A Japanese Feast of the Dead, 1615

One of the things we all ‘know’ about Halloween is that it’s just an American import. It’s not, though, completely true.

Modern Halloween has its origins in the Celtic festival of Samhain, which itself was imported to the US by Irish migrants in the nineteenth century. But it also has a distant ancestor, too, in the Christian festival of All Souls (2 November).

In England, by Henry VIII’s time this had evolved into a spectacular and spooky celebration of the dead, although after Reformation it was largely fused with All Saints’ Day the day before.

Festivals of the dead, though, are not restricted to western traditions.

One of the great things about the period of history I study is that you see – often for the first time – religious traditions meeting across continents and across phenomenal distance.

In many cases, of course, these meetings were unhappy ones, characterized by bigotry and violence. But sometimes you meet people whose view of the world is much more attractive, more tolerant, even more liberal.

I’ve recently been working closely on the diary of Richard Cocks. He was an employee of the English East India Company in its very early days.

Between 1613 and 1623, Cocks was stationed at the Company ‘factory’ (trading post) in Hirado, on the western coast of Japan. Here he managed the English house, traded, collected information, dealt with diplomatic contacts, and generally looked after Company affairs.

Dutch map of ‘Firando’ (Hirado), marking the Dutch and English factories, 1621.

This meant, of course, almost constant contact with local Japanese people and local Japanese culture, religion and – of course – food (there’s a wonderful moment when he’s given mochi as a present, and he says he’s been gifted ‘2 Japon cakes (or muchos)’.

The diary itself is in the British Library in London. It was transcribed and published in the nineteenth century, although the editor saw fit to remove Cocks’ daily descriptions of the Hirado weather, and some of the smut. So, when the published version records that (on 27 December 1615), ‘Nicholas Grant a marrener being drunk stabd hym selfe thorow the arme because Mr Osterwick would not lend hym 12d’, the original manuscript offers a telling additional detail:

‘Nicholas Grant a marrener being drunk stabd hym selfe thorow the arme because Mr Osterwick would not lend hym 12d to goe to a whore’.

One of the most fascinating things about the diary, though, is Cocks’ observations on local religion and custom. On Christmas Day, 1615, for example, he records how his Japanese and Chinese neighbours brought the Englishmen gifts (Christianity itself had a strong base in Japan at this point, before it was persecuted out in the following decades). He reports in detail at the house-blessing ceremony for the ‘China Captain’, the leader of the Chinese trading community in the town.

One of the most vivid bits, though, is when he describes the Japanese Buddhist festival of Obon, held to honour the spirits of ancestors. As he often did, Cocks tried to relate what he saw amongst Japanese Buddhists with what was familiar from home. So, on 25 August 1615, the first of the festival’s three days (Cocks was still using Old Style dating, so this corresponds to the 15th), he specifically called it the ‘Japan festival of All Soles’.

Then, on the 27th, he describes it in full:

‘This day at night all the streets were hanged with lantarns & the pagons vizeted all ther futtaquis [temples] and places of buriall with lantarns and lampes inviting their dead frends to com & eate with them & so remeaned till midnight & then each one retorned to ther howses having left rise wine & other viands at the graves for dead men to banquet of in their absence & in their howse made the lyke banquet leving parte on an Altor for their dead frend & kindred, this feast lasteth 3 daies but to morow is the solomest fast day’.

What I love about this is not just the detail, not just the fact that he’s recording the information because he’s interested (one suspects the Company bigwigs back in London couldn’t have cared less), but the air of cosmopolitan tolerance. Apart from referring to the Buddhists as ‘pagans’ (and remember, that word applied equally to Aristotle or Ovid), he is just fascinated by another culture. To me, there is no element of superiority here. He’s just interested.

Cocks’ description of the Obon festival.

As far as I can tell, Cocks was still a practising Christian: he had a Bible, regularly invoked God in his diary, and took an assiduous note of which days were Sundays (the first and last of these facts are only clear from reading the manuscript – the reference to the Bible comes from an insalubrious scrap between two mariners over accusations one of them had the pox. Naturally this was filleted from the published edition).

Cocks was astoundingly tolerant, despite the bigotries of the age. Living in Hirado, a multicultural, multi-religious, multi-ethnic town, he had little option but to be.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Kyle Glaze says:

    amazing the information’s are helpful

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