Carnivals, Creatures and Calendars: Historical Rabbles and Art in Japan

While helping a colleague research and write an article about egoyomi (Japanese picture calendars) earlier this year, we came across an example that I thought looked familiar. On closer observation I could see it was a depiction of the ee janai ka disturbances that gripped parts of Japan in the 1860’s.

As we wrote in the eventual article:

At the time in Japan people used a calendar where each month had either 29 or 30 days. The months with 29 days were called “small months” (Sho no tsuki); those with 30 days were “large months” (Dai no tsuki). Once every two or three years there was a thirteenth month called Uru-zuki.

The calendar was quite complicated compared to our streamlined version today, since every year the arrangement of “large” and “small” months would vary. Looking at the picture calendars was a pretty easy way to learn about the old way of keeping track of the twelve (or thirteen) months of the year.

During the Edo era there was quite a vogue for these visual calendars. Appearing at the time when ukiyo-e were also in their heyday, it comes as no surprise to see that the imagery is also as vibrant and pretty as woodblock prints.

Ee janai ka translates roughly as “How about it?” and refers to the carnivalesque fervour that started off as dancing during religious feasts, with crowds gathering to catch paper talismans falling from the sky. The thanksgiving celebrations then developed into quasi-flash mobs, with the frenzy spreading along the Tōkaidō coast and onto Shikoku. The name comes from a refrain in the song the participants would sing as they danced and made merry.

At the time, the Tokugawa feudal government was on the way out and, as is commonly the case in Japanese feudal history, at times of political instability, the masses would riot. These insurgencies were often classed as ikki or uchikowashi, but more profound incidents used the term yonoashi, world rectification. The 1860’s was a decade rampant with such riots.

ee janai ka edo japan dance sing riot

Here is the ee janai ka image as an egoyomi calendar. The men are the “large” months and the women are the “small” ones. A child represents the thirteenth “leap” month. The clothes the people wear are also all themed around the months.

ee janai ka egoyomi picture art calendar

Also spot how the people are throwing the amulets in the air and on the right you can see a mask for Okame, a “fool” character similar to the famous Japanese clown Hyottoko. (The Japanese court had no jesters that we know of but there are plenty of examples of clowns and fools in popular culture.)

The ee janai ka events were less political than Saturnalian in nature. The people would dress up as the opposite sex, drink, stop working and let themselves go. The authorities knew full well to tolerate festivals and rabbles at certain times of the year, even when they were essentially glorified orgies. (In the same way, medieval Europe also had set occasions for licensed foolery, such as Shrove Tuesday, All Fool’s Day, the Feast of the Fools, and so on; they were safety-valves for releasing social tensions.) While some of the ee janai ka mobs dispersed by themselves, the authorities clamped down on others and issued ordinances against them. The anarchy was short-lived, though the suppression still did not save the Tokugawa regime from its ultimate demise.

If all the dancing and singing worried the authorities, though, things could have been worse.

The Hyakki Yagyō (or Hyakki Yakō) is a march of pandemonium where yōkai monsters invade the streets. The belief was that a demo parade of beasts took over the public realm one night of the year and anyone who encountered the procession would die. The scene is a frequent motif of Japanese picture scolls and picture scrolls. The film 100 Monsters came out, significantly, in 1968, at a time when many young “monsters” were occupying the streets of Kanda and the university campuses around Japan.

hyakki yako yokai monster parade march japan

hyakki yako yokai monster parade march japan

Monsters also featured in the Kanda Matsuri. The festival still happens in east Tokyo today but originally it was a giant cosplay event, with the common townspeople allowed to parade through Edo Castle (normally off-limits) dressed up as warriors and dignitaries, and pulling floats representing mythical creatures. It has also been vividly preserved as a 50-metre scroll painting.

kanda matsuri edo scroll art painting picture parade festival

kanda matsuri edo scroll art painting picture parade festival

The scroll also includes an image of Namazu (Ōnamazu), a giant catfish who lives under the earth and who is said to cause earthquakes. A common image in Japanese prints (the genre is known as namazu-e), Namazu is more than just a fable to explain a natural phenomenon. Namazu is a trouble-maker, a saviour and an agent for yonaoshi. Namazu is partly a millennial figure, turning the world upside down in order to cure society of its ills. Earthquakes led to rebuilding, new jobs and potentially better social structures.

Soon after the 1855 Ansei Earthquake hundreds of cheap namazu-e prints appeared in Edo. Coming just after the visits of Commodore Perry to Japan, the earthquake ostensibly caused by Namazu was symptomatic of the dramatic social changes taking place. The popularity of the namazu-e showed how the masses were engaging in a discussion on the political situation that they were ordinarily excluded from, and that they were aware that big changes were afoot.

namazu-e catfish painting japan picture earthquake ansei social disorder


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