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Newsletter: Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition

Delivered on January 29, 2018
Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition [Issue 86] January 29, 2018

Delivery Of Japan's Seasonal Tradition [Issue 86]
January 29, 2018
Japanese Traditional Culture Promotion & Development Organization


1. Seasonal Creature:
Changing into a horse to dedicate: "Ema"

2. News from JTCO:
New article released!

1) Oshika Kabuki (Kabuki)

:: 1. Seasonal Creature

In Japan, it is called "Hatsumode" to visit shrine or temple for the
first time in the New Year. Many people tend to go in the first three
days of the year and as a custom they often write their wish or express
their gratitude for their previous wish coming true on a wooden plaque
with a horse picture. Although this is called "Ema (Picture of horse)",
there are many plaques without horse picture. Why is it still named "Ema"?

Horse was regarded as a vehicle of god in Japan and the legendary first
Emperor of Japan, Jimmu, as well as Japanese legendary prince, Yamato
Takeru were riding on a horse in folklore. Horses had not inhabited
Japan until it was brought in no earlier than the end of the Yayoi
era (middle of 3c). In "Gishiwajinden (record of Japanese life in the
early 3c)", there is a description says "There is no cow, horse, tiger,
leopard, sheep or magpie in Japan". Horse was an as-yet-unknown animal
for Japanese people at that time.

Horse bones and gears have been found in the remains of the end of
4th century. And also there are exhumed burial accessories such as
horse shaped Haniwa clays and horse gears from the 5th century in many
different places in Japan. It seems that the horse and its riding method
had widely spread all over Japan by the tumulus period (middle of 5c).

The transport system using horses for traffic and the postal service
between the central and local governments was started in the mass
political reform called "Taika reform" in 645 in the Asuka period.
Because the legal system was an imitation of the military of the Tang
dynasty which heavily reflected the nomads' life, equestrian culture
was introduced to Japan and cavalry also started to take part in wars.

We can see that many horses were laboring to construct the capital
city at this time, as deformed bones in joints due to extremely hard
work have exhumed in remains of Fujiwara kyo (Imperial capital in 7c).
It had been hundreds of years since horses were brought into Japan by
this era and horses had become an indispensable animal for them at
important military scenes as well as to build a country. It was also
taken into local farmers' lives and adapted to work under severe
weather and different land conditions.

It is not a large number but there are still a few of shrines that are
breeding horses. They are called "Shinme" which means "messenger of
god" and they appear in festivals. It is said that contributing a horse
to a shrine or temple started between Asuka era and Nara era (6-8c).
There is a record written in the early 8th century that Hida and Kai
provinces donated a horse to a shrine and the royal court gave them
free pardon and tax cut in return. All the horses being bred for this
purpose had a rare appearance, black hair coat with a white mane and tail.
This rarity was favoured as auspicious like a white snake.

As time went by, people much more often contributed horses when they
prayed in festivals or prayed for rain. This custom originated from a
well-known event named "Soma no Nomaoi" in Fukushima prefecture in the
Tohoku region, during which many grazed horses which had been
contributed were gathered before god once a year.

Although dedication of living horses had continued for a relatively
long time in horse breeding areas of Tohoku region, if they could not
afford an expensive horse or the shrine was not be able to breed a horse,
"Umagata (shape of horse)" was dedicated alternatively. This "Umagata"
was originally made with soil, stone or wood which imitated a horse.
Since medieval Japan, wood Umagata was mainly used. And then simplified
wooden Umagata, "Itadadeuma", a wooden plaque with a horse picture
appeared. This is the origin of Ema which we can still see today.

We rarely see horse in daily life nowadays in Japan apart from horse
riding or horse racing. However, the religious custom that Ema carries
our various wishes to god, such as being successful in work,
accomplishment of study, good health as well as fulfillment in love,
remains even now.

Translation by: Hitomi Kochi, reviewed by Chan Yee Ting

:: 2. News from JTCO:

New Article Released!

1) Oshika Kabuki (Kabuki)

"Oshika Kabuki" is a form of "Ji-shibai" (local play) that has
been handed down and performed for more than 300 years since the Edo
period (17-19C) by residents of Oshika Village in Nagano Prefecture.

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