Kagami Biraki

Posted on: Wed, 01/26/2011 - 22:24 By: Tom Swiss

I've been meaning for a while to do more blogging about martial arts training and my life as a karateka. And it seems to me that a good point of departure is the traditional New Year's celebration that many martial artists who train in systems originating in Japan have engaged in over the past few weeks: Kagami Biraki.

(Before continuing -- for those who know me from other contexts, here's my karate background in brief. I started training in Seido Karate in 1985. Pretty much slacked off it in college, but got serious about karate again in grad school, and started acting as a teaching assistant when Jun Shihan Kate Stewart started the Seido program at the Howard County YMCA in the early 90s. (That program actually started at the Catonsville YMCA, and there's a whole story about that which I won't get into now...) I made black belt in 1995, and started teaching at my own tiny program in Catonsville in 2002. I hold a yondan, fourth degree black belt, ranking -- where I've just about reached the level of my incompetence!)

Kagami Biraki literally means "opening the mirror" or "breaking the mirror". Like many aspects of Japanese culture connected with Shinto, its origins seem to be lost in time -- not surprising when you realize that some of the roots of Japanese culture go back over 10,000 years, while writing didn't come in until the sixth century, brought along with Buddhism from China. But the celebration may have some connection to the winter solstice myth of Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess who hid in a cave after her brother offended her, plunging the world into darkness until the other kami lured her out with her own reflection in a mirror. According to one story, in ancient times there was actually a practice of covering up mirrors for a time around the New Year, and Kagami Biraki was the time to "open up" or "break out" the mirror.

As it's practiced in Japanese homes today Kagami Biraki tops off the New Year's holiday season. There are special kagami mochi, "mirror pastries", that are placed on the family's shrine leading up to Kagami Biraki, and then are eaten on that day. Or at least, that's the way it was until recently. Modern Japanese families may get their kagami mochi encased in a thick vinyl coating, which keeps them from going moldy but also renders them unsuitable for cooking -- when I was in Japan over New Years in 2003, not quite knowing the deal, we tried cutting them out of the wrapper and toasting them up. Not recommended! The plastic-coated mochi is sort of like the plastic Christmas tree, combining symbolism with convenience.

(Mochi, by the way, is often translated as "rice cake", but they are not at all like the puffed rice cakes you might find in the health food aisle of your grocery story. They are made of pounded rice flour; my favorite variety of mochi, yomogi daifuku, is filled with sweet red bean paste and seasoned with mugwort. Kagami mochi are just plain rice flour, though.)

In modern martial arts dojos, Kagami Biraki is celebrated as a time of renewing one's training, generally without any religious significance. Each school tends to have their own traditions. In Seido Karate, Kagami Biraki celebrations involve a good workout, lots of sweat and lots of kiai. My own instructor, Jun Shihan Kate, is fond of starting us off with 1,000 punches -- I could definitely feel that the next morning.

According to martial arts researcher (and outstanding teacher and all around fascinating fellow) Shuseki Shihan Chris Caile, a special Kagami Biraki training is a budo tradition that, like so many others, goes back to the master of masters, Jigoro Kano. Kano was the founder of judo and the man to whom we owe much of the philosophy of modern budo as well as the belt system and dan and kyu ranks.

When we consider martial arts as a path to self-improvement, the metaphor of the mirror is a powerful one. In Zen, mirror symbolism goes back to at least the Sixth Patriarch, Hui Neng, who earned his position in a sort of poetry contest on the topic of mirror as a metaphor for mind. (At least, according to the legend. Scholars debate whether Hui Neng ever even existed, much less whether he said and did the things attributed to him.)

According to the twentieth century Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn, "When the mind becomes clear, it is like a mirror: red comes and the mirror is red; yellow comes and the mirror is yellow; a mountain comes and the mirror is a mountain. Your mind is the mountain; the mountain is your mind. They are not two." The mirror accepts and reflects whatever is put before it, without discrimination.

You can see that martial arts training provides a strong incentive to develop this sort of mind. When an attack comes, my mind must accept and accurately reflect the reality of the situation. No good to have a mind attached to "I just know he's going to throw that left front kick!" as my opponent's right roundhouse kick makes its way to my head. Getting hit is a pretty simple form of conditioning, suitable even for slow learners like myself. Hopefully, we can then take that reflective, non-grasping mind out into the world, and use it for higher purposes than just not getting kicked in the head. (That's not to say that not getting kicked in the head is not a good thing. I'm all in favor of not getting kicked in the head.)

The mind-mirror reflects not only the outside world, but our own self. It's part of the human condition that we each carry around in our mind a self-image, and (excepting a handful of perfectly enlightened individuals, if you believe in that sort of thing) that image is distorted to some degree. Kagami Biraki, then, is an opportunity to "break" that old mirror, let go of that distorted image.

But if this all seems too esoteric, there's another meaning to Kagami Biraki that I think is very important. Kagami mochi are not the only flat, round, vaguely mirror-shaped objects that are involved in New Year's celebrations. There's also the lid of a sake cask!

According to the website of the Gekkeikan sake company (perhaps a biased source), "Kagami refers to the lid of the sake barrel and biraki means 'to open' so kagami-biraki literally means 'opening the lid.' Because of the lid's round shape, the kagami is a symbol of harmony. The kagami-biraki, therefore, represents an opening to harmony and good fortune."

We might therefore, roughly, equate "Kagami Biraki" with "tapping the keg". And as it happened, this year our Kagami Biraki celebration at the dojo fell on the same day that I had my birthday party, so I got to experience that meaning as well!