Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (102): The Imari Tontenton festival is a life and death affair

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 31, 2008

They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
– Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759

PEOPLE IN WESTERN COUNTRIES are losing the right to enjoy themselves by freely engaging in activities with an element of risk through the coincidental action of three groups: Those who resort to frivolous lawsuits to compensate for their avoidance of personal responsibility, the corporations and governmental bodies justifiably afraid of being held liable in those lawsuits by vacuum-brained jurors, and the nanny-state meddlers who hold us all hostage to their yearning for a make-believe, safe-as-milk world.

We’ve all read and been entertained by tales of wacky legal action. One website uses as example the man who won $50,000 from a company that makes basketball nets because he claimed the company was responsible for his teeth being caught in the net while dunking a ball. Mirable dictu, a jury believed him. One plaintiff not as lucky was the nudist who burned his feet after participating in a firewalk. He sued the man conducting the event, despite being warned in advance of the danger, but his suit was dismissed.

The legal feeding frenzy forces companies and local governments to protect themselves. This month in England, municipal authorities in Halesowen, West Midlands, ordered the local Rotary Club either to install a belt on Santa’s sleigh (which they sponsor) as he rides through town, or fork over an extra £200 in insurance premiums. The sleigh is towed by a Land Rover at a speed of 5 mph.

Some intrusive bureaucrats are even worse. Britain’s Department for Children, Schools and Families printed a leaflet for public distribution this year warning of the dangers of Christmas. The leaflet advises readers that 1,000 people are hurt by Christmas decorations annually–that killer tinsel again–and another thousand have to visit the hospital after accidents with Christmas trees. Perhaps there is some benefit in cautioning people about the proper use of sharp instruments when assembling toys or opening presents. But try to imagine what sort of government drone thought it would be an excellent idea to include in the leaflet the possibility that holiday dinner guests who have had too much to drink could “crash to the floor when they miss their seat at the dinner table”.

The following story makes clear, however, that Japan still seems to be immune from these bacilli. Do I have to tell you this story is about a festival? Hah! In fact, it’s about one of the three most famous fighting festivals in Japan.

That would be the Imari Tontenton festival held in late October every year. There’s a good reason it became a fighting festival—the participants disagreed over how to conduct the event and chose to settle their argument with a rumble on the city streets. They enjoyed themselves so much they turned it into an annual scrum.

In other words, the municipal authorities and the religious institutions of Imari have sanctioned—indeed, encouraged—symbolic citizen violence in public.



Imari once had two Shinto shrines in the same neighborhood that held their festivals on different days. One was the Kokitsu shrine, whose event was offered to ask the divinities for a bang-up harvest. The other was the Totoshima shrine, whose festival was conducted in supplication for an abundant catch of fish.

The story goes that the authorities ordered the two shrines in 1829 to hold their festivals on the same day. The organizers couldn’t agree on the order of the procession or the rules of conduct, but they did agree to settle it like men and fight with their festival floats under specific rules of engagement. The battle continued even after the two shrines merged with a third shrine in 1962.

Actually, that should be “battles” in the preceding sentence. The three-day festival starts with a parade of the two floats on the first day. As they march through town, the lifters chant “Chosanya”, which once upon a time meant, “We’re going to the Imperial court!” The street fighting lasts all three days, however. The first day’s fight card features one or two bouts, while as many as five can be held over the next two days. For the climax on the final day, they duke it out next to a river where the original festival is said to have been held.

Forcing the opponent into the river is not an issue because that’s where both teams are going to wind up. The point of this particular contest is to see who can climb out of the river first. If it’s the team with the float from the old Kokitsu shrine, that signifies a rich harvest. If it’s the team from the old Totoshima shrine, local dinner tables will be groaning from the weight of the fish caught over the course of the year.


Perhaps as a way to justify the jousting, the folks in Imari added another layer of symbolism to their festival fighting. The two sides square off to represent the competing lines of the Imperial household in the 14th century, referred to as the Northern and Southern dynasties. The Kokitsu shrine float is actually a mikoshi, or portable shrine containing the spirit of the divinity. It is supposed to represent the forces of Kusunoki Masashige. Meanwhile, the other float, known as a danjiri (the one with colorful decorations) represents the forces of Ashikaga Takauji. (You can read more about this complicated period of Japanese history here.)

This is no American Civil War battle reenactment in which fat old guys wear ill-fitting period costumes and goof around while pretending they know how to use a musket. The Japanese participants may not hit below the belt, but they are healthy, vigorous men who intend to win, and in this case winning means using enough strength to overturn another float weighing about 600 kilograms (1,322 lbs). In fact, when the two teams square off, one side challenges the other by chanting, “Kiwa-enka“, which is older local dialect for “Come on!”

The spectators get as caught up in the action as any soccer hooligan, and they’re probably just as liquored up too. As the two sides stare each other down, the crowd starts yelling “Aore, aore!” (Literally, that’s a command to quit screwing around and get on with it.) The leaders of the two teams are known as shogun, or military commander. The field generals wait for the right moment to launch their attack, which they signal by raising a flag. The danjiri team employs a taiko drum to whip up the martial spirit, beating it three times. The onomatopoetic representation of that drumbeat—ton-ten-ton—has become the name of the festival itself.

