Friday, September 12, 2008

Japanese Pop Culture: The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge

Scot's good article several months ago "The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge" received several great comments and just got another one today. I realized that they deserve to be featured in a post so will re-post the original article and include the comments at the end.

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I (Scot) am in the midst of preparing the next "Spiritual Bridges" entry on Eureka seveN--a series released roughly two years ago which unfortunately was never really given its due (I suspect it will only grow in popularity as people discover it in DVD form). Anyway, one of the bridges I was going to write about was the presence of a strong icon in the anime: a tree of knowledge. However, I also recently finished the incredible Gonzo anime Romeo x Juliet (*very* loosely based on Shakespeare's original play) where there were two trees named "Escalus" which held the sky continent of Neo Verona (I said it was loose) in the air. Which in turn got me thinking about Miyazaki's "Laputa - Castle in the Sky" which had the presence of a similar tree. As I started reflecting, I realized that the concept of a special "centralized" tree is present in a LOT of Japanese media. Oftentimes, this tree can represent life or centralized knowledge. Here is a quick list off the top of my head of places I have seen this symbol (feel free to add more in the comments section):

*Eureka seveN (anime series) - the collective consciousness of the Coralians is represented as a tree (knowledge).
*Romeo x Juliet (anime series) - the twin trees of Escalus hold the sky continent in place and give it life (knowledge and life).
*Laputa: the Castle in the Sky (anime movie) - the mythical city of Laputa is built on the foundation of a tree (life).
*The Twelve Kingdoms (Juuni Kokuki) (anime and light novel series) - children, animals, and grasses are all borne from the fruit of white trees, not from mothers' wombs (life).
*Final Fantasy IX (video game) - the Lifa tree. Self explanatory (life).
*Neon Genesis Evangelion (anime series, anime movies) - among other randomly placed symbolism is the tree of knowledge covering a huge section of Ikari Gendo's office (knowledge).
*Okami (video game) - in each region, you must restore life to a Sakura tree. Doing so restores life to the entire region (life).
*Death Note (anime series, manga series, movie series) - though the trees are not present, the apple has very strong symbolic meaning, representing Light's ambition to become a God (knowledge).

And the list escapes me. I have never really watched for this particular symbol before, so though I have vague memories of it popping up elsewhere, the details are hazy. Even so, it seems that the "tree" has a very important place in Japanese spirituality.

Anyway, I am wondering where the basis for this is. Is it a symbol contained in Japanese folklore, or has it crept in along with other Christianized things?

If this is contained in Japanese folklore, I can see a potentially strong opportunity to use this as a bridge in more than just media-based conversations. I myself have been intrigued in the past year or so to see how often the symbolism of the tree of knowledge and the tree of life show up throughout the Bible. I'm also intrigued by the fact that according to Revelation, the Tree of Life will be in the center of New Jerusalem, and it will grow on either side of the River of Life. [I tend to take the Bible literally whenever possible, so I really do believe in a New Heaven and a New Earth, and I take the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life to be more than just symbols; I take them as history. Feel free to disagree with me on this.] What intrigues me most, though, is that Adam and Eve's choice between life and knowledge was not simply a face-value decision, but a decision of whom they would worship. More on that later...

For now, I'm asking from comments from the hundreds of people who come through this site without ever leaving any. Where else have you seen this symbol emerge? For those of you more versed in Japanese folklore, is there a basis for this symbolism aside from Western influence? What strengths and weaknesses do you see arising from using this symbol as a spiritual bridge? Thanks in advance, and sorry for my rambling in this post.
~Scot

Yu Shibuya said... Thanks for investigating a fascinating symbol! Here are some random notes to add to your research:
  • The tree in "Okami" is a reference to "Hanasaka-Jiisan," a famous Japanese fairytale. More here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanasaka_Jiisan
  • Two more games that feature the World Tree are: "Seiken Densetsu" and "Sekaiju no Meikyu."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mana_%28series%29
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etrian_Odyssey
  • I agree that the image repeats in Japanese media, but I'm not sure if it's our own. The obvious one that comes to mind is Yggdrasil in Norse mythology, and perhaps its assigning of mystical energy to a tree resonates with the Japanese Shinto belief of worshiping nature.
  • Ultimately, I think any tree in mythology is man's rendition of Eden, since mythology is, for the most part, man's attempt to rewrite scripture, whether he knows it or not.
Blogger Robin said... Have you guys ever heard the theory that the Japanese are descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel? Or that the Jews at least visited Japan long long ago? There are a number of other parallels between Japanese religion and Judaism. I wonder if this could be one of them.

