Last year, a newspaper asked me to provide input on a project that was causing them some problems. The article was intended to look at dangerous festivals in Japan – why they happen and why people participate. It focused on four festivals in the country which posed serious danger to the participants – indeed, it was not unknown for people to be killed during them.
The aim of the article was to find out why the Japanese participate in dangerous festivals, even at the risk of their lives. The presenters chosen were members of a cult performance group called the Tokyo Shock Boys – specialists in doing dangerous performances on stage. The original idea was that these dangerous performers might have a hidden insight into what makes the Japanese participate in dangerous festivals.
Given the nature of the presenters chosen to get an inside view of some extremely old and traditional festivals, one might have assumed that there would have been more serious barriers to acceptance than happi coats.
I was asked to help with the project when it became evident that one of the basic premises of the article was mistaken. The Shock Boys had no particular insight into dangerous festivals. In fact, they weren’t particularly brave or keen on participating in the more life-threatening elements of the festivals. Their manager followed them around like a bloodhound, anxious that his performers might get injured and his income would disappear with them. But most importantly, the Shock Boys were not joining in and getting meaningful content out of the filming or out of the people they were supposed to be interacting with.
It then became evident that one reason they were not participating fully was because of what they were wearing. We were forced to become conscious of the importance of the happi as a uniform piece of clothing shared by the participants in neighbourhood groups in the festival which was crucial in getting our presenters access into the group.
We became increasingly aware of who wears what in festivals, and why, and what happens if you are not wearing the correct attire. In particular, it led us to question why uniforms were so important in the festival and, by extension, why uniforms are so common and prominent in Japan as a whole.
Table of Contents
The article was to follow four festivals. The first was the Ombashira Log Festival, in which participants rode enormous logs down a steep hillside, often getting crushed in the process. Up to forty people might be sliding along on, next to, or (in extreme cases) under the giant log.
Second was the Toyohashi Tezutsuhanabi Festival, where participants let off fireworks held tight against their bodies.
Third was the Kishiwada Danjiri Festival, where teams of up to 500 men pull giant two-tonne floats through the city streets, manouevering them around 90-degree corners at breakneck speed. The float moves at an incredible pace and it has no brakes. Most alarming, as the float hurtles along, several highly honoured young men stand on the roof, dancing and jumping about. The floats often knock chunks off the buildings as it turns corners, and the dancers often fall off the top.
The fourth festival was the Konomiya Naked Man Festival, which takes place on January 13 of the lunar calendar and has been held since AD 767, in the Nara period. A local resident is selected to be a Holy Man for the festival, and he prepares by purifying himself for three days and three nights, eating only rice and pickles and flanked always by two former Holy Men. He shaves all the hair from his body, which is said to get him further in communion with the gods.
At the climax of the festival, thousands of participants crowd into the area in front of the temple. They are all wearing nothing but loincloths. The Holy Man is released into the crowd, all of whom try to touch him, which is said to dispel bad luck. The Holy Man is completely naked, which represents his purity, ridding himself of worldly defilements.
In former times, the Holy Man was a traveller or passerby, seized and unwillingly made holy. On the third day he was ejected from the town, symbolically bearing the calamities of the town in his person, like a scapegoat. The modern festival still concludes with a re-enactment of this, as the Holy Man – battered and bruised from being mobbed by thousands of men in loincloths – symbolically walks out of the town, taking its misfortune with him.
Apart from the Naked Man Festival (for obvious reasons), participants at all these festivals wear a uniform known generically as happi. Happi are short kimono “coats” or jackets, usually in a plain colour such as blue or white, with an insignia on the lapels and on the back. They may have originated as uniforms for shopkeepers, who had the name of their shop printed on the back. Alternatively, they may have developed from firemen’s jackets. In seventeenth-century Japan, these were made up of several layers of thick cotton sewn together, with the insignia of the district marked on the back, and they were soaked in water as protection against sparks. Finally, another possibility is that the developed from the uniforms of domestic staff in great feudal houses. They, again, would have had insignia with the name of the household on the backs of their uniforms.
