Yinyang – an ancient Chinese philosophy of balance, harmony and vital energy – was transmitted to Japan via China and Korea around 1500 years ago. Translated as inyo, onmyo or onyo in Japanese, the philosophy of yinyang, often combined with the five phases/elements (C. wuxing; J. gogyo) of Earth, Water, Fire, Wood and Metal, has permeated Japanese culture. For nearly 1200 years the imperial Bureau of Yinyang (J. Onmyoro) – unique to Japan – practiced divination, astromancy, geomancy (J. fusui), pacification of angry spirits, omenology and more. Renewed popular interest in the ‘Way of Yinyang’ (Onmyodo) focuses on the ‘wizards’ who practiced these magical arts. Yet there is more to yinyang in Japan. Much much more. Using the coronavirus lockdown to delve into the energy of nature and the universe, through the lens of yinyang, has been uplifting and enlightening.
What is yinyang? According to Robin R. Wang, an authority on the subject, this question is at once utterly simple and wildly complicated. Her comment was made in the context of yinyang in China. It is here that the concept originated and pervaded thought and culture, especially through the Yi Jing (Book of Changes; J. Ekikyo) and the combination of yinyang and wuxing (five phases/elements; Earth, Water, Fire, Metal and Wood; J. inyo gogyo). The same simple/complicated description can be applied to Japan. Over time yinyang notions have permeated every level of society and persist today. As well as documenting many of the expressions of yinyang in Japan, this lengthy post explores both the practical and philosophical application of the concept in Nihon, the land of the rising sun.
The yinyang philosophy embodies a wide range of linked meanings, many of which are in play simultaneously. Definitions abound. Wikipedia describes it as: a concept of dualism, describing how seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.
陽陰 – the Japanese characters for yinyang – are the same as those used in China. Depending on the context, they are translated in two main ways INYO and ONMYO/Onmyou (and occasionally OnYo). IN and ON are yin in Japanese, and YO and MYO are yang. Through the post I will use translations of yinyang from both Chinese and Japanese, again depending on the context.
At its simplest yinyang represents the interplay of contrasting forces such as male/female, sun/moon, and dark/light. One cannot exist without the other. The first application of the concept in China was used to describe the shady side (yin) and sunny side (yang) of a hill. Robin Wang sees yin and yang operating as qi (C. chi, vital energy; J. ki) in the universe as the most enduring interpretation in Chinese thought. She also describes yinyang as a shu, a strategy or technique that enables one to function effectively in any given circumstance. Importantly, the invocation of yinyang is always predicated on a particular situation, a unique moment in which we must engage in the world.
The five phases/elements (C. wuxing, J. gogyo) of Earth, Fire, Water, Metal and Wood arise from yinyang and are often combined with it. This is referred to as yinyang-wuxing theory in Chinese and inyo gogyo setsu in Japanese. Wuxing is the short form of “wǔ zhǒng liúxíng zhī qì” (五種流行之氣) or “the five types of chi dominating at different times” (Wikipedia). As with yinyang, the gogyo are expressions of energy. First illustrated in China with Earth in the centre and the other four elements surrounding it, the contemporary symbol for wuxing/gogyo is the familiar star-shape with one of the five elements at each point. (For those interested in the five phases in their earlier form you can download the paper ‘Zhou Dunyi’s Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate Explained (“Taijito Shuo”): A Construction of the Confucian Metaphysics‘ by Robin Wang from the digital commons – just type ‘wang supreme ultimate explained’ into the search engine).
Yinyang and Japan
As yet, there is no book in English solely dedicated to yinyang in Japanese thought and culture. Relevant information is spread between numerous blogs, websites, journal articles and (mostly academic) books. These tell a complicated, contested, sometimes contradictory, and often astonishing story. As always my blogs are ‘informal’, to be refined and revised following further explorations and feedback. Only some of the sources of information I’ve drawn on are included. Pulling these pieces together has been a bigger job than I imagined, so preliminary findings and perspectives are presented here.
