He was only 16 but shouldered the responsibility to uphold centuries of tradition. And he had to beat the pressure in front of a hundred thousand of his fellow worshipers who had crammed onto the sacred grounds of Tado Shrine.
As did his predecessors six centuries ago, Kouji Mizutani had donned a samurai uniform before mounting his horse that bore as much responsibility as its rider.
It’s time–––to make the horse panic.
Men from all sides of the horse push against its flesh. Mizutani holds the reins tightly in his left grip. A baton in his right.
The horse breaks free from the circle of men. There’s only one way it can go. A straight runway of a hundred meters. At the end of it, a steep hill rises to meet a 2-meter dirt wall.
Either Mizutani gets the horse to jump over or slam right into it.
As the horse begins to ascend, Mizutani beats its behind with his baton.
Praying For A Good Jump
This jump is said to foretell the abundance of rice harvests to come. But for the horse, it means life or death.
Worshipers get as close as they can to witness the moment of truth.
Men in yellow happi (法被), or traditional Japanese coats, line each side of the dirt wall. They brace themselves for what is to come.
If the horse doesn’t jump, it is their job to force it.
The horse is one gallop away from jumping.
The next moment, it slams into it. Mizutani is thrown over to the front.
6 high school boys over the course of 2 days–––May 4th and 5th this year–––went through the same sequence of events. Each teenage rider had 3 tries. A meager 3 out of 18 jumps made it up the wall, only because surrounding men used ropes to pull the horses up and over the edge.
A Lone Tradition
Nestled into the base of Mt. Tado in Mie Prefecture, Tado Shrine is a worship site for the Shinto religion like any of the other 80,000+ shrines across Japan.
But Tado stands out for one reason.
“No other shrine practices ageuma (上げ馬),” says Yumi, an activist sounding the alarm for animal abuse in Tado Shrine’s horse jumping rituals.
Tado Shrine is the one site left practicing age-uma. The only other shrine known to have a history of age-uma is Inabe Shrine, about 20 minutes by car from Tado Shrine.
Both Tado and Inabe Shrine halted ageuma in 2020 due to COVID restrictions.
As Japan lifted rules for mask-wearing in March of this year, Tado Shrine prepared for its first ageuma in 3 years.
On the other hand, Inabe Shrine announced plans to discontinue ageuma while preserving other traditions such as uma-hiki (馬曳き), a ritual in which the noriko (rider) simply rides on the back of a walking horse throughout the shrine.
Note that using horses in Shintō rituals is not uncommon. An investigation by the Japan Equine Affairs Association found that 116 districts, including Tado Shrine, perform yabusame (流鏑馬), a form of horseback archery that evolved from a sport to a ritual.
The reasons for Inabe Shrine’s cancellation of ageuma this year are unclear.
Skeptics say the controversy surrounding ageuma in recent years may have deterred Inabe Shrine from bringing the ritual back.
Meanwhile, Tado Shrine failed to spare itself from criticism.
Online backlash erupted against Tado Shrine after its televised ageuma ritual in May this year. TikTok posts protesting the ritual, citing animal abuse, have gone viral in Japan.
Putting aside the deadlocked debate between valuing tradition versus animal life, let’s look at the facts.
A horse broke its bones so badly during Tado Shrine’s ageuma ritual this year that it had to be euthanized shortly after.
Complaints citing animal abuse pushed the local government to launch an investigation into ageuma casualties from the past 15 years. The report states that 3 other horses were put down due to insufferable injuries that occurred during the ageuma ritual.
The Japanese Coalition for Animal Welfare’s representative and veterinarian Aoki Kouichi told Sankei News that Tado Shrine uses doping methods to power up their horses.
Photos of worshipers feeding a horse daikon (大根) or Japanese radish have surfaced online. Activists say that this is a deliberate form of abuse as daikon is known to cause poor digestion and physical pain in horses.
“The horses go crazy from the pain until their vision is blurred and can’t see the wall,” says Yumi, an activist interviewed by Unseen Japan.
You can’t fear what you can’t see. Fear is the last thing worshippers want from a horse in ageuma, which is likely why they fed it daikon.
A Wall Dividing The Conversation
The height of the wall remains to be one of the biggest concerns among critics and activists.
“Horses are not supposed to jump that high,” says Rin, another activist interviewed by Unseen Japan.
The wall used in Tado Shrine’s ageuma ritual rises to a staggering 2 meters–––above a hill with a steep incline.
Whereas show jumping horses trained for competitions can jump up to 2 meters, the world record was set at 2.47 meters in 1949. Average untrained horses can jump up to a little over 1 meter.
Horses that are meant to surmount the ageuma wall are trained for only a month with their respective noriko. In contrast, show-jumping horses are said to take up to a year to complete proper training.
Officials Weigh Into The Debate As Proof Contradicts Them
In response to public concern, Tado Shrine has released official statements ahead of the ritual.
“Taking into consideration the Act on Welfare and Management of Animals, we have sought guidance from authorities of Mie Prefecture and Kuwana City. Whilst carrying on this Shintō ritual and following the law, we will make every effort to improve the quality of the offering ceremony known as the ageuma ritual.”
This is not the first time Tado Shrine issued public statements such as this. According to activists, the shrine’s resistance to change proves their promises to be empty ones.
On the other hand, official committee members of Mie prefecture’s Board of Education are much more blunt, as transcripts show.
Committee member Takeshita Yuzuru said “The world has become too crazy right? Nowadays people just want to be cautious, so nothing becomes a problem. And they think that’s fixing things…Of course, bullying animals is not okay…But it’s also important to have a festival that brings out the strength in people…I am totally against erasing the core values of this festival.”
However, whether ageuma truly constitutes the core of Tado Shrine’s teachings is questionable.
The earliest appearance of the word ageuma in historical documents dates to only 1937. A guidebook of the Tado area published in 1911 does not include a single reference to ageuma, let alone the word itself.
The story of Tado Shrine and the ageuma ritual is still in the writing. Will tradition persist, outweighing the cost of animal life? Or will Tado Shrine change its ways?
We won’t know for sure until next May.
What to read next
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 WORLD RECORD: HIGHEST JUMP BY A HORSE. Globe Trotting
 A Beginner’s Guide to Teaching a Horse How to Jump. Horse Canada
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