Utagaki (Poetry Reading Party) (歌垣)

"Utagaki" is a kind of folkway based on a magical belief, where young men and women gather on a specific time and date to exchange courtship songs and ballads. At present, it is practiced mainly in the mountainous area in southern China and northern Indochina. Similar customs can be seen in the Philippines and Indonesia, as well..
In ancient times, there existed a custom of utagaki in the Mt. Tsukuba area in Hitachi Province and other places in Japan, as is learned from the "Manyoshu" (the "Anthology of Ten Thousand Leaves")


To give an overview of utagaki currently practiced in southern China and northern South-East Asia, the custom is most typically observed in the manner that men and women in their teens and 20s gather together in the evening of a holiday (in many cases, at the beginning of spring) and exchange love songs so that couples may enter relationships with each other. In this way, the utagaki custom has a strong tendency toward courtships among unmarried men and women. It is also considered to have originated from an initiation ceremony in a group setting.

Songs and ballads exchanged in an utagaki gathering are, in many cases, with fixed melodies and stylized lyrics, following a syllabic meter of three, five, or seven syllables per line. Singers of those songs and ballads are required to have sufficiently good skill and education to improvise any song in line with said rules, and as well they have to attract the attention of their partners. Contents of the songs and ballads are not limited to courtships but also include creation myths, harvests, work for ample crops, funerals, and so on.

Although the custom of utagaki may be observed in both swidden and rice-growing farmers, it is prominent among the people in mountainous areas of slash-and-burn agriculture. From this fact, utagaki is believed to have originally been a culture of farmers of swidden agriculture in mountainous terrains.

In Japan:

In ancient Japan, the custom of utagaki was practiced as an event based on a magical belief of the people, irrespective of age and sex, who gathered on a fixed time and day at a specific place to exchange courtship songs while eating and drinking together in order to form couples who may eventually fall in love. This 'utagaki' is written in kanji characters as '歌垣,' the origin of which is believed to be another 'utagaki' written in different kanji as '歌掛き(懸き)' ('calling each other by songs'). Kagai' written in kanji as '嬥歌' is a dialect for 'utagaki' spoken in the Togoku region (eastern part of Japan, especially the Kanto region,) which is also considered to have originated from 'kakeai' ('calling each other in rhythmic dialogue'). Spring and autumn were purported to be good seasons for utagaki festivals, which were assumed to have an aspect of preliminary celebration and gratitude for production. As for venues for utagaki meetings, well-bounded places were selected such as mountain tops, seashores, riversides, market places, and so on; for example, Mt. Tsukuba in Hitachi Province, Otome no Matsubara park in the same Province, Mt. Kishima-dake in Hizen Province, Mt. Utagaki-yama in Settsu Province, Tsubakichi (also known as Tsubaichi) marketplace in Yamato Province, Karuno-ichi marketplace in the same Province, and so on.

In the light of ancient belief in kotodama (soul or power of language), it may be explained that one with magically stronger kotodama could win in a poetry contest and dominate his/her opponent while the other one who lost the contest had to submit himself/herself to the opponent. Similarly, a relationship between a man and woman coupled in an utagaki meeting was determined by the strength of each one's kotodama. Ancient songs and ballads related to "utagaki" can be found in "Kojiki" ("The Records of Ancient Matters,") "Manyoshu" ("The Anthology of Myriad Leaves,") "Hitachi no kuni fudoki" ("the topography of Hitachi Province"), "Hizen no kuni fudoki" ("the topography of Hizen Province") and so on. In volume nine of the Manyoshu Anthology, there was a poem composed by TAKAHASHI no Mushimaro at an utagaki festival held in Mt. Tsukuba, which reads, 'Let's go to kagai (dialect of "utagaki") where men and women gather to exchange poems, and I would interact with a married woman while my wife might be pursued by any other man・・・,' from which we can see how things were going on at an utagaki gathering at that time.

As time advanced, aspects of utagaki fest as a meeting for magical belief, preliminary celebration, and gratitude for production became weaker than ever and gradually formed its characteristics as an event for courtship among unmarried persons. Especially at urban markets, this tendency became stronger. For example, in "Kojiki" ("The Records of Ancient Matters"), there is described an anecdote of Emperor Kenzo and HEGURI no Shibi who had fought for the love of a woman by exchange of poems at Tsubakichi (or Tsubaichi) market.

In the Nara Period, utagaki was merged with toka (singing and dancing) imported from China, and became one of performance arts for court. Utagaki festivals were held in large scale in March, 734, at Suzaku-mon Gate in the then capital city Heijo and in April, 770, at Kawachi-Yugeno-miya Palace, each of which was attended by two hundred and several tens of nobles and naturalized clans.

Utagaki is said to have influenced subsequent uta-awase (poetry contests), renga (linked verses), and so on. Today, traces of utagaki can be seen in such customs as Moashibi in Okinawa, Utagei in the Aizu region, Fukushima Prefecture, and Kakeuta in the Senboku region, Akita Prefecture.

Customs similar to utagaki are now observed in the southern part of China, Indochina, the Philippines, and Indonesia. From this fact, ancient Japan is considered to have formed an integral cultural sphere including southeastern Asia and southern China, which viewpoint is claimed now by "Shoyojurin-bunkaron" (a theory of cultural sphere marked by laurel forests) and others.