Kagami Biraki (New Year)

Renewing the Spirit

(New Year Training)

Although I began teaching in the late 1990s, our 1st full time Dojo was opened on the 16th October 2000. Since the formation of our official Kyokushin Dojo in 2005 & our 1st full time Dojo under the Kyokushin banner in 2008, I have run a New Year training day as practised in Japan on the second weekend of January and traditionally called the Kagami Biraki, to kick off the New Year for our club. This has now become one of the traditions at Elite Fighting Arts. Below is an insight into the origins of that most Japanese of traditions.

Kagami Biraki, which literally means "Mirror Opening" ( also known as the "Rice Cutting Ceremony" ), is a traditional Japanese celebration on the 11th January (odd numbers are considered good fortune) that is held in many traditional martial arts schools (Dojo) usually on the second Saturday or Sunday of January so all students will be able to attend. It was an old Samurai tradition dating back to the 15th century that was adopted into modern martial arts starting in 1884 when Jigora Kano (the founder of Judo) instituted the custom at the Kodokan, his organizations headquarters. Since then other Japanese arts, such as Aikido, Karate, and Jujutsu, has adopted the celebration that officially kicks off the New Year -- a tradition of renewal, rededication and spirit.

In Japan Kagami Biraki is still practiced by many families. It marks the end of the New Years holiday season which is by far the biggest celebration of the year -- something which combines the celebration of Christmas, the family orientation of the American festival Thanksgiving, mixed with the excitement of vacation and travel.

It is a time when the whole nation (except for the service industries) goes on holiday. It is also a time for family and a return to traditional roots -- prayers and offerings at the Shinto shrine and Buddhist Temples, dress in kimono, traditional food and games. It is also a time when fathers are free to relax and share with the family, to talk, play games, eat and in more modern times, watch TV. It is also a time for courtesy calls to business superiors and associates as well as good customers. Work begins about a week into the month, but parties with friends and co-workers continue.

In most traditional Dojo preparation for the New Year season begins as in most households. Toward the end of the year Dojo are cleaned, repairs made, mirrors shined and everything made tidy. In Japan many Dojo retain the tradition of a purification ceremony. Salt is thrown throughout the dojo, as salt is a traditional symbol of purity (goodness and virtue), and then brushed away with pine boughs. Decorations are then frequently placed around the dojo. In old Japan they had great symbolism, but today most people just think of them as traditional holiday decorations.

Stacked rice cakes, often with an orange on top (representing orchards) and other decorations, are placed on the ceremonial centre of the Dojo, the Shinzen. Called Kagami Mochi, these rice cakes are rounded in the shape of old fashioned metal mirrors and formed from a hard dough of pounded rice. They symbolize full and abundant good fortune. Their breaking apart (or opening up) is the "Mirror Opening," after which Kagami Biraki is named. Bits are then traditionally consumed, often in a red bean soup.

In modern days, however, these rice cakes are often vinyl coated, since homes and Dojo are heated and food can easily spoil. The coating stops the rice from getting mouldy and cracking due to heat and dryness. Thus in many Dojo these rice cakes are no longer consumed.

Other decorations are called Kadomatsu, which include bamboo (a symbol of uprightness and growth), plum twigs (a symbol of spirit) and pine boughs (from the mountains that are symbols of longevity). Pine boughs are placed around the Dojo, principally on doors and in small vases to both sides of the Kamidana which is a miniature wooden Shinto shrine (usually set on a shelf high on the ceremonial centre). Pine boughs are the only ornamentation not removed after Kagami Biraki.

For martial arts students today, however, the New Years celebration of Kagami Biraki has no religious significance. It does, however, continue the old Samurai tradition of kicking off the New Year. It is also a time when participants engage in a common endeavour and rededicate their spirit, effort and discipline toward goals, such as training.

At the World Seido Karate Headquarters (Kyokushinkai derivative founded by Tadashi Nakamura) hundreds of students congregate early in the morning to train together, although it gets so crowded that real training is difficult.

Practice thus become more a sharing of spirit, as New Years is expressed amongst the push-ups, Kiai (shouts) and many repetitions of technique. As effort and sweat builds, a steamy mist rises among the participants. There is also a message from the founder, Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura, followed by short speeches by senior Dojo members. The celebration ends with refreshments (which can be viewed as a symbolic representation of the traditional rice cake breaking and consumption) and a meeting of all teachers and Branch Chiefs.

