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  • Photography: Cameron Allan Mckean

Coded Symbols at War / Kite Fighting

, 2015/07/16

There is a single kite remaining, flying alone above Hamamatsu. As it is reeled back in, it looms over the last spectators, transforming itself into an imposing object, powerful and alive — floating nearby it seems more than an assemblage of bamboo and paper. But what about a bigger kite, one as big as an island, or an archipelago? In 1900, Kyoto philosopher Keiji Nishitani imagined just that: Japan as a kite. He was searching for an analogy to describe how the country could navigate the unsettling winds of modernity, and felt tradition was the string that would ensure the kite wouldn’t become “lost … unbalanced” as it was buffeted. “By giving the string a pull whenever difficulties arise,” he wrote, “(Japan) has avoided being lost altogether.” In Hamamatsu, the “string” of tradition is being pulled in many directions. “This is the biggest problem,” says Naoto Oishi, who runs a festival shop in the center of town, where people can buy clothes for the annual kite-fighting festival. Unlike many other festivals in the country, this one has no clear leadership or organizing body, no ties to Buddhism or Shinto and little government funding — each local district funds their own kite team. “But our generation is no longer in control,” says Oishi, “It’s up to the younger people now to decide what kind of leadership they want to have. The new generation is so different — I don’t know where Japan is heading.” I see Nishitani’s archipelago-sized kite, flying further off into the distance. Oishi says that in the 1980s there were about 60 kite teams and that now there are more than 170. The battles in his youth were manageable, but in today’s kite-fights there is “rope everywhere.” Urban migration from surrounding rural areas has resulted in Hamamatsu’s population more than doubling over the past 50 years, and many of these new districts want to participate in the festival. “There’s just so many people — maybe too many,” he says. At this point a customer walks into his modest shop and our interview stops. A man has come in with a thick cotton happi (festival coat), embroidered with the symbol of his local district. He is a kite fighter, who wants the deep rope-burn marks on the coat (in some places the ropes have burned right through the cotton) mended in time for the next festival. Feeling nostalgic, Oishi digs out old books filled with photographs of kite fighters wearing their happi during festivals in the ’70s and ’80s, and reminisces: “When I was a baby my dad made a kite for me and flew it at the festival. And when my son was born I made a kite for him, too,” he says, turning to rummage around in a drawer filled with old festival coats.

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