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.

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.

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 institution.

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. Otokonushi, '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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