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Saturday, Oct. 7, 2006


Tell me, just whose festival is it, anyhow?

October is a great month for festivals in Japan and our island is no exception. The Shiraishi Aki Matsuri is my favorite event of the year. It's a time when you meet your neighbors at 8 a.m. and start toasting to the Shinto gods. The matsuri men come out and pull the mikoshi and all-day merriment follows.

News photo
A young virgin dances for the Shinto gods at Shiraishi Island's fall festival. AMY CHAVEZ PHOTO

The point of the festival is to please the gods who live on our island and who have lived here for thousands of years, watching over and protecting us.

The Shiraishi Aki Matsuri is one of the few real festivals left in Japan, that is put on merely for the sake of the Shinto gods, and not for commercial gain. There is not one yatai selling food or trinkets. It's just pure respect to the gods.

There are four gods in particular that we aim to please. They live in Shisha Shrine in the side of the mountain. On the day of the fall festival, young virgins dance for them inside the shrine and then we take the gods for a spin around the island in mikoshi, portable shrines, so they can get out a bit. Each neighborhood on our island has their own mikoshi and we each take turns taking the gods to visit Ebisu Jinja, a shrine on the beach, and Kompirasan, where the god of the sea lives.

But this year would be different. Our neighborhood decided to not use our mikoshi this year because we didn't have enough people to pull it. Absurd, I thought. We have 27 houses in our neighborhood. Furthermore, our neighborhood has the most children of any on the island -- nine children between the ages of 2 and 7.

Children love the mikoshi because they get to ride inside it and bang on the taiko drum while we all pull it. When other people on the island heard we weren't bringing out our mikoshi this year, they all said the same thing; "the poor kids!"

In our defense, one of the parents of a 3- and 5-year-old said he asked his kids if they wanted the mikoshi out this year and they said they didn't care either way. Great, we are leaving tradition in the hands of 3- and 5-year-olds!

It wasn't until the next day that I understood that we really didn't have enough people to pull the mikoshi, and why.

I happened to be talking to Mrs. Amano, from a different neighborhood, and I asked her how she enjoyed the festival. "Oh, very nice," she said. "But, I could not pull the mikoshi. I could only serve sake at our neighborhood's tent. We have 10 relatives over the age of 80 in our family, so I think it's going to be a long time before I can pull the mikoshi again."

She was referring to a custom in Japan that if a family member dies, no one can participate in festivals for a year out of respect for the deceased. On Shiraishi, this extends to even cousins.

On islands like ours where many families are related, one death can wipe out the festival participants for that entire neighborhood. And as the population here continues to decrease, the fall festival may become extinct as people die, literally taking their traditions with them. It's a dead assault on the culture.

One of the matsuri men in our neighborhood who is always at the front pulling the mikoshi missed out on the festival two years in a row because his mother passed away during the time of the festival last year. A double whammy.

I wonder though. Isn't this perhaps taking respect a little too far? I mean, what about the gods? Has anyone thought about what they will do if there is no one left who is allowed to look after them? After all, the fall festival is supposed to be for them.

Makes you wonder why they don't just change the rules. Or at least put out a mikoshi especially for the deceased. Then the departed could take part. They would enjoy that. After all, why should death stop anyone from having fun?

Besides, how do you know when you're dead? My guess is that you don't, so having a mikoshi for the deceased would help them make the transition. They would get the chance to take part in one last festival with all their family members.

If not, we may soon have to deal with a bunch of disgruntled Shinto gods.

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