Stronger than the Wave: Five Southern Tohoku Folk Traditions

Stronger than the Wave: Five Southern Tohoku Folk Traditions

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Suzume Odori - Aoba Matsuri
Picture: 写遊 / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
The Tohoku region's endured a lot over the past 200 years. How five rich folk traditions capture the durability and diversity of the region.

As mentioned in a recent Unseen Japan article, there is a lingering image of the Tohoku region as uncultured and backward. In other words, the Japanese equivalent of the American expression “flyover country.” The Boshin War’s victors even went so far as to say “north of Shirakawa, a mountain’s worth a hundred copper mon.

But even a cursory exploration of the region can show us that it has much of which to boast. It’s endured much over even the past two centuries– wars, famines, earthquakes, tsunami, and nuclear disasters. And that makes the enduring richness of its culture and tenacity of its people is all the more remarkable.

In the spirit of deepening our appreciation of that richness, let’s explore five examples of Tohoku folk traditions.

Oniisodo (Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture)

Oni pelted by beans. Print by Katsushika Hokusai. (source)

Proper honorifics remain an important part of modern Japanese. So it should come as no surprise that, historically, referring to a daimyo by personal name was rude and exceedingly familiar.

Referring to a daimyo by their court title was more common. But even there, there were also rules about the use of court titles which the Tokugawa Shogunate regulated through laws like the Injunctions for Warrior Houses (Buke Shohatto). The domains themselves also carefully regulated the use of these titles by non-warriors. In the Sendai domain, the house of Date had its own laws that prohibited the use of the word “Mutsu”. Other words that intersected with the family names or court titles of the daimyo’s immediate family were also verboten.

Date had a particular interest in the titles of Mutsu no kami, held by the ruling lord. They also fussed over Mimasaka no kami and Echizen no kami — titles usually held by the lord’s heir apparent. An enterprising Sendai merchant or craftsman couldn’t have any of those province names in their business’s name or displayed on their shop curtain. This, despite Sendai residing in the old imperial province of Mutsu.


Homophonic Workarounds

According to 20th-century folklorist and local historian Mihara Ryokichi, anyone in violation of this regulation would be identified by the city magistrate’s patrol officers and investigated by the magistrate’s office. Especially in the early Edo period, more than a few people ran afoul of this prohibition.

That being said, Japanese is a language abundant in homophones. This is historically how Japanese poetry works. It’s also why puns are so easy to make. And the warrior bureaucracy, at least at the outset, was overzealous. So, commoners had to come up with new and inventive circumlocutions to avoid even sounding like they were stepping on a daimyo’s toes.

In Nihonmatsu domain, modern Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, this took an interesting form during the Setsubun holidays. As is still done today, people would gather at shrines and pelt with beans people dressed as oni (ogres) while chanting “oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (Out with the ogres! In with the fortune!) This welcomed good fortune and drove out bad luck.

But in Nihonmatsu, “Oni wa soto” (out with the ogres) sounded a lot like “O-Niwa soto” (out with the august Niwa). In the interest of avoiding potential trouble, people in Nihonmatsu learned to talk around it, and say “Oniisodo!” (Ogres out!) as they threw their beans. This continued well after the end of the Edo period, through the early 20th century, but is no longer the practice in modern Nihonmatsu.

Suzume Odori (Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture)

Suzume odori as depicted in Hokusai Manga by Katsushika Hokusai (source)

One of the most enduring folk traditions of Sendai is the Suzume odori or Sparrow dance. It’s a tradition that began with the city’s foundation and which has become one of its most recognizable cultural touchstones. And it began with the castle construction of Mount Aoba.

Mount Aoba is a hill in one of the bends of the Hirose River. There was a small fortification there before 1600, as well as a Buddhist temple. Date Masamune chose to build his new expanded castle there, breaking ground in 1600.

Over the course of the 1590s, Masamune had spent a great deal of time in central Japan. He resided at Hideyoshi’s Jurakudai court in Kyoto and later at Osaka Castle, as one of Hideyoshi’s vassals and generals. He had plans of his own to make a prospective longshot bid at conquering Japan. As a result, he wanted to build something that would rival those structures of which his overlord had been so proud. And with that longer view in mind,  he summoned stonemasons from Sakai (modern-day Sakai, Osaka Prefecture). His goal: to build the stonework of his new castle.

One of the most enduring folk traditions of Sendai is the Suzume odori or Sparrow dance. Click To Tweet

When the stonemasons finished their work, Masamune organized a celebration. He himself performed taiko as he, his vassals, and the stonemasons drank together. Eventually, the stonemasons performed an improvised dance whose motions resembled the flapping and flitting of sparrows in flight.

