July 14, 1996

International Planetarium Society (IPS) Conferences 1996 Osaka

Stellar Iconology and Astronomical Folklore in Japan

Takao Ibaraki

Suginami Science Education Center

Suginami-Ku, Tokyo 167, Japan


I have summarized the following topics in Japan, stellar iconology, astronomical folklore, and ancient constructions which may give us a clue to Archeoastronomy. These things are generally considered either as the characteristic culture derived from China, or as the culture which is entirely native to Japan. In either cases, mankind have always had interest in these astronomical phenomena as their underlying nature therefore we must view the origin or the peculiar names given to each specific things in much more wholistic view. These matters should be arranged and analyzed by taking the results of every individual study into account, and at the same time, considering them in much more globalistic cultures.


@I. Introduction


The following passage from the book titled "Makura no soshi"(The Pillow Book) written by the famous authoress Sei-Shonagon around the early 11th century, is well-known to people involved in astronomy.


@ "The Pleiades. Altair. The morning star and the evening star.

@ If only there were no shooting stars to come visiting us at night." *[L1]

@ Four celestial body appear in this passage. They are Pleiades, Altair, Venus ( Lucifer & Hesperus ), Meteor, by its orders. Even when taking Sei-Shonagon's taste and an unique view into account, it is not hard to see that the intellectuals in her time did not have that much knowledge about astronomy. Other then these stars, Vega, Big Dipper, Pole star, and Three star's of Orion's belt were the only stars that were well-known to the people of that time. This fact remains true up to the early modern time. A poet like Aratus who imagined a great big scroll into the celestial sky did not appear in Japan, or also the names given to the stars from the Chinese astrology did not became popular. However, in the 20th century researchers and investigators were able to gather many local names in all places of Japan which had not appeared in official literature. *[L2] I have no knowledge of other country's investigation, but this huge collection of the names of stars shows a deep interest of farmers and fisherman in celestial body. Also, because no dogmatic view developed, the connection between the people and the stars that lies behind the naming of the stars have maintained its original form. These naming are becoming forgotten along with the abandoning of its original custom.

@ I must say that it was fortunate that Tanabata star festival and Jyugoya a moon festival has become a widely spread event that are still celebrated all over Japan. Although these festivals have changed their nature by the influence of the commercial principles, we can still see the remnant of the styles inherited from the ancient time.

@ Archeoastronomy ~ research of buildings which are related to astronomy ~ is an appealing field that clearly shows the ancient people's interest in astronomy. But no Astronomy-Oriented buildings equivalent to the Stonehenge or Pyramid have been found up to this day in Japan. I would just like to introduce here some of the ruins that may lead us to Archeoastronomy, and wait for further research.


@II. Stellar Iconology

@ @

"Zodiac is a Rorschach test given to mankind in his childhood." (Gaston -Bachelard 1943)

When we look over the modification and the distribution of the names given to the stars and the constellations, we can catch a glimpse of mind and culture that lie behind these naming. Of all the stars in the sky, the stars that were paid attention to by people regardless of there races and the era are limited. One of the most typical stars of this kind is the Pleiades. Subaru, Mutura-boshi, hagoita-bosi, Nou-boshi are just a few way of naming this star. Including some of the dialects, more then one hundred names for this star are reported in Japan. These various names could be classified as follows. This classification is certainly applicable to other stars and constellations.


@ (i) Number

@ (ii) Simple mathematical figure

@ (iii) Colors and brightness

@ (iv) Direction

@ (v) Season

@ (vi) Order of rising or setting

@ (vii) Legend

@ (viii) Daily life tools

@ (ix) Living things ( human being, animal )

@ (x) Place name ( especially, related to the direction of rising or setting )

@ (xi) Chinese origin

@ (xii) Adjective word

@ (xiii) etc. ..


Recognition of randomly placed dots as a simple figure rather than recognizing it one by one is known as one of the natural habitat of the human beings from his early childhood. ( At this point four stars could be only recognized as a quadrilateral or a rhombus figure and not as a cross.) Counting each dot of light and recognizing its color and brightness and attempting to grasp the physical peculiarity of the stars must have also been the natural ability of the human beings. (which played the crucial role in the progress of science.) For instance Sirius has the following Japanese names, Oh-boshi ( big-star ), Ao-boshi ( blue-star ), Irojiro ( white-star ), and so on associated with colors and sizes of the stars. ( The word Sirius also comes from the meaning "scorching brilliance". ) In my opinion, (i)~(iii) is at the basis of the recognition, and from the needs of understanding the seasons and the time, it transformed into classification such as (iv)~(vi) which calls for much more advanced imagination and observation. There could not have been any inheritance of the names of the stars if the community did not share any common underlying ground. Long observing experience is essential for the names to be continually distributed.

