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Chindon'ya (チンドン屋), also called Japanese marching band, and in the old times also called tōzaiya (東西屋) or hiromeya (広目屋 or 披露目屋) are a type of elaborately costumed street musicians in Japan that advertise for shops and other establishments. The performers advertised the opening of new stores and other venues, or promoted special events such as price discounts. Nowadays, chindon'yas are rare in Japan. The word consists of Japanese sound symbolism chin and don to describe the instruments, and the -ya suffix which roughly equates to the English "-er" suffix in this context.
Origin as single performers in Osaka
Street performers existed in Japan for a long time. However, the connection with advertising forming a chindon'ya first appeared in Osaka during the 19th century (Late Edo period and early Meiji period) at the beginning of industrialization. The first known chindon'ya is generally considered to be a candy seller in Osaka named Amekatsu, who around 1845 used singing and a noise making toy to attract attention to his own portable candy stall, as many other salespeople, especially candy sellers. Due to his strong voice he was well known in Osaka, and hence tried to sell not candy but rather advertise for other stores and a theater, wearing a large hat and straw sandals, and small bells at his belt, and used a wooden hyogoshi noisemaker. He was succeeded by a former bath attendant Isamikame, who also used to shout tozai (Literally East-West, equivalent to Listen up or welcome (come one come all)). Subsequently, such advertising street performers were called tozaiya in Osaka up to World War II. He soon received competition from another advertiser called Matemoto, and they split their business, with one covering the Uemachi region and the other covering the Shinmachi region of Osaka. After Maemoto died in 1891, his brother, also called Maemoto took over the business, and he was soon joined by his son and daughter, probably the first female chindon'ya. Maemoto is also famous as being the first person in Osaka to die from electric shock in 1893. Other well-known performers from this time are Tanbataya Kurimaru, a former Sweet Chestnut seller, and Satsumaya Imosuke, a former bean seller. These two also occasionally added a second performer to their band.
Group performers in Tokyo
At the early Meiji period, such advertising was still unknown in Tokyo, and advertising was mainly done on curtains (noren), billboards (kanban), and flyers (hikifuda). Stalls also advertised for themselves by making noise and wearing colorful clothes, an at the time widely known example being the extremely colorful dressed pharmacist Iwashiya. During this time, newspapers and posters also started to appear in Japan and were used for advertising. The military also started to popularize western style marching bands, and at the same time public bands started to appear. In 1885 an advertising agency in Tokyo hiromeya(wide eyes) hired musicians for advertising. Hiromeya was founded by a former tozaiya from Osaka Akita Ryukichi. He soon found out that a one-person band was not as popular in Tokyo as in Osaka, and hired larger bands of more than 10 performers for advertising purposes, following the popularity of military and public bands. His band also provided entertainment at festivals and parties, and also created background music for silent films. He was also hired by the Kirin beer company, whose advertising campaign spread out to Osaka. In Osaka, this form of group bands was yet unknown, as only individual performers were hired for advertising. The police also had to stop some of the larger performances in Osaka, as they hindered traffic, partially also caused by the 2 meter tall beer bottle the group was equipped with. The Hiromeya business grew, and they were even asked to perform at the burial of Emperor Meiji in 1912. The business still exists nowadays, although they now do mainly decorations.
Evolution of the modern chindon'ya
Tanbataya Kurimaru and Satsumaya Imosuke in Osaka were inspired by the bands of hiromeya during the Kirin advertising campaign. They enlarged their groups and equipped them with drums and even fancier clothes, often matching the products of the advertised shop. However, they neglected rhythm and quality of the music over volume, and occasionally got arrested by the police. Some bigger engagements lasted for up to six months and reached out to Kyūshū and Shikoku.
The technological advances opened up many other ways of advertising that competed with the chindon'ya. Since 1910 they had to compete with newspapers. Around 1920 balloons and airplanes carried large banners through the air, and around that time neon signs appeared in Tokyo. With the appearance of sound film in Japan in 1929 about 3000 street advertisers in Japan lost their jobs. A strike in 1930 had no effect and did not improve the situation. In response to the economic environment, the groups reduced their size to 4 to 5 people, and became known as chindon'ya. For many this was the last step before unemployment and poverty, and hence the chindon'ya were considered to be of very low social status. The great depression in 1930 reduced the chindon'ya in Japan even more, and during World War II street performances were forbidden altogether.
