Chapter Five. Two Strange Festivals

THE outward signs of any Japanese matsuri are the most puzzling of enigmas to the stranger who sees them for the first time. They are many and varied; they are quite unlike anything in the way of holiday decoration ever seen in the Occident; they have each a meaning founded upon some belief or some tradition - a meaning known to every Japanese child; but that meaning is utterly impossible for any foreigner to guess. Yet whoever wishes to know something of Japanese popular life and feeling must learn the signification of at least the most common among festival symbols and tokens. Especially is such knowledge necessary to the student of Japanese art: without it, not only the delicate humour and charm of countless designs must escape him, but in many instances the designs themselves must remain incomprehensible to him. For hundreds of years the emblems of festivity have been utilised by the Japanese in graceful decorative ways: they figure in metalwork, on porcelain, on the red or black lacquer of the humblest household utensils, on little brass pipes, on the clasps of tobacco-pouches. It may even be said that the majority of common decorative design is emblematical. The very figures of which the meaning seems most obvious - those matchless studies [1] of animal or vegetable life with which the Western curio-buyer is most familiar - have usually some ethical signification which is not perceived at all. Or take the commonest design dashed with a brush upon the fusuma of a cheap hotel - a lobster, sprigs of pine, tortoises waddling in a curl of water, a pair of storks, a spray of bamboo. It is rarely that a foreign tourist thinks of asking why such designs are used instead of others, even when he has seen them repeated, with slight variation, at twenty different places along his route. They have become conventional simply because they are emblems of which the sense is known to all Japanese, however ignorant, but is never even remotely suspected by the stranger.

The subject is one about which a whole encyclopaedia might be written, but about which I know very little - much too little for a special essay. But I may venture, by way of illustration, to speak of the curious objects exhibited during two antique festivals still observed in all parts of Japan.


The first is the Festival of the New Year, which lasts for three days. In Matsue its celebration is particularly interesting, as the old city still preserves many matsuri customs which have either become, or are rapidly becoming, obsolete elsewhere. The streets are then profusely decorated, and all shops are closed. Shimenawa or shimekazari - the straw ropes which have been sacred symbols of Shinto from the mythical age - are festooned along the faades of the dwellings, and so inter-joined that you see to right or left what seems but a single mile-long shimenawa, with its straw pendents and white fluttering paper gohei, extending along either side of the street as far as the eye can reach. Japanese flags - bearing on a white ground the great crimson disk which is the emblem of the Land of the Rising Sun - flutter above the gateways; and the same national emblem glows upon countless paper lanterns strung in rows along the eaves or across the streets and temple avenues. And before every gate or doorway a kadomatsu ('gate pine-tree') has been erected. So that all the ways are lined with green, and full of bright colour.

The kadomatsu is more than its name implies. It is a young pine, or part of a pine, conjoined with plum branches and bamboo cuttings. [2] Pine, plum, and bamboo are growths of emblematic significance. Anciently the pine alone was used; but from the era of O-ei, the bamboo was added; and within more recent times the plum-tree.

The pine has many meanings. But the fortunate one most generally accepted is that of endurance and successful energy in time of misfortune. As the pine keeps its green leaves when other trees lose their foliage, so the true man keeps his courage and his strength in adversity. The pine is also, as I have said elsewhere, a symbol of vigorous old age.

No European could possibly guess the riddle of the bamboo. It represents a sort of pun in symbolism. There are two Chinese characters both pronounced setsu - one signifying the node or joint of the bamboo, and the other virtue, fidelity, constancy. Therefore is the bamboo used as a felicitous sign. The name 'Setsu,' be it observed, is often given to Japanese maidens - just as the names 'Faith,' 'Fidelia,' and 'Constance' are given to English girls.

The plum-tree - of whose emblematic meaning I said something in a former paper about Japanese gardens - is not invariably used, however; sometimes sakaki, the sacred plant of Shinto, is substituted for it; and sometimes only pine and bamboo form the kadomatsu.