Thursday, December 06, 2007

Hadaka no Mochitsuki: On Ritual, Tradition, and Law

The Asahi Shimbun reminded its English language readers of an important event that occurs on December 5 every year in Japan--Hadaka no Mochitsuki. Traditional 'Mochi' Makers Grin and Bare It,, Dec. 5, 2007.

In a centuries-old ritual, young men hoist freshly made "mochi" to the ceiling of Sengenji temple in Yonezawa, Yamagata Prefecture, on Tuesday in gratitude for a good rice harvest. The event, formally called Horohado no Toshikoshi-Matsuri (Year-end festival at Horohado hall) but more commonly known as Hadaka no Mochitsuki (Mochi-making by naked men), dates back 360 years or so to when crop-eating insects reached plague proportions in the area and local people solved the problem by dumping soil from under the temple hall on their rice paddies. Since then, the event has been held annually. While singing traditional songs, young local men pound rice in mortars to make mochi and then hoist the finished product to the ceiling, where it comes into contact with soot. Temple priests say the mochi then tastes more delicious.
Traditional 'Mochi' Makers Grin and Bare It, supra. Mochi, of course, "(Japanese: ; Chinese: ) is a Japanese rice cake made of glutinous rice pounded into paste and molded into shape. In Japan it is traditionally made in a ceremony called mochitsuki. While eaten year-round, mochi is a traditional food for the Japanese New Year and commonly sold and eaten at that time." Wikepedia.

There is something for everyone in this story.

1. Work. Ritual reinforces the social structure of work. Something sweet is produced through energetic activity. More importantly, it is produced through a socially constructed and critically communal system of activity. Work is the key, reinforced and reinforcing virtually everything else in the social order. Mochi production requires coordinated efforts by people acting together to produce the product. Work produces food and reinforces the social order by the nature of the techniques through which work is organized. It is the foundation of social and political structure. Work festivals are less common in the West. And the integration of work to the social fabric, less pronounced, follows.

2. Food. The object of the effort is the production of food. Every culture has its share of food rituals. Each keys in the critical aspects of that particular activity within the culture. Here the focus (naturally enough) is rice. The precipitating event for the festival was a threat to the food production. And the reward for the effort was the production of a concoction that reminds all of the sweetness of the intervention and of the crop saved. Even better when savored near the close of the old year. The other name for this festival is Horohado no Toshikoshi-Matsuri (Year End Festival at Horohado Hall).

3. Sex. A ritual ought to invoke all key elements of social organization. Sex, gender, power, power dynamics, are all well represented in this ritual of food, work, threat, and salvation through communal efforts. And who better than a bunch of naked young men to express their (and the community's) gendered virility. This is a man's ritual precisely because of the conflation of sex, work, power, community and gender role differentiation. And the sexual symbolism of male fecundity is stressed in the ritual--rice is pounded into mortar in bowls and then the finished product is hoisted up with these poles to the temple ceiling where it comes into contact with the soot from the temple; thus touched, it is completed and "more delicious." Id.

4. Religion. Religion provides a focus as well as a legitimating source for the action, and also for the commemoration. Religion provides both a belief framework and an institutional locus for the series of events that gave rise to the solution--a divine intervention brought about by the efforts of the local people who helped themselves through a passive intervention by the divine. About 360 years ago peasants fearful of losing all their crop to insects sought divine intervention. Together they gathered gathered a divine projection--the soil under a local temple--and dumped the soil on the rice paddies. Another set of conflations are deepened--work, the soil, the product of the soil, fecundity and the intervention of the divine, to produce a natural order of things. There are still places in Europe where these connections are made as part of the lived social and religious realities of the people.

5. Social order. Ritual reinforces the order of things. And peasant festivals are especially useful for ritualizing and practicing the forms of the social order. Repetition teaches and reinforces. Mochi teaches and reinforces a social order particular to Yonezawa, Yamagata Prefecture, between the old peasantry and the Sengenji temple, between peasants ad the soil, between right conduct and divine reward, between social memory social harmony, between heaven and earth, between reenactment and reality, and between the past and the present.

6. Law. At first glance it is hard to discern law in a ritual involving naked men pounding rice into mochi with sticks, finishing the process by the union of the mochi with the soot of the temple ceiling while singing traditional songs to commemorate a miraculous event 360 years ago. But consider mochi as the center of a network of rules. Not positive law--as we might expect from a prince or a legislature--but customary law as we might expect to arise organically from the customs and expectations of the people as lived experience legitimated by time and repetition. Law itself, can be understood as the systematization or memorialization of ritual behavior made legitimate by its repetition and systematization.

What connects all of these elements, of course, is ritual. Ritual is repetition of behavior that is both conduct and the rules that are represented by that conduct. It is both action and symbol. It brings home a connection between society, culture, religion and law. Mochi specifically cements a connection, through ritual, of work, food, sex, religion, and the social order. Its symbolism is expressed as law.

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