Unseen Japan

The Japan You Don't Learn About in Anime.

How a weird, unexplained event in the capital of Edo kicked off a frenetic dance movement across Japan that brought the era of the samurai to a close.

Why Not? How Japan Danced Away Its Samurai Past

Posted on November 05, 2018 in history, culture, Meiji Japan, Edo JapanAlyssa Pearl Fusek

Anybody who knows anything about Japanese history is aware of the chaos in the years leading up to the Meiji Restoration. Commodore Perry's arrival in 1853 hastened the end of Japan's isolationist policy and wreaked havoc on Japan's government and culture. The Tokugawa shogunate, or bakufu (幕府), were scrambling to retain control while foreign and civil bombardments racked the country. Yet amid all the political maneuvering for power, in the final years of the Shogunate, a different type of movement sprang up among the populace that is now commonly known as ええじゃないか (ee ja nai ka).

No, we're not talking about the popular Fuji-Q roller coaster, but something with as many twists and turns.

There have been a couple instances in history of mass dance manias overwhelming a city or village. The Dancing Plague of 1518 in Europe is probably the most well-known, involving villagers, mostly female, dancing for days on end, seemingly without cause, with some eventually dying from exertion and heart failure.

A Dance to the Death: The Dancing Plague of 1518
The most documented dance plague in history leaves many questions: what was it, what caused it, and why did it eventually dissipate? Read more to find out . .

While the ee ja nai ka dance craze didn't lead to any grisly deaths (as far as we know), a sense of desperation did tinge the atmosphere as the participants partied, danced, cross-dressed, and even undressed.

Before we dive too deep into the ee ja nai ka phenomenon, we must first understand what was happening at the time in Japan that gave rise to such a massive outburst of civilian ribaldry and emotion.

Painted depiction of ee ja nai ka dancing
A painting by popular caricaturist Kawanabe Kyosai depicting an ee ja nai ka party scene. Even rabbits and snakes are joining in on the celebrations. Notice the party-goer dressed as a lion, eerily reminiscent of a modern-day kigurumi (costumed character). (Source: Wikipedia)

The Historical Context of Japan's Dance Craze Movement

The transitioning years between the Tokugawa era and the Meiji era, known as the bakumatsu (幕末), paid witness to a turbulent time, with shifts in politics and society that left no one unaffected. Civilian riots had been breaking out across the country in response to the high taxes, political corruption, and the increasing presence of gaijin (外人), or foreigners, entering the country and disrupting the domestic markets:

天明以来の饑饉が相次ぎ、開国の結果として国内の伝統的な産業は大打撃をうけ、米価を中心とする物価の上昇で、民衆の生活は極度に苦しくなっていました。 The famines since the Tenmei era (roughly 1781-1789) continued one after another, and as a result of the opening of the country [to foreign trade], the domestic traditional industry suffered a heavy blow. Rising costs, especially the price of rice, played a central role, resulting in extreme difficulties in the civilians' lives.

People were tired of airing their grievances to an uncaring shogunate, and receiving little to no assistance. For a while, everything seemed hopeless.

So when hundreds of Shinto shrine amulets known as ofuda (御札) rained down from the sky one day in Japan's capital of Edo, people reacted in an unprecedented manner.

Japanese ofuda (御札)
A typical ofuda issued from a Shinto shrine. I think anybody seeing hundreds of these raining from the sky would cause a ruckus. (Source: Wikipedia)

Where did the ofuda come from? Most of them were rumored to be ofuda from the Ise Shrine, Japan's premier Shinto shrine dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu. Naturally, many people believed they really were blessings from the gods, or kami (神). Others believe that a large number of merchants were behind some of the ofuda rainfalls, as some ofuda were blatant advertisements for local businesses.

(JP) Link: The Theory That "Ee Ja Nai Ka" Was a Campaign Strategy By the Bunka School!?

「ええじゃないか」は倒幕派の陽動作戦だった説!? | 日本の歴史を分かりやすく解説!!

Whoever cooked up the idea to create this benevolent rainfall, it was soon copied in multiple areas of Japan:

騒動の分布は江戸から北には及んでいません。江戸から東海道を通り、名古屋、京都、大坂、広島あたりがその中心です。 The ee ja nai ka disturbances did not migrate north from Edo. From Edo, the movement spread through the Tokaido to Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima.

The Tokaido was one of the most traveled roads in the Edo period, with its various stations and sceneries famously depicted in the work of renowned woodblock artist Hiroshige. People on pilgrimages, merchants, priests, and other travelers relied on the Tokaido for transport, food, shelter, and most importantly, information. It makes sense that ee ja nai ka spread across Japan along this well-used route.

The ee ja nai ka partying didn't start right away, however. Researcher Yoshinori Watanabe of Aoyama Gakuin University & Women's Junior College described the general, almost benign, beginnings of the ee ja nai ka celebrations:

ええじゃないかの具体的様相は地域ごとに多少変化がみられたが、大体次のように展開した。 降札があった家では、まず葉のついた青竹を立てて注連縄を張り、神棚をつくって神符を祭り、神酒、洗米、燈明などを供える。ご馳走をつくり親類や近所の人々を招いて、主演を催す。次第に男が女に、女が男に姿を変えたり、様々なものに仮装して往来を行き来する人々が多くなり、ええじゃないかと囃したてて騒ぐ。大体三日三晩お祭りして、四日目に祭りは終わる。

Although there were some definite aspects of ee ja nai ka that varied slightly in each region, ee ja nai ka generally developed in the following manner: In the house where the ofuda fell, a green bamboo shoot with leaves was first set up, and a shimenawa [a rope used as a talisman against evil or to protect sacred areas] was put out. A kamidana [household shrine] was made where the gods were celebrated, and things such as miki [sacred sake], consecrated washed rice, and a votive light were offered to the gods. Relatives and neighbors were invited to a feast, the leading role in the celebrations. Gradually, men changed into [cross-dressed as] women, and women changed into men in various disguises, and many people came and went in the streets, all the while cheering "ee ja nai ka?" and making a ruckus. The festivals ended on the fourth day, after about three days and three nights of celebrations.

