Kagami Biraki: Renewing the Spirit
By Christopher Caile
Kagami Biraki, which literally means "Mirror Opening" (also
known as the "Rice Cutting Ceremony"), is a traditional Japanese
celebration that is held in many traditional martial arts schools (dojos)
usually on the second Saturday or Sunday of January so all students will
be able to attend. (1) It was an old samurai tradition dating back to
the 15th century that was adopted into modern martial arts starting in
1884 when Jigora Kano (the founder of judo) instituted the custom at the
Kodokan, his organization's headquarters. (2)
Since then other Japanese arts, such as aikido, karate, and jujutsu,
have adopted the celebration that officially kicks off the new year --
a tradition of renewal, rededication and spirit.
In Japan Kagami Biraki is still practiced by many families. It marks
the end of the New Year's holiday season which is by far the biggest celebration
of the year -- something which combines the celebration of Christmas,
the family orientation of Thanksgiving, mixed with the excitement of vacation
It is a time when the whole nation (except for the service industries)
goes on holiday. It is also a time for family and a return to traditional
roots -- prayers and offerings at the Shinto shrine and Buddhist Temples,
dress in kimonos, traditional food and games. It is also a time when fathers
are free to relax and share with the family, to talk, play games, eat
and in more modern times, watch TV. It is also a time for courtesy calls
to business superiors and associates as well as good customers. Work begins
about a week into the month, but parties with friends and co-workers continue.
In most traditional dojos preparation for the new year's season begins
as in most households. Toward the end of the year dojos are cleaned, repairs
made, mirrors shined and everything made tidy. In Japan many dojos retain
the tradition of a purification ceremony. Salt is thrown throughout the
dojo, as salt is a traditional symbol of purity (goodness and virtue),
(4) and then brushed away with pine boughs.
Decorations are then frequently placed around the dojo. In old Japan
they had great symbolism, but today most people just think of them as
traditional holiday decorations.
rice cakes, often with an orange on top (representing orchards) and other
decorations, are placed on the ceremonial center of the dojo, the shinzen.
Called Kagami Mochi, these rice cakes are rounded in the shape of old
fashioned metal mirrors and formed from a hard dough of pounded rice.
They symbolize full and abundant good fortune. Their breaking apart (or
opening up) is the "Mirror Opening," after which Kagami Biraki
is named. Bits are then traditionally consumed, often in a red bean soup.
In modern days, however, these rice cakes are often vinyl coated, since
homes and dojos are heated and food can easily spoil. The coating stops
the rice from getting moldy and cracking due to heat and dryness. Thus
in many dojos these rice cakes are no longer consumed. (4)
The dojo's spiritual center with holiday decorations. At top
the miniature shrine is flanked with pine boughs set in vases.
Below, on the left, is a display of holiday rice-cakes (Kagami
Mochi). At middle is a replica of a samurai armored helmet and
at right a ceremonial sake keg, another holiday symbol.
Other decorations are called kadomatsu, which include bamboo
(a symbol of uprightness and growth), plum twigs (a symbol of spirit)
and pine boughs (from the mountains that are symbols of longevity). Pine
boughs are placed around the dojo, principally on doors and in small vases
to both sides of the kamidana which is a miniature wooden Shinto shrine
(usually set on a shelf high on the ceremonial center). Pine boughs are
the only ornamentation not removed after Kagami Biraki.
Another decoration is Shimenawa which is made of twisted strands
of rice straw. It is often found on the dojo's front door or over
the entrance to the dojo's practice floor. This is a symbol of
good luck and traditionally it was believed it would help keep
For martial arts students today, however, the New Year's
celebration of Kigami Biraki has no religious significance. It does, however,
continue the old samurai tradition of kicking off the new year. It is
also a time when participants engage in a common endeavor and rededicate
their spirit, effort and discipline toward goals, such as training.
At our World Seido Karate Headquarters hundreds of students congregate
early in the morning to train together, although it gets so crowded that
real training is difficult. Practice
thus become more a sharing of spirit, as New Years is expressed amongst
the push-ups, kiais (shouts) and many repetitions of technique. As effort
and sweat builds, a steamy mist rises among the participants. There is
also a message from our founder, Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura, followed by
short speeches by senior dojo members. The celebration ends with refreshments
(which can be viewed as a symbolic representation of the traditional rice
cake breaking and consumption) and a meeting of all teachers and Branch
In other schools the celebration is very different. Ernie Estrada, Chief
Instructor of Okinawan Shorin-ryu Karate-do, reports that their Kagami
Biraki is highlighted by a special "Two Year Training." This
includes ten to twelve hours of intense training, the length and severity
symbolically representing the two year time span.
