The Fishermen's New Year's Festival

on the Isle of the Gods

by Nold Egenter

If we assume that traditional Shinto is rooted in an archaic aesthetic symbolism, the New Year's festival of the fishermen on the Isle of the Gods in Ise Bay appears as one of the most significant and grandiose of Japan's many festive occasions. Not in its dimensions, admittedly, for it is modest in scale. It impresses rather by the compact unity of its ceremonial. The fundamental principles of the Japanese way of life, as mirrored in art and customs, are fused in this festival into a creative demonstration in which a small and secluded world enters into a complex dialogue with the macrocosm.


There could be no more impressive model of the Japanese "soul" than the lonely "Isle of the Gods" in Ise Bay with its splendid New Year's festival. A white ring, made anew each year, symbolizes the seat of the local deity and unites the inhabitants of the island - in any case very much dependent on each other - as a merry and carousing community under one roof, They use their spears not for warfare but to form a peaceful "roof", under whose holy circle they throng before bearing it to the village shrine.

1. The islanders live in close contact

2. The white ring in front of the 'tokonoma'

3. The sacred ring unites the "spears" in the form of a roof

4. A warrior with his holy bamboo spear

5. The ring before the gate of the village shrine on New Year's morning


The name of Kami-shima, Isle of the Gods, given to a small island in Ise Bay, is not without its justification. For the gods in fact still live here. That becomes apparent to any one who arrives here after a steamer crossing of about an hour from Toba on the afternoon preceding the Japanese New Year. The flag-hung fishing-boats in the port are showing their "divine soul" (fune-dama), the frontier gods (dôsojin) along the port road have been decorated for the occasion, sacrifices have been made to them, and celebrations in their honour (kamidana, kamado-gami, mizugami, etc.) are going on in all the fishermen's homes. The gods are there for everyone to see, decked out, sacrificed to. At the time of the New Year's festival they are in evidence all over the island, housed in temporary "seats of the gods".

It is hardly surprising that people here cling to the time-honoured qualities of Japanese life: the island is a picture in little of the Japanese "soul". It is not by accident that so many Japanese myths are about "islands", for the consciousness of insularity in its widest sense runs through all the expressions of Japanese culture and sets the mood in literature, architecture and art. It is also the force behind social movements. It is manifested in a rather paradoxical way when old villages are called shima, islands, even though they are situated far from the sea.

There is no finer model for the demonstration - and comprehension - of this attitude than the Isle of the Gods in Ise Bay and its isolated New Year celebrations.

In the midst of the amorphous expanse of the ocean, it is a rock, an islet, on which the human being can stand and breathe. It is also an island of very nearly geometric form, rather like a rice hat. Above it stretches the other ocean, the sky. It recalls the famous Japanese rock gardens, except that here the meaning is physically plain to see. A small community has lived here for centuries, cut off from the mainland. The material resources for its livelihood come chiefly from the changeable element that surrounds it, the sea, on to which its inhabitants must daily venture. Each person depends on the other to a degree hardly experienced elsewhere. Anyone who ponders this model, imagining what it means to live one's whole life in the same village, surrounded by the waters, will realize how much community spirit is needed to make this situation viable. The force that holds the island village together is renewed annually at the New Year's festival, which gives symbolic expression to the unity of the village and places it at the same time in its macrocosmic context.

The coming-together begins with the ceremonial meal in the yado, a village house that has been temporarily converted into a cultic meeting-place. The dividing walls are removed and all the men of the village assemble in the large room thus formed. There is a good deal of eating and drinking, and whatever strains have developed in personal relations in the old year are forgotten. In addition, all join forces to construct a ring about two metres in diameter from short sticks. This is then carefully wrapped in white paper and tied outside with fine hemp fibres, for it is a sacred ring that is here being fashioned, a "seat of a god" (yorishiro). From time to time during the construction of this ring, and again upon its completion, the men gather around the ring, raise it and throw it with loud cries up to the "heaven" or ceiling (tenjô) of the room. This sets a seal on their union. At the banquet that follows the ring is given the place of honour, upright in front of the cultic niche (tokonoma) and at the head of the richly decked row of tables. The oldest couple present, in the traditional festive costume, sit with the ring of union behind them, looking towards the merry circle of guests. The rejoicing will now go on till the early hours of New Year's Day.

There is a bamboo spear before the gate of every house. Its tip bears the cultic symbol of Shinto made of white paper (gohei). These sacred spears are reminders of more warlike days. At a fixed hour in the very early morning each man comes to the port with his spear They now form mysterious rows in the darkness, standing on each side of the port road. Suddenly a strange whirring and clapping is heard in the distance. The white ring soon appears, carried by four young men in white ritual apparel who crouch as they run. The rows of men fling their spears at the ring as the young men run the gauntlet, scraps of white paper go sailing through the air: the old sun is being destroyed, that is the explanation given for this curious performance.

Suddenly the men now break their ranks and run to form a crowd at a predetermined spot. The spears are lifted and the heavy white ring rises slowly above the thronging men, with the many bamboo rods making a whirring noise. The sun of the New Year is rising! But this spectacle does not go on very long, for the first red rays now begin to appear on the horizon, heralding the rising of the real sun. Then the first red glow smoulders in the sky and slowly grows into a semicircle. The New Year has come in!

Such cosmic symbolism would not seem to be out of place in the mythical atmosphere of this island. In reality, the macrocosmic context is certainly not very old. It is evidently derived from State Shinto, for the cultic practices on the island are closely related to Ise-Shinto, as can be gathered from the style (shimmeizukuri) of the village shrine. Another clear indication that this sun-worship is superimposed on the theological ideas of State Shinto is furnished by the fact that the cultic objects used have unquestionably evolved from the archaic principle of the sacred building. If we consider the ritual in this light, we can see that its traditional purpose is to underline social unity: the spears, as are the tools of destructive forces, are hurled into the opening of the ring. This then forms an archaic sacred roof, a sort of mobile cultic building, so that all are unified under the seat of the god. The cultic symbol, the circle of humans and the island itself become a unity identical even in form.

On New Year's morning the ring is carried up the steps from the port to the village shrine situated high up on a terrace-like spur and is placed in front of a gateway hung with white cloths, much as it stood before the cultic niche at the ceremony in a villager's house the night before. The whole village now climbs the steps to the shrine. Money offerings are thrown into the white cloths, and the gathering then awaits the New Year blessing. The priest in his vestments passes through the white ring into the sanctuary for the first time in the New Year and celebrates the rites of State Shinto (ô-harai, norito, etc.). Finally each one returns to his house, where visits are paid for the rest of the day. By the time the numerous drinking ceremonies and the festive entertainments are over, the whole population of the fishing village is tipsy.

Since the white ring serves as the gateway to the village shrine, the latter part of the traditional island ritual seems to have been compounded with the established shrine system of institutionalized Shinto (the gates made of rings of reeds known as chi no wa are a common feature of summer festivals all over Japan). The ring may therefore be regarded here as elsewhere, as a symbol of the unification of the inhabitants of the village in front of the cultic seat of the village deity that serves as an embodiment of territorial authority.

Considered from an ethnological angle, the whole festival shows how an extremely isolated group finds a symbolic expression for its social cohesion through archaic rites centring upon the sacred buildings of ancient Shinto. It also reveals how local practices can be made to serve other ends by the powers that be, essentially without any written interference and simply by reinterpreting tradition that everyone can appreciate so as to give it a macrocosmic dimension.

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