Tuesday, 1 June 2010

White and red

Let me just quickly try to disentangle one of the threads I happen to have on my mind.

Recall the red-and-white contrast of the figures and paintings showing Yamauba as an affectionate mother together with Kintarô (which I discussed here). Here we see, I believe, a confluence in one and the same art work of two quite separate ways of associating beings with the wilderness or the supernatural.

For the sake of simplicity, let me say that such beings seem to arrange themselves in a ”red” series and a ”white” series.

I’ve already touched on the ”red” series. It consists of the animals and beings usually portrayed with round eyes: tengu, oni, Deva kings, Bodhidharuma, Kintarô, tanuki, octopuses, tigers, lions, monkeys, horses, cows, and so on. They usually come with the color red, or colors close to red such as brown or a golden yellow.

The ”white” series consists of usually white or pale beings who are depicted with slanted, narrow eyes: foxes (kitsune), yûrei (ghosts), Yuki-onna (the snow-woman), Yamauba (Mountain-hag), cats and elephants. The ”O-Shira-sama” worshipped in the Tôhoku region also seems to belong here. Tanuki too are sometimes portrayed with narrow, slanted “fox-like” eyes.

What could this seemingly long-standing association white-narrow and red-round mean?

The partition of beings or animals in either one or the other group doesn’t seem to depend on any desire to portray them realistically. Foxes for instance are usually not white.

In general, the reddish round-eyes beings are powerful, and are not necessarily evil or harmful. The round eyes probably mean simply that they exude power. We find similar round eyes on human beings associated with great power or effort such as monks or warriors in battle. In addition, many of the ”red” beings, such as Deva kings and Bodhidharma, have a clear affinity with Buddhism, and tanuki and tengu were believed to be able to transform themselves into Buddhist monks or hermits. Tengu are usually portrayed as dressed in monkish robe (as on the 19th century ink painting below) and there are also famous pictures in folk art of oni dressed as Buddhist priests (the so-called ôtsue below).

Tengu, 19th century ink painting

Oni (Ôtsu-e)

The oni picture has been interpreted variously as a satire of Buddhism or as expressing the Buddhist truth that salvation is extended to all living beings, including oni (or even the mystical union of liberation and fallenness, nirvana and samsara). However, it could also simply be a product of the long-standing association in popular mind of all the ”superhuman” or ”inhuman” beings inhabiting the sacred sites such as the mountains – including wandering monks and hermits, animals, oni, and tengu.

To find a common denominator among the ”white” animals and beings is harder. We can observe, however, that rather than exposing strength and power, they appear to hide it, holding it back, or focusing it inwards. Even if some of them are feared for their supernatural power, like the foxes, this power is a potential rather than something that is shown openly.

Could it be their ability to conceal their powers that make many of them so dangerous and feared? The fox is thus an expert in deception, in bewitching human beings or tricking them by adopting human form (see right). The snow-woman (yukionna) similarly uses her likeness to a beautiful woman to deceive and kill people. The yamauma too is by no means rendered wholly benevolent by being cast in the role of loving mother, since she of course retains her fearsome ogre powers which are simply disguised or pushed to the background. The ghost (yûrei) too is uncanny precisely because of its likeness to the human form. Although it doesn’t deceive, it inspires terror through its resemblance to the dead, who were once our victims but who have now come back to haunt us equipped with new, superhuman forces.

To some extent this holds for cats as well. Look at the picture by Kuniyoshi below. The cat is white, has narrow eyes and are on the whole strikingly fox-like. Being pictured as behaving like human beings, they bear an uncanny resemblance to the foxes on the picture above who have just transformed themselves into humans. Cats were certainly not regarded as supernatural beings, but perhaps they too were regarded as beings that hid their strength? At least I have a healthy respect for these cute, furry and small animals, since I’ve seen them turn into lethal killer machines at a moment’s notice.

