In Japan, an intriguing phenomenon known as “skeleton culture” has gained immense popularity. While skulls have traditionally been associated with eerie horror, they have taken on a different meaning in Japanese society. From idol stars to young children, the fascination with skulls and skeletons has permeated various aspects of Japanese culture.
Zen and the Role of the Skull
Skull culture in Japan dates back to ancient times. The renowned Zen master Ikkyu, during Japan’s Muromachi period, authored a book called “Kana Dharma.” This text, presented in an understandable manner, featured vivid illustrations depicting different scenes of human life, all centered around skeletons. Accompanied by Buddhist verses, it aimed to remind people of the impermanence of the world. Through these illustrations, Ikkyu underscored the insignificance of material differences, such as the contrast between mandarin ducks in a luxurious setting and bones laid to rest on a humble ridge of soil.
During the Edo period, another prominent Japanese Zen master named Ryokan delved into the topic of death and skeletons in his poems. Titled “The Nine Phases,” his collection of 302 Chinese poems describes the various stages a person goes through after death. Ryokan’s exploration of the subject goes beyond mere mortal contemplation of the transient world. Instead, he uses skeletons as a means of self-analysis, leading to a conscious and introspective examination of oneself.
Tachikawa Ryu and the Worship of Skulls
During the Kamakura period, the Tachikawa Ryu, a hybrid practice combining Shingon Buddhism and Onmyodo, embraced the ritualistic worship of skulls. In this tradition, different grades of skeletons were recognized, with those belonging to wise men, practitioners, kings, and even parents considered top-tier. The primary purpose of the Tachikawa Skull Ritual was to “return the soul” using skeletons. This involved coating the skull with lacquer, reconstructing the teeth, and smearing it with water before drawing the mandala. The ritual also included lighting incense and reciting mantras at specific hours of the night. If these ceremonial activities were carried out consistently for seven years, it was believed that the skull would begin to speak in the eighth year. The “return of the soul” ceremony served as a transformative and soul-invoking rite, allowing the departed soul to be called back and enabling communication through the combined presence of the remaining soul and the skeleton.
Legends and Customs Surrounding Skeletons
The Japanese book “Supplement to The Hundred Demons from the Present and the Past” contains numerous legends and customs associated with skeletons. According to one belief, if a person encounters a skeleton staring at them, they should not avert their gaze, as doing so would result in blindness. Instead, they are encouraged to bravely meet the gaze of the skeleton. After some time, the skeleton will vanish. Another legend, documented in the book “Miraculous Stories from the Japanese Buddhist Tradition,” recounts the tale of a skeleton revealing the circumstances of its death and subsequently helping to apprehend the murderer.
In Japan’s skeleton culture, the significance of skeletons transcends their association with fear and horror. They have become tools for evocation and a representation of the dwelling place for souls. Historical accounts depict Oda Nobunaga, a prominent figure in Japanese history, using the skulls of his adversaries, such as Nagamasa, as cups to symbolize his dominion over their souls. Furthermore, skeletons, as enduring symbols of life’s transience, convey a powerful message about respecting life and reflecting on mortality.
At Skulls Galaxy, we appreciate the diverse cultural practices that fascinate people worldwide. Visit our website to explore unique and exciting gifts that celebrate the beauty of different cultures.