March 26, 2021

The Origins of Japan’s Incense Culture: Part I

Incense to the Japanese is ingrained in their cultural experience in a way that is often difficult for westerners to appreciate. Refined over nearly a millennium, incense is intertwined with political, religious, and cultural shifts that lead to the eventual elevation of Kodo - known in the West as the Japanese Incense Ceremony - to one of Japan’s three major Geido, or Arts of Refinement.

Read anything about the origin of incense in Japan and the story of the most famous piece of fragrant wood in incense world, Ranjatai, will immediately surface as a starting point. Recorded in the second oldest book of Japanese history, the Nihon Shoji (Chronicles of Japan), this special piece of driftwood was said to be six feet in circumference when it washed upon the shores of Awaji Island in 595 CE. Local villagers at first began to use it as firewood. But as the tale goes, upon heating the fragrance released was so exquisite, so extraordinary, so absolutely perfect, they realized that it was indeed extraordinary - so much so that it was soon thereafter presented to Empress Suiko as a gift.

But like many events in history, this seemingly random occurrence took place as part of larger cultural and political shifts that were taking place in a sixth-century Japan obsessed with measuring up to the much more established culture of their Chinese neighbors. The ruling elite’s political interest in advancing ties with China, implementing Chinese forms of government, and the introduction of China’s version of Buddhism all would have profound affects Japan’s culture of incense.

Ranjatai was presented to Empress Suiko who, through assassination and outright warfare, was placed upon the throne by the Soga clan whose influence prevailed over the politics of Japan during much of the Asuka Period (538 – 710 CE). However, it was Suiko’s nephew, Prince Shotoku, who the Soga picked to rule as Regent of Japan. An advocate for adoption of Chinese methods of government, cultural refinement, and Buddhism into Japanese culture, Shotoku meshed well with Soga clan’s desire to elevate Japanese culture in the mold of China’s much older Tang Dynasty. Revered for his achievements in Japanese history, Shotoku would rule from 594 until his death in 622 CE.

It was Shotoku who is said to have immediately identified Ranjatai as Jinko – the prized and fragrant Aloeswood. This is significant in that then as now, most raw materials used in Japanese incense are not found on the islands of Japan – especially the mysteriously fragrant Aloeswood which is native only to south-east Asia. Beyond Japanese clove and materials such as bark and resin from Japanese cypress, fragrant woods such as Aloeswood would have only been known to those Japanese elite familiar with Chinese culture and Buddhist rites such as Shotoku.

The introduction of both Buddhism and incense go hand in hand in Japan. Officially adopted by Emperor Yomei in 552 CE, the integration of Buddhism into Japan brought with it Buddhist thought, images of the Buddha, and sacred rights and ceremonies that included a central role for fragrant woods such as Aloeswood in Buddhist rituals.

Although Shotoku was not responsible for the introduction of Buddhism to Japan, his powerful advocacy for the incorporation of Chinese culture and political principles is clearly evident in his creation of a Chinese influenced constitution known as the Seventeen Injunctions(Jushichijo-kenpo), where reverence for the “three treasures” - the Buddha, the law, and the priesthood - were emphasized. Such integration of Buddhism directly into Japanese governing precepts and culture brought the integration of Buddhist rights and ceremonies into Japanese spiritual life, exposing Japan’s ruling class to exotic fragrant woods and aromatic materials imported from China. As a result, the fragrance of Aloeswood soon began to become woven into both Buddhist and Shinto ceremonies, employed for purification, prayer ceremonies, and used as well in meditation and religious festivals.

But at this time incense was primarily burned sonaeko – given as an offering for religious purposes to gods, temple deities, or for purification. In this way, fragrant woods and aromatic materials filled primarily a utilitarian role in religious ceremony.

