This document was written by Frank Alanson Lombard and originally published in An Outline History of the Japanese Drama. London: George Allen & Unwin LTD, 1928. pp. 62-69.

NAGINATA HOKOMatsuri, or processions in honour of deity, have from ancient times in Japan been occasions of great popular rejoicing. Priests might act as official participants; but the entire local population was expected to bear a part, and the processions themselves to be an expression of the popular will in its desire to please and honour the gods. This popular participation was originally spontaneous, and quite as naïve as the merry dancing of children; and, although studied contributions and imitations of ceremonial forms were gradually added to increase the dignity of the occasion, and participation in some form by all came to be officially required, the Matsuri still afford excellent opportunity for the study of spontaneous dramatic action on the part of the common people.

The city of Kyoto is divided into three sections, each forming the special territory of an important Shinto shrine. The northern third of the city is under the protection of those deities enshrined at Goryo; the central third, under those at Gion; and the southern third, under those at Inari. The matsuri of these three great shrines, held annually on May 18, July 17, and May 7 respectively, are events of popular interest even in the modern city with its universities of world learning and culture. Each has its contribution to make towards an understanding of how primitive instinct and priestly patronage united in the development of the dramatic art in Japan; but the contribution made by Gion is the most significant, since that alone of the three is celebrated with floats accompanying the sacred palanquin (mikoshi).

The deities enshrined at Gion are Susanowo-no-mikoto, the brother of the Sun-Goddess, and his wife, Inada-hime, with their five children. The shrine was established probably in A.D. 656; and the matsuri is said to have originated in A.D. 869, when Urebe-no-hinomaru, in his effort to obey an Imperial order that he should check the plague which was then raging in the city, presented to the shrine sixty-six halberds, one for each province of the Empire. [1] The youth of the city, with farmers from the outlying districts, then carried the sacred palanquin in honour through the streets. No record in detail remains of that early matsuri; but the plague is said to have been averted and a memorial ceremony established. In A.D. 999 a float on wheels was presented to the shrine for use in the procession as a stage for a Dengaku. This was at first prohibited by the Government, as it seemed a discourteous imitation of floats already being used in Imperial ceremonies; but as a disaster came upon the city the prohibition was removed, and the Dengaku player with his acrobatic feats contributed greatly to the popularity of the festival.

The enrichment of this matsuri continued until there were floats for musicians, for the dancing of Kuse mae, and primitive Sarugaku, as well as for Dengaku. The nobility and members of the Royal family watched the procession from a special reviewing-stand; and even the Emperor sent his ceremonial greetings. In addition to floats, upon which dancers performed to the delight of the people and the consequent prestige of the festival, there were halberd-crowned cars (hoko) in which various scenes and events were depicted by the use of dolls, or enacted by human actors. Chief of these was the Naginata hoko, which is still given the privilege of leading the procession. According to tradition, a famous sword-smith of the eleventh century presented the shrine a naginata of finest workmanship in gratitude for the recovery of his daughter in answer to his prayer. This naginata, in the Kamakura Period (1186-1334), was loaned to a famous warrior that he might quell an insurrection. By its aid he was successful; and the naginata was returned to the shrine with even greater sanctity attached thereto. So precious did it become that its place upon the hoko was taken by a naginata of lacquered bamboo, while the original reposed within the shrine. The mighty warrior still is depicted in the float, holding a halberd in one hand and the model of a boat in the other.

After some years of apparent neglect this matsuri was revived in the sixteenth century by Oda Nobunaga (1533-1582); and from that time floats for dancers seem gradually to have been replaced by yama, platforms carried upon the shoulders of many bearers for the display of various scenes in tableau.

The deities in residence at Gion have a very central part in this matsuri; but for many years there have been two processions--one in the morning, of hoko and yama, to herald the coming and to welcome the deities who in the afternoon are brought in three ornate sacred palanquins from the shrine to their Otabisho (Place of Sojourn) in the central part of the city, where they remain for a week, and thence are then returned to their shrine with similar ceremony. The afternoon processions may have a deeper interest for the strictly religious; but for the common people the morning processions of hoko and yama are the chief attractions.

