Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (44): Bon odori and butt pinching

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 12, 2007

THIS WEEK IS O-BON SEASON IN JAPAN, and bon odori, or bon dancing, is a part of every midsummer festival. Women, often middle-aged and elderly, dance on platforms erected in the middle of the street or on open lots. People of all ages perform the dance during parades down Main Street, usually as part of a group from their place of employment—bank employees, school teachers, department store clerks…

It’s pleasant to watch, albeit rather tame. This style of dancing involves waving your arms in the air, swaying to and fro, and following a pattern of steps. No shaking of hips or smacking of lips—it’s all perfectly respectable.

But according to this article from the Daily Mainichi’s WaiWai, passing on information from the monthly magazine Cyzo, that wasn’t how it used to be in the old days. In a reversal of the usual trend, the now domesticated bon odori was once a much wilder affair. So wild, in fact, that it was banned as indecent.

Now doesn’t that pique your interest? It certainly piqued mine, so I had to find out more—in the spirit of strict scientific detachment for my matsuri studies, of course. I looked for some Japanese language sources on the Web and was surprised to discover there wasn’t a lot of information available on line about dirty O-Bon dancing. I did find out there was a common perception a century or so ago that bon odori was synonymous with an orgy. Apparently, the authorities banned it several times, starting in the Edo Period.

The lewd bon odori was not a problem in the cities, but rather in the rural areas. Living on the land is always a difficult proposition, and it’s even more difficult for young people looking for some excitement out of life. They had to work hard for little return and had few opportunities for socializing. In fact, early Japan had the custom of tsumadoi, in which women continued to live with their family after marriage. Their husbands paid them occasional conjugal visits. The women didn’t leave the household because they were needed for farm labor.

New Year’s and summer festivals were some of the few occasions young men and women living out in the country could meet each other, and the weather at New Year’s is not conducive to outdoor fun. Young people didn’t let their chance for summertime socializing go to waste, so bon odori in those days was just a quick prelude to finding a dark spot in the bushes.

That didn’t happen in the cities because it was much easier for people to mingle with the opposite sex. In fact, the custom of bon odori had died out entirely in the urban areas.

The WaiWai article notes that some customs from those days are still alive today in slightly altered form. One of these festivals is the Shineri Benten Tataki Jizo in Niigata Prefecture’s Uonuma. During this festival, held annually on June 30, a special area is set up in which any woman who enters is liable to be pinched, and any man who pinches a woman is likely to be whacked on the shoulders.

Golly, matsuri research sure does turn up a lot of fun facts!

Ah, so. I should have known. It turns out that the word shineri is derived from a combination of the words shiri, which are the buttocks, and tsuneru, which means to pinch. Tradition has it that the women who get pinched and the men who get whacked will have good fortune for the coming year. Sounds like a good excuse as any to me! By all accounts, things get a bit rambunctious during the night of the festival.

I’ll bet!

Of course I scouted around for some photos, and I found some, too. I’ve posted one here—still in keeping with a strict scientific detachment for matsuri research, of course. The children are sitting astride a shinten, which is the object at a Shinto shrine or festival in which the spirit of the divinity dwells. They dance around it during the festival.

I have to admit, if one is on a spiritual quest and looking for God, that’s as good a place to find him as any. And a lot better than most places!

Now doesn’t this religious ceremony seem to be a more pleasant way to spend a summer evening with your children than going to a church supper?

For a slide show of this year’s Shineri Benten, try this site in Japanese. If you can’t read it, click on the area with the gold lettering above where it says “new”.

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