Posted: 14/06/2021
Category: Japanese Festivals

Otaue-matsuri at Sumiyoshi-taisha in Ōsaka on June 14th is a telling proof that the Japanese knew and still know how to look up to those who, in time out of mind, devised rituals as a symbol of eternity. According to the local myth, Empress Jingū (170-269), who was preparing for war in the Korean Peninsula, sent rice planting girls to Sumiyoshi-taisha to plant rice. It is said that on her passage to Korea, Sumiyoshi served her as a guardian deity in exchange. The sacredness of the custom is still surviving in various rice planting songs and ancient dances performed at Sumiyoshi-taisha.

In the precincts of the shrine, the ox is draped in colourful harnesses and other gear and then paraded through the rice paddy. All the people concerned with the observance are purified in front of the main sanctuary. Soon after the religious ceremony is over, the chief Shinto priest goes down to the paddy field accompanied by other priests and a long procession of musicians, dancers, warriors, officials with dazzling umbrellas carried by servants, rice planting maidens, school children, etc.

Photos: The ox used for the religious ceremony of the rice planting

I was very glad to see children here, too. Whenever I see them taking part in a festive event, I understand how important the rite of social initiation is looked upon by the Japanese. Such children might become future messengers of the tradition after learning, through direct participation, what is worth transmitting further.

The performance meant to entertain the kami and the spectators includes scenes from various historical periods, becoming thus a good opportunity to renew them lest they should sink into oblivion. The fight between the two great Clans – Genji and Heike – is mimed by little boys standing in two rows, whilst “the field is ploughed” by two men guiding an ox.

Miming the battle between Genji and Heike

After the ritual of purification, the rice planting maidens wearing large sedge hats receive the seedlings from the main sanctuary, before they proceed to the sacred field in the shrine precincts. While they carry out the rice planting and sing songs of a congratulatory nature, which have been handed down for centuries, some musicians play the flute and the drum. Meanwhile a Ta-mai (“Field-dance”) and the Sumiyoshi-odori (“Sumiyoshi-dance”) are performed on the stage in the middle of the paddy field.

Otaue-matsuri at Sumiyoshi-taisha is a kind of archetype for the agricultural rituals related to rice planting. I was extremely impressed by the enthusiasm it aroused amongst the Japanese present in the precincts of the shrine. I made sure of it by seeing it with my own eyes, and I understood once again that the soul could cherish in this way the identity harassed by a type of modernity alien to the spirit.

Photos: Angela Hondru©

Angela Hondru
Letter to Japan
UMC, Bucharest, 2020
pages 25-27

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