Kuniyoshi, Neko no odori

The elephants are admittedly more problematic. Elephants always seem to have been portrayed as white and with narrow, slanted eyes (for an early example see the reproduction below of a scene from Senmen Hokekyô Sasshi, in the collection of things related to Shôtoku Taishi and Hôkôji in Shitennôji temple). One might argue that they too are usually portrayed as being at rest, holding back their strength, but perhaps that would be a bit far-fetched? 

Then there are pure anomalies like this (an Edo period painting of a "nurikabe", a monster said to produce walls blocking the road for wanderers at night):

Here's a print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, "Kasane no bôkon" (1847-52), which according to Japan Times was recently rediscovered in Tokyo. Look at the interesting combination of the huge red "Daruma-san" eye with a narrow one.

Kuniyoshi, Kasane no bôkon, 1847-52

I'm sure art critics have a lot of things to say about this very suggestive print. Let me just point out that I think that the red eye can be explained by the ghost's agitation. When a ghost ceases to hold back, giving full vent to her rage and resentment and pouring out her strength, the usual narrow eyes are no longer felt to be appropriate. Instead, some element of roundness (and red-ness) becomes necessary. Hence the "Daruma-san" eye. 

Yin and yang

How do I get on from here? Let me toss out a guess. Maybe the white-narrow and red-round things are related to yin and yang? I have hesitated to make this association until now since yin and yang are amorphous categories and I'm fully aware that the association may be somewhat facile. However, if – just for the sake of trying – we simplify very much and try to relate ”red” and ”white” to yin and yang, then we would get:

Red – life, power, activity, sun, male

White – death, passivity, moon, female

The red-round things would be like the sun, exuding strength. Remember that the sun is associated with the color red in Japan. The white-narrow things would be more like the moon – passive, cold and associated with darkness and night. We could also add that red stands for blood, the pulsation of blood, the erection, masculinity, and birth (recall that babies are called red in Japanese, as in the words akago, akanbô or aka-chan). White stands for the opposite phenomena: the draining away of blood, the waning of power, impotence, femininity and death.

Once we make the association to yin and yang, many pieces fall to place. It’s easy to interpret the beings in the ”red” series as yang-symbols. The tengu’s long phallus-nose and the tanuki’s comically over-dimensioned scrotum (see below) spring to mind. And why is Bodhidharma depicted with a prostitute? As Amino Yoshihiko points out the staff – saibô or saitenbô – used by Buddhist monks as a weapon was a symbol of yang. Children used to run around with a similar staff to hit the behind of young women, shouting ”Crow-crow-crow, this is the mountain god’s saitenbô” (”Kaa-kaa-kaa, yama no kami no saitenbô”). On a medieval scroll, the Ippen hijirie, there is a comical scene depicting a monk with such a staff walking down a street, a scared woman running away from him.

The foxes, by contrast, were believed to take the form of a woman. Many of the ”white” characters are female, such as the snow woman and Yamamba. We can also add that normal human women were also usually portrayed as white or pale. The snow woman is furthermore associated with the cold. Some ”white” characters, like ghosts, also have an obvious relation to death. So does the mysterious white animal which appears to be dead. Pilgrims were dressed in white and this was also the clothing of the dead.

Trousers and undergarments

If I say yin and yang, then I am already moving in the realm of a mysticism in which the question of unity, of taichi, and its symbolic representation are not far removed.

As an example of such a representation, let me mention the dress of miko (Shintô shrine maidens), which consists of white jacket (haori) and red trousers (hakama).

Kannagi miko
One often hears that red and white are auspicious colors in Japan, and that they are often used for special occasions such as weddings and births. Even today they are often seen in shrines. The auspicious aspect of the colors also explains their use in the Japanese flag. However, both red and white also connoted dangerous and often supernatural forces and carried strong connotations of things like blood and death, things deemed ”polluted” in ancient Japan. Only by mastering or ”purifying” such forces could any auspicious effect arise.

