Matsuri, Gods and the Land

From KJ 37: Inaka
An interview with ethnologist and filmmaker Tadayoshi Himeda, by Everett Brown, trans. Toyoshima Mizuho

Tadayoshi Himeda first became interested in Japanese matsuri — festivals — before World War II, but began to study them seriously in 1961. He, and others, helped found the Center for Ethnological Visual Documentation(Minzoku Bunka Eizo Kenkyu Sho), which since 1970 has made 111 films documenting regional life and festivals from Okinawa to Hokkaido. Everett Brown spoke with him in the fall of 1997.

When did matsuri originate in Japan?
Well, if we look at the remains of the Jomon era, which began 12,000 years ago and lasted for 10,000 years, we can see rather elaborate earthenware figurines with parts of their bodies broken off. These items tell us that the Jomon people were making objects of aesthetic quality, that suggest concerns with things spiritual. Though we can supposedly trace human history in Japan back 200,000-300,000 years and perhaps further, it is difficult to tell, in such a long history, when such spiritual and psychological functions as matsuri emerged.

I’m reminded of the chimpanzee research by a Kyoto University primatologist working in Africa. He observed that at certain times of the year, a group of chimpanzees would gather hollow logs and drum them with sticks while others jumped up and down in the moonlight. Well, that brings up the question of the purpose of matsuri. It goes beyond culture. Matsuri serve a physiological role, reenergizing the participants and strengthening the physical and emotional bonds of the group.

It’s also interesting to look at matsuri from the perspective of linguistics and the study of word origins. Here we can get clues as to the meaning matsuri may have had for our ancestors. ‘Matsuri’ is the noun form of matsuwaru, a verb that means to interface or to have connection with something, a person or invisible elements of the natural world. The word especially has a nuance that places importance on a psychological connection; creating a psychological tie, even though the connection is originally gained through a physical action.

Can you give an example of a matsuri that retains some ancient elements?
One of the best examples is the Kagura Matsuri in the village of Shiromi, located in the mountains of Kyushu. This is one of the most isolated mountain areas in Japan and the mountain people have lived there since before the Jomon era. They survived by swidden agriculture, gathering, hunting and fishing in streams. They have a very deep spiritual culture, and remnants of many periods of Japanese history are overlapped in their customs and ways of life.

Now historical documents tell us that they once held their matsuri around a great old tree on a sacred mountain. The head of a wild boar was placed on an altar and the village men would wear the masks of various gods and entities of the spirit world and dance through the night under the tree to invoke the mountain god.

I first visited Shiromi in the late 60s, through the encouragement of the late ethnologist Miyamoto Shoichi, and I was surprised by what I saw. Here was a community in this modern era still practicing a culture that deeply reflected the hunting customs of the Jomon era.

Now a lot of people have a hard time understanding the function of the wild boar in such a sacred ceremony. This is in part why the great Ainu festival for bear, called iyomante, was outlawed some years back. In Shiromi the head of the wild boar is not a symbol of the natural deity, nor is it an object of sacrifice. It is the energy, the power of the mountain god itself brought into the human fold. It is the wild or energetic aspect of that god, what is called aramitama in Japanese. Conversely, there is also nigimitama, interpreted as a soft or gentle god. This is seen or felt in the bowl of rice next to the boar’s head on the altar.

Are aramitama and nigimitama different gods, or are they different aspects of one god?
Well, the aramitama and nigimitama aspects of matsuri are often misperceived today. These two tama represent two aspects of energy in the natural world. They are similar to forces such as Yin and Yang, brightness and darkness, and the sun and the moon. They coexist, yet can be perceived as different. They exist in all aspects of our life.

Are tama and kami the same thing?
Roughly speaking, they too are both aspects of forces in the natural world. However, in a stricter view, they can be seen as having distinct differences. But Japanese people usually accept both as the same.

Some matsuri seem to be more “wild” than others. Do some matsuri celebrate the “wild” aspect over the “gentle?”
Visitors from the outside tend to see only the wild side in such matsuri, which is only the surface. Also perhaps you can say that nowadays, there are lots of matsuri that emphasize mainly the wild side. But, life is not that simple. A matsuri usually starts with a subtle ceremony, a calm chanting or prayer for example, and then builds up from there. The matsuri is performed according to a careful set of rules.

