Matsuri: Festival and Rite in Japanese Life
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Translator's Postscript: Matsuri in Japanese Religious Life

Norman Havens

Recent years have seen a renewal of interest in Japanese religion, particularly in that body of ritual, belief, and tradition which used to be so sanguinely, and unequivocally, referred to as "Shinto[Glossary: shinto]." There is a growing concern that the very term "Shinto" is at very least long overdue for more critical historical and methodological investigation.1

The subject of Japanese matsuri[Glossary: matsuri] forms a timely issue in this context, and while not expressly designed with that end in mind, it may be that the five essays translated here will be of some benefit in shedding light on at least one aspect of Shinto and Japanese ethnic religiosity, while also introducing the reader -- in rather random fashion, to be sure -- to the kind of research being done on this subject by Japanese scholars in recent years.

The term matsuri is most commonly associated with the spectacular seasonal "festivals" observed as cultural traditions throughout Japan, but it has a much broader range of specialized uses as well. These can range from the most informal sense of most any "gala," as when the term is prefixed with the honorific "o" (see Yanagawa's article) to the most serious theological definitions pointing to the ideal of what matsuri in spirit should be.

The latter kinds of definitions usually take their focus from the etymology of the term. For example, Sonoda Minoru notes that "matsuri is the noun form of the verb matsuru or matsurau, words which mean 'to serve one's superior with respect.' This meaning is evident from its use in such compounds as tatematsuru (to offer up service) and tsukaematsuru (to attend humbly). The word matsu - 'to wait' - denotes the state of mind of those 'serving' a deity and 'waiting' for the divine manifestation through 'divine words' (mikoto)."2 Kamata Jun'ichi adds that the root matsu also has the significance of waiting "for or upon something presently unseen to come to a place where it can be seen or approached, and it further includes the sense of greeting the visitor with cordiality."3 Based on these interpretations, the theological sense given to matsuri is probably closest to the English terms "to worship" or "to show reverence."

In addition, expressions of matsuri can be classified as to whether they fall into that class of rites common to all shrines (stipulated in accordance with law previous to World War II, after the war designated by the Association of Shinto Shrines), or whether they are "special rites" (tokushu shinji) unique to the individual shrine in question. It is this latter class of observances which we most commonly associate with the carnival or "play" element involved in Japanese festivals.

Needless to say, these two meanings are by no means mutually exclusive, and it may not be quite true to say that Japanese festivals have always been secular affairs."4 Not only do matsuri as pageant invariably involve "divine ceremonies," but the very assertion of secularity depends on its contrast to a specialized sense of the "religious" which may not always be appropriate in discussions of Japanese life.5 Further, it can be pointed out that even that aspect of "play" found in matsuri originates in the presentation of sacred entertainments to the divinity in the form of kan-nigiwai, or "divine amusement."6

At the same time, it is true that matsuri involve a mobilization of what we would today term "secular powers" to an extent not commonly encountered in the context of Western religions. This comes out most forcefully when we confront the fact that matsuri as "worship" has long been closely associated with the term matsuri-goto (the "activity of worship"), a term which through time came to be associated with the political activity of "governing."

It is this latter aspect which indeed highlights one of the most important characteristics of Japanese matsuri, namely the fact that they have typically centered on observances to divine powers having some particularistic relationship to the social group doing the worshiping. As a result, the term matsuri can be used to refer to observances held by sociological units extending from the individual household up to and including the entire nation. In short, the matsuri is part of what Sonoda has called the "communal religion" of a Gemeinschaft or "ascribed community" - the community into which one is thrown by fate - in contrast to the specialized religious group, or "religious community" which one may enter of his or her free choice.7 The historical debate surrounding this issue, namely of the original nature of the social group involved in matsuri, is the subject as well of Harada Toshiaki's article here.

