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Festivals of Light - Shinto

Netsuke depicting the goddess Ame no Usume no Mikoto, Japan, 1750-1850. Museum no. A. 743-1910

Netsuke depicting the Shinto Goddess of Mirth, Ama-no-Uzume. Japan, 1750-1850. Museum no. A. 743-1910. Also known as Okame, the goddess is pelting a demon (oni) with beans as he takes refuge in her skirts.

In the traditional native religion of Japan - Shinto - mirrors hold a particular significance. The mirror forms part of the sacred regalia of Japan along with a jewel and a sword. All these are associated with Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Goddess, as described in the 8th-century Kojiki, Japan's oldest extant chronicle, recording events from the mythical age of the gods.

Amaterasu is accompanied by her younger brother, the deity Susanoo no Mikoto. Deeply offended by his actions Amaterasu hid herself in a cave leaving the universe in complete darkness and chaos.

The other gods begged her to emerge, but it was only after the Goddess of Mirth, Ama-no-Uzume, hung a mirror on a tree and performed an erotic dance outside the cave that the laughter of the other gods made Amaterasu peep out of the cave with curiosity.

Bronze mirror, Japan, 1400-1550. Museum no. 722-1901

Bronze mirror, Japan, 1400-1550. Museum no. 722-1901. The first mirrors to be used in Japan were imported from Korea and China and it was not until the 4th century AD that the Japanese began to make their own, cast from bronze. The mirror faces were polished and, from the 11th century, made more reflective by applying a thin layer of tin. They were lifted and held by a cord that passed through a hole in the raised boss – which often took the form of a tortoise – on the centre back. This mirror is decorated with a scene of cranes, pines and bamboo by the seashore, a conventional assemblage of symbols for longevity.

The Sun Goddess caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror and was so startled that the other gods were able to pull her out and convince her to return to the sky, thus returning light and order to the world. Her return to the sky is celebrated on the winter solstice on 21 December.

Amaterasu's grandson was sent to pacify Japan and his great-grandson became the first emperor of Japan - hence the Japanese emperors claim descent from the sun god.

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