Elemental Japan has previously introduced two approaches that embrace the philosophy and practice of inyo and gogyo in Japan – Kampo (Traditional Japanese Medicine) and Fusui (C. Fengshui). The latter post addresses the renewed interest in Onmyoji the ‘Masters of Yinyang’, particularly Abe no Seimei. It is the ‘Way of Yinyang‘ (Onmyodo), practiced by these wizards, that is prominent in popular and academic contemporary coverage of yinyang in Japan. There is much more to the story, as we shall see.
The yinyang philosophy arrived in Japan around 1500 years ago, via China and Korea. Several classic Chinese books, including the Yi Jing (I Ching, Book of Changes, J. Ekikyo) and books detailing the five phases/elements were transmitted to Japan at this time. The Yi Jing is both a divinatory tool and source of wisdom. It has had considerable influence in Japan, especially during the Tokugawa era/Edo period (~ 1603-1868 AD). The Yi Jing consists of 64 pairwise permutations of eight trigrams, referred to as hexagrams, along with commentary on each one. The eight trigrams (C. bagua; J. hakka) represent fundamental principles of reality, symbolising the unceasingly changing balance of yinyang energies.
The paired bagua in the Yi Jing have been used for guidance and advice for over 2000 years. Originating in ancient China, theories related to the origin of the bagua refer to the ‘birth’ or production of yin and yang from a limitless source and their division into eight trigrams. The bagua have a number of correlations, including with the five phases/elements, twelve branches, ten stems and other measures of space and time. The eight trigrams became one of the basic theories of Feng Shui (particularly the Compass School) and Traditional Chinese Medicine, both adopted and adapted in Japan and both associated with harmonising the flow of energy (see my Fusui and Kampo posts for more detail). The representation of yin and yang in the bagua and its importance, in many guises, in Japanese culture is one of the important lessons I have learnt researching this post.
Onymyodo, the Way of yinyang
Another important lesson has been appreciating the intricacies of Onmyodo, the Way of Yinyang. I am working through the numerous academic papers published on the subject. A brief overview of my current understanding follows.
For nearly 1200 years (~ 675-1870 AD) the imperial Bureau of Yinyang (J. Onmyoryo) oversaw the official practice of divination, astromancy, geomancy (J. fusui), pacification of angry spirits, rain-making, calendrics and omenology. The identification of auspicious and inauspicious days, years, directions and events was of particular importance. The Yi Jing was one of four books studied by Onmyoji (Masters of Yinyang) at the Bureau. Another was the Chinese book Wuxing dayi (J. Gogyo taigi), the Compendium of the Five Phases, highly regarded by specialists (Hayek (2011) The Eight Trigrams and their Changes). While based on inyo gogyo setsu (yinyang five phases theory), Onmyodo became a singularly Japanese adaptation.
Over its long history the Bureau of Yinyang , based in Kyoto and unique to Japan, had varying influence and impact depending on the politics of the day. Designed to serve the elite, the pinnacle for the Onmyoji was during the Heian period (794-1195 AD). This style was referred to as Court Onmyodo and was practiced by the famous Abe no Seimei; Warrior Onmyodo was practiced through a school called Ashikaga Gakko and focused on divination on the battlefield. Onmyoji and other yinyang specialists provided services in regional areas as well as the larger cities. They played a significant role in the spread and influence of yinyang on Japanese thought and culture.
Other expressions of yinyang in Japan
Recent scholarship has shed light on the influence of yinyang and the five phases on Japanese thought and culture prior to the formation of the Bureau of Yinyang. For example it is considered that the Seventeen-Article Constitution (J. juushichi jou kenpou), dated 604 AD and attributed to Prince Shotoku, incorporates extensive use of yinyang symbolism and numerological theory (Bialock (2007) The Yin and the Yang of Power). The importance of harmony and a harmonious society are emphasised in the Articles. As noted in my blog on Gogyo the the bureaucratic 12 Level Cap and Rank System introduced by the Prince Shotoku in 603 AD has been linked to the colours of the five phases.
