Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (110): Here, catch!

Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 22, 2010

SOME SHINTO FESTIVALS in Japan can have a surprisingly competitive aspect that makes it seem as if the participants are squaring off in a rough-and-tumble sporting event, either between individuals or between teams. The winners are thought to have been blessed with the spirit of the divinity, but in this case winning requires more pugnaciousness than prayer.

Some festivals can also have a strong sexual aspect, which involves phallic or yonic symbols and simulated sex.

Maku zo!

But the Osaijin-sai held at the Hirashio Kumano shrine in Sagae, Yamagata, on 28 February is the only one I know of that combines both of those elements in one observance, and has a third for good measure–Shinto priests tossing out goodies for the crowd, as happens at the Setsubun festivals of 2 February.

There’s no mystery about what the deal is right from the start. Parishioners from the neighborhood and representatives from the shrine get together to carve phallic representations out of pine. The objects are from 20 to 40 centimeters long (about eight to 16 inches), and they make 18 of them. These are called dankon-sama, with dankon literally meaning “male root”.

The priests conduct a Shinto rite at the shrine, during which the dankon-sama become infused with the divine spirit and are transformed into saijin-sama. Dressed in white robes, the priests and some parishioners take the objects at night to a mound about 500 meters to the east, known as Osaijin. They conduct a ritual of offering at the site, which represents the female.

Then one of the priests stands on top of the mound in front of the crowd and shouts, Maku zo! Maku means to sow or scatter seeds by hand, and yes, the idea of sowing wild oats occurred to me, too. He then tosses each of the objects into the crowd one by one. This is supposed to bring benefits to the people who come away with them, such as healthy children. (That’s not surprising considering what’s gone before.) What sets this ceremony apart is that no one just stands around letting other people catch one—a struggle ensues to gain possession of every one. Ask and ye shall receive isn’t part of the script here. Men have been known to fight over women before, but this is the first time I’ve seen them tussle over a phallic symbol.

The Hirashio Kumano shrine has been around for a quite a while now, as it was established in 721. This page is in Japanese, but it has five photographs of the site that are worth a look. The festival itself is a bit more modern, however–it dates back only about 700 years. If anyone knows how it started, they haven’t posted anything about it on the net.

Seeing is believing, they say, and you can see all the goings-on for yourself in this video that covers the high points in just over a minute. There’s some Japanese script, but if you’ve read this far, you already know what it says!

One Response to “Matsuri da! (110): Here, catch!”

  1. Michael said

    Sadly it appears that the video has been set private, it’s not accessible.
    Thanks for that, Michael. I fixed it.

    – A.

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