AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (62): Asking for rain–and getting it!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 28, 2007

RAIN DANCES aren’t just performed in TV reruns of old Westerns—they’re still part of the annual festival at the Takinomiya Shinto shrine in Ayagawa-cho, Kagawa Prefecture, held every year in late August. The Japanese aren’t dancing to make rain, however. They’re offering their thanks to celebrate the rains that came after a politician interceded with the divinities on behalf of local farmers more than a millennium ago.

The story begins in 888 in Kagawa, then known as Sanuki Province. The area was stricken by drought, so local governor Sugawara no Michizane asked the people to fast and the local Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples to conduct amagoi, or special prayers for rain.

After the skies remained uncloudy all day for several days, the governor took matters into his own hands by clasping them together and beginning a seven-day prayer vigil. Exactly a week later, there was a doshaburi that lasted for three days and nights. (Doshaburi means to rain earth and sand, which is what the Japanese say when it rains cats and dogs.)

The elated farmers rushed to the Takinomiya shrine to thank the divinities for the weather, praised the name of Michizane, and erupted into spontaneous dancing. It was so much fun they kept performing the dance every year, and now it has been designated an intangible cultural treasure of the nation.

Honen’s Addition

But it had already been an established custom for 300 years when the Buddhist monk Honen wandered through the area, watched the dances, and suggested the addition of some choreography. The new version took the form of a nembutsu odori, a Buddhist folk dance that also goes back more than a millennium. These dances are to express the joy of those who receive salvation by chanting the Buddha’s name.

Here’s yet another example of the Japanese taste for mixing and matching. Note that these are Buddhist dances performed at a Shinto shrine. This approach is a lot less contentious than the thou-shalt-have-no-other-God/Allah-before-me attitude of religions in the rest of the world.

The Event

This year’s performance included the Sakamoto nembutsu odori, a similar dance from nearby Marugame, for the first time in three years. In fact, the more stately Sakamoto dance was the first one performed at 5:50 p.m.

The dancers were preceded up the shrine’s main pathway by a group blowing on seashell trumpets. They were followed by the livelier main attraction, as jimbaori– and hakama-clad performers arrived, some carrying umbrellas, and others carrying the flat fans called uchiwa, larger than the usual variety at 60 centimeters (almost two feet). The musical accompaniment was provided by taiko drums, bells, and flutes.

It was unfortunate that this year’s festival happened to coincide with a dry spell, so it was not appropriate to perform a dance of thanksgiving for rain when none had actually fallen. Discretion and restraint being highly esteemed in Japan, the performers decided to tone down the intensity level this time around.

Historical Connections

It sometimes seems as if everything in Japan is connected with everything else in a sort of Nihon-wide web of culture and history, and this festival is an excellent example. Sanuki Province Governor Sugawara no Michizane belonged to a family instrumental in bringing Chinese culture to Japan, and was the most important poet writing in the Chinese language in the country at the time. His anthologies of Chinese poetry have survived to the present.

Michizane later became an influential member of the Imperial court. Known as the patron of learning, he died in Dazaifu, in Fukuoka Prefecture, and he is the tutelary deity in the Dazaifu Tenmangu (another Shinto shrine) built to honor him. It is packed with students studying for entrance examinations every year. Michizane prayed for rain, and the divinities granted his request, so naturally it makes sense to ask his spirit for a little extra help on the tests. Besides, amphetamine-fueled all-nighters aren’t good for the health, and they aren’t effective for boosting test scores, either.

Meanwhile, Honen was a leading figure of Japanese Buddhism in his time. He was the founder of the Jodo, or Pure Land sect, which still exists today.

Begone!

Ironically, both were exiles. Court intrigue landed Michizane into hot water, and he wound up being banished to Kyushu, where he spent the rest of his days in poverty bemoaning the unfairness of it all. In fact, the Tenmangu shrine was built to placate his ghost, which some thought had returned to cause trouble for those who plotted against him.

Honen’s movement got him in hot water of his own with the Buddhist authorities, and he too was told to get lost. He was finally allowed to return to Kyoto a few months before his death.

Chinese Rainmaking

Michizane’s response to a drought was to cloister himself in prayer for a week. One wonders what the man so familiar with Chinese culture would have thought of contemporary Chinese rainmaking efforts. The leaders of China seem to have a predilection for controlling things the rest of us leave to nature, such the number of children in a family. It’s only short skip from there to controlling when and where it rains, as this brief article describes. The author seems a little too impressed with the authoritarian hubris of the Chinese for his own good.

Far be it from me to suggest that superstition is superior to science, but the worship of the latter often creates a different set of unforeseen problems. It’s an interesting contrast. Michizane lifted his face to the sky in supplication for rain, but the new mandarins hire the peasantry to lift anti-aircraft weapons and rocket launchers instead.

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