What meaning do such rules have?
The rules are very important, to allow participants to focus their attention together. By following these rules the participants can safely open themselves to the natural forces of aramitama and nigimitama, embrace these forces and bring them into harmony within individual participants and the community. Departure from the rules can open the doors to carelessness and disorder.

Do you think the performance of matsuri and the creation of art stem from the same instinct?
Oh, yes. It’s like two sides of the same coin, I think. For the ancients to create a figurine or draw animals on the wall of a cave did not satisfy their physical hunger, but gave some spiritual satisfaction. Matsuri, faith, or the creation of things that make up culture has little to do with satisfying the stomach. In fact when one is absorbed in such activities one often ignores physical hunger. Why do humans do such things? I dare say that it may have to do with holding the future in mind. Creative activity brings peace of mind and has a bonding tendency that links today with past and future generations.

What does matsuri and art do for the individual?
It’s a way to revive ourselves. To revive life energy and the force within us. To revive that force, we humans can do most unusual things sometimes — violent, passionate and dangerous things.

Is there any connection between the Japanese, Ainu, Korean or continental matsuri?
I think so. I myself am interested now in the northern peoples. I recently went to Lapland. People there have a sacred place where they offer reindeer antlers to their gods. When 1 heard this, I remembered the deer rituals performed at Suwa Shrine and Nikko Toshogu Shrine in Japan. At these shrines, in the past, the deer head itself was offered. Why the head? Because consciousness, the intelligence of life, is centered there. The powers of nature can be seen in the animal’s naked eyes.

“To what god do you make offerings?” I asked the Lapps. They said, “stones, or rocks and trees.” In an Arctic area, like Lappland, the land is mainly rock with not much soil, unlike Japan. In Japan, the landscape is rich. Water and stones have been worshipped, and mountains also later came to be worshipped. It is important to note that offerings are made to the land.

Can a mountain itself be an object of faith?
In the north part of China, in the Shinkyo Province, I met an ethnologist of Mongolian descent who told me that the local mountain itself was perceived to be a god by the people in the valley. He had discovered that the ancestors of these people once lived high on the mountain raising livestock. The mountain sustained them, it provided their livelihood, and they believe that when they die they return to the mountain. It is the place of their ancestors and their gods. This perception of the mountain as the backbone of life can also be seen in rural Japan where people once depended upon the mountain’s blessing for their survival.

Do you think such an idea is common in the world?
How do you feel about it personally?

My ancestors come from the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina, and whenever I think of those mountains my body experiences a deep longing.
When I was invited to Harvard to show films on Ainu culture, a professor who saw the Iyomante Matsuri documentary said he had been strongly moved by the ritual, even though the Ainu people were far distant in blood from him. Modern man has been distanced from a long tradition of customs touching upon nature, and the professor experienced something in the Ainu ritual that resonated deep within him. What that resonance was remained in him as a deep question…

I also visited the Basque country, on the border with Spain and France, and showed a movie of the Toyomatsu Saijiki held in Hiroshima Prefecture. This film records the life, customs and matsuri of the people through the cycle of the seasons. One member of the audience, the wife of a shepherd who had come down from the high mountains, told me that she felt a deep longing when she saw the film. She explained that until about fifteen years previously, in the 60s, people in her area had lived by the seasons and had various matsuri similar to what she saw in the film. She expressed sadness that such customs and attitudes toward life were disappearing.

What do such feelings of longing mean to us? Are they to remind us of something important that we have forgotten?
In Japanese, we have a word tamafuri. It means to shake, or awaken, our tamashii or soul/spirit. Why do we shake bells and beat drums in a matsuri? Since ancient times, it has been to shake our tamashii. Why shake? Because on one level life and all matter are naturally in a state of vibration. Life is a form of vibration. The heart is beating, you know, and life is in a state of flux. We shake bells and beat drums to shake away the cobwebs and awaken our senses to the pulse of life.

In a similar way a feeling of longing is awakened when one empathizes with an object. I don’t know whether objects in nature are emitting a kind of vibration or wavelength that we can be cognizant of; however, when one feels some empathy towards something it is usually attended by some kind of response. People in the mountains say they sometimes experience the trees communicating with them, if they give the trees their attention. Some also say that stones do this too. You could say the mountain folk have a special kind of ability, but I think it is an age-old instinct deep within all of us.

