Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (46): Japan’s dancing fools!

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 16, 2007

IN OUR PREVIOUS MATSURI REPORTS, we’ve covered festivals with mikoshi races, mikoshi spinning, team competitions to smash mikoshi, groups charging down steep hillsides with a mikoshi at night, boat races, tug-of-war competitions with huge ropes, tug-of-war competitions with huge logs, drinking contests, fights to gain possession of balls, water splashing, and simulated sex. What else could possibly go on at a Japanese festival?


These three events are all O-Bon festivals held during the period from August 13 to 16, and all feature dancing. In fact, the whole point of the first and most famous festival, the Awa Odori festival of Tokushima Prefecture, is to get ripped, get goofy, and dance. (If you’ve seen Jack Nicholson’s dance scene in Goin’ South, you get the idea.)

That’s exactly how it all began. The local feudal lord held a banquet to celebrate the completion of his new castle in 1587. Japanese parties can get just as crazy as parties anywhere else once the participants get a snootful, and on this occasion, everyone seems to have gotten their snoots very full indeed. They got drunk and started dancing, and the dancing was so wacky and so much fun they decided to do it every year. Now, instead of dancing in the castle, they form groups called ren and do it down main street.

They still get drunk, too, but nowadays most people wait until after the dances are over.

Each ren has from 50 to 500 people, and anywhere from 200 to 500 ren perform a day. The dances are done to a bright, fast-paced melody accompanied by shamisen, gongs, and flutes. The lyrics of the song go:

Odoru aho ni miru aho, onaji aho nara odoranya son son.

Or (very) roughly:
Fools watch the dancing fools,
Since we’re all fools, we might as well dance.

And don’t let the tradition of more than 400 years fool you—one of the most important elements of the dance is spontaneity. The men are noted for letting it all hang out, while the women are more elegant. Once the official presentation is over, the spectators can join in the dance themselves, and the streets of Tokushima fill up with drunken, dancing Japanese.

Try this page for some more photos, all excellent. This Japanese site has some short but groovy videos. And clicking on this link lets you hear the music and lyrics. For more, here’s a YouTube clip, and another, and somebody stop me before I put up one more! (One wonders if the Tokushima maternity clinics get crowded every May.)

The Awa Odori dancers wear traditional summer yukata, but the 20 or so men who do the Chankoko Dance on the island of Fukue off Nagasaki Prefecture wear grass skirts, headgear decorated with flowers, and taiko drums around their waists. They dance in a circle and sing Omo omo onde, oniyamyode, omo onde. It’s anybody’s guess what that means, but some suspect it was originally a Buddhist sutra.

Most Japanese festivals are derived from Shinto, but this was originally a Buddhist dance to invoke the deities, and has been performed locally for more than 800 years. The men proceed from house to house and are invited to dance at the homes of people whose relatives died in the past year. They also dance at Buddhist temples.

The name Chankoko is onamatopoetic and comes from the sound of the drums and gongs accompanying the dance. The unfamiliar lyrics and the atypical costumes suggest its origins lie outside of Japan, perhaps in islands further south.

Finally, there is the Kujira Odori, or Whale Dance, of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture. The first recorded whale hunters in Japan are from this municipality, and every year during the O-Bon season they perform a dance that mimes whale hunting. It has been performed for more than 300 years as a prayer for a good catch.

The dancers, singers, and drummers are known for their colorful clothing. They wear happi coats with red, white, and blue horizontal stripes, red headbands, yellow sashes, and white trousers. The dancers carry hollowed bamboo tubes that are about 50 centimeters long and filled with pebbles. The tubes are wrapped with tape of three different colors and have red tassels on the ends. The dancers shake these tubes as they dance their way onto the bow of a ship. Each of the colors is symbolic: black represents the whales, red stands for the red snapper (a fish), green is for the land, and white is for the waves.

Three dance festivals (out of dozens) held during the same week every year: one in celebration of getting drunk and dancing, another from the South Pacific with men in grass skirts, and a third celebrating whaling. Where else in the world will you find such simultaneous variety in folk traditions? And this in a country reputed for its homogeneity!

Here’s an excellent video of Awa Odori taken (I think) from local television.

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