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We often hear about people’s bonds with animals (and for good reason: a loving relationship with pets is one of life’s best aspects) but what about their bonds with plants?  Today’s (somewhat sad) story shines a touching light on this intra-kingdom devotion, but it also highlights a sinister new menace in modern society: bonsai bandits!   As enthusiasts of eastern gardens know, bonsai is an art/horticulture form which utilizes careful pruning and husbandry to make miniature trees which have the appearance and proportions of wild trees.  The more ancient a bonsai tree, the more realistic (and valuable) it becomes.

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This is why unknown thieves stole seven tiny trees from a garden in Saitama prefecture near Tokyo.  Among the rustled trees was a “shimpaku” juniper, an increasingly rare mountain conifer which is regarded as the nonpareil tree variety of the bonsai world.  The tree was over four centuries old and was collected in the wild back during the Edo period, when feuding Samurai clans vied for power (it is pictured immediately above).

The (human) victims of the theft were Seiji Iimura, who hales from a long lineage of bonsai keepers stretching back to the Edo period and his wife Fuyumi Iimura who wrote an anguished lament to the internet. “We treated these miniature trees like our children,” she said. “There are no words to describe how we feel. It’s like having your limbs lopped off.”  She then begged the thieves to return her trees, or barring that to water them and tend them with love.  She included complete instructions which I won’t include on the assumption that bonsai thieves don’t read my blog (also, in my world, a bonsai thief is a very small thief who looks just like a larger one because of careful pruning and staking).

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The juniper, with its crazy calligraphic lines and ancient gnarled roots has taken the majority of the international media attention in this heist, but other trees were stolen too including three more shimpakus (of less venerable age) and a trio of miniature pine trees, called “goyomatsus” (there are two unstolen examples in the picture below).  It is somewhat fun to imagine the thieves as little elf-people who made their getaway in a kei car and are now hiding out in a shoebox on a meter tall volcano and what not, but the victims seem legitimately heartbroken.  Theft of living things is a more serious matter than theft of mere valuables.  Why can’t people stick to nicking money and jewels from heavily insured oligarchs and drug kingpins? This is my message for the criminals: give the Iimuras their beloved trees back and grow up!
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For the first time in a long time, Ferrebeekeeper is presenting a theme week. This is mermaid week! We will explore the mythology and meaning of fish-people (a theme which occurs again and again throughout world culture). And there is a special treat waiting at the end of the week, when I reveal the project I have been working on for quite a while. I wonder if you can guess what creative project could I possibly be up to involving fish?

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We will get back to the exquisite long-haired beauties with perfect figures and beautiful green tails later this week, but let’s start out with the Ningyo, the poignant & disquieting Japanese “mermaid”.  The mythical Ningyo is indeed described as a sort of fish-person; but they were far more fish than person with a piscine body covered in jewel-bright scales.  They had a strange bestial human head, almost more like a monkey’s face and a quiet beautiful voice like a lilting songbird or a flute.

The Ningyo was reputedly quite delicious and anyone who ate one would experience tremendous longevity…but there was a price. Eating the creature would result in terrible storms and dire misfortune.  Additionally eating a magical sentient creature carried…spiritual risks which are hard to quantify but certainly sound detrimental to the immortal soul.

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One story about a Ningyo, starts with a humble fisherman from the Wakasa Province (the seafaring “land of seafood” for the Chūbu region of Honshū). He caught a fish with a human face, the likes of which he had never seen and he butchered and prepared the creature as a special banquet for his closest friends and neighbors.  Yet one of the guests peaked into the kitchen and saw the doleful eyes of the ningyo’s severed head and warned the other diners not to partake.  One woman hid her portion in her furoshiki, and forgot about it.  Later, her daughter was hungry and obtained the forgotten fish-morsel and gobbled it up.  The woman expected catastrophe, but nothing happened and the whole sorry incident was forgotten…

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Except…the little girl grew into womanhood and married and had a family.  The people around her lived their lives and, in the course of time, grew old and got sick and died, but she maintained her youth and kept on living and living and living. Everywhere she went the people she cared for grew old and died to the rhythm of human life, but she stood outside watching like a child watching mayflies.  She became a lonely religious recluse and eventually, after the better part of a millennium, she returned to the ruined, forgotten port of her childhood and took her own life, unable to bear existing in a world that she stood so far outside of.

