any group suicide of persons bound by love, typically lovers, but also parents and children and whole families.

Double suicide by lovers is a popular topic in Japanese theatre, which has a whole repertory of plays (the oldest was probably “The Soga Successors” in 1683) in which two people, being their ninjou (人情, human feelings) are at odds with giri (義理, social obbligation), decide to commit suicide together, in order to meet again in afterlife. The tragic act is usually preceded by a michiyuki (道行), a small journey in which the two people  evoke their happier moments and spend their last time together.

To understand this custom, we have to remember how Japanese view on suicide is far different from the western one, valuing honour of life over its lenght. This is influenced by Buddhism, which, unlike Christianity, doesn’t consider suicide as sinful. Suicide is even seen as an honourable or expected act, as in the cases of seppuku or kamikaze; actually, talking about suicide in Japanese culture might take forever, so going back to the specific issue of suicide for love, it is worth mentioning how it was influenced also by the belief, spread in Pure Land Buddhism, that the bond between husband and wife is continued into the next world (while the one with kids was supposed to last only in this world).

However, double suicide of lover was another matter, since it suggested a kind of freedom of love, which was considered anti-social in feudal Japan, so it was seen as an act of rebellion. The death of a courtesan was also a huge

Ohatsu and Tokubei, characters of "The Love Suicides at Sonezaki".

economical loss for her owner. Nevertheless, such a practice was common among star crossed lovers, that were also inspired by fictional examples:  the performance of “The Love Suicides at Sonezaki” by Chikamatsu (1703), based on a real story, was followed by so many cases of young people committing shinjuu, that government had to ban the performances of double suicide plays altogether in 1723.

Literally, the word “shinjuu” does not mean “suicide” but “inside the hearth” and originally meant simply any way to prove faithful love between a courtesan and her lover. It could have been a special letter of a vow or a few hairs, or a tattoo on the arm, or even to cut off a little finger. This custom became so fashionable that special boxes for keeping those items were on sale – and, as a consequence, those means of proof came to be undervalued, so that suicide was regarded to be the only trustworthy way to prove one’s true love.