text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
First you hear them or, to be more accurate, you hear the sound of the chindon (ちんどん), the instrument that has given them their name: chindonya (ちんどん屋) –a makeshift contraption made of two drums and one or two small cymbals/gongs and guaranteeing that what comes out will be something between music and noise- and the saxophone or the clarinet accompanying it. And then you see them: a combination of virtually all sartorial elements identifying with Japan –kimono, hakama divided skirts, geta sandals, Kabuki and geisha wigs with decorating hairpins, samurai topknots (with the occasional sword thrown in), Western hats from the Meiji era or tenugui headbands from the times of Edo and pretty much anything else imaginable- and creating a background for the advertisements that are either hanging from the chindon carried by their leader or “oyakata” (親方) or worn by one of the other members of the troupe as a sandwich board.
Their story is old –but not too old. They probably started in Osaka in the mid-19th century when Japan was gathering momentum for the jump from the Edo period to the Meiji period and when a merchant realized that motley clothing and loud voices were a good way to make the public notice your store. The idea spread, small groups doing this as a job for other merchants were created and with time, these troupes started appearing in other parts of Japan as well. And when the first Western-style military marching bands were introduced to Japan, the entrepreneurial and theatrical spirit of the Japanese added their instruments and their clothes to the chindonya wardrobe making it even more flashy and heterogeneous.
The advent of newspapers and radio virtually wiped the chindonya from the map but Japan’s misfortunes after the war brought them back to the forefront –they were the only cheap form of advertising in a country almost totally in ruins- where they remained only to be ousted again, and this time for good, by the advance of mass media and the high-tech outdoor advertising in the 1960-1980 period. Still, because nothing old ever dies entirely in Japan, nostalgia and reevaluation of previous times has recently given them a new wind. Especially in Tokyo’s old Shitamachi, i.e. in the eastern wards near the river, it is not at all unusual to hear the chindon’s characteristic sound accompanying “Take ni Suzume” (竹に雀), “Tokyo Rapsody” (東京ラプソディー), “Ringo no Uta” (りんごの唄) or some other hit from the Meiji, Taisho or Showa eras.
The cultural queasiness caused by the visual and aural counterpoint of a giant screen on the side of a high-rise and a chindonya troupe parading beneath it is hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t felt it; however, and even though I used the word “queasiness”, the sentiment is not all that unpleasant and it isn’t very different from what you feel every time you see a 40-year old dressed in kimono next to a Harajuku goth-lolita cosplayer. Like many other things the chindonya offer, first to the Japanese and second to the occasional foreigners who happen to be among them, an instant quantum leap to another time. And history has proven that those who remember their past are better at managing their present.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.