Calls for End to Animal Cruelty Follow Outrage as Horse Dies at Ageuma Shinji Festival

The Ageuma Shinji (Rising Horse) festival in Mie prefecture, Japan, has been revered for centuries, but has recently become a sad example of animal cruelty masquerading as entertainment.

The death of a horse named Merzouga, who had to be euthanized after breaking its leg during the festival, has sparked outrage and prompted the Life Investigation Agency NGO to file criminal complaints against more than 130 people associated with the event, the BBC reports. The festival, which dates back centuries, involves forcing horses to run up a steep hill and clear a two-meter high wall while enduring verbal abuse and physical punishment from spectators.

The Ageuma Shinji Festival has a history spanning nearly seven centuries.

Photo: YouTube / Ronin Dave
The Ageuma Shinji Festival has a history spanning nearly seven centuries.

A Grim Festival of Abuse

The Ageuma Shinji festival spans two days and features riders from six city districts, each coaxing their horses to traverse a challenging 100-meter track. The perilous journey includes scaling a steep hill and overcoming a formidable two-meter high embankment before entering the grounds of the Tado Taisha Shinto shrine. However, the festival’s proceedings are marred by acts of violence and mistreatment towards the horses, reports the Asahi Shimbun. Videos and photographs reveal onlookers slapping the horses as they approach the embankment and resorting to ropes, sticks, and whips to coerce them forward.

Criminal Complaints and Violations of Animal Welfare Laws

Following the tragic fate of Merzouga, the Life Investigation Agency NGO took action by filing criminal complaints against individuals involved in the festival. The accusations extend to the jockeys, event organizers, shrine officials, and representatives from the six districts responsible for selecting the horses, the SCMP reports. These complaints underscore the violation of animal welfare laws and draw attention to the festival’s unsafe and distressing environment for the horses.

Horses at the festival endure verbal abuse and physical punishment from spectators.

Photo: YouTube / Ronin Dave
Horses at the festival endure verbal abuse and physical punishment from spectators.

Life Investigation Agency ‘s founder, Ren Yabuki, said he had evidence of 140 incidents of animal abuse caught on video, many occurring before the horses are forced to jump the wall.

“Unless the obvious acts of abuse – beating the horses with sticks, punching and kicking them, hitting them with ropes and yelling – are recognised as violations of the Animal Protection Law, then the fundamental problem behind this ritual will never be resolved,” he told the SCMP.

While the towering embankment stands as a symbol of cruelty within the festival, animal rights activists emphasize that the entire environment is hazardous and detrimental to the horses’ well-being.

The constant presence of people who yell at them and resort to violence creates an atmosphere of extreme stress for these gentle creatures, reports Unseen Japan. The potential for ensuring the safety of both horses and spectators in such a hostile environment is deemed impossible.

The Ageuma Shinji Festival in Mie prefecture, Japan, involves horses being forced to run up a steep hill and clear a two-meter high wall.

Photo: YouTube / Ronin Dave
The Ageuma Shinji Festival involves horses being forced to run up a steep hill and clear a two-meter high wall.

From Tradition to Entertainment

The Ageuma Shinji festival boasts a history spanning nearly seven centuries, the BBC reports. Originally, it was a solemn procession on horseback through city streets, with participants adorned in elaborate costumes paying homage to the gods and praying for a bountiful harvest upon reaching the shrine.

However, critics assert that in recent decades, the festival has transformed into a spectacle, driven by the addition of the embankment obstacle to attract more visitors.

“The event has been transformed from a tradition into entertainment and it needs to be ended as soon as possible,” Yabuki told the South China Morning Post.

The festival has recently gained attention for its acts of animal cruelty masquerading as entertainment.

Photo: YouTube / Ronin Dave
The festival has recently gained attention for its acts of animal cruelty masquerading as entertainment.

This evolution has diverted the festival’s purpose from tradition to entertainment, endangering the lives of horses in the process.

“If it is not a traditional event, then it is just animal entertainment masquerading as a Shinto ritual, and there is no reason why it should not be stopped,” a campaigner known as mihomi, who attended the festival this year, told the BBC. “Locals, young and old, men and women, were cheering and shouting for joy and sorrow as the horses crashed into the walls and tumbled down the hill, as if they were betting.”

“The children were saying ‘good luck’ to the horse which had fallen and was suffering, instead of ‘poor thing,'” she said. “One local standing behind me said, ‘I think I’ll name my grandchild after the next successful horse.'”

A horse named Merzouga had to be euthanized after breaking its leg during the festival.

Photo: YouTube / Ronin Dave
A horse named Merzouga had to be euthanized after breaking its leg during the festival.

Legal Action as the Last Resort

The Ageuma Shinji festival has long been a subject of contention, with complaints about animal cruelty dating back nearly 20 years. Although no animal rights activists protested at the event, feedback and criticisms have steadily increased.

The shrine and city council officials contend that they have engaged in discussions regarding the well-being of the horses with animal welfare organizations and the local government. However, Yabuki dismisses these claims as inadequate and insists that legal action remains the only viable solution to safeguard the horses slated to participate in future editions of the festival.

Feeling pressure from animal rights campaigners, the Mie prefectural government plans to review the slope and structure of the wall in line with animal welfare concerns, the Independent reports.

A Call for Change

The Ageuma Shinji festival exemplifies the exploitation and abuse endured by animals in the name of entertainment. The tragic death of Merzouga and the subsequent outcry from animal rights activists highlight the urgent need for change. By raising awareness, supporting legal actions, and demanding accountability, we can collectively work towards the abolition of festivals that perpetuate animal cruelty.

As advocates for animal rights, we must amplify our voices, support legal measures, and educate others about the plight of animals exploited in such festivals. By striving for change, we can create a world that values compassion, empathy, and the well-being of all living creatures.

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Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, spending time with his daughters, and coffee.
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