For anyone, a tree for example can appear very differently according to one’s mood or psychological state. I think that, say in a matsuri, to shake together, or to move together in harmony, is to move into an experience of empathy, and this is also the psychological function of longing.

Have you ever encountered spontaneous events in matsuri? I once attended a hi-matsuri, or fire festival, which is performed during the rainy season. It had been raining very hard since morning. Just before the fires were lit, the rain stopped; then, soon after the ceremony was completed, the heavy rains resumed and continued through the night.
There are such stories. But I think that such things happen by chance, and I am cautious about describing such events as special phenomena. In my film Echigo kuni omote, I asked a village elder who participated in a matsuri for a mountain god every year whether he thought the mountain god really existed. He told me that when he went hunting in the deep snowy mountains, he occasionally had the experience of looking back over the dangerous terrain he had traversed, and felt an awe; that it was not in his own power to have scaled such a dangerous route. I asked him, then, what he thought had empowered him, but he brushed my question aside. In such a situation, some may say that the god of the mountain helped him, but he himself would never say such a thing. He had a kind of wisdom about this. I sensed, though, that he was attuned to the forces of nature, much more strongly than most people. This is because his life is in the mountains, and he knows how to walk the precarious paths for his survival. As for the powers and instincts that move him, they are not meant to be expressed in words.

It must be a kind of taboo.
Yes… The people in Lapland wouldn’t tell me the location of the sacred ground where they made offerings of reindeer antlers. When I asked, they suggested that I should go out and look for myself. I was welcome to find the ground on my own. I asked them why they couldn’t show me, and they answered that it was because they exercised caution, lest something bad might happen if they revealed the location to me. According to them, if someone breaks the taboo that protects them, the order of things can become disrupted. Carelessness may ensue, and events could become unpredictable. In such situations, an elder may berate the guilty person, or remind him in other ways of his departure from the often unwritten and unspoken rules.

Is this superstition, or something else?
I have another story, this one is about Ainu people and their relationship with bears. It was a long and cold winter night in Hokkaido and I was sitting around an irori [hearth] with a group of Ainu men. When I brought up the subject of bears and how they get along during the long winter, an icy silence descended upon the room. They told me the word ‘bear’ was not mentioned during the winter months lest it would disturb the animal in its long winter sleep. You see, during hibernation the bear’s metabolism is reduced to a bare minimum of survival, and the bear is in a very delicate state. From February is also the time the mother bear gives birth. Now it is interesting that the bear gives birth, doing the work of perpetuating the species, during this delicate time of hibernation. The Ainu people are sensitive to the animal’s condition and have a solemn feeling of respect towards the bear. They believe that the power of the spoken word may reach the bear and interfere with her “work.”

Such thinking about the power of the spoken work is talked about in Buddhist psychology.
Such concepts may exist in Buddhist thinking, but I think it is a more natural or naked perception. I believe there is a need for caution in relying upon theoretical interpretation. Those with theoretical preconceptions have a tendency to be perhaps less empathetic. Incidentally, the strange thing is, that although Ainu people have such a solemn feeling of respect, when spring comes and the new generation of bear cubs are on their feet, they take their guns and spears into the forests with a passion. [Laughter] It may seem like a contradiction to us outsiders, but this is all in line with their understanding of the natural order.

A kind of promise between the Ainu and bears?
You could say so. For them, the bear is a god and the god comes down to the human world in spring with tasty flesh and warm fur, his gifts to the Ainu people. They receive the gifts, and see off the spirit of the bear, who is a god, to the home of the gods in the mountains, and this is the Iyomante Matsuri. Surely, it can be said that a bear who has given birth has accomplished her role as a living creature, and she is then ready to go god’s way, isn’t she? In this regard, it was interesting to see the slaughter of reindeer in Lappland. The victims are chosen from among thousands of reindeer kept within a fenced area. How do they choose which ones to kill? They do not choose a female reindeer. Why? Because the female propagates the species. They do not kill female reindeer. You could say that this is human selfishness. Humans kill for their own survival, and compensation is then expressed through performing a matsuri. . .

