Blog post

Precarious temporalities in rural Japan

On the surface, population decline in Japan is having a devasting effect on rural communities and their centuries-old traditions, which they take great care to preserve.

People twirling rings of fire
Hiburi kamakura, or the fire twirling festival, celebrates the ‘minor New Year,’ the coming of spring, and the start of the subsequent planting season.
潘立傑 LiChieh Pan (Flickr/CC-BY-NC-SA)

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Under the surface, the premodern calendar systems (of which these festivals serve as markers) are also slowly vanishing. Thus, one wonders what the demographic, cultural, and temporal make-up of rural communities in Japan will look like in the future?

In the late afternoon every January 15th, residents of Niida (a small town in northern Japan) gather in a snow-covered nearby rice field. They carry with them the New Year’s ornaments that have been hanging on the front doors of their houses—sacred ornaments that bring blessings and good fortune to each household. Upon arriving at the field, they place their ornaments in a makeshift A-frame hut made from dried rice-stalks from the previous year’s harvest. After the sun has set, a priest from the local Shinto shrine recites blessings at a temporary altar on the edge of the rice field, then walks over to the A-frame hut and sets it ablaze. The bundles of dried rice-straw forming the hut along with the ornaments inside (which are also made from rice straw, as well as hemp twine, wood, paper, and string) quickly burst into flames, casting a warm orange glow across the field and illuminating the onlookers’ faces.

At a safe distance from the growing bonfire are approximately 200 small sheafs of dried rice stalks in neat piles. Each sheaf is tied with a piece of hemp twine, 2 to 3 meters long. One by one, elders of the community each take a sheaf and bring it near to the bonfire, just close enough to catch a flame. Then, as the sheaf sets alight, the elder uses the long piece of twine to twirl the burning bundle of flames around and around over his head until it burns out. This performance is done to the awe and delight of the onlookers, who then each take their turn twirling bundles of fire above their heads, until all the sheafs are used and the bonfire turns to ash.

This rural folk festival is called the Hiburi kamakura. It is a difficult name to translate, so for ease of purpose I refer to it as the “fire twirling festival.” Until the late 19th century, Japan followed a luni-solar calendar, which they inherited from China. This calendar featured both a ‘major’ New Year (marked by the first new moon of the first month) and a second, ‘minor’ New Year (the first full moon of the first month). The fire twirling festival celebrates the ‘minor New Year,’ the coming of spring, and the start of the subsequent planting season.

Niida is located in a plain at the southern base of Akita prefecture’s Mt. Taihei, which is itself a sacred mountain and was once a regular pilgrimage stop for mountain-worshipping ascetics called yamabushi (also called shugenja). Winters in Akita are long and dark with an average snowfall of close to 3 meters. The snowmelt from the mountain filled the area’s numerous rivers and streams, making it an ideal location for rice planting. The fire twirling festival thus serves as a celebration of life (i.e., surviving the winter), an event in anticipation of the coming spring, and to welcome the kami (local gods) back to the village after their having wintered elsewhere.

According to Japan’s old calendar, the New Year and accompanying fire twirling festival were held in February on the Gregorian calendar. Aside from marking the change of year and the change of season, the festival was a way for the local rice farmers to coordinate their activities and prepare for the upcoming planting season. Equally important, the festival provided the appropriate means to dispose of the sacred New Years’ ornaments by way of the bonfire—the ornaments cannot simply be placed in the garbage. These days, the festival and the locals’ notion of temporality is slightly disjointed: the festival is held in January (not February), and on the 15th (irrespective of whether or not there is a full moon or not).

A low birthrate, an aged society, and rural-to-urban migration are taking their tolls on the Niida community. Also, apartment buildings are replacing single family homes and commercial real estate (e.g., paid-parking lots, convenience stores) is replacing rice fields. These factors are affecting both the demographic make-up of the community and the shared-sense of temporality once held by the community. My research at the University of Oslo’s Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages examines how this severe population shift is affecting rural, folk calendrical events like the fire burning festival and the person-to-person interactions that typically take place at local community festivals in Japan. While the timing of the planting season has (for the most part) not changed, the communities and spaces associated with this way of life are, which is creating an uncertain future.

Presently, a small group of volunteers keeps Hiburi kamakura alive. Through my research, I hope we may come to understand the complexities of maintaining this tradition as part of the community’s calendar framework; to what extent this premodern festival remains an important community event marking the New Year; and what will become of other such long held calendar-based traditions that have been cherished for generations.


Ben Grafstrom is a Doctoral Research Fellow in Japan Studies at the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages (IKOS) at the University of Oslo.