As humans, we are social by nature. Be it with family, friends, or fellow fanatics, we are wont to gather in mutual celebration or commiseration, and this may take many forms. Perhaps we gather to watch opposing sports teams battle over a piece of pigskin, or maybe we assemble with all the other Avengers to see the newest Marvel movie, or even just convene to cook food in each other’s company.

There is an innumerable amount of ways for us to come together, but the commonality in each of these things is how they create a community for the attendees. Highs and lows of the events are shared by the  guests, bringing them all closer together, and it is this creation of a community that makes the Japanese Matsuri truly remarkable.

Matsuri are celebrated all over Japan at all times of the year, and the occasions range from the commencement of the next season to religious ceremonies to simple communal parties. Invariably, each event carries with it a communal atmosphere, one which is extended to all visitors, and it does not stop once the matsuri has concluded. Instead, it persists on in the memories it creates, the traditions it preserves, and the anticipation it sows for future matsuri.

A community makes the matsuri and the matsuri makes the community in turn.

Immortal Memory in Matsuri

Japan is the most homogeneous nation on the planet, and a hallmark of it homogeneity is just how static its culture has remained despite its rapid modernization. Cash is still used extensively, many businesses still run within small families, and a myriad of festivals are still held throughout the country across the year.  And by looking deeper into the history of matsuri, we can better understand how the memories and legacies of matsuri continue to inform their place in Japanese culture.

People gather in Kiryu each November to honor the kami Ebisu at an annual matsuri, November 2018

A perfect example of this dynamic relationship between past and present is the Jidai Matsuri, held annually in Kyoto, the epicenter of Japanese culture. Every October 22nd, the people of Kyoto carry out what Le Thi Kim Oanh, researcher from the University of Danang, calls “a lively historical textbook that takes people back to the atmosphere of Japanese antiquities”.

For a single day, 1200+ years of Japanese history is put on display by way of an elaborate parade of more than 2000 participants, each costumed as a different prominent figure in Japanese history, and it is from this exhibition of history that the festival draws its name: Jidai Matsuri, or “Festival of the Ages” in English

So far as matsuri go, the Jidai Matsuri is fairly recent, only having been held for 110 years after the initial festival in 1895. 27 years prior, the imperial capital had been moved from Kyoto to Tokyo, formerly Edo, and this had marked the end of over 1200+ years of imperial residence in the former capital; consequently, this also   resulted in the detriment of Kyoto’s cultural status in Japan.

According to Oanh, this prompted a response by the city to reclaim its lost grandeur:

In March 1895, in an effort to restore the glorious atmosphere of the ancient capital, Heian Jingu (Heian Shrine) was built for the purpose of honoring the Emperor Kanmu (781 ~ 806), who had decided to move the capital from Nagaoka to Heian in 794. On October 25th of the same year, Jidai Matsuri was first held on the occasion of the anniversary of the Kyoto foundation with 800 participants displaying historical costumes and traditional customs in 9 parades.

le thi kim Oanh, “Research on Preserving and Promoting the Heritage of Jidai Matsuri (Festival of Ages) in Kyoto, Japan”

The response to this was overwhelmingly positive, and from the next year the Jidai Matsuri became an annual event held on each October 22nd, the day of Kyoto’s official foundation. Steadily over the next century, the festival grew in breadth until the present day when it boasts 2000 participants in the parades alone, to say nothing of the organizers, vendors, public and religious officials, nearly all of whom come right from the city of Kyoto itself.

Put simply, without the participation of Kyoto’s citizens, the festival would never have succeeded, a point with which Oanh agrees: “They have been given numerous chances to make the festival glue for creating community cohesion. It is also a precious opportunity for each individual to learn the way to be a part of their community.”

Community creates the matsuri, and the matsuri creates community in turn.

Common Connection Creation

Another construct of the community, one which bears close ties to the meaning of each matsuri, is the ideals of Shinotism, the native religious dogma of Japan. Shintoism and its focus on kami, the spirits that comprise and inhabit everything in the world, provides the basis for every notable tradition in Japan, from pre-meal givings of thanks, to commencement ceremonies of construction projects, to the matsuri that bring entire communities together.

Kyoto’s oldest festival, the Gion Matsuri, has been an institution in the city’s annual schedule for over a millennium:

The festival originated with a ritual in the year 869, to placate angry spirits believed to be casting pestilence upon the Kyoto populace. Later that morphed into an annual ritual of processions to please nearby Yasaka Shrine’s residing deities, and to request purification of any harmful energy for the year.

Catherine Pawasarat, “Kyoto’s 1100-year-old gion Festival”

Through a matsuri, the community could purify and prepare itself for the future, optimistically rebuilding itself in anticipation of the future. Each of these concepts are deeply Shinto in nature, and it is this tie to the religion of the people that has allowed the festival to continue for so long.

