Friday, November 21, 2008

More on Luzon Jars

I have received some comments in correspondence as to whether the value of Luzon jars in Japan (known as Ruson-tsubo) might be due just to their antique and practical value rather than to any sacred valuation.

As I have noted previously in this blog, the Japanese had an old mythological tradition of jar worship going back to the epics Kojiki and Nihon Shoki. Jars were associated with food production even before rice agriculture, something that may hearken back to Jomon times. The jar sacrifices and festivals were instituted by Jimmu and linked with the far-off fairyland Takamagahara.

Evidence that the Luzon jars, used in the tea ceremony (chanoyu) since at least the early Muromachi period (1334—1467), were considered sacred may first appear, in European sources at least, in the notices of Carletti during the 1590s.

In describing the Luzon jars in Japan, Carletti noted that "the king of this Japan and all the other princes of the region have an infinite number of these vases, which they regard as their principal treasures, esteeming them more than anything else of value."

Referring to tea or cha, Carletti has this to say about their relationship with the Luzon jars.

But to return to the aforesaid cha, besides the many special properties that they attribute to it, they say that the older the leaf the better it is. But they have great difficulty in preserving it for a long period and keeping it in prime condition, as they do not find containers, not even of gold or silver or other metals, which are good for this purpose. It seems a superstition, and yet it is true, that cha is preserved well only in the aforesaid vessels made simply of a clay that has this virtue...

Carletti notes that the Japanese consideration of the old and homely Luzon jars seemed beyond reason and linked with some superstitious or supernatural belief in the clay used to make the vessels. In Appleton's Journal (1875), a description is given of the tea ceremony and the imperial tea utensils, which further accentuates these beliefs:

Clothed in light, white garments, and without weapons, the members of the Cha-no- yu assemble round the master's house, and, after resting some time in the anteroom, are conducted into a pavilion appropriated exclusively to these assemblies. This consists of the most costly kinds of wood, but is without any ornament which could possibly be abstracted from it ; without color, and without varnish, dimly lighted by small windows thickly overgrown with plants, and so low that it is impossible to stand upright. The guests tread the apartment with solemn, measured steps, and, having been received by the host according to the prescribed formulas, arrange themselves in a half-circle on both sides of him. All distinctions of rank are abolished. The ancient vessels are now removed with solemn ceremonies from their wrappings, saluted, and admired ; and, with the same solemn and rigidly-prescribed formulas, the water is heated on the hearth appropriated to the purpose, and the tea taken from the vessels and prepared in cups. The tea consists of the young, green leaves of the tea-shrub rubbed to powder, and is very stimulating in its effect. The beverage is taken amid' deep silence, while incense is burning on the elevated pedestal of honor, toko; and, after the thoughts have thus been collected, conversation begins. It is confined to abstract subjects ; but politics are not always excluded. Many of these old jars, wrapped in costly silken folds, and preserved in chests lacquered with gold, are preserved among the treasures of the Mikado with all the care due to the most costly jewels, together with documents relating to their history. Those coming from the Philippine Islands are said to surpass all others in value, from some distinctive virtue supposed to be imparted by their material to the tea.

Quite obvious from this description is that the tea vessels were considered sacra, sacred traditional objects, and that the material (clay) of the ancient jars was considered to have some special quality that was imparted to the tea. It is also worth noting that the text above mentions "documents relating to their history," in reference to the old jars, something that would be worth investigating.

Previous blog posts have discussed the sacred jars in the Philippines and Borneo, where old, rude earthenware pots were so esteemed they would not be sold by the owners at any price. Since these items were in all cases ancient, they were either handed down as heirlooms, traded as antiques or discovered in ancient caches. George Windsor Earl, writing in 1837, gives a curious account of Dyaks of western Borneo who recovered such ancient sacred wares from what were apparently burial mounds.

The relics of an ancient people are also to be met with in the inland parts of the west coast, and, although the information I was enabled to collect concerning them was extremely vague, I came to the conclusion that they were a race distinct from the Hindus near Banjar Massin. These relics consist merely of tumuli, in which are sometimes found small earthern jars, and being supposed by the Dyaks to be connected in some manner with the ashes of their forefathers, are in all probability graves. The jars are very scarce, and are so highly valued by their possessors on account of their supposed oracular powers, that the offer of a sum equal to five hundred pounds sterling has been refused for one of them. The jars are consulted by their owners before they undertake any expedition, and they believe that it will be prosperous or the contrary according to the sound produced, probably by water being poured into it. I much regretted being unable to inspect one of these vessels, as their materials and manufacture might possibly throw some light upon the relation which the natives of Borneo bear to the people of some other parts of India.

The traveler Fedor Jagor also mentions in reference to Luzon jars a story from Japan of the priest Giogiboosat that also indicates a connection of sacred vessels with burial mounds.

This earthen vessel was found in the porcelain factory of Tschisuka in the province of Odori, in South Idzumi, and is an object belonging to the thousand graves ... It was made by Giogiboosat (a celebrated Buddhist priest), and after it had been consecrated to heaven was buried by him. According to the traditions of the people, this place held grave mounds with memorial stones. That is more than a thousand years ago. ... In the pursuit of my studies, I remained many years in the temple Sookuk, of that village, and found the vessel. I carried it to the high priest Shakudjo, who was much delighted therewith and always bore it about with him as a treasure. When he died it fell to me, although I could not find it. Recently, when Honkai was chief priest, I saw it again, and it was as if I had again met the spirit of Shakudjo. Great was my commotion, and I clapped my hands with astonishment ; and, as often as I look upon the treasure, I think it is a sign that the spirit of Shakudjo is returned to life. Therefore I have written the history, and taken care, of this treasure.

So, in Borneo, Japan and the Philippines, we see that jars were seen as sacred and having mystical powers and even personalities. In ancient Japanese mythology, jar deities known as Mika were animate and said to produce progeny -- beliefs similar to those found in the Philippines and Borneo. In Japan, the early jar worship was related to food production, first pre-rice agriculture and then specifically linked with rice crops. In Southeast Asia, sacred jars were considered more as storage vessels for holy water or beverages.

During some time at or before the Muromachi period, jars again take on a new sacred function as containers of tea leaves and beverage in the tea ceremony of chanoyu. That there is some link with the practice further south is strongly indicated by the fact that the Japanese sought ancient earthenware jars just for this purpose from Southeast Asia, putting great price on the value of these items. And it was the material, the clay, of which these vessels were made that was considered as granting their special sacred qualities. Previously in this blog, we have recorded how in Southeast Asia sacred jars are also linked with special divine clay.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Appletons' Journal, "Among the Philippines," Appleton's Journal vol. 14, 1875, 228.

Earl, George Windsor . The Eastern Seas: Or, Voyages and Adventures in the Indian Archipelago, in 1832-33-34, Comprising a Tour of the Island of Java -- Visits to Borneo, the Malay Peninsula, Siam ..., W. H. Allen, 1837, 274-5.

Fairchild, William P. "'Mika'-Jar Deities in Japanese Mythology," Asian Folklore Studies 34 (1965): 81-101.

Jagor, Andreas Feodor, Fedor Jagor. Travels in the Philippines, Chapman and Hall, 1875, 166-7.

Varley, Paul, Isao Kumakura, Kumakura Isao. Tea in Japan: Essays on the History of Chanoyu, University of Hawaii Press, 1994, 116-7.