Geomancy and Town Planning in a Japanese Community

By Kalland, Arne | Ethnology, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Geomancy and Town Planning in a Japanese Community


Kalland, Arne, Ethnology


This article analyzes the layout of a Japanese community in terms of geomancy; i.e., how the village is structured in order to harness the flow of vital energy (ki in Japanese; ch'i in Chinese) created by the interaction of yin and yang forces and the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water) to the mutual benefit of its inhabitants and the environment. Geomancy has widely been used in East Asia to interpret natural phenomena and, as pointed out by Odin (1991:359), to secure a harmonious balance between humans and their natural environment. Nonetheless, scholars of Japanese culture, as well as most modern Japanese intellectuals, have long seen geomancy as an old-fashioned superstition not befitting a postindustrial society heading toward the twenty-first century. Geomancy has been relegated to the supernatural.

In recent years (with the new, holistic approach to nature) there has been a growing interest in geomancy. The Chinese fengshui (lit., wind and water) system of divination has received particular attention. Not only has it inspired new religious movements in the West, but anthropologists have found it to play an important role in the planning of cities, villages, houses, and graves (Freedman 1969; Feuchtwang 1974; Ahern 1981; Rossbach 1983; Knapp 1992). It is therefore surprising that so little attention has been given to the Japanese counterpart, hogaku (lit., directions and corners), which is mainly expressed through divination for orientation of houses (kaso) and the land (chiso). Few architects have found it worthwhile to analyze geomantic principles at work, despite the great interest in Japanese architecture in general and notwithstanding geometric charts carried in almanacs, books, and magazines catering to architects and house-builders. Nor have anthropologists shown much interest, in spite of the blame frequently placed on inauspicious geomantic forces for causing illnesses, accidents, and other misfortunes.(1)

One reason for this lack of interest might be the negative attitude toward geomancy among some Japanese. It has been looked upon as superstition, remnants of a traditional past or, at best, pseudoscience. The negative attitude is expressed, for example, in the book, Village Japan, where the authors see "increasing pressures to abandon many rules of hogaku because they create inconvenience from a modern point of view" (Beardsley et al. 1959:81). That many houses in a village violated geomantic rules was taken as an indication of a change from traditional and irrational values to modern science, and not as a testimony to the need to compromise between conflicting geomantic rules.(2)

But old ways die hard and, contrary to prediction, hogaku is full of vitality in contemporary Japan. Today it is primarily used when building new houses, extending old ones, and when moving, marrying, and setting out on major journeys. Although these aspects of hogaku are little explored and deserve proper treatment on their own (but see Crump 1992; Kalland 1994), this article must restrict its focus to the layout of one community, Shingu, in Fukuoka prefecture.(3) It will show that geomantic considerations played important roles in the location and orientation of Japanese villages, as they did in China and Korea (Yoon 1976). Relocated in 1685, Shingu provides us with one of the rare examples of government-induced village planning that allowed the planners to take geomancy into consideration, if they so desired. This article, then, describes to what extent hogaku influences the layout of Japanese communities when the conditions are, as in the case under consideration, close to optimal.

Many approaches have been suggested for studying spatial forms and the built environment (Lawrence and Low 1990). Levi-Strauss's (1963:132-63) comparison of settlement patterns found in such dispersed places as North and South America, Indonesia, and Melanesia is particularly relevant. He isolates two structures: the diametric structure, whereby a settlement is divided into two halves by an axis; and the concentric structure, where the settlement is divided by concentric circles, with the center being of paramount importance. …

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