Matsuri: Sense the origin of Japan!

This week we would like to bring you back to the roots of Japan. For sure this week’s insights present a lot of historical and cultural information with the example of Japanese “matsuri”. Who best to talk to? I believe there is only one source that allows you to actually experience a “matsuri” directly from home, no matter where you are. Anna Ikeda has been introducing to many blog readers a more hidden and archaic side of Japan ( I am very happy this week to present Anna Ikeda, Polish by birth, but attached to Japan since 1998. (The length of this article is longer than usual, but it is the only way to let you understand and experience an aspect of “real Japan”.)

Sibylle Ito: What does matsuri mean for you?
Anna Ikeda: We actually don’t participate in matsuri, to be precise. We go there and shoot or videotape what’s going on during the festival. We see the action through a viewfinder. Sure, we love to talk with matsuri participants, including Shinto priests and Buddhist monks, as well as drunk locals carrying mikoshi. That’s how we see, hear, smell and learn about matsuri.
And what is there to learn? Matsuri is like a live concert, of sorts. There is music and chants performed by priests, monks, and locals. They play quite ancient songs that have been passed down over many generations. When a Shinto priest delivers a solo performance in front of a Shinto god [norito (祝詞) – Shinto gospel?], you hear ancient words and phrasings in accordance with a unique rhythm that can almost remind you of a Noh (能) play. This fundamental part has long remained unchanged.
However, to entertain a large audience on a live stage, there is a part that has to be updated. By simply watching matsuri events it’s not a hard to figure out what parts were updated and modified.

Mikoshi is a portable shrine and I am pretty sure that no human being was allowed to ride on it during the procession. I am also sure that in the past no women were allowed to carry mikoshi. I have no doubt that the yosakoi dance parade is a quite recent addition. But please note that I don’t find it inappropriate. Rather, it is indispensable to make matsuri palatable to the younger generations, AS LONG AS it retains its original religious significance. Probably, I will be off from matsuri if it becomes like the Olympic games. I wonder how many people watching the Olympics realize that this event used to have a ritual significance once upon a time… As far as I am concerned, matsuri still has religious vibrance.

SI: Why have you become self-proclaimed matsuri otaku?
AI: First, as described in my previous answer, we see matsuri from a folklorists point of view. Matsuri, including ritual ceremonies, is still evolving to best fit the 21st century and we would love to follow as much of this evolution as we can. Second, we are not into anime, manga, cosplay, videogames, J-pop, or whatever. This type of info is everywhere on the web and because of that, we don’t have to write about these things ourselves. And finally, we live in one of the most “dasai” prefectures, Tochigi, and there is nothing else here to write about, to be honest. So we might as well be self-proclaimed matsuri nerds.

SI: As you are attending matsuri as well in the countryside, do you see it as an option to bring business back there?
AI: French sociologist Emile Durkheim proposed that the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane is the central characteristic of religion. In his theory the sacred represented the interests of the group, especially unity, which were embodied in sacred group symbols, or totems, Durkheim said.

I am certain his theory could be applied to the life of Japanese in ancient Japan. We have term called “Hare” and “Ke” proposed by folklorists expert Kunio YANAGITA [(柳田國男). In principle, Hare (ハレ: Katakana is generally used, or occasionally 晴れ) means something like “turning point between the phases, crease, or transition”. Later on, the interpretation of “Hare” turned into “unordinary life or occasion” suggesting a ritual ceremony, festival, and personal ceremonies (i.e. birthday, wedding, funeral, and adulthood ceremony) that are sequestered from the everyday life – “Ke”. I assume that activities during “Ke” involve business, implying that old Japanese folks don’t consider bringing business into “Hare”, as “Hare” should definitely be distinguished from “Ke”. Instead, they DID mind their own “business” of organizing festivals, carrying mikoshi, participating in ritual ceremonies during “Hare”.

Mr. YANAGITA, who’s been a bookworm as a child, claimed that the ambiguity between “Hare” and “Ke” became more prominent as modernization reached all aspects of Japanese life. In the olden days sekihan (赤飯) – red rice or mochi (餅) – rice cake were seen only during special occasions. But hey, now you can buy them at any supermarket throughout the year.

The way I see it is that as matsuri evolve to fit into our modern reality, that reality also includes business development. Then, what sort of business development would be suitable?

As I already described in my answer to the previous question, a certain portion of events during the festival is always changing, evolving. Let’s come up with an idea of integrating business into that. Business on a more complex level than just carts with yakisoba or shaved ice.
You always see traditional dancing, drum, and singing performances taking place at almost all the festivals. Eons ago these performances used to be the latest and most popular styles of that time. How come the evolution of this aspect was terminated? We should not set aside the strategy of attracting the young generation. Matsuri organizers should learn from McDonalds targeting toddlers, who visit the restaurant with their parents. Their earliest memory of tastes is imprinted in the cortex of the brain (and don’t say I’m a liar) and determine their preferred food tastes for the rest of their life.