George Donahue, a student of the late Kishaba Chokei and Shinzato Katsuhiko,
and former director of Matsubayashi Ryu's Kishaba Juku of New York City,
notes that in Japan Kagami Baraki started with a long morning session
of zazen (kneeling meditation), and includes visits to the dojo throughout
the day by well-wishers, ex-students, and local politicians. The day is
ended with an especially intense workout followed by a long party attended
by dojo members and honored guests from the community. After three or
four hours of speeches, toasts, eating, and drinking, people demonstrate
their kata. For non-local students this is usually the only opportunity
in the year to receive a promotion.
For old style teachers who don't officially charge for instruction, Kagami
Biraki has special significance. It is a day for students to anonymously
honor their teachers with cash gifts. Contributions are placed within
identical envelopes with no contributor identification, and discreetly
left in a pile for the teacher. (6)
The Ancient New Year's Observance
The Japanese New Year's tradition has its roots in the ancient folk beliefs
of agrarian China. If a bountiful harvest was desired, it was thought
necessary to first create a warm, human atmosphere into which the harvest
would grow. Critical to this process were the bonds of family and community
based on blood, obligation and work that were further strengthened during
this holiday from common celebration and sharing.
In Japan this tradition further evolved into a Shinto celebration based
primarily around the worship of a deity Toshigama, (7) (thought to visit
every household in the new year) in order to insure the production of
the five gra`ins: rice, wheat barley, bean and mullet.
In preparation for the deity's visit, people cleaned and then decorated
their homes to beautify them for the diety. There were also prayers and
ringing of temple bells to ward off evil spirits. New Years was initiated
with visits to Shrines and family and ritual ceremonies -- all revolving
around Toshigama. While today the meaning of most of these Shinto observances
has been forgotten, many of rituals remain in the form of holiday traditions.
The symbolism of the mirror, which is central to Kagami Biraki, dates
back to the original trilogy myth (along with the sword and the jewel)
of the creation of Japan. By the 15th century Shinto had interpreted the
mirror and sword to be important symbols of the virtues that the nation
should venerate. (8) They also symbolized creation, legitimacy and authority
of the Emperor and by extension the samurai class itself as part of the
The mirror enabled people to see things as they are (good or bad) and
thus represented fairness or justice. The mirror was also a symbol of
the Sun Goddess -- a fierce spirit (the light face of god).
Swords had long been given spiritual qualities among the samurai. And
their possession contributed to a sense of purpose and destiny inherent
within the samurai culture. So legendary were some swords that they were
thought to posses their own spirit (kami). (9)
Considered as one of the samurai's most important possessions, the sword
(and other weapons) symbolized their status and position. Firm, sharp
and decisive, the sword was seen as a source of wisdom and venerated for
its power and lightning-like swiftness, but it was also seen as a mild
spirit (the dark face of god).
Taken together, the mirror and sword represent the Chinese yin and yang,
or two forms of energy permeating everything -- the primeval forces of
the universe from which everything springs -- the source of spirit empowering
the Emperor by extension samurai class who was in his service.
The Beginning of Kagami Biraki
It was from this time (15th century), it is said, that the tradition
of Kagami Biraki began. It developed as a folk Shinto observation with
a particular class (samurai) bent. (10)
Before the New Year Kagami Mochi, or rice cakes, were placed in front
of the armory (11) to honor and purify their weapons and armor. On the
day of Kagami Biraki the men of Samurai households would gather to clean,
shine and polish their weapons and armor (12).
So powerful was the symbol of armor and weapons that even today links
to these feudal images remain. Japanese households and martial arts dojos
often display family amor (family kami), helmets or swords, or modern
replica, displayed in places of honor. In front of these relics, sticks
of incense are burned to show honor and acknowledge their heritage.
Women in samurai households also placed Kagami Mochi, or rice cakes,
in front of the family Shinto shrine. A central element (set in front
of the Shrine) was a small round mirror made of polished silver, iron,
bronze or nickel. It was a symbol of the Sun Goddess, but was also thought
to embody the spirits of departed ancestors. So strong was this belief
that when a beloved family member was near death, a small metal mirror
was often pressed close to the person's nostrils to capture their spirit.
The round rice cakes were thus used as an offering -- in gratitude to
the deities in the hope of receiving divine blessing and also as an offering
to family spirits (and deceased family heroes). It was thought that this
offering would renew the souls of the departed to which the family shrine
was dedicated. (14)
To members of Japanese feudal society mirrors thus represented the soul
or conscience. Therefore it was considered important to keep mirrors clean
since it was thought that mirrors reflected back on the viewer his own
thoughts. Thus the polishing of weapons and amor on Kagami Biraki was
symbolically (from mirror polishing) seen as a method to clarify thought
and strengthen dedication to samurai's obligations and duty in the coming
year. Thus Kagami Biraki is also known to some as "Armor Day."
