A festival of feudal Shinto
by Nold Egenter
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To show how the cultural history of Japan has been preserved formally and spiritually
in Shinto cults and their sacred objects, there could hardly be a more impressive
example among Japanese cult festivals than the Seihakusai of Nanao. The tendency
towards the magnificent, still evident today in the numerous castles of the feudal period,
is clearly also present in the cultic carts of the cult festival described in the
following. Like a dream of the glory of bygone times, their glittering theatre spreads
its nostalgic glamour over the roofs of the small town. In contrast to similar festivals
performed in centrally situated cities like Kyoto with its aristocratic Gion carts
turned into a touristic attraction, the popular spirits of traditional Shinto have
remained vital in this rural environment. An indescribable frenzy is re-enacted annually
in the same way. It is generated by huge sacred carts and the striking contrasts
they create in this modest provincial town.
some short notes on Japanese feudalism
If in general the basic forces are described which supported feudalism in Japan over
centuries, the fief-system is mentioned. Its capacity of dealing with arms, its honorary
codex of military fraternities and similar traits are put into the foreground. Buddhism too is considered important as a basic teaching of those times, or Confucian
ethics which were developed in mediaeval Japan. In this dominantly historical view
in the narrower sense, feudalism is interpreted in view of its continental roots.
However this contradicts with the fact that Japanese feudalism - particularly in its beginnings
- was of a definitely provincial nature. It was initiated and grew at the friction
zones created by the expanding centralistic absolutism of the Taika reform (645-650) with the local control in the outer provinces. Thus, the history of feudalism in
Japan can be understood as a reaction of local hegemonies, rooted in their local
domains and organising themselves with new structures and values against the claims
of the urban centre and its large-scale claims based on Chinese prototypes. Starting from the
central lands, the pendulum of forces oscillates between centralism and regionalism
back and forth until it finds its balance in the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867).
Edo (the precursor of modern Tokyo) is now the new centre of power. It appears definitely
shifted towards the east and - from the ancient aristocracy's viewpoint - into the
province. The new centralism is essentially supported by regional units, based on
the fief system.
In other words, it would be fairly shortsighted to interpret Japanese feudalism only
from its continental backgrounds. Without doubt Shinto played a very important role
in the build-up and diffusion of feudal power. That this role of Shinto is not shown
adequately in present history is easily understandable. The teachings of Buddhism
were imported mainly with the introduction of script in Japan: Buddhism was codified
in texts and also gained its diffusion in that way. In contrast to this, Shinto
has remained traditional. That is to say: cults handed down from immemorial times are the
message. They are the unwritten archives of local histories, of local constitutions!
In the marginal areas of Japan such cults remained locally specific to a great extent.
Their meaning can be reconstructed.
Like aristocratic Shinto, feudal Shinto superseded this traditional level. Best known
is the large cult centre of the Tôshôgû shrine at Nikkô with its gorgeous architectural
style. Similarly the widely diffused Hachiman shrines devoted to the deity of war
belong to this category. In the framework of festivals, too many feudalistic reminiscences
have been preserved. Thus at the festival in the province of Fukui, huge figures
dressed as 'bushi'
(Japanese knights) are mounted as deities on carts. At another place in the province
of Saga, frighteningly masked helmets of 'bushi'
are the corresponding cult objects. At the Hyakumangoku festival in Kanazawa (Ishikawa
province), rich Japanese armours revive bellicose pride of those times. And at the
Naomai festival in Soma, Fukushima province, a belligerent competition using flags mysteriously revives a whole army of fierce mediaeval knights for a short time.
Remarkable in this sense is also the festival of the Takeda shrine at Kofu, Yamanashi
province, most nostalgically alluding to feudal times. A group of 24 men dresses
in the ancient uniforms of generals. Every year - still today -local dignitaries ride in
their armour towards the clan shrine of the master who passed away long ago.
Noto Peninsula and the history of the Seihaku festival at Nanao
The festival which we are going to describe in the following as a representative example
for traditional feudal Shinto, is particularly interesting because it appears in
a region which from early times in the history of Japan was rather a marginal area:
the Noto peninsula. Approximately in the middle of the main island of the Japanese archipelago,
it protrudes north into the Chinese sea. In early times it was already like a dead-end
road situated outside the ancient system of roads and provinces. When after the Taika reform (645-650) arable land was organised and registered according to
Chinese models, Noto peninsula was shifted back and forth as a part of more important
provinces like Kaga, Echu and Echizen. During the Heian period (794-1185) poets and
literati were sent to Noto, for instance the famous Minamoto Shitagô (911-983) who, in
his youth had published the first Japanese dictionary and later was busy with the
compilation of poetry volumes. Very likely the romantic area far from his home in
Kyoto, where he was known in aristocratic circles, might have given him many ideas for his
"heaven and earth" poems.
