Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (25) Gangsters, geisha, and Tokyo fishermen

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, June 7, 2007

ONCE THE PANDORA’S BOX of Japanese festivals is opened, there’s no telling what might pop out. Some of the surprises include sacred drinking contests, mudslinging, mikoshi wrecking, tug-of-war contests with ropes weighing tons (that require smaller ropes to pull them) and simulated sex acts.

During the Sanja Matsuri held by the Asakusa Shinto shrine in Tokyo’s shitamachi, or older working class area, geisha and the yakuza gangsters make rare festival appearances. It’s also taken for granted in Japan that when people get carried away with themselves, the constabulary will look the other way. This year, however, in an uncommon effort at festival crowd control, the police arrested festival participants—for a reason that might come as even more of a surprise.

Festival Origins

But first, the festival itself—the Sanja Matsuri is known nationwide as one of the big three of Japanese festival extravaganzas, and it attracts an estimated 1.5 million spectators for three days during the third weekend in May every year (the 18th, 19th, and 20th this year). It dates back roughly 13 centuries as an event to honor two fishermen–Hinokuma Hamanari and Hinokuma Takenari–who hauled up a statue of the goddess Kannon in their nets while fishing in the Sumida River in 628.

These two men worked with the local village leader Haji no Nakatomo to establish Senso-ji, a Buddhist temple, which was originally located in the third man’ s home. Senso-ji is now the oldest Buddhist temple in Japan. As was often the case in Japan, the temple complex for many years also included a Shinto shrine. It was spun off during the Meiji period to become the Asakusa shrine. The spirits of the three men are the shrine’s guardian deities, while the Kannon statue that was fished out of the river is now in the Senso-ji temple.

The Events

The activities start on Friday with a parade, called the Daigyoretsu, and includes a procession of floats carrying musicians playing the traditional festival melodies. When the procession reaches the shrine itself, there is a binzasara-mai performance, a traditional dance that incorporates prayers for an abundant harvest and the prosperity of one’s descendants. You know it has to be an ancient festival when fishermen working Tokyo’s Sumida River are honored and there are prayers for a good harvest. How long has it been since the people of Asakusa fished and farmed for a living? The dance is named after binzasara, a musical instrument made of white cedar strips strung together and played in a wave-like motion.

Things really start to heat up that night when six mikoshi from the most central neighborhoods of the area are paraded through the streets. They are carried on long wooden poles by men several sheets to the wind, cheered on by crowds in much the same state, and accompanied by taiko drumming and bamboo flutes.

It’s important to remember that these mikoshi are believed to house the spirit of the divinity, so in a sense they are mini mobile religious institutions carried on the backs of the believers.

The next day, a Saturday, mikoshi from each of Asakusa’s 44 neighborhood districts are brought to the shrine for a purification ceremony, after which they return for a tour of their own localities. After the last mikoshi leaves the shrine, at around 3:00 p.m., a local taiko group called the Nihon Taiko Dojo perform. Local geisha also give rare public performances on festival Saturdays and Sundays. (Geisha literally means “arts person”, and bona fide geisha are accomplished in such arts as traditional dance and music.)

Finally, on the last day, three mikoshi from the Asakusa shrine are taken out of the shrine grounds at 6:00 a.m. These mikoshi, which represent the two fishermen and the village leader, are quite large and weigh a ton each. Their annual jaunt includes a circuit of the shrine and temple grounds to honor the three men, a trip throughout the surrounding area, and a return to their storehouse at 8:00 p.m.

Relaxing the Rules

During a Japanese festival, the rules of civil society are relaxed, and the sheer spectacle of the event, the music, and—to be honest—the grog encourages participants and spectators alike to get rowdy. Everyone wants to participate, at least briefly, in carrying the mikoshi, and this sometimes leads to scuffling and shoving. It’s difficult to maneuver in those old and narrow streets to begin with, and when they’re packed with excited and inebriated people looking for an excuse to let off steam, it becomes impossible to move.

Complicating the situation is the belief that the greatest blessings will come to those people carrying the mikoshi in which the spirit of the divinity is strongest. And the carriers think there’s no better way of expressing this spirit than by vigorously rocking these portable shrines up and down and side to side as they carry them.

Yet another complicating factor is an old tradition during festivals that in the heat of the moment and under the influence of liquor, the people carrying the mikoshi sometimes “accidentally” smack into those shops and homes along the way that are occupied by people who have gotten on the bad side of the community for one reason or another.

To facilitate a smooth flow of people in the old streets of Akasaka and to prevent damage to local property, it has long been a custom for men to stand on top of the mikoshi to give instructions to the bearers. (They’re known as kashira, or literally, head.) This is ordinarily not allowed because the mikoshi is a sacred object housing the divinity, but an exception has been made because the practice became a tradition.

This is where the trouble starts. Some people are offended when people stand on the mikoshi—they consider it a sacrilege–but the people in charge overlook the offense because it has become a tradition and because of the necessity for directing traffic. But the excitement of the festival, the release of inhibitions, the consumption of alcohol, and desires to both show off and thumb one’s nose at authority means that everyone wants to get into the act. That causes some folks to let impulse get the better of their judgement and jump on the mikoshi with the kashira.

