AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (115): Rebirth

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 29, 2011

LIFESTYLE Luddites sporadically surface with the lament that globalization is holding a knife to the throat of indigenous cultures. Because cultures are less fragile and more resilient than they understand, however, this posture is really just a stalking horse for an unwillingness to allow the people of a particular place access to the same choices that globalization has allowed them. When the folk shed their colorful traditional garb for Western dress and develop a taste for musical styles other than those that rocked the world of their grandparents, it spoils the experience of enjoying them from afar, away from all the flies and the dysentery.

A look at the Japanese and their simultaneous embrace of their own traditions and the latest in global fashionability should be enough to improve anyone’s posture. The urban youth are just as likely as their fellows anywhere else to wear ugly untucked t-shirts, eat gloop, and listen to the unlistenable, but they are also just as likely to time slip without warning several centuries into the past to savor the celebrations of the ancients.

Earlier this month, for example, the Chokaisan Omonoimi Shinto shrine in the Fukura district of Yuza-machi, Yamagata — which dates from 871 at the latest — held its annual festival in supplication for a bountiful harvest. The event has several elements, including parades with three different mikoshi, or portable shrines. One of the mikoshi is for children, and another is in the shape of a ship that the carriers toss about to depict a sea voyage. The primary attraction, however, is the Hanagasa dance, or Fukura dengaku, a pre-planting rite. The dancers don headdresses with red decorations representing rice blossoms that rival anything worn by Carmen Miranda at the peak of her Hollywood career. Suspended from the brim are strips of paper called shide that represent the rain. Instead of castinets they provide clatter with an instrument called a sasara that for some reason is said to symbolize the croaking of frogs. At the end of their performance, the dancers toss the hats into the audience, and snatching one is supposed to guarantee good luck in the coming year. Anyone who’s been in the midst of a crowd in Japan during similar events knows the wisest course of action is to dive right in and grab one of your own. That’s beats being shoved roughly out of the way with an elbow to the ribs by somebody’s grandmother.

Though the festival dates from sometime in the Muromachi period, which ran from 1338 to 1573, and was designated an intangible prefectural cultural treasure in 1993, a look at this YouTube video featuring all the highlights is enough to see this isn’t a museum piece frozen in the aspic of the past.

In October 2007, the Yamagatans went on the road to Seoul to perform with other Japanese and Korean groups in the Japan-South Korea Exchange Festival, which you can see and read about here.

Teramachi Ichiza

Another of the benefits of globalization in Japan is the unexpected delights that result from all the mixing and mingling. One of the earliest manifestations of that was the chin-don bands, in which musicians dress in fanciful clothing to perform as a living jukebox stacked with global pop music on instruments both Japanese and Western, usually to advertise local shops. There are several excellent examples on-site that can be accessed at the tag below, but here’s another — Teramachi Ichiza from Iwate. The group, which usually works the Tohoku area, has won awards at national chin-don competitions for its performances. The members live in the mountainous part of the prefecture away from the coast, so they weren’t affected by the earthquake/tsunami, but they decided to suspend their activities after the disaster anyway in the spirit of self-restraint.

In the spirit of rebirth, however, they resumed performing in the Iwate city of Ofunato in the coastal area known as Goishi Kaigan at an event designed to buck up everyone’s spirits. (Enka megastar Sen Masao, an Iwate native, also sang.) The members of Teramachi Ichiza decided to bring their axes and blow because it had been 49 days after the earthquake. The 49-day Buddhist period of mourning originates in the Tibetan concept of bardo, the transitional period between one’s previous life and the consciousness’s entry into the life to come. Doesn’t that joyful noise contain an echo of the second line parade of brass bands in New Orleans switching from a dirge to jazz once they depart the cemetery after a funeral?

The chin-don band’s performance at Ofunato doesn’t seem to have been recorded, but their performance at the Miyako Horsehair Crab Festival in Iwate this February was.

This is what happened to Miyako one month later:

But destruction is not a permanent end. Doubters need only look to a small story at a park in a community center in the Kaminiida district of Yonezawa, Yamagata. A 300-year-old cherry tree on the center grounds collapsed last winter in the heavy snows. Before the deadwood could be cleared away in the spring, however, center director Nagaoka Takao spied shoots sprouting from the old trunk. He watered them with a PET bottle for the next two months. When cherry season arrived in the Tohoku region, so did the blossoms on the fallen tree.

Cultures included, we are all less fragile and more resilient than we sometimes think.

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*****
The song, the scene, and the band’s name — they get it, too.

One Response to “Matsuri da! (115): Rebirth”

  1. Andrew in Ezo said

    O.T. but curious: current crop of article ledes from the NYT:
    In Japan, a Culture That Promotes Nuclear Dependency
    Japan Appears Dispensable as a Supplier
    Japan Tries to Ease Fury of Parents Near Plant
    Japan Faulted on Tsunami Readiness
    the kicker:
    Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Multimedia
    Videos, photographs and interactive features documenting the destruction in Japan after a powerful earthquake and tsunami “devastated the country” on March 11. (quotes mine)

    Notice a pattern? Nothing positive. Does the NYT really have an agenda?? And the last one really is annoying- would any newspaper describe the tornadoes that hit the southeast US as “devastating the country”, as in the WHOLE country? I think not.
    —————
    AIE: Thanks for the note. It certainly seems they have an agenda. I’ve heard stories that their correspondent during the Abe administration sometimes used Debito as a source, which in itself is worth a page full of rolling eye icons. Most of their stories are grotesquely negative. I’ve read a couple by Martin Fackler that talked up the DPJ government, and showed an utter lack of awareness of what was actually happening. (I would be willing to bet cash money he was spoonfed the articles.) Refer again to the original Anti-Nipponism story for my thoughts on this. (Clicking the tags should bring it up.)

    – A.

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