The hoko and yama of the morning processions are provided by different wards of the city, some being decorated with almost priceless treasures of old brocade--each ward, naturally, taking pride in its own contribution. The hoko are heavy, four-wheeled carts having enclosed bodies, draped with rich hangings of brocade and embroidery, and flat roofs with canopies, which in turn are surmounted each with a lofty halberd. The enclosed bodies may be entered from the rear; and the flat roofs are filled with boys and young men trained for the occasion in the rude music of the flute, drum, and beaten bell. In front of these musicians, upon the roof, under the canopy, stand dolls or human figures in portrayal of that which the special hoko represents; and these dolls or children in costume, judging from old pictures and models of old-time hoko, appear to be survivals from a time when a larger part of the space was occupied by actors rather than by musicians. The hoko are drawn through the streets by hand--two long ropes being manned by an enthusiastic populace, while three men attend with heavy wooden blocks to brake the wheels and a pointed wedge wherewith to steer the car.

The yama, or portable stages, though usually less ornate than the hoko, are of interest for their tableaux, which depict scenes in the lives of old heroes, or legends of general didactic value. The Empress Jingo (A.D. 201-270), for example, before starting up her military expedition against Chosen, wished to forecast her success, and went fishing in a river in Matsura, using a common needle for a hook and a thread from her garments for a line. Such was her catch that none could doubt of her future success. One yama represents the famous warrior-empress holding a bent rod in one hand and a large fish in the other.

Kakkyo was very poor, but very good to his aged mother. The support of his only son, a little boy, made it impossible, he thought, to care for his mother as he ought; and he resolved to sacrifice his child. While digging a grave wherein to bury the boy he found a pot of gold with an inscription stating that it was for a dutiful son. Rejoicing in this favour of Heaven, he found it unnecessary to kill his child, but was able to care for his mother more faithfully than before. The boy, and the father digging the grave, appear upon a yama; but Heaven's intervention in the affairs of this Asian Abraham seems less emphasized than the filial piety which forms the heart of this lesson.

In the city of Otsu, then miles from Kyoto, is an old shrine in which four deities are honoured. It is, therefore, known as Shinomiya (the Shrine of Four). The first of the four is Hikohohodemi-no-mikoto, a son of Ninigi-no-mikoto and the grandfather of the first Japanese emperor, Jimmu Tenno; and it is probably in his honour that the shrine is also called the Shrine of the Imperial Grandson.

In the archives of a family of unbroken history through many centuries is an interesting manuscript, dated September 13, 1635, concerning the development of the matsuri observed in connection with Shinomiya. It reads in translation as follows:


Several years ago, on the 10th of September, at the Shinomiya matsuri, Jihei-dono, a peddler of salt from this street, danced in the horse-field of the shrine, wearing the mask of a racoon. His dancing proved so attractive, and the people enjoyed it so much, that he danced again the following year, again attracting a large crowd. The next year the people of this street, wishing to make a stage of bamboo bound with ropes and to bear it through the town, asked the local authorities for permission. This was granted, as the intent was to increase the attractiveness of the matsuri. Therefore the people made a stage of bamboo bound with ropes, with curtains of cotton-cloth, and bore it through the streets with the ringing of bells and the beating of drums, while Jihei-dono in a racoon mask danced upon it, shaking branches of the holy tree in his hand.

This they carried from street to street in the parish during the matsuri for about ten succeeding years, until Jihei-dono asked to be excused because of his increasing age. There being no one upon the street to take his place, for the matsuri of 1622 they made a raccoon of wood and by means of strings caused it to beat its abdomen with its hands. This they carried upon the platform each year until the present, when we put wheels to it and allowed the children to draw it through the parish for the more enthusiastic celebration of the matsuri.


September 13, 1635.

