Rohatsu: The Path to Cultural Enlightenment

Rohatsu and its cultural implications

Figure 1: The Main Islands of Japan (names of islands in italics)



     Rohatsu is a Japanese Buddhist celebration of the moment the Buddha achieved enlightenment.  Unlike Easter--the parallel Christian celebration--Rohatsu calls for a large increase in work and meditation rather than giving its followers time off of work for relaxation and reflection.  Though not all people in Japan practice Buddhism or celebrate Rohatsu, the values at the core of society match almost exactly the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism.  It is these values that provide a basis for the solidarity of Japan.  Thus, as Rohatsu is a celebration of these values in Buddhism, it is in a way an extension of the very state of Japanese culture.


  Additional Image 2

Figure 2: Kyoto, Japan


     I am eternally fascinated by Japan.  I am also a practicing Buddhist.  However, I have never been to Japan, nor have I been in a Buddhist temple or monastery or ever met an enlightened person.  It is through research and my own personal experience with Buddhism that I have compiled this website.  In the following sections, I will conclude that Japanese Buddhism provides the core values for Japanese society, regardless of the actual religion practiced by the population of the country.  I will explain the importance of Rohatsu to Japanese Buddhism, and thus the importance of the celebration to Japanese society. 


Context of Japan

     Japan is a chain of islands.  The four largest--Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyoshu contain the vast majority of the population.  These four islands are laid nearly point-to-point stretching 2,000 kilometers along the edge of the Asian continent.  Chains of lesser islands extend from the points of the "mainland," resulting in a stretch of nearly 4500 km to which Japan lays claim (Abito).  See Figure 1 to get a better idea of the "disjunct" nature of the country of Japan.  The significant size and separation of the mainland into islands led to great cultural diversity.  As with all other island/mainland relationships, poor communications and transportation due to obvious geographical barriers resulted in a kind of "cultural isolation" for the islands of Japan (Weingrod, Morin 1971).  For example, some of the dominant pre-Japanese cultures included the Ainu people of the large island of Hokkaido and the Okinawans of the small group of islands to the south bearing the same name.  The Okinawans had originally created their own empire with strong political and cultural ties to China and the Qing Dynasty.  However due to a strong over-sea trade, the small group of islands came strongly under the influence of Japan.  The Ainu were treated to some extent as the Native Americans during the expansion of the United States.  They were the subject of great racism and discrimination while Japanese society developed on Hokkaido (Abito).

     Despite the ever-growing urban populations, the society of Japan is generally agricultural.  This characteristic is attributed to the ancient hunter/gatherer culture called Jomon (ca 10,000-300 BCE).  Large coastal plains and sometimes enormous amounts of precipitation (see Figure 2) from the inland mountains provides the ideal agricultural environment (Abito).

     Japan has seen enormous political and social change throughout its history and especially at the end of the Nineteenth Century as it opened up its borders and became much more industrialized (Abito).  Though slight cultural differences have persisted to this day--in fact are important to regional tourism throughout Japan--the Japanese society has been ethnically united for a thousand years and is a highly homogenous population--racially, linguistically, and culturally (Caudill 1973).  With the rise of mass media, an educational system conducted in standard Japanese, and sometimes relentless modernization, cultural differences are further evened out (Abito).


Origins of Rohatsu

     To speak about the origins of Rohatsu in Japan is to speak about the origins of a religion.  Buddhism is the religion in which Rohatsu is celebrated.  To put the origins of Buddhism and Rohatsu into perspective, it is easiest to compare the history of Buddhism with that of Christianity.  Just as Christianity encompasses many different sects, so does Buddhism.  Similarly, just as the Protestant sect of Christianity split from Catholicism, Buddhism also split into two major practices, though the split occurred long before Christianity in circa 410 BCE.  One sect, known in sanscrit as Theravada, believed in a more literal approach to the teachings of the Buddha, and put more emphasis on self-attainment of enlightenment.  The other, known as Mahayana, followed the teachings of the Buddha more liberally, and emphasized that group attainment of enlightenment was not only possible but the highest ideal (Lyall).  This will be important in the discussion of the cultural significance of Rohatsu in Japan.

     Rohatsu is a part of Zen Buddhism (Zen means complete, whole, and virtuous).  Zen can be traced to Mahayana Buddhism.  First taught by an Indian master known as Bodhidharma, it was spread to China (known as Ch'an Buddhism), then to Japan by a teacher named Eisai Zenji in the twelfth century (Flanagan 2004).



