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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 and travel.

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. (3)

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.

Stacked 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 evil out.

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 Chiefs.

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 feudal system.

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. (13)

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 for dedication.

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 new year.

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."

Also See:

Kagami Biraki 2001
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About The Author

Christopher Caile, the founder and Editor-in-Chief of, 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 much earlier.

(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 forces.

(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.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Kagami Biraki, Open Mirror, Mirror Opening, Rice Cutting Ceremony, Japanese New Year's celebration, renewing the spirit, dojo customes, dojo celebrations

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