In 646 AD Japanese officials used the fundamental qualities of yinyang to name two regions in western Japan – San’in (‘In the Mountain Shadow’) and San’yo (‘Mountains in the Sun’). Over 1350 years later the names San’in and San’yo are still used for railways (e.g. the San’yo Shinkansen route between Osaka and Fukoaka), modern roads and in the case of San’in for regional identity and tourism.
The fundamental attributes of yinyang have also been associated with the seasons, the Emperor; Izanami and Izanagi, and the creation of Japan; and more recently with the co-founders of Oomoto, a new and influential Shinto Sect established in 1872. At a national level the Japanese zodiac, originally imported from China, has a strong inyo gogyo flavour. Like the bagua, the zodiac cycle has many correlations. 2020 is the Year of the Yang Metal Rat, and what a year it turned out to be.
The sixty year zodiac cycle (J. Jikkan junishi), and the identification of lucky and unlucky days, years and directions (which also draw on traditional Japanese calendars), have been and continue to be important components of Japanese culture. Many festivals and significant events in Japan are still held on dates associated with the lunar calendar (officially replaced by the solar Gregorian calendar in 1872). Year 43 in the current sixty year cycle is a Fire-Horse (J. Hinoe-Uma) year, due to fall in 2026. As recently as 1966 (the last time a Fire-Horse year occurred) this has been considered an unfortunate year for women to be born; Yakudoshi, a set of “unlucky” ages that first appeared in the Heian period is a belief still in place today. The calculation or prediction of auspicious/inauspicious events and directions was one of the responsibilities of the Onmyoji, drawing on inyo gogyo setsu. Interest in these portents continues today with Shinto Shrines offering amulets and services to alleviate unlucky events and celebrate auspicious ones.
Shinto and yinyang
The Encyclopedia of Shinto charts the intersection of Shinto and Onmyodo from the introduction of yinyang and five phases thought. The text includes several intriguing references to the Grand Shrines of Ise, one of the principal Shrines in modern Japan, references that I plan to follow up. Yuiitsu (Yoshida) Shinto, which was influential in the Edo period, is another lead to follow with its strong yinyang elements. My personal experience of inyo and gogyo in Shinto arises in part from several Shrine visits. I was privileged to have some of the yinyang/dualist symbolism at Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto explained, including the yin (2 needles) and yang (3 needles) pine leaves placed in the two sand cones at the front of the shrine (Mitsu Inui, personal communication). Onmyodo is also fundamental to the Seimei shrines in Kyoto and Osaka.
The Shinto practices at Hakozaki Hachiman Shrine in Fukoaka, Kyushu have been interpreted as a combination of complex Chinese yinyang five phase principles and a Yayoi period female medium tradition (see the book ‘spirit tree‘ (2007)). This connection compelled me to visit the Shrine, along with many other fascinating places in Kyushu, the land of fire. Another Hachiman Shrine, this time in Kamakura, was designed according to the principles of fusui – a Japanese practice related to inyo gogyo setsu.
Combinations of five colours are found in Shinto shrines in many forms, particularly in ribbons, flags and the chords on amulets. The colours represent the five phases and correlated attributes. To delve deeper into the philosophy and meaning of yinyang and the five phases, I asked Reverend Koichi Barrish (the senior priest at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America in Washington State) if there was an overarching philosophy in Shinto that incorporates inyo gogyo setsu. He answered that Shinto Kigaku is the source. Kigaku is a form of fortune telling of Japanese origin based on the 10 celestial stems (J. Jikkan), the 12 year zodiac cycle (J. Eto) and 9 star KI (J. Kyusei Kigaku). At the start of each year and each month Rev Barrish provides a Kyusei Kigaku forecast related to the state of ki (energy) and the law and flow of Nature. I am interested to learn how widespread these teaching are across Shinto in general.
