Salt, Rice, Sake and a Prayer

Mother troll introducing her two handsome, well-dressed sons as suitors to a fairy princess. A difficult choice!

But when the fairy sang the whole world listened to him. Stephen felt clouds pause in their passing; he felt sleeping hills shift and murmur; he felt cold mists dance. He understood for the first time that the world is not dumb at all, but merely waiting for someone to speak to it in a language it understands. In the fairy’s song the earth recognized the names by which it called itself.

Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Most of the posts to the C&S Tools blog are focused on how to select, maintain and use woodworking handtools. But in this article your humble servant would like to examine the relationship between supernatural influences and construction jobsite safety from a Japanese perspective.

We will also briefly examine a traditional way to deal with supernatural beings in order to increase both safety during construction and the welfare of those who will occupy the completed structure.

Gentle Readers involved in construction, either as customer or worker, may find this article informative and maybe even helpful.

Supernatural Beings

Your humble servant has often sensed unexplainable presences when alone in deep forests, high mountains, dark caves, and open deserts where human influence is absent. These irrational feelings may spring from an overactive imagination, or perhaps the gentle ministrations of a butter-fingered baby-sitter when I was small, but I’m not alone in my perceptions because humans in all parts of the world have felt similarly about certain places on the earth such as hills, groves, and caves since before recorded history. What about you?

The peoples occupying the heavily-forested islands of Japan have, since ancient times, believed that spirits reside in trees, hills, rocks, rivers and of course the ground. Indeed, Japan’s indigenous religion, called Shinto, which can be translated as “The Path of the Gods,” is a vague belief system based almost entirely on this amorphous perception. It is no coincidence that Shinto has heavily influenced Japanese architecture and carpentry traditions.

If one believes that supernatural beings reside in trees, groves, mountains, water and even rocks, it’s not a stretch to believe that some of those beings, or spirits, are naughty and some are nice. Besides, the bad things that happen to us can’t all be blamed on Fortuna, right?

Since we cannot see these beings or spirits, and they don’t give a rodent’s ruddy fundament about what judges and lawyers do and say, how can we protect ourselves from their naughty tendencies, especially when human activities might evoke their ire?

What human activities piss-off vengeful supernatural beings in nature? Loud music? Social injustice? Wearing socks with sandals? Nah, none of those. In the case of Japan it has been traditionally held that clearing and grubbing trees and vegetation and excavating soil for construction projects is asking for trouble from the supernatural beings that call such places home. Accidents, injuries and even deaths during construction work are believed to be a direct result of such activities, and the malevolent effects of PO’d spirits can make entire buildings dangerous, unhealthy and unlucky places.

So how does one keep possibly dangerous spirits happy? A traditional approach is a ceremony called the Jichinsai.

Jichinsai Ceremony

The name of this common ceremony is pronounced jee/cheen/sah/ee, and is written 地鎮祭 in Chinese characters as used in Japan.

The first character 地 means ground or earth. The second character means “weight” as in “paper weight,” but it also means to “suppress” or “calm.” The last character is pronounced “sai” and can also be read “matsuri,” meaning ceremony or festival.

There are records of Jichinsai being performed in Japan as early as AD 690. The background of the ceremony is the belief indigenous to Japan, and found in many other locations around the world since ancient times, that spirits reside in places and even plants.

I think I participated in my first Jichinsai in Japan in 1987. I have since attended many in Japan and even a couple in the United States.

I like to think of the Jinchinsai as a ceremony to keep mischievous pixies sleepy and to hide the building and workers from Murphy’s attentions.

The Jichinsai ceremony is typically performed prior to the beginning of a construction project. Its goal is to show respect to and appease the local spirits, and thereby forestall them from seeking revenge for the contractor’s rude disruption of their happy homes.

The ceremony accomplishes these goals by providing offerings of food and booze and greeting to the spirits, showing proper respect, a bit of entertainment, and saying prayers informing them of the construction plans and asking for their protection. Basically, salt, munchies, wine and flattery followed by a polite, well-phrased request, just like a good pickup line. (ツ)

Nowadays, this ceremony has been appropriated by Shinto priests hired to conduct the ceremony, but it is neither Buddhist nor even Shinto in origin, having roots older than formal religion.

