Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (130): Wishes, thanks, and fights

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 8, 2012

ONE of the elegant customs of a Japanese summer is the Tanabata festivals, which are held throughout the country on the 7th. The custom originated as a combination of Chinese and Japanese traditions. An ancient Chinese legend had it that the Weaver Star (Vega) and the Cowherd Star (Altair) were celestial lovers who could meet but once a year on the seventh night of the seventh lunar month. This became merged with a Japanese legend about the celestial weaving maiden Tanabatatsume, who made clothing for the gods. The festival was once upon a time observed by the Imperial Court.

Most of the modern Tanabata festivals include a display of bamboo branches hung with strips of colored paper and other ornaments. People write their wishes or romantic requests on the paper before hanging them on the bamboo. These branches are displayed in many places, including municipal offices or medical clinics.

But some of the festivals can be extravagant civic presentations. One was held in Sendai, the unofficial Tohoku capital, on Monday. In a region still recovering from the 11 March 2011 disaster, the theme of this year’s festival was wishes, hopes, and thanks. About two million people showed up, many of whom wrote and hung their wishes on 3,000 bamboo poles at 40 locations throughout the city. Here’s what part of it looked like.

The city of Rikuzentakata in Iwate has a similar festival, but theirs is smaller. One reason is that it’s not as big as Sendai. Another is that much of the city was washed away in last year’s tsunami, including some of the floats. And finally, staging the festival required that they work around the debris that hasn’t been incinerated or otherwise disposed.

But there’s more to the story. With a Japanese festival, there’s always more to the story.

In addition to the decorative float parade, they have what’s called the Kenka Tanabata, or Fighting Tanabata. The primary attraction at many matsuri is physical competition. Some involve teams, with mikoshi (portable Shinto shrines) or floats used as part of the weaponry. The participants are dead serious and play to win. The original idea is that the divinities will have favored the winning team, whose neighborhood or group will then enjoy good fortune, good health, a good crop, or a good catch of fish in the coming year. That doesn’t seem to have been the original idea in Rikuzentakata, however.

The city had four fighting floats that were elaborately decorated behemoths. Two platform levels were built on the base of the four-ton bruisers, and children played flutes and taiko drums on one level during the parades. Sometime around 900 years ago, give or take a decade, the four main districts in the city built one each, and teams from each district pulled them on ropes through the city as part of the festivities.

But the floats were too large to pass each other side by side in the narrow city streets. So they did what comes naturally — they started having contests in which the two teams would ram their floats into each other. The team that tipped the front wheels of the other float into the air was the winner. As is often the custom with Japanese festivals, onlookers are free to join the fray spontaneously on the side of the team representing their neighborhood, or for any other reason they come up with in the excitement or the intoxication of the moment.

Last year, however, the tsunami washed away three of the four floats. The Rikuzentakatans had to console themselves with pulling the last remaining one through town with ropes. Tanabata in the city last year must have been a real drag.

This year, however, contributions from around the country enabled them to build a new float, which meant they could resume their 900-year-old tradition, demonstrate their civic pride, and celebrate their recovery by smashing into each other again!

Earlier this week, my RSS feed regurgitated another article from another journo pretender parading the phoney anthropomorphism of a weakened Japan slinking off the world’s stage. The gudgeon couldn’t even spit it out of his own cybermouth, but took the weasel path of passive-aggressive punditry by telling his unfortunate consumers that it was the observation of other people. You know the type. “Just sayin’.”

But ain’t nobody slinkin’ off nowhere in this country that I can see. At that same time that article appeared, the residents of a city that was almost flooded off the map were back parading among the rubble and float smashing with some help from the rest of the country.

Now, I could be wrong about the innate national resiliency (and really, the innate resiliency of all people everywhere).

But I don’t think so!

The climax of the Kenka Tanabata is staged at night and the floats are illuminated, but here’s a brief scene of what it looked like in the daytime a few years ago. It takes a few seconds for the sound to kick in.

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