The idea of the Ningyo asks uncomfortable question about our relationship with the natural world. Do we consume other beings for our own selfish amelioration or must we do so to survive? The fairytale above also asks painful questions about some of our most treasured fantasies.  Would extraordinarily long life be a blessing or would it be a curse?  Best of all (but hardest of all) it asks us to look again…at our relationship with the natural world and at our timeframe bias which prohibits us from seeing some of the things that are really happening (since our perspective is too brief).

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Actually I feel like fish already actually have bestial human faces and are precious in mysterious ways.  Yet we eat them anyway…in ever greater abundance… to the extent that almost all the fish are becoming scarce. Humankind is destroying the ocean, the cradle of life and all-sustaining backstop to every ecosystem. We are doing this, like the fisherman in the tale through a terrifying mixture of ignorance, hunger, and the attempt to impress other people. The Japanese (who have astonishing technological savvy, profound generosity, and enormous erudition) eat whales and dolphins with a special spiteful relish.  Is this then our fate, to gobble up our miraculous fellow beings and then live on and on in a world stripped of vitality and meaning?  Every thoughtful person I meet, worries that it is so.

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Then too there is the other half to the Ningyo myth (unadressed in the myth I told above… that abusing them would lead to storms, inundation, and catastrophe.  It is not hard to see parallels in contemporary society.  It isn’t only eschatologists, astrophysicists, and ecologists who note the changing temperatures and cannot find analogies in the strange and diverse climate history of our world. Humans live longer and longer (outside of America, I mean) yet the storms grow worse and worse.  Have we already eaten the Ningyo?

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Komei

Emperor Kōmei was the 121st Emperor of Japan.  He reigned (or perhaps, more accurately he “served as a titular figurehead”) from 1846 through 1867, when he died from smallpox at the age of 35. Western powers forcibly pried open Japan during the reign of Kōmei: Commodore Perry’s fleet of black ships made their famous trade visit in 1853.  The shock of this transformation allowed Kōmei to begin to wrest political power back from the shogun (a hereditary military dictator, who was the true ruler of Japan).  Kōmei’s reign thus directly paved the way for the Meiji restoration and the rapid industrialization of Japan.

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The Crown of Emperor Kōmei (photo by Barakishidan)

I mention all of this as an introduction to his amazing hat.  Kōmei’s crown has survived.  It is an exquisite beaded square surmounted by a glorious sun–an unsubtle reminder that the emperor of Japan is the direct descendant of the sun-goddess Amaterasu.  The regal headdress has been sitting on a fancy shelf somewhere gathering fancy dust since 1867.

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Hmmm…

It should be noted that, in Japanese imperial tradition, crowns are not invested with the same importance as they are in European monarchies. Ironically, the real crown jewels of the Crysanthemum throne are not crowns at all.  In fact they seemingly don’t exist at all. The imperial regalia consist of a sword, a mirror, and a jewel which have been handed down since the time of Amaterasu, who used these items in the struggles which formed the world.  Yet the sword, mirror, and jewel are themselves shrouded in mystery. Not only are they reputedly of ancient supernatural construction, they have also been thrown into the sea and lost.  Most fortunately they were recovered by natural and unnatural means, however, ordinary mortals are forbidden to look at them, so nobody has seen them except some sinister aristocrat priests, who assert that they really truly almost certainly probably exist in secret locations.

So, if you are keeping score, the emperor was not really an emperor (but instead a golden mask for a squalid strongman); his ancient supernatural treasures likewise do not really exist.  This digital picture of a wacky beaded hat is just about the most real thing about the world’s most ancient monarchy.

The Purple Heart Medal

The Purple Heart Medal

The Purple Heart is a military award given to United State soldiers who are injured or killed in combat.  Since April 1917 the medal has been awarded in the name of the President of the United States to men and women of the armed forces (and, for a brief period, to civilians who were injured in meritorious action with the enemy).  The Purple Heart medal is indeed a purple heart with a profile relief statue of George Washington.  Above his head is the coat of arms of the Washington family (who were descended from British nobles) which consists of red and white bars beneath three red stars with holes in them.  The medal hangs from a purple ribbon with silver-white edges—which is also what the service ribbon for the Purple Heart looks like.

