Tightly choreographed and wearing flamboyant costumes, thousands of dancers parade through the western city of Kochi every August to pulsing beats blazing from speakers mounted on elaborately decorated, neon-clad trucks. In their hands are wooden clappers that clack with the rhythm, stirring crowds of onlookers into a frenzy.
This year it won’t happen. The pandemic has led to cancellations of most of the season’s festivals and firework displays to prevent crowds from gathering. The beating of the taiko drums, the chanting of men and women carrying mikoshi (portable shrines) and the mouthwatering scents emanating from temporary food stalls lining the streets are gone this summer.
So is the money spent on food, lodgings and souvenirs. The economic ripple effect of the Yosakoi Festival in Kochi Prefecture, for example, was estimated at ¥9.63 billion in 2017, according to a study commissioned by the Kochi Chamber of Commerce & Industry. For even larger festivals, the impact is crushing.
And like so many other changes brought by the coronavirus, this one is expected to linger in the form of permanent cessations. While major tourist draws such as the Nebuta, Gion and Tenjin festivals will likely roar back to life after the pandemic subsides, some of the smaller festivals in areas of the countryside suffering from depopulation and an exodus of young people to cities may not have the resources to weather the crisis, says Toshio Fukuhara, an ethnologist and professor at Musashi University.
“I’m afraid there will be rural villages that will have to halt their traditions,” Fukuhara says.
By some estimates, there are 300,000 festivals, or matsuri, held across Japan every year, from major events drawing millions to small village rituals hosted by local shrines and temples. They are an integral part of Japanese culture, providing a sense of solidarity and shared heritage among neighborhood associations while being a source of much needed income.
“I know it’s inevitable, but we’re very disappointed,” says Masato Rokkaku, managing director of the Aomori Tourism and Convention Association. On April 8, organizers officially called off the Aomori Nebuta Festival that was slated to be held from Aug. 2 to 7.
Considered one of the largest festivals in Japan, the Nebuta, whose name refers to the spectacular giant floats paraded through the city of Aomori, attracts around 2.8 million visitors to the northern prefecture’s capital and is its primary tourism draw.
“It’s a severe hit to the regional economy,” Rokkaku says. “It affects pretty much every business, from the printers that produce promotional posters to the sponsors that advertise on Nebuta floats.”
In late May, the consulting arm of Aomori Bank estimated that the combined financial damage from the cancellations of the Aomori Nebuta Festival and the Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Festival could reach ¥57.5 billion.
“Nebuta has a long history dating back before the Edo Period, but this is the first time the festival has been canceled since it assumed its current title in 1958,” Rokkaku says.
While the disruption caused by the pandemic may be a temporary blip in the long history of large festivals such as the Nebuta, it could be the death knell for smaller events suffering from a dearth of participants.
In a survey released by Kyodo News in 2017, 60 traditional festivals and dances in 20 prefectures designated by local governments as intangible folk culture assets had been ended or suspended due to falling populations in aging rural communities.
Jomo Shimbun, the largest daily newspaper in Gunma Prefecture, reported in May that the shishimai (lion dance) performed on the sidelines of the annual festival held at the Mikaboyama Fudoson temple was canceled due to the coronavirus. Organizers also decided to put an end to the 177-year shishimai tradition due to a lack of successors and are considering downsizing the event from next year, it said.
Japan’s festivals are closely associated with the country’s four seasons. In the countryside, farmers pray for harvest in spring and thanksgiving in autumn, while summer festivals are typically held in urban areas to ward off evil spirits causing sickness.
Kyoto’s famed Gion Festival held in July, for example, originated during an epidemic in 869 as part of a purification rite called goryō-e. Hot and humid in the summer, the ancient capital was teeming with people living in rather unsanitary conditions.
“The situation was what we would now call the ‘three Cs,’” says Musashi University’s Fukuhara, referring to the closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact setting local governments are urging the public to avoid to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“Food rotted easily and drinking water would often go bad,” Fukuhara says. “It was a breeding ground for infectious diseases.”
The rituals were conducted whenever an outbreak occurred, eventually becoming an annual event. This year, however, a large portion of the Gion Festival won’t be taking place, with the grand procession of floats on July 17 and 24 canceled.
Similarly, the Tenjin Festival of Osaka that gathers more than 1 million people every year decided to cancel public events, including parades and fireworks on July 24 and 25.
“Through the course of history, there were times when we would curtail parts of the festival open to the public, such as when emperors passed away. Similar measures were also taken in 1974, the year after the oil crisis, and during the cholera epidemic in the Meiji Period,” says Hitoshi Yanagino, a priest at the Osaka Tenmangu Shrine that hosts the event. “But we never skip the religious rituals closed to the public.”
The Tenjin Festival dates back to 951, and was conceived to appease the vengeful spirit of Heian Period (794-1185) aristocrat and scholar Sugawara no Michizane, who was unjustly exiled after an alleged plot against the emperor. After his death, a series of natural disasters struck Kyoto and were attributed to his angry soul. To make peace, he was posthumously deified as the god of learning in the Shinto religion.
