Tokyo Diaries – Mitama Matsuri

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There are very few places in Tokyo that I’ve intentionally avoided, but tonight I finally visited the most prominent of them.

Yasukuni Jinja has quite an unsavory reputation, certainly in the West and in certain circles inside Japan too.  It represents a kind of litmus test for what your politics are if you’re Japanese, because it’s become a rallying point for nationalists.  Controversy surrounds the place constantly, because among the Japanese war dead enshrined there are many international war criminals from World War II, including most prominently Tojo himself.  Every new Prime Minister and Diet member faces the question – will you visit Yasukuni Shrine?  For the current P.M., the answer was an enthusiastic “yes”.

I really haven’t wanted to get involved with any of that, and frankly I wondered if a foreign face might be unwelcome at such a place among some of its regular visitors.  But for 4 days a year Tokyo seems to set aside the divisive nature of Yasukuni Jinja and it becomes a haven for all, and that’s during Mitama Matsuri – the giant festival that marks the beginning of Obon and incorporates a little Tanabata, too.  It draws huge crowds over July 13-16, and when those days fall on a weekend – and a holiday weekend at that – as they do this year, the crowds are truly immense.  I decided to set aside my reservations and check out the place which I’ve always been curious about, curious not least because I can walk there from my apartment in about 25 minutes.

Whether a function of the event or not, I’d never have known there was anything off about Yasukuni based on tonight.  Among the teeming masses were a great many foreigners, and everyone was in a jovial mood (as so many Obon festivals seem to find folks, despite the nature of the observance).  And the truth is it’s a lovely place – a huge shrine with a grand boulevard approach, and a quiet pond set behind the main shrine.  During Mitama the entire approach is lit with thousands of lanterns representing the spirits of the departed, with more ornate tributes from loved ones closer to the main shrine buildings.  There are odori dances, musical performances, and hundreds of food stalls.  It was quite a wonderful time, but just miserably hot and humid.  Somehow these mushi atsui days feel even worse once the sun goes down, and when the crowd got really thick it was pretty brutal.  I was absolutely drenched, and once again amazed at how much more people of European descent sweat than Japanese people do.

When you attend a big matsuri like this one, it really hits home just how different American culture is from Japanese culture.  It isn’t so much that the Japanese are more religious than Americans – it’s actually quite a secular country in many ways – but that the religious practices are so much more integrated than they are in America.  It’s not a “wind up on Sunday” kind of thing here – Shinto and Buddhism are a part of everyday life.  The other striking thing is that the Japanese have a common language much more so than simply the language itself – in this homogeneous country, the Japanese speak a common cultural language.  Their traditions aren’t Mexican or Irish or German or European Jewish or Sephardic Jewish or Italian or Chinese – or Japanese-American – they’re all Japanese.  There’s something missing from Japanese society as a result of this, but they do possess an underlying commonality that America, with its rich history of immigration from all over the world, simply lacks.  When an event like this happens in Japan, it’s for everyone, and everyone understands the meaning behind it.  In so many ways, our societies could hardly be more different.

In the end, it isn’t quite possible to escape the spectre of Yasukuni completely.  The Yuushuukan – the Imperial War Museum with a well-earned reputation for whitewashing Japan’s more shameful actions in the WW II era – throws open its doors for free during the Mitama Matsuri.  And the lure of aircon on a summer night is too great to pass up.  It wasn’t my favorite part of the evening, but interesting nonetheless.  Fans of Ghibli and Miyazaki will no doubt recognize the Mitzubishi Zero fighter designed by Horikoshi Jirou, the subject of Miyazaki-sensei’s latest film The Wind Rises.  The conflicted nature of Yasukuni illustrates why the prospect of this movie from Miyazaki is such an interesting one, and one cannot deny that this is a truly spectacular piece of design – in the context of its time one of the finest aircraft ever built.

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  1. i

    Really interesting article. Really like the part about how Japan has a culture that every Japanese person can feel apart and proud of. Wish it was like that in America but with America having twice the population and Japan having a 98% population of Japanese people, I doubt it can happen.

  2. There's a big downside to it too, of course. Japan being so homogeneous is also much more inward-looking – during most of the Shongunate Era they were quite literally a closed nation to an almost total extent.

  3. A

    Oh the Matsuri is finally here. They were preparing and setting up for it when I visited Yasukuni 2 weeks back. Thanks for sharing the pictures and for the entry of course.

  4. N

    Love your Japan posts. How's your Japanese coming along?

  5. Jouzu ja arimasen demo, mainichi renshu suru you ni, jouzu ni naritai.

  6. N

    ganbatte, itsuka hontou ni sugoi jouzu ni narimasu!

  7. R

    Yasukuni Jinja…! The political controversy has definitely brought the Yasukuni Jinja to the world stage making it probably the most-known shrine to people outside of Japan. While we all hold our views in politics, I agree with you — let's not talk about it here, as this is not the place to. Instead, thanks for sharing the photos and videos. Those giant lantern walls were spectacular, and almost every one of your photos/videos looks grand. It must be quite an experience to witness such an impressive matsuri.

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