Dragon Boat Race Festivals of Naha and Itoman, and elsewhere in Japan, their history and their cultural significance

Docked dragon boat during the Hari in Tomigusuku, Okinawa, Japan.

Docked dragon boat during the Hari in Tomigusuku, Okinawa, Japan.

The dragon boat race festival, also known as the Duanwu festival, known to be associated with Chinese culture and believed to have originated from China was only officially observed in China from 2008. Before that, it was unofficially celebrated there as it is currently unofficially observed by the Chinese communities of southeast Asia, including Singapore and Malaysia.

In Japan, approximately 260 boat races are being performed throughout Japan under the name of Tarai Matsuri
(basin festival), Minato Matsuri (port festival), Ikada Matsuri (raft festival), Dragon Canoe festival, Peiron Festa, and Tenmasen racing (barge racing). Most of the traditional boat races have been performed in the western areas (including the Hari boat races in Okinawa, Peiron boat races in Nagasaki, and Aioi City)

Nagasaki inherited boat races closely related to the Chinese style, whereas Okinawa still maintains its
own traditional Shintoism in its local style of boat racing. It is said that there are slight differences between the Japanese and Chinese styles. Their legendary roles and functions for conducting the races also seem to be different.

 

In Japan, Okinawa Prefecture has an ancient tradition of dragonboat races known as hari (ハーリー haarii). In the capital city of Naha, the Naha Hari (那覇ハーリー Naha Haarii) is performed as part of the national observance of Children’s Day, but in Itoman the Itoman Hare (糸満ハーレー Itoman Haaree) is celebrated the same day as the Duwanwu Festival on the Chinese lunar calendar. The city of Tomigusuku also has its own Tomigusuku Hari (豊見城ハーリー), but it is performed in late July  Equivalent and related official festivals include Children’s Day in Japan, Dano in Korea, and Tết Đoan Ngọ in Vietnam.

The origin of the Dragon Boat Festival in Japan

“The origin of boat races in Japan There are many types of traditional boat races in Japan, from
the Tohoku region in the north to the Okinawa islands in the south. It is difficult to specify when these traditional boat races originated, however, what we can observe is that, over the ages, boat racing has been performed for enjoyment and also as a part of traditional Shinto religious rituals.
It seems true that traditional boat racing in Japan was originally influenced by China. Boat racing in Japan took place mainly as a festival for fishermen for the purpose of praying to the gods for a safe voyage and good fishing, whereas boat racing in China was performed on rivers and creeks to pray to their God of Agriculture. Japan is surrounded by the sea and boats played an important role in people’s lives. Boat owners and boat builders
tried boat races to check the performances of their boats and show-off their boat building skills. This is how traditional boat racing developed and continued up until now.

Geographic distribution of traditional boat races 

Traditional boat racing has become more common throughout the world, especially in the South East and East Asia areas, and Japan is no exception. In Japan, more of the traditional boat races have been performed in the western areas, with Hari boat races in Okinawa, Peiron boat races in Nagasaki, and Aioi City holding the more typical style of traditional boat races. There seems to be slight differences in accepting the styles of boat racing from China. Nagasaki inherited boat races closely related to the Chinese style, whereas Okinawa still maintains its own traditional. These days, numerous towns and villages are trying to resurrect traditional boat racing as one of the events of summer festivals for the purpose of revitalizing its people. However, their styles are mostly different from the traditional and old ones. Recent surveys tell us that approximately 260 boat races are being performed throughout Japan under the name of Tarai Matsuri (basin festival), Minato Matsuri (port festival), Ikada Matsuri (raft festival), Dragon Canoe festival, Peiron Festa, and Tenmasen racing (barge racing).

How Hari started in Okinawa 

Dragon boats in Japan date back to around 1390, the oldest date among different accounts, when they were called Hari in Okinawa, the southernmost islands in Japan. The most established
account is that they were brought in from Fukien (Fujian) and Guangdong (Kwangtung), provinces in southeastern China on the East China Sea coast. Later, Hari boat races became a national event of the former Ryukyu (Okinawa) Kingdom and spread over Okinawa Islands as an oceanic god festival for abundant fishing and safety. Hari was originally a fisherman’s festival, but changed a great deal to a local festival after World.

