Tenjin Matsuri

Tenjin Matsuri (Tenjin Festival)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Shinto) Date of Observation : July 24 and July 25
Where Celebrated: Osaka, Japan
Symbols and Customs: Boat Parade, Hand Clapping, Parade, Tenjin Ritual


Tenjin Matsuri is part of the Shinto tradition, an ancient religion that originated in Japan. Most Shinto adherents live in Japan, but small communities also exist in Europe, Latin America, North America, and in the Pacific island nations.

The name Shinto was first employed during the sixth century C . E . to differentiate indigenous religions in Japan from faith systems that originated in mainland Asia (primarily Buddhism and Confucianism). The word is derived from two Chinese characters, shen (gods) and tao (way). Loosely translated, Shinto means "way of the gods." Its roots lie in an ancient nature-based religion. Some important concepts in Shinto include the value of tradition, the reverence of nature, cleanliness (ritual purity), and the veneration of spirits called kami. Strictly speaking, kami are not deities. The literal translation of the word kami is "that which is hidden."

Kami (which is both the singular and plural term) are honored, but do not assert their powers upon humans in the traditional manner of deities or gods in other religions. People may be descended from the kami, and kami may influence the course of nature and events. The kami can bestow blessings, but they are not all benign. Kami are present in natural things such as trees, mountains, rocks, and rivers. They are embodied in religious relics, especially mirrors and jewels. They also include spirits of ancestors, local deities, holy people, and even political or literary figures. The human role is to venerate the kami and make offerings. The ultimate goal of Shinto is to uphold the harmony among humans and between people and nature. In this regard, the principle of all kami is to protect and sustain life.

The central authorities in Shinto are the priests. Traditionally, the duties of the priest were passed through heredity lines, but in modern times priests are trained on the basis of recommendation. The priests' duties include communicating with the kami and ensuring that ceremonies are properly carried out. Shinto does not have a single collection of sacred texts analogous to the Christian Bible or Islamic Qur'an. Instead, several important books provide information and guidance: Koji- ki (Records of Ancient Events), Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan), and Engishiki (Chronicles of the Engi).

Many Japanese people consider Osaka's Tenjin Matsuri to be one of the three greatest festivals in Japan. This celebration honors the ninth-century scholar Sugawarano-Michizane (845-903). The people of Japan respected this man so greatly that, after his death, they began to regard him as a god of learning and literature. This promotion earned him a new name, Tenman Tenjin, or Tenjin for short. The citizens of Osaka built the Temmangu Shrine in the new god's honor in the early tenth century. The festival in his name dates back to the year 951 C . E . Many towns and cities besides Osaka also have shrines and festivals dedicated to this popular Shinto god.

Osaka's festival began as an offering to Tenjin for his protection against the plague. According to local records, hot weather wilted the people of Osaka in the year 951. Moreover, they worried about the diseases that tended to spread under these conditions. As a means of protecting themselves from illness, each resident of the city brought a piece of paper cut into the shape of a human being to the Temmangu Shrine. The Shinto priests that kept the shrine took all the pieces of paper and prayed over them while performing a ritual that involved rubbing the papers on their bodies. To complete the ritual and perfect that protection from disease that it offered, the people removed the papers from the city. They deposited the paper dolls onto boats and set sail for the mouth of the river, where they dumped the paper dolls overboard.

Some say that Osaka's Tenjin Festival reached its height during the Edo period (1603-1868). In those days, the parade from the temple to the river featured seventy float, called danjiri in Japanese. Nowadays, only one traditionally designed float remains. In past centuries, people from each of the city's neighborhoods fashioned eight-foot-tall dolls. During the PARADE , they would stand the dolls in front of their homes to greet the gods as they were carried by in their mikoshi, or portable shrine. About fifteen of these antique dolls still exist. Many of them are displayed in the Temmangu Shrine during the festival.


Boat Parade

The boat parade takes place on the last night of the festival. The people of Osaka call this event funatogyo. Hundreds of lantern-lit boats and barges float down the Okawa River, which runs through the town of Osaka. Fires may be built on a ship to further illuminate their entertainments on board, which include traditional Japanese music, dance, and drama. In addition, a huge fireworks display bedazzles the night sky. Those who are not lucky enough to be on board a boat enjoy the spectacle from the water's edge. The mikoshi, too, are placed on boats and Tenjin Matsuri

travel on the river. Afterwards they are returned to the temple in the same procession of dancers, musicians, and costumed citizens that escorted the mikoshi down to the riverside.

