Wednesday, June 15, 2016

An Analysis of Ebisu and an Ebisu Sculpture

Ebisu Sculpture, Edo Period, Bronze,
CSUS University Library Gallery

In this article, I'm going to do a more formal analysis of a Japanese kami and a sculpture of than I usually do. I love Asian art and Asian art history, so I put a lot of research and time into this. If you want to know about my sources, I've included them at the end of the article.

The bronze Ebisu sculpture pictured on the left is a skillfully made piece a style that reflects the talent of the artisans. It represents the kami Ebisu in the context of the religious beliefs and philosophies of the people, as can be seen from the traditional Japanese clothing, the design of the figure, and his various accessories. The sculpture is the epitome of ancient practices morphing into modern traditions. One instance is the transformation of the traditional Japanese clothing into symbolic garb that the kami is wearing. To see this, it is important to understand who and what Ebisu is and to understand the development of his iconography. We can then look at how those tie into this particular sculpture and the way in which it was made.

According to JAANUS, Ebisu can be identified by “his fishing rod, held in his right hand or over his right shoulder, and a freshly caught, large red snapper or sea bream (tai 鯛, a symbol of good fortune) under his left arm. He is a plump figure with a broadly grinning face, usually shown sitting on a rock. He may wear a kimono 着物 and divided skirt hakama 袴, or sashinuki 指貫, a type of Heian period hakama gathered in at the ankles, or sometimes kariginu 狩衣, the ancient hunting robes which became the ordinary apparel of Heian period courtiers. On his head, he wears a tall, pointed cap folded in the middle called kazaori eboshi 風折烏帽子.” He also has a thin mustache and swollen earlobes

There are many different origin stories for Ebisu, one of which has Daikoku as Ebisu’s father. In another, Ebisu and Daikoku are the first Japanese to make a mutually beneficial trade, thus inventing commerce. The story goes that Ebisu was the first angler, a skilled fisherman, who never wanted for fish, but strongly desired to have rice. He decided to go far inland, where no one had access to the ocean. He met with Daikoku and, in exchange for a bag of rice, Ebisu gave Daikoku a large red tai, a fish with good flesh. And so Daikoku and Ebisu became the gods of good fortune, for it was fortunate that they found each other and made such a favorable trade. For this, Ebisu is known not only as the patron god of fishermen, but also as the kami of trade and commerce.

Ebisu is a complicated deity, in terms of the beliefs associated with him. This is probably because he has many different aspects, as represented by his many forms. He is generally “depicted as a fisher­ man with a red tai (a kind of perch or sea-bream) under his arm and holding a fishing rod … Ebisu sometimes takes the shape of a human corpse floating on the surface of the sea, sometimes of a shark or a whale, sometimes even of a float~the Ebisu-aba or Ebisu-float~and sometimes Ebisu is just an ordinary stone drifted or brought ashore.”

By the 12th century, the worship of this kami of good fortune and wealth was strongly associated with markets and small businesses. Ebisu is and was particularly worshipped by small business owners and merchants. A variety of objects, such as rocks, were used as symbolic of Ebisu in the homes of fishermen. In the case of this sculpture, it could have resided in a shrine, in the home of a fisherman, or in a prominent place in a small business as a more literal image to be worshipped. Ebisu was clearly an important deity for fishermen. Even in modern practice, Ebisu is frequently called upon, although the specific reason isn’t entirely known.

“Again we must admit that we are at a loss to explain what the name refers to when fisherman repeat ‘Ebisu! Ebisu!’ while they kill fish by beating them on the head. The one conclusion that we can draw is that Ebisu, as fishermen worshipfully call him, is the power who, they believe, grants them successful catches. Consequently we may assume that a stone picked up from the sea bottom, a corpse, a shark, or any object believed to have power over the catch, has the potentiality of becoming Ebisu.”

Because Ebisu represents the ideals of honest commerce, he is an important deit to merchants and business owners.

“As a god of business prosperity teaching the avoidance of greed, Ebisu is a model for success based on service to customers rather than desire for netting large profits. Here again is a reminder that the pursuit of this-worldly benefits is couched in moral terms. It is little wonder, given this focus on service and intimacy with customers, that Ebisu is especially popular with small shopkeepers and merchants, and those who run small restaurants and the like, people who depend on maintaining a steady clientele and a close relationship to their customers through personalized service.”

In modern day Japan, kami are still considered important in business. Traditionally, kami represent production and support of the community. “This in turn perhaps reflects a tacit recognition in the Japanese commercial world of traditional views of causation.” For the Japanese, kami worship is already well practiced, so that reliance on kami seems only natural. It also provides a sense of security and support that is probably very attractive in the world of business. Traditional kami have morphed into the modern deities recognized in Japan to be more closely linked with business.