The Purple Heart Service Medal

The Purple Heart Service Medal

In 1945, the United States military was planning an all-out amphibious assault on Japan.  Military planners reckoned that this campaign would lead to an unprecedented number of casualties, so the Pentagon ordered 500,000 purple hearts to give to the troops injured or killed. However, thanks to hard-working scientists, the physical nature of the universe, and President Truman’s uncompromising orders, the assault on Japan became unnecessary.  In all succeeding years (and throughout all subsequent wars), total American casualties have never approached this number, so Purple Heart awards given out today are practically antiques.

The Badge of Military Merit

The Badge of Military Merit

The Purple Heart is an incredibly distinctive looking award with a unique name and a powerful, unusual color.  What is the meaning behind the color of the medal?  The color and shape of the medal were conceived by no less a person than George Washington himself in the midst of the Revolutionary War.  Washington wanted to award common soldiers who had committed deeds of unusual merit and he commanded that such soldiers be honored with the Badge of Military Merit, a purple heart shaped patch sewn onto their uniform.  The Badge of Military Merit is generally viewed as the first military award of the United States Armed Services, but, most unfortunately we do not know what exactly the enigmatic Washington was thinking when he chose the color (although the meaning of the shape, at least, seems obvious).  Perhaps the general associated purple with the noble qualities of sacrifice, valor, and courage which the badge was meant to embody.  Whatever the case, Purple Hearts bear a unique personal connection to George Washington, the foremost of the fathers of the nation.

An artist's interpretation of George Washington awarding the first Badges of Military Merit at Newburgh in 1783

An artist’s interpretation of George Washington awarding the first Badges of Military Merit at Newburgh in 1783

 

Dried Kombu

Dried Kombu

Kombu (Laminaria japonica) is a sort of edible brown algae.  This kelp grows from 2 to 5 meters long (6 to 15 feet) but in perfect conditions it can grow to be 10 meters (30 feet) in length.  Kombu is native to the coasts of Japan and it has been eaten there since the Jōmon era (a prehistoric era when Japan was inhabited by hunter-gatherers). The seaweed is famous for its rich umami flavor and it is nutritionally valuable as a source of protein, fat, fiber, and minerals.

Underwater Kombu bed (on a synthetic reef in Korea)

Underwater Kombu bed (on a synthetic reef in Korea)

During the 1920s, Kombu was exported to China where it is known as Haidai—it is particularly popular in northern China (where green vegetables are scarce in winter).  The seaweed has also been traded extensively to Korea.

Kombu (Haidai) being cultivated along the Chinese coast

Kombu (Haidai) being cultivated along the Chinese coast

Kombu was originally harvested wild from cold rich coastal ocean waters where it attaches to sub-littoral rocks but the 2 year growing season was frustrating to consumers. Today Kombu is grown in immense industrial scale on aquaculture plantations around China, Korea, and Japan. Brown algae cultivation involves sophisticated manipulation of alternation of generations (the metagenetic reproductive cycle of plants).

Converse All Star Suede shoes in “Kombu Green”

Converse All Star Suede shoes in “Kombu Green”

There is a dark chartreuse (yellow-green) color, Kombu green which takes its name from the beloved kelp.

Asian Giant Hornet (Vespa mandarinia)

The world’s largest hornet is the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia).  An individual specimen can measure up to 5 cm (2 inches) long and has a wingspan of 7.6 cm (3 inches).  Giant hornets have blunt wide heads which look different from those of other wasps, hornets, and bees and they are colored yellow orange and brown.

The Asian giant hornet ranges from Siberia down across the Chinese coast into Indochina and lives as far west as India, however the hornet is most common in the rural parts of Japan where it is known as the giant sparrow bee.  The sting of the Asian giant hornet is as oversized as the great insect is.  Within the hornet’s venom is an enzyme, mastoparan, which is capable of dissolving human tissue. Masato Ono, an entomologist unlucky enough to be stung by the creature described the sensation a “a hot nail through my leg.” Although the sting of a normal honey bee can kill a person who is allergic to bees, the sting of an Asian giant hornet can kill a person who has no allergies–and about 70 unfortunate souls are killed by the hornets every year.

