Fusui, the way of Feng shui in Japan

Feng shui has become a phenomenon in the west over the last few decades, as discussed here. To cover the wide range of subjects and styles associated with the approach, there are now over 40 feng shui books sitting in my bookshelf. All are based on the ancient Chinese art of placement used to create harmony in our environment through the manipulation of energy. In Japan feng shui is called fusui (wind-water). Fusui has had a long history and wielded considerable influence from ancient to contemporary times. Like other practices that incorporate the five Chinese elements in Japan, such as traditional Japanese medicine, the art of fusui has had limited exposure outside of the country. Based on the information I’ve been able to find in English, a summary follows of what I have learnt so far. It represents the first steps in an ongoing journey of discovery.

There are so many dimensions to fusui in Japan that it is a challenge to know where to start. Should I begin with the introduction of feng shui from China in the 7th century and the subsequent formation of the Onmyoryo (Bureau of Yinyang) that utilised fusui? Or start in contemporary times where fusui appears to have widespread popularity amongst individuals (based on the number of books published and sold) and where new buildings such as the SkyTree in Tokyo are critiqued by fusui experts? A lot has happened between the 7th century and now, with the fortunes of fusui changing over the centuries – largely depending on how it was viewed and supported by the powers that be.

My aim in the material presented below has been to present a cohesive if not entirely chronological story about the practice and evolution of fusui in Japan. A reminder to readers that my posts in elementaljapan.com are informal introductions to subjects related to the elements. They draw on my impressions, experiences and observations as I travel in Japan and build my reference collection. A more comprehensive coverage will come at a later date.

The following text explains why this unlikely book appears in this post! As they say, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

The first, and still the best overview I’ve read of  fusui in Japan was found in an unexpected source – a book titled ‘Supernatural and Mysterious Japan – Spirits, hauntings and paranormal phenomena‘. The author Catrien Ross describes how fusui has been applied from its first introduction to modern usage. Of interest are her comments on the importance of energy lines (Dragon paths), ketsu (energy outlets) and the three geomantic criteria of mountains, watercourses and directions for fusui. According to Ross the central intent of the original practice was to take these factors into account to calm the wind and acquire water. Hence the use of kanji for wind and water to describe the art. Wind and water also distribute energy in the landscape.

Catrien writes that from its beginnings fusui has been inseparable from yinyang dualism and the Five Elements theory, the Chinese doctrine that all things and events are products of yin (the vital energy of the earth) and yang (the vital energy of the heavens). Yin and yang interact to produce the five elements or phases/agents (gogyo) – metal, water, wood, fire and earth. In the Japanese context I have sometimes seen ‘wood’ referred to as ‘tree’, ‘metal’ as ‘gold’ and as ‘earth’ as ‘soil’. As my research on elemental Japan continues I hope to discover more about these nuances.

This book by Stephen Skinner, a well respected authority on feng shui,  includes a three quarter page description on Japan and fusui. It focuses on selected aspects of fusui rather than providing an overview like Catrien Ross does. In summary the main topics covered in ‘Feng Shui History‘ are: how the application of fusui to Japanese Taoist gardens has preserved more details than extant Chinese classics on the subject; how the Japanese approach utilises a NE-SW orientation rather than the N-S orientation of feng shui; and a reference to Nine Star Ki – a modern variant of basic feng shui popularised by Michio Kushi (who also promoted the macrobiotic food movement). Skinner’s coverage of fusui is interesting both for its briefness and selective content. In contrast the section on Australia runs to four and a half pages, even though feng shui has a much shorter history and lower uptake there. Perhaps the difference in the level of detail is due to the paucity of consolidated information on fusui in english for Skinner to draw on? Just a thought.

As I explored further it became clear that the material available on fusui in English is highly variable. Only two out of three of these Feng Shui ‘bibles’ refer to the practice of fusui in Japan. ‘Feng Shui for Dummies‘ notes that the Japanese used a method related to ‘Vastu Shastra‘, the Indian art of placement (which is based on a different set of elements). It’s the first I’ve heard of that comparison. ‘The Feng Shui Bible‘ goes into a little more detail, saying that the Japanese developed the traditional Chinese compass-based feng-shui into the Eight Directions school. There is no mention of fusui in ‘The Practical Encyclopaedia of Feng Shui‘. The almost complete absence of fusui in these purportedly comprehensive books illustrates the low profile and limited understanding the practice has in the western world. To date I have discovered no books in English that provide a detailed coverage of the history and practice of fusui.  Hopefully it/they will be written one day. Or if one or more books already exists I’d appreciate the details.

What I have discovered however are numerous academic papers in english on Onmyodou, the Way of Yinyang (and by association the five Chinese elements/phases). In Japan yinyang is referred to as InYo or OnMyo. The Bureau of Yinyang (Onmyoryo) operated for around 1000 years and the Onmyoji (Masters of Onmyo/Yinyang) who worked there held considerable influence in the placement of cities, houses and graves, as well as on other decisions made by the ruling class and elite. Fusui was one of several arts the Onmyo Masters drew on in their roles.

