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Something about Spring Brings Out the Demons

Spring in modern Japan is about new beginnings, but ancient festivals reveal that sakura was a sign so ominous it could scare people out of their minds.



At the Yasurai Festival, boys don red and black wigs, dressing up as demons to dance. April 12, 2015, at Imamiya Jinja shrine in Kita Ward, Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture. (©Sankei by Sachimi Tanaka)

Spring in Japan has become synonymous with cherry blossoms. And can there be anything more beautiful and soul-comforting than the breathtaking sight of a landscape ablaze with sakura trees in full bloom?

That would seem to be the consensus view of modern man. But things were definitely not that way in ancient Japan.

As the author Ango Sakaguchi wrote in his haunting 1947 short story Sakura no mori no mankai no shita ("In the Forest, Under Cherries In Full Bloom"), in the olden days, people were terrified and even driven mad by the sight of cherry blossoms in full bloom. 

The reason was simple. 

An Ominous Sign

During the Nara and Heian periods, the arrival of the cherry blossoms heralded the time of year when epidemics of various kinds raged most virulently. The cherry blossom was equated with smallpox. It is a highly contagious disease caused by the variola virus which swept over Japan in merciless waves for centuries. Demographers estimate that the great smallpox epidemic of 735–737 alone may have killed 25 to 35 percent of Japan's entire population.

This was a period when there was a great deal of contact between Japan, Tang China, and the Korean Peninsula. The official annals blamed the introduction of smallpox on a "barbarian ship." The fact that their earlier isolation had resulted in the Japanese having little natural resistance to diseases introduced from abroad exacerbated the situation. 

In any event, the Japanese viewed these newly arrived diseases as being spread by itinerant pestilence deities or demons referred to as ekijin, yakubyogami, or gyoyakujin. The arrival of warm weather often meant the simultaneous arrival of epidemics. Therefore, they began to think that perhaps the pretty cherry petals themselves came to be possessed by the pestilence spirits. 

Sakura trees along Keage Incline in full bloom on April 6 in Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto City. (©Sankei by Kan Emori)

Quelling the Spirits

After all, when cherry blossoms began to fall, disease began to spread like wildfire, reaching a peak during the humid summer months. 

Rites were therefore conducted to pacify or quell the spirits in the flowers to prevent them from doing harm. The first such flower-propitiating ceremony was known as chinkasai or hanashizume no matsuri. It apparently took place in the year 701 at the Omiwa Jinja shrine and subsidiary Sai Jinja. They are traditionally considered among the oldest shrines in Japan, in what is now Sakurai City in Nara Prefecture. It was also referred to as the "Medicine Festival" since during the ceremonies offerings of medicinal herbs were made to the gods. 

After the capital was moved to Heiankyo (today's Kyoto) in 794, a separate tradition started of holding goryo-e quelling ceremonies to appease angry spirits of the dead. There was also the ancient custom of transferring pollution or disease brought by pestilence deities or demons to dolls or other items. These would be dropped into a river to be carried off. Even today, there are several shrines and temples in Kyoto with a disease connection. 

The Yasurai Festival

By the mid-Heian period, these different traditions combined to give birth to the Yasurai Festival. It is a unique Kyoto folk tradition considered one of Kyoto's "Three Weird Festivals." The Yasurai Festival was designated as a national intangible cultural property in 1975 and a national important intangible folk cultural property in 1987.

The festival is celebrated regularly on the second Sunday in April at the Imamiya Jinja, Genbu Jinja, and Kawakami Daijingu shrines. It is also held at the Kamigamo Jinja on April 15. The Imamiya version is by far the best known. 

Yasurai is said to mean "flowers, rest peacefully." The idea being to pacify the epidemic spirits before they can get out and about causing mayhem. 

The Yasurai Festival at Imamiya Jinja in Kyoto. "Hanagasa" flower umbrellas known as "furyu Gasa" are displayed in the main hall. Shrine priests cleanse the misfortunes and diseases that "gather" on the umbrellas, praying for the eradication of illnesses. April 12, 2020, in Kita Ward, Kyoto City. (©Sankei by Naoya Nagata)

Warding Off Demons

The Imamiya Jinja celebration draws a large crowd. The shrine is dedicated to a god of good health and long life. But it is said that during the cherry blossom season, this deity leaves the shrine in the guise of an ekijin to have a little "fun." 

One parade group each departs respectively from the Konenji Temple and Kawakami Daijingu shrine. En route to the Imamiya Jinja, they seek out any demons that may be on the loose. The two teams meet up in midafternoon at the Imamiya Jinja for a grand dance performance in which they seek to outshine each other. The color red is everywhere you look at the Yasurai Festival including the cloaks the dancers wear. Since smallpox causes a victim's skin to turn red, smallpox deities (imogami) naturally were portrayed as red. 

Young men sporting impressive red or black wigs and dressed up as wild demons dance slowly in a set pattern of ritual significance. The dances are punctuated by jumps as the men strike small cymbals and bang on drums. Little ogres provide the obligatory "cuteness." All in all, it's like a grand party with nary a whiff of dread to be detected. Would that the pestilence demons of earlier days had been so amusing and well-behaved. 

Protection Umbrellas

Large hanagasa flower umbrellas with branches of cherry sticking out of the top are carried in the processions. It is said that if you stand under one of these flower umbrellas, you will drive away the evil spirits and remain healthy for the entire following year. Actually, hanagasa flowery red headgear is an integral part of many summer festivals in Japan, including the Yamagata Hanagasa Festival


The chatra or "sacred umbrella" symbol in Buddhism and Hinduism is a symbol of spiritual protection. I wonder if that could have been the origin of the hanagasa.

Blue (left) and red groups depart from the Konenji Temple. The color of the tassels hanging from the flower umbrellas represents each group. April 12, 2015. (©Sankei by Sachimi Tanaka)

Actually, according to surviving records, the Genbu Yasurai Festival is the oldest version of the ceremony. It was started by imperial edict in 966 when a horrendous epidemic raged in the capital following a massive flood. The tradition is still continued today, although the proceedings seem a lot more informal than those at the Imamiya Jinja. 

Red-haired and black-haired demons dance to the accompaniment of drums, gongs, and flutes. They shake their long hair and chant, "Yasurai hana ya." The demon dancers in white and scarlet robes and pages playing flutes or carrying red umbrellas would dance through the surrounding neighborhood. They were meant to attract the eye of the ekijin parade. Parishioners (ujiko) of the Genbu Jinja proudly declare that they are preserving the "orthodox Yasurai Festival." 

Genbu, the Protective Deity

Although today the Genbu Jinja is only a tiny neighborhood shrine, historically it was very important. The men who planned Heiankyo took great care to ensure that the new imperial capital conformed to Feng Shui principles. Since the north and especially the northeast directions were considered especially dangerous, this shrine was meant to protect the imperial palace. 

According to Feng Shui principles, the protective deity of the north was Genbu (Xuanwu in Chinese). Also known as the "Dark Warrior" or "Black Emperor," he is usually depicted as a tortoise, sometimes with a snake wrapped around it to lock the spiritual power inside. Supposedly in the past, turtles were raised in a pond within the precincts of the Genbu Jinja. 

According to a Kyoto legend, if the sun is shining on the day of the Yasurai Festival, it will also smile on other festival days throughout the year. It was smiling this year. 


Author: John Carroll

John Carroll is a Kyoto-based freelance writer and JAPAN Forward contributor. He is currently writing a book on the religious traditions and superstitions of Japan's ancient capital.