Sorry I’m not Straightforward: the Moon in Japanese Culture

Sorry I’m not Straightforward: the Moon in Japanese Culture

Though Japan has long declared itself ‘the land of the rising sun’, the moon occupies a singular, altogether more complex place in the Japanese imagination. Both ephemeral and powerful, it has – from imperial poetry to anime – long inspired people striving to represent the unrepresentable within us. Here’s a few examples:

As an island with a strong national ideology as well as centuries of Chinese influence, Japan’s religion is a mix of both traditional Shintoist as well as Chinese-influenced Zen Buddhist elements. While earthly beauty and the majesty of the seasons is celebrated through the spirits of Shintoism, the Japanese Zen tradition looks more towards enlightenment and selflessness. In the shinto faith, the god of the moon is called Tsukuyomi. Less prominent than his sister, the sun goddess Amaterasu, his position in the pantheon is layered and complex. Like many moon divinities, he represents dreams, spirituality, fertility and the balance of masculine and feminine energy.

The situation is quite different within Japanese Zen Buddhism, where the moon is a symbol for enlightenment. So while Shinto mythology prioritises the sun as a symbol of national wellbeing, Japanese Buddhism, celebrates the moon as a symbol for inner enlightenment.

In his accompaniment to the famous Zen picture series Ten Ox Herding Pictures, 12th century monk Guoyan Shiyuan wrote of the moon: ‘[a]ll merge in No Thing / This heaven is so vast / No message can stain it.’ The Zen moon then is a place where all is possible, and everything is contained within nothing. While the sun of Shintoism is constant in shape and makes us think of solidity, the moon of Japanese Buddhism constantly changes and hints at fluidity. While Shintoism celebrates the natural majesty of the world, Buddhism strives for spiritual self improvement and sees in the lunar cycle the complexity of the world, the human spirit, and the constantly changing nature of existence.

Japan’s love of the weird, kawaii and offbeat within pop culture often harnesses this Zen energy. Let’s think of Sailor Moon, an ordinary schoolgirl battling the forces of evil and fighting to prevent the destruction of the solar system with her band of ‘Sailor Soldiers’. The show allowed 90s girls’ from all over the word to explore complex ideas such as genderfluidity. Sailor Uranus for example, cuts her hair short and dresses in boy’s clothes, and as a consequence is originally considered to be male by the Sailor Soldiers. When discovered, she responds to Sailor Moon’s questions on the nature of her gender with the simple question: “Does it really matter?” In the light of the powerful, protective and ambiguous moon, Sailor Uranus knows she can be neither and all at once, as long as she keeps saving the universe. The lunar power evoked in Sailor Moon then celebrates that which struggles for definition within the temporal world.

Fast-forward a few decades and virtual pop sensation Hatsune Miku urges us to find solace in the moon’s beauty in her 2007 single ‘Moon’: “moon is shining / It exceeds space / Hope and light, I hope they’ll be reached / It’s shining […] so you won’t be lost / […] you are not alone”. Miku, a vocaloid, digital superstar and avatar of the global success of Japan’s ‘otaku’ (geek) culture, appeals to the same Zen lunar symbolism, evoking the sense of inclusion that comes from belonging to a celestial universe.

The Sailor Moon theme song opens with the apology: “Gomen ne sunao ja nakute”: “sorry I’m not straightforward”, a perfect summary of the role covered by the changing moon in Japanese culture. As Zen influences persist within modern Japanese pop culture, the moon continues to be celebrated as a hopeful site of projection, as we seek unity within the universe.


Hannah Auld is a 27 year old writer from Glasgow. After previously calling Fukuoka, Tokyo and London her home, she currently resides in Edinburgh, where she is particularly partial to a stroll along the canal and Tunnock’s Teacake.