2012 Student-Faculty Fellows Program Report: St. Mary's College Of Maryland

Ceremony, Theatricality, Festivity, and Festivals:
The Gion Festival of Kyoto, Japan

Mentor: Professor Holly Ann Blumner
Students: Jemarc-Van Ruiz Axinto, Samuel DiDonato, Jean Drzyzgula, Frances Pierce, Elizabeth Porter

Group Picture

Project Abstract

The students of St. Mary’s College of Maryland spent twenty-two days in Japan conducting research on one of the three largest festivals annually held in Japan, the Gion Festival (Gion Matsuri) in Kyoto. On the days we were not conducting research on the festival, we attended traditional Japanese theatre performances, and visited shrines, temples, and gardens. Each of the students is examining a different aspect of the Gion Festival and preparing for the presentation of our research to St. Mary’s and the surrounding community in February 2013. This event will display artifacts and photographs from the Gion Festival and present a series of lectures about what we learned. Festival food will be served. In addition, Elizabeth Porter is writing and illustrating an informational children’s book about the festival and Sam DiDonato is completing a documentary about Gion Festival participants.

Jemarc-Van Ruiz Axinto
he particular focus of my research on the Gion Festival has been dance. During my time in Kyoto, I witnessed a variety of dances including Bon Odori (a style of dance performed exclusively by girls and young women), Sagi-mai (the heron dance, which at the Gion Festival was performed by a group of young men and called the “heron-chick dance”), stick dance and more. Although dance is prominent in the country’s history, little is written about traditional Japanese dances. I hope to show through my research the strong link of traditional Japanese dances to Japanese history and will compile my research discoveries on a user friendly CD-ROM that will be interesting and informative for the viewer.

Sam DiDonato
My contribution to the St. Mary’s study of the Gion Festival is to make an explorative and explanative documentary video. The project has three basic phases. The first was to complete research about the festival and documentary film making. For the most part, this was done before my departure to Japan. The second was to film the festival and its participants – to document the event – and to interview musicians, festival directors, traditional weavers, local teachers, and general festival participants. Interviews will be set in the video to images taken of a wide range of festival activities including the construction of floats, the performance of traditional dances, and the viewing of various ceremonies conducted throughout the festival period. I was fortunate to be invited by those producing the Niwatori Hoko (Roster Pageant Float) to follow and film their float during the procession, and discovered later that outsiders are rarely allowed to participate in such a way. The third phase of post-production, which includes editing of the film footage, translating interviews, and organizing our material into a cohesive piece, is now underway.

Jean Drzyzgula
Originally the Gion Festival was a small one with floats and processions moving through the narrow back street neighborhoods of Kyoto. Chimaki (bamboo leaf protection amulets) were distributed solely among festival families, and people opened their homes to display tapestries and personal treasures. Children played with fireworks in these back street areas. Floats were not pulled on any main thoroughfares. However, in the early 1980s, the festival became highly commercialized, with the entire Gion district in Kyoto being taken over by stalls, vendors, and those marketing souvenirs, food, and most everything else imaginable. As the festival grew, so did the crowds of tourists coming to witness the activities. My research focuses upon this dramatic transition and the impact of commercialization on the festival. I am also charged with creating the exhibit that will showcase our group’s research activities.

Frances Pierce
My research for our group study on the Gion Festival is to examine the textiles and costumes used by festival participants. While in Kyoto, it quickly became apparent that there are two dimensions to the festival parade. One is commercial and focuses upon the floats, and the other is more traditional and centers upon carrying shrines throughout the Gion district of the city. Commercial floats are of two types, the tall floats (hook) and the short floats with trees on top (yama). On both floats there is a rich array of tapestries and decorations which I am studying. Shrines are also incredibly ornate and relatively large – it takes over ten men to carry one – and are generally thought to house an important religious object. Tapestries are hung to surround and protect the walls that house these sacred objects. I also plan to research and write about the wide range of clothing worn by festival participants.

Elizabeth Porter
My role in this joint study of the Gion Festival has been to study the impact of the festival on Japanese children and their engagement in festival activities. As such, Professor Blumner arranged with the Board of Education in Kyoto for us to visit a local elementary school that is deeply involved in festival activities. We discovered that its 6th graders participate in the festival as dancers, musicians and sellers of chimaki (traditional festival charms). This has become the focus of my research study. In addition to writing a scholarly paper on children and the Gion Festival, I also plan to enroll in an independent study project that will enable me to write and illustrate a children’s book about the festival with a carefully written text and a number of illustrations that I will create.