Signs, Signs, Everywhere…The Hidden Depth of Japanese Signs in Spirited Away

From Spirited Away (2002)

In ENGL 801 “Graduate Studies in English,” a required course for incoming M.A. students, we have always asked our graduate students to develop an original contribution to a current scholarly conversation about a literary or cultural text.

Starting in 2020, we added a final writing assignment: we asked our graduate students to create a piece of public scholarship (700-1,000 words), tailoring their academic paper and its scholarly intervention of 10-12 pages for a general-interest audience.

Students followed the guidelines shared by Irene Dumitrescu in her essay “What Academics Misunderstand about ‘Public Writing’”: “you should follow Horace’s advice for poetry: Aim to instruct or delight – ideally, to do both. Tell your readers a story, and give them the basic information they need to take it in. Avoid jargon for the most part, but teach your readers a key term when it will help them understand your topic better.”

During the next weeks, we’ll be featuring here the pieces of public writing from Section A (taught by Cameron Leader-Picone) and Section ZA (taught by me) selected for publication following anonymous review by three faculty members. Today, we start with “Signs, Signs, Everywhere… The Hidden Depth of Japanese Signs in Spirited Away” by Ian Lutz (MA ’24) from Section ZA. Enjoy!

Karin Westman, Associate Professor and Department Head / Instructor for ENGL 801 ZA (Fall 2022)

Any traveler to a new town can confirm the importance of signs. They communicate what’s around us, what’s ahead of us, and occasionally beckon us to explore the unknown.

So how can a visitor to a new place understand their surroundings if they can’t read its signs?

The short answer is “not very well,” and such obliviousness breeds an anxious wandering as important turns are missed, warnings overlooked, and wrong bathrooms entered.

Statistically speaking, most people reading this article in English are not fluent in Japanese, so Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away is an exercise in that anxious wandering of illiterate tourism. Signs in the film’s mysterious village abound, written in exotic-looking characters which feel important but evade understanding for the average English-speaker. While understanding these signs are not necessary for enjoying the film’s plot (as millions of fans can attest to), is there not some deeper theme etched into their messages, staring at the viewer and begging for acknowledgement? The answer is an unsurprising “yes.” However, what may be more surprising is the theme which gazes back upon the viewer: Buddhism.

Buddhist principles are not strange occurrences in Japanese culture, as the country is a secular blend of Shinto and Buddhist practices, but there are certain Buddhist concepts communicated in the signs within Spirited Away which both convey and foreshadow religious reflection. Specifically, the mysterious “eye” signs at the beginning of the mysterious spirit town impart such significant Buddhist ideals that they deserve analysis all their own.

Seen as a cluster of boards over a store entrance, these signs seem like an amalgam of scrawled Japanese characters and colors which catch and distract your gaze. The distinctive eye-shaped sign at the top stares at the observer with the kanji 塩 (shio, meaning “salt”) flagged on either side by the hiragana め (the phonetic character me, pronounced like “meh”). Below this sign are more conventional-looking signs, with one reading めめ and another reading 三千眼 (sanzenme or “three-thousand eyes”) (“Spirited Away” 00:07:24). With “eye” being pronounced as “mehin Japanese, all of the signs together (including めめ) create an unsettling implication of being watched by multitudinous eyes, as if receiving stares in a place you don’t belong. But where is the Buddhism, you may be asking? The answer lies in the peculiar choice of the number “three-thousand” in the 三千眼 sign.

Three-thousand directly correlates to the Japanese Buddhist phrase 一念三千 (ichinen sanzen) meaning “three thousand realms in a single moment of life.” Simply put, the concept of ichinen sanzen teaches that every moment in life encompasses every possible realm of existence, which according to the Lotus Sutra totals three-thousand. This concept comes from the Nichiren sect of Buddhism, and is considered the central doctrine for observing the unified truth of existence, a truth which is said to open the devotee’s eyes.

Nichiren Buddhism has a thing for eyes, by the way. A particular ritual performed in Nichiren is the “eye-opening ceremony” (kaigen kuyô, or開眼供養) in which the pupils on a Buddha statue or picture are painted by a priest, thus consecrating that Buddha image as an incarnation of Buddha himself. (See Sir Charles Elliot’s book Japanese Buddhism detailing Nichiren’s “Eye Opener” treatise, called kaimokushô in Japanese.) This is an important detail, as the film’s eye-shaped sign has also had its pupil painted. However, rather than a plain black dot, it has been christened with the kanji for “salt” (塩), a substance long-considered sacred and purifying in Japanese culture.

Obviously, this injection of salt into something as sensitive as an eye implies notions of purifying pain, but is this uncomfortable consecration not a foreshadowing of Chihiro’s own growth in Spirited Away? Throughout the film, the young protagonist endures painful but necessary experiences, learning to see the troubles of the gods and spirits around her in the process. Those same gods and spirits learn to recognize her woes in reciprocity, very much achieving that Buddhist idea of ichinen sanzen, or harmonious understanding through discomfort.

In much the same way the eye-shaped sign in the village was consecrated in a Buddhist fashion, so too has Chihiro been christened through realizing Buddhist tenants. Without knowledge of the “eye” signs in the mysterious village, this religious theme is lost upon the viewer, and a greater depth to Chihiro’s journey vanishes into oblivion.

Works Cited

Miyazaki, Hayao. Spirited Away. Studio Ghibli, 2002.

“Ichinen Sanzen – Buddhist Terminology: Myoshinji.” Myoshinji Temple, Nichiren Shoshu Myoshinji Temple, 28 May 2021,

Eliot, Charles. Japanese Buddhism: With a Memoir of the Author by Harold Parlett. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969.

Ian Lutz (MA ’24)

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