Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (101): Let’s get naked and mosh!

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 22, 2008

ONE FASCINATING ASPECT of some traditional Japanese festivals is their evolution over time. In many cases, what we see today wasn’t the original menu of events the organizers and participants have handed down unchanged over the centuries. They started out on a smaller scale and incorporated additions over the years whenever they came up with a new idea.


An example of that type is the Hadakabo Matsuri, which is one of western Japan’s most famous roughneck/naked festivals. It’s held every year on the fourth Saturday in November—which was the 22nd this year—at the Hofu Tenman-gu of Hofu, Yamaguchi. That’s the same Shinto shrine that launders and gives away all those used hachimaki, a story you can find a few posts below this one.

“Hadakabo” is the combination of the words hadaka, or naked, and bo, or boy. The latter word is often appended as an endearment to boys’ names by their mothers. (I knew one mother who called her son Takeo “Take-bo” until the day she died.) It’s also the bo of Botchan (“Sonny”, “Junior”), the 1906 Soseki Natsume novel (which you can read in English here).

Of course these naked guys are not really naked—they’re only unclothed from the waist up. Otherwise, they wear traditional white trousers. Fireworks are set off at 6:00 p.m., and that’s the signal for roughly 5,000 of these hadakabo to swarm into the shrine’s main hall.

Once upon a time, that signal used to come from a cannon shot, but the more festive and less martial fireworks appeal to modern sensibilities. Still, the festival was first held in 1004—notice all those zeroes—so they couldn’t have used a cannon in the early days either.

The hadakabo slide a 500-kilogram (1,102 pound) mikoshi, in this case called an o-ajirokoshi (御網代輿), containing the spirit of Sugawara-no-Michizane, the enshrined deity at Hofu Tenman-gu, down a stone stairway with 58 steps. Then they lift and carry the mikoshi, lustily shouting, “Wasshoi, wasshoi, kyodai wasshoi”. (Kyodai means “brothers”, and wasshoi is what everyone in Japan shouts when they lug around a portable shrine.)

Touching the mikoshi is said variously to bring good fortune or to make wishes come true, so the guys let nothing stand in their way to get a piece of the action. And I do mean that literally—there’s a great mêlée of semi-naked masculine humanity pushing and shoving and hitting below the belt just to get close enough to the mikoshi to lay their hands on it. Imagine a rugby scrum multiplied by about 250.

Oddly enough, this part of the festival is a relatively modern addition. The story goes that the naked skirmishing started in the middle of the Edo period, which would place it sometime in the 18th century. The idea behind getting naked is that it enhances spiritual purification and makes it easier to atone for one’s sins. And the Japanese have never been genteel when it comes to competing for divine favors.

There are two explanations for the festival’s origins. The first is that it was held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the shrine’s founding, which made this year’s edition #1,005 in a consecutive series. The second is that it started as a welcoming ceremony for Sugawara-no-Michizane, who stopped off here on the way to Daizaifu in Fukuoka to take up a government position. Actually, it’s possible that both explanations are correct. Sugawara was named to the post in Kyushu in 901 and died in 904. Assuming that the facility was built on his death for his enshrinement, the first running of the festival could have combined the celebration of the centenary with a reenactment of the procession that welcomed him to Yamaguchi.

After the procession bumps its way down the stairs, the mikoshi is put on a carriage for transport to a special resting place about 2.5 kilometers (1.55 miles) away, where Michizane is said to have landed on his trip. Two other mikoshi are taken along during the parade.

There’s no better way to see what goes on than by watching this local television report. It’s only about a minute long, and you don’t need a translation because you already know everything they say.

Sliding down the stairs sure looks like fun!

One more delightful touch was added to the festival in later years. Before the hadakabo start duking it out, about 200 women carry the Tenjin Women’s Mikoshi along one of the streets in Hofu to the shrine starting at 1:30 p.m. Chanting a more ladylike, “Soiya, soiya” as they march, they’re accompanied by a group of 20 primary school girls, called umekko, who present them with flowers.

Now isn’t it a drag that the folks at Hofu couldn’t have been more consistent with this business about getting naked for the festivals? The women who carry their own mikoshi are fully clothed from neck to foot. Then again, if several hundred half-naked women were pushing and shoving each other for the chance to touch a mikoshi, you’d have probably heard about it long before now…if not gone to see it yourself!

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