From this old record it is evident that the custom of matsuri had become well established in Otsu by the beginning of the seventeenth century, that the populace were responsible for its success, and that the simplest of mimic dances were thought worthy of a place therein. The example of this street, or section of the parish, was evidently followed by others, for at the present time thirteen floats from as many different sections of the city are drawn in procession at the Shinomiya matsuri. That from Kajiya Street is still given the place of honour at the head of the procession; but the raccoon now perches upon the very top of the canopy, while his place in the open part of the car is taken by a life-sized doll, representing Priest Saigyo (A.D. 1118-1190), whose fame rests for the most part upon his skill as an itinerant poet.

This matsuri, unlike those in Kyoto, contains no hoko, or halberd-crowned cars. In fact, the halberd does not appear in the procession. The original yama, or portable stage, has given place to floats on which musicians are drawn about the city, and in which a prominent place is given to dolls in dramatic representation. The decorations are in character not unlike those of Gion, but the dolls are the centre of attraction; and, as the cars are halted every few rods, the dolls by the pulling of strings are made to go through simple motions suggestive of the characters which they represent. The position of the cars in the procession is determined, with the exception of the first, by lot. The priest of the shrine has only very indirect charge of the celebration; and the crowd of people attending the procession is a rejoicing, well-mannered mob.

In this matsuri, also, Kakkyo, the filial son, appears; but here he is much more dramatically represented accompanied by his wife, who carries the child in her arms.

Murasaki Shikibu, the famous Court novelist, who at Ishiyama at the close of the tenth century wrot Genji Monogatari, is shown standing thoughtfully before her desk in another float; and with every car is associated some event of legend or history in which the people take natural pride. The float called Seseho Seki shows the dramatic moment of an old story, at which, at the prayer of a holy priest, the spirit of a woman, imprisoned in a mighty stone because of her sin, is released.

In Nagahama, a small town not far from Otsu, a similar matsuri is held; but this differs in that children, instead of dolls, present the dramatic action. It is not known which of these matsuri is the older; but natural supposition leads one to think that the first actors were children, or adults, and that the introduction of the dolls may have been in imitation of the doll theatres, of which we shall have occasion to speak later.

Although these matsuri may be taken as typical of thousands, and as affording evidence of popular interest in dramatic presentation, many of the more important matsuri now devote themselves almost exclusively to the exhibition of old costumes and customs--affording no mean opportunity for the study of period history of the last four hundred years, but relatively little for an understanding of dramatic development. From ancient times the Japanese Court has been as it were a Shinto Holy of Holies, the Emperor being a national high priest as well as the human link in the unending chain of deity which all should worship. As an inevitable result the best of the performances before the shrines were taken over as parts of the Court ceremonial entertainment--true Kami Asobi. Others remained as Kagura attached to local shrines, and still others dropped back to the popular level from which they sprang, carrying with them Shinto accretions. Those held under Imperial or priestly patronage became fixed in form and underwent no further development; but those which dropped back into popular use, though retaining the name Kagura, remained more or less plastic. This may be illustrated by the Iwato and Sato Kagura.

The former, as played at the opening of the New Year, was a kind of serenade, of purely social and mercenary character, for the purpose of paying respect and soliciting gifts. It was performed by non-professional folk with no set form of action, though a lion-mask was often worn, and juggling tricks displayed to the rude accompaniment of drum and flute. The latter were rural presentations of mythological stories, danced with masks and often without dialogue.

Other New Year congratulatory dances akin to Kagura were danced to rhythmic chanting, with most expressive movements in imitation of labour, by artisan groups from door to door during the first few days of the new year. For twenty years, to the writer's personal knowledge, the same dance was given upon a certain Kyoto street on the 3rd of January by a group of from six to eight men in work-clothes, each emphasizing his movements with a light wand of wood.

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1 The long halberd (naginata), being a modified phallus recognized in Shinto as prophylactic, is efficacious in averting disease. This probably accounts for its presence in all matsuri.

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