Also closely reflecting the particularistic nature of matsuri and their association with a given socio-political unit, the administration of matsuri was in ancient times the province of the leader of the community, whether the patriarch in the case of a single family or lineage group, or the emperor in the case of the nation. As intimated by the term matsuri-goto, the socio-political ruler legitimated his rule over everyday life by his simultaneous "rule" over the non-everyday activity of worship. This aspect of matsuri is reflected here in the articles by Sonoda, Magi and, particularly Nakamaki, where the emphasis on the participation and reflection of "secular" powers within otherwise "religious" rites is shown to be maintained even today within many localities. Even where the religious ceremonies themselves are directly administered by members of a specialized priesthood, the local socio-political leaders of the community do not fail to become involved in an important way, and as Nakamaki shows, in some cases the allocation of roles in local matsuri continue to directly reflect important facets of the community's social structure.

Another feature of matsuri which must be noted is their characteristic as rites of passage. As part of their definition of matsuri, Shinto historians and theologians often note the basic stages crucial to any Shinto worship. Ono Sokyô, for example, states that matsuri has four such elements, including (1) purification (harai[Glossary: harai,_harae]); (2) offerings (shinsen); (3) litany (norito[Glossary: norito]); and (4) a communal feast (naorai[Glossary: naorai]).8 Other elements are of course present as well,9 but on the basis of the four given here one can interpret matsuri as rites of passage along the lines of research initiated by Arnold van Gennep and continued more recently by Victor Turner.10 A rite of passage takes an individual or social group through a process leading from one stable state to another, and includes the three phases of "separation" from the profane world, an intervening "liminal" period when participants are located "betwixt and between" static social states, and a final stage of "reincorporation," when participants are reintegrated once more to the profane world.

In this sense, purification, the first stage of matsuri noted above, can be read as the phase of separation, in which not only are profane pollutions removed from the worshiper, but the worshiper is also removed from the profane world. The two central stages involving offerings and prayers represent the heightened sense of worshipers in the presence of the sacred, while the concluding communal repast represents the third phase of reincorporation to profane life.

Also characteristic of matsuri as rites of passage is their strong seasonal orientation. Most local matsuri were originally dedicated to ancestral or natural divinities intimately associated with what might be called the "physiological" basis of the social community, namely food crops, rice above all.11 As a result, matsuri have historically remained closely linked to the lunar agricultural calendar, leading to a distinctive dual structure in the ritual cycle. In many areas, the ritual calendar revolved around the binary axes of two important observances, one held in conjunction with the lunar new year, at which time prayers were directed to the kami in hopes of good crops, and the other in summer or fall, in connection with either the "all saints" festival (Bon), or the giving of thanks for bountiful harvest. In any case, such festival periods represented "time-out-of-time," the liminal "nodes" between and linking the normal sections of everyday life. During such times, ancestors and other divine powers were believed to make journeys to and from the human community, taking up residence in the rice field in spring, and returning to their mountain abode -- the other world -- in fall. As part of this process, the human community was temporarily sacralized by the irruption of the sacred, the miare or what Eliade calls a "hierophany" during the intense period of matsuri.12

Such seasonal nodes, whether fixed within a cyclical communal calendar or observed contingently within the life of a unique individual in the form of "life-crisis" rites, are often called by the Japanese hare[Glossary: hare_--_ke] in contrast to the ke of the ordinary.13 Hare events, like the kami worshiped on such occasions, are sources of non-everyday power, or as Victor Turner has said, "liminal" times, times in which cultural order is exposed to the marginal, threatening power of asocial chaos. It is this theme which forms the subject of Sonoda Minoru's article here, which advises us to pay more attention to the "night side" of creative chaos found in matsuri. Professor Yanagawa's paper is also suggestive in proposing that more attention be paid to the sensate aspects of psychophysiological sensations in creating that unique state of non-everyday consciousness which seems to be characteristic of the matsuri.14

The movement from the everyday to the non-everyday world of matsuri is expressed most vividly in the procession of the portable altar, or mikoshi[Glossary: mikoshi], which in many festivals bears the divinity from its permanent shrine residence to a "temporary shrine" (the o-tabisho, literally, the "traveling place") in the midst of the profane community By this invasion by the sacred, the profane community is sacralized for the duration of the festival, throwing the ordered everyday social order into a non-everyday situation which, particularly in such observances as those described here by Sonoda, fully deserves the rubric "chaos." In that unordered or antinomian condition, the unity and stable regularity of the everyday sedentary community is threatened not only by the chaos of non-everyday time, but also by what might be called the individual, self-centered desires of the individuals making up that community.

