Nagasaki Kunchi Festival


Nagasaki Kunchi, the autumn festival of Suwa Shinto Shrine, is renowned as one of the three great festivals of Japan. The word kunchi is said to be derived from the word kyunichi, or "shrine day." Another theory ascribes the origin to ku'nichi or "ninth day," referring to the auspicious ninth day of the ninth month (Oct. 9 on the modern calendar). The highlight of the original festival (began as a dedication to the deities of Suwa Shinto Shrine in 1634) was Noh drama, a feature that it shared with many other festivals around Japan. But after a devastating fire in 1857, Nagasaki Kunchi became a "new" festival in which the participating neighborhoods were free to innovate and to compete with each other in creating opulent and eye-catching performances. The result is the stunning array of presentations we see today, many of which reflect the international color and unique history of Nagasaki.

Dutch East India Co. employees (upper left) enjoy the presentations of the Kunchi Festival (section of a Byobu screen at Fukiro Restaurant)

Reinier Hesselink's paper The Dutch and the Kunchi festival of Nagasaki in the Seventeenth Century describes the relationship of the Dutch with the Kunchi festival. An excerpt:

The Kunchi festival of Nagasaki was first celebrated in 1634. As this date indicates, the festival was originally part of the bakufu policy to forge a Yamato spirit for Nagasaki, which up to 1614 had been Japan's only Christian town. In other words, the Kunchi festival started out as an anti-Christian festival, in which the anti-Christian forces in Nagasaki: the bakufu, Shinto, Buddhism and the brothel wards all joined hands to provide an alternative to the famous Easter processions, which had been performed throughout the city during the Christian period (1570-1614).

From entries in the Daghregister of a fifty-year period between 1641 and 1692, I will trace the development of the relationship of the Dutch with the Kunchi festival as it grew under bakufu tutelage during the seventeenth century. By the time Kaempfer arrived in Japan in 1690, it had become an "established tradition" for the Dutch to attend the festival. On most representations of the festival we see, therefore, a place in the viewing stands reserved for the Dutch.

The full paper is available from the author (


It's amazing to see how similar today's festival is to the pictures and stories from centuries ago. I witnessed the 2000 edition of this festival (October 7-9).

A few days before the start of the festival I already noticed all the preparations being made in the city. At the Suwa shrine, the main location, a big viewing stand was being build, and camera teams were installing their equipment. In the hotel and at the visitors desk at the train station I was told that it was impossible to get tickets for the performances at the Suwa shrine.

Despite that, I decided to go to the Suwa shrine on the first morning of the festival. The performances already had started, and I tried to get closer to the action, along the stairs leading to the shrine. My Dutch length in comparison to the height of the average Japanese was big advantage that day!

Finally reaching the top of the stairs, I could see the presentations very well. The music during the performnces makes it even more increadible. The whole event was broadcasted live by several television stations.

After each presentation the participants leave the area via the stairs, leading down to the city. A great opportunity to see everything from a very close distance.

In the afternoon the various groups can be found throughout the central part of Nagasaki, holding informal performances (called niwasaki mawari).

The train stration proved to be the best place to get a good view on all the performances I had missed at the Suwa Shrine. These presentations were dedicated to the chief of the station, who you can see sitting on the right of the picture. He seemed very excited!


The following are the seven neigborhoods making presentations at the 2000 Nagasaki Kunchi festival:

The neighborhood around Hachiman Shinto Shrine near the confluence of Nakashima and Nishiyama Rivers was renamed Yahata-machi in 1680. The presentation is the iwaibune ("celebration ship") and kenmai ("sword dance") featuring a female dance troupe wielding samurai swords. The packs of arrows on the ship allude to the itinerant priests and ship captains that were the theme of performances in the past.

Nishihama-machi was built on land reclaimed from the sea in 1671 (the area around present-day Stella-za Theater) and flourished later as a landing dock (as the name "West Beach Quarter indicates) and as one of Nagasaki's busiest merchant districts. The presentation is the jabune ("dragon ship"), which includes a Chinese-style dance recounting the true story of the Vietnamese princess Anio who arrived in Nagasaki in 1619 with Cleopatra-like splendor to marry the wealthy Nagasaki trader Araki Sotaro.

Located south of Nagasaki Station, Goto-machi received its name from the fact that a large number of Christians from the Goto Islands took refuge there during a rebellion in the islands in 1576. During the Edo Period it was the site of the yashiki or headquarters of several Kyushu clans.. For the first time this year, Goto-machi will present jaodori ("dragon dance"), adding still another name to the list of neighborhoods that specialize in the Kunchi Festival's most popular and well known presentation.

Currently the site of the Nagasaki District Court and other public institutions in the neighborhood across the street from the prefecture offices, Manzai-machi is comprised of the former Hokaura-machi and other quarters built soon after the opening of Nagasaki port for trade in 1571. The present name, which is an altered form of the "banzai" cheer, was adopted to commemorate the visit of Emperor Meiji to Nagasaki in 1872. The Kunchi presentation is Japanese dance.

As its name ("Malt Shop Quarter") indicates, Kojiya-machi was traditionally a center for the production of koji, the malted grain used in miso and other traditional foods and drinks. It is one of a series of neighborhoods squeezed between Nakashima River and the Nakadori shopping street. The Kunchi presentation is the kawabune ("river boat"), which is of course related to the neighborhood's location along Nakashima River and its traditional use of the river as a transportation artery.

Located on the promontory between Nagasaki City Hall and the Prefecture Office, Kozen-machi was named after the wealthy Hakata merchant Kozen Zennyu who took up residence here in the late 16th century. The presentation is Japanese dance with hints of kabuki influence.

Ginya-machi (literally "Silver Shop Quarter") gets its name, like many other old Nagasaki neighborhoods, from the profession of many of its traditional residents. The presentation is the shachi-daiko, a combination of a powerful drum performance and a float embellished with a shachi, a legendary golden fish often used as a motif on castle roof tiles (not "killer whale" as the word means in modern Japanese). This float is carried after the style of the kokkodesho, like the dragon dance one of the most dynamic and popular performances of the Kunchi Festival.


The full set of (digital) pictures I took during the festival can be found at: