Jinja-Honcho -The Association of Shinto Shrines-

The Paradigm of Matsuri

Japanese in New WindowThe Renewal of Life-Power

The matsuri or Shinto festival is a religious and cultural phenomenon characteristic of local communities in Japan. Even in present-day Tokyo, a number of festivals are held every year, for example, the kanda matsuri and the sanja matsuri in May, the sanno matsuri in June, and the sumiyoshi matsuri in July.

The essential motif of the matsuri is the renewal of life-power among the kami and human beings in a given life-space. This renewal occurs through a set of symbolic action in which people collectively welcome and extend hospitality to the kami in an effort to enrich his benevolent power and appropriate this power in their own lives. *1

Generally, every local community, whether in city, town, or village, has its own ujigami shrine. The Japanese word uji means "clan", and ujigami denotes the clan's guardian kami, the kami who look after family and community life. All the members of a given community are considered ujiko or 'children of the clan,' hence 'children of the clam kami.' The relationship between ujigami and ujiko is; in other words, analogous to that between parents and their children. This relationship serves as one of the traditional principles by which Japanese group life is ordered. From this perspective it may be said that Shrine Shinto has superimposed a kind of archaic kinship system on territorially defined social units.

*1 Several forms of religious pollution regarded as draining vitality or endangering life are carefully avoided by participants in a matsuri. In ancient times the main sources of pollution were birth, menstruation, eating meat, sickness, death among humans and domestic animals, etc.-all of which may be drawn together under the headings 'blood' and 'death'. Subsequently, the idea of pollution took on a more spiritual or inward meaning. Even today, however, anything connected with death is kept separate from matsuri event. If, for example, someone in the community dies, the funeral is put off until after the festival, and people who have lost a member of their immediate family during the preceding year refrain from participating in the festival preparations and activities.

Japanese in New WindowRitual and Festivity

The Shinto festival, to begin with a general reflection, can be considered as made up of two contrasting but complementary elements: ritual and festivity. 'Ritual' is here defined as ceremonial action carried out according to prescribed forms in decorous fashion in an atmosphere of solemnity. 'Festivity,' on the other hand, is symbolic action carried out with spontaneity, confusion, and great excitement.

In Shinto ceremonies generally, the ritual elements are primary and essential, the festive secondary and dispensable. In the matsuri, however, both elements are essential. Festivity, though it may be absent from other Shinto ceremonies, is a feature common to all matsuri.

The organization of ritual and festive elements in the Shinto festival closely resembles the treatment Japanese people accord an honored guest*2. This treatment can be divided into five stages: preparation, going out to meet the guest and conduct him to the place of entertainment, offering food and hospitality, communication, and seeing him off.

Ritual action can likewise be regarded as involving five stages: purification, invocation, offering, participation, and seeing off. The first stage, purification, refers to symbolic actions such as sweeping and washing-actions intended to remove all sin and pollution both from the participants and from the place where the ritual is to be performed. In the second stage priests invoke the deity to approach the alter through symbolic actions such as the uttering of the keihitsu (a solemn ritual cry here meaning approximately 'make ready for the arrival'), the playing of the classical stringed instrument known as the koto, or simply opening the altar doors. The third stage consists of offering to the deity a variety of food dishes carefully laid out on plain wood tables reserved for this purpose. The stage of participation includes a strong emphasis on communication. The priest's recital of a ritual prayer (norito) and the worship of those present ensures that they will share in the favor of the kami. An ancient Shinto belief has it that beautiful, propitious words will arouse the goodwill of the deity, whereas ill-chosen language will arouse his hostility. Sincere communication of an effective norito not only simulates the kami to be favorably inclined but also allows those present to participate in his beneficence. The last stage, seeing the deity off, again makes use of such symbolic actions as the keihitsu (now meaning 'make ready for the departure'), the playing of the koto or closing the altar doors.

The central motif symbolized by these five stages of ritual action may be identified as invoking and participating in the beneficence of the kami. In accordance with the religious context of Shinto vitalism, this motif may be summarized in the phrase 'life-participation.'

