Japanese animal rights campaigners believe they have finally made a breakthrough in their long-running campaign to halt an annual festival in which horses are often seriously injured as they attempt to leap over a high earthen embankment.
This year's event took place on May 4 and 5 in the town of Kuwana, in rural Mie Prefecture, in central Japan. And as in years gone by, one of the horses fell awkwardly as its rider attempted to force it along the 100-meter track and then up and over the 2-meter embankment leading to the Tado Taisha Shinto shrine. The horse broke a leg and had to be euthanized where it fell.
"It is cruel and it is unnecessary but the shrine defends the event by claiming it's a tradition," said Yuki Arawaka, a spokesperson for the animal rights organization Life Investigation Agency.
'Rising horses' festival
The shrine is believed to have been founded around 1,200 years ago and, as northern Mie is a rural area, horses have long been a key part of the community. In years gone by, horses were believed to serve as messengers between local people and the gods. The "Ageuma" festival, meaning "rising horses," can be traced back to around 680 years ago.
There is evidence to suggest that originally the festival involved townspeople parading through the streets in elaborate costumes and on horseback before arriving at the shrine to pray for a good harvest.
More recently, however, the festival has changed to make it a more spectacular occasion, its critics charge, with the addition of the earthen wall that the horses need to negotiate.
This year — the first time in three years the festival could be held due to the COVID-19 pandemic — six young men aged between 16 and 29 were selected from the different districts of the town, each making three attempts on the course. Only three horses successfully scaled the embankment.
"The shrine says this is a tradition that goes back hundreds of years, but there is evidence that they have added the section with the embankment to make it harder for the horses and more exciting, with the main aim being to attract more tourists, so the town can make more money," Arawaka told DW.
Keiko Yamazaki, founder of the "Go" animal study group and a board member of The Japanese Coalition for Animal Welfare, agrees the event has been altered to make it into a "spectacle."
"The shrine says it has a long history and is an important part of the local culture, and we agree on that," she said. "We do not want to change the town's cultural heritage, but the earthen embankment was only added since the end of the war so that is not part of the original festival."
Animal rights organizations have been expressing their concerns about the festival for more than a decade, with Yamazaki agreeing that conditions have actually improved in recent years.
Abuse of festival horses
"In the past, they would dope the horses, rub the horses' noses with an abrasive material to get their adrenaline pumping and whip them so hard that it would leave visible scars,” she said. "We lobbied hard against that mistreatment and we have been successful. But there have been many years when horses have died."
Protesters have also pursued legal avenues to try to halt the most abusive elements of the festival, said Chihiro Okada, an official of Animal Rights Center, Japan.
"We feel that the treatment of the horses contravenes Japanese animal welfare laws and that explaining this away as a 'tradition' is not a good enough explanation," she said. Two legal challenges have been turned down by local prosecutors.
An official of the Kuwana City Hall said complaints have been coming in about the event since around 2004, with messages against the festival "from many people" this year. The official pointed out, however, that the city "has no authority" over the shrine's festival.
In a statement, the shrine confirmed it had "received various opinions" about the event but claimed the horses that had taken part had all received "appropriate treatment" in compliance with animal welfare laws. It added that horses had been "lovingly cared for day and night" in the run-up to the festival.
It denied suggestions that the horses had been whipped or beaten to encourage them, adding that officials had been "puzzled" at the reports. The statement also demanded that people using social media stop "slandering" the event.
Change in the air
Despite the shrine's denials, campaigners say change is certainly in the air.
"Suddenly, this year, the outcry has been very loud," said Yamazaki. "Images from the event have gone out on social media sites and it has damaged the image of animal welfare in Japan."
Yuki Arawaka agrees. "The euthanizing of a horse this year has outraged the public," she said. "The images are all over social media, the story has been picked up by mainstream media in Japan and people now know just how cruel this event is."
"Never before has there been so much anger aimed at the event," she added. "And that suggests to me that this is the beginning of the end for the festival."
Edited by: John Silk