In other schools the celebration is very different. Ernie Estrada, Chief Instructor of Okinawan Shorin-ryu Karate-do, reports that their Kagami Biraki is highlighted by a special "Two Year Training." This includes ten to twelve hours of intense training, the length and severity symbolically representing the two year time span!

George Donahue, a student of the late Kishaba Chokei and Shinzato Katsuhiko, and former director of Matsubayashi Ryu Kishaba Juku of New York City, notes that in Japan Kagami Biraki started with a long morning session of Zazen (kneeling meditation), and includes visits to the dojo throughout the day by well-wishers, ex-students, and local politicians. The day is ended with an especially intense workout followed by a long party attended by dojo members and honoured guests from the community. After three or four hours of speeches, toasts, eating, and drinking, people demonstrate their Kata. For non-local students this is usually the only opportunity in the year to receive a promotion.

For old style teachers who dont officially charge for instruction, Kagami Biraki has special significance. It is a day for students to anonymously honour their teachers with cash gifts. Contributions are placed within identical brown envelopes with no contributor identification, and discreetly left in a pile in the Dojo for the teacher.

The Ancient New Years Observance

The Japanese New Years tradition has its roots in the ancient folk beliefs of agrarian China. If a bountiful harvest was desired, it was thought necessary to first create a warm, human atmosphere into which the harvest would grow. Critical to this process were the bonds of family and community based on blood, obligation and work that were further strengthened during this holiday from common celebration and sharing.

In Japan this tradition further evolved into a Shinto celebration based primarily around the worship of a deity Toshigama, (thought to visit every household in the new year) in order to insure the production of the five grains: rice, wheat barley, bean and mullet.

In preparation for the deitys visit, people cleaned and then decorated their homes to beautify them for the deity. There were also prayers and ringing of temple bells to ward off evil spirits. New Years was initiated with visits to Shrines and family and ritual ceremonies -- all revolving around Toshigama. While today the meaning of most of these Shinto observances has been forgotten, many of rituals remain in the form of holiday traditions.

The symbolism of the mirror, which is central to Kagami Biraki, dates back to the original trilogy myth (along with the sword and the jewel) of the creation of Japan. By the 15th century Shinto had interpreted the mirror and sword to be important symbols of the virtues that the nation should venerate. They also symbolized creation, legitimacy and authority of the Emperor and by extension the Samurai class itself as part of the feudal system. The mirror enabled people to see things as they are (good or bad) and thus represented fairness or justice. The mirror was also a symbol of the Sun Goddess -- a fierce spirit (the light face of god).

Swords had long been given spiritual qualities among the Samurai and their possession contributed to a sense of purpose and destiny inherent within the Samurai culture. So legendary were some swords that they were thought to posses their own spirit (Kami).

Considered as one of the Samurai most important possessions, the sword (and other weapons) symbolized their status and position. Firm, sharp and decisive, the sword was seen as a source of wisdom and venerated for its power and lightning-like swiftness, but it was also seen as a mild spirit (the dark face of god).

Taken together, the mirror and sword represent the Chinese yin and yang, or two forms of energy permeating everything -- the primeval forces of the universe from which everything springs -- the source of spirit empowering the Emperor by extension Samurai class who was in his service.

The Beginning of Kagami Biraki

It was from this time (15th century), it is said, that the tradition of Kagami Biraki began. It developed as a folk Shinto observation with a particular class (Samurai) bent. Before the New Year Kagami Mochi, or rice cakes, were placed in front of the armoury to honour and purify their weapons and armour. On the day of Kagami Biraki the men of Samurai households would gather to clean, shine and polish their weapons and armour.

So powerful was the symbol of armour and weapons that even today links to these feudal images remain. Japanese households and martial arts Dojo often display family armour (family Kami), helmets or swords, or modern replica, displayed in places of honour. In front of these relics, sticks of incense are burned to show honour and acknowledge their heritage.

Women in Samurai households also placed Kagami Mochi, or rice cakes, in front of the family Shinto shrine. A central element (set in front of the Shrine) was a small round mirror made of polished silver, iron, bronze or nickel. It was a symbol of the Sun Goddess, but was also thought to embody the spirits of departed ancestors. So strong was this belief that when a beloved family member was near death, a small metal mirror was often pressed close to the persons nostrils to capture their spirit.