How Peiron started in Japan

Nagasaki Peiron is said to have begun in 1655 when several Chinese ships were unable to leave Nagasaki Harbor due to strong winds and to comfort the oceanic god Peiron boat races were held in the harbor. Following this, Peiron spread gradually to neighboring towns and villages from coast to coast, and they served as a prayer for a good harvest, prosperity in local industries, rain, calm seas, water safety, etc. The Peiron boat is about 14 meters long with 30 paddlers, one drummer, one gongman and one steersman, a total of 33 crewmen on board. Boats race to the drums and gongs for a round-trip of over 1150 meters.
In 1922, Peiron paddlers from a shipbuilding company in Nagasaki came to Ishikawajima-Harima Shipbuilding Company in Aioi City, Hyogo Prefecture, and raced at a company’s athletic gathering. This was the beginning of Aioi Peiron Races and is now held annually as a major tourist attraction.” — The Japan Dragon Boat Association

Get set for boating for Naha and Itoman by Hillel Wright (Japan Times, Apr 21, 2013)

Naha hari boat race

Naha hari boat race

Between May and June are the months in which to visit Okinawa if your aim is to witness the spectacle of fiercely contested races between crews paddling dragon boats or the Ryukyu Islands’ small traditional fishing boats calledsabani.

During Golden Week, from Friday, May 3 to Sunday, May 5, Naha Hari festival will feature dragon-boat races in the city’s Tomari fishing harbor between large haryusen powered by 30 paddlers each.

This year’s festival will be the 39th of the modern era, in which pop concerts, Ryukyu singing and dancing, a youth sumo competition and a fireworks display combine with the intensely competitive races to create a truly carnival atmosphere enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.

From morning to evening during the three-day event, crews representing schools, companies, civic organizations and military units compete using the three traditional Naha dragon boats. Symbolically representing the three ancient towns that make up modern Naha, these dragon-prowed vessels with trailing tails are Naha’s dark-green-painted boat, the yellow one of Kume and the black beast of Tomari.

Although dragon-boat racing can be traced back 2,500 years in China — to around the time of the first Olympic Games in Ancient Greece — local legend has it that the fearsome-looking craft first appeared on Okinawa about 600 years ago.

In 1393, Wan-ōso (aka O Oso), the lord of Tomigusuku Castle and nephew of the King of Nanzan — the southernmost of the three kingdoms on Okinawa Island at the time — was a student at the Imperial University in Nanking, China. Having become enamored of the dragon-boat races he saw there during his stay, he is said to have had one built upon his return home to use on the Manko River.

Soon afterward, impressed locals began building similar boats, and when Wan-ōso became King of Nanzan in 1403, he launched the Hari dragon-boat races to impress the gods and ensure good fishing, a bountiful harvest and peace in the kingdom.

Today’s trio of Naha dragon boats are each 15.25 meters long with two rows of 15 seats for the 30 paddlers who sit side by side. Crews also include a drummer (or caller), who sits in the bow, a steersman (or sweep) in the stern, and a flag-puller, who positions himself near the bow to grab the all-important pennant attached to a float and so signal that his boat has finished the race.

In Chinese tradition, the dragon’s eye is painted red prior to a race to bring the creature to life. So if a dragon boat is alive and the paddlers are its wings, the drummer is the dragon’s heart. Like the cox in Western rowing races, he directs the pace, frequency and rhythm of the paddlers’ strokes. Additionally, the steersman controls the course of the boat with a large “sweep oar” on one side of the stern — though Naha dragon boats often use two steersmen.

As for the crews, synchronizing their paddle strokes in time with the drummer’s “heartbeat” is just as important as the speed and power of their strokes.

Last year’s Naha Hari took place under mostly sunny skies and, as it’s held at the city’s fishing port, there was no shortage of food booths in front of the municipal fish market as well as inside the market itself. Typically, those attending can escape from the usual matsuri (festival) fare of yakisoba (fried noodles), corn dogs and okonomiyaki pancakes and indulge instead in island specialties such as maguro kama (grilled tuna “shoulder”), gurukun(bananafish), tempura bento (box lunches) and grilled tuna steaks or whole scallops.

As well, for those looking for a fishy treat to take home, some booths also sell fresh local seafood, including kihada maguro (yellowfin tuna), kajiki (marlin),mekajiki (swordfish), mambo (moonfish), mibai (Okinawan grouper),irabucha (parrotfish) and umi budoh (sea grapes).

