Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (105): The festival for manly men

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 30, 2009

DESPITE THE INTENSE COMPETION that is often part of Shinto festivals, which can range from events resembling ad hoc sporting events to those that look like shrine-authorized street rumbles, few of the matsuri have a martial air. One exception is the yabusame festivals, during which archers mounted on galloping horses fire arrows at targets as they race by.

A manly man and his manly men

A manly man and his manly men

Another exception is the Lord Shingen Festival, one of the largest in Kofu, Yamanashi. That annual event is held in early April near the anniversary of that manly man’s death on the 12th. The event honors the life and times of the local daimyo, Shingen Takeda, who was quite the 16th century warlord and the city’s founder. He strutted his ruthless stuff during the bloody Warring States period in Japanese history, which means he didn’t fight by Marquis of Queensbury rules. He reached the top by knocking off his predecessor—his father—and then spent the rest of his 52 years war-gaming for real through various military campaigns.

We don’t know whether it was the genes or the Yamanashi water, but Shingen’s eldest son was a chip off the old block who plotted to accelerate his own succession. Dad, having traveled down that road himself, sensed what was afoot and had the lad confined to quarters. Number one son died under mysterious circumstances two years later. Perhaps he should have considered himself lucky. When Shingen discovered a similar plot by his cousin, he ordered the man to cut his belly open on the spot.

Shingen is sometimes referred to as The Tiger of Kai for his mastery of the battlefield, Kai being the name of his ‘hood in those days. But the daimyo had a sensitive side as well, and during his youth he was known for writing excellent poetry.

Kofu spares no effort to recreate his history in its 450-year time slip to those glorious days of yesteryear, when the warriors were brave, courageous, and bold manly men. Replicas of furinkazan, Lord Shingen’s personal flag, are hung throughout the town during the event. The festival is a two-day affair that kicks off with a parade featuring a brass band, musical performances, and a fireworks exhibition. There are also special readings for parents and children of folk tales in which Shingen plays a prominent role, and a lecture titled Takeda Shingen and His Times. The organizers offer a walking tour of local sites associated with the lord that passes through the remnants of the Takeda shrine. Visitors tuckered out after all that walking can relax free of charge at a local hot spring facility. And because the event takes place in early April, they can appreciate the beauty of the cherry blossoms at the former Shingen residence. Perhaps some of them are moved to write poetry of their own.

But the real fun begins on the second and final day. Around 11:00 a.m., twenty-four mounted horsemen wearing the battle dress of Takeda’s generals are joined at Takeda shrine by 1,600 local men dressed as samurai infantry in period costumes, as well as performers of the Shingen dance. They march through the center of Kofu bearing torches and hauling cannon on what is now called Heiwa-dori (Peace Street), just as the proudly non-pacific Shingen and his army did before pushing off for the Battle of Kawanakajima. Along the way, they meet up with a procession of wheeled floats. During the course of the parade, the mounted samurai gallop from Kofu City Hall to the train station. The entire procession stops by the old Takeda Shinto shrine to pray for victory. The festival’s climax occurs in a riverbed at Isawa Kawanakajima during a recreation of the 1561 battle in which Shingen defeated Uesugi Kenshin. The latter was known as the Dragon of Echigo, which suggests that he was a manly man as well, despite his defeat.


Stout-hearted lads they all must have been, but Lord Shingen was no shrinking violet it came to expressing his tender side. The historical archives of the University of Tokyo contain a written love pact signed by Shingen and Kosaka Masanobu, a boy of 16. As part of the love pledge—a samurai pre-nup?—the 22-year-old Shingen swears that he hasn’t and will not dally with another, specifically-named retainer. He also promises that he won’t harm the boy since his intent is a sexual relationship. (This information is derived from Gary Leupp’s Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan.)

