[Tentative Translation] Memorial Lecture by His Majesty the Emperor of Japan At the 4th Asia Pacific Water Summit

Saturday, April 23rd, 2022)
Kumamoto-jo Hall, Kumamoto City, Japan

Hearts, Minds and Water - Touching Water in People's Beliefs -

Prior to my lecture, I would like to express my sincere condolences to all the victims of disasters that have occurred in Kumamoto, Kyushu, Japan, as well as in other countries around the world. Please accept my sympathy for all who are affected by disasters.

Your Excellency Mr. Yoshiro Mori, Chair of the Asia Pacific Water Summit,
Your Excellencies Participating Heads of State and Government,
Ladies and gentlemen,

1. Prologue – People and Water in Kumamoto -

I am pleased to give the memorial speech at this Asia Pacific Water Summit in Kumamoto City, where water and people have had a profound relationship. This area was, unfortunately, hit by recurrent floods in recent years. However, Kumamoto Prefecture has been known as a place of lush greenery and scenic beauty.

Kumamoto Prefecture is topographically characterized by the volcanic calderas of Mt. Aso and Mt. Kinpoh. Shirakawa, meaning the White River, is the subject of a poem composed by the poetess Higaki in the Gosen Waka Anthologies.
“I collect water from the White River
that reminds me of elapsed years
as my dark hair has turned into the color
that merges with the name of the river”
In the same way, the Midori River, the Kikuchi River, the Chikugo River, and the Kuma River bring precious water to the fields. Also the abundant groundwater that permeates the earth supports people's lives and is also a source of richness and vitality for the city. In particular, the area around Kumamoto city stands on pyroclastic fall deposits, so rainfall readily permeates through the layers of the deposits, which helps to form a large aquifer of quality water. This groundwater is the single source of domestic water supply for all of the 740,000 citizens, a rare occurrence amongst the large cities of the world. This is possible because many citizens volunteer to conserve this good water environment. Kumamoto City, therefore, deserves to be called a “Pristine Water City”.

Plentiful water in Japan, including Kumamoto Prefecture, has fostered fertile lands, which has nurtured a unique culture and society through long standing interaction between people and water. Through the history of the relationships between people and water, the culture and the society have been formed, not only in Japan, but everywhere in the Asia Pacific and the world. If you look around the world at various cultures and civilizations, you may find that water not only upholds the lives of people but affects the relationships between people and nature, and even their conception of nature and the world. There are cases in Japan and the world in which people’s appreciation and fear of water led them to see water as a means to purify their minds and hearts and even a subject of their worship, leading to a worship of water. Today, I would like to talk on this topic of the relation between our hearts and minds and water, by examining folk religion related to water.

2. Mountain Worship and Water

Mountain worship is a form of folk religion widely found in Japan. Famous examples in Japan are the worship of Mt. Fuji, Mt. Hakusan, Mt. Ohmine, and Mt. Daisen. Shrines that deify those mountain gods have spread out all over the country. Worship of mountains is found not only in Japan but throughout the world. They develop in places where close ties exist between characteristic mountains and ethnic groups. In Asia, Mt. Kailas in China is a sacred mountain for Buddhism and Hinduism. Many people visit the mountain for pilgrimage. Mt. Machapuchare which I visited in Nepal and Mt. Chomo Lhari in Bhutan are also worshiped as sacred mountains (Fig.1).

Mt. Aso in Kumamoto Prefecture is widely known as a representative of active volcanoes of Japan. It has been a subject of worship. The famous crater of Nakadake (Fig.2) contains water at its bottom and the god Take-iwatatsu-no-mikoto is enshrined as a subject of worship. A legend says the god cut open the ring mountain of Aso to discharge water dammed up in the Aso caldera, thus producing fertile paddy fields. His son, the god Haya-mikatama-no-mikoto, is enshrined as a water-distributing god at the Aso Shrine at the foot of the mountain (Fig.3). As seen in this case, it is said that there is a religious fusion which has existed since ancient times of the worship of a volcano god in Mt. Aso and the worship of an agricultural god and a water god through the opening up of the Aso Valley.

