Ritual is too often equated with unvarying or repetitive behavior. This impression is encouraged by the ethnographic tendency toward an overly narrow time frame, which highlights current relationships and conditions rather than long-term developments.
The Rousing Drum takes a different view. It adopts a historical perspective encompassing several hundred years in exploring the role of ritual as an effective medium for negotiating sociopolitical and economic change.
The setting is Furukawa, a town located in Japan's mountainous interior. Every spring the local Shinto shrine festival provides an opportunity for enacting social relationships and attitudes. By day, a portable shrine containing the spirit of the guardian deity is escorted through town in a stately procession. At night, however, a different scenario unfolds. A barrel-shaped drum is borne through the nighttime streets on a massive grid-like platform. Prominent members of the community are obliged to ride upon the platform, while teams of young adults rush out and attack it as it passes through their respective neighborhoods. The action can become quite unruly, and random fights and injuries are accepted as inevitable correlates.
In analyzing the festival over time, Schnell reveals a dramatic transformation. The drum ritual, which originated as a minor preliminary to the other events, emerged during the late 1800s as an occasion for airing hostilities and settling scores. As Japan's modernization progressed, the ritual performance came to embody a symbolic challenge to institutionalized authority, and occasionally escalated into politically motivated violence. While the religious ceremonies observed during the day were appropriated by local power holders, the nighttime drum ritual represented a folk response to the officially sanctioned liturgy. The festival as a whole thus represented the clash of competing ideologies within the context of a single public forum. Today's ritual, rather tame by comparison, is being transformed into a tourist attraction aligned with the town's economic development objectives.
Schnell's careful examination of the ethnohistorical data offers a valuable new perspective on Japanese festivals as well as the events and conditions that influence their development. His innovative look at ritual behavior over time persuades us that we can grasp the underlying significance of such activities only if we consider them within the context of larger historical patterns.