Meanwhile, just as the Naha Hari festival happens during Golden Week in early May on the Western calendar, the Itoman Hare sea festival, focused on fishermen’s sabani races, is a one-day event held on the fourth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar — on June 12 this year.

The Hare is Itoman’s sole sea festival, and given that the city is famous throughout the western Pacific Ocean region for its tough and innovative fishermen, this is a major date that normally attracts around 30,000 revelers and spectators from far and wide.

Between races, young esa dancers entertain 30,000 hare viewers

Between races, young esa dancers entertain 30,000 hare spectators

Like the Naha Hari, the Itoman Hare is held at the local fishing harbor to seek the gods’ favor for safe voyages and good catches. But unlike Naha Hari’s dragon-boat races, Itoman Hare’s are between sabani fishing canoes developed by Itoman fishermen more than 500 years ago.

In the 19th century, those fishermen — wearing then newfangled goggles — would dive down from these boats to drive schools of fish into nets set ahead of them. Then, at the end of the 20th century they started using so-called fish-aggregating devices, which are basically lengths of rope or old fishing gear left dangling from flagged and anchored buoys. In the natural way of things, this detritus soon becomes host to mussels, barnacles, seaweeds and the like, which attract small fish to feed on them. Then larger fish such as tuna, marlin and mahi mahi (dolphinfish) soon turn up to feed on them — and it’s these the fisherman hunt using nets or hooks and lines.

Sabani boats evolved from dugout canoes, to the sides of which strakes (flat boards) were added to raise the freeboard and prevent waves swamping them. Then, over time, the vessels evolved into the sabani’s now distinctive and streamlined fish-form shape. No iron or steel nails are used in building them, as their fastenings are wooden dovetail keys secured with bamboo nails.

In earlier times, sabani were sailed as well as paddled, and though their narrowness and shallow draft made them fast, they were prone to capsizing. Being buoyant, though, they were easy to right and then bail out. This has given rise to one of the Hare’s most popular events, its kunnukase (capsize) race, in which the three boats must be tipped over mid-race so their crews have to right them, bail them out and get back aboard to resume paddling. This is to demonstrate the courage and seamanship of Itoman’s fishermen, as well as their strength and power as paddlers.

At 6.8 meters long, the sabani are smaller than Naha’s dragon boats. They carry 10 paddlers, a drummer, a steersman and in some races a flag-bearer who stands amidship and chants and waves pennants to help synchronize the crew’s strokes.

Around 9 a.m. on the day of Itoman Hare, the Hare bell is rung to symbolically announce the end of the annual rainy season. Then the Nanzan and Itomannoro (priestesses) perform a ceremony and the races begin. The opening event, the Ugwan Bare, is over an 850-meter course, as are most of the other races between schools, organizations and companies. But then, at the climax of the competition, comes the 2,160-meter Agai Subu contested between fishermen from Nishimura, Nakamura and Mijima — the three ancient villages comprising today’s city of Itoman.

After the Agai Subu all the sabani crews go to the Nundunchu (House of the Itoman Noro) to sing the Hare song and receive awamori (Okinawan sake) from the priestess.

Finally, after the festival ends, local legend has it that the souls of those who have died at sea have a race called the Guso Bare. Consequently, whether hungover or not, the day after the Hare no one goes fishing to avoid contact with the ghost paddlers. After that, it’s back to work out on the turbulent ocean until the following year’s festival draws excited crowds to Itoman’s shores again.

Wikipedia on the historical origins of the “Dragon Boat”:

The use of dragon boats for racing and dragons are believed by scholars, sinologists, and anthropologists to have originated in southern central China more than 2500 years ago, in Dongting Lake and along the banks of the Chang Jiang (now called the Yangtze) during the same era when the games of ancient Greece were being established at Olympia).[1] Dragon boat racing has been practiced continuously since this period as the basis for annual water rituals and festival celebrations and for the traditional veneration of the Chinese dragon water deity. The celebration was an important part of the ancient Chinese agricultural society, celebrating the summer rice planting. Dragon boat racing was historically situated in the Chinese subcontinent’s southern-central “rice bowl”; where there were rice paddies, so were there dragon boats.

