Freedom of Movement & The Komusō Monks of Japan


Pre-Brexit, the right to travel and live freely within the EU was something many of us UK citizens took for granted. It’s still undecided what will actually happen now that the UK has voted to leave, but Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, has stated: “Let’s be absolutely clear on the immigration issue. If Britain leaves the European Union, the free movement of people, of labour, will then come to an end.”

Freedom of movement is, of course, much more than a travel issue. It’s a human rights issue. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “a citizen has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country at any time.” While visa restrictions certainly make this point seem somewhat redundant, The World Tourism Organization recently announced that the number of tourists who require a visa before travelling was at its lowest level ever in 2015.

What does this mean? Well, despite the current media climate making it appear that it’s becoming harder to travel, the truth is actually quite the opposite. The UNWTO report states that “in 2015, 39% of the world population could travel for tourism without obtaining a traditional visa prior to departure as compared to only 23% in 2008.” (There are of course exceptions to the rule. Long-term traveller and Irish blogger Johnny Ward is currently on a quest to visit every country in the world. He has just three left, but visas for two are proving beyond difficult: Saudi Arabia and Yemen.)

As a Northern Irish citizen living in Japan, I am an immigrant. One of 232 million around the world. And so I appreciate first-hand the opportunities and experiences that living in a different country can provide. Just last week I was standing in Ueno Park in Tokyo, watching a procession of komusō monks enter a temple at twilight as part of tōrō nagashi – a long-held Japanese tradition where candle-lit lanterns are released into rivers to guide the spirits of the departed back to the other world.

Taking into consideration the current political climate back in the UK, watching these particular monks seemed even more relevant, for they were most prominent in Japan at a time when freedom of travel was heavily restricted.

Back in the Edo period between 1600-1868, komusō monks used to be a common sight in Japan. Strict adherents of Fuke Zen Buddhism, they were known for hiding their faces under straw hats to help them to achieve humility, demonstrating their rejection of their own ego. They were also known for playing solo original musical pieces (honkyoku) on a type of traditional Japanese bamboo flute (shakuhachi) both as a form of meditation, and to call for alms.

Perhaps most importantly at this time, komusō monks were given the rare privilege of being allowed to cross borders freely during Japan’s feudal era. This enabled them to reach other far-off temples, leading to the development of other regional musical pieces. Such was their ability to travel freely, that ninja often disguised themselves as komusō in order to travel throughout the country without arousing suspicion.

Up until the mid-19th Century, Japan was essentially a closed nation. Severe restrictions were placed on the entry of foreign nationals to Japan, and Japanese nationals were forbidden to leave the country on penalty of death if they returned without special permission. And so last week, as I stood watching these monks 6,000 miles away from where I was born, I felt grateful that I was able to do so. Freedom to travel is an amazing thing, and something we should never take for granted.

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