The Wedded Rocks of Japan
A Japanese work of art that distills a deeper philosophy
Some artworks move us because of their sheer simplicity. The Married Couple Rocks are a couple of small rocky stacks in the sea off the Japanese coastline. Joined by a rope, they represent the union in marriage of man and woman. Such an elemental gesture, the rope binds the two rocks as if they were animate creatures.
According to Shinto mythology, the islands of Japan were born of the spirits Izanagi and Izanami in a moment of mystical blending before time itself began.
It is said that the two deities were commanded to solidify the lands that floated like jellyfish beneath their heavenly bridge. From this buoyant pier they stirred the brine-lands with a jewelled spear, and then lifting the spear, the substance was allowed to drip and solidify into the island of Onogorojima. The two deities then came together to produce various Kami which populated and gave life to the land.
For a representation of the two primal spirits one may travel to the sea of Futami off the coast of the main island of Honshū. Here, two rocky protrusions sit within easy reach of the tide, and can be distinguished from the many thousands of other rocky forms by the thickset straw rope that hangs between them. The people of Japan believe that this rope should be renewed each new year as a celebration of the matrimony that brought the islands of Japan into being.
The simplicity of the gesture reminds non-native eyes of the Japanese proclivity for the sparseness and elegance often characterises their religious symbolism. I say non-native, because I suspect the orderliness we often ascribe to Japanese aesthetics is a myth perpetuated by a Western need to abstract the Japanese people into a small number of memorable features.
There is no need though, from this point onwards, to keep repeating the mantra of separateness. These two rocks tied by a rope have an elemental impact that needs no qualification according to nationality. We can all see in these two rocks a representation of something significant.
Between the two rocks a thick straw rope is hung. It is so thick and so durable-looking that it unmistakably links to two rocks. The familiar symbolism of a rope, with its fibres and knots, keeps the image grounded in the realm of the proverbial or the utilitarian. The rope binds the two rocks together. This is unambiguous. The representation is of two elements linked up: if we think of the myth of Izanagi and Izanami we are likely to see a symbol of man and wife. If we think more generally, more akin to the abstract nature of the monument, we may see the vibration of difference.
One rock is large, the other is smaller. This may support us in our inclination to associate the larger rock with the male, and smaller with the female. What is more important is that the difference in size produces a dynamic — that these two like objects are distinguishable as two expressions of the same force. By their difference we recognise their similarity, their similarity in substance, category and location. The rope asks us to understand the rocks as similar, as a species of form. The rope is the gesture that leads the existence of the rocks to stand for something more far-reaching.
Taken as a whole, the monument is, and it also shows. What it shows is a union, indicated by what it is: a union. In other words, what it shows and what it is are inseparable. The concept is given by the act. The object is perpetually offering its meaning, at once representing and at the same time being. The union is provided by the nuances of difference between the two like objects.
Though the rocks are separate and distinguishable, the role of the rope is central in providing the impetus for their comparison. The rope suppresses arbitrariness. Only these two protrusions have a rope joining them. The thousands of others are only recognisable by their general form, as multiplications of the great silence that their sameness brings about.
The rope slung between these two particular rocks calls our attention. “These rocks,” it says, “are not arbitrary.” In this sense, through the elevation of the two rocks from the many thousands that surround them, the rope’s renewal is an act of creativity. Significance is inscribed by the rope’s deed. The rocks become bearers of meaning through this bonding. Remove the rope, and the rocks disappear. Apply the rope, and the rocks rise out of the ocean and cross the seal of silence. The rope makes the rocks vital, their likeness and relationship perceptible.
The rocks sit unmoved and unmovable, yet with their union now announced, the rocks require the binding that the rope supplies. The symbolic gesture enlivens the rocks and makes the vow of unity between them a real, moral truth. For it is by the rope that they overcome the otherwise insurmountable problem of their physical deadness. The rope gives them a place in the system of human signification. The rocks take on vitality and, within the system of signification, a desire for the rope to unify them.