Strange News from Another Star, bonus edition: Hatsuyume
A New Year's dispatch from the other world
In Japan, a hatsuyume is the first dream of the New Year. This first dream is supposed to reveal your fortune over the course of the year; in particular, it’s good luck to dream about Mount Fuji, a hawk, or an aubergine. According to a survey conducted in 2022, roughly 10% of Japanese people have encountered one of these symbols in their first dream. This is, when you think about it, an extraordinarily high number; clearly our social context does a good chunk of our dreaming for us. One respondent saw Mount Fuji from the window of a shinkansen; one was chased by a hawk and fell off a cliff; another had to fight off aubergine-ghosts. Still, the majority of those who’d had a particularly auspicious hatsuyume reported that their year was no better or worse than any other.
In my hatsuyume, I discovered that Judaism had stopped being a vague ethno-religious assemblage characterised by ritual observances, cultural heritage, and group belonging, and had instead switched over to a fully subscription-based model. Nobody had told me about this, which meant I was behind on my Judaism subscription by several months. I only found out after attempting to take part in an interpretative tap-dancing performance, in which the major events of 2022 would be acted out on the wide oak floor of a rustic cottage festooned with warm, cosy Christmas lights in the middle of the snowy woods. I was about to stride out into the floor when two security guards stopped me. ‘You’re not allowed,’ they said. ‘You’re not Jewish any more.’ They showed me the bill for my back dues; it ran into the millions. Apparently I woke mumbling: ‘That’s completely unreasonable. It’s far too much.’
Judaism, and a figure in the millions: there’s an obvious referent here. In December, I’d read Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock, in which the narrator (also named Philip Roth) is attending the trial of John Demjanjuk: a mild-mannered dad from Ohio who might have also, in his younger days, been a notoriously sadistic SS guard at Treblinka. Afterwards, Roth dreams he owes $128 million on his water bill. A ridiculous amount. But this dream seems to belong to him, to Demjanjuk:
Is water running out of my nose and my mouth? Are my clothes sopping wet? Is there a puddle where I walk, is there water under the chair where I sit? Pardon me, but you’ve got the wrong man. Some Jew, if I may say so, stuck six zeros on my bill just because I am Ukrainian and supposed to be stupid. But I am not so stupid that I don’t know my own water bill. My bill is one hunded and twenty-eight dollars—one—two—eight! There has been a mistake. I am just an average suburban consumer of water and I should not be on trial for this gigantic bill!
In a way, the ordinary Jew and the Holocaust denier have the same complaint. This is the history I have to deal with? But that’s completely unreasonable. It’s far too much. As an oracle, this dream is not a very happy one. I will spend 2023 continuing to work through my interminable Jewish identity crisis. Hooray.
In my girlfriend’s hatsuyume, she was a plucky earnest little girl again, and she’d won a competition to swim with whales. To prepare her for the encounter, the competition organisers stuck two long plastic tubes up her nostrils so she could breathe underwater, and two big bath plugs in her ears to stop the ocean leaking in. To her mild disappointment, she discovered that she would not be swimming with an entire whale, but only its tail, which had been severed just below the flukes. This stub of a whale flapped blindly in the ocean, leaking hazy clouds of blood. But she wasn’t upset: she knew that whales are like earthworms, or starfish. If you cut it in two, each half will eventually grow back into a complete whale.
I like this dream. In 2023, she will grow and become whole.
A friend had a disquieting hatsuyume in which he went to a hideous old woman—very pale, very fat, with her skin covered in blotches—who could speak to demons. He only wanted to talk to the demons, but he found himself propositioning her instead, and she accepted. He knew that if he came inside her, trillions of demons would come pouring out of her cunt to devastate the world, but he couldn’t help himself, and he did.
In 2023, he will continue to sleep with obviously inappropriate women, and it will all end very badly.
Another friend had a hatsuyume in which she was planning to murder one of her old schoolteachers. It wasn’t personal: this teacher had been running a criminal operation, forging Turkish antiquities, and one of his competitors had hired my friend to bump him off. The hit was all planned: she would stab him through the heart as he wandered around some botanical gardens. But she kept getting distracted. In the gardens, a mother was pointing out the various hedges and shrubs to her four-year-old son, and the boy kept asking whether this one came before or after the one with heart-shaped leaves, and if that one was before or after the one with the thorns. All plants have a secret sequence, a numerical order that only they fully understand. She remembered only a little of it. Daisies, she told me, are three.
In 2023, she will put her life in order, but it might stop her doing the things she wants to do.
