This photo was taken by Ito Jintaro in around 1930, and these are people who were living in the Iwakura district of Nakatsugawa village in those days. The setting is Iwakura “bunko”, which was later rebuilt to serve as Iwakura’s community center. A bunko was a branch of a main school. Children used the bunko during the winter when a commute to the main school becomes very challenging.
Nakatsugawa gets its first snow in around mid-November, or sometimes earlier. All the hard farm work of the summer and autumn is over. But more work will soon follow because the snow will have to be cleared again and again. November is possibly the month with the least amount of physical activity, but traditionally it is one of the most important months for the community because it is when the local men and women observe important customs that have been passed down for generations.
They’re called Keiyaku (契約) and Omiya-ko (大宮講).
A man participating in Keiyaku is recognized as a representative member of the community. In each settlement, the Keiyaku group used to be called as the young people’s group (若者組), as a boy from each household would join when he was 15 years old and stay with the group until he was 25. The ceiling was raised to 42 years in the mid-20th century and today, because there are so few young people, some participants are in their 60s and 70s.
The young people of that time had great power in the village. Their activities included the building and maintenance of roads, weirs and bridges, protection of the village in the event of fire or flood, policing the community, and managing festivals and performing arts at temples and shrines.
The Keiyaku group was also a forum for young people to learn from their seniors about maintaining order in the village, supporting the community, and appropriate values to guide what they did in everyday life. The Keiyaku group mentored their development. Some of the rules they upheld were written down, but many would have been shared in person at their annual gatherings (and in everyday life).
In the Shimoyachi district of Nakatsugawa, the Keiyaku rules from the first year of Kyōwa era (1801) included such details as, “If there is a death in the community, do not delay making a visit to express condolences.” The rules would vary from district to district and be updated to suit the needs of the time.
The women would gather in the Omiya-ko group. Omiya Shrine in Oguni, the town next to Nakatsugawa in Yamagata Prefecture, is officially called Omiya Koyasuryo Shrine. It has long been a tradition for women to pray there for safe childbirth. Omiya-ko formed around the wishes of young women to visit the shrine for this purpose. But just like the Keiyaku group, one person from each household would participate and an annual meeting would be held.
The participants would be mostly younger women, and a young bride would typically replace an older woman from the same household as Omiya-ko representative. In the Osodani district a woman would join until she got married, but this was exceptional. At the annual gathering, everyone would pray before a map showing Omiya Koyasuryo shrine. The map would be lent to any household where a baby was due, in the hope that the baby would be delivered safely. This was in the days when no medical services were available and childbirth was often accompanied by tragedy.
Here are some photos of Omiya Koyasuryo Shrine in Oguni that I took in November 2020.