The Significance of the Moon in Japanese Culture

Introduction

Ask any of my friends — they’re at the point where they’re sick of hearing me talk about the moon. I’m obsessed with it, so imagine my excitement when I found out that the moon has quite the significance in Japanese culture. 

And when I say significant, I mean significant. They have a whole festival just for moon viewing — which I’ll talk about more at a later part. 

Along with that, we’ll take a look at the various representations the moon has, as well as the rare and beautiful blood moon — quite an untapped topic when talking about the moon and Japan. So stick around to fill yourself with all of these exciting info and more!

The Moon in Japanese Culture

Japan is famously called “The Land of the Rising Sun”, but this island nation has a long association with the moon, it becoming an important part of their culture and beliefs. Religion in Japan is a mixture of traditional Shinto as well as Zen Buddhism — both having a strong appreciation for the beauty of earthly creations. Shinto centers on the spirit of nature while Zen Buddhism concentrates on selflessness and enlightenment.

The Japanese mood god is called Tsukuyomi in Shinto and the sun goddess is Amaterasu. The moon god’s sister takes the stage most of the time, but at night, Tsukuyomi embodies all the positive things of the dark sky — spirituality, dreams and energy balance. In Zen Buddhism, the moon symbolises enlightenment.

Regardless of which religion one is in, the Japanese people collectively look up to the moon as a positive force in their beliefs. 

Japanese Moon Festival

The moon is so greatly respected that there is even a holiday in Japan for moon-viewing: Tsukimi (月見). This traditional ceremony takes place in autumn to honor the autumn moon, also known as the harvest moon (名月, meigetsu), expressing gratitude and pray for a successful seasonal harvest.

There isn’t a fixed date each year — it greatly depends on the lunar calendar. It falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, so it’s usually between mid-September and the beginning of October.

Tsukimi goes way back to the Nara period of 710AD to 794AD. It originally was just a basic moon-viewing party for the upper class, the elite, who have boat gatherings and listen to music under the stars and the moon’s reflection. It caught on in the 1600s when even the commoners celebrate it — maybe not on boats as such.

How is it celebrated?

Nowadays, the practice and customs of Tsukimi are practiced even a few days leading up to the full moon instead of just on the day itself — regardless of whether or not the moon is visible. Some Japanese people will burn incense, visit shrines and offer the food of their harvest to the Shinto gods.

Decorations are somewhat huge when it comes to Tsukimi. You’ll often see susuki (ススキ, pampas grass) — since it’s the tallest in the autumn season — and other autumn flowers placed at home or around the area for the moon-viewing party. Of course, they’re arranged in the traditional Japanese flower arrangement, ikebana (生け花). Suzuki is used in a bunch of five to ten plumes to resemble rice plants, and believed to prevent any evil from entering the area. Arranging them on the roof is offering it to the moon god.

If you see stacked dango (団子) as decorations, that’s pretty normal. It’s chosen as offerings as it represents the beauty of the moon — round and pure white. These white dumplings made of rice are often presented in 15 to represent the fifteenth of the month, or sometimes 12 to represent the number of months in the year. 

 

Don’t worry, you can also eat these dango. Actually, eating them is part of the customs fo the festival — believed to bring happiness and good health. Unlike the other times of the year, dango during this festival aren’t skewered or seasoned; only plain, and they’re known as the tsukimi dango (月見団子).

“Rabbit In The Moon”

Have you ever heard of the “Rabbit In the Moon”? I bet you’ve heard of the “Man on the Moon” — but the Japanese have their own beliefs. See the pattern on the moon? The Japanese people believe that the moon’s craters resemble an image of a rabbit pounding mochi (もち, rice cake) with a mallet. 

See, there’s a backstory to that. In Japanese folklore, a rabbit didn’t get its ticket to the moon by hitchhiking on Apollo 11, but rather he was brought to the moon by a mythical man. It’s all because this special rabbit was willing to throw himself into a fire and roast himself alive when the moon man, disguised as a beggar, asked the animals for food. As a reward, the rabbit got a one-way ticket to the moon!

The Rare Blood Moon

If you look up tales about the moon in Japanese culture, you’re probably going to get Sailor Moon-related articles as well as everything else I’ve mentioned above. But what you won’t usually get is the tea on the rare blood moon. Our world is full of magical happenings waiting to be discovered — the blood moon that graces us with its appearance once ever so often is definitely one of them.

In our day and age of modern technology and science, we’re just a click of a button away from feeding our curiosity about the world, but the people in the olden days weren’t as lucky. If we want to know why Earth’s natural satellite turns red every few years or so, we just go on the Internet. Imagine what the ancient people were thinking when the only natural light of the night sky turned red all of a sudden? If it were me, I bet I would freak out! So rest assured some of them did.