Festivity can likewise be considered as involving five stages: sacralization, setting in motion, lively motion, animation, and standing still. The first is a stage of preparation in which people with major roles, together with some fo the other participants, having already been cleansed from sin an pollution and separated from the mundance world by certain ascetic practice such as seclusion, fasting, frequent bathing, and the like, now don costumes and masks. This action itself means that the spirit of the kami rests on them in a special way, that they are representations of the kami, possessed by his spirit. Carriers of the mikoshi (a scaled-down portable shrine), for example, automatically become bearers of the deity's spirit. The second stage consists of the emergence of the symbolic vehicle (portable shrine or float invested with the spirit of the deity). The departure from the shrine of the procession accompanying this vehicle symbolizes the advent of the deity into the life-space of his people and their conducting of the deity to the place where the central symbolic actions occur. The third stage involves vigorous, rhythmic actions on the part of the performers, actions so exciting that even the spectators are caught up in it. The fourth stage refers to a stage of collective ecstasy in which the distinction between performers and spectators is obliterated. This stage of collective ecstasy symbolizes a flow of life between kami and participants, a flow of such a nature that it not only erases distinctions between participants but also increasesthe vitality of the kami. The last stage refers to the quieting down that occurs in the action of the participants, a stillness symbolic of the repose that then comes over the kami.

The central motif in these five stages of festive action may be characterized as an increase of vitality among both kami and people. This motif is here identified with the phrase 'life-animation.'

*2 One can also see today many secularized festivities such as the song fest (uta-matsuri), art festival (geijutsu-sai), folk music festival (min'yo-matsuri), discount sale festival (uridashi-matsuri), and peace festival (heiwa-sai). All make use of the colorful, crowd-drawing excitement characteristic of the festivity.

Japanese in New WindowThe Symbolic Stages

According to this paradigm, a matsuri thus involves a number of symbolic actions, some of a ritual nature, some of a festive. Sometimes the ritual and festive actions are consecutive, sometimes simultaneous, but in many cases they are too intricately related to permit more than a general distinction. This may be due in part to the fact that the distinction between ritual and festivity employed in this inquiry is only a general, not a detailed one. It is possible, nonetheless, to indicate for each of the five stages whether the festive or ritual aspect is dominant.

The first stage is the complex of rites that take place the night before the festival and signify the completion of preparations for conducting the deity to the place he will be honored. After several kinds of purificatory rites (rites to remove pollution, preceded and accompanied by abstention from certain foods, from sexual relations, etc.), late at night rituals are performed whereby the spirit of the deity is installed in the symbolic vehicle in preparation for the procession to take place the next day. It is generally performed in secret by the priest, with a handful of parishioners in attendance, at the shrines or other place away from public view.

The second stage may be exemplified by the procession of the deity from the shrine to the o-tabisho, a place where the symbolic vehicle is put down so the deity can rest from the trip. This place, often identified as the birthplace of the deity or a place where he has specially manifested himself, is generally considered the most appropriate spot for the enrichment of the deity's vitality. The stage itself can be characterized as one of festive action constituted by conducting the deity either on a tour of the life-space of the parishioners or to the sacred place where the deity's vitality will be enriched. The action performed at this stage is generally on a large scale, but it does not reach a degree of intensity sufficient to signify increase of vitality or 'life-animation' because the major prerequisite, the ritual symbolizing invocation of and participation in the beneficence of the deity ('life-participation'), has not yet been enacted.

The main ritual of 'life-participation' occurs in the third stage. The ceremony at the o-tabisho is performed in grand style with great symbolic richness and with more participants than at any preceding stage. At this sacred place the deity is 're-animated' partly by the return to the 'well' of his birth, partly by the treatment accorded him by his people. He is stimulated to feel goodwill for them, and they in turn participate in his beneficence.

The fourth stage, predominantly festive in character, expresses the increase of vitality ritually prepared for in the third stage. The return trip of the deity to the shrine is full of lively activity expressive of the freshly enriched life both of the deity and of the participants. The streets are filled with turmoil and excitement as the crowds of participants and spectators share in the vitality of the newly animated deity.

The last stage, one of ritual action, is that in which the priest, accompanied by a small number of people, transfers the spirit of the deity from the symbolic vehicle back to the shrine. Expressing gratitude for his favor and beneficence, the participants symbolically lead the spirit from the excitement of the preceding stage to a state of calm and repose.

This paradigm of matsuri should be regarded as an ideal type presented as an aid in the interpretation of actual matsuri.