The problem with bringing business to matsuri, or rather – turning matsuri into an opportunity for business, is that the communities, which would benefit the most from such approach, are precisely the ones not interested in it. As most economy conscious towns and cities schedule their matsuri on weekends, and carefully cross-reference the dates to make sure that no event overlaps in the same area, because they know that’s how you get people to come and spend money in the communities, the “traditionalists” stick to the dates prescribed by priests from time immortal. If the ceremony must be held on a particular day and that particular day happens to be a Wednesday, so be it. Tradition. Cue in “Fiddler on the Roof” here. How can you expect people to attend and spend money if you make it so difficult for them? How can you expect your matsuri to be a community-building event, if your community is at work, or school during the festival?

Also, a lot of the countryside places simply don’t realize the moneymaking potential of matsuri. They don’t think that anyone from outside of their community would be interested in attending. They view festivals as strictly local events. And unless this approach, or rather – lack of it, changes, it will be difficult to use matsuri to bring business to provincial communities. It’s not impossible, however. Just look at Moka (in Tochigi prefecture) – this city markets itself on so many levels and it’s doing it right. If Moka can, then why not other towns? Don’t they want to? Or do they view it as “selling out”?

SI: What was your most unforgettable experience so far at a matsuri (good or bad)?
AI: Personally I don’t want to judge matsuri by my 21st century standards. I see matsuri as a lesson of sorts, one that enables me to expand my imagination and understanding of ancient ceremonies, old folksy way of thinking, and religious faith and devotion. That way, there is no good or bad matsuri to me.
On the other hand, what bothers me is how some matsuri participants view me, a foreign woman, getting in the middle of “their” celebrations with my video or still camera. There is a double standard here for sure. I see how my Japanese-looking husband is treated and how differently I am treated. He has no problem entering a “participants only” area, I get stopped. He has no problem getting in the midst of buttsuke action, I get stopped and asked to step aside. He looks like he “belongs” and I don’t – I look like a tourist, and therefore, certain aspects of matsuri are more difficult for me to capture.

Of course, it varies by town, as well. Again, Moka is a very good example. There, I was literally asked by a security guard to get closer and jump in between the participants to get a better shot. In Kanuma, the priests pushed me in front of them, so I could get an unobstructed view. They also kept me informed about what was going to happen and what was worth filming. In Utsunomiya or Nikko, on the other hand, it’s common for the security to shoo me to the side and people get upset if I get too close.

SI: For quite a while you had been promoting matsuri on your blog. What is the general feed back?
AI: Some readers ask very intelligent questions, which we really appreciate and are happy to answer. But the majority remains silent. And we love questions! By answering them, we can learn more and discover other, more profound aspects of matsuri.
Unfortunately, it seems that most people who are interested in Japan, prefer to stick to the clichéd, superficial stuff of manga, J-pop and Harajuku fashions. Initially, we got requests to write about that too, but by now I hope it’s clear that we don’t, and we won’t. Other bloggers have that covered.
Yet on the other hand, when I was discouraged by the general lack of readers’ comments about our Shinto and matsuri posts and expressed it on the blog, I was (very pleasantly, I might add) surprised by the feedback. They wanted us to write more festival-themed posts and cover more festival-related topics. And that’s what we do now.

SI: Looking back on all your experience online, what was your biggest lesson learned? Is there something you wished you had known earlier?
AI: It was nearly 16 years ago when I got my first everyday internet connection – Netscape public beta version (Netscape Navigator) with Mac classic application.

We’ve been blogging (but not about Japan and matsuri, we had other blogs before this one) since 2004 and yes, we’ve learned a lot. And the most important lesson – be yourself and know your rights. Being polite to everybody (at least on the surface) helps too. There are a lot of crazies on the internet and if you blog regularly, sooner or later, you will cross paths with them. Since we don’t blog anonymously, there is a limit to what we can and cannot say. But regardless of what we say, we have to be prepared to defend our stance in the unlikely event we’re threatened with legal action – yes, it’s been known to happen. And that’s why knowing your rights and not breaking any laws is of paramount importance.

Anna, I truly feel honored that you allowed me to add your insights to my blog. For sure I wish you lots of happy memories with the coming matsuri you will be attending. I can only say thank you and please continue introducing the still alive roots of Japan.

Brought to you by Sibylle Ito (シビル伊藤)

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