Tag Archives: Setsubun

Otafuku:  Goddess of Everyday Life

Who is this character with the chubby cheeks, tiny red mouth, and impish smile? You see her everywhere in Japan.  Antiques, fine art, everyday cloth and tableware celebrate her.  She’s commonly called Otafuku or Okame. What’s her story?

Okame. 19th c. ceramic. LA County Museum of Art. Wikimedia.

To find out about this happy figure, I turned to Otafuku: Joy of Japan (2005).  Today’s post introduces this book, learning something about Otafuku’s many meanings, forms, and stories.  Wrapping up, we see how maiko join Otafuku in  Setsubun festivities.

Otafuku: Joy of Japan by Amy Sylvester Katoh

If you’re looking for something fun, visual, and upbeat to read, this is the book for you.

Here, Amy Sylvester Katoh, a true Okame fan for over 25 years, offers personal stories and legends. She uses the terms Okame and Otafuku interchangeably. A bilingual book, Otafuku has short essays in English followed by Japanese translations. What Japanese might call kansō — essays about one’s thoughts and impressions. Otafuku inspires Katoh’s pursuit of play and pleasure in everyday life.

A collector, Katoh shares many color photos of her varied Okame treasures.  We find delightful toys, textiles, teapots, comic stage masks, and even Okame sushi. Otafuku is a brand name for food products, too.

Posted by JaggyBoss, 2015. Wikimedia.

This variety of images illustrates the “100 Faces of Otafuku.”  Her big cheeks, tiny red mouth, and high forehead stand out as trademarks. Katoh also shows Okame’s multiple “shapes and attitudes — charming, coquettish, vulgar, cutesy, and downright ugly” (49).

Issa’s Poetry Fits Otafuku

Grandmama’s
out drinking–
      ah! the moonlight!
–Issa

Haiku enlivens Otafuku. Katoh quotes charming poems by the wandering poet-priest Kobayashi Issa. Above, he paints the scene of an eldery woman enjoying the moonlight and her rice wine. It reminds me of this laughing Okame, chuckling at a rather suggestive mushroom’s shadow (below).

Okame Laughing at the Shadow of a Mushroom, 1882. Artist Yoshitoshi (1839-1892). LA County Museum of Art. Wikimedia.

Katoh also refers to the lighthearted Okame-themed art of Zen priest Hakuin. Her friend painter Mayumi Oda introduced Hakuin to Katoh. Oda’s plump goddesses exude the joy of Otafuku, too. But their divinity seems freer, more associated with nature and the great outdoors, and less domestic than Okame.

Mayumi Oda, 2017.
https://mayumioda.net/pages/mayumi-oda-books-for-sale

A Goddess of Everyday Life

Otafuku Glasses Case.  Blue & White Store.

Although she concentrates on Okame, Katoh aims her book as a catalyst to a broader message about the everyday.  She writes, “This book is about the little things that make our days flow” (38). It’s also about “celebrating the everyday ceremonies of life” (34). Imperfection is okay, and even desirable.

For Katoh, Okame characters invoke benevolence and creativity.  She describes her as “fun and playful and open,” a soothing presence that invites one to pause to share tea and chat.  Finding Okame “warm, cozy, loving, accepting,” Katoh takes heart from her “joyful attitude toward life” (75-76).

Traditional Kyoto gives English glosses for her names. “Otafuku literally means “Much Good Fortune”, and Okame means “Tortoise”, also a lucky symbol for long life.”

But where did this character originate?  There are multiple stories.  Here are two.

An Ancient Fable of Origin

Ame no Uzume no Mikoto Dancing to Lure Amaterasu Ōmikami from her Cave, 1879. Artist Yoshitoshi.
Phil. Museum of Art.

Katoh likes to connect the folk image of Otafuku to the ancient Kojiki myth of Japan’s origins and the story of dancer Ame-no-Uzume.  Here’s the story of the mythical performer who saved the day (pun intended).

