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.

Every decoration used upon the New Year's festival has a meaning of a curious and unfamiliar kind; and the very cornmonest of all - the straw rope - possesses the most complicated symbolism. In the first place it is scarcely necessary to explain that its origin belongs to that most ancient legend of the Sun-Goddess being tempted to issue from the cavern into which she had retired, and being prevented from returning thereunto by a deity who stretched a rope of straw across the entrance - all of which is written in the Kojiki. Next observe that, although the shimenawa may be of any thickness, it must be twisted so that the direction of the twist is to the left; for in ancient Japanese philosophy the left is the 'pure' or fortunate side: owing perhaps to the old belief, common among the uneducated of Europe to this day, that the heart lies to the left. Thirdly, note that the pendent straws, which hang down from the rope at regular intervals, in tufts, like fringing, must be of different numbers according to the place of the tufts, beginning with the number three: so that the first tuft has three straws, the second live, the third seven, the fourth again three, the fifth five, and the sixth seven - and so on, the whole length of the rope. The origin of the pendent paper cuttings (gohei), which alternate with the straw tufts, is likewise to be sought in the legend of the Sun-Goddess; but the gohei also represent offerings of cloth anciently made to the gods according to a custom long obsolete.

But besides the gohei, there are many other things attached to the shimenawa of which you could not imagine the signification. Among these are fern-leaves, bitter oranges, yuzuri-leaves, and little bundles of charcoal.

Why fern-leaves (moromoki or urajiro)? Because the fern-leaf is the symbol of the hope of exuberant posterity: even as it branches and branches so may the happy family increase and multiply through the generations.

Why bitter oranges (daidai)? Because there is a Chinese word daidai signifying 'from generation unto generation.' Wherefore the fruit called daidai has become a fruit of good omen.

But why charcoal (sumi)? It signifies 'prosperous changelessness.' Here the idea is decidedly curious. Even as the colour of charcoal cannot be changed, so may the fortunes of those we love remain for ever unchanged In all that gives happiness! The signification of the yuzuri-leaf I explained in a former paper.

Besides the great shimenawa in front of the house, shimenawa or shimekazari [3] are suspended above the toko, or alcoves, in each apartment; and over the back gate, or over the entrance to the gallery of the second story (if there be a second story), is hung a 'wajime, which is a very small shimekazari twisted into a sort of wreath, and decorated with fern-leaves, gohei, and yuzuri-leaves.

But the great domestic display of the festival is the decoration of the kamidana - the shelf of the Gods. Before the household miya are placed great double rice cakes; and the shrine is beautiful with flowers, a tiny shimekazari, and sprays of sakaki. There also are placed a string of cash; kabu (turnips); daikon (radishes); a tai-fish, which is the 'king of fishes,' dried slices of salt cuttlefish; jinbaso, of 'the Seaweed of the horse of the God'; [4] also the seaweed kombu, which is a symbol of pleasure and of joy, because its name is deemed to be a homonym for gladness; and mochibana, artificial blossoms formed of rice flour and straw.

The sambo is a curiously shaped little table on which offer-ings are made to the Shinto gods; and almost every well-to-do household in hzumo has its own sambo - such a family sambo being smaller, however, than sambo used in the temples. At the advent of the New Year's Festival, bitter oranges, rice, and rice-flour cakes, native sardines (iwashi), chikara-iwai ('strength-rice-bread'), black peas, dried chestnuts, and a fine lobster, are all tastefully arranged upon the family sambo. Before each visitor the sambo is set; and the visitor, by saluting it with a prostration, expresses not only his heartfelt wish that all the good- fortune symbolised by the objects upon the sambo may come to the family, but also his reverence for the household gods. The black peas (mame) signify bodily strength and health, because a word similarly pronounced, though written with a different ideograph, means 'robust.' But why a lobster? Here we have another curious conception. The lobster's body is bent double: the body of the man who lives to a very great old age is also bent. Thus the Lobster stands for a symbol of extreme old age; and in artistic design signifies the wish that our friends may live so long that they will become bent like lobsters - under the weight of years. And the dried chestnut (kachiguri) are emblems of success, because the first character of their name in Japanese is the homonym of kachi, which means 'victory,' 'conquest.'

There are at least a hundred other singular customs and emblems belonging to the New Year's Festival which would require a large volume to describe. I have mentioned only a few which immediately appear to even casual observation.


The other festival I wish, to refer to is that of the Setsubun, which, according to the ancient Japanese calendar, corresponded with the beginning of the natural year - the period when winter first softens into spring. It is what we might term, according to Professor Chamberlain, 'a sort of movable feast'; and it is chiefly famous for the curious ceremony of the casting out of devils - Oni-yarai. On the eve of the Setsubun, a little after dark, the Yaku-otoshi, or caster-out of devils, wanders through the streets from house to house, rattling his shakujo, [5] and uttering his strange professional cry: 'Oni wa soto! - fuku wa uchi!' [Devils out! Good-fortune in!] For a trifling fee he performs his little exorcism in any house to which he is called. This simply consists in the recitation of certain parts of a Buddhist kyo, or sutra, and the rattling of the shakujo Afterwards dried peas (shiro-mame) are thrown about the house in four directions. For some mysterious reason, devils do not like dried peas - and flee therefrom. The peas thus scattered are afterward swept up and carefully preserved until the first clap of spring thunder is heard, when it is the custom to cook and eat some of them. But just why, I cannot find out; neither can I discover the origin of the dislike of devils for dried peas. On the subject of this dislike, however, I confess my sympathy with devils.

