Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (93): How’s the weather up there?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, July 20, 2008

WHAT THE DICKENS is that nearly-naked man doing in the tree—playing Tarzan? Well, anything can happen at a Japanese festival, so it’s not entirely out of the question. But no, he’s not swinging on vines from tree to tree looking for Jane.

Actually, he’s forecasting the weather!

Don’t laugh—the technique he’s using has sometimes been more accurate than the Weather Bureau’s predictions.

What he’s doing is called the Hata-Age, or Flag (pennant) Raising. That’s part of the festival conducted on 15 July by the Ayabe Hachiman Shinto Shrine in Miyaki-cho, a town of 9,000 in Saga.

During this part of the festival, three young men clad in loincloths skinny up a 20-meter gingko tree on the shrine grounds. When they’ve climbed as high as they can go, they tie an 18-meter length of bamboo to the trunk. Stuck on the end of the bamboo is a pennant made of flax.

The chief priest will observe how the pennant is tossed by the wind twice a day until 24 September, the date of the Hata-Oroshi, or Flag Lowering. Based on the condition of the flag and how it curls on a particular day, the priest is supposedly able to predict the crop and the weather for that season.

Dating to 951, this method is said to be the oldest weather forecasting system in Japan. The shrine hasn’t always used the same gingko tree, however—the one they hang the flag on now is only 700 years old.

So far this year, the flapping of the flag indicates that area farmers will enjoy their best crop in more than 10 years. The priest thinks the early end of the rainy season has something to do with that.

The priest insists the forecasting technique works. Before you’re tempted to dismiss this as superstitious nonsense, however, you should realize that a study conducted by Saga University backs him up.

Miyaki-cho is located in the valley of a mountain range, and the wind blows straight through the valley between the Ariake Sea in the southeast and the Tsushima Strait in the northwest. The university study confirmed there is a cause and effect relationship between the wind and local meteorological conditions, and that careful observation of the flag can identify those conditions.

In 1993, the Fukuoka District Meteorological Observatory predicted a hot August with mostly sunny days. The priest at the shrine begged to differ. After observing the flag, he predicted there would be many cloudy days and frequent rain—and he nailed it. In fact, the heavy rains that month caused a lot of damage.

It will come as no surprise that the wind divinity is the tutelary deity of the shrine.

Now you know why the Japanese are so interested in the Divine Wind. And they’ve been keeping a trained eye on it for a long time!

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