These selected examples of the influences of yinyang and the five phases on Shinto are intended as an enticing introduction. There is much more to learn, reflect on and share. The significant story of yinyang, the five phases and Buddhism in Japan will be forthcoming. It will complement my posts on the ‘five great’ Buddhist elements (mostly Shingon examples, here, here and here) and specifically on Zen Buddhism, here. In the interim, some material on Shugendo and martial arts should whet the appetite.
Shugendo and yinyang
Over the centuries the arts, practice and philosophy of Onmyodo and inyo gogyo setsu became absorbed into Shugendo, an ancient Japanese religion that draws on local folk-religious practices, Buddhism, Shinto and Taoism. My first Shugendo pilgrimage with Wani-ontakesan in the winter of 2018 opened my eyes to the intimate connections between practitioners, the mountains, gods and ancestors. The mountain pilgrimages are equivalent to virtual death and rebirth – the embodied energy I could feel from the waterfalls, surrounding snow-clad slopes and forest, and my fellow pilgrims provided much inspiration and sustenance.
I am grateful that two Shugendo teachers were prepared to share their experiences of inyo and gogyo. Riko Schroer (Jisho), who practices with Shokai Koshikidake in Yamagata Prefecture, provided an overview of of inyo gogyo in Shugendo. He identified widespread transmission of ideas – particularly in the timing of ritual practices, performances and commemorative days. Inyo concepts from Onmyodo continue to hold a prime place and the numerology that stems from them is very much present in ritual manuals. Riko has experienced that other Taoist ideas, including those related to celestial bodies, continue to influence this syncretic religion.
At a deeper level Doukan Okamoto, the Sendatsu (leader) of Wani-ontakesan, related that Inyo thought is the essence of the world in Shugendo. “Everything arises from the intersection of in and yo”. This is a phrase he always uses in the fire ritual (goma ritual), a critical component of Shugendo practice. Examples of in and yo given by Doukan are water and fire, man and woman. After in and yo intersect, everything is expressed by gogyo, the five phases. The importance of the north-west direction (Ken, meaning Heaven) for the placement of amulets is likely to be related to the trigram of that name. Wani-ontakesan do not use the hakke or Ekikyo as divination tools as they can ask the Gods questions directly through their Oza (spirit possession) sessions. Motoshige Okamoto, holding the microphone in the image below, performs the role of the medium in these rituals.
From martial arts to marriage, and more
The links between Shugendo practices and Ninjitsu (ninja techniques) are introduced in my blog on Ninja and the elements. This covers inyo and gogyo in the context of this discipline. Aikido has connections to inyo, and the Japan Karate Association uses a symbol of inyo as their logo (probably not the one you are thinking of). This Japanese equivalent of the yinyang symbol uses a circle to represent the universe with a red circle inside. Inside the circle the two colours co-exist, together yet separate.
From martial arts to marriage, and Japanese gardens to agriculture, the influence of inyo (at times in combination with gogyo) in Japan is extensive, permeating every level of society. Dating back from as early as the 6th to 8th century, marriage in Japan has been regarded as a union of the two elements of the universe – In and Yo – (‘Marriage in Changing Japan‘ (2010)). The importance of the harmonious blending of these two forces/energies in marriage was codified in Tokugawa law.
Books on agriculture from the same period (~ 1603-1868 AD) refer to the inyo-gogyo doctrine as well as hexagrams and fengshui (J. fusui). The yinyang nature of a site was the central theme of one agricultural book, which also used to five phases/elements to help determine soil quality. Increased access to books in the Tokugawa/Edo period led to inyo gogyo theory and bagua/Yi Jing divination reaching a wider audience. Hayashi Razan, a key advisor to the first four Tokugawa shoguns, also promoted inyo-gogyo setsu.
Symbolism of yinyang in Japan
Symbols and motifs are an integral part of Japanese culture. They are important to how we view, interpret and understand concepts, especially those that are invisible or intangible. I have long wondered how inyo and gogyo were symbolised in Japan prior to its modernisation. The tiger and dragon have represented in and yo in Japanese art for centuries, with some spectacular screens created in the Edo Period (~1603-1868). Inyo was also represented visually by the two lines used in the trigrams and hexagrams associated with the bagua and Yi Jing (J. Ekikyo). Through images, numbers and meanings the Yijing provided a way to decipher the universe. Due to advances in printing, around 1000 books were published on the Yi Jing in the Tokugawa era/Edo Period. Trigram books (J. hakke-bon) that contained a divinatory technique based on calendric values provided a contrasting approach to the Yi Jing . Both represented yinyang using the symbolism of solid and split lines.