The ”dangers” symbolized by the miko dress can be glimpsed in Takeda Sachiko’s discussion of trouser-wearing in ancient Japan.  In Japan, to which trousers were imported from China, the custom of wearing trousers became established at the court in the 8th century. Trousers originated as attire for officials and court functionaries. Priestesses, shrine attendants and the shrine princess (saiô) of Ise all participated in official rites and hence wore red trousers.  Red trousers were also worn by court women and soon spread to prostitutes (yûjo) and female entertainers (such as the kuse maimai below). What was the meaning of red trousers? Takeda speculates that ”perhaps red symbolized the sacred power invested in the person of the tennô [emperor]” (Takeda 1999:58). The color red, she believes, was associated with sex. So was the sacred power of the emperor. ”Red trousers, which were worn against women’s flesh and surely had some association with their sexuality, could express the wearer’s position of privilege within the inner court, in particular, their proximity to the sacral and sexual power of the monarch” (ibid 59).

Shirabyôshi dancer

Takeda’s analysis is helpful in bringing out the ”yang” element of the color red. However, if I’m correct in my juxtaposition of white and red in two ”series” both signaling wild or superhuman power, then it follows that it is insufficient to focus merely on the ”red” element as Takeda does. The miko’s red trousers cannot be understood in isolation from the white robe, since they together signaled a unification of yin and yang in the divine powers she represented.

A good illustration of the association of the color red with the emperor is the imperial ceremonial coat, red and covered with daoist symbols, with the great dipper in the center.
Although the color white seems absent here, we can recall that the emperor - in his role as the "polestar", the symbolic center of cosmos - was believed to personify the unification of yin and yang (Ooms 2009).

A similar symbolic message may well have lingered on in the use of the colors red and white among prostitutes and other female entertainers, who – as Amino argues – were associated with holy powers in the early middle ages. In fact, some miko were prostitutes, especially the itinerant miko (arukimiko) who weren't affiliated to shrines and functioned as shamans. "Women shamans were associated with prostitution from the earliest days. Brothels developed around the shrines, and many of the inhabitants of the brothels were shamans" (Fairchild 1962: 103; cf. also 60, 79ff). It also seems clear that the wandering miko were frequently associated with sex in popular consciousness. For instance, the wandering miko of Shinshu province were said to use a form of erotic dolls in their rites. Fairchild quotes a popular story about a man peeking inside the secret box of miko who had stopped at a house for the night. "The miko left the house and one man opened the box and saw the dolls. They were clay dolls and were kissing each other, their bodies entwined about each other" (ibid 82).

The combination red-white can also be seen in other groups closely linked to the sacred, such as outcasts (hinin). For instance, the leader of the hinin of Kôfukuji temple wore a red robe and had a white staff (Amino 1993:121).

There is in fact an element held in common by miko and outcasts. Purification was the occupation of two groups in society who are usually considered to have been widely apart in social status: on the one hand the Shintô shrine officials conducting purification rites (oharae) and on the other the outcastes responsible for removing defilement in dead bodies (kiyome). While the close connection between Buddhist monks and outcasts is well documented, Shinto is usually portrayed as allergically averse to associating with the outcasts, almost panically sensitive about associating with ”defilement” – at least in the books I’ve read so far. However apart they may have been socially, there is nevertheless a clear symbolic affinity between the two groups, and color symbolism is one way in which this is expressed.

To bring out the connection between Shinto and outcasts, we can return to the itinerant miko who were also closely associated with death (conducting funeral services, carrying sculls in their boxes etc) and sometimes shunned in a manner reminiscent of the way outcasts were shunned. During the Edo period many miko came from families (tsukimono-suji) who were regarded as related to animal spirits capable of possessing humans (tsukimono). As the ethnographer Fairchild reports "the fox spirit families were not Eta families... but like the Eta were avoided even though they were often rich and prosperous" (Fairchild 1962:38). The ostracization of the tsukimono-suji testifies to the close link that existed, if not officially then at least in popular consciousness, between the outcasts and religious practitioners dealing with the sacred or supernatural.