The round rice cakes were thus used as an offering -- in gratitude to the deities in the hope of receiving divine blessing and also as an offering to family spirits (and deceased family heroes). It was thought that this offering would renew the souls of the departed to which the family shrine was dedicated.

To members of Japanese feudal society mirrors thus represented the soul or conscience. Therefore it was considered important to keep mirrors clean since it was thought that mirrors reflected back on the viewers own thoughts. Thus the polishing of weapons and armour on Kagami Biraki was symbolically (from mirror polishing) seen as a method to clarify thought and strengthen dedication to Samurai obligations and duty in the coming year. Thus Kagami Biraki is also known to some as Armour Day.

This concept continues even today. When your Karate, Judo or Aikido teacher talks of self-polishing, of working on and perfecting the self and to reduce ego, the concept harkens back to the ancient concept of mirror polishing to keep the mind and resolve clear.

On Kagami Biraki, the round rice cakes (often specially coloured to represent regions or clans) would be broken, their round shape symbolizing a mirror and their breaking apart symbolizing the mirrors opening. The cakes were then consumed in a variety of ways. The breaking of rice-cakes (Kagami Mochi) on Kagami Biraki symbolizes the coming out (of a cave) of the Sun Goddess in Japanese mythology, an act that renewed light and spirit to the ancient world. Thus breaking apart the rice cakes each year on this date represents a symbolic calling out again of this life force and re-enactment of the (mythological) beginning of the world.

The Kagami Mochi are consumed. This is seen as an act of spiritual communion. It was believed that partaking of these cakes not only symbolized the renewal of the souls of their ancestors, but also the absorption of the spirit (or aura) Toshigama (also probably the Sun Goddess) to which the New Years season was dedicated. For this reason eating Kagami Mochi has always represented renewal, the start of the New Year and the first breaking of the earth or the preparation for coming agriculture. Thus consumption was a physical act of prayer, happiness and peace in the New Year in the spirit of optimism, renewal and good luck. The New Year was thus seen with hope, and full of fresh possibility, a clean beginning and opportunity for dedication.

There were also very human benefits. The sharing of rice cakes with family and clan members helped strengthen common ties and bonds of allegiance and friendship among warriors. Rice cakes also prepared the body for the New Year.

The New Year holiday was most often filled with drinking, celebration and eating ceremonial foods. On January 7, the body was first fortified with a special rice herbal concoction that was thought to cure the body of many diseases. Thus, by Kagami Biraki peoples bodies were ready for regulation and cleansing. Mocha was often eaten with different edible grasses for this purpose. It prepared people to resume a regular schedule.

The very rice consumed itself had symbolic meaning for the Samurai. Farmers once thought that rice having breath (actually breathing in the ground), thus giving rise to the concept of rice being "alive," (breathing in the field), and thus divine imbued with a living deity (Kami). On another level rice represented the very economic backbone of the Samurai society. It was given to the Samurai as a stipend in return for service and allegiance to his lord (or alternatively given control over land and peasants who produced rice) -- in a society where wealth and power were not based on currency, but on control of land which produced agriculture.

In recent years some people have reinterpreted the "Mirror Opening Ceremony" from a different viewpoint, Zen. In the book, Angry White Pyjamas - An Oxford Poet Trains with the Tokyo Police, the author Robert Twigger recounts as an interpretation of Kagami Biraki an esoteric explanation given to him by someone who had lived in a Zen monastery. The mirror, it was explained, contains an old image, for what one sees in the mirror is seen with old eyes. You see what you expect to see, something that conforms to your own self-image based on what you remember of yourself. In this way the eyes connect people with their past through the way they see their own image. This creates a false continual. Instead every moment holds potential for newness, another possibility for breaking with the old pattern, the pattern being just a mental restraint, something that binds us to the false self people call "me." By breaking the mirror one breaks the self-image that binds people to the past, so as to experience the now, the present. "This is Kagami Biraki," recounts Twigger, "a chance to glimpse the reality we veil with the mundane activities of day-to-day living."

I hope the above article has not only been an interesting read but also provides some understanding of one of the ceremonies rarely practiced by the west other than by a few Dojo that unifies us to the Samurai past we as Karate-ka have all evolved from. We are lucky to have our own home in the Elite Fighting Arts & Kyokushin Academy Dojo. With this in mind, lets continue the each year to create a Dojo that others envy, be a part of the future of your Dojo.

As Sosai testifies: "Kyokushin is the Karate, Samurai would be proud of." Budo Karate.


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