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Spiritual Significance Of Pine Trees In Japan

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When thinking of Japan, it is difficult to separate it from the beautiful imagery of cherry blossom trees. Cherry blossom trees have always held deep spiritual significance for the Japanese, representing renewal and the fleeting nature of beauty and life. However, this is not the only type of tree that is spiritually and culturally important to Japanese culture. According to Shinto belief, pine trees also have great power. The branches of pine trees are said to be used by kami (gods and goddesses) to come to earth and interact with the mortal realm. Noh theatre is intrinsically tied to the Shinto faith, and uses pine trees as a way to depict the bond between kami and man.

An integral part of the Shinto religion is its intrinsic ties to nature. In Shinto, everything has a spirit, and all spirits are considered equal, and all flow with the essence of kami. The basis of the Shinto belief is that kami is meant to worshipped and revered. However, if a spirit is not treated well, it can turn malevolent and attempt to spread evil. They are essentially demons, but whether or not a kami will be kind and peaceful, or evil and malevolent, is based on how it was treated while it was still alive.

Traditionally, Noh stages have painted murals of pine trees to reference and pay homage to the kami. The Noh pine is specifically said to represent the Yogo pine tree found at the Kasuga Shrine in Nara Prefecture. According to legend, there was an old man who danced beneath this tree. He was said to be the spirit of the tree, dancing to celebrate the relationship between man and spirit realm, where the kami reside. Also, Ka’nami, and the father of Zeami, were considered to have been attached, and this is why it is depicted in Noh theatre.

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The use of pine trees in Noh theatre also has much to do with the content of the play itself. In Japanese, pine trees are called “Matsu”, which means, “waiting for a god’s soul to descend from heaven.” (Omura, 2004) Many Noh plays are specifically based around kami that come to the mortal realm to interact with humans and then reveal their true identity by the end of the play. Takasago is one such play. In it, two lovers reveal themselves to be the spirits of a pair of a bifurcated pine tree. The tree was said to be planted by a kami specifically to bring other spirits together. In the story, the tree brings the two lovers together and they eventually marry and live a long and happy life. Nearing the end of their lives, they visit the tree again and pass away under its branches, becoming kami themselves. In this story, the Takasago pine brings people together and becomes a guardian to them. In Japanese folklore, pine trees symbolize endurance and longevity. Even when all the humans of Takasago have passed away, the pine tree will continue to persevere, unchanged by the fleeting nature of human life.. The spirit of the tree helps guide the spirits to the peace and joy in the afterlife. As stated earlier, it is a Shinto belief that everything has a spirit, and how it gets treated will determine whether or not the spirit will become evil or good. In the case of the Takasago tree, it is ultimately a good spirit because it brings couples long and happy marriages. This, in turn, creates more happy spirits.

The story was inspired by the real twin pine trees at the Takasago Shrine. They have been there since before the time the shrine was founded. Their nicknames are ‘Jo’, meaning ‘old man’ and ‘Uba,’ meaning “old woman. They are thought of as figures to be revered, especially if a couple wants to have a happy marriage. In Japan, Takasago figures are put on a special display at weddings. This is thought to be a good way “…to invoke a long and fruitful married life for the newlyweds.”(Greve, 2010). Marriage is considered incredibly important in Japanese culture, and having such a specific reference to a myth about a couple who became pine tree kami when they passed away points to the idea that pine trees are important by association.

In contrast to the happiness that pine trees of Takasago bring, there are trees in Japan that hold negative energy. To summarize Amanda Starling’s essay, “Trees in Japanese Mythology”, There is a forest near Mount Fuji called Aokigahara. This forest has become known for being a place of horror and anguish as many suicides and murders have occurred there. The forest is large and expansive, and people can easily become lost. The intensely negative atmosphere of the forest has absorbed this malevolence, and only seems to attract more suffering and sorrow. It is also thought that because of the horrific manner in which people have died in this forest, that is haunted by spirits who cannot rest because of their trauma. There was even a book written about this forest in 1960 by Seicho Matsumoto, titled The Black Sea of Trees.

Whether or not one believes in the folklore and mythology surrounding pine trees in Japan, there is no denying that there is a clearly a respect for them. In the case of Takasago, they are symbols of love, and happy marriages — and in the case of the Aokigahara forest, they are thought to bring misfortune and dismay. Whether depicted in religion, theatre, or in the home, they clearly carry a weight that is deeply tied into the history of Japan, the Shinto faith, and its relationship to nature and the energy that comes from all living things.

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