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City Matsuri

In this post, I would like to talk about another article from Issue 267/268 of the Journal of Shintō Studies, “Urban Festivals as a Local Resource for Social Interconnectivity: Redevelopment of Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, and the Kanda Festival”, by Akino Jun’ichi. This is pretty much the polar opposite of the last article I wrote about, because it concerns the way in which one of the largest matsuri in Japan, the Kanda Matsuri, has responded to a recent surge in the population of its ujiko, including the arrival of dozens of children.

(This is, incidentally, a good illustration of one of the biggest problems Japan faces at the moment — oversimplifying, everyone is moving to Tokyo.)

The Kanda Matsuri is held every other year, and is based on Kanda Jinja, an important and old jinja in the heart of Tokyo that is commonly known as Kanda Myōjin. It claims to be the general ujigami (protective kami) for the whole of Edo, the capital of the Tokugawa shōgun, and thus for a substantial chunk of central Tokyo. However, it also has more specific areas for which it is the ujigami. 

In the Edo period (roughly 1600 to 1865), there were two matsuri that were particularly important: the Kanda Matsuri, and the Sannō Matsuri, which was associated with Hië Jinja, near the shōgun’s castle (the modern Imperial palace). The residents of Edo used to spend absurd amounts of money on the floats and celebrations, to the point that the shōgun restricted them to alternate years and kept issuing proclamations to limit expenditure — which did not work. My understanding is that pretty much every part of Edo that was home to ordinary citizens and tradespeople, as opposed to the daimyō lords visiting from their domains around the country, was attached to one or other of these matsuri, and contributed a float or performance of some sort.

Dr Akino has done extensive research on the Kanda Matsuri, and published a book on it (which I have not yet read). One of the topics of his research is the role that these matsuri play in creating the local community, and in the article he looks at an area that he had not studied in depth for the book, in Nihonbashi. Nihonbashi contains the border between the Kanda and Hië regions of Tokyo, and is a major commercial region. As a result, its night-time population dropped from 1955 to 1995, as people moved out and companies moved in, and then started to grow again, as high-rise apartment blocks were built. This led to the resident population doubling or tripling, depending on the precise part of the area, and as many of the apartments were designed for young families, a lot of children became local residents.

In response, a lot of the traditional local organisations, often called “chōnaikai”, although the name used by the group varies from one place to another, have taken steps to get new residents involved. These groups are not formally part of the government now, although I think they were in the past, and they are often responsible for the matsuri at local jinja, and for providing support in the aftermath of disasters. They should, therefore, be motivated to get everyone involved, and it seems that the ones in Nihonbashi are.

The article looks at a number of their strategies, and picks out one that seems to be particularly successful: having a children’s mikoshi in the matsuri. These are different from the mikoshi carried by adults in a number of ways, apart from being smaller. First, they are not formally part of the ceremonies at Kanda Jinja, as I understand it. Second, they are not part of the tourist attraction parades. The parades of the adult mikoshi at the Kanda Matsuri are watched by crowds of tourists from across Tokyo, but the children’s mikoshi are not; people who are passing by probably say, “Aaah, how cute!”, and take photographs on their phones, but no-one lines the streets. One of the analytical categories in the article divides elements in a matsuri into “the things that are seen by tourists” and “the things that are not seen by tourists”, and children’s mikoshi are in the latter category.

On the other hand, they are very popular with the children, with dozens turning up, accompanied by their parents. The chōnaikai do often put up advertising posters, but recruitment mainly happens by word of mouth, and the qualifications for participation are kept deliberately vague, I think so that they do not have to tell one child in a group that they can’t participate. It seems, from the reports of several organisers, that a critical feature in recruitment is establishing a reputation for giving out good snacks.

Yes, the children come for the free food.

Given that the event only happens every two years (or every year at most, as it can also be held in the “off” year because it is not directly part of the main matsuri), one could wonder just how effective it is at building social capital. However, it brings people together, with an immediate topic of conversation (their children and the mikoshi), and so I suspect that it is more effective than the frequency would suggest. This may, then, increase the resilience of the area, by ensuring that it is not inhabited by strangers when a disaster hits, as well as creating a sense of connection to the matsuri and the jinja.

If we compare this to the post about rural jinja with no ujiko, we have a very clear example of the difference between jinja. Strategies that make sense for Kanda Jinja or for smaller, local jinja in Nihonbashi make no sense at all for jinja in rural Kōchi. You cannot have a children’s mikoshi if there are no children, or, indeed, adults of child-bearing age, in the local area.

The problems faced by jinja are local, and the solutions must be, too.

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5 thoughts on “City Matsuri”

  1. I think the just announced real estate loans finally being offered to foreigners, combined with the new taxes on abandoned houses, will go a long way to help bring more people to the countryside. Considering that only cash buyers have, up to this point, been the ones able to participate in the Japanese real estate market it seemed counterintuitive, as they are primarily developers and investors. Giving others the opportunity to purchase homes they actually plan to inhabit as their primary residence seems like a no-brainer and will hopefully have a positive impact on Japan’s depopulation problem.

    1. Well, I hope something works. I don’t think there are enough foreigners in Japan to make a significant difference, though. (And it has been possible for foreigners to get real estate loans for years — I got one more than a decade ago. Banks may have been encouraged to be a bit less selective, though, because it wasn’t easy when I did it.) The tax changes may help, but I suspect the main impact will be getting empty houses into the akiya banks, because the problem isn’t people hanging on to buildings they are not using to make a profit, it’s that no-one wants to buy them. It’s a difficult problem, obviously, and every little will help.

      1. I’m sorry. Foreigners was the wrong word. “International” buyers who don’t have any income reported in Japan do not have many, if any, loan options for purchasing real estate in Japan. Even banks in the US do not like giving traditional real estate loans for properties in Japan regardless of how the numbers skew (in fact I had a much easier time getting an unsecured loan than one for a prop in Japan). I’ve been in contact with a dozen agents in Japan and banks in the US who have all told me that while loans are not an option they would be happy to discuss all cash deals. Oddly enough Chinese buyers seem to have the easiest time securing loans for Japanese real estate through state run bank programs. Odd of course bc of the historical and everyday geopolitical tensions that surround Japan and China. It seems obvious to me similar programs would and should be made available to qualified buyers in the US but that is just one person’s opinion. Thanks again for the interesting posts! I’m always excited to see when something new has been posted!

        1. Ah, yes, if you are not legally resident in Japan I can see things being much more difficult. Good luck!

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