Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Curious festivals in Japan are just more reasons to love it

Thanks to a good tip from my mother I watched a great documentary episode on Japan recently, on a BBC program called Feasts, hosted by food writer Stefan Gates. What I loved about it is although it focused on a couple of rather quirky festivals in specific parts of Japan, the host managed to extrapolate a lot of accurate ideas about how the Japanese think, live and work from his experiences. As you know, I love the Japanese and am fascinated by their unique outlook on life. If you get a chance to see this show I really highly recommend it. But if not, I'm going to tell you a few of the best bits (spoiler alert!).

Sumo wrestlers (not baby ones!) at Osaka Castle Park
One of the festivals Stefan Gates visited was a Baby Sumo Festival in a small town (apparently they're held across Japan!). I certainly wondered what this would involve, and was glad there was no actual wrestling, but it is still rather odd. Babies - hundreds of them - gather once a year and are then placed on cushions facing another baby with the judge between them (and mothers behind them - most of these babies can't even sit up properly yet). The winner is the one who cries first. And it's an honour to win. Such an honour (and good luck - they believe crying babies will be healthy babies) that some of the mothers were secretly pinching their babies to make them cry! An odd experience, yes, but a typical example of a festival in Japan that gives a spot of sunshine into people's busy lives there, a focus for a day that's completely different. I often got the feeling when I was living in Japan that people found it quite hard to relax, there was such a focus on working hard and achieving all the "right" things, and perhaps a festival like this is a good excuse for people to feel they have permission to relax and do something out of their routine.

Drummers during Hanami - cherry blossom celebrations
And the other main festival I saw on this show backs up this idea very well. It was the Naked Man Festival (Hadaka Matsuri) and the presenter was introduced to Kosaki-san, a man who annually took part in this event. Basically, it involves thousands of nearly naked men flocking to a small area in front of a temple and then one "chosen" man must make his way through the crowd (while completely naked) to the safety of the temple. It's remarkably dangerous because everyone wants to touch his shaven head for good luck, and they've nearly all had copious amounts of sake before the event begins. Apparently there are regular injuries and have been deaths - I remember hearing the same about a local festival where I lived in Japan, and being shocked that people would continue to take part. But they do, and this program especially showed how these hard-working men had this one day of the year to completely break out of their shell and go crazy. I wonder if it's the moments like these that keep these men sane.

I know from my own experiences in Japan that life is not easy for many Japanese. There are huge societal expectations placed on them, and they themselves are raised with high expectations for themselves, plus there are so many societal norms that tell them how it is okay to behave. In particular, the students I taught who had lived overseas for a year or more (often for study abroad programs) found it really hard to fit back into Japanese society when they returned. I guess their reverse culture shock is significantly worse than ours. But at the same time as wondering if it is just too difficult to be a Japanese person, I can also see that these things make Japan what it is, such a wonderful place to visit and a country full of incredibly welcoming people. Good with the bad, I guess. Anyone have any experiences to add?

(Okayama Naked Man Festival by kate nev via Creative Commons- glad it's blurry so I don't need to warn you of naked people - oh dear, this post is going to get some strange google results in ...)


  1. Such interesting insights, and a glimpse of Japan that really made me feel right there with you. I hadn't thought about how hard it might be for returning Japanese, but you're right, their lifestyle is so diametrically opposed to, and so much more intricate than ours in the West that reverse culture shock must strike hard - that is, I guess, if they have embraced the Western lifestyle.

    1. Yes, exactly Jo - for those Japanese who find they fit well into our lifestyle and get used to thinking and acting differently - they find it very hard to fit back in again. Several I know found they actually just had to leave and live abroad.

  2. we caught the end of that show too - just the naked man festival. It was a really innteresting doco. We never saw any festivals like those in Japan - the ones we saw were much tamer! I think you make a good point about the festivals being a great way for the Japanese to let their hair down, so to speak, for a day. Life there is pretty intense and they really do step outside their normal routine for these festivals. x

    1. Glad you saw some of it, I agree it was really well done.


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