The judge, left, laughs together with a festival paricipant. (Hofu City Office)
It may seem comical to the outsider, but for residents of Hofu, Yamaguchi Prefecture, the waraiko is a serious affair. On the first Sunday of December, the chief priest of a local Shinto shrine leads 21 parishioners in an ancient ceremony to offer one's heartiest laughter to the gods.
The waraiko is a "laughing ritual" that goes back some 800 years in a district of Hofu - located at the western tip of Japan's main island - that was first settled during the Kamakura period (1185-1333). Historians think the ritual was initiated by farmers there as a way of forgetting about their hardships for a while. The privilege of offering one's laughter to the deities is now inherited, and it is carefully guarded by the 21 lucky households.
At around 11 a.m., the participants gather at the house of the ritual leader - a post that rotates among the families from one year to the next - and sit in a circle in a tatami-mat room with a Shinto altar. In front of the altar are rice, vegetables, fish, and other offerings. The seating order is fixed. Food and drinks are brought out, and participants enjoy a full meal, mingling not just among themselves but supposedly also with the gods who are being honored.
Around 1 p.m., just when the fun is reaching its peak, the priest calls the party to order and announces the start of a very unique ritual.
Pairs of participants seated opposite one another are called upon, one at a time, to offer three guffaws, the first as a sign of gratitude for that year's harvest, the second to pray for a good harvest the following year, and the third to laugh all one's troubles away.
There is a judge who bangs on a metal washtub once if the chortling is too timid or insincere or if the pair of "chucklers" are out of sync. They keep on laughing until they can do so in perfect unison, laughing from the bottom of their hearts. When the judge is satisfied, he bangs on the tub repeatedly, signaling that the pair has successfully passed. The same tub has been in use for close to 50 years, so it is heavily dented and even has some holes in it.
Psychologists say laughing can help wipe away your blues. Even if it's forced at first, continuous laughter can help release pent-up tension, and soon you'll find yourself laughing at the top of your lungs. There are a number of other festivals in Japan besides waraiko where laughter plays a major role. These traditional ceremonies may have been early attempts to take advantage of the therapeutic effects of laughter.