This concept continues even today. When your karate, judo or aikido teacher
talks of self-polishing, of working on and perfecting the self and to
reduce ego, the concept harkens back to the ancient concept of mirror
polishing to keep the mind and resolve clear.
On Kagami Baraki, the round rice cakes (often specially colored to represent
regions or clans) would be broken, their round shape symbolizing a mirror
and their breaking apart symbolizing the mirror's opening. The cakes were
then consumed in a variety of ways.
The breaking of rice-cakes (Kagami Mochi) on Kagami Biraki symbolizes
the coming out (of a cave) of the Sun Goddess in Japanese mythology, an
act that renewed light and spirit to the ancient world. (15). Thus breaking
apart the rice cakes each year on this date represents a symbolic calling
out again of this life force and reenactment of the beginning (mythological)
of the world. (16)
The Kagami Mochi are consumed. This is seen as an act of spiritual communion.
It was believed that partaking of these cakes not only symbolized the
renewal of the souls of their ancestors, but also the absorption of the
spirit (or aura) Toshigama (also probably the Sun Goddess) to which the
New Years season was dedicated. For this reason eating Kagami Mochi has
always represented renewal, the start of the new year and the first breaking
of the earth or the preparation for coming agriculture. Thus consumption
was a physical act of prayer, happiness and peace in the new year in the
spirit of optimism, renewal and good luck. The new year was thus seen
with hope, and full of fresh possibility, a clean beginning and opportunity
There were also very human benefits. The sharing of rice cakes with family
and clan members helped strengthen common ties and bonds of allegiance
and friendship among warriors. Rice cakes also prepared the body for the
The new year holiday was most often filled with drinking, celebration
and eating ceremonial foods. On January 7, the body was first fortified
with a special rice herbal concoction that was thought to cure the body
of many diseases. Thus, by Kagami Biraki people's bodies were ready for
regulation and cleansing. Mocha was often eaten with different edible
grasses for this purpose. It prepared people to resume a regular schedule.
The very rice consumed itself had symbolic meaning for the Samurai. Farmers
once thought that rice having breath (actually breathing in the ground),
thus giving rise to the concept of rice being "alive," (breathing
in the field), and thus divine imbued with a living deity (kami). On another
level rice represented the very economic backbone of the samurai society.
It was given to the samurai as a stipend in return for service and allegiance
to his lord (or alternatively given control over land and peasants who
produced rice) -- in a society where wealth and power were not based on
currency, but on control of land which produced agriculture.
In recent years some people have reinterpreted the "Mirror Opening
Ceremony" from a different viewpoint, Zen. In the book, Angry White
Pajamas - An Oxford Poet Trains with the Tokyo Police, the author Robert
Twigger recounts as an interpretation of Kagami Biraki an esoteric explanation
given to him by someone who had lived in a Zen monastery. The mirror,
it was explained, contains an old image, for what one sees in the mirror
is seen with old eyes. You see what you expect to see, something that
conforms with your own self-image based on what you remember of yourself.
In this way the eyes connect people with their past through the way they
see their own image. This creates a false continual. Instead every moment
holds potential for newness, another possibility for breaking with the
old pattern, the pattern being just a mental restraint, something that
binds us to the false self people call "me." By breaking the
mirror one breaks the self-image that binds people to the past, so as
to experience the now, the present. "This is Kagami Biraki,"
recounts Twigger, "a chance to glimpse the reality we veil with mundaneness
of day-to-day living."
About The Author
Christopher Caile, the founder and Editor-in-Chief of FightingArts.com,
is a historian, writer and researcher on the martial arts and Japanese
culture. A martial artist for over 40 years he holds a 6th degree black
belt in karate and is experienced in judo, aikido, daito-ryu, itto-ryu,
boxing, and several Chinese arts. He is also a teacher of qi gong.
Notes & Footnotes:
(1) Kagami Biraki officially falls on January 11 but dojos usually pay
less attention to the specific date preferring instead a date most convenient
for all dojo participants. Kagami Biraki also refers to a traditional
custom of breaking a sake (rice wine) cask that is often done at ceremonies,
receptions and weddings.
(2) It is also known that Daito Ryu's Sokaku Takeda also participated
in Kagami Biraki in 1936, but the tradition may have begun in his art
(3) Originally, Kagami Biraki occurred on January 20th, but with the
death of the third Shogun, Iemitsu, in the Tokugawa shogunate, on January
20, 1651, it was changed to the 11th, although some areas still practice
it on the 20th.