“The festival also has a history of being held to dispel epidemics, so in a sense it’s our duty to prevent mass gatherings,” Yanagino says.
Significant preparations go into holding a matsuri, requiring the concerted efforts of organizers and participants. Also integral are the craftsmen that make the various costumes and ritual paraphernalia reflecting local colors, traditions and motifs.
Takahashi Chochin is a nearly 300-year-old paper lantern maker based in Kyoto. Known for assembling the iconic giant red lantern hanging from the Kaminarimon Gate in Tokyo’s Asakusa neighborhood, the firm and its 20 artisans have been producing the chōchin lanterns used in the Gion Festival, among other festivals.
“With festivals in the Kansai region and beyond being called off, we’ve been receiving cancellations and postponements of orders,” says Yayoi Maruyama, a spokesperson for the company.
Besides shrines and temples, Takahashi Chochin counts construction companies, design studios and restaurants as clients, producing anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 lanterns annually that are often used to decorate offices and storefronts.
“Despite the setback, those festival organizers have told us they would still like to purchase our lanterns as offerings to the gods. Others have said this may be an opportunity to replace old lanterns,” Maruyama says. “We were also expecting orders from restaurants to dry up amid the pandemic, but many have asked us for lanterns to hang during lunchtime takeout orders.”
Summer is also peak season for Katsumi Maruyama’s geta (wooden sandals) studio in Numata, Gunma Prefecture. A popular accessory among matsuri-goers dressed in light cotton yukata kimonos, 82-year-old Maruyama’s handmade traditional geta are certified as a traditional craft by the prefecture.
“The Numata Summer Festival and the city’s firework festival have been canceled, and orders from ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) have also slumped,” says Eri Takahashi, Maruyama’s sole apprentice, who began studying under the master craftsman in 2018. “Sales are down around 80 percent from the same period last year.”
In order to cultivate new customers, Maruyama and Takahashi have been making indoor geta for those teleworking during the pandemic. They expanded the supporting surface of the soles to prevent them from damaging the flooring, and thickened the sandal straps to improve blood flow.
“Thanks to media coverage, we’ve been receiving orders from across the nation,” Takahashi says. “But I hope things get back to normal next year.”
With little to look forward to this summer, those in the matsuri business have been devising alternative ways to lift spirits.
On June 1, fireworks lit up skies across Japan in a surprise, synchronized display organized by more than 160 fireworks makers. With many of the summer firework festivals canceled or postponed, pyrotechnicians joined hands for a project called Cheer Up Hanabi.
To avoid drawing crowds, organizers set a five-minute limit for the hanabi (fireworks), and kept the locations secret. In Tokyo, they went up at 8 p.m. by Tama River and at other venues. Fireworks in Japan have historically been launched to pray for the end of famines and epidemics, the group says on its website.
“This could be the most inspiring project in our industry, because simultaneous fireworks displays will light up the night sky in all 47 prefectures of Japan for the first time,” the group said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Omatsuri Japan, a startup that produces festivals on behalf of local organizers, decided to bring festivals online, launching multiple projects under the banner “air matsuri.”
“Organizers of these events are seriously disheartened with the cancellations,” says Yuko Kato, the founder and CEO of the company. “Festivals are the lifeblood of communities.”
The firm has livestreamed religious festival rituals that are typically off-limits to the public and hosted online Bon odori folk dancing sessions, with participants joining via video chats.
“We’re currently preparing for an online summer festival where visitors can virtually experience multiple festivals, complete with its own website and timetable,” Kato says.
Summer in Kochi Prefecture isn’t complete without the Yosakoi Festival held for four days through Aug. 12. Featuring around 18,000 dancers, the event draws 1 million visitors who revel in the energetic performances that kick off every year with 4,000 fireworks illuminating the night sky.
“It still feels strange that it’s not happening this year,” says Kohei Kawamura, the leader of Truck Yosakoi, a 150-member dance troupe that won the grand prize last year out of 207 teams that took part in the annual competition held during the festival. “The Yosakoi Festival is synonymous to summer.”
Launched in 1954 by local businesses looking to boost the region’s economy, yosakoi — which literally means “come at night” and is the title of an old folk song from the region — has grown in scale and popularity over the years, and has been adopted by other festivals in Japan and overseas. For Kawamura and fellow residents of Kochi, where the event originated, it has become a source of pride and identity.
Dancers who audition to join Kawamura’s troupe would typically begin practicing in mid-June for five days a week under the supervision of a professional choreographer. Last year, those efforts paid off and, this year, Truck Yosakoi was looking to seize a second consecutive title. However, COVID-19 has forced organizers to cancel the event for the first time in its history.
“I think we’re all at a loss,” says Kawamura, who has been attending the festival since childhood, and took up yosakoi dancing in high school. “We’ll have to save our energy for next year.”