Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (111): Día de los Muertos

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 30, 2010

IN THE INTRODUCTION to the collection of his pieces written for The New Yorker magazine, Joseph Mitchell wrote that, directly or indirectly, most of his subjects had a strong element of what he called graveyard humor. He attributed that to his turn of mind, and to illustrate said that one of favorite artists was the Mexican illustrator and engraver José Guadalupe Posada:

The majority of the engravings were of animated skeletons mimicking living human beings engaged in many kinds of human activities, mimicking them and mocking them: a skeleton man on bended knee singing a love song to a skeleton woman, a skeleton man stepping into a confession box, skeletons at a wedding, skeletons at a funeral, skeletons making speeches, skeleton gentlemen in top hats, skeleton ladies in fashionable bonnets. I was astonished by these pictures, and what I found most astonishing about them was that all of them were humorous, even the most morbid of them.

Mitchell’s description of Posada immediately came to mind when I read about the Jaranpon Festival in Chichibu, Saitama, which was held this year on the night of 14 March. Jaranpon is the representation of the sounds of the music played at the festival on bells and drums. It’s also called the Soshiki Matsuri, or Funeral Festival.

That doesn’t sound like anyone’s idea of a good time, but by all accounts it’s more goofy than gloomy. Every year a mock funeral service is conducted for one of the local men, who is dressed in white funeral clothing and placed inside a coffin. Since few people are going to enjoy even a mock entombment before their time, they make things easier for the subject by giving him a bottle of sake.

This is a Japanese festival, and that means everyone is half in the bag already before he gets in the box. How are mourners supposed to have fun if they’re sober? They start drinking around six o’clock, and put him in the coffin about eight. The parishioners from the 75 households in the district turn this funereal festival into a party as a prelude for the local Suwa Shinto shrine’s spring festival. Preliminary events are often conducted the night before a major festival to invite the spirit of the divinity.

The scene is played to the hilt. There’s a funeral tablet on which is written the deceased’s name in the afterlife. One man plays the part of a Buddhist priest conducting the service. He recites a sutra that sounds real, but turns out to be nonsense on close listening. Musical accompaniment is provided by six assistants who ring the bells and beat the drums. Their priestly vestments are actually furoshiki arranged to look like robes. (Furoshiki are wrapping cloths that were originally used to hold one’s belongings when taking a bath, but are now used to transport all sorts of items. They can carry lunches and double as the tablecloth.)

When did the Jaranpon begin? No one knows for certain, though it’s generally attributed to the Edo period (1603-1868). They do think they know how it began, however. The area was suffering from plagues and no one knew what to do to stop them. Desperate, they tried human sacrifice. That worked.

The success presented the town with a conundrum. They had discovered the key to preventing plagues and disasters, but the reality of actually going through with it every year was too gruesome to contemplate. A happy compromise was reached by going through the motions of a human sacrifice with the only actual sacrifice being the townfolk’s sobriety. The choice of hair-legged old men as the victims rather than comely young virgins, as in other cultures, demonstrates the sagacity of the Japanese in these matters.

Marx supposedly said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Everyone should be glad he was right about something for a change—particularly the folks in Chichibu!


This isn’t Japan-related, but:

* It’s a matter of taste, of course, but many people consider Joseph Mitchell to have been the preeminent American writer of non-fiction. His collection of works from The New Yorker is called Up in the Old Hotel.

* For a sample of the work of José Guadalupe Posada, try here. His illustrations were the inspiration for the cover of the Ry Cooder album, Chicken Skin Music. If the folks in Chichibu know about him, they might well look upon him as a kindred spirit.

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