Texts dated with the year 1221 and dealing with agrarian statistics of the Noto province
tell us that the court of the Taira was not large. They owned relatively little land.
During the Taira hegemony (1160-1185) they held the protectorate over the Noto peninsula. It can therefore be assumed that Noto very likely came into more intensive
contacts with more developed forms of life of continental origins towards the end
of the Kamakura period (1185-1392). This progress was intensified in the Muromachi
period (1392-1568) under the Hatakeyama family, who were closely related to the Ashikaga
clan. But, particularly the castle (1394-1427) built by Hatakeyama Mitsunori in
Nanao, the capital of Noto province, would have created urban life with many craftsmen
working on the castle construction and very likely also through the permanent army which
was formed. Thus, rural farming life in villages and feudal urban activities was
the milieu in which we have to place the festival described in the following.
Most important and most impressive as characteristics of this festival named Seihakusai
in the town of Nanao are the three temporary sacred seats annually constructed in
three districts. They have the form of cult carts and are called "giant-mountain",
"mountain for pulling" (dekayama, hikiyama).
Their essential function: they are pulled from each district, or its shrine where
they are made, toward the main shrine.
In their structure and form, the cult cars show a clear articulation and differentiation. Essentially the following parts can be distinguished.
The uppermost part can be further differentiated.
- There is the basic structure made of wooden poles and bamboo stalks. Joints and
other fixings are constructed primitively, bound with lianas and straw ropes. The
traditional origins of this part are fairly clear.
- Further, there is a subconstruction of quite a different type. The 'chassis' of the
cart is quite a well-developed timber construction, with complex joints which require
a considerable level of technology. The wheels, 2 metres in diameter and made of
heavy wooden segments, carry a massive structure of beams with joined components.
Thus, it can definitely be said that this cult cart is not a homogeneous unit, it
has to be seen as the result of an accumulating process. Primitively made, very
ancient elements of a traditional nature appear intrinsically mixed with more developed
parts rooted in the written history of Japanese culture. Let us first take a look at the
primary level, the rural traditional part.
- Evidently the fan-like protruding side wings stand as an extension of the primitive
part mentioned above as 'basic structure'.
- The stage-like superstructure is an accumulation, a vital implantation into the basic
structure. In theatrical ways it shows a feudal castle with palace and corresponding
The traditional part of the festival
On the one hand, the part which we call the 'basic structure' preserved the constructive
characteristics which we call 'traditional' or 'primary' or 'primitive' in the positive
sense of the word. On the other hand, those familiar with cultic demarcation in Japanese village Shinto will immediately put the local designations of "giant mountain",
"mountain for pulling" or "mountain cart" into a wider framework of similar artificial
representations or constructions called "yama",
mountain. This type of Shinto cult having artificial, or primitively constructed
mountains as its central content, is very widespread in Japan. They function as temporary
seats of local village protector deities (ujigami).
In some cases such mountains are small structures like on the isle of Futaoijima
near Shimonoseki. On the other hand there are huge constructions erected as temporarily
stable mountains, like in Himeiji, in the province of Hyogo. The artificial mountains
set up there are about fifteen meters high. They are called "placing mountains" (oki-yama)
or "decorative mountains" (kazari-yama).
Noteworthy are also the 16 mountains of the Gion festival in Kyoto. They are bamboo-woven
baskets called yama,
"mountain", inversely mounted around a vertical pine tree top, and are considered
as seats of deities. In the framework of the whole procession of the Gion matsuri,
they are carried to the Yasaka shrine. Evidently the gorgeous textile decorations
with which the urban elite coated these mobile cult objects has concealed the essentials
of this festival. Evidently the original structure consisted of local toposemantic
seats of deities. Besides those representing artificial mountains, some others correspond
more to cultic columns and are called "spears".
Mounted on carts or palanquin types of structures these seats of local deities are
constructed according to ancient traditions in various neighbouring urban districts
and are then brought to the Yasaka shrine, the urban sanctuary of a politically higher
level. The festival thus cyclically re-enacts (and thus documents or archives) a constitutional
category: the urban Yasaka-shrine taking control over the originally independent
settlement districts. In bringing their local deities in front of the urban shrine, the urban districts demonstrate their loyalty to the superior shrine as a socio-territorial
The origins of these strange cult carts of the town Nanao have to be imagined very
similarly: as a synthesis of an originally rural cult type related to symbols which
are produced with local means and according to ancient traditional rules. In this
context the history of the origins of the festival at Nanao may be of interest. It is attributed
to Minamoto Shitago who - at the end of the 10th century as mentioned - acquired
the protectorate over Noto. He was a highly esteemed literatus and China specialist
serving as administrator in the province for the central government. He founded the
Otoko nushi shrine as the branch shrine of the Hiei shrine of Sakamoto, province
Omi. It was declared as a local shrine of the eastern part of the town and was devoted
to the corresponding territorial deity (jinushi gami)
with the intention to exercise better control over the corresponding population. Historically
the festival was held for the first time in the year 981.
