In rural Japan, a modest bid to preserve tradition

Many residents of Niyodogawa, Japan, describe the annual Akiba Matsuri festival in February as the highlight of the year. But in a town that, like many in rural Japan, has been doomed by its demographics, the festival increasingly resembles a wake.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2011; 1:42 PM

NIYODOGAWA, Japan - Last weekend this dying town held a party, so its few remaining residents awoke at sunrise, headed up winding mountain roads and convened at the usual spot, where, for 217 years, they and their ancestors have gathered annually to celebrate their gods and assault their livers.

Many participants describe the Akiba Matsuri as the highlight of the year, and it combines the best elements of a holiday, a circus performance and a frat party. But lately, it has also come to resemble a wake. Niyodogawa, like so many places in rural Japan, is shrinking and aging, doomed by its demographics. Half the local population is 65 or older. This year, one local high school will graduate a class of six. No private companies offer jobs, so young adults face what amounts to mandatory banishment.

Viewed from up close, at least, Japan's great rural-to-urban migration - hastened by two lost decades of economic stagnation - carries the weight of a terminal condition, and those in Niyodogawa no longer talk about solutions or reversals. There is only a dull ache, with a town in consensus that its future isn't really a future. "I wish I could say there was hope," Niyodogawa school superintendent Toshumitsu Ono said, "but if I answer honestly I do not see it."

The Akiba Matsuri festival fits into this only because it's the one thing in Niyodogawa (pop. 6,868 - after nine deaths and one birth in December 2010) that hasn't yet changed. For some, this delivers a sense of pride: Just look at what the town still has. For others, it invokes dread: Just look at what the town stands to lose.

More than anything, though, the festival has assumed a central role in Niyodogawa's modest attempts for preservation. Fathers teach their sons about the elaborate traditions, with this inherent message: Even when you live somewhere else one day, come here once a year to these mountains in Southwest Japan and keep this tradition going.

The Akiba Matsuri festival has been going on for so long that much of its logic has been lost. Men don feline costumes and hideous masks; children dance with one another, thrashing real swords; about a dozen men haul a portable shrine up a mountain, nearly collapsing at points along the way from exhaustion; six particularly acrobatic honorees march along the same path while dancing with 25-foot poles, made all the more unwieldy by tufts of rooster feathers on one end. Occasionally, the men toss these poles back and forth, their failure to maim one another all the more impressive when one considers the numerous sake shots they took well before lunchtime.

But already, the Akiba Matsuri festival has had to adjust merely to remain the same; now even former residents are called on to take part. Participation used to be restricted to those who lived in a mountainside town called Beshi. Today, Beshi is a rubblelike collection of 60-year-old wooden houses; it has 100 residents and no children. Some 80 percent of those residents, municipal officials say, are elderly people living alone.

In the past 23 years, as Beshi turned from a town into a ghost town, the Akiba Matsuri has gradually widened the radius from which it allows participants, and this has corresponded with changes at the municipal level. Six years ago, three towns were folded into one, creating Niyodogawa. This year, one Niyodogawa elementary school had two children in its second-grade class, and more elementary schools will soon merge. Soon-to-close Niyodo High School failed this year to field its usual softball team, in large part because its total school enrollment could scarcely cover the infield. For those who grow up in Niyodogawa, then, the festival itself - requiring six practice days spread throughout the year - is a prominent extracurricular activity. It organizes the way you grow up.

You dance and carry a sword at age 8. Maybe you play the piccolo at 13 and the taiko, or drums, at 17. If you're lucky, blessed with bulging forearms and a good sense of balance, perhaps you'll be a pole-tosser at age 26, and you'll be cheered like a rock star by the 10,000 attendees, and you'll be interviewed by the local television station.

This year former Niyodogawa residents returned from Tokyo, from Yokohama, from Osaka. Next year, Supika Fujihara figures, he'll probably return, too - as a former resident. Fujihara, 18, will graduate from high school in March. He wanted to find a job in Niyodogawa, but he also wanted a job in the car industry, which doesn't exist here. So next month he'll move - reluctantly - to Nagoya, where he'll manufacture clutch and transmission parts.

"I've been really worried about going to live in Nagoya," Fujihara said, "and so many people have been coming up to me, giving advice. . . . Everybody here looks out for you."

Fujihara remembers festivals going back to the time he was 6 years old. This year, he played the drums. His oldest brother had a starring role as a pole-tosser. He felt many emotions while out on the mountains, so he tried to think about the advice so many kept giving him. As Fujihara put it, "People say, 'No matter where you go, just please come back.' "

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