So of course, since the Japanese have been around for so long, they have their own superstitions and mythology about this beautiful — at the time, scary — crimson light. 

Why does the moon turn red?

Our moon as we know it is either white or yellow — sometimes orange. We all want to know why it turns red. Well, a blood moon is only possible during a full moon — when the moon is on the other side of Earth, making our lovely planet in between the sun and moon. Another factor that is required for a blood moon to happen is that it also has to be during a lunar eclipse.

See, a full moon happens every lunar month, but a lunar eclipse happens less often; about two to four times a year. The moon doesn’t orbit the Earth in the same position each time — it’s tilted following how the Earth is as it orbits around the sun. The blood moon doesn’t always appear every lunar eclipse, because there are three types of lunar eclipse: total lunar eclipse, partial lunar eclipse and penumbral lunar eclipse. Each of them refers to the different ways the moon passes through the Earth’s shadow. 

The total lunar eclipse is when the moon is fully covered by the Earth’s shadow — but this total block doesn’t hide the moon, but it causes the moon to take on the reflection of the Earth’s light (this is also when the blood moon can possibly happen). The partial lunar eclipse is when the sun, moon and Earth aren’t that aligned, so the moon would be partially blocked, resulting in the moon looking like it’s been bitten off. The penumbral lunar eclipse can’t be seen as much, because it’s when the moon goes out of the Earth’s main shadow area — it’ll be lightly shaded, but nothing so visible to the naked eye.

When the Earth, sun and moon are in perfect alignment (the total lunar eclipse), the Earth casts a shadow onto the moon, partially or fully blocking the sun’s light. The moon gets its light from the Earth’s reflection through the planet’s atmosphere. Our beautiful planet gives out blue and red light the strongest since it’s the least altered during the filtration process. That’s when you’ll be lucky enough to witness the red moon.

Sometimes you won’t get a full-on red colour — depending on the dust, pollution and clouds in the atmosphere, it can come off orange. The more particles there are, the darker the colour red would be. And the same for the opposite — the fewer particles there are, the lighter the colour is.

Myths on the blood moon

There have been tons of mythology of the blood moon throughout history and in various cultures, and of course, the Japanese have their own. Usually, it’s linked to something bad — I mean, it is lit up in blood red…who wouldn’t think it’s the sign of evil?

In Japan, there isn’t one myth, because in the ancient days, Japan wasn’t just one single country but consisted of multiple civilisations that could’ve been considered their own individual countries. 

At the end of the Heian period and the beginning of the Mamkura period, the Japanese people then considered the blood moon as a sign that something bad would happen. Historical names such as Kujo Kanemi and Minamoto no Yoritomo have written about the blood moon. Kujo did a specific type of Buddhist practice to prevent bad occurrences during a blood moon; the first shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate stayed inside to avoid the blood moon lunar eclipse. There was also a famous poet during the Heian period, Saigyo, who mentioned in one of his poems about the lunar eclipse when the blood moon happens — and naturally, it had a bad outlook on the blood moon.

Another one of the Japanese myths about the blood moon is connected to the ancient Japanese mythology about Amaterasu, the sun goddess. In the Kokiji, the oldest and most ancient Japanese books in history, Amaterasu entered a cave because of a blood moon and only came out when she was lured out by a mirror. 

Superstitions of the blood moon

Even in this modern day, there are still superstitions around. Of course, back then, coincidences become superstitions. Bad happenings on a blood moon may be a coincidence, but the ancient people definitely didn’t think so. People believe that the blood moon alters the Earth and human behavior negatively. 

I bet you’ve heard that a full moon can affect tides and currents — so naturally, people believe a blood moon can significantly affect them and ultimately cause tsunamis. A lunar eclipse does mean that the moon is closer to the Earth, affecting the tides due to gravitational forces, but studies proved that tsunamis are caused by geographical events on Earth rather than tidal effect – canceling out the superstition on the blood moon’s effects. 

Even till now, many still believe that a blood moon causes earthquakes. There have been studies that show an earthquake on a blood moon to be stronger than normal, but other studies concluded that there is no apparent connection between the two. 

Another superstition is that the blood moon can affect one’s behaviour — to the extremes of acting crazy and reacting violently. That’s where the word “lunatic” and “lunacy” comes from as well — the Latin word for moon is “luna”. Luckily for us, there’s no scientific evidence for those.

Conclusion

Regardless of the negative associations of the blood moon, I still love the moon. It is Earth’s natural satellite, greeting us every night. Whatever colour it is — white, yellow or red — it still has a great impact in Japanese culture. Positive or negative influence, the moon is a beautiful part of nature that creates natural phenomena from time to time, and we’re all just lucky to be able to see some of them from the comfort of our planet.

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