Hand Clapping

Groups of festival participants clap their hands in a syncopated fashion throughout the land and boat parades. Many of the local people enjoy this ritual and view it a typically Osakan gesture.


The parade begins with a Shinto religious ceremony in which the spirit of the god Tenjin is ushered from his shrine to his mikoshi, or portable shrine. A mikoshi provides a temporary dwelling place for gods and spirits. The mikoshi resemble beautifully decorated miniature temples set atop a litter. It takes a team of strong men to carry them through the streets on their shoulders. The mikoshi procession gives the god a chance to visit the people and see their level of well-being. The mikoshi of a number of other gods also participate in the Tenjin festival parade.

The land parade is one of the highlights of the festival. About 3,000 people march in this parade, dressed in the fashions of eighth-to-twelfth-century Japan. Costumed children, dancers, drummers, musicians, young ladies dressed as geishas, and political dignitaries add to the spectacle. Specially selected bearers dressed in white carry Tenjin's mikoshi through the streets and down to the river.

Tenjin Ritual

Sugawara-no-Michizane, later Tenjin, achieved great success as a poet, scholar, and statesman. He rose to great prominence as a politician in the royal court in Kyoto but lost his post due to the successful schemes of his rival. Thereafter, he was sent to Dazaifu, then a remote region, in a kind of exile. Michizane devoted the rest of his life to study and became the greatest expert on literature of his day. When he died, the people began to consider him a minor deity. This transformation is in keeping with Shinto religious beliefs that acknowledge that especially noble or successful people join the ranks of the kami (spirits, gods) after death.

During the Tenjin festival, the people of Osaka honor the scholar god Tenjin in a Shinto ritual. A child is chosen to play the role of Tenjin in this ceremony. The child playing Tenjin carries a halberd-a ceremonial, long-handled axe-which is called a hoko in Japanese. In this ritual the hoko represents the diseases that plague the city. The hoko ceremony begins at the Temmangu shrine with a ritual that includes dance and prayers. At the end of the ceremony, the shrine officials give the hoko to the child playing the role of Tenjin. The child and a shrine guardian journey together to the river and board a small white boat with a slender tree placed in the front and in the back. A rower maneuvers the boat into the center of the river. After more prayers and rituals, the child dumps the halberd overboard, symbolizing removal of the city's diseases.


Bauer, Helen, and Sherwin Carlquist. Japanese Festivals. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005.


City of Osaka www.Osaka-info.jp/tenjin_matsuri/main_en.html

Japan Atlas web-japan.org/atlas/festivals/fes16.html

Japan National Tourist Organization www.jnto.go.jp/eng/indepth/history/traditionalevents/a37_fes_tenjin.html
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Tenjin Matsuri

July 24-25
The Tenjin Festival in Japan honors the scholar and statesman Sugawara Michizane (845-903), who was deified as Tenjin after his death and regarded as the god of literature. The festival began about 950 c.e. as a purification rite. Today, the Tenjin Festival opens at the Temmangu Shrine with the beating of the Moyooshi Daiko, a drum about five feet in diameter. It lies flat in a cart and is struck by several men, known as Ganji, wearing tall peaked red hats. Other participants in the procession do everything in their power to prevent the drummers from drumming. They remove the platform on which the drum sits and tilt it in every direction, but the drummers keep striking it furiously. The drum-cart is followed by a masked figure on horseback who represents Sarutahiko, the deity who led all the other gods to Japan. There are Lion Dancers to drive away evil spirits, costumed children, and various carts and palanquins carrying local dignitaries and the mayor of Osaka.
Most important is the mikoshi —the heavy, ornately decorated portable shrine in which the soul of Tenjin is believed to reside. In the evening, the parade moves to the river, with numerous barges and boats carrying glowing lanterns, while bonfires illuminate the banks. Fireworks mark the end of the festival, and the barges are towed back up the river so that the sacred objects can be returned to the shrine by morning.
Osaka Convention and Tourism Bureau
5F Resona Semba Bldg.
4-4-21, Minamisemba, Chuo-Ku
Osaka, 542-0081 Japan
81-6-6282-5911; fax: 81-6-6282-5914
HolSymbols-2009, p. 940
IllFestJapan-1993, p. 88
JapanFest-1965, pp. 25, 172
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.