What is a mirror in your life

Japanese Consulate General Düsseldorf
在 デ ュ ッ セ ル ド ル フ 日本国 総 領事館

Culture and exchange

Mirrors in Japan:

(Japan Forum, March 2001, p. 1)


"Mirror Mirror on the wall, who is the most beautiful in the whole country? "- as this quote from" Snow White "shows, in the West the mirror has been a symbol of vanity for centuries and this is often used in the fine arts Mirror (kagami) has of course become an important beauty tool in Japan over the course of time, it is not an expression of vanity and addiction to cleaning as it is in the West. Rather, it is understood early on as something sacred and is closely associated with the figure of the sun goddess Amaterasu in mythology.

As we from the Kojiki ("Records of old incidents", compiled 712), the Holy Mirror counts (yata no kagami) to the three items that Amaterasu hands over to her grandson Ninigi when he descends on earth to take over the rule of Japan. Together with precious stones and sword, it is one of the imperial insignia that are ceremoniously presented to the Japanese emperor on his accession to the throne.

Amaterasu particularly recommends the mirror to her grandson and points out that it acts as a link between them, as a kind of contact medium. We encounter this idea later in various fairy tales. For example, they tell of how someone mistook their reflection in the mirror for the rejuvenated version of a deceased parent who appears to be living in the mysterious object. Such stories are an indication that in Japan - like in Europe - mirrors were hardly known in rural areas for a long time and therefore this phenomenon could not be fully explained.

In China mirrors had already been assigned a magical meaning, and as grave goods they were part of the cult of the dead. In the Yayoi period (approx. 300 BC - 300 AD), the first mirrors from China and Korea came to Japan along with other metal goods. These were relatively thick and heavy discs, rubbed bright on one side, mostly made of bronze and sometimes provided with an alloy on the front that reflected the light particularly well. Bronze was expensive, and so in Asia - like in Europe - mirrors were for a long time luxury goods that reflected the power and wealth of the urban upper class. This also applied to Japan, where mirrors were first used as cult devices in Shintôism and then also became a status symbol in the secular area as a fashion item.

They are different Shapes are represented, but the most common are round mirrors. They either have a knob on the back with a braided silk cord to hold them in place, or they are placed on a mirror stand; still others have a handle on one side as a handle. Since the round shape is the most common, the term for mirror has gradually become synonymous with something circular. So called kagami For example the lid of a sake barrel or the rice cakes, which serve as auspicious decorations and as an offering for the New Year (kagami-mochi).

On their back the mirrors are often provided with a rich decoration (metal relief, lacquer, mother-of-pearl, painting, lacquer, etc.). At first, mirrors imported from China and Korea served as a template for Japanese products. In the Nara period (8th century), when the cultural influence of China on Japan reached its peak, these were above all the mirrors of the Chinese Tang period (618-906) with their rather heavy, symmetrical filling patterns, as well as numerous artistic ones Examples in the treasury (Shôsôin) of the Tôdaiji in Nara. But in the Heian period (794-1192) the mirrors clearly broke away from their continental models and developed a Japanese type (wakyô): They have become smaller, lighter and more manageable, the patterns change into playful images of nature with airy, graceful plant and bird motifs that cover the entire back to the very edge. They are objects of the highest craftsmanship, which at the same time express the sophisticated aesthetic taste of their noble clients. Also exquisite art objects are the mirror boxes, which are often part of a noble cosmetic set (kagami-bako), which are often lacquer work with carving or gold decor. In the wood carving art of the Edo period (1603-1868), on the other hand, we encounter the so-called "mirror series", in which the depicted heads of actors or other well-known personalities are depicted in round, mirror-shaped portrait medallions.

Also in literature the concept of the mirror has found its way. In the European Middle Ages "mirrors" belonged - especially in their Latin name (speculum) - one of the most popular titles ever. The mirror here stood for self-knowledge and wisdom, and accordingly the works mostly had a didactic character and presented knowledge or exemplified a certain virtue. In China, the idea was also common that history functions as a mirror for the present and as a guide for rulers or .May serve statesmen. But this concept is less present in Japan: Although kagami can also stand for "role model" - but mostly written with a different character - there are relatively few works in older Japanese literature that have the word "mirror" in the title.

The most popular the kagami-mono called Ôkagami ("Großer Spiegel", 11th / 12th century) and belongs - how Imakagami, Mizukagami and Masukagami - to the literary genre of rekishi monogatari ("History Tales"). These come - unlike the "Six Imperial Stories" written on official imperial orders - from the pen of independent authors who endeavored to present history in an acceptable literary form. They wrote in Japanese syllabary, combined real historical events with fictional aspects of literature and included numerous anecdotes in their work. Thematically, they mainly concentrated on the private sphere of the court nobility in their presentation of the events. So is at the heart of the Ôkagami the main representative of the courtly heyday, Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1027), whose success in the internal power struggles and his glamorous position are expressively reflected here.