Japan from the inside out

Chakkirako: Its time has come

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 17, 2008

BIG NEWS on the festival front: The Agency for Cultural Affairs announced it will nominate the chakkirako and 13 other items for registration as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO next year.

A UNESCO committee will formally decide on the registration of 17 items from Japan in September 2009. They’ve already informally agreed to include Noh, Kabuki, and the Joruri puppet theater on the list. These three were cited in UNESCO’s Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

As UNESCO’s website puts it, “The 90 proclaimed cultural expressions and spaces are located in 70 countries from all regions of the world.”

I hope they don’t get any big ideas about hip-hop!

But that overlooks the big question: What is chakkirako?

It’s a folk art in which a group of 10 girls aged 5 to 15 dress in brightly colored kimono to perform six dances accompanied by adult women singing songs. As they dance, the girls strike together implements known as chakkirako, which are bamboo sticks decorated with colorful paper strips and bells. That suggests the name has an onomatopoetic origin. The girls also perform fan dances.

Chakkirako is performed once a year on 15 January (Little New Year’s) as an offering at the Kainan Shinto shrine in Miura, Kanagawa, for a good fishing harvest and maritime safety. A shrine was first built on that site in 982.

A curious aspect of chakkirako is that no one knows exactly how it began. There is a legend that 12th-century shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo visited the area and saw a group of people fishing from the rocks along the shore. To provide a little impromptu entertainment for the distinguished man, a girl started fooling around with some bamboo she picked up off the beach and her mother sang along.

But the actual recorded history of the dance goes back about 300 years. It was handed down mostly among the local fishermen’s wives. At one point there were concerns it would die out because of a shortage of girls capable of performing it, but a group of volunteers formed a preservation committee and got to work. Now their efforts are about to bear fruit.

Here we go again: I really don’t see the point of this UNESCO project. As the work of the Miura preservation committee demonstrates, people are quite willing to donate their time and effort to maintain cultural traditions they think have value. The world doesn’t need a group of international cultural bureaucrats making qualitative judgments for us, and we certainly don’t need to put them on the public payroll.

But the local people would welcome registration for two reasons. First, it would earn them international recognition, and second, this recognition could increase tourism to the area.

They might have a point. I couldn’t find any YouTube videos of the performance, and there isn’t a lot of other information about it on the Web, either.

Who knows? In a few more years, chakkirako might become a household word!

2 Responses to “Chakkirako: Its time has come”

  1. […] blogs about the nomination of 14 cultural expressions by the Agency of Cultural Affair as Intangible Cultural Heritage. One of the items is chakkirako. […]

  2. mac said

    Down our way, the big thing is Yakyuken Odori which probably is not going to be registered as a cultural treasure anytime in the current century but has a certain charm and should be interesting to social historians.

    Yakyuken is a stylized form of jan-ken-pon (scissors-paper-rock) using baseball umpire signals like, ‘strike, safe’ throwing and batting movements. Being just along the coast from Tokushima, its been developed into a mass street dance very much along the lines of the Awa Odori fools dance which can be anything from sweet, charming and serene (think infants to geriatric old kimonoed ladies) to sexy, raucous and insane (think young hot chicks to taiko driven taekwondo groups) depending on who is dancing it. The basic moves and riff are here; but check the final event below.

    Having spent months wondering what all those kids were doing working out dancing routines to the windows of shops in the local mall, (as there are only so many boy or girl band to audition for) I now know. It was in preparation for the 松山まつり where for three nights upto 5,000 folks at a time got out and shook their booties in a very touching local festival. Its great to see, in this day and age, a community get out together breaking all barriers of age and position, and very obviously have fun together.

    I am not sure how and when in history baseball merged with the Fools Dance, its one for the anthropologists to work out, but its seems to be quite local to Matsuyama. One of the nights took it even further and made it into ‘Kakyuken Samba’ ( ) which might have lacked an absolute Latin sensuality was not far behind it and blew any impression of Japan as a stuffy, conservative and uptight society away. I cant understand Japan’s fascination with baseball but it goes back to the 19th century.

    All the big banks and companies had teams out competing, bosses out in little white hot pants and tabi boots making fools of themselves, literally hundreds of women chanting in beautiful colorful matching kimonos … and that endless, endless irritating but hypnotic rhythm. As usual, the crowd was wonderful. All the folks at the front took their shoes off to sit on prepared blue plastic sheets so those behind could see. Infants were left to run free on street with most groups having “sweepers” to catch the lost ones at the end. And it was all cleared away in minutes in military precision. No drunks, no fights, no attitudes.

    Here are a few links I pulled at random.

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