Indeed, while priests saying theatrical prayers and dressed in silk brocade robes and oh so goofy hats add to the pageantry, and they insist the efficacy, of the ceremony, in your humble servant’s opinion they add little but cost because, at its heart, the only true participants in the ceremony are the workmen who will perform the construction work, those who will live in or use the completed building, and the spirits that reside in the vegetation and ground to be disturbed. But it is human nature to enjoy and even find meaning in pageantry. If not, the Academy Awards program would have been canceled years ago for being such a boring, preachy stinker. And besides, priests need work too. 

Indeed, if only the builder conducts and attends the ceremony, that is sufficient for purposes of promoting safety for himself and his workers during the construction work, although the Owner, if he doesn’t participate, could arguably miss out on some of the blessings possibly provided by the ceremony such as his safety and prosperity in using the land and building.

A Shinto priest dressed in silk robes, wooden shoes and lacquered hat conducting a Jichinsai ceremony for a corporate construction project. A specialist subcontractor has erected the tent and provided seating and props. Notice the wooden stand with offerings of salt, foods and wine, standing bamboo at the four corners, and Cleyera Japonica cuttings below and behind. At this point in the ceremony, the Priest has sung several prayers and scattered bits of paper around. The pile of sand in the foreground is still undisturbed, but towards the end of the ceremony the Client’s representatives will poke it with a wooden hoe to let the spirits know dirt work will start soon. The step-by-step program for the ceremony is listed on the board to the right. Participants in the ceremony are required to stand, clap hands, bow, drink a drop of demon rum and make plant offerings several times. It is an extremely solemn business.

Groundbreaking ceremonies have been around for a long time in other nations too. Nowadays in the West, they have degraded to a photo opportunity for publicity hounds like politicians and business owners, but the tradition of dedicating, blessing and/or sanctifying the ground upon which a building will stand has ancient roots in Christian and Pagan traditions too. 

Nowadays most versions of the ceremony are centralized on a wooden table set up on the site where the building will be constructed surrounded by green bamboo cuttings stuck into the ground forming a square. A rope is strung around these poles and pieces of paper cut into a special pattern particular to Shinto ceremonies are hung from these ropes. 

Various offerings are placed on the table, always including at least rice, salt and sake. Some additional offerings might include products from the sea, such as fish, and products from the mountains, such as the various herbs and vegetables that supernatural beings like to munch on. Fruits are often included as well. Other than fish, meat is not included.

The general contractor usually hosts the ceremony, sets the stage, makes other arrangements and pays the costs. Of course priests don’t work for free so the cost of the ceremony is included in the contractor’s construction contract amount, although it is seldom shown as a line item. Often, however, the GC will inquire before bidding if the Owner desires a Jinchinsai to ascertain if the cost should be included or not. 

I won’t go into all the details of what goes into a Jinchinsai because it would take months of research and a book I do not have the time to write.

The following links are to YouTube videos of an actual Jichinsai with all the trimmings. Video 1 Video 2

Why Perform a Jichinsai Ceremony?

I mentioned above that I do a lot of work for international corporate Clients. Indeed, Gentle Reader no doubt uses their products daily. These are corporations that are decidedly non-religious and are careful to avoid allowing religious influence to become apparent in their business dealings. So how do they justify spending money and time on a ceremony intended to deal with metaphysical influences? The reasons, as I understand them, are twofold: (1) Peace of mind; and (2) Avoidance of blame. 

Let’s examine reason number 1 first.

After many millennia of belief, the local employees of even large international corporations have a fear of malevolent supernatural influences embedded in their DNA, so to actively reject a harmless, basically non-religious, non-controversial tradition intended to protect them may cause undue stress in some individuals.

You don’t believe me? Here’s a true story.

A Ghost Story

Some years ago my team and I were managing a two-phase construction project for a very wealthy and well-known international consumer electronics company.

Phase One included office fitout work and cleanroom construction (tenant improvements) in a leased space in a brand spankin new building located in Yokohama. Although the grade of the completed project was exceptionally high, it was just a temporary facility.

Phase Two, however, was the construction of a large, elegant, high-tech, structurally-advanced building intended for long-term operations. When completed it was without doubt the most beautiful and both technologically and environmentally advanced building in Japan, if I do say so myself.

