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Why are There So Many Summer Festivals in Japan?

What is the history, superstitions and culture surrounding all these summer celebrations?

By 6 min read

Walking past the 1,800-year-old Sumiyoshi Jinja the other day, I noticed preparations underway for the Nagoshi Taisai (grand festival). Lanterns were being set up, and a chinowa, or large hoop made of straw, had been placed before the shrine’s main structure.

It was a relief to see a semblance of normalcy returning to life in Japan after more than a year of Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions—normalcy that included the natsu matsuri, or the summer festivals, that were canceled last year. It just didn’t feel like summer without them.

Why summer?

Summer in Japan just isn’t the same without yukata and festivals.

In an ordinary year here in Fukuoka, there is a whole slew of natsu matsuri—from Hakata Gion Yamakasa in early July, Nagoshi and Tenjinsai in late July, the Mitama Matsuri in August to Hojoya in mid-September; not to mention a host of fireworks displays and outdoor music festivals. And, of course, there’s Obon.

There is also a generic natsu matsuri held at a small shrine in my neighborhood, another one at my boys’ elementary school. Hakata is by no means unique when it comes to the abundance of these festivals. It begs the question, then, of why there are so many in this hot and muggy season.

The reason for natsu matsuri has deep, superstitious roots divided into three overlapping aims: protecting the harvest, pacifying spirits and preventing or curing disease.

Protecting the harvest

The rice must flow.

Although fewer than 4% of Japanese today are employed in agriculture, in feudal Japan, 85% of the population was engaged in farming; what’s more, 40% of their rice yield in both good times and bad was collected as nengu (farm rent). So it’s no wonder they were particularly anxious about the fruits of their labor: for many, it literally was a matter of life or death.

Rustic celebrations in early summer called dengaku developed in ancient times as a musical accompaniment to rice planting. Originating as music and dancing performed by peasants, it was also called ta asobi (literally, “rice field play”) and intended to increase crop yields and boost tax revenue.

Before the invention of insecticides and herbicides, festivals known as mushi okuri (“sending bugs off“) were also held. At night, villagers would carry taimatsu (pine resin torches) and ring bells to drive the insects from the fields.

Similarly, in sanemori okuri or sanemori matsuri, the spirit of Saito Sanemori—who, according to The Tale of Heike, became an unka (white-backed planthopper) when he was cut down in a rice paddy. In these festivals, his spirit is driven from rice fields by villagers carrying a straw effigy of the warrior, ringing bells, beating drums and chanting.

Pacifying spirits and feeding hungry ghosts

Young men participating in Tenjin Matsuri, Osaka.

Natural disasters—typhoons, torrential rains, flooding, landslides, drought, and famine—frequent in the hot, humid summer months were believed to be caused not by the forces of nature but rather by onryo (vengeful ghosts) and goryo (martyred aristocrats) exacting tatari, or retribution.

The most famous example of a goryo is Tenjin (sky god), the deification of Heian Period scholar and politician Sugawara no Michizane (845-903).

Banished to Kyushu in 901 after falling victim to a trap laid by a political rival, Sugawara died while in exile. In the years that followed, Japan suffered from widespread plagues and droughts; three decades later, Kyoto was struck by heavy rains and lightning, resulting in the death of many court nobles.

Tenjin-sama has evolved over the centuries from a vengeful god into the patron deity of scholarship and learning.

The cause of the destruction was attributed to Sugawara’s angry spirit. So to pacify the goryo, Sugawara’s letter of exile was burned, his position restored and his spirit deified as the sky god. Tenjin-sama, with the Kitano Tenman-gu shrine in Kyoto, is dedicated to him.

Throughout Japan, tenjin matsuri are held on the 24th and 25th of July. Tenjin-sama has evolved over the centuries from a vengeful god into the patron deity of scholarship and learning.

Segaki is a ritual in Japanese Buddhism performed to stop the suffering of restless ghosts, muen-botoke (dead who have no living relatives), and gaki or jikininki (ghosts tormented by insatiable hunger).

Segaki is often held during the Bon festival. Buddhist temples and homes will sometimes have segaki-dana or gaki-dana in addition to the butsudan (family altar) on which offerings are made for these wandering ghosts.

Preventing disease

The Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival in Fukuoka.

In ancient times, the Japanese diet was not as healthy as today’s, and knowledge of modern medicine was, for the most part, non-existent. Moreover, refrigeration in the form of himuro, or ice cellars, was limited to the upper echelons of society.

In Heian-kyo, or the old capital of Kyoto, diseases were prevalent in the summer months due to population density, inadequate sewage, which often contaminated the drinking water, and food poisoning. As a result, epidemics of dysentery, influenza, smallpox, malaria and measles struck the capital with alarming frequency. These epidemics, like natural disasters, were also believed to be the work of evil spirits.

The Gion Matsuri, for which the city is famous, began in the 9th century as a purification ritual appeasing the kami and onryo that had brought natural disaster to the capital.

Similarly, the Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival in Fukuoka, which culminates at dawn on July 15, dates to 1241, when an epidemic hit the town of Hakata. Legend has it that the founder of Jotenji temple encouraged the townspeople to carry a portable shrine around the narrow streets and throw clean water from it to purify the town and prevent the spread of disease.

That semblance of normalcy

We’re all missing that nostalgic Japanese summer.

This year, too, most of the summer festivals in Fukuoka have been canceled or reduced in scale. The main event of the Hakata Gion Yamakasa, Oiyama, was shelved again. Fortunately, the massive decorated mikoshi (portable shrine or palanquin) known as kazari-yama were displayed throughout town.

As for this year’s Nagoshi Taisai, there were no yomise (night stalls) selling food or live entertainment on the stage, the kind of things that might attract crowds. Instead, the shrine prepared pieces of white paper shaped like a person in a kimono. The paper dolls were meant to be rubbed against the body part that needed healing or purification.

I bowed and prayed with the hope that next year things would get back to normal again.

These were collected and then sent down the Naka River in a symbolic ritual purification known as misogi and harae, performed to rid the mind and body of both physical ailments, tsumi (sins) and kegare (uncleanliness).

And so, I entered the shrine and walked through the chinowa—bowing first before stepping through, then turning left, then right, then left again upon each pass before approaching the shinden to pray.

This Shinto version of do-si-do is believed to protect you from illness, injury and other troubles so long as you make sure to bow and step with the left foot first. Once at the shinden, I bowed and prayed to the three Sumiyoshi Sanjin gods with the hope that next year things would get back to normal again.

And, to not overburden the kami with such quotidian needs, I got vaccinated against Covid-19 just to be on the safe side.

What’s your favorite festival in Japan? What foods and sights do you miss from summer since the pandemic started? Let us know in the comments.

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