Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (55) Japanese festivals on the road to Seoul

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 22, 2007

JAPANESE FESTIVALS SOMETIMES GO ON THE ROAD to perform overseas, and one of the biggest matsuri road trips took place this weekend as 18 groups from Japan went to Seoul, South Korea, to participate in the two-day Japan-South Korea Exchange Festival 2007. The festival began in 2005, the official year of friendship between the two countries that commemorated the 40th anniversary of the restoration of relations, and it has become an annual event since then.

The exchange festival is billed as a grass-roots event in which citizens can enjoy the local cultural traditions of both countries. Roughly 1,800 people in 62 different groups from both countries performed. There was also a recreation of the procession of envoys sent from the Joseon Kingdom to Japan about 400 years ago.

Japanese media reports note that this year’s event is about 50% larger in scale than the previous two, and one of the reasons is the addition of the city of Seoul as one of the formal backers. South Korea’s capital is investing a lot of time and energy to tourism and self-promotion, and the city suspended vehicular traffic in the center of town over the weekend for parades and performances on stage.

Readers who have been following this site’s festival reports will be familiar with several of the Japanese groups who performed in Seoul. The Saturday parade featured Yosakoi Soran dancers. This was an excellent choice; the dance style is energetic, popular throughout Japan, and combines both traditional and modern elements. Dancers are free to create their own arrangements as long as they use the traditional wooden clappers and incorporate part of the basic song into their musical arrangements.

Also making the trip to Seoul were the Yamaga Toro dancers, who were covered here just last week, and the lantern carriers from the Kanto Festival in Akita Prefecture. The women from Yamaga perform the dance every August wearing yukata, which are summer kimono. I hope they wore something extra underneath to keep them warm on Seoul’s chilly autumn streets! Also, there was a performance of Hanagasa Odori from Yamagata Prefecture, shown in the first photo.

Not all of the performances were strictly traditional; the baton team from the PL Gakuen High School in Osaka also went. (This school is famous in Japan as a baseball powerhouse, incidentally.) The Kyoto-based group Bati-holic appeared; they present a modern take on tradition in which younger performers use the ingredients of taiko drum, flute, and dance to create something original.

Korean cultural traditions also were on display; shown in the second photo here in the yellow costumes is a daechuida group. (Feel free to correct my Romanization.) This musical performance is an important intangible cultural property of South Korea dating from the Joseon period. Consisting of wind and percussion instruments, these groups led processions in which the king took part.

There were several other performances of Korean intangible cultural properties, while many groups presented more contemporary offerings. One highlight was a performance of ganggangsullae, a traditional Korean circle dance, which was designed to get the spectators involved in the action with the performers.

When I wrote this, there weren’t many reports on the web in English. Here’s one from the Korea Times, and this seems to have been the text of a KBS broadcast. The Chosun Ilbo had a few reports in Japanese earlier in the week, but I couldn’t find anything on their English site. There were plenty of reports in the Japanese press; both Kyodo and the national Mainichi Shimbun had stories. (Japanese-language links are as evanescent as the dew, which is why I don’t provide them.) Many local and regional newspapers ran articles on the event, particularly the newspapers from those areas that are the home of the festivals represented.

Here is the Japanese website for the event. Unfortunately for English-only readers, it is just in Japanese and Korean. Click the circular photos at the lower right to see more details on the Korean and Japanese groups that appeared. I couldn’t find a comparable Korean site; if anyone knows of one, let me know and I’ll link to it.

This event sounds like a capital idea and the perfect vehicle for combining several contemporary currents: the growing grassroots interaction between Japan and Korea, Seoul’s efforts at municipal self-promotion, the showcasing of cultural traditions, and the updating and modernization of traditions while paying homage to the past.

With all these good vibes, I’m loath to be kechi about any of this, but I was a bit disappointed in this line in the KBS report:

It will be a great opportunity for foreigners in Seoul to learn more about Korea.

Yes it was, and it was also a great opportunity for foreigners and Koreans in Seoul to learn more about Japan!

Need I mention that if the organizers need any English language help for next year’s event, I’m the guy to ask? If anything is right down my alley, this is it!

(Thanks to Aceface for tipping me off about this event a couple of months ago.)

2 Responses to “Matsuri da! (55) Japanese festivals on the road to Seoul”

  1. Onibaba said

    Ampontan, thank you for all your “Matsuri da!” posts! I’m enjoying reading through them.

    About this post: The “Korea Times” article link is broken. Looks like the URL has been changed to

  2. ampontan said

    Onibaba: Thanks for the tip and the link. I fixed it. Glad you like these posts–that one was written several months ago!

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