Today, happi are still found as uniforms in some contexts. Shop workers, such as those in sushi shops, may wear happi with the name of their shop on the back. Most striking are the happi of baseball fans, with whole crowds of fans all in identical happi bearing their team’s colours and insignia.
In all of these contexts, the happi is a uniform, and I believe its use in festivals as an unvarying clothing for members of a specific group warrants it being regarded as a uniform in that context too. In the case of the Naked Man Festival, no happi was involved, since everyone wore loincloths instead. But here again, loincloths function in the same way as uniforms – and a much older kind than happi, since that festival has been held for 1,200 years.
The Shock Boys and uniforms
As the filming of the documentary progressed, we quickly gained a good idea of precisely how happi functions as uniforms at the festivals we were filming. The varying experiences of the Shock Boys illustrated the role of happi quite graphically.
The first festival was the Giant Log Festival. At this festival, the Shock Boys did not wear the same happi as everyone else. Instead, they were decked out in generic happi jackets bought by the production staff in Japan. They did not want to ride the log when they were offered the chance, and they never really established contact with the participants of the festival. Participating from outside didn’t give the article the atmosphere that it should have had, and this is when I was called in to help.
Next came the Fireworks Festival. It was here that we really saw the importance of uniforms in Japanese festivals. The festival depended on competitions between a number of districts within the town. The participants were therefore cooperating with their fellow team members within their own district, whilst being highly competitive against rival districts. Each district had its own variety of happi. The happi thus acted as markers displaying the district’s identity, and the groups of each district remained quite separate throughout the day of the festival.
We saw how this functioned when the Shock Boys put on happi themselves. This time, they wore the happi of a particular district. The Shock Boys are famous in Japan, and everywhere we went they were surrounded by people trying to get their signatures. It was obvious they were being filmed for the festival. So why was it so significant what they were wearing? Wearing the happi coat of one district resulted in the Shock Boys being able to mix more freely with the locals there, but it also severely hampered the flexibility of the crew. Once in one team’s happi coats, the Shock Boys became unable to join in with any other team. Every distict was adamant that the Shock Boys could not mingle with their team or participate for as long as they were wearing the happi of a rival group.
At the third festival, the Danjiri Festival, things began even more badly. The production staff in Japan wanted to avoid the problem of the Shock Boys being shunned by some teams because they were wearing a rival team’s happi, so they hoped to solve this by fitting the Shock Boys out with generic happi coats, presumably bought from a tourist shop, which simply said “Festival” on the back and didn’t belong to any team at all.
These caused even more severe problems. Wearing another district’s happi may mark one as a rival competitor, but it does at least mark one as a festival insider. In their generic happi coats, the Tokyo Shock Boys stood out like four sore thumbs. In glaring white against the darker blue of the town they were supposed to participate with, their costumes shouted “tourist!” The locals ignored them at best, and at worst, actively laughed at them.
Uniforms as symbol
How does this tie with what the interpretation of uniforms in the literature? Uniforms have been understood as symbols, in the sense that they are laden with cultural meanings.
Turner (1967) argues that symbols are multivocal and can represent different things. They condenses many different ideas, making them ambiguous in that they have no precise meaning, and they have both ideological and perceptual dimensions.
Brian McVeigh has looked at uniforms in Japan and argued that it is by means of them that children are socialised into conformity. Uniforms are used to socialise individuals to accept basic sociopolitical process such as hierarchisation, categorisation, and standardisation. In other words, because school uniforms are worn, children learn who is who in the hierarchy and which category an individual belongs to. By wearing a uniform, they come to accept the group norms of the group and to express commitment to the group.
But does the wearer of the uniform perceive this in quite the same way? It seems to me that there is nothing inherent about uniforms that encourages a person to conform. I would argue that one of the key criteria which determine how people perceive uniforms is whether or not they are voluntary.