Close-up of Asian Giant Hornet (Vespa mandarinia)

Armed with their size and their fearsome sting, Asian giant hornets are hunters of other large predatory insects like mantises and smaller (i.e. all other) hornets.  The giant hornets do not digest their prey but masticate it into a sticky paste to feed to their own offspring.  A particular favorite prey is honey bee larvae, and since European honey bees have no defense against the giant wasps, all efforts by Japanese beekeepers to introduce European bees have met with failure.  Japanese honey bees however have evolved a mechanism (strategy?) to cope with hornet incursion.  When a hive of Japanese honey bees detects the pheromones emitted by hunting hornets, a crowd of several hundred bees will form a gauntlet (carefully leaving a space for the hornet to enter).  Once the hornet walks into the trap the bees rush on top of it and grasp it firmly. They then begin to vibrate their flight muscles which raises the temperature and produces carbon dioxide.  Since giant hornets cannot survive the CO2 levels or high temperatures that honey bees can, the hornets put up a titanic struggle to overcome the mass of bees, killing many in the process.  However honey bees have a fanaticism which would do credit to the most ardent practitioner of Bushido, and they usually kill the invaders.

Honey bees killing an Asian Giant Hornet

A very lovely photograph of an octopus kite by Nigel Bence

Ferrebeekeeper has written about actual flying squids which dart above the water waving their lateral fins to extend their gliding ability.  But real squid are not the only cephalopods that one sees in the skies–especially around springtime.  Two of the classical shapes for kites are squid & octopus shape.  The squid’s finned oblong shape, and the octopus’ round shape are perfect for balance and for catching the wind.  The dangling tentacles act perfectly as multiple tails. This spring has taken a cold gray turn—at least in New York, but while you are inside planning what to do during May, perhaps you should build some octopus and squid kites.  Here is a little gallery of images from different kite festivals and kite makers around the world.

A Commercially available Octopus kite/kit

Like squids and octopuses, none of the kites I had when growing up ever lasted long (well none of the ones I actually flew).  The beautiful range of mollusks suspended on the wind in the sky makes me wonder if I have any time to get out some dowels and crepe paper and build some more kites [sadly you do not have any such time—ed.].  As the soon as the  weather clears up again, I hope you enjoy some kite flying!

While thinking of how to sum up 2011, I looked backwards to my last blog post from 2010 and was jarred by the similarity of the two years.  There it all was again: the same sort of political scandals, the same news of war in the Middle East, the same tedious celebrity hijinks–only the world shaking environmental catastrophe had changed (the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was supplanted by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster).  It made me question the optimism of last year’s New Year’s post, in which I ultimately concluded that technology was rolling forward and thereby bringing us both knowledge and the resources needed to live a better happier life.

So this year I am going to base my final post around the worst thing that happened in 2011: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.  This spring, three nuclear reactors on the northeast coast of Honshu melted down after being shaken by an earthquake and inundated by a once-in-a-lifetime tsunami. Designed in the sixties and manufactured in the early seventies, the reactors were an old design.  Mistakes made by engineers trying to rectify the situation initially compounded the problem.  This event has already been responsible for several worker deaths (although those occurred not as a result of radiation but rather from disaster conditions caused by the earthquake and flood).  It is estimated that, over the coming decades, fatalities from cancer could ultimately stretch up into the tens or perhaps even the hundreds!

Hindsight is 20/20, but, seriously, was this the best place for a series of fission reactors?

The fear generated by the incident has caused a global anti-nuclear backlash.  Plans for next-generation nuclear plants have been put on hold while existing power plants have been shut down.  Germany is exiting the nuclear energy business entirely.  Japan is building a host of ineffective wind plants and setting its advantages in fission power aside.  Developing nations like India, Brazil, and South Africa are reassessing their nuclear power plans.  The United States is suddenly building more gas power plants.  Even France is backing away from nuclear energy.

Anti-nuclear demonstrators march in Cologne (AP Photo/dapd/Roberto Pfeil)

Of course cold-blooded, analytically-minded readers who missed out on the media circus around the Fukushima incident might be wondering why a few (potential) deaths outweigh the 20,000 victims who were killed by the tsunami outright, or the hundreds of thousands of people killed worldwide in traffic accidents, or the millions of victims of North Korean famine.  Those kinds of casualties are all very ordinary and dull whereas the people who (might possibly) die (someday) from nuclear contamination face a very unusual, rare, and scary end.