Crisis occurred when the sun goddess Amaterasu, angry at her brother, secluded herself in a cave. Her retreat plunged heaven and earth into darkness. But when charismatic Uzume danced nearby, eight million gods erupted in rip-roaring laughter.  Curious, Amaterasu peeked out at the scene. In that moment, one of the gods pulled her outside the cave. “Thus light and order were returned to the world because of Uzume’s comic dance” (93).

The statue of Ame-no-Uzume at Amanoiwato-jinja. Miyazaki, Japan. Wikipedia.

For Katoh, Okame’s character reflects traits of the mythical Uzume. “Uzume’s basic primal strength, her pure and unsullied humor and goodness are all contained in the myth of saving the universe from darkness and chaos with courage and laughter” (104).  Katoh sees humor, goodness, and play in Okame figures, too.

A Gruesome Okame Origin Story in Kyoto

Daihōonji Temple. Wikimedia Commons posted byPlusMinus, 2005.

But not all Okame stories are happy ones. One myth reveres female sacrifice.

This story comes from Senbon Shakado, also known as Daihōonji. It’s reputedly Kyoto’s oldest Buddhist temple. The temple has an Okame statue (see image above). It also has “hundreds of Okame figures” in its collection “donated by believers” (176-77).

As the temple story goes, Okame prayed to the gods for advice to salvage her carpenter husband’s mistake in building the temple.  Her “clever solution” worked. Katoh explains that Okame then gave her life in gratitude to the gods (167).  Others say she sacrificed her life to save her husband’s reputation. Perhaps he’d lost face by relying on his wife’s cleverness and plea for divine intervention.

Okame as Good Fortune for New Construction

In honor of Okame, the husband placed her image on the roof beams of the temple.  Katoh explains that even today, some carpenters and construction companies in Japan hang an “Okame mask with a circle of three open fans on the roof beams of a new building” (168).

Okame at Setsubun Festivals

Fan painting, 1794. Artist Tōshūsai Sharaku. Art Inst. of Chicago. Wikimedia.

Our last post discussed the early February holiday Setsubun. These festivities mark both the last day of winter and the last day of the year. A goddess of happiness, Okame often figures in Setsubun festivals. After all, they are dedicated to banishing evil spirits and welcoming good ones.

Otafuku

Posted by Nissy-KITAQ, 2010.
Wikimedia Commons.

In Fukuoka, Kyushu, an immense Okame (see image above) serves as the entrance to Kokura Yasaka Shrine. In Kyoto, the Setsubun festival at Senbon Shakado Temple starts with maiko from Kamishichiken dancing. A comic kyōgen play featuring Okame follows. The event ends with the mamemaki ritual of tossing soybeans to banish evil spirits (Sharing Kyoto).

Fun Spending Time with Otafuku: Joy of Japan

After reading Katoh’s lively book, I have even more curiosity about Otafuku/Okame. I’ll be on the lookout for her, too. Otafuku: Joy of Japan offers a positive look at the imperfections and possibilities in every day life.

Next post:  The Maiko’s Paper Umbrella

Maiko & Geiko, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

No vinyl umbrellas for the maiko! Our next post looks into her traditional paper and bamboo umbrella (wagasa).  This topic takes us into romantically rainy (and comic) moments in Japanese art, folklore, and maiko fiction.

FEATURED IMAGE:  Book cover. Otafuku: Joy of Japan. Amy Sylvester Katoh. Tuttle Publishing, 2005.

REFERENCES

Here’s an interview with Amy Sylvester Katoh about the process of writing Otafuku:
Shulenberger, Damon. “Otafuku Encounters.”  SWET: Society of  Writers, Editors, and Translators. March 31, 2006. https://swet.jp/articles/article/otafuku_encounters/_C28

Here’s the website for Katoh’s store Blue &  White:
https://www.blueandwhitejapan.com/

“Setsubun Festival.”  Sharing Kyoto. Aug. 18, 2017.
https://sharing-kyoto.com/event_Setsubun-e-senbon-shakado/story

“Otafuku/Okame.” Short article and informative video at site, Traditional Kyoto: https://traditionalkyoto.com/culture/figures/otafuku/
Interestingly, this site explains that “Japanese scholars theorize that long ago, when the first Okame images were created, they may have represented an idealized form of feminine beauty.”