This picture shows water springs abundant in Kumamoto City (Fig.4). There are a number of prominent water sources such as Lake Ezu and Mt. Kinpoh Springs in Kumamoto City. There are also some scenic places such as the Shirakawa Water Source in Kumamoto Prefecture where abundant pure water springs forth. Not only the worship of Mt. Aso, but also many of these prominent water sources are the subjects of worship, and small shrines are located beside the water sources (Fig.5).

Let us turn our eyes to the relationship between water and Mt. Hakusan, a prominent sacred mountain of Japan, which straddles Ishikawa, Gifu, and Fukui Prefectures (Fig.6). The altitude of Mt. Hakusan exceeds 2,700 meters, and it is the source of major rivers such as the Tedori River, Kuzuryu River, and Nagara River. Presumably because of this, since ancient times, Hakusan has been referred to as “God the Parent that sustains life”, and also worshipped as a god of agriculture and water. It is said that Hakusan was established as a sacred mountain in 717 A.D. of Nara period by a Buddhist monk named Taicho. Its 1,300-year anniversary was celebrated in 2017. As you can see, there is much mountain worship in Japan that is associated with legends and worship that is connected with water.

In addition the water-related folk religion is connected not only to mountains but also to people’s livelihoods such as forests and forestry. These pictures show the Shikobuchi Shrine in the Ado River Basin in Shiga Prefecture (Fig.7). In this watershed forestry used to prosper. Logged timber was built into rafts that had to flow through many dangerous spots along the river to reach the market places. It is said that thus a network of “Shikobuchi Shrines” was formed to pray for the safety of raft navigation. As we have seen, people’s various desires, appreciation, and thoughts for water have led to the folk worship of water.

3. Water beliefs connecting the Asia Pacific Region (1) –Journey of the Nagas-

Now, let us take a look at the connections in the Asia-Pacific Region through water-related beliefs. I will first of all take up divine snakes, and then dragons as a clue to exploring the connection.

Please have a look at this figure (Fig.8). These are earthen wares of the Jomon Period. They are adorned with patterns of snakes, which suggest that the snake was a subject of worship during this period. In fact, there are examples of snake worship in many parts of the world besides Japan, including Asia, Europe, the Americas, and Africa (Fig.9), where the snakes were considered as gods or messengers of gods. There are numerous mythologies and legends of snakes, which are in many cases associated with hydrological and meteorological events, such as heavy rain, drought, praying for rain, rainbows, and clouds. There are various explanations. One reason is that meandering rivers resemble snakes, for example, the shapes of rainbows and lightning are similar to those of snakes, and that snakes stay or live in water. In any case, it seems certain that simple forms of water worship developed through deifying snakes at local levels before major trans-national religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism prevailed. One example from Japan is the story of Yamata-no-orochi, or a huge snake with eight heads and tails, which appears in the book of Japanese history "Kojiki" and "Nihon Shoki".

After the rise of civilization in each region of the Asia Pacific, the propagation of major religions and the spread of related legends and icons took place in tandem. In particular the propagation of Buddhism influenced people’s hearts and minds in the region (Fig.10), while concepts such as those of snake gods and associated icons started to move across the continent along with it. This photo shows Nagas, or the snake gods of Hinduism (Fig.11), and it is said to be modelled on the poisonous cobra. As Hinduism places importance on purification with water from the Ganges River, water gods are hence given importance. There are numerous statues of Nagas, half-human and half-snake, on the reliefs of many Hindu temples in India.

