Shoronagashi is an event held during the Obon festival (a Festival of the Dead or Buddhist All Soul's Day in mid-August) in different parts of Nagasaki Prefecture. It is a memorial and farewell service for the spirits of the deceased.
It is a traditional event held in various parts of Nagasaki Prefecture during the Obon festival. At the first obon following the death of a family member (hatsubon) the surviving family members tow boats called shorobune, which are decorated with bon-lanterns and imitation flowers and are believed to hold the spirits of the deceased on board, to a place called the nagashiba.
It starts at the dusk of August 15 every year amidst the bustle of shouts, sounds of gongs, and blasts of firecrackers. The shorobune boats are decorated so luxuriously like floats and attract a large audience. It is often misinterpreted as a festival, but it is actually a Buddhist memorial service for the deceased.
Families who do not bear hatsubon do not make shorobune, and instead, they bring flowers and fruits (offerings) wrapped inside small bundles of straws to nagashiba. They used to release shorobune and offerings on water towards the sea, but the practice was banned in Nagasaki City in 1871. Shorobune are no longer made to float on water. Even today, they sometimes set shorobune afloat on rivers or on the sea in Shimabara City, Saikai City, Matsuura City, and Goto City.
Nagasaki City has a festival called Nagasaki-kunchi Festival, the hikimono (floats) of which have a structure that resembles that of the shorobune.
Those floats are often pulled around in a circular motion in the performance, so some people who tow shorobune imitate them to give a similar effect. Every year, Tetsuya ETCHU, a local history researcher, regularly comments that 'They may wreck them,' and considers that act as 'bad behavior' when he appears on a videotaped show of Nagasaki Broadcasting Company. Many people do not like this behavior and the police usually caution people engaging in such behavior.
At Ohato in Nagasaki City, a typical nagashiba, a heavy machine is ready to disassemble shorobune. After families and relatives of the deceased remove what are supposed to be kept at home, such as bon lanterns, photos of the deceased and the Buddhist mortuary tablets, the shorobune will be dismantled on site as the pullers of shorobune join their hands in prayer. Surviving family members watch this in sorrow.
Shorobune are categorized into two types. Some boats are private ones while some are jointly sponsored boats called 'moyai-bune' which are built by local organizations, such as a neighborhood residents' associations. It was after the Second World War that personal shorobune became common. Up until 1955, most shorobune were 'moyai-bune' and only rich people made family shorobune boats.
Some people believe making 'big' and 'glamorous' shorobune proves their social status, whether the boats are private or moyai-bune. The tradition of 'moyai-bune' is active today, examples of which are the shorobune construction led by hospitals or funeral companies in addition to those of local associations. Some shorobune are for pets.
A procession to nagashiba is headed by hosts of the funerals holding lanterns with their family crests and town caretakers holding their town lanterns, followed by young people holding long marker poles with an elaborate lantern on the top end called a 'shirushi toro,' gongs, and at the end, the shorobune (most shorobune have wheels) hauled by several adults clad in white happi coats (workman's livery coats).
Since the custom launching the boats begins around 5 p.m. and often lasts until 10 p.m. or later, many shorobune are equipped with lamps for illumination. Many shorobune boats have lanterns with light bulbs in them powered by a battery on board. Some shorobune, such as small ones, use candles, but many use electric bulbs because of the danger of fire. Some large scale shorobune, dozens of meters in length, are equipped with an electric generator.
Shorobune have a family crest or a family name on the bow and moyai-bune have the town's name on the bow. Photos of the deceased, Buddhist mortuary tablets, and flowers are placed at the middle of the boat illuminated by bon lanterns. Many have sails with drawings of Buddha, the Kannon Buddhist deity of mercy, or Buddhist sutras.