After the devils have been properly cast out, a small charm is placed above all the entrances of the dwelling to keep them from coming back again. This consists of a little stick about the length and thickness of a skewer, a single holly-leaf, and the head of a dried iwashi - a fish resembling a sardine. The stick is stuck through the middle of the holly-leaf; and the fish's head is fastened into a split made in one end of the stick; the other end being slipped into some joint of the timber- work immediately above a door. But why the devils are afraid of the holly-leaf and the fish's head, nobody seems to know. Among the people the origin of all these curious customs appears to be quite forgotten; and the families of the upper classes who still maintain such customs believe in the superstitions relating to the festival just as little as Englishmen to-day believe in the magical virtues of mistletoe or ivy.

This ancient and merry annual custom of casting out devils has been for generations a source of inspiration to Japanese artists. It is only after a fair acquaintance with popular customs and ideas that the foreigner can learn to appreciate the delicious humour of many art-creations which he may wish, indeed, to buy just because they are so oddly attractive in themselves, but which must really remain enigmas to him, so far as their inner meaning is concerned, unless he knows Japanese life. The other day a friend gave me a little card-case of perfumed leather. On one side was stamped in relief the face of a devil, through the orifice of whose yawning mouth could be seen - painted upon the silk lining of the interior - the laughing, chubby face of Otafuku, joyful Goddess of Good Luck. In itself the thing was very curious and pretty; but the real merit of its design was this comical symbolism of good wishes for the New Year: 'Oni wa soto! - fuku wa uchi!'


Since I have spoken of the custom of eating some of the Setsubun peas at the time of the first spring thunder, I may here take the opportunity to say a few words about superstitions in regard to thunder which have not yet ceased to prevail among the peasantry.

When a thunder-storm comes, the big brown mosquito curtains are suspended, and the women and children - perhaps the whole family - squat down under the curtains till the storm is over. From ancient days it has been believed that lightning cannot kill anybody under a mosquito curtain. The Raiju, or Thunder-Animal, cannot pass through a mosquito-curtain. Only the other day, an old peasant who came to the house with vegetables to sell told us that he and his whole family, while crouching under their mosquito-netting during a thunderstorm, actually, saw the Lightning rushing up and down the pillar of the balcony opposite their apartment - furiously clawing the woodwork, but unable to enter because of the mosquito-netting. His house had been badly damaged by a flash; but he supposed the mischief to have been accomplished by the Claws of the Thunder-Animal.

The Thunder-Animal springs from tree to tree during a storm, they say; wherefore to stand under trees in time of thunder and lightning is very dangerous: the Thunder-Animal might step on one's head or shoulders. The Thunder-Animal is also alleged to be fond of eating the human navel; for which reason people should be careful to keep their navels well covered during storms, and to lie down upon their stomachs if possible. Incense is always burned during storms, because the Thunder-Animal hates the smell of incense. A tree stricken by lightning is thought to have been torn and scarred by the claws of the Thunder-Animal; and fragments of its bark and wood are carefully collected and preserved by dwellers in the vicinity; for the wood of a blasted tree is alleged to have the singular virtue of curing toothache.

There are many stories of the Raiju having been caught and caged. Once, it is said, the Thunder-Animal fell into a well, and got entangled in the ropes and buckets, and so was captured alive. And old Izumo folk say they remember that the Thunder-Animal was once exhibited in the court of the Temple of Tenjin in Matsue, inclosed in a cage of brass; and that people paid one sen each to look at it. It resembled a badger. When the weather was clear it would sleep contentedly in its, cage. But when there was thunder in the air, it would become excited, and seem to obtain great strength, and its eyes would flash dazzlingly.


There is one very evil spirit, however, who is not in the least afraid of dried peas, and who cannot be so easily got rid of as the common devils; and that is Bimbogami.

But in Izumo people know a certain household charm whereby Bimbogami may sometimes be cast out.

Before any cooking is done in a Japanese kitchen, the little charcoal fire is first blown to a bright red heat with that most useful and simple household utensil called a hifukidake. The hifukidake ('fire- blow-bamboo') is a bamboo tube usually about three feet long and about two inches in diameter. At one end - the end which is to be turned toward the fire - only a very small orifice is left; the woman who prepares the meal places the other end to her lips, and blows through the tube upon the kindled charcoal. Thus a quick fire may be obtained in a few minutes.

In course of time the hifukidake becomes scorched and cracked and useless. A new 'fire-blow-tube' is then made; and the old one is used as a charm against Bimbogami. One little copper coin (rin) is put into it, some magical formula is uttered, and then the old utensil, with the rin inside of it, is either simply thrown out through the front gate into the street, or else flung into some neighbouring stream. This - I know not why - is deemed equivalent to pitching Bimbogami out of doors, and rendering it impossible for him to return during a considerable period.

It may be asked how is the invisible presence of Bimbogami to be detected.

The little insect which makes that weird ticking noise at night called in England the Death-watch has a Japanese relative named by the people Bimbomushi, or the 'Poverty-Insect.' It is said to be the servant of Bimbogami, the God of Poverty; and its ticking in a house is believed to signal the presence of that most unwelcome deity.


One more feature of the Setsubun festival is worthy of mention - the sale of the hitogata ('people-shapes'). These: are little figures, made of white paper, representing men, women, and children. They are cut out with a few clever scissors strokes; and the difference of sex is indicated by variations in the shape of the sleeves and the little paper obi. They are sold in the Shinto temples. The purchaser buys one for every member of the family - the priest writing upon each the age and sex of the person for whom it is intended. These hitogata are then taken home and distributed; and each person slightly rubs his body or her body with the paper, and says a little Shinto prayer. Next day the hitogata are returned to the kannushi, who, after having recited certain formulae over them, burns them with holy fire. [6] By this ceremony it is hoped that all physical misfortunes will be averted from the family during a year.