For instance, taking McVeigh’s example, it may be the intention of schools to socialise individuals into conformity. But it is only when the wearer voluntarily wears a uniform that the standards of the group are accepted. Nomura (1994) found that the main factor in determining whether children liked their uniform was whether they wanted to attend the school. If they liked the uniform, it was generally because they liked the school, and if they disliked it, it was because they disliked the school. Thus, attitudes towards the uniform were really attitudes towards the school.
This is confirmed by McVeigh’s comments about the attempts made by high school girls to individualise compulsory school uniforms. It seems that where uniforms are imposed, there is a greater desire to subvert the imposition by subverting the uniform and expressing individuality in rebellion against the strictures of a forced uniformity. But if a uniform is voluntary, that suggests that the wearer chooses to wear it “as is” and has no motivation to personalise it.
To take another example from my own earlier research, I was struck when, in the United States, I met American employees of Nissan. Many had tears in their eyes as they talked about how they couldn’t wait to get into their Nissan factory uniforms. Even in America, in a deprived area with over 30% unemployment, a company uniform symbolises employment.
Compare what happens when the uniform is that of a group that the individual does not wish to be part of. The uniform itself may be regarded as undesirable. A striking example is the song When Can I Change My Clothes by the American blues singer Bukka White, in which he focuses his feelings about being incarcerated in the notorious Parchman Farm prison on his prison uniform:
So many days I would be walkin’ down the road,
I can hardly walk for lookin’ down on my clothes.
I wonder how long before I can change my clothes,
I wonder how long ‘fore I can change my clothes.
Never will forget that day when they taken my clothes,
Taken my citizen’s clothes and thrown them away.
I wonder how long before I can change my clothes,
I wonder how long ‘fore I can change my clothes.
In other words, the uniform gains its significance from the group which it symbolizes. It is the worth of that group, in the eyes of the wearer, that determines the acceptability of the uniform.
The process does work the other way, too, to a certain extent. The uniform itself must be one that its wearers can feel proud to be seen in, and that the difference between it and the uniform of others is a positive one. We can see this with an example from sport in Japanese schools, where sumo is becoming far less popular than baseball and football. In one high school, the teachers report that it is the uniform that has been crucial in sumo’s demise. In the absence of a dedicated sumo arena, it is difficult for a junior high school boy to train on an ordinary sports field in a loincloth without inviting teasing. Much of the literature on Japanese uniforms – especially on school uniforms – has focused on this kind of phenomenon, where the design of the uniform itself is taken as the most important feature. However, I believe that it may actually be more fruitful to consider uniforms in the way I have suggested here, primarily as symbols of the group to which they are attached. People’s attitudes towards the uniforms are determined primarily by their attitudes towards the group, rather than vice versa.
A related issue is the question what status within the group the uniform confers. Uniforms seem to be admired where they confer higher status, and abhorred where they represent lower status, especially compared to other members of the same group. For example, Ogasawara found that of all the unspeakable things that some Japanese office ladies put up with – including unspoken demands to behave in a subservient manner to work colleagues and sexual harassment – the thing that they most disliked about their jobs was having to wear a uniform.
It would seem, then, that uniforms are seen as positive or negative according to the status of the group which they represent and the status of the role within that group that they represent. But we can also say that the degree to which uniforms evoke commitment to group standards depends on whether the uniform is voluntary or not. Where a uniform is imposed upon the wearer, and the wearer does not wish to be associated with the group whose uniform it is, they may try to “de-uniform” the outfit by personalising it.
Festivals in Japan
What can we say about uniforms at festivals? It is helpful, first, to consider the role of festivals in Japan in general.
The literature has looked at festivals – or, in Japan, matsuri – as a separate space from everyday life (Jensen 1963) and as similar to play (Huizinga 1955). Sonoda (1975) in Ashkenazi gives a fitting description, distinguishing a festival from a performance on the grounds that it involves participation of a mass of people.