Jan Bardsley, “Otafuku:  Goddess of Everyday Life,” janbardsley.web.unc.edu, February 7, 2022.

 

 

Out with the Demons! In with Good Fortune!

Setsubun festivities are among the liveliest in Kyoto’s hanamachi. Maiko and geiko take part in public rituals and teahouse party fun.  Today’s blogpost explores the meanings of this February event.  Maiko manga, travel videos, and geiko memoirs record its daytime rituals and evening hilarity.

What is Setsubun?

According to the lunar calendar, Setsubun 節分, literally, the “seasonal division,” marks both the last day of winter and the last day of the year.

“a ritually meaningful moment”

Likening Setsubun to New Year’s Eve, Michael Dylan Foster describes it as “a dividing point between the old year and the new and therefore a ritually meaningful moment of transition.  This is a crack in the flow of time, a potentially dangerous bridge between one period and another, during which both good and bad spirits might enter” (124).

The Mamemaki Ritual of Tossing Beans

The mamemaki ritual of scattering roasted soybeans serves to drive out the evil spirits. I remember doing this in college in Japan. So much fun! We tossed beans out the high windows of our residence hall into a yard out back. We shouted,Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi! — Out with the demons, in with good fortune.”  

As we shall see, maiko and geiko practice the mamemaki ritual and dance at major shrines to the delight of crowds.

How do Maiko and Geiko Take Part?

Aiko Koyama, 2017.

In the afternoons on February 2nd and 3rd, maiko and geiko celebrate Setsubun with artistry.  They offer dances to the deity of the new year at public ceremonies at famous Kyoto shrines. Members of the Kamishichiken hanamachi dance at Kitano-Tenmangū Shrine. Those from the other hanamachi perform at Yasaka Shrine.

Checking online, however, I see that many 2022 Setsubun events in Kyoto appear to have been cancelled, likely due to pandemic precautions.

Manga artist Aiko Koyama imagines maiko dancing, then tossing beans.

Aiko Koyama, 2017.

From the stage, maiko and geiko toss out packets of beans to the raucous crowds hoping to exorcise misfortune and catch their own bit of luck.

Oni, Maiko and Geiko Celebrate Setsubun at Kitano-Tenmangū Shrine.

Here’s a 2015 video clip of the Setsubun Festival at Kitano-Tenmangū Shrine. Originally posted by Discover Kyoto, Niwaka Corporation.

Costume Play in the Evening at Ozashiki Parties

In the evening, the hanamachi comes alive as geiko, and in some cases, even their clients appear as obake. That is, they become mischief-makers “transformed” into oni by playful disguises.

You may see samurai and other Tokugawa-era figures, ballerinas, Peking Opera stars, and characters from famous films, anime and manga. We find geiko in all manner of costumes.

Why Costume for Setsubun?

As Liza Dalby explains, this costuming practice recalls superstitions.  In the past, Japanese practiced “customs of inversion” during Setsubun to ward off oni. They believed the oni threatened to come closer to humans during this precarious juncture. It was a time when “high becomes low, old becomes young, women play men and vice versa” (120). Women and girls fooled the oni by inverting their usual fashion to play at being old or young (120-21).

Geiko–and Sometimes Clients, too– in Carnivalesque Obake Costumes 

Geiko often plan months in advance for this event. Many form pairs or groups of three to decide their theme, devise costumes, and create a short act to perform at the evening’s parties.  Clients gather at teahouses and bars in the hanamachi at Setsubun, waiting for the moment when the obake will appear. Clients give generous tips in thanks for the fun.