The main Date crest since Masamune’s father’s time was, and still is, an image of two sparrows encircled in bamboo. So the name “sparrow dance” (suzume odori すずめ踊り) stuck. These stonemasons’ descendants continued in Date service and continued to preserve the dance.

The Aoba Festival

Much later, in 1874, the imperial government allowed for a group of local residents including former Date vassals to establish Aoba Shrine. (The shrine still exists and still enshrines Masamune.) One of its major festivals, held in the spring, was the Aoba Festival.

The Aoba Festival drew on the larger tradition of the Sendai Festival. This was an earlier spring festival held at Tōshō-gū Shrine, across town in Miyamachi district. Tōshō-gū enshrined the deified Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

The Sendai Festival began in 1654. An alternate-attendance system took the ruling Date lord away from Sendai on a regular basis. So the Sendai Festival it was held every other year. In the festival procession through the Sendai streets, people in straw hats and hanten coat danced the Sparrow Dance. The descendants of the same stonemasons had kept it alive for all those years.

In 1985, Sendai City adopted it as a local civic holiday and festival. Today it celebrates, not just the city’s founder, but also the city’s culture and long history in general. It’s now called the Sendai Aoba Festival, and is still held every year in May, with teams from different neighborhoods, schools, and businesses still dancing the Suzume odori.

Sōma Nomaoi (Minamisōma, Fukushima Prefecture)

Participants in a corral at Sōma Odaka Shrine try to capture horses bare-handed. Click To Tweet

The Sōma Nomaoi is one of the most famous cultural touchstones of eastern Fukushima Prefecture, and an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property of Japan since 1952.

It has its origins in the custom of the house of Sōma, the local daimyo family. Like its cousins in the house of Date, the Sōma clan took its name from its early county of residence. The Nomaoi has a history dating back to the Heian era. However, it’s only been in its current location since the Sōma took up residence there.

In the Edo period, the Soma domain was a modestly sized, 60,000 koku tozama fief. The Nomaoi survived even the Meiji abolition of the Edo period domains. The region was, and still is, a horse-breeding area, to the point that one of the Soma clan’s alternate crests was a bucking horse– fitting for this festival.

The Structure of the Nomaoi

Part military field exercise, part contest, part religious ritual, many of the three-day Nomaoi’s participants are still descendants of the Sōma clan and its retainers. The festival also prominently features Sōma Odaka shrine, Sōma Ōta shrine, and Sōma Nakamura shrine. All three area Shinto shrines with a particularly long history with the clan.

The festival’s name, “wild horse chase,” offers some hint of one of the major events. Participants in a corral at Sōma Odaka Shrine try to capture horses bare-handed. There are also prayers offered at the three shrines, as well as a parade of participants in armor and with battle-standards of the Sōma retainer band. At the festival grounds at Hibarigahara, the same riders compete in armored horseback riding and capture-the-flag.

The race during the Sōma Nomaoi of 2017. (CC2.0, image by Hajime Nakano)

Today, the Sōma area is, unfortunately, best known internationally as the home of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011. But we do it a disservice if this is our only image of Fukushima. Indeed, it is a testament to the resilience of the local community as well as its traditions, that not even the 3.11 disaster nor the Coronavirus pandemic ended the Nomaoi. As of 2021, it still continues, on the last Saturday, Sunday, and Monday of July.

The Fox Stone (Aoba Ward, Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture)

Earlier, we mentioned Sendai Tōshō-gū shrine. Sendai Tōshō-gū is a branch of the more famous Tōshō-gū in Nikkō. Date Tadamune, 2nd generation daimyo of Sendai and successor to Masamune, established the shrine in April 1654.

Tadamune, one of the wealthiest men in Japan, spared no expense in the construction of Sendai Tōshō-gū. As a major shrine neighborhood of the area, the neighborhood would go on to become one of a handful that enjoyed special privileges during the Edo period. In the case of Miyamachi, that privilege was brewing sake. (Sendai Tōshō-gū remains a major shrine – and one that is a significant tourist draw for the city.)

When the shrine was under construction, the goshintai, the vessel that housed the divine essence to be enshrined in the finished shrine, was placed in a building called the Okarimiya お借宮– the Temporary Shrine. Okarimiya was in Sendai’s Kakyōin neighborhood, which lies south along a straight line from the shrine’s planned permanent site. Kakyōin is now immediately to the west of the Tohoku Shinkansen rail line, just north of Sendai Station.

While the goshintai was eventually moved to the permanent shrine, this was only the beginning of the story for Okarimiya. When the Date clan vacated Okarimiya, they left the land in its wild state. According to one account: “The cryptomeria grew thick, and it was an incredible place, dark even in the daytime. Naturally, it became a favored dwelling of foxes. Travelers tended to avoid it.”

Iroha The Fox

The northeast corner of Kakyōin met the border of Miyamachi. In that location stood a large, round stone that the locals called the Fox Stone (Kitsuneishi 狐石) of Okarimiya.