That causes two problems. First, it upsets those who really don’t want to see people standing on a mikoshi (it’s worse if the offenders are wearing shoes.) Second, these mikoshi are heavy. Carrying each one requires 40 people using four long poles tied together with ropes. This is too much of a load to handle during the course of the day, so in the end about 500 people will have helped in the heavy lifting.

Last year 16 people clambered aboard, with predicable results—the bearers collapsed under the weight. The poles broke, and the mikoshi slid to the ground, which was a desecration.

The Agreement

Therefore, the shrine’s festival organizers made all the neighborhood organizations sign a pledge that no one would mount the mikoshi this year. Extra police were brought in to maintain order.

So much for pledges–this year 20 people climbed on top, resulting in three arrests. One man was pinched for shoving and causing a disturbance, and the other two for purposely running into police officers. Shrine officials are so upset that they are considering eliminating this part of the festival altogether next year.

Of course, this is an understandable reaction—people could get hurt, and Japan is becoming a more litigious society, so the shrine officials and organizers want to protect public safety as well as limit their liability for lawsuits.

But others have wondered why it is necessary to arrest people at a festival for what is really just the act of climbing on a mikoshi and ignoring shouted instructions to dismount. Their view is that all the participants know that festivals are special occasions with relaxed rules, and that sometimes people can be injured or accidentally killed. (One high school student died last year in the heat of a mikoshi-wrecking festival in Saga Prefecture.)

The Yakuza Involvement

And that’s where the yakuza come in.

Writing in her weekly column in OhmyNews Japan, the “newspaper critic” Azusa Onogawa suggests the real reason for the arrests is to curtail yakuza participation.

The yakuza are usually not a visible presence at festivals, but the Sanja Matsuri is an exception. All the people who carry the mikoshi are required to wear a traditional happi coat bearing the symbol of their neighborhood. The symbol for the yakuza neighborhood is the character for gold inside a circle, so the local people know who’s who at a glance. Also, getting that excited and drunk can cause a man to break out in a sweat, so the coats are sometimes cast aside allowing the mikoshi riders to show off their elaborate tattoos.

In addition to refraining from standing on the mikoshi, another condition of the agreement the neighborhood associations were asked to sign was to make sure their happi coats stayed on. That certainly wasn’t included out of Japanese squeamishness—it was to make sure the yakuza tattoos stayed out of sight.

Still, yakuza jumping on mikoshi bare-chested at the Sanja Matsuri and showing off their bodily decorations has been going on for centuries. Why did it become necessary to arrest people this year?

Onogawa claims the reason is that the Yamaguchi-guni, Japan’s largest national gangster organization, absorbed the local Kokusui-kai group in August 2005. The Kokusui-kai (which means “national purity association”) were the yakuza controlling Tokyo’s Taito Ward, the location of the Asakusa shrine.

The Japanese know well that as far back as the Edo period, the yakuza groups used shrine or temple precinct boundaries to demarcate their own territory. Each group had the exclusive privilege to conduct their activities within that district, such as operating gambling establishments and conducting the usual shakedowns. (Also, the merchants who operate stalls selling food, refreshments, or souvenirs during the festival needed the approval of the local oyabun, or Godfather, to do business.)

Gangsters always have to protect their turf, however, and sometimes there’s more to it than brute strength. Another method used by the Kokusui-kai in this district over the years has been to increase their visibility by taking an active role in organizing and running the Sanja Matsuri. The Asakusa Shinto shrine turned a blind eye to their participation, in part because the yakuza helped keep order on the street during the festival. Even though the shrine has been cutting its informal ties to the gangsters and shifting the work of conducting the festival to more law-abiding citizens, they continued to let them carry the mikoshi and strip off their happi coats and climb on top during the parade.

This equilibrium became upset when the Yamaguchi-gumi took control of the Kokusui-kai. Now, it was no longer a matter of the local group wearing local colors at the festival. Instead, a national crime organization was displaying their emblem at one of the largest and most visible public events in the country. Standing on the mikoshi was now seen to be a proclamation of national dominance.

Onogawa says this was an affront to the police, who prevailed on the shrine management to prevent people from standing on the mikoshi and taking off the happi coats.

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of Onogawa’s article is not that yakuza are involved in the festival, or that there have been informal ties over the years between the gangsters and Japanese religious institutions. Rather, Onogawa directs her censure at Japan’s newspapers for not mentioning the yakuza element in the stories that appeared on the arrests this year. She thinks the real situation should be obvious to the reporters, and she chastises them for their vanity and stupidity in failing to include it in their coverage.

In a refrain that’s familiar to readers of Western blogs, Onogawa says that by failing to include essential and interesting information in their stories, newspapers have only themselves to blame for plummeting readership totals.

Didn’t I tell you? Once the Pandora’s Box of Japanese festivals is opened, there’s no telling what might pop out!

Note: For some excellent photos of the festival try this page. The English description is not so easy to follow, however.

One Response to “Matsuri da! (25) Gangsters, geisha, and Tokyo fishermen”

  1. roaf said

    Interesting article! I went to the Sanja matsuri a couple of years ago and distinctly remember the half-naked tattooed yakuzas hanging off the mikoshi.

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