Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Momiji - Autumn Leaves and their symbolism

This is the season of momiji or koyo - the brilliant autumn leaves of the maples.

It is one of the principal images of autumn in Japan - appearing in plays, poems and paintings. In fact now is the peak of the maple leaf viewing season in Kyoto - the popular sites are heaving with crowds of tourists engaged in momijigari - maple leaf hunting.

Momiji Uchi - The red leaves cut
Those interested in swordsmanship will probably be aware of its use in Miyamoto Musashi's Gorin no Sho - in the Water chapter is a section describing the Red Leaves Cut. As noted by Victor Harris in his translation, "Presumably Musashi is alluding here to falling, dying leaves." As the technique refers to knocking down the enemy's sword, knocking it out of his hands in fact, this seems very likely.

It seems that Musashi was not the only person to use this term to denote a technique. According to the respected researcher and historian Watatani Kiyoshi, it was used in the Kyo-hachi-ryu... a term that is generally thought to refer to the 8 principle schools taught in the Kyoto area during the Muromachi period, and probably including the Yoshioka school, which, as we know, Musashi and his father both had dealings with. In fact, Watatani identifies it as being specific to the Kyoto area - as Musashi spent some time in the city, this makes it quite likely that he adopted a term already in use.

This is fairly common practice - many schools share terms for similar and sometimes quite different techniques. Some of these clearly share a common origin, while in others, the connection is not so clear.
However, the common name suggests the possibility that the name itself shared a common referent, and possibly included an additional layer of symbolism.

Momiji Kasane - the art of layering

For us, the connotation of autumn leaves might very well be that they will fall from the trees - my image of autumn leaves strongly features piles of them lying on the ground. In Japan, I have the feeling that the primary image is of them being on the trees. The striking colours of their foliage are best seen before they fall, and artistic and poetic images consistently depict them in this way. Indeed, they are far more arresting, and the eye barely glances at the dried, fallen leaves on the ground while the bright reds, oranges and yellows are still on the trees.
Momiji-gasane... the colours are pretty close
to the photo at the top of the page
This was reflected in their use as a symbol for layering. A prime example of this is the multiple layers of kimono that were worn by women in the court. These had a variety of names, depending on the colour combinations, but several of them were referred to by the term momiji gasane.

This term is also used in Heki-ryu kyudo, where it refers to the te no uchi or grip of the left hand, which holds the bow. More specifically, it refers to the way the grip is formed, with the fingers layered on top of each other, moving independently to form the ideal grip (presumeably combining strength and pliability). Interestingly, this school also had its roots in Kyoto, so it is possible that it shares the meaning of the term with sword schools.
Forming the grip - momiji kasane - in Kyudo.
From the Il bersaglio di paglia blog (which is well-worth
checking out, if you have even the slightest interest in kyudo).

This suggests the possibility that the use of momiji in sword teachings may have an additional meaning, beyond that of knocking the sword down - it could refer to the way the sword is 'layered' on top of the opponent's weapon in the same way that the beauty of the autumn leaves is enhanced by the layers of different colours.

Then again, I may be grasping at straws, but even so, I was struck by the use of the same symbol in several different ryu.

No comments:

Post a Comment