...life can be translucent

Yi in 19th Century Japan

I’ve been browsing with growing fascination through the Takashima Ekidan. Published in 1893 in Tokyo, this is an English translation by Shigetake Sugiura of an original Yijing translation by Kaemon Takashima, a successful serial entrepreneur and respected diviner. (‘Eki’ is the Japanese name for the Yi, and I believe ‘dan’ means ‘monograph’.) It includes a full translation of Judgement, line texts, Commentary on the Judgement, Image and the Small Images (line commentaries) – and despite the fact that this has come from Japanese through English, it’s reassuringly familiar.

What I love about the book, though, are the example readings given for most hexagrams.

There is something deeply affecting and quite startling about these readings. The best comparison I can find is that it’s like finding old, previously-unseen photos of your parents from before you were born. Here is the same Yi I know well, and was talking to this morning about ‘cello repairs, conversing and advising on concerns of 19th Century Japan. There are readings about business, about war and diplomacy, marriage, debt, illness, modern technology, and a dispute between fishmongers – and Yi is right in the midst of it all. Through these readings, I get glimpses of a world that’s completely strange to me – as are some of the methods of interpretation (more on that in another post) – but Yi itself is absolutely recognisable.

These are undoubtedly real readings. There is one where he admits to a misinterpretation, and several where he says the final outcome isn’t yet known. There are many deeply satisfied querents, including a family who are pleased because, although they’ve yet to see proof his reading was correct, it agrees with what they were told by a gypsy. Takashima is a skilled, sincere diviner, greatly impressing others with the force of his conviction, free and confident – maybe sometimes a little too much so – in his interpretations. Even when his methods are unfamiliar, his genuine relationship with Yi shines through.

Here are three of his example readings:

The Shimonoseki indemnity

A group of senior government figures asked Takashima whether American would repay the Shimonoseki indemnity. (This is one of those readings where Wikipedia is our friend – search this article for ‘indemnity’ to get some idea of what this is about!) He divined, and received 4.4 to 64.

(He doesn’t say how he divined, but I wonder whether he used stalks or the Plum Blossom method, since he begins this anecdote with the first words of one of his guests: ‘As it is raining today, we cannot go a-hunting and a-walking among the hills. Being too solitary, we are all come here to hear from you some Eki.’ Rain prevents us from going to the hills… kan before gen?)

The first thing that really grabs me about this reading is Takashima’s interpretation of 4’s Oracle:

“It says, ‘We do not apply to children; children do apply to us.‘ As this was obtained by divining whether America will return the ransom or not, I must take America as the leader and us as the follower… Then, ‘we‘ means America, and ‘children‘ us.”

I’ve often encouraged people to work with this hexagram in the same way: no, it is definitely not always the case that Yi is the speaker here, warning the querent against repeated divinations. It’s much more likely that both ‘applicant’ and ‘applied-to’ are human. In one of my earliest experiences with Hexagram 4, I was the child, and my web hosting company was the one not responding well to my repeated support tickets.

Of course, being characterised as the importunate infant is no fun, and characterising Imperial Japan in this way did not go down well with the ministers. Again, not an unfamiliar experience for a diviner, as Yi is no respecter of our sense of dignity. Takashima responds,

“Well, sir, the Eki indicates the divine will, and so, even the sagest personages conduct as if they were infants when they receive this hexagram. It is quite independent of time and place. …We may be conceited and deny to be infant, but the Almighty shows us the hexagram of Mo, which is inevitable.”

This sounds quite a lot like the kind of explanation I’ve given when trying to explain to some dignified older person how Yi is describing them as a toddler. This is just about how you look from Yi’s perspective, and seen from there, we are all infants. With a very offended querent, I might also make diffident noises – Yi said it, not me, please don’t shoot the messenger – but Takashima is characteristically unapologetic: the Almighty said this, through Yi, and so you must just accept that it is right. (And furthermore, he adds, the conduct of the country in this particular affair was ‘infant’.)

What he goes on to do with the line is odd. You or I might look at 4.4 and conclude that the money is lost:

‘Is sunk in Mo; inauspicious.’

But Takashima goes further. To start with, he also reads the xiaoxiang for that line:

‘The calamity of being sunk in Mo is the result of keeping himself aloof from the intelligent.’

The problem, it seems, is that the Japanese are not claiming the money back; they must move forward and do so.

“If we advance a step to the position of the Negative V [ie line 5] and claim, we will be ‘an infant, and lucky.’ Undoubtedly she will satisfy our claim and return the sum.”
“I do not know when America will return it to us, if we do not claim, but only wait the determination of her senators. Our government must convince her of our no more being infant and of being in want of money to promote our civilisation. …In this way, I am sure, she will regard our claim as being ‘children apply to us‘ and return the required sum of money.”

And he was quite right: according to Wikipedia, “In 1883, twenty years after the first battle to reopen the strait, the United States quietly returned $750,000 to Japan, which represented its share of the reparation payment.”

This is just one among many readings that show this free approach to the lines. Takashima uses a casting method that always generates just one moving line, but this doesn’t mean that he ignores the other moving line texts. Instead he normally regards them as points on a timeline. If the casting shows that you are currently at line 4, then lines 5 and 6 are still to come – and perhaps, as in this reading, you can change the outcome by moving to a new line.

(This reading’s actually unusual for him; in others with negative omens, he regards the disastrous outcome as an inevitability, or at least something that can only be averted by prayer, not by any human endeavour.)

