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The Poem Festival at Oomoto; An Ancient Rite Lives Again (Oct.– Dec. 1981)

By Masamichi Tanaka

Annually, Oomoto celebrates four major festivals, one for each season of the year. Of these four festivals, the Zuisei Taisai or summer festival generally falls in August and reaches a climax on a specified evening when the Utamatsuri or Poem Festival takes place. The Poem Festival is a revival of a popular social gathering of former times in Japan when people got together to recite or chant poems. At Oomoto the event generally occurs in the evening, out-of-doors and by torch light.

The pinkish twilight was slowly fading and the indigo of night covered more than half the sky. The evening breeze, rapidly cooling the hot August day, gently fanned the torch flames causing them to crackle fitfully. The light of these torches shone on the priests seated on a stage especially constructed for the Poem Festival on an open space in the Oomoto precincts of Kameoka City. There was a rustling of silk robes as the chief priest rose from his seat and approached the altar. On the altar was a pyramid of colorful placards on each of which was inscribed a poem. Surmounting the pyramid was a sacred poem by the divinity Susanoo no Mikoto. All other poems were works dedicated by Oomoto followers. The chief priest knelt before the altar, bowed his head and clapped his hands. Then he recited the sacred poem of the divinity Susanoo no Mikoto, invoking His presence for the occasion.

The multifold fences
Where clouds cluster
Form multifold fences
Surrounding us on all sides.
Those multifold fences !

In ancient times the founder of Japanese poetry, the divinity Susanoo no Mikoto, brother of the Sun Goddess, slew a dreadful monster, a huge eighttailed dragon, rescuing a beautiful maiden called Kushinadahime and her parents Tenazuchi and Ashinazuchi. He brought peace to the region, built a palace and married Kushinadahime. It was then that He composed what is considered to be the first verse of Japanese poetry.

Onisaburo interpreted the poem to mean : there are walls and dark clouds in all countries of the world. Susanoo no Mikoto desired to remove these walls and clouds and to unite the world in peace and purity. The Poem Festival is the occasion of the return of the divinity Susanoo no Mikoto, an occasion suitable for prayers of peace and purity.

All the priests in solemn procession took their seats beside the chorus. To the delicate twanging of the two-stringed Yakumokoto, three young maidens made their appearance on the stage. They were all dressed in white and purple silk robes, bearing cascades of golden bells in their hands.

I was sitting on the stage among the choristers. As I watched the sacred dance of the young maidens, my nerves relaxed somewhat. But when I glanced at the members of the large congregation staring at the stage, my feeling of tension again returned.

We had practiced the chanting of the poems for two months — one hour in the early morning, one hour in the lunch break and two hours in the evening. Only one week after we started the practice, some of us faced difficulty in vocalizing. Our voices got hoarse and our singing discordant. I very much feared that my recitations sounded like bellowing or croaking, my face would become flushed and my back grew very stiff. What is worse, our sitting posture on the wooden floor caused me terrible pain in my legs. But in the following week most of us overcame the vocal troubles and our recitations became even better than before. However, the pain in my legs never went away, I broke into a cold sweat sometimes and my anxiety mounted with each successive day leading up to the performance.

But now, on the stage, the sound of the bells was purifying the precincts, the surrounding rice fields, the mountains and starry heavens. These three young maidens symbolize the beautiful wife of Susanoo no Mikoto and her parents Tenazuchi and Ashinazuchi. They were dancing to celebrate His advent on earth, and to purify the land.

Long ago, when Susanoo no Mikoto was weary of His troubles in administering the land, His wife made music by plucking a bowstring with an arrowhead to divert His mind. This was the origin of the koto, a kind of Japanese zither. She also fastened a bow to the bottom of a wooden tub, and beat the bowstring with a stick. Thus began the Japanese "bow-drum".

The dancers gracefully concluded their performance and retired from the stage. Twang ! Twang ! the low throb of the bow-drum with its archaic sound beat out a rhythm to which my fellow chorus members chanted the first poem of this year's collection in silvery tones.

Oomoto followers had contributed nearly two thousand poems from which some sixty were selected for the festival. Most of the poems were prayers for peace and good harvest, for the evolution of mankind, the unfolding of the Divine plan, and praise of nature and human life. Each year it is customary for the best four poems to receive awards from the Spiritual Leader of Oomoto.

I was self-conscious about my chanting, mindful as I was of a bad cold that I had contracted three days before the festival. And there were twenty poems to chant that evening.

In ancient Japan, the poem festival was widely performed in shrines, on the tops of mountains, by riversides, fountains, and in the market place. In the presence of Deity, the worshippers sang, danced, and feasted. The festival derived from a fertility rite in which God was invoked with prayers and thanksgiving to insure a bountiful harvest. It was also considered a propitious occasion for making marriage arrangements.

The festival gained the approval of the imperial court, and successive emperors celebrated it with great pomp. Long after the poem festival was no longer observed elsewhere, poetry parties at the imperial court retained some of its vestiges ; but during feudal times it disappeared almost entirely from Japanese society.

Onisaburo Deguchi, the co-founder of Oomoto, in his youth studied Japanese classical literature from his grandmother, who was a poetess in her own right, and from Korehira Okada, a scholar of Japanese classics. He thus learned from Okada how people in former times gathered for the poem festival, and he nursed the idea in his mind.

In October, 1935, he decided to revive this ancient festival in the unifying of the aesthetic and the sacred. This revival of tradition has remained an important yearly event at Oomoto.

Sitting Japanese fashion on the stage, I had now forgotten the pain in my legs, anxiety about my voice, and even about the stares of the congregation. I was chanting away in a state of bliss, caught up in the joy of life and the outpouring of heaven's favor. The entire chorus chanted the last poem three times, the poem that had won first prize for the year. Then, four priests, eight of the chorus members, and hundreds from the congregation chanted in unison poems by the spiritual leaders of Oomoto.

As the chanting came to an end, silence reigned all around and the three young maidens appeared on the stage again for the crowning dance. The sweet chiming of the cascades of golden bells purified the world, as a sky filled with stars twinkled to the sound. A final chanting of the poem of Susanoo no Mikoto by the chief priest concluded the festival. All the priests, the chorus and the koto players solemnly made their way from the stage.

The festival was over. The congregation slowly dispersed. The torches burned low and went out. Participants and onlookers all took with them each his own impressions of the dignity, the beauty, or the spirituality of the occasion. As for me, my heart was filled with gratitude that I had been accorded, by whatever powers, safe passage through the entire ceremony without committing a single serious blunder.

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