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 50 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 around 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 (note that for the record I’ve also seen fusui occasionally referred to as Zoufuu tokusui). 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/Phases 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 (J. 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. My post on yinyang in Japan delves further into inyo and gogyo for those interested in learning more.

The book ‘Feng Shui History‘ by Stephen Skinner, a well respected authority, 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? It would be interesting to know.

As I have explored further it is clear that the material available on fusui in English is highly variable. Only two out of three of these Feng shui ‘bibles’ illustrated above 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 five 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 Japanese 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.

More detailed reference to fusui can be found in research papers and books. Associate Professor van Goethem, based in Kyushu, is an academic with an interest in the symbolism of fusui. Her research 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. Research on the history of fusui helps set the context for its evolution and modern day usage.

Another subject relevant to fusui, one covered in numerous academic papers, is Onmyodo, the Way of Yinyang (and by association the five Chinese elements/phases). In 2012 a special volume of the journal Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie was published titled ‘The Way of Yin and Yang: Divinatory Techniques and Religious Practices’. There are many other papers available. As they are not easily accessible to a general audience my plan is to summarise their key findings in relation to fusui.

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. It appears their main role was to judge auspicious or harmful signs present in the natural world, drawing on a number of arts. One of the ways fusui was used by the Onmyo Masters was in the placement of cities, houses and graves.

By far the most famous practitioner of Onmyodo is Abe no Seimei who lived between 921-1005 AD. Wikipedia has a useful introduction to this intriguing man. If you find yourself in Kyoto the Seimei Shrine is well worth visiting. There are many pentagrams (which represent the Abe family crest and, it is said, the five Chinese elements/phases), as well as references to yinyang/InYo at the Shrine which has an active program of events and videos online. There are several other shrines, and at least one Temple (Shinnyodo Temple in Kyoto who sell an ema with a red pentagram) that have links to Seimei.

The Seimei Shrine in Kyoto has two torii at its entrance. It was constructed by the Emperor on the site of Abe no Seimei’s house soon after he died.

Popular interest in Seimei has been revived through books, anime, manga, video games and two movies (image below). The pentagram appears in many of the modern portrayals of Seimei. It is said by some that he independently developed the symbol in the 10th century. Others state that Seimei “borrowed” the symbol from Daoist rituals associated with the five phases. Whatever the origin, it is reported that the five pointed star went on to become the mark of the Onmyoji.

The films Onmyoji (2001) and Onmyoji 2 (2003) portray 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 an Onmyo Master fusui is one of the arts he practices. The cover of the Special Edition shows the yinyang (taijitu) symbol which originated in China. As far as I can tell it has predominantly been used in Japan in modern times.

Yuzuru Hanyu, the record-breaking and award winning Japanese ice-skater (including a Gold Medal in the 2018 Winter Olympics), 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.  Image source: 2.bp.blogspot.com.

The continuing popular references to Seimei described in the preceding examples helps keep Onmyodou, the five Chinese elements and arts such as fusui alive in the public mind in Japan. My understanding is that visits to the Seimei Shrine in Kyoto, especially by young ladies, has increased considerably since Yuzuru’s performance.

Elsewhere, in Tokyo, Kyomei Hashimoto styles himself as ‘The Last YinYang Master’, a bold and possibly contested claim. It would be of interest to interview him about where fusui fits within his practice. In contrast, the Japanese branch of the International Feng Shui Association has nearly 40 members. They use modern techniques and tools imported recently from Hong Kong, with seemingly limited interest in the approach developed in Japan over many centuries. As with many arts in Japan,  ‘the art of placement’ has appeared in multiple guises over its long history.

Some clarity on at least one type of instrument used by the original Onmyoji comes from a 2013 paper on rainmaking rituals at Shinsen’en, the Divine Spring Garden created in 800 AD in Heian-kyo (now Kyoto). Steven Trenson notes that the most commonly used divination board in medieval Japan was called the rikujin. Using it was a complex process that drew on Chinese concepts such as Yinyang and the five phases. A stylized image of the instrument, shown below, is illustrated at Seimei Shrine. The rainmaking ceremony, which is covered in detail in the paper, makes for fascinating reading. It compares the divination boards and the ritual, involves dragons, and is very elemental. I am looking forward to re-reading it with ‘fusui eyes’.

