On Radio 4 Now


21:30 - 21:58

Libby Purves meets actor Brian Cox and singer June Tabor.

Coming up at: 21:58


View full schedule

Episode Transcript

Episode 58 - Japanese bronze mirror

Bronze mirror (made twelfth century), from Japan

I am listening to the sound of the famous Trevi fountain in Rome, where every day tourists throw coins worth about 3,000 euros to secure good luck and a return visit to Rome. People have been throwing valuable things into water for thousands of years. On the face of it, it's an extraordinary compulsion, but it seems to be a universal one, and it's not only coins into fountains with a light-hearted wish, it's often a deadly serious plea to the gods. In rivers and ponds across Britain archaeologists regularly discover weapons, jewellery and precious metals that were given to the gods thousands of years ago. In the British Museum we have objects from all over the world that were once solemnly deposited in water. One of the most fascinating objects - and the subject of this programme - is a mirror thrown into a temple pool around nine hundred years ago, in Japan.

"I think that people who are interested in aesthetics, and art, and taste, look back to the Heian period as one of the great cultures, not only in Japanese history but in the history of man." (Ian Buruma)

"I am a plain old-fashioned mirror from a bygone age, made of good white metal that stays clear without being polished. I am going to discuss serious matters now. Pay close attention, everyone. You should think, as you listen to me, that you are hearing the 'Chronicles of Japan'."

That last quote is from a famous Japanese history called 'The Great Mirror' written around 1100, in which the mirror not only has a voice, but the power to reveal Japan to itself. I hope it's not too fanciful to make the same claim for the mirror in this programme, which was made at about the same time, although - as always with mirrors - we can't necessarily trust what we think we see. And, as we all know only too well, historical truth is a shifting thing, not least because objects are constantly yielding up new knowledge. Our mirror is no exception, it's only in the in the last year that we've found out exactly where it came from, and what that new information tells us about the Japan of eight hundred years ago. The story our mirror can now tell is about lovers and poets, court women and goddesses, priests and emperors.

The mirror is circular, it's about the size of a saucer, and it sits comfortably in my hand. There isn't a handle, but it would have had a loop fixed to it, so that you could hang it from a hook. But it's not a mirror as you or I would think of it - the modern, silver-backed reflecting mirror doesn't really come into the world until around the sixteenth century. Early mirrors like this bronze one were all made of metal, which was then so highly polished that you could literally see your face in it.

Like so much else in Japanese culture, mirrors originally came to Japan from China. This week's programmes are focussed on how, around a thousand years ago, cultures across the world were trading goods and spreading new ideas and beliefs. Throughout the eighth and ninth centuries Japan had been an energetic participant in these exchanges, particularly with China. But lying right at the end of all the great Asian trade routes, and isolated by sea, Japan, unlike almost any other culture, was able to opt out of this interconnected world. It's an option Japan has exercised several times in its history, and it did it most strikingly in the year 894, when it stopped all official contact with China and effectively cut itself off from the rest of the world.

Untroubled by outside influences or new arrivals, Japan turned inwards for several centuries - a fact which still resonates today - and developed its own highly idiosyncratic culture. At the court in Kyoto every aspect of life was constantly refined and aestheticised in the pursuit of ever more sophisticated pleasure. It was a society in which women played a key cultural role. It's also the time of the first significant literature written in Japanese - written, in fact, by women. So it's a world we know quite a lot about, and it's the world of our mirror. The person who first used it could well have been reading that first great Japanese novel - indeed one of the first great novels of the world - the 'Tale of Genji' written by the court lady Murasaki Shikibu. Here's the novelist and expert on Japanese culture, Ian Buruma:

"Lady Murasaki was a little bit like Jane Austen... the 'Tale of Genji' gives you an extraordinary insight into what life was like in that aristocratic hothouse of the Heian period.

"One thing that distinguishes medieval Japanese culture, is that it was extremely aestheticised, it turned beauty into a kind of cult. And that included everything in daily life, not just objects like mirrors, or chopsticks, or whatever it was, but life itself, which was of course highly ritualised - in an aristocratic society it always is. That's true of all aristocratic societies, but possibly the aristocracy of the Heian period went further than any other culture, before or since. People communicated by writing poetry, and they had incense-smelling contests; they were connoisseurs of every kind of aesthetic pursuit, and that included the relations between men and women. And of course feelings came into it, and so that led to jealousies and all the normal forms of human behaviour which Murasaki recorded so beautifully."

