Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da (12): Fighting at festivals can be fun!

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, March 31, 2007

It might be a citywide extravaganza held over two or three days, or just a small neighborhood affair lasting a few hours, but every day in Japan, there’s a festival happening somewhere. Most are Shinto ceremonies that originated in a religious observance, but they often incorporate behavior that seems downright unreligious: drinking, sex, and fighting.

One of the most common themes of the so-called fighting festivals is a physical confrontation between two groups carrying mikoshi, or portable shrines, which are said to house the spirit of the divinity. The idea of the fight is for one group to wield its mikoshi as a weapon and destroy that of the other group. The winner is considered to have been blessed with the stronger spirit and will enjoy good fortune in the year ahead.


There are gospel singers in the United States who give such an impassioned performance they’re known figuratively as church wreckers. In Japan they take that literally. Years ago, the battles at festials were so intense that they sometimes resulted in fatalities. If fact, a high school student in Saga Prefecture died just last year (by accident) in a fighting festival whose objective was not only to destroy the other mikoshi, but to drive the other group into the river.

Every year, for more than 300 years, the Gosha shrine in Toyo-cho, Kochi Prefecture, has held a day-long festival in late April in which the participants fight it out with both mikoshi and with festival floats decorated with lanterns (first photo). They get an early start, parade around town, and then get down and dirty in front of the shrine itself. It would be as if two men tried to bash each other with four-foot long crucifixes in front of a church after the bishop gave them his blessing.

The city fathers have canceled this year’s festival, however, because they’re worried that once the participants start fighting, they may not want to stop. Toyo-cho’s chief municipal officer formally applied to have the town become the site of a nuclear waste disposal facility. This so enraged one segment of the town’s population that they launched a recall drive.

The authorities’ logic for sitting it out this year is that because people will be drinking (and since this is a Japanese festival, they will be drinking a lot), they’re afraid some serious headbanging will be ignited by the Shinto-sanctioned mikoshi busting.

That’s created a further division in the town, with opinion split between those who think that their enjoyment of a traditional festival by drinking and fighting doesn’t have anything to do with nuclear wastes, and those who’d rather be safe than sorry.

Frankly, I’m surprised the folks in Toyo-cho couldn’t come up with a better solution. For example, they might have gotten inspiration from the festival held every March 28 in Dongguang in Guangdong Province, China. (And no, I don’t mean they should play palindromes with place names and rechristen themselves Yoto-cho).

The festival in Dongguang dates back more than 400 years and originates in the practice of local farmers soliciting strong young men every year to work in the fields. The Japanese translation of the original Chinese name of the event is the Miuri Matsuri, which I wonder about, because miuri means selling oneself into bondage.


That doesn’t sound very festive to me, but you’ve got to hand it to the Dongguangers for taking the idea and running with it. The event has evolved over the years, and now, for some unexplained reason, the entire city takes the day off, school children included, to engage in combat with water guns (second photo). Who knows how they got from there to here? They’re probably having too much fun to care anyway!

Reports say that weapons of various sizes are used, and there is always a very impressive running battle up and down one street that stretches for several kilometers.

Now if the pro-nuclear processing facility faction and the opposing faction in Toyo-cho had decided to settle their differences at thirty paces with a squirt gun, perhaps they wouldn’t have had to go to the trouble of circulating a recall position. Then again, the mayor might have called out the fire truck to outgun the opposition.

But they didn’t even have to look so far to China for inspiration—they could have taken a hint from the Mudslinging Festival held every March 28 in Asakura, Fukuoka Prefecture (third photo).


Every year, a “substitute priest” is selected by lot from among the families patronizing the Aso Shrine in the city. The townspeople dress the substitute in white robes and get him as drunk as a lord (or a Buddhist monk) by making him down five large cups of sake. After the “priest” is suitably sloshed, he is blindfolded and made to walk a 500-meter course from the shrine to the statue of a local guardian deity.

Getting him drunk and blindfolded is a good idea, because that way he can’t see what’s about to happen, and probably wouldn’t care if he could. Boys aged 10-12 line the path and pelt him with mud from small piles conveniently placed alongside the road. The adult onlookers egg the boys on, shouting, “Can you hit him? Can you hit him?” No one cares very much whether the boys have good aim–everyone’s covered in mud when the festival is over. And if they’ve been helping themselves to the sake they forced the priest to drink, the whole lot of them are equally plastered, inside and out.

Legend has it that the more mud that sticks to the priest’s white clothing, the better that year’s harvest will be. The festival has been conducted continuously since the Edo period, and has been designated an intangible cultural asset of the prefecture.

Now is that any way to run a religion? Getting people drunk and having boys of an impressionable age throw mud at a priest–substitute or not–and giving it the official government seal of approval as a cultural event? It is in Japan.

You’ve got to admit, nuclear controversy or no nuclear controversy, they sure are a bunch of wet blankets in Toyo-cho! They could rig the lottery (instead of an election) and select the mayor as the substitute priest. The town could take its frustration out on hizzoner and bombard him with flying mud. It also would be educational for the mayor, as he’d discover you don’t have to be a politician to be a mudslinger. And after five big cups of sake—probably the size of soup bowls, knowing Japan—he wouldn’t care what was happening to him anyway.

Or they could have formed a sister-city relationship with Dongguang and sent international exchange delegations packing water pistols to each other’s municipality. That would probably contribute more to amity between nations than any of the tame international friendship tea parties I’ve been to. They’d be laughing themselves silly at the end of the day.

Instead, the people of Toyo-cho are going to have to wait until fall for their festival fun when they have their annual sword dancing festival, which uses long bamboo poles instead of swords. I hope they’ve worked out their political problems by then, or they’re going to have to cancel that one, too!

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