By reducing the ordered community to this kind of elemental, almost primal state,15 not only is recognition made of the fragility of human community, but as well of the necessity of the ordered social patterns which operate on an everyday basis to forestall such chaos. This aspect of matsuri is exemplified in the procession of the mikoshi, in which it lurches this way and that in what might better be called a rampage through the community's streets. The drunken bearers of the mikoshi can be said to be possessed by the powerful chaos of the non-everyday sacred, and reflect in that sense the potentially centrifugal forces inherent in any group of disordered individuals. At the same time, while the mikoshi is borne along by this possessed group of bearers, it is their combined and -- minimally to be sure -- orderly cooperation which carries it along on its appointed path. As Sonoda notes, the mikoshi may take three hours to move a distance normally walkable in ten minutes, but whatever the case, the mikoshi does not fail to arrive. The procession of the mikoshi thus well illustrates what may be the central motif or at least "effect " of matsuri, namely the union of powerful chaotic, non-everyday forces with the unifying, harmonizing nature of everyday social arrangements.

Matsuri in Modern Japan

As observed today, matsuri are traditional cultural festivals which in many locations still have the ability to engage and reinforce the solidarity of a local community. This functional aspect is exhibited clearly in a traditional community like Kurokawa, home of the Ôgi Festival dealt with in Nakamaki Hirochika's article. Magi Sakae's article discusses a related aspect of matsuri, namely the way in which the spatial orientation observed in matsuri can reveal aspects of the social structure of the local community. His article is also a good example of the kind of detailed case studies of individual festivals forming a substantial part of ethnographic reporting in Japan.

With the eruption of the "new religions" in the early modern and modern periods, the term matsuri has been adopted as a general referent for "worship" by some of those voluntaristic groups having a lineage of "Shinto" beliefs, with the result that the term appears to be in the process of losing its central association with particularistic groups. In turn, this points to a weakening of the traditional Gemeinschaft community which formed the original center for the observance of matsuri. Some members of certain new religions, for example, now refuse to participate in carrying the mikoshi in the local community matsuri, asserting that such activities violate their own voluntarily accepted religious beliefs. This is a significant development inasmuch as it signals a lessening of the power of the local community to compel the assent of its members to what has traditionally been an implicit consensus. Even outside the new religions, however, the matsuri in the modern urban context has become essentially a voluntary affair, with residents using the opportunity to demonstrate their civic pride and conscious concern for social cohesion. In this context, it should be kept in mind that, while the articles presented here do not deal with the specific issue of "urban festivals," it is an important topic any consideration of the overall place of and must be kept in mind in festivals in modern Japan.16

The collection of these essays in book form has given me the chance to go back and revise the translations; some have benefitted more than others from this opportunity. I would like to express my appreciation to Ueda Kenji, Inoue Nobutaka, and others members of the Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics for their aid in proofreading the translations and correcting a number of points I should have otherwise overlooked. Needless to say, any remaining translation errors are my own.


1. In particular, see Kuroda Toshio, "Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion," Journal of Japanese Studies, 7:1 (Winter 1981), 1-21; Joseph M. Kitagawa, On Understanding Japanese Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), especially chapters 7, 9, and 17; and the six essays devoted to Shinto in History of Religions 27:3 (February, 1988).

2. Sonoda Minoru, "The Religious Situation in Japan in Relation to Shinto," Acta Asiatica, 51 (1987), 1-21. See especially 8-11.

3. Kamata Jun'ichi, The World of Shinto, trans. Norman Havens (Tokyo: Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, 1985), 231. Kamata's definition here is essentially the same as that given by Ono Sokyô in his Shintô no kiso chishiki to kisomondai [Basic facts and issues within Shintô] (revised edition, Tokyo: Jinja Shinpôsha, 1982), 211.

