Among the imperial court rituals performed in autumn (rituals performed by the Emperor, who is at the center of Shinto rituals, to pray for the peace, security, and prosperity of the nation and people and enshrine spirits and ancestors) are the festivals called kan’namesai and niinamesai.
Kan’namesai is also called “kan’namenomatsuri (kan’name festival)” or “kan’nienomatsuri (kan’nie festival)”.
Niinamesai is also called “shinjosai” or “niinamenomatsuri (niiname festival)”.
What are each of these two festivals that are extremely similar in appearance when written? Are there any connection and differences between them?
This time, we would like to take a look at the meanings and origins of each of these festivals.
What is kan’namesai?
Kan’namesai is a festival to appreciate the rich harvest.
“Hatsuho”, the first rice ears harvested in the given year, are offered to Amaterasuomikami, the goddess of Sun enshrined in Ise Jingu (one of the largest and noblest shrines in Japan located in Mie Prefecture), to appreciate the productiveness.
Amaterasuomikami appears in the Japanese myths and is the head of all local deities in Japan.
Ise Jingu performs kan’namesai on October 17th every year to offer the first rice ears harvested in the given year to Amaterasuomikami.
It comes from an incident in Japanese myths where Amaterasuomikami ate the first rice ears in Takamagahara, the heavens.
In time with kan’namesai, ”Kan’name housyuku sai” (Kan’name Celebration Festivals) are performed in the city of Ise in Mie Prefecture.
You can see famous festivals from all over Japan at a time, as festivals and traditional arts from various places of Japan are dedicated to share the joy of harvest and appreciation for productiveness.
The event is said to have started in 721.
Initially, it had been performed on September 17 of the lunar calendar, but it was changed to September 17 of the solar calendar in 1872 (Meiji 5 of the Japanese calendar).
However, since rice stalks would not have grown sufficiently by September 17 of the solar calendar, the date was further changed to October 17 in 1879 (Meiji 12 of the Japanese calendar).
What is niinamesai?
Niinamesai is a harvest festival. “Nii” (represented by the letter “新”) signifies new grain (first rice ears), and “name” (represented by the letter “嘗”) signifies feast.
The first rice ears are offered to Amaterasuomikami and tenjinchigi (all other gods and goddesses), after which the Emperor himself eats the first rice ears to appreciate the blessings that brought about the harvest of the first rice ears.
The origin of the festival has not been identified.
However, Nihon-shoki (the oldest chronicles of Japan) has it that “it started in the era of the Empress Kogyoku in the Asuka period (642-645 of the Christian era)”.
Man’yoshu, the oldest existing anthology of Japanese poetry, has some traditional Japanese poems of 31 syllables about niinamesai.
Niinamesai is one of the imperial court rituals which is performed on November 23 every year, and is among the most important annual imperial court festivals.
The Emperor offers the first rice ears to Amaterasuomikami and all other gods and goddesses and offers a prayer of thanks, after which the Emperor himself eats the first rice ears.
According to the Japanese myths, emperors are the descendants of Amaterasuomikami.
As such, Amaterasuomikami is said to have gained new power as the emperors themselves ate the first rice ears, thereby promising the rich harvest of the following year.
After World War II, the General Headquarters tried to exclude the holiday of “niinamesai” as it had a strong religious color of the national Shintoism, and suggested to change the day to a holiday with another name.
The day was thus reset as a holiday called the “kinrokansha-no-hi” (Labor Thanksgiving Day), eliminating the element of state act by the emperor.
What are the Differences between Kan’namesai and Niinamesai?
Both are a festival to appreciate the rich harvest. They seem similar, but there are also differences.
Kan’namesai and niinamesai can be summarized as follows:
It is performed on October 17 every year. It is a ceremony to offer new grain harvested in the given year which takes place at Ise Jingu. The first rice ears harvested are offered to Amaterasuomikami to appreciate the rich harvest.
It is performed on November 23 every year at Shinkaden, one of the three imperial palace sanctuaries. The Emperor offers the first rice ears harvested to Amaterasuomikami and all other gods and goddesses and appreciates the rich harvest, after which the Emperor himself eats the first rice ears.
The three imperial palace sanctuaries are the collective term of the Kashikodokoro (palace sanctuary), Koreden (shrine of imperial ancestors), and Shinden (temple) inside the imperial palace, where the gods and goddesses of Shintoism are enshrined. Attached to the three imperial palace sanctuaries inside the imperial palace is Shinkaden.
Kinro kansha no hi, The “Labor Thanksgiving Day”, means “the day when we respect labor, celebrate production, and appreciate each other”.
Although the name of the holiday was changed from niinamesai to the Labor Thanksgiving Day, the underlying spirit of “celebrating and appreciate the harvest” remains unchanged.
As both kan’namesai and niinamesai are the court functions and religious services, we tend to think they are unfamiliar to common people.
However, “harvest festivals” that celebrate and appreciate the harvest of first rice ears as well as “autumn grand festivals” of shrines are performed in various locations across Japan, since rice cropping has been the basis of Japanese life since the ancient times.
The spirit of celebrating and appreciating the harvest must be embedded into the mind of Japanese people.
When we eat new grain (new rice), why don’t we give a thought on the traditional events that have been continuing from ancient times?