Origins of the Nebuta Matsuri
The true origins of the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri are to this day unclear, but it is said that the event is an offshoot of the floating lanterns used during the Tanabata Matsuri (the Japanese Star Festival that spans several days).
The floats themselves are believed to be the result of an amalgamation of several key elements in the Nara Period (710-794): ancient Tsugaru traditions, dolls, insect-repelling torches, the sending off of ancestral spirits, and the aforementioned Tanabata Matsuri (which originated in China). All of these customs were brought together in the form of lanterns, at a time when the use of paper, bamboo, and candles was becoming increasingly common in society. The lanterns would eventually come to depict human figures – the original Nebuta Matsuri floats.
The word nebuta also finds its roots in the Tanabata Matsuri. The lanterns that appeared during the festival processions were known by this name, and on the actual night of Tanabata itself (July 7), they were floated down rivers or the sea, serving as both a cleansing ritual and a prayer for good health. This custom was called nebuta-nagashi, and can be seen today in the form of Aomori Nebuta maritime displays.
Nebuta-nagashi is likely a corruption of nemuri-nagashi (nemuri meaning sleep in both the daily and eternal sense). An analysis of ethnic language distribution and of dialects shows that the word nebuta (also neputa or nefuta) appears as nenburi-nagashi in the Tohoku and Shin'etsu regions, and as nebuchi-nagashi, neboke-nagashi, and nemutta-nagashi in the Kanto region.
Evolution of the Nebuta Matsuri
Today, the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri is one of Japan's biggest festivals; however, this wasn't always the case. Nebuta at the time are thought to have resembled the dashi floats used in Kyoto's Gion Matsuri. These are featured in Sadahiko Hirano's book, Okumin Zui (see the illustration on the right).
Many contemporary nebuta floats depict kabuki actors – a custom which most likely began in the Bunka Period (1804-1818), when folk art was at its peak. Kokkei Shagobutsu, a refined citizen of Edo, wrote about this in Oku no Shiori, per local historian Takeo Matsuno in the August 1966 edition of the To-o Nippo newspaper.
In the 13th year of Tempo , I saw the Tanabata Matsuri at Noshiro in Akita. The event was called "nemuta-nagashi" and featured human figures. They were about 3 jo [10 meters] in length and 3 ken [6 meters] square, and depicted things like Empress Jingu's unification of the Three Korean states. They were lit with candles and pulled on carts. The people there played bells, drums, and trumpet shells, and danced. Though quite unusual, I am told this is also done in Hirosaki and Kuroishi in Tsugaru, as well as in Aomori. Today, the nebuta in Noshiro don't depict human figures; they are instead modeled after Nagoya Castle! About seven or eight floats – similar in size to those used in Aomori – are paraded through the city streets for the festival.
Aomori Nebuta Matsuri is renowned, among other things, for its haneto dancers (previously referred to as odoriko, though the precise date of the name change is unknown). Records show that dancers were present at the festival in as early as the An'ei Period (1772-1781). In Aomori, men and women would ring bells and dance in costume (including stockings without shoes). These bells 'sold extremely well [in stores] until July 2.' - Takeo Matsuno
A collection of art from Aomori Prefecture collected by the artist Junzo Kon – published by To-o Nippo in 1933 and reissued in 1973 – shows what the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri looked like in 1928 (see the image on the right). By then, some nebuta were already being pulled by car, though it seems that the majority were carried by hand (one person would hold the nebuta while being supported on all sides).
"In the past, no matter where you looked, you'd find a nebuta swaying in every alley – that's how small they were. A festive atmosphere filled the entire town, from one corner to the next. These days, both the schedule and course are set and the main purpose is to show the floats to festivalgoers; back then, we were there purely out of enjoyment," said senior Nebuta artisan Keizo Kitakawa (deceased).
Nebuta floats grew even larger as Japan entered the Meiji Period (1868-1912). One particular nebuta from Hamamachi in 1871 is said to have been about 20 meters tall (the reasons for which are unknown) and carried by a hundred people. In fact, records show that the float was seen from Yokouchi, some 4 kilometers away. In 1873, Shigeyoshi Hishida (the prefectural governor appointed by the new Meiji administration) decreed that old regional customs were "bad," issuing an edict that forbode not only the Nebuta Matsuri, but also the Bon Festival dance as well (among other things).
From the late Taisho Period (1912-1926) through to the early Showa Period (1926-1989), it was popular to dress up in costumes (baketo). At the time, Aomori Prefecture was experiencing poor harvests, a financial crisis, the rise of the labor movement, and rapid Westernization of people's lifestyles. Perhaps the desire to laugh one's worries away and criticize society is what drove more and more people to dress up.
The wartorn city of Aomori canceled its Nebuta Matsuri in 1945. Though the 1946 festivals went ahead in Aburakawa and Asahimachi, it is said that the presence of the occupying army resulted in a more subdued mood.
Aomori Nebuta have grown steadily in size since the end of the war, in line with rising tourist levels. This is one of the reasons why they are so big now!