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Summer in Japan

Onward! Toward a New Tohoku

Coming on Strong with the Tohoku Rokkon Festival


It has long been a custom in Japan to have festivals in the summer. Summer festivals in farming villages were considered a way to pray for good harvests in the fall, and in cities to mitigate natural disasters such as the spread of infectious diseases that occur as a result of changes in the seasons.

Each of the six prefectures in the Tohoku region—Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Akita, Yamagata and Fukushima—is well known for hosting its own vigorous, large-scale summer festival. Taking place in the prefectural capitals, they include the Nebuta Festival in Aomori, the Sansa Odori Festival in Morioka, the Tanabata Festival in Sendai, the Kanto Lantern Festival in Akita, the Hanagasa Festival in Yamagata, and the Waraji Festival in Fukushima. Now all six of these celebrations can be enjoyed in a single mega-event, the Tohoku Rokkon (Six-Soul) Festival, held this year for the fourth time and producing more merriment than ever.

Satoshi Aoki, who works in the tourism and products section of the Commerce and Tourism Department of the city of Yamagata, was in charge of this year’s Tohoku Rokkon Festival held in Yamagata Prefecture.
“The idea of the six prefectures doing something together had been around for a long time,” Aoki explains. “The impetus that finally got us to do it was, ironically, the Great East Japan Earthquake. A large number of companies offered assistance to get the recovery started. A festival, as a way to restore our spirits, came together as the Tohoku Rokkon Festival, with the first one taking place in 2011 in Sendai.”

Every year a kanji character is used to express the festival’s theme. In the first year it was 祈 (inori, prayer), then 希 (ki, wish), 福 (fuku, happiness), and 起 (ki, arising) this year. The theme character for this year—along with a subtheme, ‘Onward! Toward a New Tohoku’—were meant to embody the people’s spirit of getting over the tragedy and determinedly moving into the future.
“Yamagata is different from the prefectures that held the first three festivals in that we suffered almost no damage from the earthquake,” Aoki explains. “But we did take in more victims than any other prefecture, and even now we have close to three thousand of them living here. Although this was the first time for a largely unaffected prefecture to host, the parade alone drew 260,000 people over two days. Towels and other souvenirs sold out instantly. The roadsides were packed, and people who weren’t able to view the parade instead enjoyed the Tohoku festival on a big screen outside the venue. That just blew me away.”

Like last year, the Self-Defense Forces from Matsushima Air Base sent their Blue Impulse aerobatic team for an exhibition. The event reminded people that relief for the victims could not have happened without the stalwart efforts of the Self-Defense Forces.
“We have experienced many great benefits through the six prefectures doing this festival together,” Aoki says, beaming. “A bond has formed among us as Tohoku people, and with so many tourists coming from all over Japan as well as from overseas, we have come to feel proud of Tohoku as an attractive place. And it has been a great promotion for the individual festivals each of our prefectures will be having in August.”

This year many local volunteers were dispersed at the festival and in surrounding areas as English-language interpreters for foreign tourists, who reported that they were able to enjoy the lively dancing and floats up close. Upon seeing the group spirit and energy of the people who hosted this Tohoku Rokkon Festival, visitors must have returned home impressed.

It thus appears likely that the number of tourists visiting Japan for the festival will increase. “The host prefecture for the Tohoku Rokkon Festival will continue to rotate every year, but to make sure that the memory of the earthquake does not fade I’d like to help keep it successful by deepening relations between the government and the private sector,” Aoki says.

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