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Home » 5. Rites and Festivals » Types of Rituals
Village rituals (sonraku saishi) are observances performed in spatially limited, fixed settlements (mura – commonly translated in English as "village"). This represents one attempt to define these rituals based on their shared features, but the concept remains imprecise. One way that these rituals can be categorized is based on the central location where they take place, as for example 1.) Imperial Court Rituals, 2.) Ise Grand Shrine Rituals, 3.) Shrine Rituals, and 4.) Folk Rituals. On the one hand there exists the view that equates 4.) Folk Rituals with sonraku saishi, while others also include rituals performed at shrines – 02.) and 3.) – in this category. Another way of categorizing sonraku saishi is based on their scale, as evident in the Folklore Dictionary's (Minzokugaku jiten – compiled under the supervision of Yanagita Kunio) division into: 1.) Family Observances, 2.) Observances of Small Groups Within a Village , 3.) Village Observances, 4.) Combined Village Observances, 5.) County and Local Observances, 6.) Observances of and Religious Confraternities and Religious Groups, 7.) Observances of Commercial Groups, and 8.) Observances directed at deities that are the object of temporary fads (hayarigami). Although categories 3.) to 5.) can be thought to constitute sonraku saishi, this scale-based approach to sonraku saishi has not been sufficiently conceptualized yet.
       In other words, when employing the term sonraku saishi the approaches of either focusing on 1.) the understanding of their place of conduct and scale, or 2.) emphasizing their relationship to the general form and character of observances are intertwined.
       As for the problem concerning the place and scale, rituals, which are performed in villages (mura) but center on shrines, cannot always be called sonraku saishi. Wether they can be called sonraku saishi depends on the relationship between the shrine-based rituals and the entire village. Not only shrine-based rituals but rituals held in public places and the entrance to villages, as well as rituals performed in temples have the characteristics of sonraku saishi. In fact, many village rituals are performed at shrines, and in some cases shrine observances have also become village observances. Such shrines also function as symbols of communal cohesion in the village as expressed by such concepts as mura ujigami and mura chinju, which refer to the local deities of a village. These shrines on the one hand and shrines at which specific worship groups such as confraternities () that exist within village society worship and shrines frequented by so-called sūkeisha (patron worshiper residing outside the geographical bounds of a given shrine parish) on the other hand have to be distinguished. In this sense, the importance of observances for mura ujigami and mura chinju to discern the concrete form of sonraku saishi becomes evident.
       As for the second problem, it is concerned with the concepts of the village (sonraku) and observances. The basic features of a village are collectivity and a sedentary lifestyle. The traditional form of this kind of union differs from the voluntary union that forms the basis of cities because it is constituted of geographical and blood relationships. In fact, the origins and development of each village differ according to historical circumstances. While these differing backgrounds are reflected in the varied forms village observances can take, the observances share in common that the individuality of the various families that comprise a village is suppressed in favor of expressing the totality of the village. This is the basic characteristic of sonraku saishi.
       Furthermore, in connection with their characteristic of expressing the totality of the village, the external and internal situation of the community on the occasion of these observances. In other words, if we look at the contents of these observances, they delineate the spatial boundaries of the village sphere and, indeed, there are cases in which this confirmation of boundaries has become an essential ceremonial constituent of these observances. Moreover, there are cases in which work is suspended for the entire village on the day of the observance (saijitsu) and the village community engages in ritual purification (saikai). The entire village community, or alternatively its full-fledged members, take part in the observances in specific roles and are obligated to perform various duties. Great importance is also given to the communal intake of food and drink. In many cases, the influence of the existence of ritual groups such as miyaza worship groups and age-based groups can be discerned in the organizational structure of the village observances. Sonraku saishi are generally performed independently by each village and extremely exclusive in nature. People who originate in a village but have left it for various reasons are invited back to the village on the occasion of village observances, but there are no cases in which observances are maintained through the participation or attendance of complete outsiders.
       However, villages are not self-contained but exist as part of a larger society, and are therefore affected by external influences. On the other hand, changes in the internal sphere of villages (mura), such as the individualization of village inhabitants and households, can result in changes in the performance pattern and general nature of village observances. Especially with the advancement of modernization since the Meiji period (1868-1912), events such as the movement of populations and the emergence of new information systems heightened the degree of these changes, causing a major change in the structure of villages (mura). In the course of this development, new elements were added to old observances while some observances died out completely. As a result, there emerged the tendency that to the mind of village inhabitants observances became something very diffuse. As long as the villagers themselves perceive an observance as a village observance, their perception has to be acknowledged. There are theories according to which village observances are explained based on the differing means of livelihood found in agricultural communities and fishing villages, to mention two examples, but in particular rice-farming communities and their observances have been employed as the main explanatory model in the case of research on sonraku saishi.

— Sakurai Haruo
"Establishment of a National Learning Institute for the Dissemination of Research on Shinto and Japanese Culture"
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