Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (107): Burning the old biddy

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 28, 2009

MANY JAPANESE FESTIVALS are held to pray for a bountiful harvest, but the parishioners of the Junisho Shinto shrine of Toyo’oka in Hyogo have an unusual way of going about it—they burn a straw effigy of an old woman. Scoff if you must, but there must be something to be said for its effectiveness. They’ve been doing it for almost 800 years now.


But let’s start at the beginning, even though Japanese history is such a continuum that it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint either the beginning or the end. For the purposes of the story, however, let’s point the pin at the Gotoba Tenno (emperor), number 82 in line if you’re counting. His name is also written Go-Toba.

He ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne at the age of three and reigned until the age of 18, when he was forced to abdicate by the first of the Kamakura shoguns. But he was a persistent man, and he placed his two sons on the throne to succeed him, first Tsuchimikado and then Juntoku. But the Kamakura shogun was just as persistent, and he kicked both of them out too.

Tsuchimikado and Juntoku had different mothers, incidentally, neither of whom was the official empress. In fact, Gotoba supposedly had 18 children by 11 different women, mostly court ladies, though some were the daughters of priests, some were dancing girls, some were probably both, and several were of the Fujiwara family, who frequently became the wives or consorts of tenno in those days. Both the official empress Gishumon-in and Juntoku’s mother were Fujiwaras, but Gishumon-in gave birth to only one daughter, who never married. The daughter eventually became Juntoku’s adoptive mother, which sounds as if there’s plenty more story where that came from, but it’s time to get back on the main line here.

So while Gotoba lived a life of wealth and leisure in a palace, dallying with the court ladies and writing waka, he understandably nursed a grudge. Meanwhile, the murder of the third Kamakura shogun, Minamoto no Sanetomo, created turmoil in the realm. The last straw, so to speak, came when the new Kamakura powers put Juntoku’s son (Gotoba’s grandson) on the throne, the Chukyo Tenno, who was just two years old at the time. (His reign lasted only a few months, and he wasn’t recognized as being part of the official lineage until 1870, but it’s time to get back on the main line again.)

Gotoba decided that was more than enough for any man to put up with, even a poet with a harem, so he mounted a military campaign to restore authority to the Kyoto court. The campaign became known as the Jokyu Disturbance of 1221. The widow of the murdered shogun convinced most of the Kansai samurai that they would lose their special status if there was a regime change, however, so they fought on the shogunate’s side and won.

Instead of lopping off Gotoba’s head, they exiled him to Tajima in the Oki Islands, which are part of Shimane (as are the islets of Takeshima, but there I go again). In his post-Imperial career on the islands, Gotoba became devoted to waka poetry. He ordered the compilation of the Shin Kokinshu (The New Anthology of Ancient and Modern Waka), one of three major waka anthologies with the Manyoshu and the Kokin Wakashu, and served as an editor. He also became a well-known waka critic.

Meanwhile, back on the mainland, the Shogunate exiled his fourth son, Masanari (who had the same mother as Juntoku), to this elegant life of exile, most likely to prevent any more so-called disturbances. Masanari’s wife was pregnant at the time and didn’t follow him until after their child was born. It was a difficult childbirth, however, and she made the trip in poor physical condition. Along the way, she asked an old woman for directions–who sent her down the wrong road on purpose.

It took the poor woman so far out of her way—to Toyo’oka, in fact—that she lost hope of ever reaching her destination and threw herself into the Maruyama River and drowned.

And that’s how the festival started: twelve nearby Shinto shrines gave comfort to her spirit by burning the old woman in effigy on the banks of the Maruyama, a custom that continues to the present. They make a tower of straw and bamboo, erect a pine tree on top, tie a straw doll to the tree to represent the woman, and torch it.

The festival is officially known as the Oto Matsuri, but it’s popularly called the Babayaki Matsuri, and if you can think of a better translation than the Festival for Burning the Old Biddy, I’m all ears.

Ah, one last part. The matsuri is not just to pray for a good harvest—it’s also to drive away harmful insects! If you want to bring some matches to help and to have fantasies about your mother-in-law, the festival is held in mid-April.

One Response to “Matsuri da! (107): Burning the old biddy”

  1. akagenoan said

    This made me chuckle, I gotta admit. It’s stories like what happened to that poor woman that make me grateful for the modern wonders of Google Maps

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