@ In prior to the invention of the letters, tools familiar to mankind, animals and human, gods from the myths, had come to be used as an icon. Hogben * [L3] had conjectured that especially Zodiac was associated with the symbol or the totem of the community (tribe). In later time, it developed into a primitive calendar. There are trace of this evidence in Japan, but we can see many different names of the stars and adage that identify the seasons and the time. Needless to say people needed to know the time of the harvest and the time to hunt fish. For example, Hesiod had sung in his "Works and Days" that heliacal rising of Arcturus suggested the time to harvest the grapes in the Ancient Greece. In Japan, this star has a name such as Mugi-boshi ( barley-star ), and Samidare-boshi ( rainy season's star ).

@ Many more stars have been used as the nature calendar and the nature clock. However, only few were specifically named for this purpose. In most cases the stars that were suitable for the use which had more familiar icon were utilized. Many adages have been found indicating the rising and the meridian transit of the stars were observed and named with the landmark of the scenery such as a characteristic mountain sites. When classifying Japanese names for stars, we can see that most of its names derive from this observation.

@ In later years, Greek poets spread out an enormous stories of gods into the celestial globe and then handed them to the scholars who systematically turned them into the ecliptic. As for China, their governmental offices ( bureaucracy ) were also projected to celestial globe. From the Chinese astrologers who intended to foretell the future of the country, the stars became much more dogmatic as the "celestial sky as a book". Granted that many of the names given to the stars still have the trace of its former sense, the stars shining above lost their original function and became only to be noted in the people's mind. This was the final step in naming the stars before they classified as the object of astronomical observation. As for Japan, there were only a few poets, who praised the stars. This could be considered as the reason the abstraction and systematization did not occur in this country, which helped to preserve the simple names.

@ The above-mentioned stellar origins and modifications could be summarized as follows;


(1) Simple, Visual ( Sight ) , Recognition ---(i), (ii), (iii), (xii)


(2) Iconographic View ( include in Time-Space Recognition) ---(iv), (v), (vi) & (vii), (viii), ( ix), (x)


(3) Dogmatic view ---(xi)


@ Based on these aspects I would give some of the chief examples of the names given to the stars in Japan.


@ The stars that have naming of more than a hundred to start from;


[Pleiades] Subaru (1)( old word means "gathering or connecting" ), Issyou-boshi (2)( 1-shou is one of volume units in old Japan;=1.81), Mutura-boshi (1)( 6 gathering stars ), Kuyou-no-hoshi(2)( "Ku"=9 may means time or number ), Nou-boshi (2)(agriculture star), etc. There is a saying "Subaru Mandoki Kona 8 gou", people decided the time to plant the seeds of buckwheat by looking at the meridian transit of Subaru at dawn. At present, the name "Subaru" is well known to the people, and the name was given to the telescope being built in Hawaii.

[Ursa Major] The names that correspond to the big dipper in English are; Nanatu-boshi( seven-stars ) (1), Hisyaku-boshi (2)( dipper-stars ), Shi-sou-no-hoshi ( 4-3-stars ) (1), Hagun-no-hoshi (3), etc. Hagun-seii”jŒR―) was originally Chinese name for ƒΚUMa, and it became worshipped by the Samurai caste. It also has another name of Kensaki-boshi ( a point of sword ) (2) which was used as the star-clock. At present, Hokuto-Shiti-Sei is more familiar. The name Beido(–k“lj also has the China origin.

[Orion] Mitu-boshi ( three-stars ) (1), Sakamasu-bashi (square measure for wine )(2), Oyaninai-boshi ( carrying on parent )(2), Karasuki-boshi ( Karasuki is one of the main implements for agriculture in ancient Japan )(2), etc.. Mitsu-boshi or Orion is used in present. There are names such as Genji-boshi for Rigel, and Heike-boshi for Betelgeuse. This came from the color of their flags ( white and red ).

[Pole-Star] Ne-no-hoshi ( north-star ) (1), Hitotu-boshi ( single-star )(1), Hokushin (–k’Cj(3), Myouken (–­Œ©j(3), Shin-boshi ( axis-star )(1), etc. . The name Hokkyokusei is used at present ( –k‹Ι―beijixing - north pole star )(3).


@ Other representative and characteristic stars;

[Aquila] The Japanese name for Altair, Hiko-boshi ( "hiko" meaning man ) (2) has its origin in the legend of Tanabata, or the Chinese name "Kengyu" (Œ‘‹jis widely used as of today. Inukai-boshi ( star of man and two dogs ) (2), etc.