Of the twelve animals which make up the traditional Chinese zodiac, only the Dragon is a mythical creature. All the rest are non-mythical animals, yet all twelve of the zodiac creatures were well known to members of ancient Chinese agrarian communities. Dragons were traditionally believed to be the rulers of water on earth: rivers, lakes, and seas; they also were thought to dominate the waters of the heavens: clouds, mists, and rains. There are earth dragons, mountain dragons, and sky or celestial dragons (Tian Long) in Chinese tradition. Mythical dragons and serpents are also found widely in many cultures around the world.

Tang dynasty painting of a dragon boat race attributed to Li Zhaodao

Some Western scholars have speculated that sacrifices through drowning may have been involved in the earliest boat racing rituals, although this remains unconfirmed.[2] The origin of this speculation seems to have originated with Carl Whiting Bishop (1881-1942), an early East Asia scholar who was active with the Smithsonian.[3] He theorized that the festival came from a similar cultural purpose as an Egyptian practice as described by the ancient historian Plutarch, although without citing evidence: “The ritual appears to be [a rite] of rainmaking in connection with agriculture, and it is pretty certainly of pre-Chinese origin. Not improbably it once centered on a human sacrifice by drowning.”

Based on this theory, some of these accounts have suggested speculatively that perhaps during ancient times, violent clashes between the crews of the competing boats involved throwing stones and striking each other with bamboo poles. This unsubstantiated idea claims that paddlers or even an entire team falling into the water would receive no assistance from the onlookers as their fate would be considered the will of the dragon deity. In this highly speculative scenario, boaters who drowned would have been thought to have been sacrificed. That Qu Yuan sacrificed himself in protest through drowning, in this line of thought, may speak to this early notion. However, this theory of human sacrifice is in direct contradiction of most accounts of the origin of the races, which hold that the dragon boat festival began as a way to rescue Qu Yuan. The traditional food zongzi is often thrown into the water, originating from the idea of keeping fish from eating Qu Yuan’s body.[8] Modern academics continue to attempt to confirm the origin of the race, which is somewhat still open to speculation.[9]

Traditional dragon boat racing, in China, coincides with the 5th day of the 5th Chinese lunar month (varying from late May to June on the modern Gregorian Calendar). The Summer Solstice occurs around 21 June and is the reason why Chinese refer to their festival as “Duan Wu” or “Duen Ng”. Both the sun and the dragon are considered to be male. (The moon and the mythical phoenix are considered to be female.) The sun and the dragon are at their most potent during this time of the year, so cause for observing this through ritual celebrations such as dragon boat racing. It is also the time of farming year when rice seedlings must be transplanted in their paddy fields, for wet rice cultivation to take place. Wu or Ng refers to the sun at its highest position in the sky during the day, the meridian of ‘high noon’. Duan or Duen refers to upright or directly overhead. So Duan Wu is an ancient reference to the maximum position of the sun in the northern hemisphere, the longest day of the year or summer solstice.

This hot season is also associated with pestilence and disease, so is considered as a period of evil due to the high summer temperatures which can lead to rot and putrification in primitive societies lacking modern refrigeration and sanitation facilities. One custom involves cutting shapes of the five poisonous or venomous animals out of red paper, so as to ward off these evils. The paper snakes, centipedes, scorpions, lizards and toads – those that supposedly lured “evil spirits” – where sometimes placed in the mouths of the carved wooden dragons.

Venerating the dragon deity was meant to avert misfortune and calamity and encourage rainfall which is needed for the fertility of the crops and thus for the prosperity of an agrarian way of life. Celestial dragons were the controllers of the rain, the Monsoon winds and the clouds. The Emperor was “The Dragon” or the “Son of Heaven”, and Chinese people refer to themselves as “dragons” because of its spirit of strength and vitality. Unlike the dragons in European mythology which are considered to be evil and demonic, Asian dragons are regarded as wholesome and beneficent, and thus worthy of veneration, not slaying. But if rainfall is insufficient drought and famine can result. Dragon veneration in China seems to be associated with annually ensuring life giving water and bountiful rice harvests in south central China.

Another ritual called Awakening of the Dragon involves a Daoist priest dotting the bulging eyes of the carved dragon head attached to the boat, in the sense of ending its slumber and re-energising its spirit or qi (pronounced: chee). In modern dragon boat festivals a VIP can be invited to step forward to dot the eyes on a dragon boat head with a brush dipped in red paint made of the blood of a chicken in order to reanimate the creature’s bold spirit for hearty racing.

