Identify inscriptions on wood beams in a shogun cemetery?
February 4, 2010 6:58 PM   Subscribe

Can you identify and/or translate the inscriptions on the vertical wooden beams in this picture? Or provide some historical background?

A friend doing a semester of law school in Tokyo visited this shogun cemetery (scroll down to the photos beginning at "A shogun cemetery"). We were both struck by the beams*, which are seen throughout the cemetery. He reports that the inscriptions are the same across all of them.

Any insight is much appreciated.
posted by Tufa to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: * - didn't want to disrespect the venue in the OP, but no pun intended.
posted by Tufa at 7:00 PM on February 4, 2010

The writing is Sanskrit, and those beams are wooden headstones. I could probably lookup what it means...

Not sure what a "shogun cemetary" is...
posted by KokuRyu at 7:08 PM on February 4, 2010

KokuRyu - judging by your profile, you know a hell of a lot more about Japanese than me, but I'm pretty sure those characters aren't Sanskrit. They look Chinese or Japanese to me.
posted by crazylegs at 7:13 PM on February 4, 2010

Best answer: Apparently, they are called sotoba and the deceased's new spiritual name is written on it.
posted by sambosambo at 7:52 PM on February 4, 2010

crazylegs: KokuRyu - judging by your profile, you know a hell of a lot more about Japanese than me, but I'm pretty sure those characters aren't Sanskrit. They look Chinese or Japanese to me.

Shittan, or Siddham, is one of the many scripts of Japan, and it is used for writing Buddhist mantras. To my untrained eye the writing in Tufa's pictures does look like it's in the Siddham alphabet (e.g. the fourth letter down on the one next to the Charme sign seems to me to be 'ba')
posted by Kattullus at 7:56 PM on February 4, 2010

Response by poster: the deceased's new spiritual name is written on it.

Wow. Can anyone speak to what spiritual re-naming is all about? That seems like a topic that could go very deep.
posted by Tufa at 7:57 PM on February 4, 2010

Best answer: My ojiichan (grandfather) passed away recently so this is all fresh in my mind: when a Japanese person passes away, they are given a new Buddhist name, distinct from their regular name, by the Buddhist priest who is handling the funeral and memorial services. The new Buddhist name is what is written in stylized Japanese on those wooden planks, called "sotoba" - and I believe the other side of the plank has a mantra written on it as someone else mentioned.
posted by illenion at 8:40 PM on February 4, 2010

Response by poster: illenion, thank you for sharing your experience. I'm sorry for your loss. For anyone wanting to look further, the Wikipedia article on Japanese funerals is pretty stunning.
posted by Tufa at 9:03 PM on February 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is a great AskMe post.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:04 PM on February 4, 2010

Best answer: I think he calls it a shogun cemetery because it's probably the Yanaka Cemtery where the grave of the last shogun is located.

Here is some more information in Japanese on sotoba/touba/stupa:

It looks like the first five bonji characters are the five elements: space, wind, fire, water, and earth.

Next there is a bonji seed (shyushi) syllable. It looks like on has taraaku and a few have kiriiku, these are the last two bonji syllables listed on this page.

Then there is the honorific name (kaimyo). The only one I can read is the upper left one, which looks different than the others. The first character of 経日 means sutra, so it might not be the honorific name, but the name of a sutra which might follows in small characters.

After that there is the death anniversary (kaiki). On the lower left one it looks like it says segaki.

Finally there is the chief mourner's name. I can see "Okumura Family", the same characters that are on the grave.

This is very interesting. I never knew anything about this. Hopefully somebody who is more knowledge or who can read Japanese will write more.
posted by derforsher at 8:53 AM on February 5, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you, derforsher, for that amazing, extensive info. You say you never knew anything about this--did you just go and research all that? Whew.
posted by Tufa at 5:52 PM on February 5, 2010

The one on the far left that you can see most was put there for the benefit of (為) all the ancestors of the Okamura family (奥村家先祖代々) for Segaki at O-Bon (盆施餓鬼). The specific dedications for the rest are obscured, but you might be interested to know that two of them were erected on Higan (one in Autumn and one in Spring: 秋彼岸, 春彼岸). Also, the one to the left of the tall one that's right of center is reversed, and you can see "Namu Amida..." (南無阿弥陀) written beneath the Siddham.

P.S. derforsher, that's 経曰, I think: "Sutra says..." The part below it is presumably the sutra quote. Thanks for the great link.
posted by No-sword at 12:04 AM on February 7, 2010

Best answer: Believe it or not, those sticks are are often written by computer with a specially-adapted, stick-feeding inkjet printer. I saw it on Trivia no Izumi. Also, it's nice that the spirits of the deceased have love hotels conveniently nearby.
posted by planetkyoto at 10:14 PM on February 8, 2010

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