The Client anticipated hiring hundreds of new engineers to work in both the Phase One and Phase Two spaces, but sadly hiring lagged far behind plan, so even though we had completed the construction work of the Phase One office spaces on-time and installed some nice office furniture too, it was mostly empty.

For many months after most of Phase One was complete, my team and I used the otherwise unoccupied, high-ceiling leased space as our workplace for the planning and design of Phase Two. It was a large, lonely space.

This intense project involved working late into the evening far too often. An exceptionally diligent lady on my team I will call Naoko worked many evenings alone in these empty spaces. After a few months Naoko became seriously stressed and complained about hearing strange noises and feeling like she was being watched by unkind eyes. Even I thought the place felt creepy. Soon the entire team was feeling weird and stressed.

I took Naoko’s complaints seriously because, when it comes to workplace stress, perception is absolutely reality. And so I shifted our base of operations to a less-comfortable pre-fab jobsite office sooner than originally planned to get the team out of that creepy place. Problem solved.

Indeed, there may have been something unlucky about the leased building because, besides the hiring SNAFU, the Client’s operations in the building accomplished much less than planned. Indeed, serious and very unpleasant acrimony developed among the Client’s employees that occupied it. When the new building was completed, they too moved out of the leased space as soon as humanly possible.

We later learned from the general contractor that developed and owned the office building that it stood smack dab on an old graveyard. Hmmmm.

Did I mention that the Client decided to not perform a Jinchinsai prior to construction of the leased space?

A Good Beginning

For the new building, however, the Client wisely decided they wanted to avoid the risk of not doing a Jichinsai, a decision that was welcomed by the general contractor and the thousands of workmen that were involved in its construction.

Despite having 14 large crawler cranes lifting heavy stuff and drilling deep piles, and 600+ heavy trucks carrying soil out of and concrete and materials into the extremely tight and dangerous site daily, and over 10,000 workmen for months on end, we only experienced one injury when a sheet-metal worker cut his hand on some sharp metal scrap, and one accident when a careless iron-worker managed to start a small localized fire in some urethane concrete blankets with a cutting torch.

Another worker with a well-documented history of a bad ticker had a fatal heart attack on the way home one day, but that incident was ultimately deemed unrelated to the construction work.

This safety record was a miracle in my book. Was it a direct result of the Jichinsai? Who can say. I only know that if we hadn’t done the ceremony, and a serious accident or death had occurred on the job site, the Client would have been blamed for carelessly not performing the ceremony and the work would probably have suffered as a consequence.

And this illustrates the ultimate reason for conducting a Jichinsai ceremony: Better to be safe than sore. 

The Simplified Jichinsai

There are various approaches to pacifying possibly malevolent spirits. One is the full-blown Jichinsai ceremony, of course. Another is a simpler, humbler, and less-expensive way, because, after all, what the ceremony boils down to is a sincere offering of salt, rice and sake and a silent request to the resident spirits for forbearance.

One such simplified example is quietly and routinely performed by either the general contractor or his steel erection subcontractor. They simply place a small mound of salt, another of uncooked rice, and a small cup of sake wine at the base of the first column erected, then the employees of the GC and/or the erection team offer a silent prayer. No muss, no fuss, no silly hats, but it’s still taken very seriously by the workers.

When I was a self-employed contractor, I would do something similar. Before beginning any excavation, I would politely place a small mound of salt, another of rice, and a small cup of local wine on the ground at what would later become the center of the completed building or renovation and leave it overnight. I would also lay a branch of the local vegetation, be it tree or bush, beside the offerings. Before leaving at the end of the day, I would offer a silent prayer to heaven, and whoever else might bother to listen, that the job would proceed without accident or injury to any workmen involved, and that it would remain on-schedule and under-budget.

Did it work? I don’t know, but the only serious jobsite injuries and deaths I have experienced over the years have been where a Jichinsai of some sort was not performed. Cheaper insurance you will never find.

One Beloved Customer located in the Pacific Northwest of the United States Coast recently began construction on a small but elegant outbuilding using beautiful Port Orford Cedar wood with traditional and extremely intricate interlocking Japanese handcut joints and hand-plane-finished, and natural stone foundations with fitted posts.

The photos below are of his simple Jichinsai. No accidents or injuries so far!

YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie, may tree spirits drop limbs on me from a great height.

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