* Worcester, George. The Junks and Sampans of the Yangtze River, 1971.
 …
See also Duanwu Festival:

Some modern researchers suggest that the stories of Qu Yuan or Wu Zixu were superimposed on a pre-existing holiday tradition. The promotion of these stories over the earlier lore of the holiday seems to have been encouraged by Confucian scholars, seeking to legitimize and strengthen their influence at a time when other belief systems were seen as gaining influence in China.

The deaths (and lives) of both Qu Yuan and Wu Zixu were recorded in Sima Qian‘s Shiji, completed 187 and 393 years after the events, respectively. While Sima Qian gave high praise to both characters, there is no evidence showing any link between the historic account of these characters in Shiji and the popularity of the festival in their names.

Many traditional rituals of the Duanwu Festival emphasize the avoidance of disease(see Horses, Dragons, Disease in Nara Japan by Michael Como, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 34/2: 393–415). The desire to prevent health hazards associated with the mid-summer months may have been the primary original motive behind the holiday.

Another theory, advanced by Wen Yiduo, is that the Duanwu Festival had its origins in dragon worship. Support is drawn from two key traditions of the festival: the tradition of zongzi, or throwing food into the river, and dragon boat racing. The food may have originally represented an offering to the dragon king, while dragon boat racing naturally reflects reverence of the dragon and the active yang energy associated with it. This combines with the tradition of visiting friends and family on boats.

Another suggestion is that the festival celebrates a widespread feature of east Asian agrarian societies: the harvest of winter wheat. Offerings were regularly made to deities and spirits at such times: in the ancient Yue, dragon kings; in the ancient Chu, Qu Yuan; in the ancient Wu, Wu Zixu (as a river god); in ancient Korea, mountain gods (see Dano (Korean festival)). As interactions between different regions increased, these similar festivals eventually merged into one holiday.

Hari in Tomigusuku, Okinawa, Japan.

The festival was long marked as a festival culturally in China and is a public holiday in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. However, the People’s Republic of China government, established in 1949, did not officially recognize Duanwu as a public holiday. Beginning in 2005, the government began to plan for the re-recognition of three traditional holidays, including Duanwu. Since 2008, Duanwu has been celebrated not only as a festival but also a public holiday in the People’s Republic of China

Dragon boat races are often given significance due to the patronage by royalty of such events, and the repeated performance of religious rites associated with the boat race festivals, and the body of myths surrounding the dragon perpetuated by the festivals:
The Dragon Boat Race, although centered in southern China, is found over a wide area of East Asia and Mainland Southeast Asia. Zhuang points out that the Dragon Boat Race’s ritual functions include praying for rain or good harvests, for the cure of sickness, and for protection from disaster and from the curses of those who have drowned. The ritual displays great variety, however, because of its close links with local folk worldviews and religious
beliefs.
The content of the Dragon Boat Race ritual is quite complex. Researchers have investigated the ritual’s meaning, function, and organization, its relation to production and political power, the legends of its origin and related folk beliefs, and the symbolism of the dragon and the dragon’s multiform powers. Confining ourselves to Mainland China, we can say that the “classic” Dragon Boat Race is held on the fifth day of the fifth month of the old calendar, and is linked to the legend of the poet Qu Yuan of the Warring States period. The race introduced in this video is of the type connected with this legend. The ritual practices and various religious customs in the documentary show the general procedures of the Dragon Boat Race.
We are, for instance, introduced to a family rite related to the growth of small children, to a local sanctuary called Taishanfu and to the deities venerated there, to the rites dedicated to the dragon head at the boat’s prow, to the priests and their ritual roles, to the Dragon Boat Race itself as it is performed by the villagers, to the throwing of rice dumplings into the river to commemorate Qu Yuan, and finally to the parade of the gods of the local sanctuary
through the settlement. In view of the long gap in our knowledge of the detailed circumstances of the race’s ritual practice on the mainland, every single piece of information recorded in this visual ethnography is of great importance.
Here, however, we must return to a very fundamental problem. The Dragon Boat Race as described above is not only a religious ritual; it also serves a variety of other functions. In Thailand, Myammar, and Laos, for example, it is typically a rite of the royalty with direct links to the king’s authority, while in Okinawa it displays clear connections with the folk worldview and local ritual organization despite cultural influences from China. In mainland
China peoples like the Miao or Bai — minorities strongly influenced by the Han — possess the Dragon Boat Race. Source: The Dragon Boat Festival, review of a video production
Yang Ssu-chJang has written up rather convincing reasons based on the folk-function of dragon boat race and dragon paper boat rites in ancient times similar to the Japanese harae rites as rites for dispelling evil and their association with the 5th month of Duanwu:

