Tatémaé (建前), also known as jotoshiki (上棟式) or munéagé (棟上), and not to be confused with the more familiar meaning of the same Japanese word (建前or sometimes 立前: one’s public face as opposed to one’s real feelings or opinions), is a traditional Shinto ritual to bless a newly built house and, presumably, the people who will live in it. It is not such a common practice these days, as evidenced by a somewhat cursory entry in Japanese Wikipedia, but a tetemae was held at Mrs M’s family home when it was built (ie. several years before she was born), and the tatémaé to which we were invited last weekend was to be the first she herself had attended for at least a decade.
Mrs M’s mother has about ten brothers and sisters, so there is no shortage of cousins to go round, and one of them has been through something of an upheaval of late. Apparently, the cousin’s husband moved out of the house they shared with their two children and her parents, although their differences now appear to have been patched up, because, like many other Japanese families, rather than buying a house second hand, as it were, they have bought the land instead and are building on it, with the help of one or two relatives who also happen to work in the building trade.
We drove to the parents’ house early on Sunday afternoon, and spent half an hour being plied with food and drink (unfortunately, we had just eaten a hearty home-cooked lunch with Mrs M’s parents, and left most of it untouched). In his broad Ibaraki accent, grandad regaled us with tales of his round-the-world trip on a tuna fishing boat (‘When I went to South Africa,’ he said, ‘I couldn’t even go for a beer! There was a sign on the door saying, “No one with yellow skin allowed”!’ – apparently, the children and grandchildren have heard the same story on numerous occasions), and teased Mrs M about the fact that she hasn’t been tough enough to stick it out in the UK, and is dragging me back to Japan with her. Then at around three o’clock, wrapped up against the cold in coats, gloves and hats, we drove the kilometre or so along the road to his daughter and son-in-law’s new home.
Tatémaé takes place not when the building is ready to be lived in, as I had supposed, but when its wooden frame has been completed, and it is still possible to stand on what will later become the first floor, with no walls as yet to obstruct the view. When we arrived, a rudimentary flagpole was being erected on the uppermost roof beam – the erection of which is the signal for tatémaé to begin – and approximately twenty-five cardboard boxes of various shapes and sizes were being lifted one by one via a ladder to the first floor. By now a large crowd had gathered – getting on for a hundred people, by my reckoning – some of them relatives, some friends, some neighbours, and others simply curious passers by.
A friend of Mrs M’s told us later that the god being appeased on the occasion of a tatémaé is female, and would be offended by the presence in the house of other women, so only men and boys had been allowed to climb the ladder, at the top of which a large bottle of sake was being opened. Some of its contents were sprayed, champagne-like, over the the timber frame of the house (one or two of the men also had a quick tipple), but besides this there were no prayers or religious rites, just the flinging of the entire contents of all those boxes into the waiting crowd. Children had been allowed to stand at the front, with the rest of us slightly further back, everyone carried in their hands a bag of some sort, and what ensued was a complete free-for-all. No quarter was given by anyone, from the youngest elementary school child to the oldest grandparent, with everyone thrusting their hands in the air to catch whatever was flying through it, and then scrambling about on the bare earth to grab whatever had not been caught – everything from rice cakes hand made by the family the previous day, to instant noodles, sweets, crisps, biscuits, even coins. At one point, I looked around from taking a photo to see a boy of perhaps ten years old lying on the bare earth and groaning. He appeared to have been hit in the head – either by a flying projectile or a flailing limb – and it took several seconds before anyone could drag their attention away from the festivities for long enough to check that he wasn’t seriously injured (he was up and about again minutes later, bag in hand and hungry for more freebies).
Variations of tatémaé involve the erection of a small, temporary shrine on the unfinished building, but Mrs M’s relatives knew what their public wanted, and that it’s a lot more fun to get stuck in and grab a load of free food than it is to waste time saying prayers. The only thing I could compare it to was a festival that used to be held in my home town, whereby a select group of middle school children – I was invited to attend just once – was led to a spot on the main street where a local stream known as the leat gurgled up from the gutter like a lonely water feature. Here, after a few boring speeches, possibly by the mayor and a headmaster or two, a shower of coppers – half-pee, one-pence and two-pence pieces – was thrown into the crowd of children and fought over until they had all been claimed. In the aforementioned Wikipedia entry, something called ‘topping out’ is mentioned as a British tradition that serves the same purpose as tatémaé, but the wholesale gift giving of the latter seems to be peculiarly Japanese, and if nothing else, serves as a pretty good way of ingratiating yourself with your new neighbours.
Having taken a few photographs, I waded into the fray for the final few minutes, and managed to snatch a couple of bags of crisps, a few rice cakes and some satsumas (which were thrown with rather less ferocity by a group of women at ground level), and discovered that Mrs M had accumulated quite a haul. At one point, she said, a somewhat unyielding box of curry stock cubes had hit her on the head, and she in turn had lashed out unwittingly with a swipe of the hand at a nearby OAP, but both of them appeared to be happy and injury free, so it was a successful day all round. Once the last cardboard box had been emptied, the men and boys came down from the first floor of the building, the crowd began to disperse, and the next day, work would begin in earnest on applying some flesh to the bones of this half-finished but now fully blessed house.