4. Winston Davis, "Pilgrimage and World Renewal: A Study of Religion and Social Values in Tokugawa Japan, Part II," History of Religions 23 (1984), 216-17.

5. For example, Byron Earhart states that in ancient Japan, not only were people not members of any specific religion, but "probably there was no clear conception of 'religion' apart from social and economic life: all aspects of life must have blended together" (Religions in Japan. Religious Traditions of the World [San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984], 27). See also Helen Hardacre's comments in her article "The Shintô Priesthood in Early Meiji Japan: Preliminary Inquiries," History of Religions 27 (1988), 295.

6. Sonoda Minoru, "The Religious Situation in Japan in Relation to Shinto," 11-12. Ono Sokyô, Shinto: The Kami Way (Tokyo : Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1962), 71.

7. Sonoda Minoru, "The Religious Situation in Japan in Relation to Shinto," Acta Asiatica No. 51 (1987), 1-21. See especially pages 8-13.

8. Ono Sokyô, Shinto, The Kami Way. 51-57.

9. For example, Kamata lists the the following as a standard format of worship: (1) shubatsu[Glossary: shubatsu] or purification; (2) bowing; (3) the opening of the sacred doors and the descent of the deity; (4) presentation of food offerings; (5) presentation of sacred litany [norito]; (6) offerings of sacred wands [tamagushi] and formal worship [hairei] ; (7) removal of offerings; (8) closing the sacred doors and ascent of deity; (9) bowing; (10) naorai. See The World of Shinto, 238-9.

10. Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage. Translated by Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960); Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. (Ithaca [New York]: Cornel University Press, 1969).

11. The importance of the medium of food in Japanese worship has recently been noted, for example, by Robert S. Ellwood and Richard Pilgrim. See Japanese Religion. P-H Series in World Religions, (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1985), 112.

12. See for example Ichirô Hori, "Rites of Purification and Orgy in Japanese Folk Religion," Philosophical Studies of Japan. 9 (1969), 61-77. Idem, Folk Religion in Japan: Continuity and Change, eds. Joseph M. Kitagawa and Alan L. Miller, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968). For the notion of miare see Sonoda Minoru, "The Religious Situation in Japan in Relation to Shinto," 11.

13. A good deal of recent debate has centered on the precise meaning of the terms hare and ke, and their relation to Japanese concepts of pollution. See, for example, Sakurai Tokutarô et. al., Kyôdô tôgi: Hare, ke, kegare[Glossary: kegare] [A forum on the issue of the "non-everyday " the "everyday," and "pollution"] (Tokyo: Seidosha, 1984); Namihira Emiko, Kegare [Pollution], Minzoku shûkyô series (Tokyo: Tôkyôdô Shuppan, 1984); Idem: kegare no kôzô [The structure of pollution], (Tokyo: Seidosha, 1984).

14. In this context, Ichirô Hori states, "If the eruption of energy, the mass ecstatic or enthusiastic phenomena accompanied by a temporary change in the personality, and the collapse of social order and moral restrictions are necessarily required to the agrarian peoples who live a monotonous and stable life following the cosmic rhythm, these resisting Dionysiac dynamism (sic) should be understood as a kind of catharsis which actually maintains the social order. On the other hand, this dynamic rhythm induces the people to move at the moments of highest ecstasy from the profane to the sacred, from a lower to a higher level of existence. This mental situation caused by a collective orgy which consists of the temporary cessation of the social order and ethical norms might be called the transitional situation in the dialectic of the sacred." See Ichirô Hori, "Rites of Purification and Orgy in Japanese Folk Religion," 63.

15 On Shinto as a "primal" religion, see Sonoda's citation of Michael Pye's comments in "The Religious Situation in Japan in Relation to Shinto," 20-1.

16. On this subject see, for example, Morioka Kiyomi, "The Impact of Suburbanization on Shinto Belief and Behavior," Religion in Changing Japanese Society, (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1975), 39-72.

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