Mark Teeuwen – Japan: Gion matsuri in Kyoto

Mark Teeuwen
Institute of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo

Japan: Gion matsuri in Kyoto


Kyoto’s Gion matsuri is one of Japan’s most prestigious festivals. With a history that goes back to the tenth century, it has served as an emblem of Kyoto culture and influenced shrine festivals throughout Japan. In the postwar period, the Gion festival has been at the forefront of the transformation of shrine festivals into national heritage. As heritage, all parts of the festival are held to strict requirements of “authenticity” by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs; in return, the festival caretakers receive subsidies. Under Japan’s secular constitution, this implies that the festival has to split into religious and non-religious parts, with only the latter receiving public money.
In 2020, COVID-19 necessitated the cancellation of all public events, including the Gion festival. Uniquely among Japan’s matsuri, caretakers did not give up and pioneered an alternative way to bring the gods to the city. Both during and after the festival, the 2020 Gion festival was presented as uniquely true to festival’s “true meaning” (hongi), in spite of the fact that everything about the alternative festival was new. This meaning was defined in terms of faith and prayer, in contrast to the secular signification of the festival as “traditional culture” in the heritage narrative of normal years. The 2020 Gion festival offers a striking example of the ways authenticity can be successfully redefined and projected in a context where historical traditions must be abandoned.

Biography of the author:

PhD, Japanese studies, Leiden University 1996.
Lecturer, University of Wales Cardiff, 1994-1999.
Professor, Oslo University, since 1999.
Mark Teeuwen have published widely on aspects of Japanese religious history with a focus on Shinto. He is currently working on a monograph about the social history of the Gion festival.
Recent publication, relevant to this talk:
Mark Teeuwen and Aike P. Rots, eds, Sacred Heritage in Japan, Routledge 2020.