By far the most famous practitioner of Onmyodo/Onmyoudou is Abe no Seimei who lived between 921-1005. Wikipedia has a useful introduction to this intriguing man. If you find yourself in Kyoto the Seimei Shrine is well worth visiting. There are several other shrines, and at least one Temple (Shinnyodo in Kyoto who sell an ema with a red pentagram) that have links to Seimei. When I visit Japan in mid 2018 I am planning to visit the Seimei neighbourhood Shrine in Osaka where it is purported Seimei was born.

The Seimei Shrine in Kyoto has two torii at its entrance. It was constructed soon after Abe no Seimei died on the site of his house. There are many pentagrams (which represent both the five Chinese elements and the Abe family crest), as well as references to yinyang/InYo at the Shrine. The Shrine has an active program of events and videos online.

In modern times interest in Seimei has been revived in Japan through books, anime, manga, video games and two movies. The pentagram appears in many of the modern portrayals of Seimei. It is said that he independently developed the symbol in the 10th century. Some writers say that the five pointed star went on to become the mark of the Onmyoji. The resurgence in interest in Seimei has helped highlight the practice of geomancy/fusui in the Hiean period and its importance in the history of Japan.

The films Onmyoji (2001) and Onmyoji 2 (2003) portrayed two potentially cataclysmic episodes in Heian Japan, around 1000 years ago. Abe no Seimei came to the rescue in both instances drawing on a range of artful and magical practices. As a Master of onmyo/yinyang, fusui is one of his skills he uses. I found the movies enjoyable and entertaining to watch (with subtitles). The cover of the Special Edition shows the yinyang (taijitu) symbol which originated in China. As far as I can tell it has only been used in Japan in modern times.

Yuzuru Hanyu, the record-breaking and award winning Japanese ice-skater, is shown here with the pentagram – as noted, a symbol intimately associated in Japan with Abe no Seimei and the five Chinese elements. Yuzuru’s 2015-2016 free-skating program was called ‘Seimei’ with the music and choreography based on the Wizard of Yinyang and the two Onmyoji movies.  When developing his routine Yuzuru consulted Mansai Nomura, the actor who played Seimei. He felt that by doing so he could better represent the Wizard of Yinyang in his program. My understanding is that visits to the Seimei Shrine in Kyoto, especially by young ladies, has increased considerably since Yuzuru’s performance. 🙂 The continuing reference to Seimei keeps Onmyodou, the five Chinese elements and fusui in the public mind in Japan. Image source: 2.bp.blogspot.com.

In my trip to Japan in mid 2017 I discovered illustrations of the five Chinese elements in a different context,  also related to fusui. Thanks to my friend Kaori Okushima my eyes were opened to the large number of modern books written in Japanese on applying fusui principles in homes or businesses. The illustration in the books reminded me of the feng shui titles in English that I have acquired. Just as feng shui has been adapted for a western audience in many of these books, modern fusui practitioners in Japan such as Dr Copa have recast the concepts for popular consumption. The approach must have appeal as according to his website Dr Copa has sold 450 million copies of books written on the ZEN feng shui style he advocates. That’s a lot of books!

An illustration of the generating and destructive/overcoming cycles of the five Chinese elements (Jp: gogyo) – water, wood, fire, earth and metal. The image was found in a popular publication on fusui purchased in a bookshop near Nijo Station, Kyoto.

The illustration of gogyo above came from the book on fusui on the left. The one on the right had quite a different style. There were at least 16 other books in the Fusui section at the bookstore in Nijo. Interestingly when I asked an attendant at the Muji store in Fukuoka if they sold books on fusui she said no. I wondered if they weren’t considered ‘cool’ enough?

Another aspect of fusui related to the elements is the use of the Pa Kua/Bagua (eight symbols), an essential tool in most Feng Shui Schools. The eight symbols are trigrams that represent different combinations of in and yo (yinyang) and an associated element. Bagua appear in modern day ‘self-help’ books on fusui albeit sometimes in a simplified form. The Bagua also appears in the two Onmyoji movies and are mentioned in some texts I’ve read on Onmyodou. Wikipedia has a useful entry on the “Later Heaven” Bagua in feng shui, which is used for residences:

The trigrams are related to the five elements of Wu Xing used by Feng Shui practitioners and in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Those five elements are Water, Wood, Fire, Earth and Metal. The Water (Kan) and Fire (Li) trigrams correspond directly with the Water and Fire elements. The element of Earth corresponds with both the trigrams of Earth (Kun) and Mountain (Gen). The element of Wood corresponds with the trigrams of Wind (Xun) (as a gentle but inexorable force that can erode and penetrate stone) and Thunder (Zhen). The element of Metal corresponds with the trigrams of Heaven (Qian) and Lake (Dui)“.

Hopefully I will be able to find similar information on the Bagua/trigrams specifically written about fusui.