Isn’t it worse that ten men might someday die of cancer then 10,000 men die outright from coal mining accidents?

Well no, not really.  The hype around nuclear accidents was used by fear-mongers to peddle their energy agenda–on the surface this might seem to be earth-friendly green energy, but since such a thing doesn’t really exist yet, the beneficiaries of nuclear power’s decline will be oil and gas producers, who are already operating the largest and most lucrative industry on earth.  Additionally the whole crisis allowed media sources to garner viewers and readers by means of frightening headlines (in fact that’s what I’m doing with this post).  The nuclear industry must become bigger to fit the needs of a world running out of fossil fuel (but with a quickly growing population of consumers).  Additionally our next generation of technology will likely require more energy rather than less.

Nigerians fight an oil pipeline explosion which burned hundreds of people to death

But, thanks to a disaster involving equipment that was four decades out of date which killed two people (from blood loss and contusion), humankind is abandoning the pursuit of inexpensive inexhaustible green energy for the foreseeable future.  At best, the next-generation nuclear designs now on the drawing boards or in early stages of construction will be reevaluated and made safer, but at worst we will fall into a long era of dependence of frac gas and foreign oil–a gray age of stagnation. Our leaders will greenwash this development by pretending that solar and wind energy are becoming more effective—but so far this has not been true at all.

I hope my flippant tone has not made it seem like I am making light of the tragedy that befell Japan, a peace-loving nation which is an unparalleled ally and friend.  I really am sad for every soul lost to the tsunami and I feel terrible for people who are now forced to live with the nebulous fear of cancer (especially the brave workers who raced in to known danger to fix the stricken plant).  Similarly, I worry about the Nigerians burned to death in pipeline accidents, the Pakistanis killed in friendly fire accidents, and the bicyclists run over by minivan drivers. To care about the world is to worry and face grief.

Tsunami Memorial Stone

But coping with such worries and sadness is the point of this essay.  Our fears must not outweigh our bright hopes. We must keep perspective on the actual extent of our setbacks and not allow them to scare us away from future progress. Only bravery combined with clear-headed thought will allow us to move forward.  Undoing this year’s mistakes is impossible but is still possible to learn from them and not live in fear of trying again.  I wrote about the energy sector because of its primacy within the world economy—but I dare say most industries are facing such a crisis to one extent or the other.

If we turn back or freeze in place, we will be lost–so onwards to 2012 and upward to great things.  And of course happy new year to all of my readers!

[And as always–if you feel I am utterly misguided in my energy policy or any other particular, just say so below.]

So, it’s been a while since I put up a garden post.  The simple reason for this long omission is that I have moved (well also it was winter).  I had a delightful spring garden planted which I had hoped to showcase here–but the vicissitudes of the world intervened.  I have now moved from Park Slope (where no one who is not an investment banker can afford to dwell) to Ditmas Park, a diverse neighborhood of ramshackle Victorian mansions and elegant row houses. On this exodus, I took with me all of the plants that I could put in pots.  Naturally, spring plants do not like this sort of rough handling so mortality was high.  You should picture one of those cattle drives where, after great hardship and tremendous effort, only a few cattle are alive at the end. Um, except instead of rugged cowboys imagine me, and instead of shaggy longhorns picture tulips and daffodils [ed. Are you sure this metaphor holds up?]

Cherry Blossoms in my new back yard this spring

Anyway, the happy conclusion of all this is that my new garden is much more beautiful than the old one was. The ground is rich and fertile and, best of all, some ingenious landscaper from long ago planted a variety of gorgeous trees. This forethought provides the subject for this post, for the new garden features a Japanese flowering cherry tree, the undisputed emperor of ornamental trees.  The tree is old and huge.  It looms high above the two story house and spreads across three (or maybe four) lawns.