I visited Angkor Wat in Cambodia in 2012 (Fig.12). There were many reliefs and sculptures of Nagas in the temple (Fig.13). Above all there was a stone relief depicting the Hindi genesis story of the “Churning of the Ocean of Milk” in the first corridor of the temple (Fig.14). The relief depicts a scene where in search of immortal portion, as shown in the photo at the bottom, the gods of virtue and those of evil are pulling the Naga coiled around a mountain in the center, from both the head on the left and the tail on the right. Another story, of the birth of Cambodia, reveals that a Naga drank up the water that had immersed the entire ground, thereby creating the country, which suggests the strong relationship between Nagas and water. Statues of Nagas are also found in Indonesia (Fig.15).

Now, I would like to take a look at the examples of Japan. Please see this picture (Fig.16). This is a statue of the god Ugajin of Honzanji Temple in Osaka, Japan. Many Ugajin statues with a human head resting on a coiled snake body are also seen in Japan. This picture shows a statue of the Goddess Benzaiten on Chikubushima Island in Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan (Fig.17), and on its head lies a statute of Ugajin.

Speaking of Benzaiten shrines, famous ones are those on Itsukushima in Hiroshima Prefecture, one of three most scenic spots in Japan. Another is the one on Enoshima in Kanagawa Prefecture that is known for yachting sports. Both of them are enshrined on islands, places related to water (Fig.18). Furthermore, being also an island in the Shinobazu Pond in the Ueno quarter of Tokyo, an island was created to resemble Chikubujima Island in Lake Biwa, on which a shrine that enshrines Benzaiten was built. I also heard that there is an island enshrining Benzaiten in Kumamoto Prefecture. Also, at the summit of Mt. Misen in Omine Mountain Range in Nara Prefecture, a well-known site for mountain worship, there is a rear shrine of Tenkawa Benzaiten (Fig.19). Mt. Ohmine is the source of the Yoshino River which has provided water to the Kii Plain since ancient times and later even to the Yamato Plain thanks to its abundant water flow, from which we can infer the close relationship between water and the worship of Benzaiten. In Japan, Benzaiten is listed as one of the Seven Gods of Fortune, and is familiarly known to people as "Benten-sama". Benzaiten had her origin in the Water Goddess Saraswati in India. The concept of a water goddess seemingly migrated along with the propagation of Buddhism. The name “Saraswati” means “the one holding water”, which suggests that the snake and the god of water are closely related (Fig.17). As I have explained, water beliefs related to Naga, or snakes, travelled across the continent and the ocean and left a gigantic spiritual vestiges on the region.

By the way, the palace which I moved to last September was the former residence of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Interestingly, when I was studying the history of the residence, in the 18th century of the Edo period, I was surprised to find that there was a Benzaiten enshrined on a small island in a moat on the palace premises, and I felt that ties to water are continuing.

4. Water beliefs connecting the Asia Pacific Region (2) -Journey of Dragons-

Let us now look at the case of dragons. The dragon is an imaginary creature of legend and folklore. It is said that the concept of the dragon took shape thousands of years ago in China even before the beginning of Buddhism and other religions. These photos show such examples (Fig.20). Both in the Chinese First Dragon in the Yangshao Culture in 6,000 B.C. or earlier and in the Jade Dragon in the Hongshan Culture in 3,000 B.C. or earlier, the shapes of dragons were already appeared. The dragon in China is also a symbol of authority, and is said to govern water, and thus has been the subject of prayer for rainfall since ancient times. As there were no snakes such as the Indian cobras in China, it is assumed that this ancient concept of dragons was carried to East Asia and South-East Asia, combined with the teaching of Buddhism relating to the snakes (Fig.21).