My first discovery of a Bagua in Japan was this black laquer tea tray, rather than in association with fusui.  When I came across the tray in October 2016 I wasn’t expecting to see the 8 trigrams associated with the tea ceremony. Now I know better, as described in my post ‘Time for more tea‘. What I am yet to see in person however is a fusui compass (called a lo p’an in feng shui).

The books described above principally relate to applying fusui principles within a home or business. At the landscape scale the Sky Tree in Tokyo has attracted considerable attention in relation to its design and placement. This landmark building has been criticised for being bad fusui – likened to a poison arrow. The designers have defended the tower saying it represents a five (Buddhist) element pagoda that will protect the prosperity of Tokyo for years to come. Like Kyoto, the original city design for Tokyo (then called Edo) was based on fusui principles.

In January 2018 I was fascinated to learn that the original design of Edo (by the fusui expert Tenkai) was based on a spiral water canal that centred on the Castle. I first came across the information in a book on Mt Fuji and the four seasons by Ohyama and Yamashita (2011) and then found a more detailed article in the first edition of  WAttention Tokyo (2014). That is where this illustration comes from. It appears that Tenkai planned to gather and boost the Ki (energy) from Mt Fuji using the large spiral of water. Four hundred years later the ‘art of placement’ still has resonance in the intriguing city of Tokyo – including a Dr Copa fusui store in Ginza. I hope to see a lo p’an there, amongst other things, when I’m in city in mid-2018.

There is much more that I could write about fusui. It’s a fascinating subject and one that is key to my research on elemental Japan. The subtitle of my blog and book is/will be ‘Feel the energy‘. At a fundamental level fusui is about energy flow and exchange both within and external to our bodies. Exerting control over the different energies entering our own energy fields can influence the way we feel. Over the centuries fusui has been used in Japan to influence these energies at local and landscape scales.

Before I go further there are those academic articles to read on Onmyodo and posts on the Onmyoudou Facebook site to explore. Other avenues for research include following up reports that  fusui is more pragmatic in its application than feng shui and that the ‘bad’ direction at the landscape scale differs in the two systems.  The book ‘Invisible Armor‘ by Serge Mol (2008) postulates that decisions made by Tokugawa Ieyasu in relation to the location of his and his enemies grave sites, all strongly influenced by fusui, may have had a major impact on the families long reign in Japan. Theories and intriguing leads abound!

There is more to discover as well about the practice of fusui in Okinawa (where it is known as funshi), the chain of Japanese islands close to Taiwan. From what I understand feng shui was introduced to Okinawa later than the rest of Japan and still has a strong presence today. A series of academic articles on feng shui villages in Okinawa and their associated trees should provide some insights.

During my mid-2017 trip to Japan I was also pleased to discover research by Ellen van Goethem on fusui symbolism. Associate Professor van Goethem, who is is based in Kyushu, focuses on the history and landscape-scale application of the Four Divine Beasts in Japan (the Black Turtle-Snake, Vermilion Bird, Azure Dragon and White Tiger). In this publication the author writes that by the early ninth century Five Phase (element) knowledge and its related divine beast symbolism had spread from the court to a wider segment of the population. Academic publications in English like this one, and those on Onmyodou already mentioned, should provide valuable insights into the long history of fusui and the five Chinese elements/phases in Japan.

The five Chinese elements have remained a fundamental component of fusui from the time it was first introduced to Japan centuries ago through to contemporary practices. Fusui appears alive and well in Japan, expressing itself in many guises. Its application and evolution is a captivating and complex story. While the practice is derived from feng shui it appears that some adaptations have been made in Japan.  Fusui is definitely a subject that would lend itself to a mind map to capture its different dimensions and weave these threads together. I will report back when the opportunity arises to put pen to paper. 🙂


3 thoughts on “Fusui, the way of Feng shui in Japan

  1. It’s very timely to read your post, on the eve of traveling to Japan. I shall be be on the look out for the ways in which fusui has been incorporated into the environment. It’s fascinating to consider the wide influence feng shui has had in the west, and our comparatively little awareness of the Japanese model. Hopefully your blog will work towards changing this.


    • Hopefully so. And hopefully it will uncover additional information and comments from people who read the post. Our base in Kyoto is the perfect place to see and experience the influence of fusui. The location and layout of the original city, as well as many of the Temples and Shrines found there, were designed using fusui principles. For example, the Tendai temple complex on Mt Hiei protects Kyoto from the evil spirits associated with the northeast direction. The Sky Tree in Tokyo, which will bookend our trip, has been criticised for being bad fusui – likened to a poison arrow. The designers have defended the tower saying it represents a five (Buddhist) element pagoda that will protect the prosperity of Tokyo for years to come. Like Kyoto, the original city design for Tokyo (then called Edo) was based on fusui principles. Four hundred years later the ‘art of placement’ still has resonance in this intriguing city – including a Dr Copa fusui store in Ginza that we can visit!

      Liked by 1 person

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