15. Kagami Biraki in the Dojo

dojo soji
Students clean the dojo before the kagami biraki and hatsugeiko.

by Wayne Muromoto

(Note: I wrote this for my students but decided to post this on my blog, too…)

To my dear students, I just realized that a lot of you don’t “get” the tradition of kagami biraki, even though we did something last year in the dojo to celebrate this first-practice-of-the-year event. Okay, so here’s a semi-serious explanation. Bear with me as I ramble because there’s a lot of peripheral stuff you have to understand too. It’s more than just cleaning up the dojo for fun, and then doing a mini-demo for the other guys in the club. Here’s what kagami biraki means.

In Japan, the biggest holiday tradition still revolves around the New Year, or Oshogatsu.

First digression: Christmas lately has become somewhat popular too, from what I understand, although it seems to be rolled up in the whole big ball of wax that is Japan’s year-end and year-beginning festivities. (In an odd twist to the mercantile-oriented modern Christmas season, for the modern Japanese, Christmas “tradition” means getting the family together to eat a whole bucket of fried chicken. Apparently, a couple of years ago the KFC franchise chain carried out a national campaign in Japan convincing the populace that eating fried chicken was some kind of instant tradition for Christmas, and it actually stuck. Now a lot of Japanese equate Christmas with fried chicken. Go figure. You think they’re crazy? We’ve got some fat guy going “Ho Ho Ho!” who breaks into hour house to deliver strange packages, who’s more popular than the Baby Jesus come Christmastime.

Okay, back to the main subject. Many of the traditional Japanese holidays revolved around what were called sekku, or nodes, little bumps along the calendar year that needed to have some kind of rite or ceremony to appease the gods and Buddhas and sundry deities that regulated a largely agrarian, rural society. Tied as the common folk were to the rhythms of agriculture (like ancient traditions the world over), there were harvest celebrations, mid-summer events, spring festivals and, for a superstitious community, the strange turning of a new year.

These junctures, when the seasons changed, were considered important dates, and the observant agrarians would have done well to help his and her fortunes by paying heed and offering supplication so that these ancient speed bumps in the flow of time would go smoothly, sans flooding, drought, famine and plague.

For example, the famous summertime Gion Matsuri festival in Kyoto originally started as a raucous supplication to the gods for aid in stopping a rampaging pestilence.

New Year’s is the big cheese of sekku. As the most important sekku of the Ye Olde Japanese, New Year’s carries a host of many, many traditions, including kagami biraki, kadomatsu, hatsumode (first visit to a Shinto shrine), osechi ryori (New Year’s food), ozoni (mochi soup) mochitsuki (pounding mochi), TV specials galore, etc., etc., yada yada yada.

Kagami biraki in a budo dojo is tied to “hatsugeiko,” the first practice session of the New Year’s. That’s important, because supposedly how you start practice puts a stamp on the rest of your year. Literally, kagami biraki means “opening the mirror.” It is usually celebrated on January 11, or the first practice day on your martial arts calendar for the new year closest to that traditional date.

In martial arts dojo, a round of sake (Japanese alcohol) is offered to the dojo shrine, and then shared with everybody. And/or set of large round mochi rice cakes (kagami mochi), stacked on top of each other, are placed on the shrine or in the tokonoma (alcove).

Drinking sake or doing the mochi thing for kagami biraki probably comes from their shape. The top of the wooden sake cask and the mochi are big and round, like the traditional Japanese mirrors (kagami), so busting open the sake cask with a wooden mallet, or tearing apart the mochi (you never cut it with a knife) is “opening” (hiraku, which becomes –biraki when following the term kagami) the mirror-shaped object. While imbibing alcohol is fun and can get frivolous, it originally was tied to more somber symbolisms.

When I did an online search, some sites claim that the first martial kagami biraki started with a Tokugawa shogun who was about to set off to a battle early in the New Year. He broke open the round top of a sake cask and served drinks to his retainers before they set out on their campaign. His battle was successful, so some kind of kagami biraki ceremony has been attached to martial endeavors ever since. Supposedly. I say supposedly, because somewhere, some place, I read or heard of an even older tradition that preceded this tradition. I may be wrong, of course, so take this with a grain of salt, like you should take all of my wise-ass know-it-all comments in the dojo.

From what I recall what one of my sensei told me (and/or he wrote it down in one of his books), Kunio Ekiguchi (a crafts teacher; you can get his books from Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/Kunio-Ekiguchi/e/B001I7KT4G) researched the first religious/spiritual meaning of the concept of kagami biraki. He thinks that because the New Year’s was an important nexus between the old year and the new, it was a sekku fraught not only with joy and hope, but also with potential spiritual danger. One had to be vigilant and watchful so that the humbug demons and evil spirits wouldn’t jinx the New Year as it initially begins to replace the fraying, withered elder year. Ye Olde Japanese would stop their year-round business, close up shop, hang around the hearth and eat mochi and osechi ryori (the “cold” osechi ryori food tradition was because the wife/mother/woman of the house would have a few days off from cooking hot meals every day. The hearth fires would be doused, the ashes cleaned and sifted, and you would wait, sans fire, fearful of the oni (demons) who might cause ruin on the New Year’s. Out of the whole year, this was the one time Momma didn’t have to cook! That’s why, to this day, celebrants smash up together cheek to jowl at Yasaka Jinja, a Shinto shrine in Kyoto, to get a length of rope lit at one end from the fires of Yasaka Shrine. They would take that holy fire home to relight the kitchen hearthfire for the rest of the year. Nowadays, most shrine-goers just go through the burning rope thing for the fun of it, and it’s a wonder nobody’s been badly burned by a wayward piece of rope, or at least I haven’t yet heard of an incident yet.