Yamato Waki, Crimson Fragrance, 2003-07.

Some clients turn the table by dressing as geiko or maiko themselves, as we see in Yamato Waki’s manga above.  The grotesque sight comically flips the beauty, gender identity, and etiquette of geiko and maiko.

What Kinds of Costumes?

Exploring hanamachi festivals, Hamasaki Kanako describes some fantastic geiko costumes.  One year, for example, an elaborate act involved two geiko combining elements of Phantom of the Opera with a surprising costume-switch to Hawaiian dance. For this five-minute performance, the women had prepared for months. They took dance lessons, researched make-up options, edited music, and rented special costumes (95).

Maiko Assist Their Costumed Elder Sisters

In her manga Crimson Fragrance, Yamato Waki explains that maiko do not participate in the over-the-top costuming because they need to maintain their maiko hairstyles. Similarly, Aiko Koyama explains that maiko may assist their elder geiko sisters with their costumes and props.

Fond Geiko Memories of Obake Costuming

“we’re allowed to purposely look a mess”
— Geiko Komomo

Geiko Komomo describes going to over 70 lively ozashiki on the night of Setsubun. She finds freedom in the crazy costuming. “We always have to make ourselves beautiful in our everyday life, so obake is the only time we’re allowed to purposely look a mess, so you can imagine there’s a lot of competition for the male roles!” (132).

Former Gion geiko Iwasaki Mineko recalls going to almost 40 ozashiki on Setsubun in 1972. She stayed only a few minutes at each party.  But she earned enough in tips for a vacation to Hawaii. “That night we made over $30,000, enough to travel in style” (255).

For more on oni demons

Noriko T. Reider explains Oni

Oni (variously translated into English as demons, monsters, and mischief-makers) have a long history in Japanese literature and culture. They range from fearsome spirits to playful ones. If you want to know more, see Noriko T. Reider’s book  Japanese Demon Lore: Oni, from Ancient Times to the Present (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2010).

Next post:  The Happy Goddess of Setsubun Festivals

Otafuku

Posted by Nissy-KITAQ, 2010. Wikimedia Commons.

A cheerful goddess features in Setsubun Festivals. People commonly call her Okame or Otafuku.  We find her image in many forms all over Japan.  In our next post, we find out about this happy figure.

Featured Image:  This undated image of mamemaki is posted on Yasaka Shrine’s website, https://www.yasaka-jinja.or.jp/en/yearly_events/

REFERENCES

Dalby, Liza. Geisha. Berkeley: University of California Press,1983, 2008.

Foster, Michael Dylan and Kijin Shinonome, The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015, 124.

Hamasaki Kanako, “Annual Events in the Hanamachi” (Hanamachi no nenchū gyōji), In Kyō no kagai: Hito, waza, machi [Kyoto’s hanamachi: People, arts, towns], edited
by Ōta Tōru and Hiratake Kōzō, 92–109. Tokyo: Nippon Hyōronsha, 2009, 95.

Iwasaki Mineko and Rande Brown. Geisha, a Life. Translated by Rande Brown. New
York: Atria, 2002.

Komomo and Naoyuki Ogino.  A Geisha’s Journey: My Life as a Kyoto Apprentice. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2008.

Koyama Aiko.  Maiko-san-chi no Makanai-san. Serialized manga. Volume 4. Page 101. Shōgakukan, 2017. “A Drink To Bring Out Your Best” (Episode 39) of the manga with English translation is available online: https://mangaboat.com/manga/maiko-san-chi-no-makanai-san/ch-039/
You can see the anime version of Koyama’s Setsubun 3 episodes in Kiyo in Kyoto: From the Maiko House at: https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/ondemand/video/2094010/

Yamato Waki and Iwasaki Mineko. Kurenai niou [Crimson fragrance]. Serialized manga. 2003–07, rpt Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2009.

Jan Bardsley, “Out with the Demons! In with Good Fortune!,” janbardsley.web.unc.edu, February 3, 2022.