Grab it, cried the child, pointing up at the full moon- Issa
On Sunday night, a substantial portion of the world's population will in waves collectively turn their eyes up toward the moon. Yes, the Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋節 is upon us again.
The appreciation of the mid-autumn moon is a custom dating back at least to Han dynasty China-- probably even earlier.Indeed, for at least 2000 years now, it has been the full moon of the Eighth Month (approximately present-day September) which has been considered the most beautiful moon of the year.
In Japan, the custom of moon-viewing was adopted from China during the early Heian times and fantastic moon-viewing parties were a celebrated part of court life from these early times, where aristocrats would drink plenty of rice wine-- and floating lazily on their dragon boats, would drift around man-made ponds gazing at the moon (some perhaps composing poetry and snacking on mooncakes).
K-sensei-- who also loves this time of year-- sent me an essay he had written the other day for a local newspaper in which he writes,
"On long autumn nights, gazing up in awe at the moon, I feel glad to have been born Japanese. On those nights, as the sad, lonely autumn wind blows across the rice fields and the sound of the singing crickets seems to penetrate me, I feel something deeply meaningful as I look at the moon."
He tells me that many Japanese people feel something along the lines of aesthetic and spiritual awe when they gaze at the moon. K-sensei, in the grand tradition of nihonjin-ron, then goes on to compare the Japanese experience of moon-viewing with that of the West.
In the West, he explains, the full moon has long been associated with insomnia and insanity. The night of the full moon was a night to ward oneself against evil or lunacy. We see this aspect of the Western tradition perhaps in our word "lunatic," which, of course, comes from "luna." Indeed, the full moon has long been associated we are told with everything from vampires to excessive dog bites. (Cat Power and the Moon)
"The moon that lives in the hearts of those in the East, if anything, possesses a kindness and purity which has the ability of bringing out the best in humans. There is a story of a thief in a watermelon field. The moon shining down on the thief made him feel so ashamed about what he was about to commit that he left the field unable to touch even one watermelon."
The moon, then, is like a brilliant mirror reflecting back the purist and most beautiful parts of our hearts. It is another instance of the Japanese belief in the power of beauty.
Finally, K-sensei writes,
"The Chinese believe that a jade hare (玉兎) is pounding mochi rice cakes (In China, medicine to help the sick) up on the moon. This comical story of a rabbit pounding rice cakes has long been associated with moon viewing, and this type of imaginative story-telling about the moon is an expression of the way in which the moon lives in the hearts of the people of the East. Images such as this, unfold within our hearts a feeling of peacefulness and happiness."
One of my favorite anecdotes about the moon is one everyone has probably heard before --- when the great Natsume Soseki, who was still in English teacher at the time, was advising one of his pupils on the translation of "I love you" firmly declared that, "I love you" should be translated into Japanese not as 我君ヲ愛ス but as, "Isn't the moon beautiful?" 「月が綺麗ですね」といいなさい。Yes...
illustration from here