[Canopus] Mera-boshi ( "Mera" is the place in Japan, also means the direction "south" ) (2), Roujin-sei ( An old-man star ) (3), etc.

[Cassiopeia] Ikari-boshi ( anchor-star ) (2), Sankaku (triangle ) (1), Yamagata-boshi ( figure of mountain ) (2), Today, "Cassiopeia's W" is used as a custom.

[Hyades] Turigane-boshi ( associated with suspending big bell in temple. ) (2), Mi-boshi ( "Mi" –₯ is an agricultural tool used from the ancient ages. It was made from bamboo, and used to remove any dust and husks from crops. ) (2), etc. . Mi-boshi is assigned to four stars (ƒΔ-ƒΡ-ƒΠ-ƒΣ) in Sagittarius. It is interesting that in China, the stars laying near those four stars are called "the home of Mi" ( They are ƒΑ-ƒΒ-ƒΓ-ƒΕ ). For Aldebaran ; Ato-boshi ( the same meaning as Arabic name " rising latter on Subaru ".) (1), etc.

[Jupiter] Moku-sei (3). There were not many names for Jupiter in spite of Kin-sei(Venus) having various names. The name "Sai-sei" (3) appear in literatures, Jupiter called Yonaka-no-Myoujyou (Midnight Venus) in some parts of the country. Astrology had been systematized by observation of the revolution period(about 12 years).

[Vega] TanabataiŽ΅—[j (2),etc. This name has its origin in the name of the maiden in the service of a shrine or goddess in Ancient Japanese mythology. Her name is Tanabatatumei’I‹@—j, which literally means a female weaver." Her job was to weave divine clothes in a shack by the river, and to prepare for the arrival of the gods. Chinese name, Shokujyo (D—j, is popularly used, and from the period

after the modernization, the name, Orihime-boshi (2) is also widely known to the public.

[Scorpius] The constellation has the name, Uwoturi-boshi (2) (fishing star) and Kagokatugi-boshi (2) (basket carrying star). Antares has other names such as drunk star and red star.


@III. Astronomical Folklore


In Miyako-jima, Okinawa there is a legend that one can see a god named Akaria-zagama ( Akara-zzagama ) in the moon. This god is holding in his hands two vessels on the balance. The distribution of the people who sees a man drawing water in the moon spreads from the northern region of Eurasia to the north-western coast of North America then to the south western coast of the pacific. Also, A legend of a rabbit holding the potion of eternal life probably has its origin in India and came into Japan from China. People seeing a rabbit in the moon could be found all the way down at South Africa and also in a part in Mexico. There is no doubt that the surface pattern on the moon was another Rorschach-test for the mankind. *[L4]


1. Myths in Ancient Japan


"Kojiki", "Nihon-syoki", and "Izumonokuni-Fudoki" one of the principal mythologies, are some of the recorded myths in Japan. They were compiled by the early 8th century, from the demand by the central government.

@ Myths always have the details of creating heaven and earth at the beginning. Without exception, Japanese myths also have them. However the description is too abstract that it has many ways of interpretation. As well known to the public, the gods having astronomical feature in Japanese myths are extremely few. The god of the Sun, Amaterasu has much of a characteristic of imperial god having supreme power. "Amano-Iwayado-Shinwa" ( Interpreted as the ceremony of the winter solstice, praying for the resurrection of the Sun ) is about the only one having the trace of human's faith towards the Sun. As for the moon, Tukuyomi is about the only one who appears pertaining to the division rule of day and night. As for the stars, Amatu-mikaboshi, who has a pseudonym, Amenokagaseo (which means "a shiny man." It may be a god of Venus.) is not given any honorific title, and is only recorded as an evil god. However, we should not conclude from this fact that people of the time did not pay any attention to astronomy. The faith of the maritime civilization in Jomon-period must have become inconspicuous along the way. Some people claim, Ame-no-minakanusi, one of the first gods that was born after the creation of heaven and earth, signifies "Center of the Heavens" in another words it may symbolize the North Star.

@ There are also many local places dedicating a shrine to Amateru ~ the original god of the Sun ~ and Tukuyomi. I wonder how ceremonies were dedicated, when people worshipped these gods in their daily lives.


