Recently I have been thinking a lot about traditions and the role of culture in our societies. One of the main reasons I love Japan and the Japanese is the fact that they have kept their traditions alive, through technological advancements, industrialization, globalization and wars, the Japanese have retained the traditions and manners throughout the ages. Reading 1000 year old Japanese literature is in essence very similar to reading modern literature. The festivals, mannerism, music, masks and colors you see all over Japan almost daily has remained more or less unchanged for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. Japanese will happily wear clothes and costumes that would be considered very awkward in western countries, being dated and old fashioned. But in some way the Japanese have kept their culture alive and not locked up in elitist circles were many people feel they need a phd to understand or enjoy it. In Europe, and I guess in many other westernized countries as well, I always felt that people who were interested in culture and tradition were often looked down upon. People who tried to organize festivals and traditional events had to work terribly hard and overcome both disinterest and ridicule to achieve anything. In Europe, the only places you’ll see traditional clothes are open air museums and court ceremonies for example, with the possible exception of British courts.
In short, in most western countries it takes courage and an iron determination to maintain and keep traditions and local culture alive. Many people are afraid to associate with those proud of their heritage or culture for fear of being mistaken for nationalists. Now, nothing bores me more than outright nationalism or the other side of the same card, globalization. I just don’t want to hear about anyone promoting themselves by ridiculing others. At the same time the values and interests of people brainlessly rehashing the globalist mantra makes me sick to my stomach. It takes hundreds of years to create a living tradition, but it takes about five years after a “trade agreement” or the hijacking or traditions by nationalist sheep to kill it. It takes effort, pride and courage to believe in yourself, your community and your traditions, but it takes only one elitist comment, one bully or one snide newspaper comment to kill it all.
You see, the beauty of traditions is that we can only do it together. We can only do it locally. There’s nothing commercial about it. No businesses or local authority will benefit from the traditions of a local community. You can’t tax or market trust and neighborly love. You can’t package and sell respect for other countries. You will never win an election by praising your roots while praising the culture of other countries. What we as people have to understand, what we have to force ourselves to understand, deep below the layers of cultural crap fed to us by corporate media and lying politicians is that value doesn’t equal money, and that anything truly worthwhile can never be found in a shop or on TV or featured in a catalog. We have to un-brainwash ourselves by demanding the genuine and participating in our own lives. The ancients knew this, medieval peasants knew this. Nomads I have lived with in the few remaining genuine cultures on Earth know this. But us modern people have forgotten, with the exception of some local genuinely Temporary Autonomous Zones, as the ones I make a point of visiting as often as possible here in Japan, where people do things for themselves without involving authority or corporations.
It is time we reclaim our lives, our neighborhoods, our fields and streets and revive our culture and traditions with what we have lost and what we can resurrect. I sometimes see glimpses of this in the eyes of parents watching their kids perform, in the smiles of children dressing up and having fun together not because of any arbitrary division of people in classes, schools, districts and groups, but joined in the activity. You can’t tell the kids of the local electrician from the kids of the prime minister in these photos I took at the Hachioji festival. The tradition and the culture temporarily trumps money, globalization, nationalism and consumerism. This is humanity as it should be. Not what we are led to believe by our lying politicians, back stabbing merchants and manipulating media.
I must admit, before I came to Japan my only notion of the pacific island of Saipan was as the name of famous World War 2 battle. I was honestly surprised when my Japanese friend’s father proudly showed me photos of the summer house he had bought on the island. From the pictures I saw, it was a little piece of paradise, far from the black and white press photos I had seen in history books a kid. Over the years I learned that Japan and Saipan has quite a friendly relationship these days, and even though I have never visited, I plan to go someday soon.
At the annual Koenji Awaodori festival in August, I was enjoying the music and the dancers when I spotted a few unusual young dancers in one of the most famous awaodori groups, Tensuiren. There is a handful of foreigners in the parade every year but usually not kids. Their dancing was fantastic, totally on par with the older Japanese they were with, a few of them were even so energetic that I hardly had time to shoot, hence these less than perfect shots (the blur is less from their movement and more from the fact that it was too dark for my cameras auto focus, i.e., I didn’t get a proper lock on them). Beautiful kids, dancing perfectly! A few days later I am at home editing the photos and get a friend to do a web search for me by using their name tags. It turns out that they were part of a cultural program from Saipan! I didn’t get all of their names, or all of the participants, but I remember their energy and how happy they looked: Virginia, Ann, Itheyvin (and someone called ***ody). The people of Tensuiren did a great job training these kids! You can read more about them in Saipan’s newspaper, Saipan Tribune, here and here. If you happen to be from Saipan, or know anyone who knows these kids, please pass a link to this blog to them! I really hope they get to see these pictures. I am happy they got the chance to participate in this great festival. I wish I could have done that when I was their age!
@ All images copyrighted. Please use only with permission.
Last weekend I visited a festival put up at a local shrine associated with one of the largest shrines in the Japanese shinto religion, Hikawajinja (or Hikawa Shrine). This shrine which is located in Saitama just north of Tokyo has roughly 290 associated shrines throughout Japan, there’s even two within 5 minutes walk of my house! The Hikawa shrines are all dedicated to a God called Susanoo, God of Summer Storms and brother of the Goddess of the Sun and the God of the Moon.
Usually when a local shrine throws a festival it’s purpose is to appease and honor the local gods as well as to entertain the kids and reaffirm the bonds between the locals. Vigils are held to welcome the gods at various shops and street corners around the area. In the countryside tents are set up and fires lit, but here in the city a vacant store front or empty parking lot will do just as well. Locals stop by to chat and bring presents to the people manning the vigils and it seems like a great place to exchange gossip and information (see the last photo of this post).
The branch of Hikawa shrine that I visited wasn’t easy to find, located on a back street and with a railway running right in front of it I wouldn’t have found it if it weren’t for the brightly colored lanterns guiding visitors. This was easily the smallest festival I have ever visited in Japan, the were about 10 food and games stands on the shrine grounds and not more than 75 people.
Little did I know that this festival would teach me so much about culture! Not to be daunted by the small narrow space, the shrine had engaged a group of traditional Japanese noh theatre performers. A small band of 4 four played flutes and drums in a musical style I have heard performed countless times before in school festivals, concerts and cultural events. But never like this. This was intimate. This was on our level and for us. This wasn’t sponsored by any corporation or cultural agency. This was folk art as it was supposed to be.