(4) In sumo matches the participants pick up salt and scatter it over
the wrestling circle. This is also a purification ritual designed symbolically
to drive out evil spirits so the match will be fair and honorable.
(5) In the home, in similar fashion to the dojo, kagami-mochi (a pair
of decorated rice cakes) are placed on the family altar. While Kagami
Mochi is not traditionally eaten until the end of the holiday season (Kagami
Biraki), a variety of them are eaten all through the new year's period.
It was also once customary (on Jan. 1) to drop bits of mocha down wells
as an offering to the water deity. On the 11th it was also offered to
the farmyard and crows. Outside the home New Years decorations are also
often hung, and simple decorations (made of bamboo, or pine boughs tied
together with straw called kadomatsu) are displayed.
(6) This way the teacher has no way of knowing who left what, thus making
it impossible to curry favor with a big donor. Many teachers still teach
their art for free.
(7) Toshigama, the New Years Gods, are believed to be either, or both,
the wife of Godu-Tennon or a chubby old man who comes down from the mountains
to bless children.
(8) From the book, Mirror, Sword and Jewel - The Geometry of Japanese
Life, by Kurt Singer.
(9) Secrets Of The Samurai, Oscar Ratti, p. 255.
(10) Kagami Biraki is not a Shrine Shinto or Imperial Shinto ceremony
or tradition. It might be best classified as "nenchu gyoji"
which the Dictionary of Japanese Ethnography defines as "traditional
observances repeated as a matter of custom in the same manner and style
at the same point in the annual calendar." It notes that these observances
are usually undertaken by families, hamlets, ethnic bodies or social groups,
which give them the force of obligation, and often appear at intersections
of the agricultural calendar.
To attempt to understand the ancient traditions, we must try to put ourselves
in the frame of mind of the Japanese at that time. Their distance in time
from us is far outmeasured by the distance of worldly perception. It was
a time before science or understanding. For most, life was a grueling
existence fought out in the vagaries of agricultural subsistence. Even
conscienceness had not risen to a sense of self-concept, man's sense of
self instead inextricable intertwined in the web of land, family and society
of feudal life. All the forces of nature buffeted this island grouping
and great natural mysteries confronted their existence. What was one to
make of storms, rain, snow, wind and lightening? What was the sun, moon,
stars, and why did seasons change? How could you understand sickness,
even death that was as surly a companion in life as one's shadow. Caught
in this vortex of uncertainty, life seemed imbued with unseen forces and
energies, as gods and spirits seemed to direct forces and nature -- man's
influence limited to ritual, magic and attempts to influence these greater
(11) Information provided by John Nelson, author of A Year in the Life
of a Shinto Shrine, and Professor in the Religious Studies Program at
the University of San Francisco.
(12) Information given to the author by Bryan McCarthy, a martial artist,
Japanese translator, and Ph.D. student in humanistic studies with a research
specialty in Japan, at the State University of New York at Albany.
(13) The mirror was then wrapped in silk and placed in a box inscribed
with the name of the ancestor. They were held in such high respect and
honor that they were never allowed on the floor, and it was considered
a serious crime (in feudal times) to step over them.
(14) Since animals and even farming tools were thought to receive the
new year, often special colored rice cakes were prepared and placed in
the middle of the family living room.
Rice cakes or mocha are Japan's oldest food that hearken back to pre-medieval
times and represent Shinto's spirit food, as it is said that round rice
cakes were once used as an archery target, and once when an arrow pierced
a cake a white bird flew out. It was often eaten as a restorative. During
new years Kigali Mocha are all purpose offerings. In January first bits
of rice cakes were once dropped down wells as an offering to water gods.
On the eleventh, samurai farmers also offered cakes to farm yard animals.
On the fifteenth, known as "Little New Years," was when families
partake them alone in hearty stews. When consuming mochi it was thought
to be good luck to stretch mochi with chopsticks as you bit into it --
the longer the stretch, it was thought, the longer the life.
(15) From Dr. Ryuichi Abe, a professor of Religion at Colombia University.
(16) When the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu-omikami hid in a cave and the world
became dark, a mirror was taken out and everyone prayed to the mirror
(which symbolized the Sun Goddess) that she would reveal herself again.
The prayers were successful and the world became bright and happy again
by her reappearance. Kagami Mochi are made in the shape of a mirror to
represent the mirror used in the time of the Sun Goddesses hiding in the
cave. Thus the offering of these rice cakes symbolize a prayer for a brighter,
happier and renewed life.