The household mirrors would be covered up for good luck, and you wouldn’t do a lot of your usual household chores and personal hygiene, such as combing your hair, after you had cleaned up the whole house and prepped for New Year’s Eve.  Why? Ekiguchi said that the mirror, besides its utilitarian purpose, had a mystical quality for ancient Japanese. Indeed, a mirror was one of the three sacred regalia of the Japanese imperial lineage, along with the curved magatama jewels and the sacred sword. Covering it up meant you were entering a period of shugyo, or spiritual training. No prettifying yourself. You needed to hide that mirror away and pay special attention to the changing of the years.

Even now, if you look into some aikido dojo, you will see that the practitioners may have in their alcove or kamidana a round mirror, which refers back to the sacred mirror of Amateresu, the Sun Goddess enshrined in Ise. Mirrors were powerful mediums to reach the spiritual world, and it could be used wisely or badly as such.

THAT, according to Ekiguchi sensei, was the actual origins of the term kagami biraki. You hid away your mirror, and finally, on January 11, you’d take off the cloth that covered your mirror. Things went back to normal. The world was safe and sound from the troublesome demons who could have messed up the sekku passage. But boy, eleven days without combing your hair? Not brushing your teeth or shaving? I’d go crazy. But there you have it. That’s at least what Ekiguchi sensei told me.

So imagine that finally, you got to clean up your stubby beard and have a hot meal. Boy, that must have felt good. So too, with the modern version of kagami biraki, it should feel good. Yay! We go back to our normal routine. We start our first practice.

For the kagami biraki celebration in a dojo, it can be as simple or elaborate as you wish. There’s no “set” ‘rigid rules, since such observances varies from district to district in Japan, and from family to family.

The dojo altar/shrine or alcove could be decked out with special New Year’s decorations. Maybe if you’re lucky and live near a Japanese store that sells fresh mochi, you can put a kagami mochi on display as offering to the gods (or God, singular, if you prefer monotheism). Or a bottle of sake. And/or perhaps the New Year’s display of special symbolic objects, like the sho-chiku-bai flower arrangement (pine, bamboo and plum). Shinto gods, buddhas, Christian or Jewish god of Old or New Testament or Allah, whatever you imagine (or not) as your savior and spiritual guide, that’s who you should consider you are paying homage to.

In one arrangement in the tokonoma of a tea ceremony training hut, a mound of uncooked white rice sits on a special stand. Three cylindrical ceremonial charcoal are tied with white paper, standing up from the top of the mound. Stuck in the center of the standing charcoals is a lone pine branch. For that tea school, the rice symbolized the fecundity and prosperity one is thankful for in the past year, with hopes of more for the coming year. The charcoal represents the hearthfires, i.e., the happy home, and the pine is the perennial symbol of survival and green-ness in the midst of desolation (like the green pine in a cold winter landscape). So, basically, you can start off with a traditional arrangement of a Shinto shrine, but then add whatever symbolism you want to it to celebrate the New Year. Tradition, in a way, is therefore a moving target, even in Japan.

A budo dojo can do special hatsugeiko (first practice of the year) as part of the kagami biraki, perhaps doing 100 front kicks or 100 punches, or 1,000 something or others. Or you could do an embu (demonstration) for each other, not tested, ranked or rated. It would be just a demo so that everyone can give each other and the gods an offering of their techniques in thanks for what they have learned in the past, and with hope that they will keep on being healthy and happy in the future. Again, what makes the training special isn’t particularly WHAT you do, it is just that it is the first practice of the year, and it’s symbolically an offering to the dojo’s spirit and one’s own religious/spiritual deities as thanks for having helped you to survive the old year, and hopes that the new year will bring good luck, health and happiness.

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7 thoughts on “15. Kagami Biraki in the Dojo

  1. 明けましておめでとうございます! Thanks for posting this! Your students are lucky, you gave far more detail than my sensei’s to explain Kagami Biraki, other than announcements of dan promotions by recommendation! The Tokugawa shogun tale was good, I’d never heard that before. An aside: My wife says the KFC thing has been around for a while. She and her family were doing that back in the 80’s at home in Ibaraki-ken.

  2. Gene,

    I was in Japan in the mid-’80s and didn’t know about it…until I saw a scene in the movie “Departures” that I didn’t understand. These Japanese people were just pigging out on Kentucky Fried Chicken during the Christmas season and I didn’t understand what the heck that was all about. Now I know. I still think it’s weird. Happy New Year to you, too!

    1. Thanks, Wayne. I’m always intrigued when I visit Japan and am exposed to the recent developments in “popular” culture. Though I never got the connection between Col. Sanders and Christmas, either, I’m figuring it was some marketing strategy. It’s odd to me that the folks in my wife’s hometown seemingly readily accept new, probably market driven, “traditions” and toss away some, from an outsider’s view, precious ones. Most of the younger Japanese I’ve met understood kagami biraki as the day to hammer away at the mochi that was sitting on the tokonoma and make zouni or sembe with it!

      BTW, I really enjoyed “Departures”, but then again, I’m a Tsutomu Yamazaki fan. It was a little creepy, at times, but absolutely conveyed, to me at least, that sense of striving for perfection in whatever you do, regardless of how society views you or your work. In the end, society, hopefully, comes to respect and appreciate your hard effort on its behalf.

  3. Gene,

    I really liked “Departures” too…surprisingly, because I didn’t know quite what to expect when I walked into the theater. What struck my wife was what you observed: the notion of striving for perfection and creating beauty out of ritual and the mundane. She said it was like turning the act of preparing the deceased into a kind of tea ceremony or art form.

  4. Wayne, I just watched “Departures” a few days ago and really enjoyed it. Special movie. We had a great Kagami Biraki at the Shintokan this year. Larger group of folks than usual and lots of good training, embu, and food along with family.

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