“It seems to me that the end and aim of the boat race is ‘to send away the mark’ but it is not clear why this ceremony is so called;. As the ceremony itself indicates, it is a ceremony to send away evils. . In some other districts it is also said that the boat race is held to expel evils. For example, in Yao-chow ( 岳 州 ),Hunan, the people believe so. (Cf. Fan Chih-ming 范致明,Yao-yang Feng-fu-chi 岳陽風 土 IE ,P. 23; Ku-chin I-shih 古文逸史 edition.) The dragon boat is generally considered as a thing to send away evils. In Yao-chow also the houses in which, somebody is sick make a sacrifice on a water side, prepare food and wine for the boatmen and make a straw boat to float on the river (ibid). In Heng-shan ( 衡 山 〉,Hunan, on the dragon boat festival the Taoist priests and sorcerers make a dragon boat of paper, which is carried on a wooden frame by two men; on the frame are hung a drum and a gong; the men sing and beat them from door to door along the street. This is said to arrest the plague. (Cf. Hunan Ko-hsien Feng-su Tiao-ch’a Pi-chi 湖南各縣風俗調査筆記 ,by Tseng Chi-wu 曾繼搭,1931,p. 136.) In Yu-hsien (攸 縣 ) on the same day a wooden dragon boat about five feet long is made, on whし」 are standing some paper figures with oars in their hand, and are carried through the streets (ibid. p. 126). In Ch’ang-sha ( 县 沙 )at any time when one is ill a boat is made according to the advice of the sorcerer (ibid. p. 120), Even the Mu-lao Miao ( 棘猪留 ) of Kueichow during some festivals construct dragon boats of straw on which are flown flags of five colours. They dance and sing around them and make sacrifice to ghosts. (Li Tsung-fang 李宗昉,Chien Chi 龄言巳,chiian 3,p. 4,in Wen-, ying-lou Ts’ung-shu 問影樓叢書 .}

What evils are sent away or expelled? Some points of the present article suggest the answer that it is the deceased souls[the practice here is similar to the chinkon practice in Japan and Japanese silk thread weaving myths].
(a) According to the legend on page 11 quoted from the Hsii Ch’i-hsieh-chi a five-coloured thread is tied up on the bamboo tube or the tsung-tzu that is thrown into the water on the 5th day of the 5th month. This kind of thread is closely connected with the soul of the dead,probably a symbol of it. To illustrate this point we had better take some evidences from the Miao tribe, who formerly lived in South Hunan. When a Hei-miao (黑 菌 )has died, a coloured thread is tied up on the top of a bamboo stick which is erected in front of the tombf^men. and women made offerings to it (Li Tsung-fang-, Ch’ien Chi, chiian 3, p. 2). When a “Kuo-ch’uan Ch’i-lao ( 飼圈狡狡猪 )is sick, a five-coloured thread is bound up on a tig e i’,s bone, which is put in a winnowing fan, and a sorcerer is invited to pray for him (ibid. chiian 3,p. 3). In Sung Yu’s Calling Back the Soul (cf. note 33) it is also said that a bamboo basket and a thread was used to call back the soul. According to Kiang C hi,s (蔣騎 > commentary on the Ch,u Tz,u,the thread is in five colours. (Shan-tai-ko Chu Ch’u Tz,uchiian 6, p. 5). — THE DRAGON BOAT RACE IN WU-LING, HUNAN

Ancient rivers and boat expulsion practices:

Excerpted from “Rivers of death in Japanese myth and folklore and in other parts of the world

The Nagatoro Funadama Festival held annually on the Arakawa River in the Chichibu area of Japan in Saitama prefecture is but one example among many, of ancient river or water expulsion practices still practised today in Japan. The Nagatoro Fireworks festival is held right beside the river, preceded by sending off a boat lit up with lights. The festival takes place during the Bon period, to honor the spirits of the dead that visit the realm of the living during this period. After dark, boats decorated with paper lanterns and about 1,000 individual lanterns are floated on the waters of the Arakawa River to pray for the repose of drowned persons, creating an otherworldly atmosphere. Click here to watch a video clip of the event or read more about the Festival for the Dead here. …

