Overcoming Typhoon Hagibis through a Festival?
Foreign Correspondent in Japan, Hannah Daniels, decodes Japanese resilience by looking at the Bakeneko Festival – held in the aftermath of Typhoon Hagibis.
On October 13th, less than 24 hours after what had been deemed by Japan’s government as “the worst storm the country has experienced since 1958”, residents of the Shinjuku prefecture, Tokyo, hit the streets to celebrate the annual Kagaruzaka Bakeneko festival. This celebration can be viewed as a testament to Japanese cultural resilience, in the face of adversity.
Typhoon Hagibis, meaning “speed” in the Philippine language Tagalog, barrelled towards Tokyo on the evening of Saturday October 12th, stirring winds of up to 180km per hour and rainfall of up to 800 millimeters (30 inches). However, looking in on the festivities on the 13th, it might have been difficult to believe that just 24 hours or so prior the government had issued severe warnings to Tokyo residents to stay indoors and stockpile supplies in anticipation of the arrival of super typhoon Hagibis. In contrast to the previous days’ silent streets and empty food aisles, Tokyo appeared to have transformed overnight from a silenced ghost city, anticipating the worst, to a colourful and vibrant celebration of the mythical Bakeneko.
This celebration can be viewed as a testament to Japanese cultural resilience, in the face of adversity.
Bakeneko has a multitude of meanings, including Ghost cat and Monster cat, however it is said to be best translated in English as Changed Cat. The Bakeneko is an integral aspect of Japanese mythology, with these cats being seen as a type of Yokai or supernatural creature. The legend states that the Bakeneko begins as a regular domesticated cat, but as it grows older it changes, becoming larger and accumulating supernatural powers, until it eventually can change its form and speak human languages. Allegedly, the malevolent creature becomes able to summon fireballs, use their tails as torches to set fires, and curse – or even kill – their previous owners.
The Kagaruzaka Bakeno festival, hosted two weeks before Halloween, acts as a tribute to this mythical Bakeneko, as well as serving as a festive celebration for all cats in general. Notably, Kagarazuka is the chosen location for the festival due to its association with the novel I Am A Cat, one of the most celebrated works in Japanese literature, by Natsume Soseki who resided in the area in the past.
For a 500-yen fee (that’s about £3.50 in GDP), the unique festival allows members of the public to partake in a lively parade, as it meanders down the main shopping street of Kagurazaka. The only prerequisite? Participants must dress in their most outrageous cat-like attire. The festival is a cat lover’s weirdest fantasy materialised – creating a dynamic ensemble of music, dancing, and festivities for all to enjoy.
Nevertheless, if we look beyond the light-hearted festivities, there is something to be said about Tokyo’s ability to rebound so swiftly from, what was essentially, a natural disaster zone to an arena of cultural celebration within a mere 24 hours. It has been often been said that part of Tokyo’s charm is its dynamic unpredictable nature, and indeed the arrival of the Kagurazaka Bakeneko festival following Hagibis is testament to this changeability. However, there is perhaps a deeper, underlying message to be construed from the city’s sudden renaissance on the 13th October.
What kind of a society is able to revive itself from what was deemed as a “monster” typhoon with such momentum and spirit? My argument is Japan can, and Japan did, exemplified partially through its perseverance in delivering its annual Kagurazaka Bakeneko festival. Scanning the scene at the festival, it was remarkable to see people laughing, dancing and enjoying the celebrations, despite the chaos the day before. More than a cultural celebration of traditions and mythology, the Kagurazaka Bakeneko festival can be interpreted as a powerful symbol of Japanese cultural resilience in the face of adversity.
It appears that, where there could be tension, there is instead a consonance between anxieties about natural disasters and the desire to preserve cultural traditions – which makes the nation what it is today. The Kagurazaka Bakeneko festival can seem bizarre to onlookers, but it ultimately embodies a nation in which values of tradition, harmony, culture, unity and most of all resilience, intertwine in times of hardship.
While it is exciting to celebrate cultural resilience in Tokyo, it is important that the serious devastation of these areas is not forgotten.
Fortunately, Tokyo escaped relatively unscathed due to the city’s exceptional flood system and infrastructure. However, vast sections of the central Nagano prefecture, amongst other areas of Japan, have been left inundated with water. It has been reported that 60 people have died due to the explosive typhoon, with at least 186 people injured and 15 currently missing. In the Nagano region, 92,000 households remained without water for a prolonged period, whilst 120,000 experienced water outages. 110,000 people took part in search and rescue operations and thousands of police were deployed to the worst struck areas.
The statistics and images presented paint the antithesis of the aftermath left by Hagibis in Tokyo. While it is exciting to celebrate cultural resilience in Tokyo, it is important that the serious devastation of these areas is not forgotten. While one area possesses the privilege to celebrate due to adequate infrastructure investment, another area deeply suffers the consequences of the super typhoon. With other prefectures in central and eastern Japan continue to suffer, Japan’s national resilience needs to stretch further than its ability to host the Kagurazaka Bakeneko festival.