@2. Tanabata and Jyugoya


[Tanabata] The love story of Kengyu & Orihime, and the custom to deify these two stars (ŒξŒχšω Kikou-den), derived from China in the Nara-period(A.D710-794) . On the day of the festival, people celebrate the two meeting just once in a year, and also prayed for the improvement of needlework in association with Orihime; She was said to be an excellent weaver. The festival was originally celebrated as a court ceremony. The celebration widely spread to ordinary people in the late Edo-period ( early 19th century ). From this time people started to hang Tanzaku, a strip of paper for writing wish, on to a bamboo tree. It is said that like a scenery of present Japan, with TV-antennas standing all over the places, a bamboo tree stood in front of the houses everywhere. At present, Tanabata has become one of the national celebration. Like Sendai-city and Hiratuka-city, many cities have large commercialized festival. It is legitimate to celebrate on July 7th by the calendar used before the Meiji-period. At present, people celebrate it on various days such as on July 7th by the present calendar, or on August 7th which is a month later. "Tanabata" comes from the meaning " evening of the 7th ", but its etymology; Tanabata-tume, is a name of a median whom I mentioned before at the section of Vega. There is also a shrine dedicated to her. The legend having a characteristic of Orihime can be seen in widely spread regions around the world. The stories similar to the Amateru of Japan can be seen in many places in the Pacific area. Furthermore, regional custom practiced on July 7th still remain in many parts of Japan. The cows play crucial role in Tanabata festival of Ichiki city. The local festival of Gion-Shrine such as the Gion-festival held in Kyoto, and Nebuta-festivals held in many places of eastern Japan. They are all considered as the festival for worshipping gods of water which is a worship characteristic of the people who depended their lives on agriculture. The festivals of this kind were originally celebrated by the river. The Chinese legend "Rendezvous of two stars" can also be predicted as having the same origin because Ό‰€•κiSei-ou-bo) could be interpreted as Orihime herself.

@ The reason for this festival to become associated to Vega is not clear. It may be because Vega shines besides the Milky Way. From my view, considering the Vega's rising season, the star might have been used to inform people of the arrival of rainy-season of monsoon area.

@ @

[Jyugoya] For ancient people, the moon which illumined the night and controlled the sea was nothing more than a object of awe and fear. The remnant could be found from a sentence of "Taketori-monogatari" saying that "you should not look at the face of the moon" or from the tradition telling people that "you may get unfortunate looking at crescent moon". It was common to all people of the world to think in this way.

@ The Full Moon Festival on August 15th of the old-calendar was imitated from Chinese Mid-autumn Moon Festival in the Heian-period ( around the mid 10th century ). It was a typical court function; offering the year's harvest to the moon, composing a poem, and playing the music. From these practices, the moon became regarded as the suitable object for appreciating its beauty known as the concept of "Setugekka (Snow, Moon, and Flowers)". On the other hand for commoners, the moon became the object of thanksgiving. Offering the "tukimi-dango" became popular in the Edo-period. At present, since the practice had become so popular, people associate dango with the word "Otukimi".

@ Like Tanabata, many folklores are known in the countryside. I find it especially interesting that in southern Kyusyu they play "tag-of-war" and "Sumo" on this day. Also, the mask used for this festival has striking resemblance with the ones used in Micronesia. The use of taro in Japanese celebration may have been an influence from South-East Asia.

@ Further, the moon of a September 13th by the old-calendar is also celebrated as "Jyusan-ya ( 13th Moon Night )". This festival is only local to Japan, which started from the Heian-period. Moreover, Japanese have celebrated another phases of the moon called the "Tuki-Mati (Waiting for Rising of the Moon)". The ceremony to worship the moon such as the 13th, 19th, 23rd, and 26th night of the moon became very popular in the Edo-period. This was originally a Buddhist ceremony. In present day we can catch a glimpse of the remnants of this practice in the form of the small stone pagoda, which stands along the path. By the way, 13th is the festival of "kokuuzou-bosatu" known as an embodiment of the moon or the Venus. This stimulated the festival of the 13th night.

@ The world-wide distribution of the legend of Orihime living in the Moon, the relationship between a cow and a god of water, a cow symbolizing a god of the moon, Jyugoya and Tanabata festivals inviting a dragon or a snake which is the embodiment of a god once a year; considering the fact that the characteristics are applicable not only in China but also in Siberia and Polynesia, Jugo-ya and Tanabata ceremonies could have had the same meaning. That is, to pray for the blessing from the land and the sea, which was all common to human beings.