Origin of river rituals:

River rituals involving human sacrifices to river deities were prevalent on the Chinese continent in the Shang, Zhou and Warring States eras and are believed to have been imported by Chinese immigrants into Japan over the long periods of time. The Korean kingdoms too had numerous river and water deities to whom the people tried to appease through their offerings.
In a case study on the Taiwanese 18 deities’ Royal Lords temple cult, the rite of floating and burning boats was noted to be a custom prevalent among southern Chinese and Siberian Khanty peoples. That the imagery of a River of Plague or Disease may have been widely known to Central Asia in ancient times, is suggested by the research paper:
“The Royal Lords cult involves the performance of plague expulsion festivals, which include sending off a “plague boat”—small wooden boat—which represents the community’s accumulated afflictions. I saw exactly such kind of wooden boat in the underground chamber of the Temple of 18 Deities during my fieldwork.  According to Katz (2003: 158), worshipers in southern China and Taiwan have used the title “Royal Lord(s)” to refer to a wide range of spirits, including plague-spreading deities. Such cults developed in south China in the 10th century. Most popular deity among them is Marshal Wen (Wen Yuanshuai), who is worshiped in southern Fujian and Taiwan as Lord Chi (Chi Wangye). Marshal Wen originally was a snake-demon who spread diseases by spitting out poisonous vapours. The connected Chinese images of plague-spreading deities and a boat remind to the plot of a Khanty (Siberian) myth “Holy Legend about the Desirable Knight—Merchant of the Low World, Merchant of the Upper World” (1990 no. 30: 105–125), which describes a floating caravan of boats on the Ob river with diseases-spreading deities on them. The caravan brought epidemic diseases and mass deaths to many cities on the Ob banks and belonged to the underworld, which was believed to be situated on the North Lower Ob and was a kingdom of the Lord of Diseases and Death.
In Japan, offerings of pottery at river sites had also been made since prehistoric or proto-historic times by local communities, excavated finds by archaeologists indicate the purification ritual practice began at least as early as the Kofun era (large quantities of miniature earthern pots were found from the river area of the Mizokui site, Ibaraki city, Osaka; one of them with a face etched onto the pottery).
Some scholars believe that the use of effigies in Nara period river rituals in particular is associated with ancient Chinese witchcraft techniques may go back to the Han dynasty or even earlier as outlined in Chi Songzi zhangli (赤松子章曆 an important Taoist text and ritual compilation) were later introduced into Japan.
Shinto practitioners and experts in Japan today trace the various rites which go by the name of harae (or o-harae) to the Kojiki myth of  the act of  washing in the sea which Izanagi-no-kami performed after his return from Yomi, the land of the dead (to which he had followed his wife Izanami) in order to purify himself from the uncleanness and polluting elements he had come into contact with there.
In its earliest form of the custom, the ritual offerings made were a fine or penalty imposed upon those who had committed offences or in contracted pollution, under which term all crimes and sins were at first included. The ritual offerings sometimes took the form of human, animal or other food sacrifices, as well as other items of value. In the Nara period the practice was declared to be barbaric, so substitutive pottery, human or animal effigies, and coin offerings became the norm.
Until the Nara period, o-harae ablution events were performed at various irregular times and as the need arose, but from the Nara period onwards, o-harae became regular bi-annual court and shrine events as carried over till today.  The “Great Purification” came to be held regularly on the 30th June and 31st December. This was because the mid-ninth century, the Nara court in adopting Chinese Tang dynasty style of court etiquette and government, had established an official bureau of yin-yang geomancy masters who went to work institutionalizing and regulating the expulsion rituals and the management of pollution taboos.

Excavated from the Kannonji site, which were once old riverbeds of a branch of the Yoshino River during the Nara period, were  large numbers of artifacts, including pottery and wooden boat effigies and other implements.  Also among the artifacts are thin boards shaped into a human outline, and faces drawn in ink. One board is split down the center, broken into upper and lower halves has realistically painted thick eyebrows, and the beard and moustache.  Together with the boat effigies made of wood, they are thought to have been used in a harae rite.”
Further readings:
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