Meanings of The Term "Matsuri"
The ancient word, 'matsuri' or 'matsuru' (both means worship) in Japanese, came first, and thereafter, due to inflow of Chinese characters, characters such as '祭り,' '奉り' (dedication), '祀り' (worship), '政り' (ruling), '纏り' (organizing) and so on were allocated. At present, it is said that the Japanese terms 'matsuri' (祭り and 祀り, meaning worship) have the same meaning, and 'matsuri' (祀り and 奉り, meaning dedication) have the same meaning. However, since the meanings of these terms were divided in accordance with the origin from Chinese characters, each meaning is described in the following.
The Japanese term 'matsuri' (祀り) refers to a prayer for gods and Mikoto (personal god), or its ceremony. This is because a worship leads to a prayer, and a worship refers to 'a prayer' or 'fortune-telling as a result of communication with a god' which is conducted by Shinto priesthood or a person subject to it (such as fukuotoko [the luckiest man], fukumusume [Good fortune girls], or arrow picker of Yumiya [bow and arrow]), and is so called a worship as an essence of 'Shrine Shinto. 'This matsuri refers to Miko no mai (shrine maidens dancing) such as Kagura (sacred music and dancing performed at shrines) and so on, or acrobatics and shishimai (lion dance) such as Daikagura (Street performances of a lion dance and jugglery) and so on, and a festival in honor of Ebisu and so on is popularized broadly. It also originated from Japanese folk beliefs such as the Ancient Shinto and so on, and in ancient times, it was called Kannagi referring to prayer 'so as to prevent spirits or deity dwelling there from becoming violent gods. 'Such prayer led to an establishment of Doso-jin (a god who prevents evil spirits from coming), Jizo (guardian deity of children), hokora (a small shrine) or mound as a memorial tower, or to praying for daily gratitude with one's palms together, and it is the same to offer a prayer and make a wish at shrines of Shrine Shinto.
The Japanese term 'matsuri' (祭り) refers to anything consoling deities, spirits, souls and departed souls (comforting the sprit). In the meaning of Chinese character, the term 'matsuri' (祭) refers to a funeral ceremony in the countries which use Chinese characters, and in present-day Japan, the term 'matsuri' (祭り) has a meaning in contradiction to that in China, but, when focusing on the comfort, this term has the same meaning in essentials. As an ancestor worship, one of the essences of Ancient Shinto, which is passed down to the present day through syncretization with Buddhism (syncretization of Shinto with Buddhism), the Obon festival (a Festival of the Dead or Buddhist All Souls' Day) is named (as a pure Buddhist event, the Urabon festival [a Festival of the Dead or Buddhist All Souls' day] worshiping the Buddha is held in the same period), and a dictionary explains that it is a festival for ancestor worship. Matsuri called whaling festival are held all over Japan in order to comfort whales dying by whale piking (whaling).
The Japanese term 'matsuri' (奉り) is also pronounced as tatematsuru in Japanese. This term also means presentation, to present, to respect and so on, and generally refers to acts conducted to humanized divinities (deities created in Japan which had human portraits and humane minds) in the Japanese Mythology, the Imperial Court and Court nobles. This means that it is 'a matsuri' containing a spirit of modesty for 'Mikoto' whose essence existed in the Imperial Household Shinto although many of Sai no kami (guardian deity) in the Shrine Shinto were humanized divinities. Its origin goes back to the Ancient Shinto worshipping the nature, and as described in Umisachihiko and Yamasachihiko of the Japanese Mythology, fish hooks (grains and fish hooks were categorized in the same concept in ancient times), bow and arrows were called Sachi which referred to sacred things obtained by fishing and hunting (catches, tools and sacred weapons) 'offered' to a deity as altarage (seafood and mountain vegetables). From ancient times, fishermen and hunters returned part of their catches to the land and the sea as a quota of deities when they obtained catches. Not only fishermen and hunters, but also those who make a living from agriculture, forestry, or fishery, as well as those engaged in present-day "sacred callings" such as the brewing of sake or soy products such as soy sauce return part of their "catch" at the 'Omatsuri' (festivals) held in each of Japan's regions. In Jichinsai (ground-breaking ceremony) and Jotoshiki (the roof-raying ceremony), omiki (sacred wine or sake) or okome (sacred rice) is also returned to the ground.
According to the beliefs of ancient Japanese society, which followed what is known as "ancient Shinto," someone who conducted religious services ("matsuri" in Japanese) was essentially the same as someone who was engaged in politics (also "matsuri" in Japanese); this was a case of what is called saisei itchi (the unity of shrine, temple and state; in other words, theocracy), and this led to politics occasionally being called matsurigoto (a word that can be used to refer both to government and worship) in Japan. It is said that in the ancient times, Himiko who was also a shrine maiden or shaman conducting rites and festivals controlled the administration by prayer or fortune-telling. In the Heian period, the Shinto priesthood, who adopted Inyo (also referred as Onmyo) gogyo shiso (Yin-Yang Wu-Zing Idea) of Taoism and obtained the idea of Onmyodo (way of Yin and Yang; occult divination system based on the Taoist theory of five elements) and the position of Onmyoji (Master of Ying yang), controlled the administration with a strong power as a bureaucrat. Such unity of politics and religion was not limited to the central government, however; in the provinces, towns and villages of Japan, festivals were held to determine whether the area in question could expect to enjoy good fortune or to conduct construction work so as to raise funds for 'autonomous matsurigoto' and, based on the results of the fortune telling, to determine when to start social infrastructure work and provide guidance for the administration.