The railway bridge

Here’s a fine example of practical reliance on Yi. In 1882, construction work on a railway Takashima had funded was interrupted when a flood swept away a temporary river bridge. Railway bridge construction, he explains, is a catch 22 situation: to construct a full, permanent bridge, you need building materials on both sides of the river; to transport the materials across the river, you need a bridge. So the high banks of the river had been cut down almost to water level and a temporary bridge constructed – and this had been demolished by the flood.

The Director of the Railway Department, who showed up on site at the same time as Takashima, indicated that they had three choices. They could rebuild another bridge at the same level, which would be a tremendous waste if it were to be lost in another flood, or they could build a temporary bridge at the full height of the banks, or something intermediate. The matter was to be settled by divination.

Takashima cast Hexagram 45, Gathering, changing at line 1 to 17, Following.

He observed first of all that 45, with lake over the earth, was a hexagram of flooding. We might add that it’s also a hexagram of great and purposeful investment, a gathering of men and resources – a perfect description of a great railway construction project.

Since line 1 changes to 17, and 17 means ‘to follow an example‘, they should build the same kind of bridge as before – only they should chain the beams to the banks, so they can be lifted out of the way in case of flood. He doesn’t say where this idea comes from, but I imagine it’s some combination of the Image of 45

‘Lake higher than the earth. Gathering.
A noble one sets aside weapons and tools,
And warns against the unexpected.’

reminding him to take precautions, and the Dazhuan passage that attributes the invention of harnessing oxen and horses to carts to Hexagram 17. (He does mention this part of the Dazhuan in another reading.)

However, Takashima has more to say – again, making use of the lines that were not moving, though this time only their zhi gua, not their text. To construct a higher bridge, ‘the posts must be heavier, and the whole will not bear itself against a flood.’ This he sees in the fact that line 2 changes to 47 (and also the trigram kan). A strong, high, iron bridge would be line 3, and since it leads to Hexagram 31 (and the trigram gen) that should certainly be built in the end, but at present it would be too time-consuming. So… it turns out that he is using the height of the line, in the ‘earth’ trigram, to determine the height of the bridge. Line 1 is the ground-level construction; line 2 would be higher; the highest, strongest bridge would be line 3.

They rebuilt the temporary bridge at the low level, and, ‘In the next year, we found that this hexagram was not wrong.’

How to repay a debt

This is a more personal reading, and I think it shows Takashima doing a particularly good, kind job as a diviner. His querent was a police officer, who was very anxious to discover that not only had his debt almost doubled, but the value of his estate had dropped so dramatically that he could repay only a fraction of the debt by selling up. Worry and insomnia over this were making him unfit to work. (There is another story in the book of a man who committed suicide because of an unpayable debt. Clearly this wasn’t taken lightly.)
His question: ‘Will you please teach me how to return my debt?’
The response: Hexagram 60, Measure, with line 2 changing.
Takashima talked first about the trigrams of 60, with flowing water above dui, lake. Debt, he said, is like the water in a pond: it must be limited so as not to overflow destructively.
Since lines 1 and 2 have similar imagery, and the Dazhuan passage on line 1 says it is about speaking with care, he deduces that when line 2 has bad luck from not going out, this means not speaking out. The querent needs to speak to his creditor.
Takashima tells him exactly what to say. First, he should sell his estate and repay its full value. Then, he is to tell the creditor he will pay in monthly installments taken from his salary, leaving him enough each month for both essentials and a social life. Takashima even does the maths for him: how much to pay, at what interest rate, and when the debt will be paid off.

The creditor may be reluctant to accept this, but will come round in the end. This is to be seen in the position and relationship of 60’s lines. The querent has the second line of dui, a trigram of mouth and tongue, so he must speak up. The corresponding line is 5, in the trigram kan, representing ‘ear’ and ‘heart-sickness’, ‘so he will be obliged to comply with you though reluctantly.’ But the debtor must speak up promptly, and not ‘lose the time’ of his line and thus fall into line 3.

Finally, Takashima adds further advice, absolutely in keeping with Hexagram 60. To avoid illness,

‘You must limit your concern for your debt to one hour every day, and the remaining hours must be contributed to your comforts of mind.’

The querent wrote, ‘On following your advice, my accumulated concerns were dispersed, and I feel myself very well again. My life is really your gift.’


We come and go, and the Well wells. Takashima had a different jug and well-rope – pretty good ones – but the Well is unchanged. Yi is timeless.

In 1721, Bach wrote 6 glorious Suites for ‘cello. They were not much played, certainly not performed, until they were discovered by Pau Casals, the grandfather of all modern ‘cellists.

In 1936, Casals made the first ever recording of the Suites. Countless distinguished ‘cellists have followed with their own interpretations.

‘Cellos live a great deal longer than humans, and Casals’ ‘cello is now played by Amit Peled, who is recording the Suites on it once again. When I heard what Peled had to say about his position, I could see parallels at once to those of us still divining with Yi.

“At one point, Casals held this ‘cello and played Bach. Many years have passed, and now I’m holding it and playing Bach on the same ‘cello. And I know that one day somebody else will hold this ‘cello and will play the same Bach suites. And it might be 100 years from today. It will be the same Bach suite, it’ll be the same ‘cello – and a totally different person. So it gives you perspective, how amazing this art is, and how small we are. We’re just servants. And I’m just happy to be the servant that can hold it now and can use it to bring out my soul.”

One response to Yi in 19th Century Japan

Leave a reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Office 17622,
PO Box 6945,
United Kingdom

Phone/ Voicemail:
+44 (0)20 3287 3053 (UK)
+1 (561) 459-4758 (US).