Dangerous fun

All Japanese grow up knowing that getting in the middle of some of the more masculine festivals can be dangerous business, so they assume that everyone is aware of the risk involved before signing up. They’ve been thrashing and bashing and pushing and shoving each other in the name of winning divine favor for more than a millennium, so the accidents that can and do happen are not a surprise.

The organizers of the Imari Tontenton Festival are no exception. The members of the fighting teams have to register in advance, at which time they are presumably warned once again. All the city’s ambulances are brought to the scene of the battle to deal promptly with injuries. After the winner of one bout has been determined, the two floats disengage to allow the wounded—including any spectators who jumped into the fray—to be treated and sent to the hospital if necessary. It is a tradition for the crowd to see off the departing ambulances with a round of applause. Those with minor wounds return to fight again.

In October 2006, those ambulances were needed. One 17-year-old onlooker got carried away by his emotions and joined in the pushing and shoving for the team that wound up losing. When their float was overturned, he was crushed underneath and killed. Another 22-year-old spectator who also dashed into the heat of battle to support the losing side received an injury to his spine, and newspaper reports say he still has difficulty walking. (They do not say whether he has been paralyzed from the waist down; either he hasn’t been, or the local newspapers prefer to use euphemisms.)

That was enough to give even the most intemperate of hotheads and diehard traditionalists pause, so the festival was suspended entirely in 2007. The organizers resumed the parade this year, but the suspension remained in force for the battles between the mikoshi and the danjiri.

Those of you who think it’s a good idea for Santa to buckle up his seat belt while being pulled at 5 mph in his sleigh might be surprised at what happened next.

Neither the high school boy nor the young man had registered in advance as participants—their involvement was on the spur of the moment. Therefore, when the surviving man sued the organizers and five officers for damages of 100 million yen ($US 1.1 million) and asked that they admit their negligence, the defendants balked at the latter demand. They countered that they weren’t negligent because the plaintiff hadn’t formally registered as a participant.

They were willing to provide financial compensation, but not for as much as the man demanded. The committee had 6.7 million yen in operating funds as of the end of October, so they also asked for financial contributions from the 3,600 households in the district where the battle takes place. The man will receive something, but it appears that the matter will be settled out of court for whatever amount the organizers can come up with.

And if you think that means the end of the festival, you might be surprised again.

Reports this week say that local citizens who want to resume the fights have formed the Association for Protecting the Traditional Culture of the Imari Tontenton Festival. They hope to create sentiment for reopening hostilities and plan to start a street corner petition campaign from January to April. They’ll submit the signatures they collect to the festival organizers, the Imari shrine, and the city.

The members of the association aren’t rubberneckers with a taste for bloodshed; they’re the men who actually do battle in the streets and the river.

One member said:

“We are deeply cognizant of the accident and understand the opinions that counsel prudence about resumption. But we want to do something to preserve the fight, which is an Imari tradition.”

Some people in this world are oh so anxious to rearrange everyone’s life—under their supervision, of course—to make sure it is as harmless as a closed safety pin under lock and key.

Meanwhile, some men in Imari know exactly what they want to do. They enjoy it and so do many of their friends and neighbors. They understand that they could wind up dead or maimed, but they’re willing to take that risk. The other folks who aren’t interested can mind their own business and not show up.

I’d sign their petition any time they ask.

Afterwords: There aren’t any good videos of the Tontenton Festival, but this YouTube offering, while called a video, is actually a slideshow put to music. It’s worth watching, however, and the second song might get you to thinking about having a nice glass of shochu mixed with hot water. Dig the ton-ten-ton drumbeat at the start.

Notice also the picture of the young father holding his young son in his arms toward the end of the video to watch. As I said, Japanese grow up knowing the dangers involved.

4 Responses to “Matsuri da! (102): The Imari Tontenton festival is a life and death affair”

  1. I could list many reason why various litigations have made people safer through product improvements etc. But I won’t. The reason is because I am so disgusted by the stories of idiots who get burned after spilling hot coffee on themselves and then these idiots decide to sue McDonald’s for negligience.

  2. ampontan said

    Mr. T: I understand the importance of litigation for product improvement. The point I was trying to make here is that the threat of litigation shouldn’t prevent people from engaging in voluntary activities. It’s about accepting responsibility for one’s life, as well as telling the nanny state to bugger off.

    I almost used the McDonald’s example, but some preliminary research on the web showed that the woman who sued had a point. The coffee was so hot she required skin grafts (and she was only a passenger, not a driver). McDonald’s had a history of serving coffee that was so hot it caused them many problems over a period of years. Despite the problems, they continued to serve extremely hot coffee without doing any research on how to resolve the problem.

  3. Bender said

    I don’t understand why so many Japanese are risk adverse, but when it comes to certain Matsuri events, they seem to take risks without much protection.

    BTW, the McDonald’s case is real, but the cat-microwave case is stuff of urban legend. So are many stupid tort cases you find floating around in the net or elsewhere.

  4. Bender said

    Looks like “risk averse” is the correct way to say it.

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