Each shirushi toro has a unique design. Moyai-bune has a symbol of its town on the sail (e.g., a neighborhood association in a town which has remains of Kameyama shachu (the first trading company in Japan led by Ryoma SAKAMOTO at the end of the Edo period) in its town posts a sail depicting Ryoma SAKAMOTO). A personal boat has a sail with a family crest or a drawing that indicates the idiosyncrasies of the deceased (e.g., a shogi piece (Japanese chess) for a shogi lover; or cartoon characters for a toddler).
The boats vary in size, from one or two meters in length to long series of boats reaching 20 to 50 meters.
Although the basic structure of shorobune is, as mentioned above, influenced by the playful spirit of shirushi toro, nowadays, many so called alternative shorobune are made these days (e.g., yacht type shorobune for the dead who loved yachts; a bus type with a destination bound for the Western Pure Land for a bus driver).
The origin of firecrackers
Although there are several stories, common opinion holds that the practice of using firecrackers has been strongly influenced by the Chinese event of Saisen-nagashi (which was held to pay respects to deceased Chinese). It is thought that if the use of firecrackers may have originated in China and signify amulets to purify the tracks shorobune that follow. The meaning has faded away today, and more and more people believe 'the bigger the explosion is, the better' just like Chinese firecrackers at the lunar New Year which are causing problems in China. Dangerous acts, such as lighting cardboard boxes full of hundreds of firecrackers to set off a big fireball, are becoming a problem. Rocket fireworks are banned, because they often fly directly towards viewers. If any members of a shorobune group went overboard in using fireworks, the police may call on a person (who has been trained on how to use fireworks at Shoronagashi beforehand) in charge of fireworks of the group to warn him or her.
A good viewing spot in Nagasaki City is at the front of the Nagasaki Prefectural Government Office where the Nagasaki Broadcasting Company videotapes the event and many shorobune float past there, including many of the so-called 'alternative shorobune.'
Huge shorobune series of three or four boats can be seen in the area of the Nagasaki Municipal Office as many neighborhoods in that area preserve the tradition of moyai-bune.
Approval of the chief of the police station under the jurisdiction is required to build a boat on a road or to parade a boat with a length of more than two meters. The maximum boat size is 10 meters in total length, 7 meters in body length, 2.5 meters in width, and 3.5 meters in height. The height is not the height of the body of the boat but the height when the boat is lifted up.
Only people with fireworks' licenses may handle fireworks. Yabiya (rocket fireworks) and volley fireworks are banned. Fireworks must not be directed towards people or cars. Each nagashiba can deal with a different maximum size of shorobune; and only a few places, such as Ohato, are capable of handling larger ones.
The leader and the fireworks licensee of a parading group are required to wear a blue and red cross brace, respectively. The chief of the police station under the jurisdiction provides these sashes for cross braces on application in advance.
Services affected by Shoronagashi
Traffic is stopped or re-routed at various places, such as at the center of Nagasaki City, during the parades of Shoronagashi; and buses and streetcars of Nagasaki Electric Tramway operate on routes different from usual.
After the Shoronagashi festival, in order for municipal offices to scrap shorobune, they cannot accept other large trash for a certain period.
Masashi SADA and Shoronagashi
Shoronagashi is a very important event for people in Nagasaki City. Masashi SADA, a singer from Nagasaki, once heard about a story of many people who died worrying, 'Who would put me aboard a shorobune after my death?' after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.
Masashi SADA created the hit song "Shoronagashi" having been inspired by Shoronagashi after his cousin's death. Tourists who have a sad image connecting the song and well-known toronagashi (ceremony in which paper lanterns that are believed to bear the souls of the deceased are floated down a river) are often said to be surprised to see with their own eyes boisterous parades of Shoronagashi of Nagasaki exclaiming that it is so different from the song. Actually, Sada's lyrics includes 'Shoronagashi ga hanayakani' (spectacular Shoronagashi), and also his group's first album "Wasuremono" contains "Shoronagashi" which includes the sounds of firecrackers during its lead-in. Although he had intended to express sorrow behind the boisterous scenes, the anecdote above indicates how impressions of well-known events often overshadow the message.