And we can see something of Lady Murasaki's world of aesthetic refinement and incense-smelling contests in our mirror. On the back, the elegant decoration shows a pair of cranes in flight, their heads thrown back, their wings outstretched, and pine branches in their beaks. Their necks elegantly curve, to match exactly the curve of the circular mirror. And on the outer edge are more decorative pine fronds. It's a beautifully balanced, perfectly composed, work of art. But as well as being beautiful, our mirror also had a meaning, because cranes had a reputation for longevity - the Japanese believed that they lived for a thousand years. Lady Murasaki tells us of one of her contemporaries, who at a particular court event wore a gown decorated with cranes on a seashore.

"Ben-no-Naishi showed on her train a beach with cranes on it, painted with silver. It was something new. She had also embroidered pine branches; she is clever, for all these things are emblematic of a long life."

And the cranes also carry another meaning - because these birds mate for life, and so are symbols of marital fidelity. The message on the back of our mirror is quite simply one of enduring love. Which brings us back to the 'Tale of Genji'. At one point in the book Genji, the princely hero, before setting off for a long absence, takes a mirror, recites into it a passionate love poem and then gives it to his beloved - so that, holding the mirror once he is gone, she will be able to hold both his message of love and, within its polished surface, the image of Genji himself. Our mirror, with its faithful cranes, would have been a particularly appropriate vehicle for such a declaration of love.

But Japanese mirrors can also communicate more alarming messages, and not just between humans - through them we can enter the world of the spirits, and, indeed, speak to the gods. Here's Ian Buruma again:

"The mirror in Japanese culture does have several meanings, and some of them may seem contradictory. One is that it's an object to ward off evil spirits. On the other hand it can also attract them, which is why, if you go into a rather traditional household in Japan even today, people often cover up their mirror when they don't use it. They have a cloth that they hang in front of it, because it might attract evil spirits. At the same time, it's a sacred object. In the holiest shrine in Japan, in Ise, the holiest of holy parts inside the shrine, that nobody ever gets to see, has one of the three great national treasures, which is indeed a mirror."

In fact, it's the mirror of the great Japanese sun goddess, Amaterasu. By ancient tradition, Amaterasu at the dawn of time ordered her grandson to descend from heaven to rule over Japan, and to help him in this imperial task she gave him a sacred mirror, which would give him and his successors perpetual access to the divine sun. To this day the sacred mirror of Amaterasu is used in the enthronement ceremonies of the Japanese emperor.

And it's this particular ability of Japanese mirrors to allow humans to speak to gods that has ensured the survival of our mirror, which, along with 18 others, was given to the British Museum in 1927 by a great Japanese collector of mirrors. All of these mirrors are made of bronze, and all have the same distinctive matt surface. But it was only in the last few months, while we were preparing for this programme, that a Japanese scholar researching in the British Museum was, for the first time, able to tell us why they all looked like this. It's because all of them came from the same place, all of them were found in a sacred pond beneath the mountain shrine of Haguro-san in the north of Japan. At the beginning of the twentieth century this pond was drained, in order to build a bridge for pilgrims. To the astonishment of the engineers, they found, deep in the mud at the bottom of the pond, around 600 mirrors, ours among them, which over the centuries had been consigned to the water. Here's that same visiting Japanese scholar, the archaeologist Harada Masayuki:

"People started to [make] pilgrimages to the mountain, because they thought there was a god in this mountain. They did consider the landscape quite holy and spiritual; for example, looking at the white snow that stays for a long time, they thought it something mysterious and quite spiritual. So people thought that in that pond there was a god.

"There was a belief among the Japanese people that in order to be re-born [it depended on] how much good . . . you can do. So it was probably a similar idea, that these exquisitely made and very expensive mirrors... to offer in order to be re-born... to entrust to a Buddhist priest to dedicate to the god, so that they could come back to the world again."

So now we can pretty confidently guess at the entire life story of our mirror. It was made in the sophisticated bronze casting workshops of Kyoto around 1100, to be used in the rarefied world of courtly ritual and display, an indispensable tool for any lady or gentleman to prepare themselves for an aesthetic public appearance. At some point, its owner decided to dispatch it in the care of a priest on a long journey to the northern shrine, and there it was thrown into the sacred pond, still holding within it the likeness of its owner and carrying a message to the other world. What neither owner nor priest could ever have guessed was that it would one day be a message to us. And like the mirror we heard speaking at the beginning of the programme, it tells to a modern audience a chronicle of Old Japan.

In the next programme we move away from the deliberate isolation of Japan, back to the great trade routes. We'll be on the sea lanes around south Asia, from China to India, with, in the middle, the Indonesian island of Java... and one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world, Borobudur.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.