This spiritual significance is even more emphatic in the matsuri of rural communities, those whose smaller size allow for more intimate and impactful experiences to be shared by neighbors. The Bon Matsuri of Okinawa marks an occasion in the summer when the spirits of our ancestors return for a time to imbibe and consort with us, and in the rural areas, such as Kohama Island, the matsuri can see this celebration manifest within the community as a whole:

During the Bon festival, young people divide into two groups that make their way through the community at night, going from house to house dancing and playing traditional sanshin (three-stringed instruments) and drums. At every house they stop and perform dances and songs related to the nenbutsu chanting of Pure Land Buddhism. Each household leaves its outer doors and gates open for the dancers and offers them food and sake in the garden when the dance is over. This is the Japanese festival in its purest form—performed for the sake of the villagers, not as a tourist attraction.

yuko Tanaka, “The role of matsuri in rural Japanese communities”

A matsuri such as this, which moves throughout the community, is an exemplar of just how far one one can go in creating a community.

A group of mikoshi pullers take a break during the Tomioka Matsuri, October 2018

The dances literally and metaphorically bring the restorative spiritual connections of the community into the homes of the people, and the people reciprocate these gifts by reinvigorating the dancers and drummers with cold sake, fresh food, and well wishes. With each successive house, the community grows, as does the vivacity of the drummers and dancers, and by the night’s end all people in the town, both living and dead, have been brought into the celebration.

What began as a procession of drummers ended as a township, the community newly reinforced by the matsuri.

Fun at Heart

A matsuri’s ability to reinforce these communities through spiritual traditions is baked into the heart of it, a point which John K. Nelson, author of “Myths, Shinto, and Matsuri in the Shaping of Japanese Cultural Identity,” finds to be the quintessence of the matsuri:

Festivals (called matsuri) are held at regular intervals to reinforce communal awareness of a reciprocal relationship with those kami protecting their physical, economic, and political well-being. Through its revitalizing energies, the matsuri ensures continued cooperation of humans with divine powers.

John Nelson, “Myths, Shinto, and Matsuri in the Shaping of Japanese Cultural Identity.”

From all accounts, both those of my own and those I have read, this certainly is the case, though, in practice, this spiritual connection is largely unacknowledged, even in the more rural matsuri.

The community certainly goes through the motions, and the meanings may be understood to some degree, but the deeper Shinto ideals and traditions come in tandem in a quietly reverent and unspoken fashion. At the end of the day, the people have come together for one reason above all, even the observance of a certain tradition: to have a good time.

Matsuri are a special time when people of all types, young and old, male and female, kick up their heels in happy celebration. Yet almost none of these people have the slightest knowledge of the festival’s or the origin of the deity being honored. As for the underlying Shintô doctrines, no one would be so gauche as to inquire about such a thing

Soho Machida, “Resurrecting the Spirit of Matsuri

Without fun, without a sense of enjoyment coming from the matsuri, the community that it creates will break apart without fail, regardless of whatever  spiritual meaning is attached to the event. This is what I truly consider to be the heart the matsuri.

Getting the Gang Together

It was a matsuri that began my first weekend in Kiryu, and it was there that I felt welcomed into the community by attending. I met with many of the my new ALT peers, and I finally got to try common Japanese festival foods like takoyaki and okonomiyaki. I got to know Kiryu as I traveled back and forth from home to the matsuri for three days. And, most of all, I was able to get involved in the community, especially through the circles of yagibushi dancers.

All throughout the city, people were doing this dance around large towers erected in the intersections, and I joined in on the first night, undeterred by my own ignorance of technique. In return, I was brought into the community through the help of the kind old lady in front of me, who counted with the music and exaggerated her movements so I could more easily find the rhythm.

A simple lantern display from the Kiryu Matsuri, August 2018

There we stood, a six-foot tall blonde gaijin in a graphic t-shirt and a sweet old Japanese women, garbed in a yellow silk kimono. We may have come separately, but the dances and celebrations of the matsuri brought us together.

In a blog post on his website, The Jewish Community of Japan, David A. Kunin, an American rabbi living in Japan, drew the analogy to an American block party, “where everyone is enjoying himself or herself.”  When I read this, all of my feelings about matsuri were able to crystallize.

All the matsuri I had been to, and the feeling of belonging they carried with them, finally made sense in comparison to my own childhood in suburban America. Just as the neighborhood block party every June ushered in the start of summer for me and my friends, so too do the matsuri of Japan carry with it those same tidings for the children of each community. The fun breaks the routine but simultaneously maintains it as the next chapter begins, and while the methods of celebration may differ, there is but one constant:

Matsuri mean nothing without the people there to celebrate them.

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I’ve been meaning to write down my thoughts on matsuri since before I came to Japan, and I’m very pleased with how my thoughts came out in this first research piece. I hope you enjoyed my take on matsuri, because I certainly enjoyed preparing it for you!

If you could take the time to share this post with anybody, even one person, I would greatly appreciate it! Every little bit helps!

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Song of the Week

Memoirs of a Gaijin Playlist

“House Of The Rising Sun” by The Animals

I frequently use this song’s title as an affectionate nickname for Japan, especially when I’m talking with friends back home, and it felt all too appropriate to have this song as the one for my first research piece about Japanese culture. The fact that this song has its roots as a folk song only underscores it appropriateness for this week’s discussion of community and traditions. I won’t waste time talking about this song, since I think this song can stand on its own feet like it has for 50 years. Sit back and get lost in that house down in New Orleans.


If you would like to listen to this song or any of the other prior Songs of the Week, check out the Spotify Playlist linked above!

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