It’s no wonder that everyone who sees the Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival thinks it’s terrific. Older men clad in business suits who seem so tired of life, and young people too, seem to become suddenly transformed when they don the happi coat. More than the loincloth, the hand towels whose colors and patterns denote different roles, the geta and tabi, and the kakinawa hanging from the waist, the happi coat makes the difference for the men.
Two types of happi coats are used. One is called the mizu happi, and is worn by those who actually pull the floats. The name is derived from the drenching of water they take to cool them off during their labors. The mizu happi is white with the name of the wearer’s group and neighborhood dyed into the fabric. It’s fastened tightly in the front to enable others to quickly grasp the back of the coat of those who have fallen and set them on their feet again.
The other is the stylish toban happi, also called the naga happi, with an eye-catching design placed on kurume kasuri. This is proper attire throughout the town from June 1 until the end of the festival. It is a distinctive Hakata trait that it can be worn at weddings, funerals and in hotel lobbies during this period. There are now about 52 varieties of mizu happi and about 54 types of toban happi. Despite their number, however, they are a relatively new development. Judging from pictures dating back to the Edo period (1603-1868), the men were bare-chested and wore only loincloths. As more people followed Western customs during the Meiji period, however, some thought the practice should be ended because it was unsightly to run around half-naked. The problem was even discussed in the local assembly.
Another problem that arose in 1898 was the height of the floats. The decorative floats, which were also pulled through the streets, were so tall they frequently cut overhead electrical wires. The Hakatans solved these problems by reducing the height of the floats, separating them into those pulled through the streets and those used for decoration, and having the men wear happi coats. The Yamakasa has changed with the times. Don’t you think the use of fashion and design to effect those changes has made the event more attractive?
Originally published in Fukuoka Now magazine (fn127, Jul. 2009)