Museum Dictionary

About The Gion Festival Screens

Festivals have been important to people since the Stone Age. Why do you think this is? Perhaps it is related to what is special about being human. Humans used to be called "animals that play" or "animals that use tools." If you think about it, however, you will realize that other animals "play" and "use tools," so these descriptions are no longer acceptable. The only "animals that have festivals," however, are people. Therefore, having festivals can be thought of as a uniquely "human" behavior.

There are various types of festivals, but they almost always seem to include some kind of procession. Participants in these processions might walk, run or dance. The festival of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the Gujo Odori Festival at Gujo Hachiman Shrine in Gifu, Japan, are famous because everyone staying up all night dancing!

One of the Three Great Festivals in Japan is the Gion Festival in Kyoto. The parade for this festival is probably the most beautiful and elegant procession in all of Japan. Even if you never see the real thing, you can get an idea of what the Gion Festival looks like from a pair of folding screen paintings in the Kyoto National Museum called The Gion Festival Before we discuss these screens, let's talk a little more about the Gion Festival itself.

The Gion Festival started in the year 869 A.D. (Jogan 11 by the Japanese calendar). Just one hundred years before, the capital of Japan had moved from Nara to Kyoto. In this same year 869, a great epidemic illness, or plague, spread throughout the Capital causing much death and suffering. In those days, people thought that plagues were the fault of humans who were not living a clean and hygienic life. They thought that plagues were an expression of the gods' anger. In order to end this plague, they thought that they must pacify the angry gods, and thus they created the Gion Festival. Another name for this festival is the Gion Ceremony for the Holy Spirits, showing its religious roots.

The first year the festival was held, participants carried sixty-six large halberds (spears) in the procession. Over time, these evolved into floats with tall spear-like spires on the roofs. These floats are called yama (which also means "mountain") and hoko (which also means "spear"). These are the floats used in the Gion Festival parade today.

The Gion Festival was held every year after 869 until it was interrupted by the Onin War in the 1460s, during the medieval period. After the fighting ended, the people of Kyoto decided that as they rebuilt the city, they also wanted to improve the Gion Festival. Before the war, the festival had been much like a formal, government ceremony. After the Onin War, however, the festival became more of a celebration for Kyoto's new, flourishing businesses. The businesses were run by merchants, and the Gion Festival became a festival organized, executed, and attended by merchants. The Onin War had revealed the true character of the haughty upper-classes, and as a result, much of their power was transfered to the merchants. The Gion Festival became a symbol of the merchant class's new strength and vitality. Many merchants wanted works of art that pictured their new-found prosperity, so numerous screen paintings were made of the Gion Festival.

Today, however, surprisingly few of these screens still exist. The Gion Festival screens in the collection of the Kyoto National Museum were made in the 17th century during the Kan'ei era (1624-1644), known for many important historical events and famous people. During this era, the Emperor Gomizuno-o married Tokugawa Kazuko, and many famous Japanese artists such as Hon'ami Koetsu and Tawaraya Sotatsu were active.

  • Gion Festival Screens
    Gion Festival Screens (Kyoto National Museum)
  • Gion Festival Screens
    Gion Festival Screens (Kyoto National Museum)

The Kyoto National Museum's The Gion Festival has been very well cared for over the years. The gold leaf lavishly covering the screens glitter as if they had been made yesterday. Works of art such as these paintings represent the pride of our Kyoto ancestors. One can't help but be inspired, not only by their monetary wealth, but also by their richness of spirit.

Text by Hiroyuki Kano, Department of Fine Arts
English translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives

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