It is useful to understand festivals as a kind of ritual, in the sense of being elaborate and formal ceremonial behaviour (Skorupski 1976, Benedict 1937). Rituals are often group activities (Middleton 1970) or social (Bocock 1974), involving groups of people with common sets of expectations. The behaviour that they involve is public and separable from other behaviour. The behaviour is formal and complex. Myerhoff (1977) has said that the frame of ritual marks off activities as worthy of attention that might otherwise not be remarkable. The contents may be social messages (Leach 1976). It is noticeable that part of the ritual involved in getting ready for the Naked Man festival involved having a hot bath – as a group – before heading out into the freezing cold; clearly a ritual of purification.
There are certain features that mark out festivals from other rituals, primarily the fact that ritual is formal while festivals tend to be chaotic. Yet there is a kind of formality in the festivals themselves, a formality that goes beyond that of normal everyday life. As Goffman has noted, polite behaviour involves conventionalised rules, but formal occasions are more than just polite behaviour: they involve code consistency and a situational focus. Irvine (1979) points out several elements of formality. The first is increased communicative code structuring or the addition of extra rules or conventions to the communicative code that organises behaviour in social settings. The second is code consistency – the attempt to keep all aspects of a situation – speech, dress, activities – the same. By doing this, Skorupski says the actor demonstrates that he takes the actions seriously.
Rappaport (1979) makes the same point, stating that in ritual we see a concern for correct modes of conduct. Participants in rituals participate with their presence and there is an assumed degree of compliance with the contents of the ritual. Thus, being correctly clothed states that the wearer of the clothes is serious about the ritual and agrees with the ritual’s message or contents. Participating in the uniform of the matsuri is to publicly state their position as a member of a group undertaking a certain activity, and implies their agreement with the group.
As Bell (1992) has noted, ritual necessitates adherence to form but does not guarantee that participants share understanding of the meaning they assign to ritual. In practice, there is great diversity in the way in which rituals are interpreted. Likewise, we need to be careful about accepting the interpretations of the meaning of a ritual historically by people in the present time. Scott (1990) points out that assigning historical facts to festivals may have more to do with the use of tradition to meet people’s current needs than it does with historical truth.
Matsuri are widely known as opportunities to express conflict, and fighting festivals (kenka matsuri) are found all over Japan. Schnell (1999) states that:
A sense of common bond does not emerge simply through the existence of inherent similarities, but through the purposeful manipulation of symbolic resources. People must be conditioned to see themselves as a community by focusing on the attributes they share while ignoring those that set them apart. Their unity may be usefully celebrated (and further ingrained) through a symbolic expression of these shared attributes.
Just as important as reinforcing common characteristics shared by people is the need to reinforce those aspects which the group does not share with others. This is why the ritual of a festival may involve both integration within the group and reaction against those outside it, as we shall see.
Uniforms and Japanese festivals
As Herman Brock (in Fussell) has said, “It is the uniform’s true function to manifest and ordain order in the world, to arrest the confusion and flux of life.” This is what we find in festivals. There is a separation from the outside world, there is a sense of enhanced communality with the group, and differences with other groups are emphasised. The use of the happi marks all three. It is a voluntary uniform that identifies a group of people of a similar (mostly geographic) entity, and signifies a bodily way to identify the group. The happi turn a random group of disparate people into a coordinated group.
The voluntary element of festivals has been stressed by Saburo Morita (in Singleton ed 1998) who separates matsuri from other community events by saying that matsuri should be those events that “give participants a chance to express real inner feelings or pride, and only when they help the participants to establish their sense of connection to the community”. In other words, an “event” is planned, but a matsuri requires “voluntary cooperation by spontaneous participants”. For a matsuri to be successful, therefore, the participants must feel that it is theirs.