      Rohatsu itself is a commemoration of the time at which the Buddha achieved enlightenment.  It is usually celebrated for the week in which December 8th falls.  It is one of the sesshins, or intense practice periods occupying the first seven days of six months of the year (van de Wetering, 77).  In many Zen monasteries, these sesshins can include up to eleven hours of meditation per day for an entire week.  However, Rohatsu is the most important sesshin of the year, and therefore usually requires up to fifteen hours of meditation per day, and in some monasteries the monks literally live, eat, and sleep in the meditation hall.  For instance, the following is an example of a rather strict Rohatsu day: meditation from 2-4am, 5-11am, 1-5pm, and 7pm-midnight.  This includes a daily visit to the master of the monastery.  The remaining five hours are used to eat, relax briefly before another meditation period, and sleep--for two hours.  At the end of the week, at the close of the last meditation period, the monks leave the meditation hall, while the beating of a large drum and chiming of bells proclaims the end of Rohatsu.  The monks then bathe and eat and sleep (van de Wetering 77, 85).



Click here for an image of the Great Buddha of Kamakura

The Great Buddha of Kamakura is the second largest Buddha statue in Japan, located at the Todaiji Temple in Nara.  It was cast in 1252 originally inside a large temple hall, however, in the 15th century a tsunami wave destroyed the building and the Buddha remained standing.




Prognosis for Rohatsu

      Modernization is an enemy of old values.  However, Japanese society has an interesting characteristic that slows the effects of modernization.  Though it is true that urban development in Japan is ever increasing, the emphasis on community maintains strong ties to rural family/community centers. Frequently, agriculture is a main source of community support while occasional members of each family may travel into the city to work. Indeed some seventy percent of families would consider themselves a part of the middle class in a three-class system. Such strong ties to community and cultural evenness serve to counteract the fading of old values in Japan. Public and private pieces of society are changing at much different rates because modernization has a greater effect upon the social structure of the more public than upon the more private aspects of life (Caudill 1973). If we consider that the values that contribute to the solidarity of Japan have not changed drastically like other modern cultures since industrialization, then we can conclude that Rohatsu will continue to maintain its significance to Japanese culture.




      Enlightenment has no definition, and thus is far beyond the scope of any website, book, or paper to accurately describe. Most people believe that the term "enlightenment" is to become a god; indeed I have just stated that it is possible for everyone to be a Buddha, and many texts of Buddhism follow the same principle. But in fact, becoming a Buddha does not mean becoming a god. Much of Buddhism deals with becoming just the opposite--nothing. To be free from all worry, doubt, and suffering, and to be at peace with the mortality of all life. To see all things in their true nature. To accomplish this is something beyond even most Buddhists and thus the religion becomes more of a way of life rather than a lifelong quest.  It is in this way that the values of Buddhism come to be the values of an entire society, and indeed that of Japan.   


Internet References Cited

  • Abito, Ito. "Aspects of Japanese Culture and Society: An Anthropologist's View."

    This site is a broad overview of the cultural aspects of Japan based on a published paper by the author.

  • Flanagan, Anthony. 2004. "Zen Buddhism: Rinzai."

    This site gives a brief introduciton to Zen Buddhism and traces its history and eventual path to Japan

  • Lyall, Graeme. "The Rise of the Mahayana."

    This site explains the differences between the Mahayana and Theravada forms of Buddhism and how and why they separated


Peer-Reviewed References Cited

  • Caudill, William.  "The Influence of Social Structure and Culture on Human Behavior in Modern Japan."  Ethos.  Vol. 1 No. 3 (autumn 1973) pg 343-382

  • Hamilton, Clarence.  "The Idea of Compassion in Mahayana Buddhism."  Journal of the American Oriental Society.  Vol. 70 No. 3 (Jul-Sep 1950) pg 148-149

  • MacFarlane, Alan.  "Japan in an English MIrror."  Modern Asian Studies.  Vol. 31 No. 4 (Oct 1997) pg 763-806

  • Nishimura, Eshin.  "Unsui: A Diary of Zen Life."  University Press of Hawaii, Honolulu  1973

  • Norbeck, Edward.  "Postwar Cultural Change and Continuity in Northeastern Japan.  American Anthropologist.  63: 297-321 (1961)

  • Smith, Thomas C.  "Old Values and New Techniques in the Modernization of Japan."  The Far EAstern Quarterly.  Vol. 14 No. 3 (May 1955) pg 360-361

  • Turner, Victor, and Edith Turner.  1982.  "Religious Celebrations."  In Celebration: Studies in Festivity and Ritual.  Victor Turner, ed, pp. 201-219.  Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington

  • Van de Wetering, Janwillem.  1973.  The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery.  St. Martin's Griffin, New York.


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