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Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy News


Number 19 March Equinox 1996

The Brush Daub
by Steve Renshaw and Saori Ihara, Kochi University

The Pleiades, Subaru in historical Japanese skylore, are one of the most noticeable clusters in the sky. Having read the work of Gingerich, Krupp, and others, we recently decided to look at Subaru from Japanese sources. One particularly delightful book, was written by Takeshi Uchida and titled (roughly translated) Dialects of the Stars and Cultures. The title's reference to "dialects" and "cultures" seems more related to differences in locales within Japan rather than more international cultural differences in skylore (Despite an often held Western perception of homogeneity in Japanese culture, there are wide differences in subcultures and local areas of Japan, and these are quite noticeable in Japanese historical views of the Pleiades).

Most people in the West know "Subaru" as it is used by the automobile company. According to Uchida, the term Subaru may have Buddhist roots; the meaning is generally thought to be "united" or "getting together". The Chinese character (Kanji) for Subaru also has connotations of being "bright"; thus the "bright" Subaru stars seem to "get together in one place".

As with other historical aspects of Japanese culture, much of the Subaru myth came to Japan from China. Through the centuries, lore was adapted to local Japanese prefectures and towns based upon seasonal needs (when to plant, when to go fishing, etc.), local religious customs, and individual differences in the perception of what the stars look like. Uchida lists over 60 different Japanese names for the Pleiades, with subtle and not so subtle differences in local lore and nuance. Here are just a few examples:

In some agricultural areas of Japan, the word Suharu ("group tied") has been used instead of Subaru. Imagine looking from the top at shocks of grain tied in a bundle; this was historically one of the agricultural images of Suharu. In other farming areas, the stars of Subaru were simply seen as seeds, and their rising with the sun in Spring signaled a time to plant "seeds". In some coastal areas, Japanese fishermen saw a kind of fish net made of stones and bamboo (Sumaru), and in a similar way, used rising and setting of the bright "net" to determine when to cast their own nets into the sea.

As in Western lore, Japanese often saw seven stars instead of six in Subaru. Travelers to Japan may be familiar with Shichifukujin (literally "seven happy gods") which are often seen at temples and in miniature at souvenir shops throughout Japan. Locals in some prefectures of Japan still call the Pleiades "Shichifukujin".

Imaginary lines drawn by Japanese connecting the stars of Subaru visualize such things as a strainer (Kozaru), a somewhat square sake cup (Masuboshi) pouring out rice wine, and even something like a person's elbow joint (Tsutokkoboshi).

Saori's grandmother (growing up and living her whole life in Kochi Prefecture) calls the Pleiades "Houki Boshi" (pronounced 'hoe-key' 'boh-she') which literally means "brush star" or "brush stars". Interestingly, this is also what comets and meteors are sometimes called in Japan. In a sense, a meteor is like a quick but fleeting brush stroke on the sky and, if you can imagine, the Pleiades appear as though someone took a brush and daubed a bit of bright white paint on the heavens. Next to the term Subaru, this is probably one of the more widely used Japanese names for the Pleiades, the "Brush Daub". Perhaps now, when you glance up at on a clear winters evening you will see the "Brush Daub". But avoid drinking too much of the sake if you're going to observe for long.

Some sources for Japanese skylore include the following books:

Hara, Megumi (1989) Seiza no Bunkashi (Cultural History of the Constellations), Tamagawa Sensho, Tokyo.

Hideo, Hirose (1972) Nihonjin no Tenmonkan (The Japanese Vision of Astronomy), NHK Books, Tokyo.

Nojiri, Houei (1995) Hoshi no Shinwa Densetsu (Myths and Legends of the Stars), Kodansha, Tokyo.

Uchida, Takeshi (1973) Hoshi no Hougen to Minzoku (Dialects of the Stars and Cultures), Iwasaki Bijutsu Co, Tokyo.

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