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Ladies Night Out: The Old Time Way

Author: Avi Landau, Issue: December 2007, Topic: Japanese Culture, Location: Tsukuba

It's autumn. So while making conversation, I asked Setsuko Takano when her grandchildrens sports festival (運動会)would be, naturally assuming that she would be spending the whole day at the kids' school ground, watching the excitement, and passing out the lovingly prepared lunch-boxes which she would surely prepare. When Setsuko told me that she wouldn't be going this year I was taken aback, and even a little hesitant to inquire further as to what would keep such a dedicated grandmother away from one of the premier family-get-together events of the year. When she explained to me that this year her neighborhood's juu-ku-ya-kou (十九夜講) fell on the same day as her grandkids festival, I was relieved to hear that nothing was wrong and also strongly impressed by Setsuko`s commitment to local traditions. It also quickly dawned on me that this would be a great opportunity to get an insider's view into a fast fading world of which, only once ,I had gotten a small and enticing glimpse of, by peeping through the wooden grate of the old prayer hall near my house.

Inside I had seen, through the swirling smoke of incense, a mysterious image on a hanging scroll, with worshippers kneeling before it, chanting sutras. Yes, this would be a golden opportunity to get photos and more information about a custom about which nothing has yet been written in English, and one to which I had NO ACCESS -- the women only meeting of the 19th night.

Juu-ku-ya-koh is the most common (though now most Japanese have never heard of it) of the remaining koh(講) which flourished during their heyday in the Edo Period (1601-1868). A testament to the variety and popularity of the koh are the myriad stone tablets commemorating them which can be found all over Japan, more commonly in the Kanto Region and especially in Ibaraki Prefecture. A Koh is a meeting for prayer, worship or study which also includes large doses of eating, drinking, singing and just plain chatting. In the Tsukuba area especially common were the Koh of the 19th night which is a women-only affair. The purpose of the women's gathering was ostensibly to pray for fertility, easy delivery, healthy children, safety from women's diseases and the repose of the spirits of female friends and relatives who have passed on. I would believe however, that the real purpose or social function was to provide a regular chance for women to get out of the house in an age when that was not very easily done. It would have been an opportunity to escape for a bit from one's mother-in-law and husband for one evening a month and release stress with one's comrades. These traditional gatherings took place in nearly every neighborhood, it seems. Taking a walk in any old village will probably have you come across an old mossy stone with the inscription 十九夜 which mark a spot where they had been regularly held. Also commemorating the women's meetings of the 19th would be a stone image of a kannon bodhisattva resting his/her head in his/her hand.

Times have changed however, and the juu-ku-ya-koh have had to adapt or in many neighborhoods have just faded away. The women's meeting used to be held every month on the 19th of the lunar calendar. Now, however, if the tradition continues, it is held only twice a year. Traditionally they would be held at a neighbor's home, a temple, or in one of the specially built wooden juu-ku-ya-koh prayer halls. Though some of these halls are still used (as as the one near my house), most of today's meetings are held in community centers or meeting halls of modern construction. Also, in the past, participants were almost exclusively women of child-bearing age. In recent years though, most members are seniors, with an occasional younger woman, usually a housewife.

Since there are countless variants in specific juu-ku-ya-koh practices around Japan and even within Tsukuba City, I will keep my description here focused on Setsuko Takano's gathering in the Oho area of Tsukuba. The main feature of this Meeting of the 19th held at the Oho meeting Hall is the hanging scroll with the image of the Nyoirin Kannon, which is the wish-answering Kannon (one of the six popular forms of the kannon bodhisattva). The women gather at around 10 am and hang the scroll on the wall, burn incense and chant sutras in two sets of 50, while one member beats on a fish-shaped wooden rapper. If a pregnant women lives in the neighborhood, a special candle is lit and left until it burns down to a short stub. This is then taken to the pregnant woman's house to ensure, a short period of labor. The women then have lunch, tea and finally turn on the karaoke machine. By evening, after singing their hearts out, the women pack up and go home.

Traditionally these events began in the evening and still do in places. The Oho women's group find it more convenient to keep in the day. They are also very free in choosing a date, basing their selection on the best available weekends in September and in January. During the January meetings the women dedicate fresh zakumata (Y-shaped sticks offered to dogs in order to have easy childbirth) near the meeting hall.

Since the Nyoirin kannon is often represented as a bodhisattva with head resting in hand, such stone images can be found around the meeting halls. I have seen photos of women gathering in the open air around these stones to pray, instead of gathering in a hall.

Many of the once great variety of koh traditions are fading fast (as is juu-ku-ya-koh). For example, from the early Edo period until after WWII, there was a popular men's equivalent of juu-ku-ya-koh which was held on the 23rd of each month. The village men would gather, wait for the moon and pray, and then of course enjoy a good evening of drinking and chatting. You can still find numerous stone monuments reading 二十三夜 commemorating these gatherings. I have not been able to find any active men's gatherings on the 23rd, however, and it appears that they have lost out to karaoke clubs and snack bars as a medium of socialization and entertainment. It seems to me that traditions related to fertility, and easy delivery have a much stronger chance of survival. I guess when facing the great wonder and fears of pregnancy and childbirth even the greatest skeptics and materialists often turn to the ancient rites which seem to bring comfort, a little extra confidence, and a circle of social support.

If you are a woman who would be interested in taking part in such a meeting, contact me or the city office for more information.

A big thanks to Setsuko Takano for her pictures and insights.

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