What stands out about Japanese culture and nature, or the character of Japanese people, from your fieldwork?
To mention only one thing would be difficult, because there are so many aspects to consider. It is similar to speaking about the qualities of aramitama and nigimitama. But I’d like to ask you, don’t you feel that if you could describe Japanese character in one word, it would be ‘multiplicity’? In Japan there is so much variety and so many contradictions. Within one Japanese individual you can find elements of animism and agnosticism, refined sensibilities and gross behavior, cold analytical thinking and deep sentimentalism. Regarding nature, Japanese people generally experience a strong longing toward nature; however, there are aspects that seem, on the surface, to be in complete disregard of nature. In this way, Japanese character takes many directions, and Japanese culture is not uniform or plain. Europeans writing in the eighteenth century recorded that Japan and the Japanese were very clean. But, nowadays, Japan is very dirty, especially in the cities. This side of things has changed.

That is very clear. It was after World War II, especially from the late 60s. Till then, for example, people used to sweep the streets in front of their houses. When I was a small boy, I swept the street in front of my parent’s house, and one day, as I thought picking up the dirt in a dustpan was too much trouble, I just scattered it next door. I was scolded dreadfully by my parents, who told me that I should never do such a thing, as streets belong to everyone and it is everyone’s responsibility to look after them. Nowadays, this sense of sharing and community is changing. People think it is the government’s responsibility.

Is this because villages and village culture have been gradually disappearing, and the unwritten rules of community life are being lost?

Yes. Managing the water supply for village crops is a good example. They had rules controlling water allocation, to regulate fairly the opening and closing of reservoir sluice gates. City dwellers have fewer occasions to experience such rules.

What have been the big changes since the 60s?
Motorization and the cold-storage system are the two big ones. The content of garbage has changed drastically, especially since the cold-storage system was implemented and people stopped bringing their own shopping baskets to the market. Vegetables and other foods are put into vinyl bags now instead. Due to technological advances any kind of vegetable or fruit is now available at the market in any season. Motorization and the development of roads into the rural interior have been strongly promoted along with the change in the distribution system.

The mentality has been changing step by step. It didn’t change all at once. The government has been making big changes in Japanese lifestyle, customs and economy. For example, in order to improve people’s health in rural areas, where farmhouses used to be cold and smoky, all-out reforms in living standards were undertaken. The irori (hearth) and kamado (cooking fire) were done away with for more modern conveniences. The idea of improving living conditions and health standards wasn’t a bad one, I think. However, people have gradually gained a tendency to give up traditional values for the virtue of convenience. Efficiency has been the top priority for everything since the 60s.

How does this affect people’s minds in the country?
People have become less empathetic. There are places that have not lost empathy; however, but as a result their economic situation is getting more serious. The system is set up now so that it is difficult to live the old way of life and the impetus is to move forward. For most rural people this means moving from the rural home to urban areas where the work is.

How have matsuri changed?
First, the number of people who take part in matsuri has become less and less. In rural areas, within the depletion of the population, the number of children participating is fewer. Man-power is reduced, as is economic power; economic power is needed more or less to perform a matsuri, as you know. Before, people used to raise money for a matsuri, if necessary, even if they had to cut their own food budgets, and provided goods and money to perform a matsuri. People today, more and more, tend to think that is ridiculous. In Shirakawa village, designated as a World Heritage site, the roof thatching work on the great old houses has been done cooperatively by the villagers. Since the village has been designated a World Heritage site, and the government has begun playing a bigger role in overseeing activities, the sense of community level cooperation has suffered. Some people felt they should be financially compensated for their sacrifice of time and labor. Matsuri also need people to matsuwaru. Like earthworms entangling, people must entangle too. Nowadays, more and more people just watch a matsuri from the sidelines. Saying “to watch is OK, but to undertake the effort to make a matsuri happen, no thank you,” is more prevalent these days.

