FOLK FESTIVALS AS A GATEWAY
TO JAPANESE CULTURE
by Nold Egenter
Japanese culture has remained something of a closed book to the Western observer.
That is perhaps chiefly due to the fact that Japanologists have mostly affected the
historical approach and have described those features of Japanese culture that have
emerged under continental influence, neglecting by comparison the traditional sources on
which the Japanese have drawn for centuries in modifying all borrowings from abroad.
A comparative study of Japanese festivals throws new light on the nature of the country's traditions and thus provides a better starting-point for understanding Japanese
However far we go back in man's history, and in whatever locality, we find that he
has always had his festivals. They are celebrated in all cultures, they are a phenomenon
that unites all peoples. Ethnography and cultural history reveal, moreover, that
festivals were never, and are not today, things of minor importance. They are of central
significance. This applies as much to the Roman festival calendar, to the famous
festivals of the great temples in ancient Greece, to Babylonia and Egypt, as to the
great festivals of modern India or Southeast Asia.
There are generally speaking two kinds of festivals, according to their origin. The
one kind is essentially traditional and can be traced back to events that are mostly
prehistoric. The others commemorate a historical happening. Where a date in history
is involved, the reason for rejoicing is usually apparent. In many cases the festival
will celebrate the founding of some union or community. It is a way of keeping an
important event alive and may be regarded as a traditional variant of historical
It is more difficult for us to understand traditional folk festivals that cannot
be traced to any known event. Who is to interpret the masked rites and revels that
take place each year in remote valleys, even if they belong to our own culture? Even
ethnographers are here often at a loss. They describe the customs, of course, and
try to explain the ideas that have prompted them. But their explanations are not
always convincing or final. The temptation is always present to posit "irrational"
and "primitive" motivations that are foreign to our own enlightened age.
It may well be, of course, that we find it difficult to understand these festivals
because our historically organized knowledge with its clearly defined disciplines,
its basic theories and methods is not really qualified to handle this material. How
are we to explain by historical methods a festival that is not historical in character?
In view of such questions Japan's festivals are worthy of study. They test the validity
of our methods, but they also open up a new path to the understanding of the customs
they form part of, a gateway to the traditional sources of Japanese culture.
The Religous Foundations
It is obvious that, if it is difficult, as we have said, to understand traditional
folk festivals even within our own European culture, it will be still more so
to analyse those of a different culture. One of the simplest approaches is via
the economy of the people concerned - the way a people gains its livelihood is a clue to
its way of thinking. This method seems to work wherever conditions are similar
to those prevailing in Europe, with a peasantry rooted in old local traditions
as a foundation for the higher culture of a small elite. The elite lives on trade and on dues, has wide cultural contacts and is usually aware of literary and artistic values.
This schematic pattern derived from the European situation can easily be transferred
to other cultures if they have a similar structure. Regarding religion: any religious
exercise that has a basis in history and contains ideas of an otherworld may be considered as a high form of religion and its rites as corresponding to European divine
services. Below it there is mostly a remnant of a primitive religion with traditional
rites based on popular beliefs (nature cults, fertility rites, etc.).
This European pattern, however, will not fit Japan. Although the social structure
there is similar, the application of this method leads to distortions that upset
the calculations of the Western observer. But these distortions are mostly due
to the Western approach!
Western Japanology, predominantly historical and philological in attitude, studies
the history of Japanese Buddhism and State Shinto and describes these religions
as constituent parts of a highly developed culture. Folklore has found a place in
Japanology only in quite recent times and the literature about it is relatively scanty.
In addition, even this folklore study has clung to European patterns. The cultic
practices of Japanese villages have therefore been allocated simply to the sector
of primitive customs and religions and interpreted in this light. But these interpretations have
been found to be open to question.
About the beginning of this century the early Japanologists, influenced by the European
religious research of the time, began to investigate the historical basis of State
Shinto. The unusual structure of Japanese mythology was noticed even at that stage.