The fact that they do so is demonstrated by the way the happi is worn. In contrast to those schoolgirls who adapted their hated uniforms as far as possible, individual festival participants typically do not personalise their happi at all. There is no need to do so, because they are happy to participate in the festival and wear its uniform.
The wearing of uniforms not only demonstrates that one shares the values of the group: it can, perhaps, be seen to encourage people to do so. At all the festivals I saw, especially the Float Festival and the Naked Man Festival, there were furyo or delinquents involved. The organisers of the Float Festival even pointed out to me some of the more impressive performers on the float as furyo. There was a positive movement in his town to get them involved in the festival. By giving them a chance to prove their masculinity in a socially sanctioned arena, the delinquent kids became more socially respectable, according to the organiser. As part of this, of course, they would wear happi. By putting on the uniform of the community, the hope was that they would consolidate better with the community in the future. At the Naked Man Festival, one former Holy Man told me that he had been a trouble-maker as a lad, and had made enough trouble as a Naked Man as well. Becoming involved with the Shrine had made him more serious. Being involved with the hierarchy of the festival had made him aware of manners and correct social relations. In his words, he was telling me that through involvement with the festival he was able to become a mature social person.
Contrast the Shock Boys wearing the wrong uniform at the Giant Log Festival and the Danjiri Festival. By doing this, they sent the implicit message that they were not happy to be participating at the festivals, and that they did not take them seriously. Wearing the uniform did not simply show that one shared the values of the group – it showed that one was willing to share those values. By not doing this, the Shock Boys places themselves outside the group and invited ostracism.
We have seen that uniforms are prized not simply where they represent a desirable group but also where they represent an honoured status within the group. We can see this in the float festival, where there is no single uniform worn by all. Quite apart from the different happi for different teams, there are separate versions within the team, reflecting its hierarchy. The hierarchy of everyday life is not the same as the hierarchy in the festival, but a hierarchy of status exists nevertheless. Different roles in the festivals are outlined by use of different uniforms. At the Danjiri Festival, those who dance on top of the floats wear one uniform. Those who ride at the front – long-time festival participants and organizers who have worked their way up the festival hierarchy – signify their status by yukata (long kimono) rather than the happi worn by the masses. More formal attire marks one out as higher status, and thus, as Schell found, clothing becomes a bodily enactment of status. Festival clothing serves to demonstrate the role of the wearer, the degree of seriousness with which he is participating, and the honour attached to the role means that the uniform is desirable.
A festival such as this is a rite of passage. The participants gain a huge sense of pride in taking on a role, fulfilling it well, and passing it on to the next generation. Thus there are specialised happi for specialised roles, which can only be handed down from seniors and handed on to the next generation by selection of the few.
Although the Danjiri Festivalbegan as something of a disaster for the Shock Boys and the article, it ended much better. They met up with a group of participants towards the end and exchanged happi with them. Now properly clad, the Shock Boys could participate in the festival and be welcomed. Even as they took off the embarrassing happi and put on the correct one, they commented about how they felt like they belonged.
After realising all of this, we insisted for the fourth festival – the Naked Man Festival – that the Shock Boys would wear loincloths just like the other participants. They were to stick closely to a local group who played an important function in the festival – that of protecting the Holy Man – and they would follow them up to the shrine where it would get increasingly raucous and chaotic. The Shock Boys agreed to all of this. We recognised that, perhaps paradoxically, the Naked Man festival involved uniforms just as much as the float festival had, although in this case the uniform was the loincloth. This symbol also of uniformity was even more than just provision of a marker of visual uniformity through clothing. Being naked in the depths of freezing Japanese winter, being as drunk as many of the participants were, and being in the midst of the frenzied atmosphere of thousands of jostling bodies provided a remarkable sensory experience. And the tactic worked: in their loincloths, the Shock Boys were part of the crowd. After putting them on, they danced and hugged with other participants, as one of the group.
How much do festivals undermine normal life, and how much do they reinforce it? This has been an issue of some debate in the literature on festivals, and it is interesting to relate what we have seen about uniforms in festivals to it.
