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The Origins of Matsuri

Colorful lights, sparkling palanquins, steaming Takoyaki, and beautiful fireworks: These images often conjure memories of Japanese Matsuri for many people. Even if you’ve never been to a Matsuri, you’ve likely seen at least one depicted in media. Japanese Matsuris’ lively atmosphere and intricate ceremonies have made them world-famous, but how did they begin? Where exactly did Matsuri come from?

First, What is Matsuri?

If everything I described in the first paragraph sounded completely unknown to you, that’s ok! Here’s a basic rundown on what Matsuri are:

Matsuri (祭り) is a Japanese word that means “festival.” Basically, the purpose of Matsuri is to honor and give thanks to Gods called “Kami (神),” which are the deities in the traditional Japanese religion of Shinto (神道). Something that is very commonly seen at Matsuri are palanquins called Mikoshi (神輿). The Mikoshi start their journey at a local shrine and are then carried around town by the townspeople. It is said that the Kami from the shrine rides on the Mikoshi, purifying the town and dispelling evil on its journey. This tradition of carrying the Mikoshi around town started in the Heian period (794-1185 CE), and is one of many that you’ll see at Matsuris today.

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The Very First Matsuri

Matsuri traditions vary greatly from place to place, and have changed so much over time, making it hard to pinpoint the exact origins of Matsuri. However, there is a Japanese folktale called Amano-Iwato Kakure (天の岩戸隠れ) that is said to explain the origins of Matsuri: 

A long time ago, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, outraged by the pranks her brother played on her, decided to hide in a cave. In doing so, she deprived the world of sunlight. The other gods, or Kami, got together and conspired to get her to leave the cave. They threw a big party outside the cave, and one of the Kami did such a crude dance that the others burst out laughing. Curious, Amaterasu left the cave to see what was happening, bringing light back to the world once more. The other Kami sealed the cave behind her so she could never go back in. 

The party the Kami threw for Amaterasu is said to be the beginning of Matsuri in Japan. This story was first recorded in the Kojiki (published in 712 BCE), Japan’s oldest history book, so Matsuri likely pre-date the publishing of the story. 

Matsuri happens during all four seasons of the year, so some say that the earliest Matsuri were celebrated in conjunction with significant agricultural milestones. Spring Matsuri were meant to pray for a good harvest and ensure the health of the crops. Summer Matsuri were meant to ask for protection from typhoons and swarms of insects. Fall Matsuri were meant for people to give thanks to the Kami for bountiful harvests. Finally, winter Matsuri was the time when people would ask for favorable farming conditions in the new year.

What Happened During these Matsuri?

The earliest Matsuri were more spiritualistic, and there was big emphasis on the Shinto rituals that took place. One of the longest celebrated Matsuri in Japan, Gion Matsuri, was first celebrated in 869 CE. Its original purpose was to pray for the prevention of the spread of diseases, and was only held during times of epidemics. During this Matsuri, people would make offerings to Gozu-Tennou, a deity of epidemics, to pray for good public health. This Matsuri, as well as many others, included forms of ritual dancing and performing arts. 


As time went by, Matsuri became more focused on entertainment. Matsuri rituals would become more public and performance-based, and include things like firework shows, food vendors, and game stalls. Though Matsuri’s Shinto roots are still very evident in today’s festivals, the entertainment aspect of Matsuri is equally important in the modern day. 

No matter what time of year it was, Matsuri was a time for celebration and a way for people to relax after a long season. And who would want to say no to that? It’s no wonder that Matsuri have stood the test of time, and continue to be celebrated today.

Want to learn more about Matsuri? Check out some of our other articles!

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