It was found strange that in these myths the near and the far-off seem to be blended.
For instance, the gods originated in reeds, in an immediate environment of which
man has daily experience. Yet the creation of the world is explained by far-reaching
cosmological theses in terms of the genesis of heaven and earth.
The researchers of the day were even more surprised to find rites being practised
at the big historical shrines which were then regarded as particularly primitive,
as they had to do with natural objects such as trees, stones, mountains and rivers.
State Shinto therefore appeared as a peculiar mixture of historically based religion and
primitive nature belief.
As Japanologists, in their study of Japanese history, began to see State Shinto as
the primordial Japanese religion, they could not help but find it curious that, although
it had been closely connected to Buddhism for several hundred years through Ryobu-Shinto, it had never had any metaphysical system from the outset, and never clearly
developed one later in spite of its concrete borrowings from Buddhism (for instance
in the fields of art and architecture). The fact that State Shinto was a reIigion
in its own right and was able to hold its place beside Buddhism led to a quest for
the spiritual forces that must be present to support it. What power was immanent
in it that enabled it to remain for centuries the basis of the most important of
all Japanese institutions, the imperial house?
As Western knowledge of Shinto was extended, scholars became aware that the cults
of folk Shinto displayed very little of that spiritual awe that in the West characterizes
man's attitude to God. Japanese rituals were, on the contrary, very worldly, sometimes being ecstatic practices in which the deity was by no means seen as an absolute
and spiritual being enthroned in a far-off heaven. The divine was thought of very
often in terms of corporeal symbols which could be constructed, burnt or carried
To the outsider it has remained a remarkable fact that Japanese life is transfused
by two quite different religions. Together with certain other incongruities that
make Japanese culture difficult of access to those equipped with a European conception of culture (in art, for instance, the relationship of influences from the continent
to their Japanese variants, the riddle of the specific Japanese style), this dichotomy
has helped to increase the mystification which is still very much in evidence in the Western picture of Japan. In spite of these discrepancies, however, Western
Shinto research remained true in essentials to its original view that Shinto had
developed out of an underlying nature and spirit cult, out of ancestor worship
and mythological ideas, as a dictionary of Japanology claims. It is difficult, from
this angle, to understand the institutionalized and even political character of Shinto.
Yet this character has always existed and is displayed in the force with which the
(clans) of the Yamato state were held together by their belief in the ujigami
(the clan deity) and with which they were even able to extend their political influence.
This force has also manifested itself over the centuries in the standing of the imperial
family, and is politically active even today.
Festival as the Essence of Shinto
The reader may now be wondering why we have digressed so far from the subject of festivals
that we seem to be concerned almost exclusively with Shinto. The explanation lies
in a fact that soon becomes clear to anyone who interests himself in Shinto in Japan: matsuri
(the term for a festival, specifically a cultic festival) is the nucleus of Shinto,
its central ritual feature. Matsuri
in Japan is not limited to the field of customs (as opposed for instance to divine
services in the Christian and European sense). Matsuri
is much more. It embraces both simple agrarian rites or ecstatic village celebrations
and what we should think of as divine services, the highly complex ceremonies taking
place in the historical shrines. Shinto and popular festivals are closely associated
in Japan. What is more, anyone who is not content with a superficial classification
of Japanese festivals but carefully analyses their structures will soon realize that
they are not based simply on textually or orally transmitted formulas. Their purpose
is rather the traditional preservation of ancient practices. They are consequently very
much a part of the local life, with a meaning that lies hidden in the darkness of
the past. They are a cyclic phenomenon going back to an important original message,
to a territorial enactment for instance, and which has been passed on from generation
to generation ever since.
It is no doubt to these aspects of the problem that Yanagita Kunio, the celebrated
founder of Japanese ethnography, is referring when he says that the matsuri
is the gateway to Japanese culture. The cultic festival as the central feature of
Shinto enables us to grasp the religion of the Japanese both in its individuality
and in its continuity, fostered as it is by the interaction of history and tradition.