Relationships of this sort were common among the manly samurai for several centuries, which presents an interesting parallel with ancient Greece. Some men even encouraged the practice, in part for the benefits that accrued to the younger partners, as they were supposedly given instruction in virtue and the appreciation of beauty. (Another possibility was that it was a workable justification for the seduction of a comely youth.) Thus, as in ancient Greece, the relationship combined the way of the warrior with cultural development. In contrast, some manly men claimed that the love for women caused men to become more feminine. (You could have fooled me, but then again a teenaged boy wouldn’t start bugging his patron to lift up the toilet seat and take out the trash.)

The famous Hagakure, the how-to book for samurai written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo in the early 18th century, even provides some advice for samurai man-boy love:

“A young man should test an older man for at least five years, and if he is assured of that person’s intentions, then he too should request the relationship… If the younger man can devote himself and get into the situation for five or six years then it will not be unsuitable.”

The Japanese term for this practice is wakashudo, sometimes shortened to shudo. Waka is the word for young, shu can sometimes mean companions, and do means way or path. The younger men in the relationship were called wakashu, while the older men were known as nenja. That word is composed of nen, which combines the senses of solicitude, desire, and attention, and one of the words for person.

Those familiar with things Japanese will have already picked up that this practice was thought to be a do, in the same way that budo is the way of the warrior. The same kanji also crops up in kendo, kyudo, judo, aikido, and even Shinto.

Kendo literally means the way of the sword. Perhaps wakashudo represented a different form of swordsmanship!

Afterwords: Some of the information on waksashudo came from this website. The creator asks that this form of citation be used: Andrew Calimach, World History of Male Love, “Homosexual Traditions”, The Beautiful Way of the Samurai, 2000. There you go. The site is well done and has links that are worth following, so I’ve added it to the right sidebar. The link to the Hagakure is already there.

The author of the first website suggests that the influence of Western Christian ideas conveyed through missionaries and after the Meiji Restoration, “a direct result of the opening of Japan carried out under the threat of American guns in 1854”, spelled the end of wakashudo. I’m not sure I agree. Some say that prostitution was outlawed for (ultimately) the same reasons, but men today interested in purchasing those services won’t have any trouble finding them. The same cannot be said of wakashudo, though men of any country today with means, power, and those sexual preferences are probably able to indulge themselves just as easily as Lord Shingen.

Update: My passing reference to yabusame drew some interest, and reader Tomojiro sent along this Youtube clip of a BBC report on the art/discipline. Give credit where credit is due: there’s a lot of worthwhile information and video, and it’s light on the snark. Thanks Tomojiro!

7 Responses to “Matsuri da! (105): The festival for manly men”

  1. Neither of these manly men were as manly as the manliest man, Oda Nobunaga.

  2. Nhatsu said

    Hi thanks for the post,
    Definitly would like to watch the Yabusame.
    Is there only one in fukuoka? like the one I found here:
    Or there is other locations?

  3. tomojiro said

    Yabusame are practiced all over Japan.There is a famous traditional horse mounting shooting school which name is Ogasawara-ryu.

    They have an english home page. You can check their yearly calendar and get information.

  4. tomojiro said

    Oh and a cool video about Yabusame from Youtube.

  5. Aki said

    I am renting a parking space near my condominium. Incidentally a guy who is renting the parking space next to mine is a yabusame archer. He told me that he and his father were performing yabusame in festivals throughout Japan. Perhaps he will appear in the yabusame performance tomorrow (May 3) in Shimogamo Jinjya shrine in Kyoto.

    I myself had been practicing Ogasawara-ryu archery, though I had learned only standing archery.

    By the way, the year of the battle in Kawanakajima was 1561, not 1551. Also, an accepted view on the battle would be that it ended in draw. Neither could win the battle, although, after the battle, both Shingen and Kenshin insisted that they had defeated the opponents.

  6. ampontan said

    Thanks Aki, I changed the date of the battle. I got the idea that Shingen won from Kofu PR!

  7. […] Japan’s festival for manly men. […]

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