Kagami Biraki – Aikido Dojo & Samurai Tradition


If you are in anyway involved with an Aikido dojo during the month of January, you have undoubtedly heard about “Kagami Biraki.”  Most traditional schools celebrate this ancient Japanese tradition, which dates back to Samurai practices from the 15th Century.

At the headquarters of most Aikido organizations, Kagami Biraki celebration is also a time when the official announcements of rank promotion are made. This is a highlight for most people with “black belt” rank, as it is a public proclamation of one’s achievement.  If you follow Aikido events on any of the social media networks you will certainly have seen one or more of these announcements. Many groups also use the event to share other information of importance with their members.

In Japan, the celebration also marks the end of the New Years holiday season.  The period between the middle of December and early January is a time when the entire nation (except for service industries) goes on holiday.  Kagami Biraki thus officially kicks off the New Year. [Tweet “Kagami Biraki officially kicks of the New Year! #NewYear #Aikido”]images-77

It is also a time for family and a return to traditional roots – prayers and offerings at the Shinto shrine and Buddhist Temples, dress in kimonos, traditional food and games.    It’s a time to for courtesy calls to business superiors and associates; as well as, good customers.  Work begins about a week into the month, but parties with friends and co-coworkers continue.

In most traditional dojo preparation for the new year’s season begins toward the end of the year when all is cleaned, repairs made, mirrors shined and everything made tidy. In Japan many also retain the tradition of a purification ceremony. Salt is thrown throughout the dojo, as salt is a traditional symbol of purity (goodness and virtue), and then brushed away with pine boughs.

Decorations are frequently placed around the dojo. In old Japan they had great symbolism, but today most people just think of them as traditional holiday decorations.

For most Aikidoka and modern day Japanese, the New Year’s celebration of Kagami Biraki has no religious significance. It does, however, continue the Samurai tradition of kicking off the new year. It is a time when participants engage in a common endeavor and rededicate their spirit, effort and discipline toward goals, such as training.

The Ancient New Year’s Observance

Kagami Biraki, literally means “mirror opening,” has its roots in the ancient folk beliefs of agrarian China. If a bountiful harvest was desired, it was thought necessary to first create a warm, human atmosphere into which the harvest would grow. Critical to this process were the bonds of family and community based on blood, obligation and work that were further strengthened during this holiday from common celebration and sharing.

In Japan this tradition further evolved into a Shinto celebration based primarily around the worship of a deity Toshigama, (thought to visit every household in the new year) in order to insure the production of the five grains: rice, wheat barley, bean and mullet.images-79

In preparation for the deity’s visit, people cleaned and then decorated their homes to beautify them for the deity. There were also prayers and ringing of temple bells to ward off evil spirits. New Years was initiated with visits to Shrines and family and ritual ceremonies — all revolving around Toshigama. While today the meaning of most of these Shinto observances has been forgotten, many of rituals remain in the form of holiday traditions, such as eating rice cake with red bean soup.

The symbolism of the mirror, which is central to Kagami Biraki, dates back to the original trilogy myth (along with the sword and the jewel) of the creation of Japan. By the 15th century Shinto had interpreted the mirror and sword to be important symbols of the virtues that the nation should venerate. They also symbolized creation, legitimacy and authority of the Emperor and by extension the Samurai class itself as part of the feudal system.

The mirror enabled people to see things as they are (good or bad) and thus represented fairness or justice. The mirror was also a symbol of the Sun Goddess — a fierce spirit (the light face of god).

Swords had long been given spiritual qualities among the Samurai. And their possession contributed to a sense of purpose and destiny inherent within the Samurai culture. So legendary were some swords that they were thought to posses their own spirit (kami).

Considered as one of the Samurai’s most important possessions, the sword (and other weapons) symbolized their status and position. Firm, sharp and decisive, the sword was seen as a source of wisdom and venerated for its power and lightning-like swiftness, but it was also seen as a mild spirit (the dark face of god).

Taken together, the mirror and sword represent the Japanese In and Yo, or two forms of energy permeating everything — the primeval forces of the universe from which everything springs — the source of spirit empowering the Emperor by extension Samurai class who was in his service.

It was from this time (15th century), it is said, that the tradition of Kagami Biraki began. It developed as a folk Shinto observation with a particular class (Samurai) bent.



Leave a Reply