Bronze casting of objects like Ebisu, statues made for personal use, started around the 17th century. Originally, bronze-cast sculptures were made for temple or shrine use. "Towards the middle of the seventeenth century another new departure was made: bronze-casters turned their attention to objects for use in private houses. Hitherto they have been seen devoting their best efforts to work of a religious character; they now began to cast alcove-ornaments, flower-vases, and

By looking at the iconography, this particular object of worship is easily recognizable as Ebisu: he has the fishing rod and the red tai, most notably. Each of the kami’s accessories carries a symbolic significance, whether from direct association with Ebisu or from it’s own merits. We will be looking at the fish, the fishing rod, his clothing, and the rock.

The red tai that Ebisu carries under his arm is not only symbolic of the kami, but is also a national symbol for Japan. A fish known for it’s good white flesh in good quantities and consistent quality, it’s no wonder that it’s associated with their deity of good fortune and good luck. So important is the red tai (and all fish) to the Japanese that they will ritualistically bury the bones of the fish near or under a shrine. It was thought that the fish had allowed itself to be caught and that the spirit would return to “their ancestors, and their flesh having been disposed of, they would return later to be caught and killed again.” A ritual performed would involve a ‘head-striking-stick’, with which the fisherman would kill “his catch by knocking it on his head. Chief Penri told Batchelor ‘that these fish liked being struck on the head and thus killed.’ It was the orthodox way of ‘sending the divine creature away.’” Even though Ebisu is the god of fisherman, this statue doesn’t have a ‘head striking stick.’ One might stipulate that it’s because Ebisu, like the fish, is a divine being and doesn’t have to follow the practices of mortals. More likely, it is because this is a more obscure reference to Ebisu.

Since Ebisu is recognized as the first angler of Japan, the fishing rod is a key feature that strongly identifies the sculpture as one of Ebisu. Rice and fish are probably the two most important foods in Japan, especially since Japan is nothing more than islands, making it easy to obtain fish. Fish are also a common theme in many Japanese myths, implying that Ebisu is not unique in having a fish in his symbology. He does appear to be unique in that he’s the only kami to have a red tai.

As stated above, Ebisu can be seen in many different outfits. This particular sculpture has Ebisu in a sashinuki, a set of trousers similar to the hakama but gathered at the ankles. The sashinuki were commonly worn for hunting, being more convenient than hakama and easier to move around in. They varied in colour and fabric, depending on the age or rank of the wearer. In the case of this Ebisu sculpture, the material and colour are not discernable.

The rock on which Ebisu is standing may or may not have any symbolic significance. It could be that whoever cast this bronze sculpture merely put the rock there for aesthetic reasons. Another possibility is that the rock could represent the form of Ebisu as a rock washed on to the shore or picked up from the bottom of the sea, as stated earlier in this paper. There are legends of rocks being washed ashore which are associated with Ebisu. For this reason, they can be worshipped as Ebisu. During seasonal rituals, stones collected by diving are worshipped as the kami. This is comparable to the worship of sinkers, also known as Ebisu-aba. Ebisu-aba are wooden floats tied to a fishing nets. (As stated in "Ebisu, the Visiting Deity of Fishing and Good Fortune," Even in modern times, fisheries still practice the worship of Ebisu-sinkers along the coasts of the Sea of Japan and the Inland Sea. “There are no clues as to how these two in­compatible practices of Ebisu worship are related to each other or how they originated.”

While it’s hard to tell which period this sculpture is from, it is most likely from the Meiji period in Japan, although Edo period is also a likelihood. However, it is more likely to be Meiji, since the figure is so detailed. Ebisu’s face is round and almost cartoony, but the features are very realistic, like the Kei-school of sculpture. The wrinkles in his forehead don’t appear to be stylistic representations, like the folds of flesh on the neck of a Buddha from earlier periods. The detail in Ebisu’s hair, how it appears to consist of strands, is also characteristic of the Meiji style of sculpture. The red tai that Ebisu has caught is also very similar to other Meiji style fish. The scales are defined individually. The details on the fish around the gills and the face also look to be almost hyper-realistic, which is characteristic of the Meiji and Kei-school styles. Ebisu’s garb is also very detailed and not stylized like earlier varieties of sculpture. The folds don’t follow any particular pattern or have a consistent repetition. Also suggestive of Meiji style sculpture is the lack of texture on the kimono and sashinuki. The realistic details are similar to the realism found in European sculpture, suggesting that this sculpture was influenced by Western art.

The bronze that this statue was made from was cast and treated in a way that was common to Japan. “Using verdigris, copper sulphate, and alum mixture to chemically treat copper alloys containing small amounts of added gold produces a lustrous black cuprite patina containg small amounts of gold … The use of this kind of patinaing solution in Japan, where it is known as ‘nikomi-chakushoku,’ can be traced back at least 600 years.”

Even in this one Ebisu sculpture, we can see the history and origins of Ebisu are far from simple. The Shinto practices associated with Ebisu can be directly related to the bronze Ebisu sculpture through analysis of the kami’s iconography and how it was crafted. In the many beliefs associated with the deity, the patron of fishermen and of commerce seem to be the most common. The strong beliefs in the nature of fish and fishing is evident from the worship of an angler and his fish, as is the worship of his representation in small businesses and marketplaces. This bronze Ebisu sculpture is a skillfully made piece, not only in construction, but in how it represents the different aspects of Ebisu.


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