Folklore as the Traditional Substratum of Japanese Culture
It is significant that these facts were first recognized not by a historian but by
an ethnographer. It has been Japanese ethnography that has greatly modified our conceptions
of Japanese culture in the last fifty years. An extensive and persevering effort
of documentation has enabled it to collect an enormous body of information about traditions
that still live on in all parts of Japan today. This material has made it clear that
the historical view is only one way of looking at Japanese reality. It is a pity that Japanology in the West has so far taken such little account of these ethnological
developments. It has thereby missed the chance to arrive at a more balanced view
of Japanese life, and Western ethnology has been prevented from entering a research
area which, with its well-prepared ethnohistorical basis, ranks among the most interesting
fields of cultural research today open to study.
The essential achievement of Japanese ethnography is that it has revealed in Japanese
culture a substratum which is traditional through and through, being based on behavioural
patterns passed down for many centuries, and which in conjunction with a genuine material culture fully satisfies all local requirements. This material culture has
also had to be passed down, of course, from generation to generation. The richness
of the traditional sources makes comparative reconstruction possible, and the resulting
comparisons reveal three main facts. They show in how many ways cultic objects and
patterns are connected with ancestral social and territorial structures and how understandable
these become when they are considered in the light ol functional interrelations. Finally, many conceptual, material and structural features of the cultic practices
point back to historically known situations. In other words, an extremely fertile
basis is now provided for ethnohistorical culture research. This endeavours to derive
meaningful concepts from living traditions with their many vital interconnections, and
then to support them with historical evidence. By this methodical approach three
achievements can be combined to constitute a new system, and this deserves to be
looked at a little more closely.
The Japanese Village as the Basic Unit of the Social Structure
Ethnopraphic research into the social structure of the Japanese village has brought
to light a certain social stratification. The focal point is the house (ie
in Japanese). The "house" is here not only the building and the family that lives
in it, it also implies possession and lineage, as it does in expressions such at
"the royal house". The individual house has a certain standing according to its position
in the village Shinto cult or the position of its representatives in the local cultic
organizations. The standing of a house in a village is also dependent on its age,
the length of time the ie
has been established in the village. In the extreme case the house of the founder
will thus have its place at the summit of the village hierarchy. It may also happen
that its head will have privileges in the cult and in village politics as "owner
of the deity" or as a priest (kannushi,
owner of divinity).
This is of course only the ideal situation. But Japanese authors agree in seeing it
as theoretically correct. They accept the fact that ever today the cult of the village
is the most important factor in Japanese Shinto and that this cult is closely bound
up with the historical and territorial structure of the settlements. In other words,
the political implications of village Shinto are clearly manifest.
The ergological branch of ethnographic fieldwork - the branch that concerns itself
with the many things that a community manufactures - has collected a rich body of
material in the way of eating utensils and habits, costumes, protective structures,
implements and working methods. Primitive means of transport and traps have also been found,
and a very poetical range of traditional toys. Anyone who wants to form an idea of
this world of the handicrafts need only pay a visit to one of the well-stocked ethnographical museums in Tokyo or Osaka.
He will find there a subtly differentiated variety of very local designs and skills
that have evidently been kept alive till recent times. There is nothing about the
materials used to suggest trade or industry. They are very much the products of
the narrowly defined locality where they were also utilized. They thus offer a picture of
a richly endowed local tradition and culture. This means that Japan does not possess
the uniform national culture that art historians have been in the habit of attributing
to it. What it has is rather a many-faceted substratum consisting of markedly local
cultures. The Japanese village is its focal point not only in social respects but
also with regard to the material culture. This genuine native force working from
below is no doubt connected with the ability to modify impulses received from outside - a
faculty that is strikingly evident at the higher levels of Japanese art. The problem
of the "Japanee style" might therefore be resolved by supposing that this style is
a fusion of imported art and indigenous elements, the latter consisting of traditions that
have so far hardly received the recognition due to them.