@3. Other festivals

@ From the third stage in the origin of the constellation <Dogmatic View> ( Mentioned earlier in Chapter II ), Japanese edition of the Horoscope was completed around 10~12th century. People in the court had his fortune told by an astrologist called "Shukuyou-shi". The astrologist used "Hoshi-Mandara ( Something of a Buddhism universe picture )", but did not become popular to the public. The Buddhism which have its origin in India, intricate itself in China by fusing and differentiating, then it underwent a peculiar development in Japan. One of them is the "Hokusin-myouken-sinkou" in Japan. This is a religion to worship the north-star or the big dipper, and "Myouken-bosatu"(–­Œ©•μŽFj, its incarnated figure. The samurai caste believed in this religion and then the worship spread to the public in Edo-period. They built "Myoken Temple" in many places over Japan. Well known in the history of Japan, a number of conflicts between Buddhism and Shintoism made the "Myouken temple" change its name to either "Myouken Shrine" or "Hoshi-Jinjya (Star Shrine)". Many temples still remain including Totigi having more than a hundred temples, Chiba, Kouti, and many more. I find it interesting that some of the temples dedicate a huge rock which is said to be a star that fell to the earth.


@IV. An Attempt of Archeoastronomy in Japan


@ The Jomon-period in Japan which started around B.C.10,000, is known as one of the oldest cultures in the world. In recent years, the excavation of the Sannai-Maruyama site (Aomori) and the Hakodate-Airport site (Hokkaido) made people overthrow their previous assumption; People in the Jomon-period were not only hunting and gathering people. Six wooden posts measuring approximately 1 meter in diameter, and 10~20 meters in height were found and became the news. The archeological research group has put on the internet the following question to the researcher in the world; "What do you think this is?" One of the answers was to investigate its astronomical direction. Archeoastronomy came in the light by the pioneer research conducted by N.Lockyer, and then it became recognized by G.Hawkins' research at Stonehenge. It seems that archeoastronomy have become one of the new branch of learning. By the way, many Stone Circles from the Jomon-Period could be found in the northern region of Japan. One of the Stone Circle lies in Ohyu, Akita. It measures 50 meters in diameter and has a menhil called "Sundial" at the center. Beside these features, the ruins are made up of small stones which was thought to have no connection with astronomy without investigating its astronomical direction. However, in 1994, in the excavation of Terano Higashi Site of Totigi, (Diameter, 165 meters. The largest circular heap mound of Jomon Period) it was found that the extended line from paved pedestal at the center to a certain spot inside the mound indicates the place of the sunrise over Mount Tukuba on the morning of the winter solstice. A sundial and Ohyu Stone Circle is another possible case of buildings having association with astronomy. I would like to wait for later verification.

@ While the Jomon-period of Japan is still filled with dark mystery, there are many successful research on ruins and shrines built after 3rd century. Connection between ruins, shrines, and two sacred mountains ( Nijyou-san and Miwa-yama ) symbolizing the ancient Yamato area is being investigated. *[L5] For example, sunrise at the winter solstice could be seen at the summit of Miwa-yama from Kagamitukuri Shrine dedicated to Amateru~ a goddess of the sun. These are thought as the form of sun worship by ancient people. Not only in the places like the Yamato basin where the natural setting favored the construction of such shrines, but also in different parts of the country various shrines and ruins with similar specifications were present. "Torii" of a shrine could be said as a landmark ( or the sight ) to align the sun with the shrine or the mountain range. The location of the sun rising from the skyline by the seasons must have been memorized or recorded and used as practical calendar although it was local to that area. These reliance to the sun changes as time goes on, and the city was then built based on north and south or east and west which derived from China.


@V. Summary


@ I have made it clear that iconizing the constellations is determined by the cultural background of people. And also main stars of those constellations was used for a recognition of the season and the time. It is a fact that moonlights and starlight appeal to the heart of each and every human being. But I will need to set up an another chapter on "Stellar Iconology" to explain the influence of these things on psychology and literature.

@ There are many names given to the stars that were not noted in here. Also there are many poets, such as Saigyou who sang about the moon, or Kenreimonin-ukyounodaihu who sang about stars. Many more folklore, legends, and ruins exist. I have only outlined some of them, but made it clear that every fact cannot be sufficiently explained if we were to think it only in a small community such as Japan. The object we are dealing with is universal, however there always exist culture and language barrier which restrict outsiders to fully comprehend the explanations unique to one culture. However when we break the wall and solve the mystery, we will be able to obtain the same conception similar to the one ancient people had. I would like to wish that this paper will give a small clue to solve the puzzle, and also hope for the publication of astronomical custom here in Japan that makes it possible of a global comparison by the researchers from different fields.



This text was originally written in Japanese . I would like to thank Mr. Yoshito Sudoh and Miss. Rieko Hirano for translating the paper into English.@


[L1] "The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon" Ivan Morris Vol.1 N.Y. Columbia Press (1967 )

[L2] About Japanese names of stars in this paper, referred to following literatures.





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