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September 2020

Cultural Article

The Hakata Dontaku Festival: An Introduction of One of Japan’s Local Festivals

by Yasuhiro Okamoto

Have you experienced Japanese traditional festivals?? Even though Japan is a not a big country, each region has unique traditions and cultures, and all those cultural elements are reflected in their local festivals. Today, I would like to introduce my hometown’s festival, which is named “Hakata Dontaku Festival.”

In Hakata, the Dontaku Festival has been celebrated for more than 800 years during a period of time called “Golden Week,” where we have consecutive holidays in early summer. Every year, around two million people gather in the city to observe this festival.

Exploring the origins of this festival, it is said that “Matsubayashi,” which was started in 1179 (Heian era), was the source of the Hakata Dontaku Festival. During that period, people greeted their local lord when cerebrating the new year with a parade, and this became the present “Hakata Dontaku Festival.” At that time, Japan had a class system, and it was an opportunity for interaction between warriors (Samurai) and merchants.

Once, this festival was even banned in the Meiji Era because of its extravagancy, but the people changed its name and tried to continue holding it. The word Dontaku comes from the word Zondag, a Dutch word that means both "Sunday" and "holiday".

(IMG_2734 by koemu is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

The use of Shamoji in the festival invokes the image of people eagerly leaving their homes in hurry (and thus still holding their spoons) to participate in the merriment.

The festival was cancelled for the first time this year since 1962, except for instances of bad weather, due to the coronavirus pandemic. In general, the festival is held from May 3rd to May 4th, and consists of the aforementioned traditional “Matsubayashi” parade, which has a mix of modern and traditional parade elements. In total, more than 230 groups and 22,000 performers join this festival, and the teams with outstanding performances are praised. One of the unique features of this parade is that people dance while clapping two rice scooping spoons (Shamoji) along to the music of “Shamisen” (Japanese traditional guitar).

You can see the parade from the street, and there are more than 30 stages in the city center, so you can also buy a ticket and enjoy performances from a seat. At the climax of this festival, everybody, including observers and tourists, join the dance and play together.

“Hakata Dontaku Festival” is one of biggest festivals held in spring in Japan. I’m sure that you can feel the festivity from seeing and joining this event. Additionally, there are the other two biggest and popular festivals in Fukuoka, which are “Hakata Gion Yamakasa” and “Houzyouya.” For your next trip in Japan, please go a little further to the south to explore Fukuoka. You may feel like visiting there repeatedly.

(IMG_2680 by koemu is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

People of all ages can take part in the parade, and of course participation is encouraged as everyone dances together at the very end.

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