Asakusa Nakizumo: Tokyo's Crying Baby Festival

Photo of James Gates
17 August 2018

As William Shakespeare once wrote: “When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.” And there is an awful lot of crying among the newly-born contestants on stage at the Asakusa Nakizumo festival in Tokyo.

Every Spring, around the Golden Week holiday, parents look on in eager anticipation as their offspring participate in one of the city’s most unique celebrations, at which toddlers borne aloft by Sumo wrestlers compete to see who can cry the loudest.

To people in the West, the thought of intentionally making babies cry is one that seems absurd or possibly even cruel, but closer inspection will reveal that the event has an interesting history rooted in tradition. The festival itself is believed to go back at least 400 years.

And central to its philosophy is an old Japanese saying: “Naku ko wa sodatsu”, which roughly translates as “Crying babies grow well”. This expression is in keeping with the concept of gaman, a Zen buddhist belief in the importance of endurance and stoicism as a form of virtue.

Very upset baby

The event at Sensoji Temple in Asakusa begins with the competitors all entering the dohyō or sumo ring, held by a parent. Afterwards, mum or dad is given a charm or blessing and also a Chamaki dumpling. Usually, Japanese spiritual dogma means that normally, no women are permitted in the ring as it is sacred (God is believed to be buried underneath), but as the event is not categorised as religious, mums and infant daughters are welcome to step inside it.

Competing infants are then brought inside the ring to face off against one other. The first one to cry, or cry loudest, is declared the winner. Some of the competitors start bawling of their own free will, but those that don’t are given some gentle encouragement. The referee will wave and shout at them, alternatively they might be the subject of some affectionate jostling by a wrestler. If that fails, there is no choice but to break out the last-resort; Oni (or ‘demon’) masks which will hopefully startle the children just enough to get them to turn on the waterworks.

Crying baby standoff

The spirit of the event is such that any of the babies who cry are not seen as distressed or upset but instead as loud, healthy infants whose prowess in the ring is an auspicious sign as they develop through childhood into adults. Also, some parents use it as a chance to give their offspring the first taste of life as a Sumo competitor, in the hopes they might one day develop an interest in the sport.

There are 160 entrants taking part each year, selected by lottery. For parents, the event is seen as both a fun family day out but also as a opportunity to bless their child and give it a head start. It is believed that if a baby is cradled by a Sumo wrestler, they will be healthy for the rest of his life andgrow up to be a strong child. One parent attending, speaking to Culture Trip, said: “Asakusa Nakizumo is pretty famous, so I thought if I had a child I would definitely like to let him try it. I came because I I hope my child will grow healthy and strong.”

Crying Baby

One of the monks working at the temple said: “Many people ask: ‘Why would you make a baby cry?’ Especially foreigners. Sometimes the Japanese tourists who come to watch the event ask the same thing.” We explain that the event is based on a saying that we have in Japan – ‘A child who cries a lot will grow strong and healthy’. I think it is important people understand where it is all coming from.”

“The father, the mother, the grandparents from both sides, they all seem to enjoy coming. It is truly a family event, sometimes even with all the other relatives. Everyone comes to the event and has a good time.”

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