Hanami no en (Kunichika Toyohara, 1862, woodblock print)

Such trees are the central focus of spring festivities in Japan where “Hanami” festivals have involved viewing cherry blossoms and reflecting upon the nature of life (and drinking) since the Heian era.  Initially such flower parties were attended only by the imperial family, but the trend of festivals for sakura viewing was soon picked up by the samurai nobility.  The custom combined with the similar tradition of farmers who annually climbed up nearby mountains in springtime to have lunch under the blooming trees.  Soon Hamami was adopted by all classes in Japan as a time of drinking and feasting under the sakura trees.  Tokugawa Yoshimune, an eighteenth century shogun, arranged for the mass planting of cherry trees to encourage the tradition.

Today, the Hanami festival is the major annual spring festival in Japan.  A “blossom forecast” is carefully watched as people prepare their parties.  Then when the trees are blooming, the Japanese spread mats or tarps on the ground to drink and dine alfresco beneath the falling petals.  Of course many people are more interested in eating (and, more particularly, drinking) then enjoying even the most beautiful flowering trees. They are mocked as being “hana yori dango” (more interested in dumplings then flowers) and their drunken antics and passed out bodies are a major component of hanami time in Japan.

As you can see in the photos, the cherry tree at my new place is not the only tree blossoming in the back yard.  It is joined by a showy crabapple tree with deep pink buds and a flowering dogwood.  All of these beautiful trees mean that I’m back to shade gardening and my roses are living out front by the bustling street.

The Cherry Tree (foreground), the Flowering Crapabble, the Dogwood (pale green on the left) and some little white blossoming tree which belongs to the neighbors (right background)

I was bent on fully celebrating hanami with my friends. In the spirit of “hana yori dango” I had already thought out a menu of sake, dumplings, and grilled meats, but, due to a scheduling mischance, I will be on holiday in Los Angeles next week (which is a good problem to have). I have included photos of the initial blooms from my backyard but my roommate ensures me that the blossoms become even more fulsome as the whole tree morphs into a living pink cloud.  I suppose it is fitting that I am going to miss this peak bloom as sakura blossoms are an ancient and enduring metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life’s joys.  Indeed to the stoic Buddhist and Shinto faiths which have taken root in Japan, the blossoms are symbolic of the brevity, beauty, and fragile nature of life itself.

"Under the Cherry Blossoms" (by Kunisada, 1852): This could have been me!

East Asia in 400 AD (Author: Thomas Lessman, Source Website: http://www.WorldHistoryMaps.info)

The Korean kingdom of Baekje was founded in 18 BC by King Onjo, a third son from the royal dynasty of the neighboring Goguryeo kingdom.  At the height of its power around 375 AD, Baekje was a powerful force in eastern Asia with colonies in parts of China, substantial sea power, and a strong alliance with Japanese rulers of the Kofun period.  The Baekje kingdom’s territory stretched from the southern tip of Korea as far north as Pyongyang and included most of western Korea (ironically Korea was once divided along east/west lines).  The state flourished until 660 AD when it fell to an alliance between the Tang Dynasty Chinese and the Korean Kindom of Silla (a conquest orchestrated by Emperor Gaozong, the son of our old friend Lǐ Shìmín).

The Geumjegwansik, Diadems of the Monarchs of Baekje

I mention all of this, to explain the Geumjegwansik, a pair of two gold ornaments that were worn as a crown by King Muryeong, ruler of Baekje from AD 501 to AD 523. They were recovered in 1971 where they were discovered neatly stacked beside the dead king’s head inside his coffin. Today the two diadems are housed in Gongju National Museum (along with an identical pair found in the Queen’s coffin during the same excavation). They are cut out of plate gold a mere two millimeters in thickness and were attached to either side of a black silk cap like the one shown in the picture below. Resembling a mass of honeysuckle vines shaped into wings of flame, it is believed the diadems possessed a shamanistic magical significance.  It is also possible they were influenced by Buddhist visual tradition which portrayed bodhisattvas with golden halos.

The pieces were probably worn this way as a royal cap.

The crown is a pure example of Baekje craft, however the kingdom was famous for adopting many Chinese literary and artisitic influences which became melded into a unique creative tradition.  The extremely close ties which the Kingdom of Baekje also maintained with Kofun Japan (during the era when the Japanese Imperial bloodlines and tradition were coming into being) has provided a continuing source of controversy.  Baekje royalty resided in the Japanese royal court and, after the final collapse, emigrated to Japan.  Speculation is rampant that a few Baekje bloodlines slipped into the composition of the Chrisanthemum throne.

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