The roots of the festival
Evidently the historical dating refers to the 'urbanised' event. However, many aspects
hint at deeper roots. The composed structure of the festival clearly indicates that
previously independent village festivals were united and focused on a newly founded
central shrine, a practice which remained vital in State Shinto until the Meij period
and was widely practised for increased political control. History then would not
describe the real origins of the festival. Only a synthetic act clearly based on
territorio-political motives is outlined. The name of the shrine too speaks in favour of this.
'the owner of the big and venerable place'. If further we proceed from the legitimate
assumption that in those times sacred seats of deities (yorishiro, kami no za)
played an important role in the cult system, we may well ask how they actually
looked in those times. Doubtless the scenario type of the 'superstructure' did not
exist. The 'castle' type of environment essentially stimulated by European influences
was not known as yet in Heian times. But, very likely, rural traditions as they are still
preserved in villages of the region today can give us clues: decorated structures,
constructed with bamboo and carried around as seats of deities at festivals can be
amply found in the wider region. We must consequently assume that these cult carts have
developed from more simple forms, just as the 'spears' and other symbols of the Gion
festival at Kyoto were secondarily mounted on the heavy carts. For one of these developmental steps we have indirect sources of information. When Hatakeyama Mitsunori, the
builder of the castle, acted as patron, one of the three districts of the town was
given a special status. But according to the laws of those times, this implied that
its inhabitants had to pay themselves for the costs of the festival. As a contribution
to these charges the feudal master granted tax reductions to the particular district.
As a compensation he was allowed to set his 'logo', the heraldic sign of the Hatakeyama on the corresponding seat of the deity. It must have been the first occasion to decorate
the cult objects with flags. Still today this particular urban district (Uomachi)
shows the insignia of the Hatakeyama family on its cart. It is easy to understand
what this means if one knows the territorial component of Shinto religion. The insignia
on the divine seat of his subjects could only be profitable for the feudal master.
As the territorial protector he marked his claims on the 'documents' of the sacred
territorial law locally handed down. He brought the inhabitants of the district under
control in a way which could not have been more intimate. In a further step the feudal
world was realistically reproduced on the top of the mobile seat of the deity, very
likely on the basis of the analogy 'castle on top of the mountain'. Doubtless, the
scenario-like superstructure unfolding like a kabuki stage between the two protruding
fanlike sides is the latest element of the cart structure.
The socio-psychological value of the cult
If the festival in Nanao with its huge cult carts is thus seen against the background
of simple village festivals in the region, we can understand the strong emotional
power of traditional Shinto, particularly in view of its feudalistic idealisation
in the present case. Even the most brilliant photograph could not adequately transmit the
excitement felt by any visitor at the nightly climax of the festival focused on one
of the three wagons. It had been set up in front of the district shrine (Inniyakujinja) of the district Fûchûmachi. Like a huge monster, this cult cart bursts into the narrow
lanes of the town, when, after midnight, the wedges blocking the huge wheels are
taken off and more than 1000 people jubilantly start at the same time to pull the
cords with all their might. With its weight of about 25 tons and its roaring wheels the
mobile seat of the deity develops an autonomous power of potential destruction.
Wedges are hastily put under the wheels from the side here and there, thus trying
to steer the wagon. Or, more precisely, it is thus prevented from destroying the houses along
the narrow lanes. Occasionally, if there is real danger, wedges are set in from the
front to abruptly stop the huge cart. Wobbling, it then stands still. The relief
provokes great laughter. At crossroads too the cart is stopped. As if spit out by the monster,
about 20 boys then come out of the inside. Using wooden levers and lots of manpower
the front wheels are then lifted up with rhythmic songs. The cart is put on a cross
wheel. The whole mass of people now runs into the other lane pulling the ropes into
the new direction. After long manoeuvres they all finally manage to move the cart
in the new direction. Nearly seven hours are needed for the short distance of just
one kilometre to reach the main shrine (Otokonushi jinja). This totally irrational procedure
and the impressive threat of the huge and heavy cart show a surprising contrast in
view of its basic significance: the cart is the mobile seat of the local protector
deity, ujigami. It temporally represents this deity physically. Rather grotesque is
the contrast between the ungainly lower part and the swinging splendour of the upper
structure, floating, high up in the skies, over the roofs of the adjacent houses.
In fact, everyone who has experienced this cult festival will understand the complex
socio-psychological meaning of the entire activity. For several days the irrational
event and the anachronistic cart of the local deity puts all ages and social levels
of the population into contact - in the framework of a crazy sensual and emotional whirl.
Or better still, it unites all human beings in this town.
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