Japanese History - Ee Janai ka ええじゃないか
by Philippa Bacon
Hurriedly and garishly cross-dressed in clothes of the opposite sex, you are steaming drunk on sake, staggering, your hastily applied crimson make-up smudged by sweating hands, but, "what the hell?", you reach out and thrust your palms on to the pair of swaying hips and buttocks arched just in front of you.
A young girl dressed as an old man, a charcoaled moustache roughly sketched on her upper lip stumbles towards you, pushing you in the back, propelling you on again.
You stagger forward as more unknown and eager hands fasten on your waist. You are part of a crowd, a crowd seemingly with a mind and a will of its own, separate from you but containing, absorbing you completely.
You conga madly on, slipping on the tatami of the inn as the party, accompanied by loud drumming, piercing whistles, flutes, and the rough twang of a shamisen, lifts its voice: Ee janai ka....ee janai ka!
You hear your own voice chanting hoarsely in unison: Ee janai ka....ee janai ka! You free your hands and beat out the rhythm on the full rump of the woman ahead of you, jig out through the door, feet splaying to the mad beat of the dance and tumble into the street with your inebriated group of revelers. You lose your shoe in the crush. Ee janai ka.... (i.e., "What the hell!", "Who gives a damn!", "Whatever you like!") ee janai ka....!
It may sound like a millennium party, and it was. It felt like the end of the world, and it was. It was October 1867 in downtown Kyoto.
As a city Kyoto is no stranger to festivals and raucous behavior, but this party was different. It had started over a week previously when mysterious paper talismans had floated down from the sky and the carousing, drinking and feasting had continued non-stop ever since, paralysing the commercial and entertainment districts of Teramachi, Pontocho and Gion.
Thousands of revelers, many of them wearing the clothes of the opposite sex, surged through the narrow streets of the capital. Men wearing kimono masqueraded as women, women cross-dressed as men in a drunken orgy of transvestitism, dance and music, accompanied by the constant refrain of ee janai ka.... ee janai ka....! What the hell!... What the hell!...
The lucky charms or ofudari were variously marked: most with the name of Ise Shrine and Amaterasu, the sun goddess, but some were labelled with the names of local sake brewers and storekeepers. The paper ofuda or amulets were not the only things reported to have fallen from the clear autumn skies in an area stretching from Hiroshima in the west to Yokohama in the east, including Awaji Island and Tokushima in Shikoku during the period between autumn 1867 and early 1868. There were various accounts of falling coins, stones and masks even human heads, hands, as well as feet!
The 1860s were a dramatic period of economic uncertainty and political violence throughout Japan. The Tokugawa shogunate and opposing han (i.e. provincial) forces, mainly from Choshu and Satsuma, were involved in a potentially explosive stand-off centered on the Imperial capital.
Reformer Sakamoto Ryoma 1836-1867 had recently been murdered in an inn on Kawaramachi during the period of the ee janai ka revels and tensions were running high.
Foreigners had arrived in modern warships and had begun to have an effect on business and trade. The harvests of 1865 and 1866 had been particularly bad and led to a number of revolts, or ikki, in both town and country as rice and soy prices had more than tripled.
1867 had subsequently seen better farm yields plus lower prices and may have helped to fuel the party atmosphere among the common people that developed in late 1868.
The mid-nineteenth century in Japan also saw the rise of millenarian sects such as Tenrikyo and Konkokyo with their offers of salvation in the midst of the maelstrom that the country was caught up in.
The strange phenomenon of thousands of revelers partying non-stop for weeks on end throughout the towns and villages of central Japan was linked to the uncertain future that lay ahead for everyone.
The vulgar obscenity, wild drunken dancing and cross-dressing was a symbolic form of social protest against the status quo. The strident and garish ee janai ka dancing was a way for ordinary people to release their tensions in this period of uncertainty and flux and can be seen as a popular call for social transformation and a new order or yonaoshi.
What to do surrounded by all this insidious upheaval and potential for danger? Hey, what the hell? Dress up, get drunk and party.....ee janai ka?
The extended parties were by and large peaceful, although boisterous and inebriated, and did not target any particular group, though some unpopular merchants may have had their warehouses ransacked during the disturbances.
Foreigners, when encountered, were jostled and sometimes ridiculed rather than intentionally harmed. British consular translators Ernest Satow and Algernon Mitford both encountered the happy fanatics on a number of occasions in Osaka and were amazed at the size of the crowds and their exuberance, mistakenly thinking they were celebrating the opening of the ports of Osaka and Kobe to the foreigners.
Satow's journal captures some of the bizarre nature of the events: "Crowds of people in holiday garb, dancing and singing "ii janai ka, ii janai ka" [Editors's note: the 'ee' - pronounced like an extended 'eh' - of 'ee janai ka' is a 'downtown' pronunciation of the standard 'ii'] ...houses decorated with rice cakes in all colours, oranges, little bags, straw and flowers. The dresses worn were chiefly red crape, a few blue and purple. Many of the dancers carried red lanterns on their heads." The Japanese film director, Imamura Shohei's 1981 film Eijanaika is also evocative of the social protest inherent in the dances and the wider random violence, greed and dislocation of the bakumatsu period.
Most outside observers would judge the Japanese as a restrained, reserved, even a controlled people, so the wild, spontaneous and orgiastic nature of the ee janai ka outbursts seem somehow out of character.
The revelers refused to comply with orders from the authorities to cease their bacchanalian partying and instead turned their rhythmic chants into anti-bakufu slogans.
Indeed, the events in Kyoto did not come to an end until the shogun had resigned and left town for Osaka.
The ee janai ka agitations were a strong popular expression of dissent and dissatisfaction with the political and economic chaos and uncertainty of the times and certainly helped to bring about the changes that occurred from 1868 onwards. What the hell! ee janai ka!
A version of this article was first published in Kansai Time Out magazine