Children’s fairy tales often begin with the phrase “once upon a time” to emphasize an event that happened at a certain time in the past. Such a phrase usually gives the impression that the event never happened. In Asia Pacific, there are many “once upon a time” stories that inform culture and how the people celebrate their many festivals.
I rather recently traveled to Ishigaki, Japan. While there, I met with Mr. Ishigaki, my cultural informant who proved to be a storehouse of cultural information. Mr. Ishigaki went to university in Naha, Okinawa, and then later studied western oil painting. He had traveled extensively and presently serves as one of the curators for the Ishigaki island museum.
Located between Okinawa and Taiwan, Ishigaki is home to approximately 45 thousand people. As one approaches the island, one can quickly notice the beutiful beaches and farm land.
Every year on the island of Ishigaki (Japan) in the village of Kabira, the people celebrate the mayungahasi festival. Set according to the lunar calendar and celebrated shortly after the fall harvest festival, this festival means “the god who comes to visit” or the “come visit god” and commemorates the god who comes from across the ocean from “god’s country.”
For the festival, men dress with a cloth over their face so people cannot recognize them. They speak in a different voice than normal to disguise their identity. In addition, they carry a long wooden stick, wear a straw skirt outfit with leaves at the bottom, and wear an Asian conical hat in order to receive the “come visit god” when he arrives. According to the local people, this festival has its origin in the following legend:
Once upon a time on the day before the lunar New Year a stranger dressed in a grass skirt, wearing a hat, and holding a wooden staff came from the sea to the northwest side of the island (near Kabira). He was in a shipwreck and went from house to house asking if he could eat with and spend the night with a villager. Every villager rejected the man except for the southernmost house in the village. That villager invited the man in to eat and spend the night. The next morning the man woke and said to the villager that he was not a stranger nor was he shipwrecked. Instead, he was the “come visit god” and because the family had been so gracious to him they would be blessed and gain much wealth. That family later experienced prosperity and other families regretted their lack of welcome to him. The man said he would come back and therefore every year people in the village prepare for his return.
This festival teaches us several lessons. First, it teaches how men and women often play specific roles in festivals and in the culture as a whole. Kabira has two geographic levels: an upper part associated with women, and a lower part associated with men. Years ago these two levels were distinct physical and geographical areas. The part of the village near the ocean is related to men and the part on the mountains is related to the women. The role of men and women has significance pertaining to patriarchal versus matrilineal societies and the roles that each gender should or should not play.
Second, this festival teaches the importance of group solidarity. Outside people cannot come in and participate in this festival. No cameras or recording are allowed. In the past, it was limited to people of the village. For those who have moved away they can go back to their own home.
There are often individual idiosyncrasies in the rituals of festivals. On Ishigaki, each village has its own style for this festival which is done on the same day. It is the same festival with the same story but with different individual preferences. In the past, when the tide was out, people would go to the other villages by walking on the sea bed (low tide).
Festivals originate from legends and myths.People often celebrate festivals without knowing these “once upon a time” stories. Nevertheless, these stories inform how people celebrate their festivals. Whether or not these stories are true is another issue. This is an issue worth discussing in another post.
It is interesting to note how many “once upon a time” legends and myths appear related to Biblical themes. For instance, could it be that the above story is a type of redemptive analogy left behind? Or, could it be that the “come visit god” refers to the coming of Jesus Christ as Immanuel, God with us?