(During the ‘great pause’ in 2020 I explored Yinyang and the five phases (Inyo/gogyo) in Japan in greater detail in this post. Undertaking the associated research was quite a revelation).

A stylised and weather-worn image of the rikujin, a divination board used in medieval Japan, at Seimei Shrine in Kyoto. The text discusses how Abe no Seimei cured the Emperor of a persistent headache, at least according to Google Translate.  The complex instrument was used by both Onmyoji and Esoteric Buddhist monks. On my most recent visit to the Shrine I noticed an increase in modern imagery related to the five phases/elements, principally in the form of the Seimei pentagram.

While sources in English related to fusui are fragmented and can be hard to access,  a large number of modern books have been written in Japanese on applying fusui principles, including the five elements/phases, in homes or businesses. I would like to thank my friend Kaori Okushima for opening my eyes to them. The illustrations in the books remind me of the numerous feng shui titles in English in my library. 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/phases (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 a distinctly different style. There were at least 16 other books in the Fusui section at the bookstore in Nijo. There were even more in Junkudo, a large bookshop in central Kyoto. 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. I have also seen the bagua on at least three omamori (amulets sold at Temples and Shrines) as I travel around Japan. There is more delving to be done here.

The books described so far 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 Nara, Kyoto and Kamakura, the original city design for Tokyo (then called Edo) was based on fusui principles.

It is reported that Edo’s original design, by the fusui expert Tenkai, was based on a spiral water canal 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 the illustration above comes from.  The purpose of the large spiral of water was to gather and boost the Ki (energy) from Mt Fuji. I  find that fascinating. Four hundred years later the ‘art of placement’ still has resonance in the intriguing city of Tokyo, as illustrated by the Sky Tree.  In April 2018 I was finally able to visit this incredible tower with my sister Ruth. There was nothing obviously related to fusui there, at least not in English. There was however some informative material on the earthquake resistance of the SkyTree – another dimension of the elements.

Ruth and I also visited the Dr Copa fusui store in Ginza in April 2018. I have a photo to prove it! (see below). The store took some finding and was not what I was expecting when we arrived there, with the fusui material tucked away on the third floor. My most exciting discovery was a book titled ‘Kaso & Fusui. The complete works of Dr Copa‘ (also shown below). Now I just need to have it translated.

The Copa Building in Ginza, Tokyo did not overtly advertise the sale of fusui goods.  I had to wait until I visited Chinatown in Yokohama to see this, although in that context it was a Chinese Feng Shui related store. A subtle but important difference. Photo source: Ruth Williams.

Having a copy of the complete works of Dr Copa should be helpful, once translated.  There were no bagua mirrors or other standard fusui related charms in his shop in Ginza as I was expecting.

There is much more that I could write about fusui. It’s an enthralling 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.

In order to proceed further with fusui there are the academic articles on Onmyodo to read and posts on the Onmyoudou Facebook site to explore. Other avenues for research include investigating 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!

Recreation of an Okinawan traditional village at the Charaumi Aquarium, Okinawa. January 2018.

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 Japan and still has a strong presence today. The recreated village at the Charaumi Aquarium (image above) demonstrates the traditional placement of houses and their surrounding vegetation in Okinawa, all strongly influenced by funshi principles. A series of academic articles on ‘feng shui‘ villages in Okinawa and their associated trees should provide some insights.

The five Chinese elements/phases have remained a fundamental component of fusui from the time it was first introduced to Japan centuries ago through to contemporary practices. Over that period determining favourable and unfavourable directions has been a feature. Fusui is 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.  The next step is to create a fusui mind map to capture these different dimensions and to help weave the diverse threads together. I will report back when the opportunity arises to put pen to paper. 🙂

6 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

  2. Pingback: People, nature and the five elements in Japan | Elemental Japan

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