But China’s influence and that of Buddhism would continue to shape Japan’s incense culture beyond Shotoku’s rule. During the middle of the Nara Period (710 – 794), after ten years of trying and blinded from infection suffered during his travels, a Buddhist priest from Tang China called Ganjin finally made his way with his disciples to Japan, arriving in 754 CE. Invited by the Japanese Emissary to China to teach about Buddhism throughout Japan, Ganjin brought important aspects of the incense culture of the Tang Dynasty with him.

First among these was the Tang’s method of creating blended incense, or nerikoh. A type of kneaded incense, Nerikoh took fragrant woods and herbs, crushed them into powder, and blended them together to create unique new scents that were more than the sum of their ingredients. Honey or the flesh of Japanese plum was then used as a binder to create a type of sticky paste that could be rolled into a small ball. This incense ball then could be stored or aged for up to several years. Unlike sonaeko, nerikoh was heated indirectly next to a hot coal, emitting a long-lasting fragrance. Well known in Tang China for centuries, this blended incense process was largely unknown in Japan prior to introduction by Ganjin.

Secondly, Ganjin is also recognized for establishing the formalized importation of raw incense materials common to China, but little known in Japan at that time. To this day, few if any of these incense ingredients are sourced locally in Japan, and still must be imported. Ganjin imported raw materials for both their fragrant qualities as well as their traditional medicinal uses familiar to the Tang, who had been using nerikoh for enjoyment as well as medical purposes for decades. These materials, when blended into nerikoh, could produce an almost infinite range of fragrances, with subtle changes in ingredients producing individually unique fragrances.

As the end of the Nara Period approached, courtiers now familiar with the use of incense through direct experience with Buddhist ceremony began to appreciate a potential for incense beyond the confines of Buddhist temples. With their new knowledge of how to create blended incense taught by Ganjin and the range of unique fragrances possible with new ingredients from China, the Japanese aristocracy began to experiment with making their own unique fragrances to use in their own homes.

Whereas incense at Buddhist temples was burned sonaekō – as an offering for religious purposes - incense began to be burned for pleasure in a practice known as soradaki 空薫. Literally translated as a pleasant smell coming from an unknown location, the “empty burning” of soradaki was divorced from religious meaning and done as an expression of sophistication for the unique fragrances that could be created. In time, soradaki came to be used as a fragrant symbol of both status and identity.

Fragrances unique to the houses of courtiers were painstakingly formulated and utilized to both purify and prepare a space for guests, as well as signify sophistication and rank. Clothing was infused with unique scents that individuals put great thought and practice into developing, creating a fragrant signature unique among courtiers. Even the long hair of Heian women was scented through soradaki akin to the way perfumes are used today.

As the Nara Period gave way to the decadence of the Heian Period (794 – 1185 CE), Japan’s incense culture began to flourish within well-heeled aristocrats as both a sign of refinement and status symbol. Courtiers sparred in incense competitions to create the most exquisite fragrances for a given season or to signify special occasions. Incense began to form connections with poetry and literature, with fragrances being created to evoke the emotion and mood of the written word. In this way, the Heian elite (and those with social aspirations) demonstrated their refinement, intelligence, and social status within Heian society thought their command of incense.

Released from its role as purely the religious offering of sonaeko to the wider ranging secular enjoyment of soradaki, incense began to assume a playful roll as a pleasant diversion, enjoyed as entertainment for aristocratic nobles of court. Incense games where fragrances were linked to poetry and verse, or contests to rank the fragrances of various types Aloeswood or to create the most exquisite fragrance occupied the time in a spirit of play and competition for the Heian elite. Many of these activities – both sonaeko and soradaki - were memorialized in the literature of the time, most notably by Lady Murasaki Shikibu in what is widely considered the first novel ever written, The Tale of Genji.

In Part II of the Origins of Japanese Incense Culture the rise of the Samurai and Japan's first Shogun shifts the center of political power and the focus of Japan's incense culture.

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This page is part of Kikoh's Japanese Incense 101 series. This series of posts is intended to help provide greater information and understanding as you progress along this fragrant path. Learn more...


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