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An offering hidden inside a wooden mortar

“Sawagi” is an old, end-of-year Shinto decoration, but in Imatomi village it is given a unique twist…

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A big, wooden mortar made out of pine, three pestles, a shimenawa (a straw rope used in Shinto) and daikon and carrots from the harvest. This is a new year's decoration made at the end of the year only in Imatomi village in Amakusa. In former times, it was used to decorate the part of the house which had a dirt floor (such as the kitchen or a workspace), but when the houses in Imatomi ceased to have dirt floors anymore it began to be used to decorate the floors in sheds instead. In the past, every house in the village would observe this tradition, but today in Imatomi there is only one person left who still continues to: 84-year-old Kawashima Futoki, whose ancestors were Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christians who chose not to rejoin the Catholic Church once the ban on Christianity had been lifted).
Mr. Kawashima’s sawagi is unique. Hidden inside the mortar is an offering to Christ consisting of cooked rice and o-nishime. On top of the upturned mortar itself, three pestles have been arranged into the shape of a cross. In other words, although the shimenawa above the mortar makes this sawagi appear to be a normal Shinto decoration, if you lift the mortar to reveal the concealed offering, what you are in fact witnessing is a Hidden Christian offering made to Christ. Customarily, once this decoration had been made people would bow twice, clap twice, and then bow one final time (gestures which are traditionally made before a Shinto shrine).

A tree bringing happiness

People in the local area refer to Sawagi as Shaawakudon. In the Amakusa islands, "sa" is pronounced "shaa". The literal meaning of sawagi (shaawakudon) is “a tree which brings happiness”.
Traditionally, people in Imatomi performed a concluding ritual once the sawagi for that year had been made. They would stick a bamboo tree as well as the branch of an evergreen oak into a field as a way to give thanks for the year’s harvest. “When there’s a celebration [in Japan], you should usually use pine and bamboo as good omens, so why do we use evergreen oak here? I don’t know the reason why we do, but I must continue to do as my ancestors did”, Mr. Kawashima says. He is a farmer just like his ancestors were, and by continuing to faithfully observe the traditions he has inherited, he offers us a unique window into the history of Imatomi village.