It’s a four hundred year old festival. And it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen anywhere before. Even for Tokyo it takes some beating in the weird stakes.
As always for these sort of events, getting hard info. was a bit of a struggle. The place was a given. Behind the main temple hall of Senso-ji, but timings were harder to come by. 10.20 and 14.20 said the man at the tourist information desk in Asakusa. We wondered on by at 12.00 just to see what was happening, and it seemed to be in full swing. Babies. Proud parents. Sumo wrestlers. A handful of referees.
The babies were dressed in their cutest best., paraded as mini sumos with headcloths and aprons. Safe in the arms of mum. Smiling and gurgling. But wait, what’s mum doing? She hands her baby to a great hulk of a guy – so big he could crush her child with one of the hands he holds it in. Baby looks bewildered. The sumo cradles the baby in one hand-palm, suprisingly tender. A real-life Beauty and the Beast. On the opposite side of the ring, another wrestler does the same with another baby. The contest is about to begin. The origins of this bizarre practice apparently date back to an old proverb ‘Naku ko wa sodatsu’ – crying babies grow fat.
The sumos squat and acknowledge each other, babies dangling on knees. They bow with a nod of the head, a gesture of respect – even in this comical, farcical situation there is respect. Then the men break apart, and start jiggling and rocking the babies. They peer into their faces. The babies eyes grow wide as saucers. Lips tremble. The assembled crowd shout loudly, ‘naki, naki, naki’* and laugh as the babies bawl, screw up their little fists and scream. The louder and longer baby cries the better. And if baby doesn’t cry, the big guns are bought in – men with traditional masks peer into their little faces, and might make faces or loud noises.
Even the toughest baby crumbles eventually.
It’s all for their own good. Done to ward off evil spirits, celebrate the growth of the baby and pray for it’s good health.
Baby has yet to be convinced.
* ‘cry, cry, cry’.
Held at the high point of spring to coincide with Children’s Day celebrations in May.