The golden age
The chindonya had a revival again between 1946 and 1956, and between 1950 and 1960 there were up to 2,500 chindon'ya active in Japan. They often performed on black markets. Many stores also moved from a street stall to fixed locations, generating business for chindon'ya, as did the rise of the pachinko business. One well known group in Osaka was Aozora Gakudan, founded by former actor Saeki Yosan. This group played with up to 18 members, and many other chindon'ya joined this group. The introduction of TV and radio advertising had only a small effect on the chindon'ya, as these new mediums were too expensive for the small shops that used the chindon'ya services, and not targeted enough for the customers living nearby the stores.
Since the 1960s the number of chindon'ya has declined again, accelerated by the 1973 oil crisis with the subsequent recession. Around 1970, street performances were also banned in many large cities, as they hindered the traffic. In 1985 there remained around 150 chindon'ya, with an average age of about 60 years. Public performances were also banned for several months during the illness and the death of emperor Hirohito in 1989.
Nowadays they are a rare sight in Japanese cities, and only 30-35 professional chindon'ya (puro no chindon'ya) still exist, mostly in and around Tokyo, with another 30 amateur and hobby chindon'ya (shirōto chindon'ya) performing at festivals. In recent years, however, there seems to be a very small increase again, as they can draw on their historic roots to evoke nostalgia. The social status of the performers has also improved. Thus, while far away from their golden days, chindon'ya hold a small niche in the advertising business in Japan. In Osaka, for example, Chindon Tsūshinsha (ちんどん通信社) performs for clothing stores, politicians, beauty salons, and restaurants, in addition to stage performances on weddings, company parties, and other events. They expand their traditional roles even further and even provide a sort of religious services based on old folk rituals, even though they are not in any way priests. They have also performed outside Japan. Another group Adachi in Fukuoka was formed five years ago and is still doing a good business, including new attractions as for example playing the saxophone while riding the unicycle, or displaying juggling, and balloon modelling performances.
Since 1955, a national contest of chindon bands has been held in Toyama-shi. Each April, dozens of groups join together to perform and compete.
Many chindon'ya also use the internet to advertise for their services.
Chindon'ya are a small number of artists and musicians, both male and female. They are made up of usually at least three people, with some larger groups including 7 people. The first person in the group is called hatamochi or hatadori, carrying the flag and handing out leaflets. This person is followed by the oyakata, who usually carries the chindon drum and a large paper umbrella. As the drum weighs up to 15 kg, this is the most physically demanding job. Some references call the hatamochi the group leader, while other references call the oyakata the group leader. The third person used to play the shamisen, but may nowadays also use the drum and hence is the doramuya. He is followed by one or more gakkiya that play wind instruments.
They are dressed in colorful clothes, usually in an eccentric version of traditional Japanese clothes. Women may be dressed up like a Geisha, with heavy make up. Men usually have their hair in a top knot, although nowadays they are usually wigs, and some may wear fancy hats. They parade through the streets playing various instruments, including both traditional Japanese instruments and western instruments. Usually, one person carries a combined instrument consisting of a small gong (giving the chin sound in chindon'ya) and two small drums (giving the don sound in cindonya). Additional instruments by other performers may include a larger drum and a woodwind instrument, as for example a clarinet, a trumpet or a saxophone. They often play traditional Japanese tunes, military marches, or jazz.
Through their performance they try to attract attention to themselves, and more importantly, to the advertising signs and banners they are carrying. These may be boards hanging on the back of the performers or banners and flags hanging from large poles on the back of the performers. Some even carried umbrellas with advertising messages. They advertise for new shops, special sales in shops, the opening of a gaming parlor or pachinko parlors, or for cabarets. They may also distribute flyers.
Nowadays, a performer earns around 15.000 yen per day (roughly US 150), working from around 10:30 to 17:00. Hence a typical group of three to four people costs around 45.000 to 60.000 yen per day (roughly US 450 to 600). Only an estimated 10%-20% of the acts are ordered by shops, most performances are at festivals and private parties.
Chindonya also is a colloquial derogatory term meaning "an elaborate showy parade or scene made specifically to divert attention away from some scam", as in Nani Kono Chindonya ("What the hell are they trying to pull?") It can be applied to anything nowadays, but especially politics and commerce. It references to the commonly held view that Chindonya were very low status, very poor and, therefore, untrustworthy.
Kiritani, Elizabeth; Itsuo Kiritani (1995). Vanishing Japan: Traditions, Crafts, & Culture. Tuttle Publishing. 080481967X.
- A yen for the traditional: in modern Japan, street performers sell ritual and nostalgia to compete with high-tech advertising
- Chindonya: Ein aussterbendes Gewerbe in der japanischen Werbelandschaft (German)
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