Festivals, as we have seen, are rituals, and one of the functions of rituals is to act as the reinforcement of collective values and attitudes in participants, encouraging social cohesion (Durkheim 1915, Radcliffe-Brown 1945, Turner 1957, Douglas 1973). Bestor and Ashkenazi have noted the use of the mikoshi as a neighbourhood marker, together with the neighbourhood symbols that adorn the mikoshi and the happi coats of the neighbours.
Community spirit means both consolidation inside the neighbourhood group and aggressive defining of boundaries against opposing groups. Most festivals involve a large undertaking of some kindm, such as pulling heavy floats, making super-size rice cakes, or cutting down huge logs. What these have in common is that they cannot be done alone. Thus we see a mass workforce, with their communal effort represented by the wearing of the same happi.
Conversely, some authors stress the oppositional nature of festivals. There was certainly a strong oppositional element to the Danjiri Festival, which was originally a two-way procession, with different floats hurtling towards each other in an awful sort of joust. It seems to be just as important to define the group against other nearby groups as it is to encourage solidarity within the group.
Some authors focus on the tendency of festivals to chaos. Sonoda (1988), for example, calls the festival excitement a sense of being reborn: “a return of the self to the state of cosmic chaos”. This does capture much of the sense of these festivals. At the Naked Man festival, I had intended to go as far into the crowd as I could with a camera taped to my finger, so I could hold it up and get the action close up, while our main camera captured the scenes from scaffolding erected specially for the purpose. But it was only possible to go so far. The incredible power of that surging crowd was frightening.
The issue of the police at the Naked Man festival is particularly interesting. The police, standing ineffectively and rather self-consciously at the sidelines of the incredible mass of loincloth-clad men jostling before them, did very little in the face of many examples of extremely provocative behaviour that would not normally have been tolerated. Men jostled them about, took their helmets, and hugged them. They were splashed with sake as the men danced about them drunkenly trying to draw them into the fray. The sheer power and energy of the men was an overwhelming force.
I was told that few of the police were local people. By prior arrangement, the custom for many years had been to bring people from out of town for the days of the festival. The Shrine Organisation explained to me that local policeman would not have been able to do anything if things got seriously out of hand, or if they became witnesses to obviously illegal behaviour by the Naked Men.
Some informants showed great pride and humour as they recalled to me their run-ins with the police. The deputy head of the Former Holy Men’s Association recalled with glee how in his younger days as a Naked Man with his Naked Man friends he had picked up a policeman, carried him to a water trough and dunked him in.
So, then, does the festival represent a rebellion against authority? Schell comments:
Participation in the okoshi daiko [the festival on which he did his fieldwork] is a singular sense experience – an altered state of consciousness that, for many, is worth pursuing in itself. The consumption of alcohol, the charged atmosphere, and the distinct element of danger are partly responsible for the transformation.
Schell concludes in his study of the okoshi daiko festival that the oppositional behaviour in the festival represents the oppression of the masses and a breaking free from that oppression. He notes that his informants did not agree with this class-influenced interpretation and questions whether he himself had a class-influenced interpretation of events. He cites Dirks’ (1988) claim that rituals drift free from their original purposes and assume new functions, thus affirming the importance of human agency. Schnell says:
The elite, for example, employed the matsuri to demonstrate their generosity and acknowledge their privileged positions. The “common people”, likewise, expressed their opposition by escalating what was once a rather insignificant feature of the same matsuri into a wild and rebellious demonstration of their collective power.
However, this does not fully explain the oppositional behaviour of participants in the festivals I observed. For one thing, the participants were upright citizens in other contexts, and the ones being boisterous were not necessarily in any way oppressed. I did not see the class-bound notion of a “common people” at the festivals I observed, although this may very well have been a feature of former times. The Danjiri Festival, for example, started in 1703, in the Genroku period. It was to ask Fushimi – a fox god – for a rich harvest. The common people were normally not allowed to enter the castle but at the festival time they could enter with the danjiri and entertain the lord. This is said to be the start of the festival.
