Flying Off Wooden Posts at Tatemon

By Nancy Ngo

One of my favorite summer festivals reminds me how out of shape I am. This past August, I literally had an uphill battle to fight. Along the coast of Uozu in Toyama, I helped carry a ten-thousand pound wooden post decorated with paper lanterns for a local event called Tatemon.

Every year, some ALTs sign up to help out a local team. But last year, I attended the festival last year as an observer, but to be honest, watching sweaty men wipe the sweat from their foreheads and listening to children playing the flute was all I remembered from it.

This year, after our monthly API representative meanings, I felt ignorant that I didn’t know what the hell this event was celebrating. Yay, paper lanterns. Yay, cute children. Yay, people doing traditional things that they’ve been doing for years. But why? No clue.

So with the help of the Google gods, I learned that “Tatemon” is the actual name of the large post. It stands at around 16m high with lanterns hanging off it in a triangular sail-like shape. Also, did I mention it weighs around 10,000 pounds?

Approximately 300 years ago, the festival was an offering to the higher powers for a bountiful catch of fish and for safety when traversing the seas. The shape of the Tatemon represents offerings before an altar. In retrospect, it makes a lot of sense as our main stop is in front of a fisherman’s shrine called Suwa. Upon arrival, the men who trained for this event swing on the ropes hanging off the wooden post as the rest of the team spins them in a circle. You have to see it to understand. So, ignore my horrible description and look at the pictures and video!

Sometimes I forget how rich Japan’s history is. Festivals and customs passed down from generation to generation. The excitement never dwindling despite the potential of swamp butt and muscle spasms from pulling the rope the wrong way. (Not saying names.)

But seriously, the city I grew up in was established in 1870 and I swear, the only reason why I knew anything about it now is because of Wikipedia. Growing up, there was maybe one festival called Tết to celebrate the Vietnamese New Year or Lunar New Year for the Vietnamese enclave I grew up in. I had never attended the festival as a child because I was too focused on being Americanized. But the older I got, the more I started to dig into my identity and what it means to be a Vietnamese-American.

How many years did it take for Vietnamese Americans to celebrate Tết? Imagine the first Tết Festival alone in a different country after escaping a war-torn country. We have ONE festival and it took me 10 years to realize the momentous strides my immigrant parents and the Vietnamese community made. Later is better than never! My community has celebrated the Tet Festival for thirty years strong and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.

By participating in the Tatemon Festival, not only did I feel a deeper understanding of the collectivism and pride of Japanese culture, but also an immense appreciation for where I came from.