Mar 18

Osaka is an extraordinary and massive city.  My first thought on wandering the streets was that I had landed into a Blade Runner set with stilted motorways and railways, constant noise, traffic, signs flashing and loudspeaker instructions telling you what and what not to do.  The city stretches on and on.  There are frequent descriptions of part of the city of Osaka as the ‘Aqua Metropolis’ and in investigating this I was a little taken aback to come across a description of Osaka as the Venice or Amsterdam of the Far East by the American writer and journalist, Boyé Lafayette De Mente (2011) who has spent a considerable amount of time both in Japan and on water. 

Osaka is situated at the mouth of the Yodo River on Osaka Bay.  It is the second largest city of Japan.  De Mente describes how the city of Osaka developed as a ‘water city’ during the 7th and 8th centuries as a result of massive engineering works that controlled and directed several large rivers.  This included the digging of canals and construction of many bridges.  It is famous for its bridges and had approximately 200 by the Edo period (1603-1868), and 1625 bridges by 1925.  The canals supplied material that was used to fill the delta area of the river for reclamation and to build the docks.  Many of the canals do not now exist but aerial views clearly show the extensive docklands and ships.  Mosk (2011) compares the city with Manchester because of its history of steam-powered cotton and spinning factories, dependence on waterways for shipping raw materials and finished products.  This feels a little more accurate, although neither comparison really captures the extraordinary scale or character of this city.  Although you do come across a lot of waterways, it is not these that are the defining character of the city today.  In parts of the city where there are waterfront parks and cafes, the riverine character does emerge more strongly.   There are also boats on the rivers run by the city and by private companies.  

On one of these boats there is traditional storytelling by rakugo (literally 'fallen words') artists who perform a kind of comic monologue or solo sitcom.  It is said to have developed by Buddhist monks in the 9th and 10th centuries to liven up their sermons.  The written tradition has been traced back to the early 1200s.   Various styles of performance have developed.  Miller (1996) provides fascinating insights into the storytelling culture of Japan.  In rakugo shibai-banashi (theatre stories) the storyteller changes from a narrative voice into using kabuki performer's mannerisms and many props are used; ongyoku-banashi are musical stories; kaidan-banashi are where ghost stories are told using props including musical instruments, candles and dummies or people dressed up to look like ghosts; ninjō-banashi are long sentimental stories, sometimes going on for several days, that tell the 'struggles and triumphs of ordinary people' or ninjo ('human feelings')  (Nobuhiro, 2004).


The Rakugoka artists Encho Sanyuutei by Kiyokata KJaburaki 

Georg Handel and King George I on the Thames, 17 July 1717 by Edouard Hammam (1819-88).  Musicians are playing in the background and the painting depicts the first performance of Handel's Water Music.

One similarity between the cultures of Osaka and Venice is perhaps the fondness for festivals or matsuri in Japanese, a word which means both ‘festival’ and ‘workshop’. This idea reminded me of some of the concepts behind the water-related events we have been carrying out on the Hydro project.  The root of the matsuri idea lies in the traditions of the Shinto religion; the festivals follow a general pattern of purification (usually by water or fire), offerings, a procession, invocation of the deities, transportation of the deity and then entertainment such as dancing.  Many of the festivals relate to rice growing, but also to water.  The Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka is a massive festival where there is traditional dancing on river boats, bonfires are lit on river rafts and fireworks set off.   Shrines are carried on boats down the Dojima River accompanied by drummers.  The boat procession goes on for about three hours.  Of course there are many water-based festivals around the world.  Some of the most famous in London on the River Thames were held in the Georgian period resulting in Handel's 'Water Music' (1717).  More recently in 2012 the Diamond Jubliee pageant on the Thames in celebration of 60 years of Queen Elizabeth II on the throne attracted a record number of 1000 boats as part of the flotilla.  

Osaka Tenjin Matsuri

Hundreds of vessels pass Tower Bridge during Her Majesty the Queen's Diamond Jubilee River Pageant in London in June 2012. Photo: PO Phot Terry Seward/MOD

Many links can be found relating to water and the Buddhist traditions in Japan.  An example is the Doya Doya Matsuri in January marks the end of the Buddhist traditional New Year.  During the festival, groups of young men gather near the temple. They then rush into the builsinf wearing only a fudonshi (a traditional type of loincloth). As they run, the priests throw cold water over them.  The aim is to run into the temple and grab paper charms that flutter down from the ceiling. This activity can apparently carry on all day depending on the number of groups who wish to take part. 

Osaka’s Men Brave Cold Water and Run to the Temple at Doya Doya Matsuri Jan 7 2016, 

Water and festivals or some kind of performance with water seems to be important in Japan in all kinds of ways.  Much of it is related to spiritual tradition, but the storytelling aspect and the passing on of ideas, not just through oral tradition, but through performance also seems to be important and understanding how different cultures relate to water in such ways may help us consider ways to engaging communities with water through events in the UK.  



Aqua Metropolis Osaka River Opening Spring Boat Cruising Festival Hachikenya Ohanami (cherry-blossom viewing) March 26-April 10, 2016 https://www.osaka-info.jp/en/events/festivals_events/post_147.html

The Doya Doya Matsuri, Osaka January 7 2016

Ragukgo Storytelling example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=vhkYNpwTKIQ


De Mente, Boye Lafayette (2011) Osaka – Japan’s amazing water city, August 7, 2011, Japan Today Travel online www.japantoday.com.

Miller, J. Scott (1996) Early Voice Recordings of Japanese Storytelling, Oral Tradition, 11/2 (1996): 301-319. Available at: http://journal.oraltradition.org/files/articles/11ii/10_miller.pdf

Mosk, C. (2001) Japanese Industrial History: Technology, Urbanization, and Economic Growth (London & New York, Sharpe)

Nobuhiro, Shinji (2004) Rakugo: Japan's Talking Art Ozu Centenial) Japan Echo 31(2).  Available at: http://www.japanecho.com/sum/2004/310217.html

Osaka’s Men Brave Cold Water and Run to the Temple at Doya Doya Matsuri Jan 7 2016, Japan Info 2016. Available at: http://jpninfo.com/38671


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