A few subscribers have been in touch with their own hatsuyume. Here’s one:
I am somehow in RuPaul’s large mansion. I have not broken in; I’m a guest of a guest etc. RuPaul is out, and not aware I’m there. I believe I’m the only person on the premises. I start snooping through drawers and finding strange documents and notepads full of ideas for TV shows. To my horror—nothing seems to fit back into the drawers or shelves the way it came out. I cannot make these things look unmolested. A car is pulling into the drive.
Another, from Micah:
Dreamed on NYE that there are six mystical levels of love, which have been described in a series of six ancient Buddhist scrolls. My wife informs me that while she still loves me deeply on the sixth and highest level, she has absolutely no desire to ever have sex with me again. This is because I invested all of our pension money into a Haitian gun-smuggling gang, which she found out about by listening to podcasts.
I hosted a big New Year’s party. Afterwards I dreamed that my flat was integrated with the M&S at Waterloo train station. (I live nearby.) There was just a thin line of metal bollards separating the aisles of ready meals from my own private living quarters, which meant that commuters were constantly wandering through my home. I kept trying to drive them out by beating them over the head with a rolled-up newspaper and screaming hoarsely at them to fuck off, but as soon as I clear out the kitchen there’s a bunch of them in my bedroom, and when I drive those out they’re all taking all the stuff out of my fridge again. I think I might hate my friends?
Japanese society has traditionally viewed dreams as doorways, privileged means of communicating with gods and spirits. This doesn’t tell us much; in this it’s basically identical with almost every other society that’s ever existed. But in Japan the boundary between worlds is especially porous; sometimes entire physical objects can slip through. In the Kojiki or the Record of Ancient Matters, the eighth-century chronicle of the origins of the House of Yamato, there is a sword. Jimmu, the first Emperor, is facing either a large bear or a savage tribe (translations differ) in the land of Kumanu, the mere sight of which causes his entire army to faint on the spot. He’s only saved by a stranger, Takakurazhi, who comes bearing a cross-sword that had been delivered to him through a dream. In his dream, he had a vision of the god Takemikazuchi-no-Kami, who spoke:
I will not descend myself, but I have the cross-sword wherewith I specially subdued the land. The manner in which I will send this sword down will be to perforate the roof of Takakurazhi’s stone-house, and drop it through. So do thou, with the good eyes of morning, take it and present it to the august child of the Heavenly Deity.
The dream makes a hole in the dreamer’s roof, through which the sword can pass from Heaven to earth. As soon as Jimmu takes the cross-sword, all his enemies are instantly cut down.
Objects can pass in the other direction too, as in this tale from the thirteenth-century Uji Shui Monogatari:
There was a man living with his wife and only daughter. He loved his daughter and tried to arrange a good marriage for her, but was unable to. Hoping for better fortune, he built a temple in his garden to the bodhisattva of compassion, Kannon, and asked the deity to help his daughter. He died, followed by his wife, and the daughter was left to herself. She gradually became poor; eventually, even the servants left.
Utterly alone, she had a dream one night in which an old priest emerged from the temple of Kannon in the garden and said to her, ‘Because I love you so much, I would like to arrange a marriage for you. A man will visit here tomorrow.’ The next night a man with about thirty retainers came to her home. He seemed kind and proposed to marry her. Remembering the words in her dream, she accepted his proposal. The man was very pleased and told her that he would be back the next day after attending to some business.
More than twenty of his retainers remained behind. She wanted to be a good hostess and prepare a meal for them, but she was too poor to do so. Just then an unknown woman appeared who identified herself as the daughter of a servant who used to work for the girl’s parents a long time ago. Sympathetic to the girl’s plight, she said that she would bring food from her home to feed the guests. When the man returned the next day, she helped the daughter of her parents’ master again by serving him and his attendants. The daughter showed her gratitude by giving her helper a red ceremonial skirt.
When the time came to depart with her fiancé, she went to the temple of Kannon to express her thanks. To her surprise she found the red skirt on the shoulder of the statue; the woman who had come to help her was Kannon.
Myoe, the twelfth-century Buddhist mystic, kept one of the world’s first dream journals. From the age of nineteen until his death forty years later, he recorded hundreds of dreams. Some were erotic, and some were macabre. But others contained gifts:
In a dream, there were two golden Great Peacock Kings which were larger in size than a man's body. Their heads and tails were decorated with an assortment of jewels, and from their entire bodies came a fragrant force that permeated the entire world. The two birds frolicked and flew through the sky, and from the jewels came a great voice of sublime beauty resounding throughout the world. The sound of that voice recited a verse:
‘The 84,000 teachings and the means for countering ignorance
are the wonderful law preached by the honoured Sakyamuni.’
