Between a Cock and a Hard Place
Are urban matsuri losing their meaning?
Jul 6, 2012 | Issue: 954 | 5 Comments | 2,754 views

Julio Shiiki

Yukio Mishima, that perennially gloomy writer, once wrote that he never felt more alive than on the hot festival day in 1956 when he joined a band of merchants in carrying a mikoshi through the streets.

A mikoshi is a portable (if seriously heavy) wooden shrine paraded around the neighborhood at religious festivals by the local men, who sway it from side to side as they shout rhythmically to keep in step. Carried by means of wooden poles attached to the base, the mikoshi serves to transport animist deities from one permanent shrine to another. It appears always on the verge of toppling over, and the physical exertion required to keep it upright is great—and naturally appealed to Mishima, who by this stage in his life was a manic bodybuilder.

In an ecstatic essay titled “On Intoxication” he writes of the joy of carrying the shrine under a “divine blue sky,” and feeling that he was “drowning in life.”

Between a Cock and a Hard Place
Alex Dudok de Wit is a UK-based student and writer. Find him online at www.dudok-japan
ecdotes.blogspot.com
I’M INTO NEITHER SPORTS NOR RELIGION, BUT IT’S THE COMBINATION OF THE TWO THAT MAKES MIKOSHI-CARRYING SUCH A THRILL.”

Unlike Mishima, I don’t depend on physical exertion to affirm my own sense of existence; but after I had the chance to carry a mikoshi in Tohoku last November, I found myself agreeing with him. I was nervous beforehand, but once we’d hoisted the shrine onto our shoulders we were carried away by the sheer momentum of the parade. A man with a loudspeaker led our chorus of, “Oisa, sorya! Oisa, sorya!,” as he guided us along a seemingly random route through the festival site. All around stood spectators, each one a survivor of the March 11 disasters, smiling and filming and clapping and chanting along. My throat sore, my shoulder in agony, my knees bent to accommodate the lower height of my Japanese companions, I was having the time of my life.

I’m into neither sports nor religion, but it’s the combination of the two that makes mikoshi-carrying such a thrill. The idea that you’re pouring all your energy back into nature, as symbolized by the deity that’s lurking invisibly somewhere above your right shoulder, is a great motivator—whether you believe in the god’s existence or not (and I’m sure most Japanese people don’t). I felt this energy again a few months ago at the Kanamara festival of fertility in Kawasaki, which has been repackaged and marketed to foreigners as one of Japan’s “penis festivals.” Serving as a simple symbol of fertility, a giant penis statue is placed inside the mikoshi and paraded around the area with much fanfare. I was standing right behind the shrine as the men prepared to carry it. The next thing I knew, they’d heaved it up, and with an “oisa, sorya!” they were off, as a forest of locals and giggling tourists pressed in on me from all sides in a mad rush to see the shrine from up close. Stuck between a cock and a hard place, I ended up tailing the mikoshi for the entire hour-long procession. I was once again being swept up by that intoxicating momentum.

The mikoshi parade is all the more important when you consider how dull Japanese street festivals can be otherwise. Originally intended as joyful celebrations in honor of Japan’s countless spirits, which doubled up as an excuse for the local community to indulge in popular sports, dance and music, today they seem to exist for the tourists, or just out of inertia (the Japanese will happily tear down any building that’s been standing for more than ten years, but they place great value on the continuity of institutions. Just look at their millennia-old imperial dynasty). All the traditional dancers and musicians will be duly trotted out, but outside the mikoshi parade the whole enterprise lacks energy and enthusiasm. People attend as spectators, not participants. No one really celebrates. Even the major festivals are afflicted with a certain listlessness: tourists come, buy ice cream, watch the performances then leave when they’re finished. The Aoi Festival in Kyoto—one of the biggest in Japan—had about as much festival spirit as Buckingham Palace’s Changing of the Guards.

I confess that I’ve only been to one Japanese festival outside the big cities—the one where I carried the mikoshi, which took place in what was left of a village in Ishinomaki that had been swept away by the tsunami. It was being held to gather the survivors and signal the start of the reconstruction effort. If one of the main purposes of street festivals is to bring neighbors together and strengthen community ties, perhaps they’ve lost their meaning in cities like Tokyo and Osaka, where the very fabric of local communities is unraveling. Does the future of the local festival belong to rural Japan?


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  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/johnnyrabbit/ johnnyrabbit

    ahh, the idle confusion of youth….

    Seriously though what on earth is he on about? Some major contradictions going on in there, that’s for sure. At one stage people are watching the parade and having fun, then at the next they are listless scum who dare to buy ice cream. 

    It’s often young foreigners who do things once or twice and then make giant leaps of twisted logic to reach for pie-in-the-sky social axioms. This fellow is definitely one of those.

    I can only assume he’s never been to Danjiri in Osaka and so has no idea what he’s talking about. 

