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Jichinsai (Ground Breaking Ceremony)

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The Jichinsai ceremony is a Shinto ritual intended to calm the kami (god) of the earth whenever a new building or other construction begins. It was/is believed that without going through the protocol of requesting permission from the earth kami, any building constructed would anger the kami and lead to it's destruction. Another purpose is to pray that the actual construction proceeds without any "incidents".

Jinchinsai commences
Even when Japanese construct buildings offshore (the construction of factories in China, Europe and the USA for example) a Jichinsai is inevitably held. The ceremony is not so much religious but more of a cultural more. There have been examples of court cases in Japan where the use of public funds to pay for Jichinsai for public works projects has been questioned due to the official (at least in terms of the US imposed constitution) separation of religion and state, but so far at least the courts have ruled that the Jichinsai is purely a social custom. In any case it would be difficult to say otherwise in a country where there are few clear boundaries on just about anything.

Kannushi & Himorogi
On January 21st 2005, Yamasa began the construction of 20 new student apartments - Residence Hane. The Jichinsai ceremony (see video) began at 9:30am. The actual time of the ceremony isn't of relevance. Japan is a fairly practical country, so as far as the participants are concerned whatever time is convenient for them also suffices for the kami. A Jichinsai ceremony involves representatives of those associated with the project (in this case the Institute, the architectural firm and the construction company), although for larger projects such as an airport the ceremony expands to include other stakeholders and community representatives.

Kouten & Shouten
The Jichinsai primarily consists of two parts. The first is the kouten, or summoning of the kami. After paying respects the second part is the shouten, returning the kami. The Jichinsai is presided over by a Kannushi, a shinto priest. During the Edo period, the role was performed by carpenters. In these more affluent times, the construction company arranges for the priest - usually the customer/client does not know the cost of the ceremony. The Kannushi prays for the safety of the construction workers and to appease the kami, who is about to have the earth around him seriously interfered with by bulldozers and other equipment. In the case of Residence Hane, the bulldozers started doing their thing about 11 days earlier than the Jichinsai, but again this minor discrepancy isn't considered a problem.

Scythe, pick and shovel
Before a Jichinsai commences, small branches of bamboo with symbolic paper attached are placed on each corner of the building site (in the case of Residence Hane, 6 corners). These are then joined by sacred rope (in our case, twine) called shimenawa. A small tent/marquee is then erected, surrounded on at least three sides by red and white striped cloth. The floor is comprised of sand. An small evergreen branch (called a himorogi), is then placed on a stand similar to an altar underneath which there is some straw. Usually, the entire arrangement is organised to face the south. In our case, practicalities required that it faced North/Norwest. There simply wasn't enough space, and Japan is nothing but practical on matters involving space and lack thereof. The kami will understand.

Grunting completed
The actual Jichinsai ceremony is fairly quick (we are on a tight schedule) and mostly symbolic. Three symbols are used - a scythe, pick and shovel - each tool made of wood. The representative of the client (Yamasa) approaches the small mound symbolizing the earth and in a quick act cuts the vegetation (a tuft of grass stuck into the top of the mound just before the ceremony). No grunting involved. A representative of the architectural firm then approaches and prepares the ground using the pick. One grunt is sufficient. The construction company representative then symbolically digs into the mound with the shovel. Plenty of grunting required.

One week later...
Immediately afterwards, other members of the three groups represented approach the Kannushi, and then place a small branch in front of the himoragi as an offering. Various prayers are offered, each varying on the group's needs. In the case of the Director of the International Office the prayer offered on behalf of the group was "Can we please get on with this as I desperately need the building completed by May 15th". I'm not sure if I bowed sufficiently, but since my offering was edited out of the video only the kami shall know.

The Jichinsai is then completed when a toast is made using fine Japanese sake. Happily, construction began soon thereafter.

I noticed on the 28th (a week later) that one of the small branches of bamboo placed in one of the corners was still there, surrounded by heavy earth moving equipment. I offered another short prayer, that the kami will look after the construction workers, and our students who will live in the building over the many years to come. When Residence Hane opens on May 15th (as it will! as it must!), I'll remember this small twig of bamboo.




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