I think it's fascinating to note how peaceful the celebrations began, and the quick acceleration from reverence to the gods to outright carnival-style craziness. It's a definite indicator of how quick to react these people were to any sudden changes in their daily lives, especially given the upheaval of the times.

A preview of director Shohei Imamura's 1981 film Eejanaika. Imamura purposefully embellished his interpretation of this movement. While certainly an exaggerated take on this historical event, the partying and raucousness is true to what actually happened.

Social and physical boundaries were largely abandoned during these celebrations. People of all social classes intermingled in the streets — samurai, merchants, farmers, and so on. Dwellings and businesses were crowded with party-goers. Gender roles were constantly, and eagerly, reversed. Gifts were exchanged daily. While ee ja nai ka occurred mostly in urban areas, it did find its way to rural farming communities. No matter what form the ee ja nai ka partying took, that one phrase remained a commonality across all of Japan.

The People's Chants

So, what does ee ja nai ka even mean?

Opinions vary, as the phrase, simple as it sounds, is tricky to translate. One of the few accepted translations is, "Why not?" or "Why the hell not?" The tone of the phrase is almost flippant, a kind of "what-the-hell" or "so what" feeling, a way of validating the people's various nefarious activities while simultaneously expressing their feelings about current events.

Many chants were sung over and over during these celebrations. Scholar George M. Wilson in his book Patriots and Redeemers in Japan: Motives in the Meiji Restoration, translated one chant vocalized during the ee ja nai ka heyday:

Nishi kara chôchô ga tonde kite,
  Butterflies come in from the west,
Kôbe no hama ni kane nuite,
  Attracted to money in Kobe’s harbor,
Ee ja nai ka, ee ja nai ka!
  So what! So what!

Nipponkoku e wa kami ga furu,
  The gods will descend to Japan,
Tôjin yashiki nya ishi ga furu,
  While rocks fall on the foreigners in their residences,

Ee ja nai ka, ee ja nai ka!
  So what, so what!
Ee ja nai ka, ee ja nai ka!
  So what, so what!

Needless to say, the main sentiment shared by the people at the time was xenophobia. The ofuda definitely sparked a religious feeling among the people, as they looked to the gods to save Japan from this incursion by greedy foreigners. Also note that they wished rocks to fall on the foreigners, definitely the complete opposite of the gentle ofuda blessings showered upon the Japanese.

Japanese ofuda (御札) falling from the sky
People look up in glee at the falling ofuda. Notice the wooden structure on the left, which is a tori, a gate that marks the entrance to a Shinto shrine. Makes sense for the gods to bestow ofuda right outside their home. (Source: columbia.edu)

How Did the Movement Begin?

Given the political upheavals at the time, one would naturally suspect that a political party or disgruntled group of nobles wanting to thwart the military factions spurred the ee ja nai ka movement along, but scholars generally agree that this is not the case. For starters, the movement was far too widespread and uncontrollable to have its beginnings rooted in political motives. The fervor wasn't directed at any specific politically or socially affluent person or group. Yet due to the presence of ofuda, some believe that religious groups were behind the initial spark:

また、イギリスの外交官アーネスト・サトウが大坂で目撃した騒動では、人々が真っ赤な着物で踊っていたそうです。 In addition, British diplomat Ernesto Sato witnessed the ee ja nai ka celebration in Osaka, and observed that it seemed the people were dancing in bright red kimono.

Red kimono are usually worn on merry or celebratory occasions, leading some to wonder if members of these groups were "planted" in towns to spur on the ee ja nai ka celebrations. This hasn't been confirmed, however, and remains only a theory, albeit an intriguing one.

Whoever was behind ee ja nai ka, as abruptly as the movement began, it just as quickly ended with the Meiji Restoration in 1868. No more falling ofuda, no more cross-dressing, no more chants with the repeated ee ja nai ka phrase. A new national order was in place, and it was time to move on, regardless of the doubts people had for what the future held in store for them. Whatever its motives or original intent, the ee ja nai ka movement remains one of many powerful displays of emotion that heralded a new era for Japan.

SOURCES

Wilson, George M. Patriots and Redeemers: Motives in the Meiji Restoration. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992. Print.

渡辺良智, "「ええじゃないか」の民衆運動." 青山學院女子短期大學紀要, 50, 251-284, 1996-12-10. https://www.agulin.aoyama.ac.jp/opac/repository/1000/897/. Accessed 25 October. 2018.

Alyssa Pearl Fusek is a freelance Japan and mental health content writer living in Chico, California with her partner and one cat. She graduated in 2015 from Willamette University with a B.A. in Japanese Studies and continues to improve her Japanese language skills. She is also a published poet and fiction writer. You can check out her freelance writing work at The Japanese Pearl.