The organiser of the Danjiri Festivaltold us that the origins of the festival lay in helping to relieve the stresses of the common people against the bureaucracy. “Through the festival they were able to summon a power and energy of a kind that they couldn’t in everyday life.” In recent times, though, he added, it is more an event to compete against other towns and prove yourselves number one.
Indeed, the festival today seems to be more in association with the powers that be than in opposition to them. The chokai or town office is in charge, in conjunction with the sewaninkai or go-between team taking care of public affairs between towns. Then there are the wakagashira who are responsible for execution of danjiri movement, as well as 15-nin gumi – 15 people that carry the danjiri, and the seinendan (youth team) who pull the danjiri at the front. The festival organisers said: “The Kishiwada Danjiri Festivalis all explained in this hierarchical structure.”
As this suggests, there are very formal ritual elements and reversals of everyday life within the same festivals in Japan, making for a much more complex picture than the more simplistic supposition that the festival in toto is a reversal of everyday life. The situation varies within the festival. At each of the festivals we covered, there would be a formal religious ritual held before the main activity. This would take place during the day and be highly formalised, respecting the standard hierarchies. During the main events of the festival itself, there would be a similarly strong emphasis on hierarchy, just as in everyday life. The difference would be that the hierarchy was a different one from everyday life. Festival status accrued not only from being prominent in the district but also from being a prominent participant at the festival. Long-time festival participants are regarded the experts in protocol and dress. First-time attenders usually do exactly as they are told.
After the main events of the festival, however, there would be raucous, alcohol-fuelled parties where all hierarchy would be subverted and reversed. Thus, throughout the day of the festival, there would be a peak of formal conformity to everyday life at the start, subsequently giving way to a modification or aping of this conformity, and ending with a trough of informal reaction against it.
This is reflected in the clothing. The formal rituals generally involved the wearing of full kimono, with everyone fully clothed, sober, and serious. The evening partying was as strong a contrast as could be imagined. If the Japanese festival begins with a formal ritual, involving the wearing of traditional, formal outfits, then what happens to participants’ clothing at the end of the festival, when the formality of the start is inverted and there is revelry, comedy, drunkenness and vulgar behaviour? If it is the inverse of wearing a uniform, then taking the uniform off is a pretty good guess. And indeed, each of the festivals we followed contained undressing as part of the wild night activities, usually stripping and usually involving songs about penises.
This typically involved a reversal of everyday roles. At the end of the float festival, we were rather surprised to see the door to the shed where the float was kept swinging shut before swinging open again to reveal – to the delight of the large, happi-clad, drunken crowd – a man hanging off the door, his back to the crowd, completely naked. He was one of the organisers of the neighbourhood groups. A younger man jumped up and slapped him – one of the most junior members of the team.
In summary, I suggest that uniforms are particularly prominent in festivals because these are a voluntary group of people choosing to identify themselves with a group and making use of the symbol of the uniform with which to declare their group membership. The key elements to this phenomenon are that the uniform is adopted voluntarily and that it is associated with a group that people regard as desirable. The popularity of happi at such times thus has nothing to do with happi itself, its appearance and design; it is what it symbolizes that is important. The desire of each individual to be associated with the group ensures that happi remains uniform throughout the group, apart from demarcations of status – there is no motivation for people to modify their happi or personalize it.
All of this could go some way towards explaining the prevalence of uniforms in Japan generally. In Japan, individuals are simply more prone to want to join in group activities, and so they are more willing to wear uniforms. Thus, the prominence of uniforms in Japan is not, contrary to the first impressions a visitor may have, because Japan has achieved any kind of forced social cohesion. On the contrary, it is the inverse. Japanese want to identify with groups, and they choose to use the uniform as an efficient symbol with which to express their membership.