Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (114): Angels with dirty faces

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 17, 2010

PARENTS LIKE TO THINK of their children as little angels—until they misbehave. Then they’re more likely to think of them as little devils.

The parents of young boys in Chikugo, Fukuoka, however, set aside one day a year during the O-Bon holidays to turn their sons into demons and made a festival out of it. O-Bon is a Japanese Buddhist custom in which the spirits of departed ancestors return to the family altars once a year, usually in mid-August. The folks in Chikugo take that opportunity to present the Hisadomi Bonzunahiki, held this year on the 14th. Here’s what happens: they round up the imps, paint their bodies black, dress them in straw skirts called mino, and tie some more straw around their heads with the ends loose to resemble two horns. Then they have the lads march around town with a 400-kilogram rope 30 centimeters in diameter and 20 meters long. If that doesn’t keep them out of mischief during summer vacation, nothing will. There were about 50 this year, and they covered roughly 3.6 kilometers in between their start and finish at the Hisadomi Kumano Shinto shrine.

This didn’t start as a Shinto festival, but it’s become an event that reflects the intersection of Buddhism with Shinto throughout Japanese history. It dates from 1626, when the ceremony was conducted marking the completion of the main building at the Tokuzui-ji, a local Buddhist temple. There is the story of the Buddhist saint Nichiren using a rope to pull his mother out of hell, where she had fallen, and the parishioners mimed the act. The Bonzunahiki (Bon rope pull) didn’t become a regular event until 1643, however. It was revived after two straight years of severe plagues and bad harvests left many dead, especially children. It’s been held every year since then, and was designated an intangible cultural property of the prefecture in 1996.

The boys don the black and straw so they can play the part of the guardians of the boiling cauldrons of hell. It’s so hot down there they work without much clothing, and the soot from the fires blackens their bodies. (It’s a wonder the straw doesn’t catch on fire, too.) The idea was that they could pull the spirits of the dead up from the netherworld for consolation, if only during O-Bon.

Though it’s nominally a Shinto festival, the Buddhist origins of the Bonzunahiki haven’t been forgotten. The organizers make a new rope every year, and the process involves suspending the rope from a beam inside a building. The beam used is not in the shrine, but one in the Kan’non temple on the western corner of the shrine grounds instead.

All this probably flies over the boys’ heads. One fifth-grader participating for the first time said he thought it was a lot of fun to get painted black. They also surely enjoyed getting hosed down to wash off the gunk and the sweat after carrying the rope through town.

After all, it’s hotter than hell this time of year in Japan!

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3 Responses to “Matsuri da! (114): Angels with dirty faces”

  1. RMilner said

    These traditional celebrations are wonderful.

  2. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    Hi, wonderful omatsuri which I have not known about if not for this article – btw 400 kilometer rope is a bit too long….400 kilograms?

    I have a precious experience of participating in Sikinen Sengu at Ise Jingu in August, 1993, more precisely speaking, Okihiki (carrying Hinoki wood material through the Isuzu river by rope tied to a carrier). I could sneak in the session because of my relatives living there.

    I was literally burnt under August sun, but it is only once twenty years!
    2CSM: Thanks for pointing that out. I fixed it.

    – A.

  3. Roual Deetlefs said


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