    Our communities are fraying at the seams because tourists are buying treats at festivals?

    I don’t get it and neither does this dude obviously. 

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/alexdudok/ alexdudok

    johnnyrabbit – My article distinguishes between the mikoshi parade and other festival activities, so I don’t accept the contradiction that you point out. The reason I make this distinction (and indeed the reason I wrote this article) is because, in eight years of festival-going in Japan, I’ve been surprised time and again at the contrast, in terms of crowd popularity and energetic festival spirit, between the mikoshi parade and the other events (even other kinds of parade, such as the dutiful and dull procession of Heian costumes at Kyoto’s Aoi Matsuri, or the bizarre world-fusion dance march of Fukuoka’s Dontaku Matsuri). The Danjiri – which I’ve been to twice – is a good example. Both times I found that the cart procession, which to all intents and purposes is a mikoshi parade, brought a vitality to the proceedings that vanished once the procession was over.

    Of course I’m not suggesting that our communities are fraying at the seams because tourists are buying treats at festivals. You’ve got the direction of causality wrong, and you’ve simplified my argument. I’m only suggesting that the undeniable listlessness of Japanese urban festivals (with many exceptions) may be a symptom of something deeper, a loosening of the social fabric in the cities. Do you have any comments on this?

    It’s also a matter of perspective, of what you expect from a street festival and what you consider to be fun and lively, so maybe we’d best agree to disagree.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/johnnyrabbit/ johnnyrabbit

    Ha! You struck me as the typed that would be refreshing this page every 5 minutes, waiting for comments!

    But seriously, for someone who has been to Danjiri twice, you really didn’t get it. Let me school you.

    Planning for the next year’s Danjiri starts the day after the previous one finishes. Danjiri is what defines Kishiwada. It’s in their blood and that community couldn’t pull together any harder around it if they tried. Those mikoshi cost over a million dollars each, their construction and upkeep a community effort. The day of the festival, participants start drinking around 2 or 3am and continue through the day. What you so blandly term a “mikoshi parade” is the peak of a 3 day festival, where people can die and what makes the festival so famous. Last year a guy had his legs chopped off, how much more do want these people to bleed for you dude?

    The bacchanalian drinking party continues over 3 days, for young yanqui, it’s the equivalent of Xmas eve, and to be honest, it can get a little rough and violent, but i guess you weren’t around to see it. Sure, there are lots of tourists, it’s a famous festival, and they go home after the parade. What more do you want them to do exactly?

    If your claim is that the fabric of society is decaying with their festivals, then Danjiri is about the most wrongheaded example you could possibly come up with.

    Look dude, most people go to festivals to get drunk and have a good time. If it’s a local festival there’s lots of community activities for locals, especially older folk, but matsuri are for everyone. Why you are complaining about them is beyond me.

    Maybe you think the Heian parade in Kyoto is boring but maybe other people like it. Dude, if you don’t, just don’t go again. I really think you have fetishized the mikoshi parade because you did it once and all this other stuff about people not enjoying themselves in the correct manner is all in your imagination.

    That’s not the only problem I have with the article though. If you have been going to festivals for 8 years, what’s with the newbie slant? Inane Yukio Mishima reference. Check. Palpable excitement at being involved in the mikoshi parade. Check! I really think you just wanted to share your mikoshi experience and all this other social commentary is just a stretch to give the article some weight that isn’t really there. People attend as spectators, not participants. But isn’t that exactly what you are doing? What makes you better than all the “tourists”? Are you somehow enjoying yourself more? Having a more “authentic” experience?

    Newbie territory dude.

  • http://metropolis.co.jp/community/members/granitecrown/ granite.crown

    Thanks Alex. Nice post.

  • J

    Despite how bluntly “Johnnyrabbit” puts his comments Ill have to agree with him. I havent been to many Matsuri or been living in Japan that long but I moved to Tsukishima in Tokyo shortly before the Sumiyoshi shrine (practically down the street) festival that takes place once every 3 years and Ill say the whole thing, especially the locals participation far exceeded any level of enthusiasm I have seen anywhere (festival or not) in the UK or any other western nation. There was not just 1 mikoshi but 7, one for each block of Tsukishima (4) and one each for Harumi, Kachidoki and Tsukuda (neighbouring neighbourhoods) for each mikoshi there were 2 smaller ones for the women and children. Aside form this there was a more expensive (newly made identical version of the perfectly good old one) mikoshi for the shrine itself which only came out on the last day of the 4 day festival. Aside from all this, whenever the shrine bearers were doing their stuff, people all over the neighbourhood were prepared with buckets and hoses to drench them in water whenever they passed. Even the local Yakuza were out in their own bright green happi coats. I could go on but my point is that if Japanese matsuri are lacking something its not audience participation or any kind of party spirit.

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