An earlier illustration of the ‘Later Heaven’ sequence is illustrated in a Japanese hakke-bon (trigram book) published in 1693. The title of the book was ‘Shingon himitsu hakke kuden‘, Matthias Hayek shows the sequence and discusses the book in his academic paper The Eight Trigrams and their Changes (2011).
The Yinyang symbol we all know and love
So what of the popular black and white Tai Chi symbol (C. Taijitu) that has become synonymous with yinyang, especially in the West. Robin Wang summarises the textual and visual history leading to the creation of the symbol. The first known illustration is by the Chinese Neo-confucian thinker Zhao Huiqian (1351-1395 CE), in a diagram (tu) entitled Tiandi Zhiran Hetu (Heaven and Earth’s Natural Diagram of the River). The tu were designed as a means of articulating the fundamental patterns that govern phenomena in the universe. In this instance it was spot on.
I have seen several modern examples of the Tai Chi symbol in Japan but am yet to find a historical representation (written at the end of April 2020). Amongst other places, the two interlocking tear-drops have caught my attention in contemporary times at/on: the Seimei Shrine in Kyoto; a Taoist temple next to Fushimi Inari; the Nihondo Kampo shops in Kyoto and Tokyo; the cover of the Onmyoji movie DVD; the logo of the Ogawa School of Sencha (tea); on a lacquered mirror I bought in Matsue; on a souvenir purchased in Kyoto station (surrounded by the Four Guardians); a ceramic plate in Shiga; and in Chinatown in Yokohama.
In September 2020 I came across the most intriguing example of the iconic yinyang symbol I’ve seen in Japan, incorporated into one of the tapestries used in the Gion Festival in Kyoto. Catherine Pawasarat, who in late 2020 published the first book in English on the festival, indicated that the tapestry was woven in Japan. As of December 2020 it is one of two representations of the traditional yinyang symbol I am aware of that pre-date the modern period (post-Meiji), with a possible third. These ‘sightings’ add another exciting dimension to the story. It may turn out that the yinyang symbol was more widely known in the Edo period than I originally thought.
Several websites/blogs discussing symbolism in Japan state that the double tomoe is related to (or is) the yinyang symbol and has a similar meaning. There is much to unravel about this purported relationship, especially given the distinct differences in design compared to the Tai Chi. If the tomoe repesented inyo I would expect the symbol to be more common in Japan and more commonly referred to. Instead it is the mitsu domoe, with three comma shaped forms in a circular shape, that is found across the country.
The attraction of the Chinese black and white yinyang symbol is understandable; it intuitively captures the deep meaning of opposite yet complementary forces. As the symbol is over 600 years old, I wonder why it does not appear to have been widely used in Japan until modern times? Along with paired dragons and tigers, a popular image for tattoos, the Tai Chi now seems to have largely displaced the trigrams as the popular representation of inyo.
The introduction to this post described yinyang in Japan as utterly simple and wildly complicated. Having read my preliminary findings and perspectives I trust you agree. Onmyodo, the Way of Yinyang in Japan (in its broadest sense), has changed and evolved over its long history and continues to do so.
Yinyang in contemporary Japan
Early in the the Meiji period (1868-1912 AD) the Bureau of Yinyang was closed, Onmyoji and Shugendo practices banned, Shinto and Buddhism forcibly separated, the Gregorian calendar introduced, alongside many other monumental changes. With the government intent on modernisation, there was a risk that the philosophies of inyo and gogyo could be lost as fundamental components of Japanese thought and culture. Yet festivals and rituals continued, as did belief in lucky and unlucky days, years and directions. Traditions and practices held on, especially in rural areas. Following World War 2 more changes occurred, including a new constitution in Japan. Shugendo was officially reinstated and has become increasingly popular, particularly in the west, as a way to enlightenment and deeper connections with nature. Through these changes exposure to, and understanding of, inyo and gogyo have changed accordingly.
