Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (76): Putting a happy face on Sado

Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 31, 2008

IF ANY PLACE IN JAPAN is star-crossed, it just might be Sado Island. The country’s sixth largest island, located 22 miles from Niigata, Sado became the Japanese equivalent of Siberia during the Heian Period (794-1192). It was there the rulers in the Kyoto capital exiled political troublemakers, as well as poets, Buddhist monks, and even one Tenno (emperor).

The poet Hozumi no Asomioyu was the first to receive this punishment, finding himself on the slow boat to the island in 722 after criticizing the Tenno.

Rank did not have its privileges, however. One member of the Imperial house wound up on the short end of the Sado stick himself: Juntoku Tenno was dispatched to Sado after helping his father, the nominally retired Go-Toba Tenno, in an attempt to overthrow the Kamakura Shogunate during the Jokyu Disturbance of 1221. He lived there for 21 years, writing poetry criticism and the Kimpisho, a work on court ceremonial procedures. (His father, also a poetry lover, was sent to a different island.)

The last exile of a troublemaker to Sado occurred in 1700, almost 1,000 years after the first. But that was a century after gold had been discovered, which brought a different class of undesirables to the territory. The discovery did not create a gold rush for prospectors and prostitutes; the gold here was the property of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the people doing the digging and sifting were convicted criminals and the homeless. They were ill-treated drones in de facto slavery, and being sent to toil in the Shogun’s mines was another form of permanent exile.

When people weren’t being brought to Sado against their will, they were being taken away by force. Soga Hitomi was 19 years old when she and her mother were abducted by North Korean agents and taken to that country for a life of involuntary exile and teaching in the Japanese language and cultural education program it had set up for spies. That tells you all you need to know about the country’s desperate living conditions: the Japanese just have to overpay for underqualified foreigners to work as teaching assistants in their school system. Pyeongyang had to kidnap them.

It was in North Korea that Ms. Soga met and married Charles Jenkins, a deserter from the American army. They and their two children were eventually allowed to leave, and Mr. Jenkins finished serving out his time by spending a month in the brig. Now they’re all back in Sado—home for Soga Hitomi, exile of a more amenable sort for Mr. Jenkins.

This unpleasant history notwithstanding, the islanders enjoy themselves as much as any Japanese during their traditional festivals. One was held earlier this year at the Kobiei Shinto shrine. Called the Ta’asobi, or Playing in the Rice Paddy, it might be more accurate to describe it as the annual reenactment of a comic sketch based on the hardships of agricultural work. Many similar festivals are held throughout Japan before planting season arrives.

In the Sado City event, a mock rice paddy is set up in front of the shrine’s main hall. A small group of men mime the tasks carried out during the year, starting with the preparation of the paddy and ending with the planting of rice.

Their labors are complicated by the appearance of several other men impersonating moles and magpies, whose roles call for them to literally act their part and disrupt the men at work. They go so far as to paint the faces of the hapless farmers black, as you can see from the photo, and tie them to trees with ropes.

The festival is offered as a form of supplication for a good harvest in the fall. The zanier the moles and magpies behave, the louder the spectators cheer, and the better that year’s crop will be. The event originated about 160 years ago—life had become easier without the threat of exile or working in the mines—but was discontinued in the mid-1920s. The local residents (Sadomites?) restored it about 25 years ago.

Considering the history of the island, the best part of the festival might be that after the actors are untied from the trees, everyone is free to go home.

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