Those who passed it and didn’t know to keep a respectful distance were said to run afoul of the supernatural fox said to inhabit it. This was especially true if they were thoughtless enough to relieve themselves on it. One account claims that hapless travelers might find themselves suddenly disoriented and lost, deposited in a nearby paddy, or worse.

So, moved by this state of affairs, the locals came together and moved the stone to somewhere less likely to be in the way. However, this didn’t stop the fox sightings. Where the stone had been, there were reports of a shapeshifting fox that the locals came to call Iroha. She tended to take the form of a fashionable, beautiful woman whose kimono and lantern both bore a design based on the hiragana for “Iroha” いろは․

Kitsune expelling fox-fire, by Toriyama Sekien. (source)

A Cagey Fox

This was no longer just a matter of ill-mannered travelers getting a comeuppance. With the stone gone, the fox had escalated things into actively messing with– and messing around with — unwitting passers-by. The same source says “the stone was moved to the grounds of Higashi-Rokubanchō’s Jinjō Elementary School, but which stone it might be remains unclear.”

Jinjō Elementary had been on that ground through 1876, when it moved to Kimachi-dōri nearby. Its footprint is now taken up by Higashi Rokubanchō Elementary. And we do know where the stone is. Or at least, there’s a stone that’s said to be that stone. It’s a substantial, round stone, worn a bit with the weather and years. It’s still at Higashi Rokubanchō Elementary School.

One hopes the fox Iroha has proven a benevolent guardian.

The Jorōgumo of Kashikobuchi (Aoba Ward, Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture)

Where the stone had been, there were reports of a shapeshifting fox that the locals came to call Iroha. Click To Tweet

Yōkai that were potentially dangerous could, with the proper acts of appeasement, become benevolent forces. One such yokai in Edo period Sendai was the jorōgumo of Kashikobuchi, a pool in one of the bends of the Hirose River.

A jorōgumo is a kind of spider yokai that often takes the form of a beautiful woman. But it can turn into a spider and lure unsuspecting people to their doom, including by dragging them into water. It isn’t the only spider-like yokai in Japanese folklore. It is, however, one of the better-known ones. And as we’ll see here, it isn’t necessarily a force for ill.

Jorogumo as depicted by Toriyama Sekien. (source)

The story goes that a commoner went to that bend in the Hirose River in order to fish. In the Edo period, the inside of that river bend was the territory of the Date daimyo and his senior retainers. You can see Mount Aoba from that river bend even today. But out around Kashikobuchi, the population skewed more toward commoners and low-ranking samurai. 

The fisherman noticed a jorōgumo tying his legs together. In a flash of inspiration, they slipped a nearby willow branch into the spider silk instead. Moments later, the jorōgumo yanked the bound log and disappeared into the depths of the Hirose River. The fisherman looked on in shock as he heard a voice that seemed to come from the river saying kashikoi, kashikoi!– “clever, clever!”

Clever, Clever

Clearly, there was a being of some power there. And just as clearly, it had to be appeased and offered the appropriate measure of caution and respect. So the locals erected several monuments to this jorōgumo. They created one at that point in the river bend, invoking her power as a benevolent force to protect people working on or around the river.

To this day, nobody seems to have run afoul of the jorōgumo again. The monument at the river bend still stands just above the Hirose riverbank, astride the south side of Miyagi Prefectural Route 31. This is only a few minutes’ walk up the street from the national treasure Ōsaki Hachiman Shrine.

When I think about that part of town, and what’s in the area, I can’t help but smile knowingly at how time has proven the jorōgumo right.

Cleverness abounds in that area, in the form of many colleges.

Tohoku Fukushi University is just north a short distance. Immediately south across the river is Sendai Akamon College. To the east on the other side of Kawauchi is Tohoku University’s Kawauchi Campus.

Clever indeed!

Some Closing Thoughts

These are just a few examples of the abundant elements of local folk traditions in Miyagi and Fukushima Prefectures. While time has made some vanish and others fade, others continue despite war, natural disaster, and even nuclear accidents. And if we take a moment to explore and to learn about such traditions, they can enrich our appreciation for a place and its people.

What are some of your favorite local folk traditions and observances in Japan? Tell us about them in the comments below! 

The Lesser-Known Festivals of Japan: Scary Edition


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Nyri Bakkalian

Dr. Nyri A. Bakkalian is an author, recovering academic, raconteur, and Your Favorite History Lesbian. Her PhD thesis focused on the Boshin War in the Tohoku region. She is the author of "Grey Dawn: A Tale of Abolition and Union" (Balance of Seven Press, 2020). She hosts Friday Night History on and the secret to her success is Arabic coffee. She misses Sendai daily.

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