The great variety of these traditions cannot of course be simply attributed to the
historical area of Japan, but certain prehistoric conditions for their growth would
also have to be sought. This step might seem to place a question mark behind the
achievements of archaeological research into the cultures concerned. Archaeologists are also
looking for the spirit behind the objects, but they would no doubt have missed these
In the last fifty years Japanese ethnographers have gathered an extremely extensive
fund of traditional tools, implements, costumes, toys and the like from the various
regions of the Japanese archipelago. The materials, modes of manufacture and formal
and functional diversity of these objects strongly suggest that they have emerged from
local, autonomous cultures whose roots go back to prehistoric times. Alongside the
numerous objects of daily use there is a wide range of signs and symbols, mostly
having a cultic meaning. A common feature of all objects is that they are made of vegetable
materials obtained near at hand and that manufacturing techniques requiring no tools,
such as binding and plating, have mostly been employed. Such perishable materials
stimulate a tradition, since they make frequent replacement necessary.
A Village Form of Devotional Art
The critical reader may here charge us with confusing objects of use and the products
of the handicrafts with the higher forms of Japanese art. It is true that powerful
impulses were absorbed from Chinese art, but there is no reason to regard Japanese
handicrafts merely as a debased version of fine art. Japan has also preserved a form of
genuinely Japanese art which has been passed down from generation to generation till
the present day.
It is admittedly not Japanese art research that has drawn our attention to this fact.
The authorities on Japanese, as on European, art still cling to an antique classical
past with its "fine" materials, techniques and ideals. Instead, it has been ethnographic research into religion that has disclosed to us this individual and original Japanese
art. It has provided documentary evidence of an incredible wealth of local traditions
that are densely distributed over almost the whole of Japan. There are festivals of folk Shinto at which "gods' seats" are built with twigs and straws, cords and
ropes. They are signs, usually geometric and abstract and often of considerable size,
that are constructed year by year in the same way and play a central part in the
local traditional rituals - they are really sacred buildings, however primitive they may
be from a technical viewpoint. What most astonishes the observer, however, is the
multiplicity of the forms used. They are not all geometric, there are also figural
types that seem to have developed from the former: giants, dolls, curious effigies, but
also animals, dragons, serpents, fish and birds; and - quite unexpectedly - sacred
Together they create a strange world of fable. The most impressive muster of forms
is supplied - and this is a remarkable fact - by village Shinto. Since the divine
seats are built by fairly large groups of people, many of them are sizable and complicated
in shape. The most astounding thing about them, however, is the message they transmit,
their spiritual content. They are the concrete embodiment of a polar harmony. This
allocates them to the category of symbols that we find in many highly developed cultures, closely associated with mature philosophies of a religious nature. China at
once comes to mind. For centuries almost everything there was fashioned on the Yin-Yang
principle. Opposites of all kinds were harmonized in a single artefact. Might the
same thing have been happening in the Japanese village? It seems so. The divine seats
are evidently symbolic and aesthetic models, expressions of a polar order underlying
all forms - the rituals and their symbols, the shrines, houses and yards, villages
and forests, work and festivals and - as social research reveals - priests and common people.
In view of the wide distribution of these symbols and their significance in village
Shinto, we are fully justified in asking whether the strength and the spiritual roots
of Shinto lie firstly, in its close association with the structure of the Japanese
village and, secondly, in the symbolic and aesthetic leaning to the perception and fashioning
of stable harmonies. This would help to explain many of the remarkable features that
distinguish Japanese culture even today: the bonds between religion and art, between aesthetics and power and - in Shinto particularly - between power and religion.
And last but not least, another marked attribute of Japanese culture would be made
easier to understand: the still unbroken hold of tradition.
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