After the birds recited the verse, I held two sutra scrolls in my hands. On one scroll was written the title, Butsugen Nyorai, and on the other was written Shaka Nyorai. I thought of how I had obtained these two sutras from the peacocks, and a feeling of great joy arose when I heard the verse.
When I awoke from my dream, the bottom of my pillow was soaked with tears.
But most people do not dream specific instructions from gods and bodhisattvas, or sutras from celestial peacocks; we dream about wandering uninvited through someone else’s home, or strangers wandering uninvited through ours.
The Japanese tradition of oneirocriticism, like its Western counterpart, is mostly focused on the objects that appear in dreams. It is good to dream about Mount Fuji, or a hawk, or an aubergine. A recent study in the International Journal of Dream Research takes a different tack. The study compares Japanese and Western dreams through structural dream analysis, in which ‘it is assumed that the meaning of a dream consists not so much in containing certain symbols or elements, but more in the relationship between the elements, and in the course of action which the dream takes.’ The authors set out a schema of possible dreams: in one dream-pattern, the dreamer is ‘moving towards a specified or unclear destination;’ in another ‘the dream ego is confronted with a task which it has to fulfil.’ Their headline conclusion is that Japanese dreamers are much more likely to dream about interacting with other people than Europeans. In particular, 20.8% of Japanese dreams involved being helped or supported by others. A shop attendant helps the dreamer find a pair of glasses. An old man helps the dreamer escape from an earthquake. Precisely none of the Germans sampled had any dreams along this pattern, and the researchers conclude that ‘these differences between the two ethnic groups reflect fundamental differences in the mentality of the two cultures, with Japanese culture emphasising sociality, harmony and cooperation and minimising individuality, whereas in the German culture autonomy and agency of the individual and separation from dependency on others are highly valued.’ I’m not entirely convinced. It’s not just that this is a fairly tedious default to cultural stereotype: the real problem is that it assumes the dream is a mirror of the world, and not its shadow.
More interesting, to me, is the first dream pattern, in which the dream-ego does not appear at all. Instead, the dreamer experiences a succession of images, as if they’re watching a film. ‘A pupa has transformed into a silver and black butterfly.’ ‘A girl accidentally jumped off the roof of a three-storey apartment building. Her screaming echoed while she was falling. Shortly afterward there was a dull sound from below.’ There was only one such dream in the German sample; in the Japanese set there were six, accounting for 3.6% of all dreams. The study’s authors connect this pattern to a ‘low sense of self’ and a ‘lack of subjectivity.’ Many of these dreamers were adolescents who had spent months or years out of school, withdrawing from all social relationships. It’s true that hikikomori was widespread in Japan long before it became a mass phenomenon in Western countries. Still, it seems strange to only describe these dreams in terms of what they’re missing. Who decided that the dreamer must always appear in their dream? Isn’t there something holy about these successions of images, tumbling in one after another from the other world?
Much Japanese poetry is also, famously, purely imagistic. If Japanese dreams are more likely to follow the same pattern, this seems significant. Like a dream, the poem is a vivid image, appearing in the presence of nobody in partiular; like a poem, the dream has its imports and its interpretations. A simple sensory impression can carry heavy meanings. In 1911, the Japanese poet and socialist Kotoku Shusui was executed for his hatsuyume. He had been accused—along with twenty-five other prominent leftists—of plotting to assassinate the Emperor Meiji. The trials were carried out behind closed doors; almost all of the accused were sentenced to death. But we know that one of the pieces of evidence brought in against Shusui was a poem he had composed about his dreams, on the traditional theme of the New Year’s snows:
bakudan no furo yo to mishite hatsuyume wa chiyoda no matsu no yuki ore no oto Seeing that it is a world Where it is bombs that fall My hatsuyume is The sound of the pines of Chiyoda Breaking under the weight of the snow
You can read the two previous instalments of Strange News from Another Star, an experiment in collective dreaming, here and here. There was no edition for December, since I spent a good chunk of the month away in Israel and Palestine—which I will obviously be writing about next. Expect SNAS No. 3 later this month.
The next edition will be about messages. If you have experienced a dream that was not simply a series of images, but seemed to be communicating something directly—if, like Myoe, you have received a sutra in your dreams, or a letter, or an email, or some other phrase or command that still stuck with you when you woke up—there’s still time to contribute. If you’re reading this in your email inbox, you can simply reply to this email. Otherwise, you can email me at samrkriss [at] gmail dot com, with something appropriate in the subject line. See you then.