Lightning ! Hide Your bellybuttons!- Thunder and Lightning in Japanese History and Culture
By Avi Landau – a re-posting for stormy night!
When my friend offered to give me a ride to the bus-stop tonight, I really appreciated it. It was absolutely pouring and there was a lot of thunder and lightning. I had assumed that his car was right outside the research institute that I was at- but alas, I was mistaken! When we stepped outside into the storm he told me ( to my great consternation) that he had parked it parked about 500 meters away! He handed me an umbrella, which I accepted uneasilly, and we both started walking. I gave out a Three-Stooges type WOO WOO WOO- yell, as a thunderbolt struck straight down off into the distance- a distance that did not look far enough away for comfort. I discarded my umbrella, fearing that it would act as an attractant to the lightning, urged my friend to do the same- and then we both started to run………. our speed picking a notch with each flash of electricity and with each roar of thunder.
I really thought we were done for- but we made it…… huffing , puffing ……… and absolutely drenched……. to the safest place one could be in such a situation………. the comfort of a closed car.
Still shaken up by that close encounter with electrocution, I have just arrived home and decided to repost this old article of mine:
HIDE YOUR BELLYBUTTONS!
These days electrical storms have been occurring so regularly around Tsukuba that you could almost set your watch by them. The lightning flashes begin just after dark and sometimes continue, with remarkable frequency, for hours. Though these nocturnal pyrotechnics can be beautiful to watch from your window, these storms are also quite SCARY (especially for children and dogs) and dangerous. A few years ago as the thunder roared and the lightning seemed to be singling out my neighborhood for special attention, my house filled with acrid smoke. Certain that a thunderbolt had struck and started a fire, I FRANTICALLY ran from room to room searching for the flames, with my dog barking hysterically at my heels. What I found, however, was that smoke was pouring out of my lightning-surge fried computer, which of course had to be trashed. I now run to unplug my computer and television at the first sign of a storm.
Most Tsukubans these days are quick to attribute the nightly KAMINARI (thunder and lightning) to global warming. In past ages, however, the Japanese would have asserted just as quickly, and with even more confidence, that the thunderclaps and lightning bolts were the work of RAIJIN (the god of thunder and lightning) and his companion RAIJU. You have probably seen some of the famous art works depicting Raijin, an ogre in a tiger-skin loin cloth, holding the sticks to beat his drums, which create the thunderous roar. Raiju on the other hand is usually imagined as a small mammalian hybrid, part tanuki, part cat, part mole. According to folk beliefs, these usually sedate creatures, prefer to sleep within the safe confines of the human bellybutton! When Raijin wants to summon his companion for a storm, he shoots arrows to arouse the little fella and get him out of his warm and snuggly resting place.
That is why, to this day, when a storm starts up anywhere in Japan, you might hear parents warning their small kids: “Cover your bellybuttons! He’s gonna get your bellybutton! O-heso kakushitoki na! Torarechau kara ne!” I’ve certainly been hearing this curious expression a lot these days! I’ve even heard that older people turn over on their stomachs if there is a storm while they are in bed at night, just to be on the safe side.
When I asked parents about this expression, besides telling me about Raijin and Raiju, they also explained the practical sides of this belief. One, that after lightning the air cools down (is this true?), so it is better to cover up, and two, that it’s better to stay low during a storm, and crouching down to conceal your belly is a good precaution to take. The efficacy of this second point was actually confirmed when I checked the established lightning safetey tips here:
It is also very interesting to look at the Japanese words for thunder and lightning. They reveal a great deal about how these phenomena were traditionally viewed. The word for thunder is kaminari, which literally means Kami (god(s)) nari (resounding). Simple enough. More interesting is the Kanji character for that word (雷). Rain over a rice field. This surely implies the belief in the importance of thunder in its connection to the coming of rain and watering of the fields.
The word for lightning itself is even more interesting. Inazuma (稲妻) literally means ”rice plant’s wife”! The ancient East-Asian rice cultivators must have believed that lightning was a necessary element in the bringing about of rice. As if the gods, like Dr Frankenstein, used electric bolts to instill life into the inanimate!
There are numerous shrines throughout Japan dedicated to Raijin. I have written about one shrine in Tsukuba, the Inaoka Kaminari Jinja, which had been used for generations as a place to make supplications for rain.
Some people might remember how YEARS AGO in Tsukuba, a group of teachers (was it 3 or 5?) had called in sick at school and went off to play golf (in the days when that was a real luxury). When the rain started they took refuge under a tree. When lightning struck they were all killed. That’s why I always get an uneasy feeling when I’m outdoors during this season’s storms. It is then that ISSA`s haiku comes to mind-
INAZUMA O ABISEKAKERU YO SHINIGIRAI
Lightning flashing all around
I don’t wanna die!
If you’ve got a surge protector, it can also be fun to watch the lightning monitor at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) website.
And here are some more tips on lighning safety:
For a moving description of how people reacted to thunderstorms in early 20th century Japanese villages read my translation of Junichi Saga`s Remembrance of Village Days Past, available on Kindle.