Yesterday was London’s Japan Matsuri – a huge Japan-themed outdoor festival that currently takes place at Trafalgar Square. I work for a Japanese cultural institution that promotes international relations, so was there as part of work, giving information about learning more about Japanese language and culture.
As anyone who’s been to Japan knows, there are several key features without which no Japanese festival (matsuri) is complete – plenty of good food, games to play, performances of music and dance, and people dressed in traditional yukata or other amazing costumes (matsuri are often a chance for members of subcultures in Japan such as Lolita to don their more spectacular outfits). But perhaps at the heart of every big matsuri is spirituality, as matsuri are traditionally days where the local kami are venerated. In fact, the word “matsuri” itself literally means “worship.” At most Japanese matsuri, the essence of the kami is transported out into the local streets on an o-mikoshi, a portable shrine resembling a palanquin that is carried by locals.
London’s Japan Matsuri is actually pretty authentic in many of these aspects. It’s an opportunity for all the local Japanese businesses to exhibit ans sell their wares, which always means there’s plenty of Japanese food – and just like a matsuri in Japan, there’s also plenty of long queues! There’s also stage performances throughout the day – this year had some particularly good performers, including thundering taiko drums, Okinawan eisa dancing from the local Japanese nursery school, and the beautiful, haunting music of the traditional Japanese music group Hibiki Ensemble.
But perhaps what delights me most about Japan Matsuri is that its Shinto origins are still honoured. At the beginning of the festival, there is a procession of an o-mikoshi, carried by young men wearing traditional happi jackets and hachimaki headbands. Just as the o-mikoshi bearers in Japan do, they bounce the o-mikoshi up and down and lunge in a zig-zag motion all over the path, crying “wasshoi!” These actions are said to please the kami in the o-mikoshi. I have no idea what kami is enshrined in the o-mikoshi – there aren’t any jinja (large Japanese shrines) in London so perhaps it’s one venerated at a private shrine. I’d love to find out.
I think that the authenticity of Japan Matsuri, right down to the religious aspects, is what makes it so successful – I think it attracts far more Japanese people than any other Japan-themed event in London. I am so glad that such a festival, which helps to both strengthen Anglo-Japanese relations and to give Japanese residents in the UK to express their cultural identity, has continued to grow, and I am very proud to be a part of it as an exhibitor.