Age-old festivals reviewing animal treatment in face of


For nigh on 700 years, Tado shrine in Kuwana, Mie Prefecture, has served as the backdrop for the “Ageuma Shinji” (Horse jumping festival), designated by the prefectural government as an intangible folk cultural property.

The Shinto ritual, held each May, features powerful horses mounted by young people charging up a muddy, earthen ramp near the entrance to the shrine. At the top is a 2-meter-high mud wall that they are supposed to scale. How well they do is said to foretell the state of the coming harvest.

But next year’s event will almost certainly be different due to concerns about the way the animals are treated, organizers said.

The festival had come under intense criticism following revelations the horses are administered stimulants to get them through the ordeal.

The organizers had pledged to stop that. They had also made the mud wall lower. In such a situation, a horse stumbled on the slope, broke its leg and had to be put down this year. There were also reports of horses being lashed with ropes before they ascended the slope.

This year marked the first time since 2019 for the event to be held because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In June, Mie prefectural authorities called for aspects of the annual ritual to be reviewed so as not to put an undue strain on the horses.

The shrine, taking note of campaigns to stop animal abuse, agreed the following month.


Long-established cultural practices that had triggered howls of indignation over the mistreatment of animals were already an issue half a century ago when legislation was first drawn up to protect living creatures from abuse.

Diet discussions on the draft of the animal protection law in 1973 tackled live shows in Okinawa featuring fights between highly venomous “habu” vipers native to the island prefecture and mongooses, as well as dog fighting in Kochi.

In both cases, it was argued that the performances had “historic value” and as such could not be regarded as abusive.

Since then, the legislation has undergone repeated revisions in line with growing awareness about animal welfare. It was renamed the law on welfare and management of animals and given teeth with provisions for harsher penalties.

Consequently, some events and shows referred to as legal when  the legislation was first drawn up have already disappeared.

One example is Tosa Inu dog fighting. According to Kochi city, no bouts of that kind have been held since a specialized facility in Katsurahama Park closed for good in 2017.

A pair of Tosa Inu dogs locked in a fight in Kochi in 1966 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

A legal revision in 2020 stipulated that putting animals in situations that result in external injuries constituted abuse.

The snake-mongoose show–a tourist draw generally not found outside of Okinawa Prefecture–can no longer be watched.

Around the time when the Group of Eight summit was held in Okinawa Prefecture and Kyushu in 2000, the prefecture instructed the organizers of the snake-mongoose show to modify the entertainment program to one that goes without fighting.

Meanwhile, organizers of other time-honored events have taken steps to match the spirit of the times in the hope of conserving their traditions.

Among them is the Tsunotsuki bull-versus-bull showdown in Ojiya, Niigata Prefecture, which is designated as a nationally important intangible folk cultural property.

A veterinarian is now on hand at the festival site following a 2013 legal amendment that rendered it mandatory to provide injured animals with swift and proper treatment, according to Yutaka Suga, a folklore professor at the University of Tokyo who chairs the Ojiya Bullfighting Promotion Council.

Festival organizers also started study sessions on animal welfare. 

They were gratified to learn that their traditional custom of ending matches in a draw before any real harm was done was highly praised, as was their policy of not sharpening the bulls’ horns before a fight.

The officials believe those rules should be handed down to posterity.

“We will be preserving Tsunotsuki while changing what can be changed in line with the trend of the times,” said Suga.

Inevitably, some things that were long taken for granted are no longer compatible with modern norms. Asked if any accommodation can ever be reached on such occasions, Suga offered a crucial tip.

“Talk first of all,” he said. “Enormous efforts are essential for those passing down traditions while outsiders need to continuously build channels in a quest to understand each other’s opinions.”


Even time-honored events can be classified as illicit abuse under the law on welfare and management of animals, given that it bans putting animals in situations that can result in traumatic injuries.

“It is possible that events will not be categorized as abuse if appropriate reasons are offered, such as handing down a ritual for posterity,” acknowledged an Environment Ministry official.

At the same time, the ministry said causing unnecessary pain to animals could be construed as abuse.

“Ultimately, it falls within the judicial scope” to examine individual cases and make specific judgments for each of them, the ministry official said.

(This article was written by Kyoka Watanabe and Takashi Tomioka.)

Source link

Comments are closed.