The Onmyoji movies, released in 2001 and 2003 (see Kiejziewicz (2017) Japanese magic on the screen), led to an explosion of related yinyang media and imagery including Apps, TV shows, video games, music, manga and anime that together raised the popular profile of yinyang in Japan. Anime and manga show miko (Shinto shrine maidens) summoning and controlling shikigami – the spirit servants used by Onmyoji in various rituals. Ninja and their practices are also popular and widely portrayed. There are schools in Japan that continue to teach divination using the Ekikyo (Yi Jing). The trigrams may also appear in the annual almanacs published in Japan, something I have to look into more. I also plan to further explore the application of seimeigaku (full-name science) over time where inyo and gogyo form part of numerical tests used to chose Japanese people’s names.
Many contemporary festivals, rituals, fortune telling and identification of auspicious dates and directions are based on Onmyodo. Kampo and fusui are still practiced. All of these modern activities include elements of yinyang. In and Yo (and gogyo) feature prominently in a book I bought in Japan authored by older Japanese people, describing what was important in their lives. Interestingly, Davey (2007; The Japanese Way of the Artist) describes inyo as one of the spiritual aesthetics of Japan along with wabi-sabi, mono-no-aware and others. While the depth of understanding of the philosophy of ki (vital energy) and inyo gogyo setsu will vary among contemporary Japanese, yinyang remains part of their psyche.
Harmonising vital energies
Inyo and gogyo represent nature and the universe as expressions of energy that are constantly changing. It is within our reach to bring them into balance and harmony depending on our actions. This perhaps helps explain the popularity of yinyang in the west, in both its purest form and as expressed through practices such as Feng Shui and the Yi Jing. As an indication of the reach of yinyang thought, I was pleasantly surprised to see the Tai Chi symbol prominently displayed in the last episode of the satirical Australian series ‘Mad as Hell‘ on April 22nd, 2020. It illustrates and reinforces the importance of harmonising and balancing the vital energies and polarities around us.
In this time of the coronavirus these parting words are from Reverend Barrish from the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America, based on the Kyusei Kigaku for 2020.
How can we best go forward joyfully in these deeply troubling times?
.. we must be grounded, centered and connected to deep sources of vitality to go forward — to become purified and renewed and enjoy each day as the special gift even as we feel deeply and compassionately connected to the many injustices and crimes against Nature that are ongoing in our current world…if we base our lives on seeking cooperation and giving gratitude we can stand on the sacred earth and receive the infinite vitality and KI in this current moment…
With harmony and balance in mind, this blog was posted at 4.27 on 27.4.20.
After posting this blog in April 2020 I rediscovered a book in my library that is directly relevant to yinyang in Japan. Published in 1971 The Looking Glass God was ahead of its time in many ways. It has an intriguing cover, with the requisite yinyang symbols. The book has deep meaning and warrants further exploration.
A complementary post written in August 2020 also has significance to yinyang in Japan. It stems from three unconnected sightings related to Hokusai the artist, and a chance discovery of his instructions on how to draw a torii. The strong connection to Ekikyo (I Ching), inyo and gogyo in drawing this form was a real eye-opener. You can read more about it here.
I have also discovered additional references to yinyang in books on Japanese swords, management styles and supernatural creatures (yokai), and in several more academic articles. The ‘sightings’ and connections are growing. Together they are building a fascinating and complex picture of yinyang (inyo) in Japan through space and time.
In February 2022 this short piece was published on the Writers in Kyoto website about the oldest representation of the yinyang symbol that I have found in Japan, to date. It is hiding in plane sight on a 1798 tapestry on the back of the Hoshoyama float that participates in the famous Gion Festival, usually held in July each year.