Blogger Jose Gabriel said... Hey Scott...
I wonder if its better to use "cultural bridges" instead of "spiritual bridges". I am actually doing a research on Islam and I am using the concept of spiritual bridges to propose an evangelistic approach...
Just in case... you can see the use of spiritual bridges in the Bible when Paul talks in Athens quoting Greek poems originally applied to Zeus, or when Jesus talks to the Samaritan about the Taheb (Samaritan mesiah) and the living water (that was one of the mayor doctrinal believes of samariatan people). "Living water" was not a common concept in Jewish terminology...
Great work...
God bless...

Blogger Scot Eaton said... Jose, Actually, the moniker "Spiritual Bridges" was very intentional. I have little interest in bridging the gap between two cultures, such as Japan and Midwest America. I DO, however, have a rather large interest in bridging the gap between God and man using cultural forms that are already existent.

Too much "Missionary Culture" has been transmitted in the past here in Japan, and I feel the aftereffects of that every time I go to church. I would like to see what happens when God is understood within Japanese culture and expressed through it.

So, "Spiritual Bridges" was chosen. Actually, it was from a book on Islam (which you are probably reading) that I originally got the term.

Anonymous said... The idea of a "world tree" is found in many cultures, mostly in pagan myths that tell of a "world tree" or "cosmic tree" in the middle of the earth that connects to the underworld with its roots, to the earth with its trunk, and to the heavens with its branches, and is seen as a pathway between earth and heaven.

Also, the "tree of life" is central in the teachings of the Kabbalah, which has a very gnostic and occult worldview. Just as we see pagan and secular stories about gardens reflecting a long-past knowledge of the loss of the Garden of Eden, so we see these trees in non-Christian stories as possible echoes of the Tree of Life and Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.

8 comments:

Yu Shibuya said...

Thanks for investigating a fascinating symbol! Here are some random notes to add to your research:

- The tree in "Okami" is a reference to "Hanasaka-Jiisan," a famous Japanese fairytale. More here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanasaka_Jiisan

- Two more games that feature the World Tree are: "Seiken Densetsu" and "Sekaiju no Meikyu."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mana_%28series%29
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etrian_Odyssey

I agree that the image repeats in Japanese media, but I'm not sure if it's our own. The obvious one that comes to mind is Yggdrasil in Norse mythology, and perhaps its assigning of mystical energy to a tree resonates with the Japanese Shinto belief of worshipping nature.

Ultimately, I think any tree in mythology is man's rendition of Eden, since mythology is, for the most part, man's attempt to rewrite scripture, whether he knows it or not.

Robin said...

Have you guys ever heard the theory that the Japanese are descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel? Or that the Jews at least visited Japan long long ago? There are a number of other parallels between Japanese religion and Judaism. I wonder if this could be one of them.

Jose Gabriel said...

Hey Scott...
I wonder if its better to use "cultural bridges" instead of "spiritual bridges". I am actually doing a research on Islam and I am using the concept of spiritual bridges to propose an evangelistic approach...
Just in case... you can see the use of spiritual bridges in the Bible when Paul talks in Athens quoting Greek poems originally applied to Zeus, or when Jesus talks to the Samaritan about the Taheb (Samaritan mesiah) and the living water (that was one of the mayor doctrinal believes of samariatan people). "Living water" was not a common concept in Jewish terminology...
Great work...
God bless...

Scot Eaton said...

Jose,

Actually, the moniker "Spiritual Bridges" was very intentional. I have little interest in bridging the gap between two cultures, such as Japan and Midwest America. I DO, however, have a rather large interest in bridging the gap between God and man using cultural forms that are already existent.

Too much "Missionary Culture" has been transmitted in the past here in Japan, and I feel the aftereffects of that every time I go to church. I would like to see what happens when God is understood within Japanese culture and expressed through it.

So, "Spiritual Bridges" was chosen. Actually, it was from a book on Islam (which you are probably reading) that I originally got the term.

Anonymous said...

The idea of a "world tree" is found in many cultures, mostly in pagan myths that tell of a "world tree" or "cosmic tree" in the middle of the earth that connects to the underworld with its roots, to the earth with its trunk, and to the heavens with its branches, and is seen as a pathway between earth and heaven.

Also, the "tree of life" is central in the teachings of the Kabbalah, which has a very gnostic and occult worldview. Just as we see pagan and secular stories about gardens reflecting a long-past knowledge of the loss of the Garden of Eden, so we see these trees in non-Christian stories as possible echoes of the Tree of Life and Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.

Paul Nethercott said...

Thanks for the great input on the last comment from anonymous. Would love to know who you are!

SweetIncense said...

I misunderstood the "anonymous" choice (I am not very good with computer directions) and didn't realize I would post as "anonymous." Actually, you met me some years ago - my website is www.christiananswersforthenewage.org. I have an article on the Kabbalah on my website.

Scot Eaton said...

Well thank you for your comments. I actually came to the exact same conclusion through my own research, so it's good to hear it from another mouth. Ironically, I was tossing around the idea of writing a post on Kabbalah, Gnosticism, and Anime in the near future. Perhaps if I do, you can help me.