By Stephen Christopher and Hiromi Ikeda
This year’s Kikisoso Tibet Festival, hosted in the Nagano hillside city of Komoro, will be the fifth edition privately organized by the couple Genyen Tenzin and Shoko Yanagida. Since 2015, the festival has provided a major venue for the Tibetan community, scattered throughout Tokyo and the Kansai region, to escape the business of megacity urban life and exchange culture with Japanese well-wishers. From September 14-16, festival goers will sleep in tents under the mountain stars and recreate a Tibetan environment through Buddhist teachings, art exhibitions, musical performances, and diverse cultural workshops.
The event affirms the importance of Tibetans in Japanese society, a small and under-researched community which began in 1965 when Tibetan school children resettled in Japan and has grown to about 250 members. Although primarily spread out across massive urban centers like Tokyo and Osaka, from the north to the south, the Tibetans have an outsized influence in the political and social landscape of Japan. The event also affirms the importance of Japanese supporters of Tibet, the Tibetan diaspora, and Tibetan cultural and religious preservation. Japanese festival goers include wives of Tibetan refugees, students of Tibetan language, lute (dramnyen) performers, long-time volunteer backpackers in Dharamsala, practitioners of Tibetan medicine, devoted followers of the Japan-based Nichan Rinpoche, among many others. The event is partially sponsored by the Supersangha, an association of Japanese monks that supports Tibetans in exile.
The venue, the Komoro Eco-Village, is a clearing in the wooded hillside designed as a place to conduct social business, promote sustainability, and encourage city dwellers to get in touch with their natural surroundings. The sense of mountainous spirituality inspired the organizers to name the festival Kikisoso, part of the phrase screamed from Tibetan mountain passes and accompanied by the hanging of prayer flags (lung-ta) and tossing of barley flour (tsampa) in the air. For many Tibetans now living in hyper-modern and consumeristic Tokyo, the venue is a nostalgic reminder of their upbringing in North Indian settlements like Manali, Mussoorie, and Bir. Genyen described the wooded venue as evoking the Deodoar forests around Dharamsala, where he attended Upper TCV and where, one day, he met his future wife Shoko at a café in McLeod Ganj. For many Japanese, spending the weekend outdoors and sometimes enduring heavy rain is a way to disconnect from technology and reconnect with the basic goodness of practicing Buddhism and humanity of supporting a beleaguered ethnic minority. In a country known for its homogeneous ethnic nationalism compared to other diverse Asian countries, the Kikisoso Tibet Festival is a chance to be both personally rejuvenated and to affirm the accelerating multiculturalism within Japanese society as Vietnamese, Mongolians, Chinese, Filipinos and other nationalities are growing in demographic significance.
As previous years have shown, the festival is also an opportunity to experience personal transformation. Shoko described how during the first festival, in 2014, her Japanese friend was feeling depressed from a recent separation from his wife. After being inspired by a lecture from the Hiroshima-based geshe Lobsang Phuntsok, he worked up the courage to speak to the monk about his personal travails. The advice he received brought him out of his depression and he attributes to restoring his life. More generally, the sense of community and affirmation of purpose, playing out in an evocative natural setting, is itself a kind of healing for stressed out Japanese people. Such experiences are part of a broader Japanese culture of healing (iyashi) that inspires people to seek out wholeness in various forms: a calming view of the mountainside, a soothing footbath, an infatuation with the fuzzy, simple-minded Winnie the Pooh, and a turn towards ursine romantic partners and soft masculinity.
The Kikisoso Tibet Festival is one expression of this Japanese desire for healing, as are Tibetans themselves. Japanese supporters often describe Tibetans as broad-minded, big-hearted, spontaneous, natural, trusting of strangers, and having robust constitutions – in short, many of the qualities that Japanese people feel they lack, that Japanese society restricts, and language formalities inhibit. For many Japanese, forming friendships, associations, and romantic partnerships with Tibetans is intrinsically healing, as is participating in events like the festival. Genyen concludes each festival with an act of collective catharsis by giving a tearful plea for the preservation of Tibetan culture by whatever means necessary. This is followed by one minute of silence for the suffering in Tibet. Last year, after this silence, festival goers were treated to a 22° halo around the sun. Genyen described how he felt his prayers had reached the sky, Shoko felt it was a divine blessing for the festival to continue, and many participants experienced the natural phenomena as having spiritual significance.
This year’s festival has an extensive lineup of cultural, spiritual, and academic events. Cultural events include Tibetan opera, dance circle, and mask dance by Kharag Penpa from South Korea. He will then collaborate with Tenzin Kunsang, a Nagano-based musician trained at TIPA, for a live performance including the step dance Dramnyen Shabdro. Spiritual teachings include a meditation practice by Kunchok Shitar, professor of Tibetan Buddhism at Potala College in Tokyo and longtime Japanese resident. And several academics will present: Yasushi Ogawa, who studied extensively at Men-Tsee-Khang in Dharamsala, will describe his journey into Tibetan medicine; Ichie Watanabe will present on the impact of economic globalization on traditional pastoral societies; Dr. Izumi, a professor of Tibetan Studies at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, will retell Tibetan ghost stories; and Stephen Christopher, a postdoctoral fellow at Kyoto University, will host a panel discussion, translated by Hiromi Ikeda, with Jasmine Baal and Linda Kelsang Santu Lama about their research projects on the Tibetan community in Japan.
Before the first Kikisoso Tibet Festival, five years ago, Genyen had a nightmare that only four people made the journey to Nagano. In distress, he confided in his Japanese friend. That night, she too dreamt about the festival, only this time there were hundreds of people: Tibetans from Tibet, Indian settlements, and around the world, backed by Japanese, Chinese, and Euro-Americans. Her dream gave solace to Genyen, and the first four festivals, through the ups and downs of blue skies and pounding rain, have been joyful and restorative events. With each successive festival, her dream comes closer to realization.
Stephen Christopher is a JSPS Postdoctoral fellow at Kyoto University. He completed his PhD in anthropology from Syracuse University in 2018.
Hiromi Ikeda is an independent researcher and editor for a monthly magazine. She first visited Dharamsala 15 years ago and is a longtime supporter of the Tibetan community in Japan.