Japan is known for its many unique festivals, and Paantu is one such event mostly celebrated in the Miyako Islands of Okinawa Prefecture. What was once a great festival celebrated all across the islands of Okinawa, is now just limited to Miyakojima and a few other islands in the far southwest. The festival is performed to bring good fortune to kids by warding off bad spirits through scaring them with masks and smearing mud over their heads. Let’s find out about this dying festival and why it is so unusual.
“Paantu” is the Japanese term for an evil spirit that usually looks scary covered in mud and leaves. It has been an old tradition in Okinawa to scare little kids by telling them that Paantu will come and take them away if they misbehave. It can be called as the Japanese version of the Boogeyman, which is very popular in the West.
The festival of Paantu is usually celebrated in the first week of October for two days, however, you should follow the Chinese calendar for accurate dates. You can contact the Miyakojima City Office for more information or visit the Miyakojima City Museum where there are several exhibits of the Paantu, and the guides will be happy to let you know the exact dates.
During the festival, men cover their faces with stoic-looking elongated masks and dip themselves in sacred mud before walking the streets and smudging more mud over vehicles, buildings, and people. These men also wear dirty foliage and carry a stick to look scarier. They won’t even spare police vehicles, newly constructed buildings, senior citizens, or attractive people, as everyone who they think should get maligned has to get smothered.
It is not just men who actively participate in this festival but also women. Some women are selected as Noro priestesses in Miyako villages and their job is to protect the islands from evil. Miyako Islands are, in fact, one among a few places on earth where matriarchal societies can be commonly seen, with women performing rites as priestesses or managing villages and forests as guardians.
During the Paantu Matsuri (festival), these priestesses dress themselves up with sugar palm leaves, carry aromatic camphor sticks, and shout, “Hoi, hoi, hoi!” kind of resembling Santa. They do marches along with the men or boys dressed up as Paantu and perform many rituals in order to bring good fortune to their village.
Animism, as a religion, has existed for a very long time before the advent of modern religions. Currently, you can only find animist practices in remote places such as the Miyako Islands which has been cut off from the rest of the world for many centuries as it takes a long time to reach these tiny islands.
Many locals of the Miyako Islands complain that the Paantu Festival is slowly dying as more and more men are becoming reluctant to participate. Now, they have to rely on young kids as little as 12 and make them dress like Paantu.
Even the number of priestesses in villages is going down as lives get busier and more hectic, and more people are turning a blind eye to such traditions. Some villages on the neighboring Ishigaki Island also hold the Paantu Festival but do not allow any outsiders to visit. The aging population and the small number of children on these islands have also become big reasons for not conducting festivals such as the Paantu.
Why not visit Miyakojima and witness one of the ‘scariest’ and interesting festivals Japan has to offer? Unusual or not, the festival seems to throw light on local Japanese traditions and culture.