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200-year-old Mie puppet’s neck on the line as whaling ban makes crucial part scarce

Chunichi Shimbun

Onyudo is a giant kimono-clad, long-necked puppet that has been preserved by residents of the Nakanaya area of Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture, for more than 200 years.

The puppet, regarded as a symbol of Yokkaichi, appears on a float in the annual Grand Yokkaichi Festival, showing off its red tongue.

But Onyudo has recently been said to be on the verge of extinction because the ban on commercial whaling has made it extremely difficult to obtain baleen plates from right whales. The plates, which act as a filter-feeder system in the mouths of the whales, are traditionally used as a spring-like mechanism to bend and stretch the puppet’s neck.

An Onyudo puppet float preservation group is thus struggling to find baleen plates while trying to develop springs that function the same way.

The puppet, designated by the prefecture as tangible folk cultural property, is believed to have been created in 1805 in the late Edo Period (1603 to 1868) by renowned puppeteers Jusaburo Takeda and his son Tokichi of Nagoya. It has since been used in parades during the autumn festival put on by Suwa Shrine in October, and more recently at the Grand Yokkaichi Festival held in August.

At 4½ meters tall, it is believed to be the largest puppet in Japan and has a neck that stretches as far as 2.7 meters from its position on the 1.8-meter-high float.

Two baleen plates, each nearly 3 meters long, are installed in its neck, and the puppeteers in the float use them to manipulate it.

In right whales, the plates are in the upper jaw, where they act as a strainer to separate their prey — usually plankton — from giant gulps of sea water taken into their mouths.

Because they are strong yet highly flexible, baleen plates have traditionally been used to function as springs in Japanese puppets.

The local preservation group has only two necks for the puppet, one produced in the Meiji Era (1868 to 1912) and the other in the early Showa Era (1926 to 1989). They used to alternate between the necks, but the group has been using only the newer one in recent years since the older one is beginning to show its age.

The necks have been kept in action by mending the plates when they break, but the group fears it will become impossible to repair them in the future unless new plates can be obtained.

In 1997 the group tried developing a replacement material for the neck by combining steel plates shaped like baleens with a cushioning material, but it didn’t work well, and the neck failed to stay still when stretched out.

Two years ago, with the help of a spring-maker in Osaka, the preservation group managed to make the neck stay still with a coil spring. But it has not yet adopted this method out of fear that the steel plates, which are harder than baleens, might damage the neck’s wooden frame.

While working on new ways to operate the neck, group members are also searching for baleen plates. They found a company in Kyushu that owns a 2.5-meter baleen plate and asked that it be kept for them, but they have been unable to raise the ¥2 million needed to buy it.

“We strongly feel we want to hand down the tradition we have preserved,” said Hiromitsu Ieki, 76, who leads the group. “The best thing is to keep using baleen plates.”

The group plans to reach out for information on available baleen plates and seek donations from businesses to purchase them.

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on Aug. 27.