The Japanese dragons are thought to be a result of the propagation of this conceptual formation in ancient China. They are often enshrined as water gods. There is a cave in which a dragon is said to live in Murou, Nara Prefecture. A ritual praying for rain was performed in the cave in the 9th Century A.D. according to a historical document titled “Nihon Kiryaku” (Fig.22). Also, as Sanetomo Minamoto, the third Shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate, wrote:
“People's sorrow will unbearably increase
When rain falls in excess.
May I plead to you, Great Eight Dragons,
To make the downpours cease.”
Dragons became the subject of prayer, especially during extreme weather such as floods and droughts, giving rise to folktales in many parts of Japan about water dragons (Fig.23). Among dragons, there are nine-headed ones called “Kuzuryu”. It is said that Mt. Hakusan and Mt. Togakushi in Nagano Prefecture, which I introduced earlier, are closely related to the worship of Kuzuryu. This picture shows Mt. Togakushi (Fig.24). A theory says that the unique jagged shape of the peak was thought to resemble a multi-headed dragon, and was worshipped as the “God Kuzuryu”, which led to the origin of the Togakushi belief. Looking at this picture, this theory seems to some extent to be convincing.

By the way, a hybrid and imaginary creature of a snake and a turtle from China called “Ga-meh” appears in the Myoken Festival in Yatsushiro City, Kumamoto Prefecture (Fig.25). “Ga-meh” was said to be the 6th child of a dragon in ancient China. Considering that the festival is held for good harvests, the close ties between water and dragons - as well as between Japan and Asia - are felt even in a cultural event like a festival.

In this way, you can see the process whereby a people’s appreciation and fear of water developed into myths and idols in the concrete form of snakes and dragons. Furthermore, they amalgamated with the newly introduced teachings, and migrated across the Asia-Pacific Region, while gradually changing in shape and concept.

So far, we have seen cases where simple forms of worship related to water arose from a people’s daily relations with water and then developed into deeper beliefs, which migrated across the region along with the propagation of religions. Thoughts on water, appreciation and fear of water, taking on the images of snakes and dragons, travelled from the continent over the sea and became a part of the cultures that connected various countries across the Asia-Pacific region. The deep relationship between people and water over the ages and distance seem to have formed a stable foundation for sympathy and solidarity for all people in this region.

5. Towards the achievement of the international common goals of water

Fifteen years ago in the first Asia Pacific Water Summit in Beppu, Oita Prefecture, I presented my experiences in Nepal where I encountered women and girls queuing up for the water from a shared water pipe. This triggered my interest in water issues (Fig.26). While for some there is water, safe and easily available by turning on a tap, for others, there is water only available after treading hilly paths and waiting for hours. From this photo scene, are projected the challenges for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with “no one left behind”, such as gender equality, health and education in the relationship between water and people.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development of the United Nations agreed in 2015, has set common goals and targets among the international community including the Asia-Pacific Region to meet these challenges. Now that more than one third of the implementation period has already passed, the concerned UN agencies have sounded wake-up calls for the delays in achievements. In order for all people in the world to have access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation and hygiene, it is necessary to double the current pace of improving facilities and expanding services. Furthermore, in order for all people in the world to have access to hygiene services such as drinking water in each home and to have individual toilets by 2030, it is said that the current rates of progress should be quadrupled.

On the other hand, water-related disasters such as floods and droughts are occurring at an alarming pace. It is in fact feared that these phenomena may be aggravated due to climate change. Although recovery and reconstruction from the floods are in progress in Kumamoto Prefecture, the efforts need continuously to be further promoted. Measures in the future are also considered to be urgently required. Various issues caused by lack or excess of water bring distress and instability to people and society. The challenges of the relationship between people and water is an urgent issue that we must work on in solidarity.

I sincerely hope that all people will be able to benefit from the abundant water and attain good and sustainable lives, which will eventually lead to peace and prosperity for the Region of the Asia Pacific and the whole world. I would like to express my deep respect to those who are engaged in building regional cooperation and stability through water around this region and the whole world.

As I have explained through many stories today, while supporting people’s lives, water brings peace and happiness to people’s minds and hearts, and even leads to sympathy and solidarity in and across the regions. It is my wish that everyone attending this meeting will discuss the relationship between people and water from various perspectives, come up with concrete directions for water-related challenges and their solutions, and renew your resolve towards the achievement of the water-related goals and targets common in the international community. I, too, would like to deepen my understanding and consideration towards solving the water challenges.

Thank you.