Ambiguity of Japanese Traditional Matsuri Festival
Many matsuri (祭り) originated from the Ancient Shinto. Since it was called a primitive religion, shamanism, animism and so on, and the target of its belief extended to shinrabansho (all things in nature), it is difficult to define matsuri which is also the action. It was also the essence of Japanese culture to enjoy gods (many deities such as guest deities, Tsukumogami [divine spirit that resided in an extremely old tool or creature], and so on), Mikoto, spirit, deities, departed soul and soul without defining or discriminating against them.
For example, a grand sumo tournament was originally a matsuri for dedication as the Imperial Household Shinto, and was also the Shinto ritual. However, due to lessened interest in the religion, 'being a matsuri as a Shinto ritual or rite and festival' is sometimes forgotten like a grand sumo tournament, and only cheerful events associated with rites and festivals are sometimes recognized as 'matsuri,' and therefore, cheerful events which were originally held independently of rites and festivals were called 'matsuri' in some cases. The participation of individuals in such ceremonies was called 'festival,' and a prayer for good luck charm such as Jichinsai, Doll's Festival, Setsubun (the traditional end of winter) and so on is equivalent to it even now. At the time of rites and festivals are held, various things including altarage, acts and so on were presented to the divine spirit, and a ceremony was held. Its scale was big, and the whole of event held across the region is sometimes called 'matsuri. '
Matsuri Festival in Ancient Japan
The Shinto in ancient times, so-called Ancient Shinto, originally had elements of animism and shamanism, and was categorized into a racial religion before the world religion. Matsuri passed down today also include folk beliefs in the sense of originating from native's, and many of them are categorized as Shinto-related's. However, since a long time has passed after the introduction of Taoism, Buddhism and Esoteric Buddhism, some matsuri are influenced by the syncretization of Shinto with Buddhism and imported folkways.
The matsuri symbolizes a space of extraordinariness, 'hare and ke' (sacred-profane dichotomy), in the folklore. A ceremony modeling the story of Ama no Iwato (Cave of heaven) in the Japanese Mythology is known as the oldest one in Japan. The primitive 'matsuri' was held secretly at a secluded spot. Even today, a core ceremony is held by limited people in some matsuri. (Service by the Shinto priest of Ise-jingu Shrine and so on, generally called hosan [support given to a temple or shrine] or hono [dedication]. )
At present, many matsuri in the general sense are held under the initiative of shrines or temples, or by having settings in shrines or temples. The purpose and meaning are diversified because some feasts are held for 'the productiveness of grain' for good harvests, and a prayer for good luck charm and prayer for warding off evil such as 'good catch and memorial service,' 'prosperous trade,' 'an attempt to secure protection from a plague,' 'state of perfect health,' 'safety of one's family,' 'peace and longevity,' 'harmonious marriage,' 'fertility and family prosperity,' 'ancestor worship,' 'abundance and joy to all people,' 'universal peace' and so on, some are held in appreciation for accomplishments of such prayers, some are held as a result of development of annual events such as Sekku and so on, or some are held to console spirits of great people. The time of holding and contents of events are of great variety depending on the purpose. In spite of the same purpose, and festival for enshrined deity, a style or variety of religious service, or a tradition differs greatly according to a province or region in many cases.
In many cases, the purpose of matsuri departed from the interests of participants due to changes of the times, and details of events of some matsuri were forced to be changed due to changes in the social environment and so on. As a result of those, many matsuri fell into the state of losing substance from the viewpoint of purpose as shown by an example that the holding of matsuri itself became a purpose. Therefore, in many cases, complete outsiders, viewers and concerned people called participants only have a recognition at a level of 'matsuri equaling to cheerful event' (omatsuri sawagi), and now is in the situation where it is almost far from clear to take days off for a feast compared with cases of taking days off for funeral service and so on.
Generally, at the rites and festivals held at shrines, large floats used to carry taiko (drums) at festivals such as dashi (float), taiko-dai (dashi including a drum), decorative portable shrine and so on, including mikoshi (portable shrine carried in festivals) (carriage of deity). These are sometimes regarded as an incarnation of ujigami (a guardian god or spirit of a particular place in the Shinto religion) in some provinces, or parade with a role of outrider leading mikoshi, and joyous events are held along the street for the purpose of entertaining mikoshi. In many matsuri, although there are exceptions due to a difference of tradition, shrine parishioners often participate in the rites and festivals by putting on an artful and beautiful costume, and makeup or heavy makeup, as chigo (beautifully dressed children parading at festivals), miko (a shrine maiden), performers of tekomai (float leading dance), dancers, performers of festival music, participants in the parade and so on. Although the secularity advances today, the matsuri still has a function of unifying a spirit of local residents whose interpersonal relation becomes poor due to urbanization. By producing an extraordinary space in the ordinary daily life, people continued activities realizing the meaning.
The matsuri as Shinto ritual basically has a bilateral character of solemn scene and joyous scene, and in the solemn scene, people are required to keep traditions and order more strictly than usual. On the other hand, order disallowed in the daily life and acts beyond the bounds of common sense (naked except for one's loincloth, dressing as a woman by men and so on) are recognized to be allowed traditionally 'only during the matsuri' in many provinces, and therefore, the term 'omatsuri sawagi' referring to a joyous scene was derived.
As a matsuri influenced by Buddhism and having a strong character of syncretization of Shinto with Buddhism, Bon Festival Dance incorporating a native ancestor worship or nenbutsu-odori dance (a dance with an invocation to the Buddha) with a magic of kotodama (soul or power of language) is named, and is conductive to Urabon-e Festival (a Festival of the Dead or Buddhist All Souls' day, around July or August 15, depending on local customs) syncretized. In addition, Dengaku (ritual music and dancing in shrines and temples), sarugaku (form of theater popular in Japan during the 11th to 14th centuries) and so on which were developed from Shinto rituals became the base to form later Japanese medieval traditional performing arts such as Noh and so on.