Tanabata Festival is perhaps one of the most import event for Rikuzentakata, a town about 500km north of Tokyo. Every summer for at least past hundred years locals from various communities came together and organized two festivals. Both festivals are involving with gigantic floats about three meters high with colourful decorations made out of papers to wrap around the entire wooden frame. On the day of Tanabata Matsuri, as it is called, larger groups paraded floats in the town centre while smaller groups on the other side of the town smashing their floats against each other. In the evening larger groups installed lights onto their floats for another run while seasoned musicians were sent to perform in the float. As drum beats fired up and cheering got louder, the event was brought to its climax.
For the festival of this scale to be materialized it requires work to be diversified to members of respective communities a month ahead. During which seniors, women and children are organized to take on the job. In addition to the decoration, musicians has to be chosen and make time to practice in order to perform in each float during the festival day.
On the afternoon of March 11, 2011 the magnitude 9 earthquake off the coast of Northeastern Japan brought a massive tsunami to the town. Seawalls on the coast was not high enough to fend off on coming waves and quickly toppled over. It devoured everything it sees; houses, shops, boats, and hundreds of residents who weren’t made in time to the safe ground. Naturally all floats for the festival, which had preserved for generations, were lost too. Few were still left unscathed, but many were either gone or severely damaged.
Despite the destruction, locals were determined to push ahead with the festival however they could. After all the origin of the festival is to commemorate spirits who are passed away. It is the very reason locals began to selvage whatever they could and got a scaled down version of Tanabata Festival 5 months after the disaster. Overtime, locals were able to rebuild the event close to its former glory with helps of volunteers from all over Japan.
With sharp declines of population since the disaster in 2011 and disappearing volunteers, communities were facing shortage of men powers to tend the floats. Younger generations, facing with job prospect were either relocating, or unable to join due to their work commitments. Older generations are spending less time with the festival preparation as their physical strength are in decline. Lack of participants has affected anything from float decoration to finding enough people to operate it. The situation is so dire in some communities that they were barely able to get the float out. Some residents realized the severity of the problem, began to pass down knowledges to youths ahead of the schedule so that the transition will not be disrupted. In doing so they are also hoping that the network these youths are having may bringing others from the area to participate. So far these effort have met with some successes. Youths in some communities began to form a core group during the preparation period and are eager to take on the task as they understood the importance of the tradition. As a local youth said during the event:
“It’s grateful that we had volunteers come and helped us out since the disaster…but it’s time to take the matter into our own hands…”