Five Months After Tsunami, a Community Comes Together to Witness a Giant Float; 'We Will Not Be Defeated'
Daisuke Wakabayashi/The Wall Street Journal
RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan—A year ago on Aug. 7, the narrow main street in the Kessencho section of this coastal city bustled as hundreds of people watched two giant floats resembling decorated medieval battering rams thunder into one another. The rhythmic beating of giant taiko drums filled the air.
This year, five months after a giant tsunami destroyed much of the city's coastal areas, the scene at Rikuzentakata's annual kenka tanabata matsuri—"fighting star festival"—is different. The mom-and-pop shops and traditional storehouses that once lined the streets are heaping mounds of rubble. The few standing structures are gutted and filled with debris, while the smell of rotting garbage hangs in the air.
But community organizers, determined to continue with tradition, have spent the past two months to ensure the festival wouldn't be another casualty of the tsunami. The festival proceeded as scheduled on Sunday, albeit with some post-tsunami adjustments, including the absence of its headline activity: fighting.
In the low-lying Kessencho area, the tsunami carried away three of the area's four festival floats, each representing a different hamlet in the village. Each float includes a four-meter-high (13-foot-high) wooden tower and a giant log the size of a telephone pole jutting out from the base. Without at least two floats, the head-to-head battles couldn't take place.
In the weeks after the disaster, Norihiko Murakami, leader of one of the four hamlets' festival committees, thought they would have to cancel this year. But when people started asking whether it would take place, he decided it was important to continue a tradition that, according to locals, dates back 900 years.
"We had to do it precisely because it's a time like this," said Mr. Murakami, who started working on floats in elementary school. "This is a way for us to get back to our normal lives."
The mere act of holding one of the city's most popular cultural activities represents another step in the long march to recovery for Rikuzentakata, where about 2,000 people were killed and more than half of the city's homes were destroyed.
On Sunday, the single decorated float was at the center of a rolling procession through the still-battered landscape. Children banged on taiko drums and played the flute on a platform in the float as two rows of people pulled on long ropes to move the cumbersome structure. A group of male organizers, wearing festival robes and with their heads wrapped in towels, steered it around sharp corners.
At night, instead of fighting, the float remained parked in one location for people to see. Earlier, in the afternoon, the festival split into two groups and a tug-of-war competition broke out.
"Seeing the float and hearing the taiko drums and flute puts my soul at ease, but I want to go back to fighting next year," said Rie Sasaki, whose family lost its home in the tsunami and is living in a neighboring town.
The star festival is celebrated in cities across Japan. According to legend, the festival marks the one day a year when two stars, which are in love but separated by the Milky Way, can reunite. The Japanese celebrate tanabata, translated as "evening of the seventh," by writing wishes and making decorations to hang off bamboo branches.
Kessencho's unique twist on the festival is to add the "fighting" element. The floats battle each another in competition, colliding at alarming speeds followed by a tug of war.
Hiroyuki Hashimoto, a professor at Morioka University who has studied folk performance and festivals, said such festivals are especially important to cities in northeastern Japan, where the economy has stagnated for years and people rely on help from the community to survive. Such events are as important as food or shelter to people in the region, he said. "For them, the festival is a way to restore their life. It's a necessary thing to restore the community," said Mr. Hashimoto.
The festival is also a way to mourn the dead, because it comes before Japan's Obon holiday, when people return to their hometowns to honorthe spirits of deceased ancestors.
Hiroshi Yoshida, a dentist, said the festival takes on special meaning in light of so much death. "We're doing this to comfort the spirit of the people who died," said Mr. Yoshida, a descendant of the local shogun who ruled the area centuries ago.
As the procession rolled by Sunday, Mr. Yoshida climbed on the roof of a hollowed-out shed and unfurled a sign that read: "We will not be defeated."
Sunday was the culmination of months of preparation by the men who participate every year. Starting about a month ago, nearly 20 men worked in the stifling heat of a hollowed-out community center to create decorations for the float.
One group shaved down 1,200 bamboo branches until they were as thin as conductor's batons and as long as the height of a basketball hoop, while another cluster folded white gauze-like paper dipped partly in red dye into triangles. The triangles were glued onto the branches to hang down from the top of the float.
A few weeks later, about 40 people drove in a caravan of cars and small trucks to a forest in the inland part of the city, to pull wisteria vines off trees. The vines were wrapped around the base of the float to bind and tighten the structure for extra sturdiness. Some vines were so thick that twisting them around the float required a dozen men using rope, sledgehammers and long crowbars.
In the last week before the festival, the men made lanterns to hang off the float. They painted designs on a sheet that wraps around the exterior of the lantern, with only a single light bulb, powered by a generator, to illuminate the room.
Hanging on a rope across the middle of the room were wishes handwritten by school children and residents of a nearby temporary housing block. One note read: "I will strive to make the most of my rescued life." Another read: "I want Rikuzentakata to return to the way it was; a town overflowing with smiles."
"People write wishes every year," said Mr. Yoshida, the dentist. "But there are more this year."
—Miho Inada and Yoree Koh contributed to this article.