A matsuri requires various rules and obligations among those who take part. Traditionally people understood the unspoken rules and an air of empathy was shared among the participants. However, nowadays things have to be spelled out more, only the rides have remained; the empathy has been lost. . .
That is also true. However, it is not that everything has changed. Various things still remain in different forms. What is interesting about Japan is that very old, even ancient things, as well as things from the middle ages, can be seen here and there mixed up together with modern culture, and also with very futuristic things. You can say that this is true anywhere in the world, but it seems to me that the range from very old to very new is especially remarkable in Japan. This could be a characteristic of Japanese culture.

Do you find regional differences in character of matsuri or culture in Japan?
Topographically, Japan has many valleys and mountains. This creates many pockets of cultural variations, even though one can see common characteristics that run from Okinawa to Hokkaido. For example, the dancing style will differ between the matsuri of this village and the next. On the surface, if you don’t pay careful attention, they may all look the same, but it is clearly different if you watch carefully. It’s fun for me to observe and find the differences! [Laughter]

How can the wisdom in matsuri, that unspoken connection, be transmitted to the next generation?

Well, it’s always a matter for deep concern. First of all, individuals (who carry the wisdom) die. Then, the shapes and forms of matsuri inevitably change. . . There are many things that change; still, I tend to believe that there is something that doesn’t change, that runs through the core of matsuri. This challenge has engaged me, and made the study of matsuri part of my lifework. There is still so much to explore.

What do you see lying ahead in the field of ethnology?
Professor Hiruma Yorio of Kyoto University has studied a virus (called ate-eruno in Japanese), that has been a parasite in human blood since ancient times, ever since homo sapiens appeared on earth. It was once thought that ate-eruno was the AIDS virus, but now it is clear that it’s not. This virus is not a cause of sickness. It appears in people with delicate constitutions and those, such as small children and elderly, with a weak condition. What is especially strange is that this virus is found only in the blood of West African and Japanese people. It is not found in blood of people in China or the Eurasian continent. Why is that? Human history is still full of mystery, you know. As for myself, I am interested in the northern regions of the world. There we can find a rich field for comparative ethnology. Linguistics also has a lot to tell us. It is well known that there are similarities between the Finnish and the Japanese languages. Why is that?

In the move towards catching up with the West Japanese people today generally believe that old things are not necessary for their modern lives. I however, tend to believe that the past offers us many clues to enrich our lives as living creatures. For example the feeling of empathy with nature is a very old emotion, I think. It’s not something that can be taught in the structure of our modern-day education.

Cerebral education is the mainstream of today’s educational system, isn’t it?
Yes, and matsuri in Japan has been one of the mediums for education in what you could call the wisdom of living. Today, many matsuri have become primarily shells of this original form of teaching. It is difficult because many people have become unaware of the underlying sensibility that moves a matsuri. This same sensibility is wanting in their daily lives. For example, many people do not pay attention to, say, the ornamental figures on a traditional rooftop, or the meaning of the New Year’s pine tree decorations.

Do you think that such symbolic things still retain their potency in a matsuri, but that modern people have become less sensitive to them?
Yes. And how to intellectually recognize the forms of a matsuri even is not being taught. Some people are making efforts to teach but. . . For example, in English you have many words for matsuri, such as ritual,’ ‘festival’ and ‘carnival,’ don’t you? In Japanese, such distinctions have become mixed up. Even ritualistic things are now termed ‘events.’ It’s interesting, isn’t it, how the meanings of words change? When I talked with C.W. Nicol, the writer, he mentioned ‘woods’ and ‘forests.’ He said that these words own their own images; a ‘forest’ has an image of a sacred place; a group of trees in a shrine should be called a ‘forest.’ Therefore, even though there are only a few trees in a shrine, it is to be called a ‘forest.’ Trees around a house and a farm are ‘woods’ or a ‘grove.’ The meaning of ‘hayashi’ in Japanese, or grove, came from an image of ‘haeru,’ to be grown. Such a place is normally animated with human life. On the other hand, a forest suggests a quiet and often sacred domain. . . Few people teach such distinctions nowadays.

Likewise, I guess sacred places have been lost everywhere in the world. . .
Yes, in a sense. Through our long history, humans have learned various ways to approach nature, but whether one is able to empathize with the forces of nature, understand its workings, or believe in god is a matter of the inner situation in each of us. Without imagination or awareness, a place is just a place, and a thing is just a thing. It is interesting to observe how the quality of how we recognize things is always changing.

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