The red-white combination can also be seen in the Kumano bikuni, nuns of Kumano, a mountainous region on the Kii peninsula which attracted many pilgrims and was much associated with supernatural forces. As Tokita (2008) writes, the sacred site of Kumano ”was one of the few Buddhist precincts which was female–friendly and welcoming to women. The Kumano bikuni, nuns affiliated with the Kumano religious complex, were active in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as both proselytisers of the Kumano faith and as fund-raisers, travelling throughout the country collecting donations for the Kumano shrines and temples”. In propagating the faith, the bikuni used pictures to show that salvation was attainable to all, whether rich or poor, pure or impure, man or woman. On one of these pictures (the Sankei mandala) below, we can see the bikuni in red robes and white capes next to a bridge.

Ninose bridge in Kumano. The Kumano bikuni are in red robes with white capes

Tokida also interestingly points out that these Kumano bikuni were ”a Buddhist transformation of the earlier itinerant shamanesses (aruki miko) of Shinto”. Furthermore, she sees them as ”remnants of the medieval itinerant religious practitioners, who were performers and entertainers, even prostitutes, and who continued as liminal figures operating on the margins of society”. Both the Kumano bikuni and the miko, then, had roots in the stratum of”holy” itinerants living in the interstices of settled society and were likely perceived to be close to the sacred or supernatural forces of nature, much like other ”non-agricultural” groups discussed by Amino.

Now, both yin and yang have an obvious sexual connotation. This may have been subdued in the case of hinin and shrine-affiliated miko (the case of bikuni is ambiguous, since the word was also used about travelling female entertainers and prostitutes), but comes right to the fore in the case of Dakini, the goddess worshipped in tantric forms of esoteric Buddhism, who is always depicted as dressed in white and red. She is also always riding on a white fox and was even believed to be a fox-spirit herself (cf Amino 1993:212ff).

Dakini, Edo period

Tantric Buddhism aspires to the unification of yin and yang forces through ritual reenactment of the sexual union. In Japan the worship of Dakini was central to the Tachikawa-ryû current in esoteric Buddhism, in which the sexual union was regarded as a means to achieve ”Buddhahood in this very body”.

Although Tachikawa-ryû was declared heretical and suppressed, the cult of Dakini as such was widespread. Sometimes it fused with Inari worship, the cult of the harvest god, and the cult of Dakini may have been the origin of the belief that foxes were the messengers or servants of Inari.

If the association I’ve made between red and yang, white and yin is correct, then the red-white outfit of Dakini could well be interpreted as a representation, in dress, of the old fertility couple – the dôsojin or sai no kami standing on guard outside the villages.

Dôsôjin, Gunma prefecture

In Seirei no ô, the religious scholar Nakazawa Shin'ichi, in a roundabout but suggestive discussion, actually links together the dôsojin with the couple Dakini and Heruka. And who, seeing the happy couple above, can refrain from thinking about the clay dolls in the miko's box, kissing each other with their arms entwined around each other?


Amino, Yoshihiko (1993) Igyô no ôken (The heteromorph monarchy), Tokyo: Heibonsha.

Fairchild, William P. (1962) ”Shamanism in Japan”, pp 1-122, Folklore Studies 21.

Nakazawa. Shin'ichi (2003) Seirei no ô, Tokyo: Kôdansha.

Ooms, Herman (2009) Imperial Politics and Symbolics in Ancient Japan: The Temmu Dynasty, 650-800, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Takeda, Sachiko (1999) “Trousers: Status and Gender in Ancient Dress Codes”, pp 53-66, in Hitomi Tonomura, Anne Walthall, and Wakita Haruko (eds) Women and Class in Japanese History, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Tokita, Alison (2008) “Performance and Text: Gender Identity and the Kumano Faith”, Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific 16 (March),


  1. I have always been awed and amazed with the ancient tradition of japan.. There are lots of people who are really fascinated with the ancient art of sword fighting. And to those who adore swords and the power behind them including the discipline and art behind it. fantasy swords

  2. Exceedingly interesting! Thank you. I'm a western fantasy artist and sometime poacher on Japanese territory, which I perpetually hope to understand better than I do at present! Nobody does ghosts like Japan, to my mind...


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