Criticism for animal abuse by animal rights organisations is growing in Japan over how animals are treated in traditional festivals, some of which include deliberately killing some animals. 

In May 2023, more than 50,000 online signatures were submitted to the Mie prefectural government calling for the abolition of the 700-year-old Ageuma Shinji Festival at the Tado shrine in Kuwana, which is a Shinto ritual in which horses, carrying young riders wearing a jingasa war hat and traditional clothing, ascend a steep slope and then try to jump over a 1.5-meter-tall wall set on top of the slope. This year a horse was put down after it fell and broke its leg while ascending the slope. Animal rights organizations have been protesting the festival since the late 1990s, and in 2010 and 2014 three horses had to be put down after they broke their legs. 

In early summer, the Itoman Hare Festival is a traditional boat racing event conducted in Itoman, Okinawa Prefecture, and it involves a duck-catching competition with local young people, where ducks are thrown into the sea and participants swim after the ducks and catch them — later killing them and eating them at home. In the past, some participants held the ducks by the neck or feathers in a rough way, so in 2018 the Okinawa prefectural animal welfare and control centre asked the organisers for changes, as the nonprofit organization Animal Rights Centre submitted written charges against a total of three people. However, the Hare Festival decided not to change anything. 

In the Soso region of Fukushima Prefecture, the Soma Nomaoi Festival features a cavalcade of more than 400 samurai warriors on horses moving through town streets. However, organizers plan to move next year’s festival from July to the end of May, because two horses died and 111 horses were pulled from events due to possible heatstroke.

Ryosuke Okamoto, professor of sociology of tourism at Hokkaido University, said to Japan News, “Festivals and rituals have recently become tourist attractions and people involved in those events need to be aware of outside scrutiny. I think it is important to maintain the essence of their respective traditional events while, at the same time, making necessary changes to fit the times and social trends.”

Jordi Casamitjana
“Originally from Catalonia, but resident in the UK for several decades, Jordi is a vegan zoologist and author, who has been involved in different aspects of animal protection for many years. In addition to scientific research, he has worked mostly as an undercover investigator, animal welfare consultant, and animal protection campaigner. He has been an ethical vegan since 2002, and in 2020 he secured the legal protection of all ethical vegans in Great Britain from discrimination in a landmark employment tribunal case that was discussed all over the world. He is also the author of the book, ‘Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world’.