On a cold February morning in Tokyo several years ago, I watched as a
few dozen women, some young and many older, gathered at the Sensoji
Temple in Asakusa to pay their respects and offer prayers. Contrary
to expectations, the atmosphere at this memorial service was not at
all sombre – no dark clothes for mourning; each of the attendees was
clad in an exquisite, beautifully coloured kimono. The mood seemed
respectful, but almost jovial. The ladies – seamstresses and embroiderers– had turned out not to farewell an old friend, but the used and broken
tools of their trade: bent needles and pins, ready to be retired after
months of faithful service.
I was witnessing the annual practice of hari-kuyo, the “memorial service
for needles”; a quirky Japanese festival which has been celebrated
for about four hundred years. I had read about the festival a week
beforehand, in the Japan National Tourist Organization’s monthly list
of festivals and events; having missed fude-kuyo – a similar memorial
service for used writing instruments, such as brushes and pencils – only
weeks earlier, I had decided that hari-kuyo was a must-see.
Kuyo – a Japanese translation of the Sanskrit puja – is a Buddhist rite
of ceremonial prayer or offering, to calm and honour the spirits of the
deceased. With or without religious overtones, kuyo is a particularly
significant part of spiritual culture in Japan, where the Buddhist aspects
of kuyo blend with traditional Shinto animist beliefs, according to which
all things – both living beings and inanimate objects – possess a soul
and spirit; hence the respectful repose of many thousands of used
needles and pins.
There are various ideas on the origin of hari-kuyo. According to one
theory, it is thought to have originated in a similar Chinese practice,
which was introduced to Japan and spread from Awashima Shrine in
Wakayama. Awashima Shrine is, to this day, famous in Japan for harikuyo.
Another legend from northern Japan tells of a woman who was
bullied by her daughter-in-law, and threw herself into the sea on after
being falsely accused of having stolen some needles. Today, in some
households where there is a daughter who does needlework, no sewing
will be done if the sea has been rough the day before, and a form of kuyo will be performed instead.
On the day of the memorial service – 8 February throughout most
of Japan, but 8 December in much of the Kansai region and western
Japan – seamstresses and embroiderers take a day of rest from their
craft, and bring their used, bent and broken needles and pins to their
temple or shrine. As they pay their respects, their needles and pins are stuck upright into blocks of tofu or konnyaku (a kind of edible jelly
made from a plant-based flour). Tofu and konnyaku are used because
of their soft texture; which is thought to soothe the needles after their
labour, effectively wrapping them with tenderness and gratitude. A
priest incants a sutra, marking the needles’ passage from use, and offers
a blessing, which is thought to rub off on the person who has made the
offering. The essence of hari-kuyo is to honour the needles for their hard
work, give thanks for their service over the preceding year, and also to
pray for improved needlework skills in the future.
The used needles and pins are often sent to Awashima Shrine, where
they are then laid to rest. In some regions, the blocks of tofu and
konnyaku, with their pins sticking out, are farewelled by being floated
down a river.
Like many older traditions, hari-kuyo has seen a decline in popularity
as society has become more modern. As fashions have changed, the
kimono has ceased to be an item of everyday wear, and needle use has
fallen accordingly. Whereas many years ago needles were an important
tool, and needlework was seen as an essential skill that all women had
to learn before marrying, needlework is today seen more as a hobby or a
craft than a profession, and many women no longer use needles or learn
how to sew.
On this particular winter day in 2000, the few dozen women were
outnumbered by curious onlookers – both foreign tourists such as
myself, and Japanese people who were not familiar with this tradition.
As I watched the mainly older women bending over the metal trays of
tofu, heads bowed in prayer, I found myself wondering how many more
had come to pay their respects in the past, and how few would in future.