Monday, June 09, 2008

Oguri Hangan

Oguri Hangan is an old tale from Japan's pantheon of literary classics. As the Greeks and Romans have their gods of war, Ares and Mars, Oguri Hangan is a samurai (young Lord of Oguri Castle) of the Middle Ages (15th century) who became known as the legendary god of war. The story unfolds in a time when Buddhism had changed Japan to a more hierarchical and misogynist society than ever before since its introduction in the seventh century BCE. The indiginous religion of Japan was Shinto which even without a developed theological system had maintained a sex-positive ideology, particularly with regard to the role of sex in procreation between a man and a woman, ideally in monogamy. With Buddhism, the role of sex changed from procreation as a social good to a method by which a man can attain spiritual enlightenment based on sexual skills, and skills meant learning not to desire the female. Women were a hindrance to spiritual advancement so where they were partners to men before, they were now seen as lower rank, something to be denied. Unlike Shinto, Buddhism did not validate women as mothers. Women were made aware of Five Hindrances or Fivefold Obstruction (itsutsu no sawari) and why they were imperfect. The life of a woman came to depend on the gratuitous kindness of a man, and so to the man she called lord she submitted her will and her fate. It was the beginning of dominance-submission as the "normal" Japanese man-woman relationship dynamic.

Oguri Hangan is in essence a tale with moral teachings behind it, those morals being Buddhist and Confucian. It's a classic religious tale, and when it's performed as theatre complete with music, it's still a sermon, and far from a fairytale when you see through the rhetoric. Oguri was a samurai, son of a provincial lord named Mitsushige, whose aristocratic position didn't make his temperament that of a gentleman. In fact, his violent temperament got him exiled by his father from Kyoto to Hitachinokuni where he meets Princess Terute. More drama unfolds, and somewhere down the line he ends up dead. Long story short, he's brought back to life by Princess Terute who carries him (in a cart where he was placed by a Buddhist monk) and revives him with water from the Hot Springs of Kumano, a spiritual city (and the bath was of religious importance to the Japanese since the days of yore, for purification, especially for women who menstruate and could defile (spread cooties) on the most holy places if women were to be allowed to go near them--only now, the teaching of karma could deftly explain why).

The experts on the story will tell you what their view of the morals are but my take is that Princess Terute goes against her family's wishes (granted, her father wanted her dead for disobeying him--no angel himself) to save this sorry guy's life, and supposedly, Oguri settles down with her and they live happily ever after (till he dies in battle). I think most people know today that violence is a cycle that's seldom broken, and such a rough character wasn't the best type for any woman to marry. Yet, Terutehime loves the bad boy, marries him and she's exalted as the goddess of marriage, the Japanese version of...let's see, who's the symbol of complete purity in Western culture that we know of? How about Mary? This is why I detest this story--it's worse than Cinderella because it celebrates a violent man as a hero and makes a woman the symbol of perfection for him to behave for. It doesn't work like this in reality. Such a way of thinking about a woman makes him faultless through her angelic perfection, which of course is a misogynistic lie because when she shows her not-so-pure and idealistic true human self, or god forbid he should desire this snake charmer, he's bound to blame her (for not doing her job of being his ideal) and think of her as its (that's right--I said "ITS" because she's being objectified as a madonna-whore) polar opposite--a demon. There was no word for projection back then, was there? Nice way to deal with guilt. Too bad she's already stuck in marriage with this celebrated warrior, a symbol of "ethical violence". There's no telling how a demon deserves to be treated according to a man like this.

It's a story of male dominance and female submission, pure and simple, and Japanese people get to hear stories like this over and over by way of TV, film and jidaigeki (period drama, or as I see it, violent soap opera) till we internalize the morals as truth that somehow, women are only feminine if we forever submit everything, especially ourselves--and apparently our own safety by believing this crap.

Sometimes, I feel like dropping my last name. Even more so, sometimes I want to scream at westeners who think Christianity or any other religion is more misogynistic than Buddhism, when I've lived on this planet as a Japanese woman long enough to know otherwise.

The Shadow of the Dalai Lama – Part I – 1. Buddhism and misogyny – an historical overview by Victor & Victoria Trimondi

The Power of Denial: Buddhism, Purity, and Gender by Bernard Faure

Divinely Ordained? Religious Creation Myths and the Relation of Militarism to Sexism
Joan Chittister, O.S.B.