Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (124): Kareki ni hana

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The expression kareki ni hana (枯れ木に花) literally means a flower on a dead tree, but the Japanese use it to refer to something that had waned but is now flourishing again. Whenever they want to come up with something fresh for the traditional Shinto festivals — the best free entertainment in the world — all they have to do is look into their past to see what they’ve already done. Here are three recent examples.


For years, the Kagoshimanians in Kimotsuki-cho performed the kagibiki as part of the Ohaku Shinto shrine spring festival in supplication for a good harvest, good health, and safety. There are two parts to the event — the first is a stick dance, which is shown here. That’s followed by the kagibiki itself, which is a tug-of-war with a 1.4-meter-long pole instead of a rope. In events of this sort, the teams are usually separated by geographical region, and one team’s victory is an indication that the divinities will bless them with a good crop. In this town, the east and west face off against each other.

Performances of the event stopped five years ago because there were too few children in the small agricultural community to conduct the dance properly. This year, however, some nearby small towns sent over some kids to help out, and 18 people in the local preservation society cut out sticks from the trees behind the shrine to provide all the equipment they needed.

The dancers are also the pullers during the kagibiki, but the other townspeople join in as the spirit moves them, once the blood starts rising with the beat of the taiko drums. One 90-year-old woman brought her children and grandchildren to watch. “I hadn’t seen it in a long time,” she explained. “I was so thankful I felt like crying. I want them to continue next year.”

Here’s what the big fun looked like in another town where they used what looks like a real tree.


It’s been a lot longer since the Takayamanians in Gifu have performed the children’s kagura (i.e. Shinto dance) during the Hie Shinto shrine spring festival. In fact, it’s been 60 years. In its infinite wisdom, the GHQ during the postwar occupation forbid the performance of the sword dance, one part of the kagura, because swords are not healthy for children or other living things. The other part of this kagura is the halberd dance, and that ended when the guy who taught it died in 1955.

Now that the Americans have bigger fish to fry than to prevent costumed kids in occupied countries from playing with swords under adult supervision, the folks in Takayama thought it was high time to bring it back. The city fathers pitched in two-thirds of the cost to conduct the research and recreate the equipment, and for the rest of the cash they hit up a program sponsored by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport for the creation of “historical environments”. (Why it’s not a program in the Agency for Cultural Affairs, I’m not sure.)

The preservation committee dug into the records, interviewed the people who saw the last performances, and took notes at four other similar shrine dances in the city. The dance involves walking around an octagonal shape created by tatami, and the object is to purify the area in every direction. They made the costumes, the swords, and the halberds, and trained four fifth-grade boys to perform the dance (two for each one).

Said the chairman of preservation committee: “Now it’s up to the courage of the children.”

Isn’t it always?

Mawari Odori

Finally, they’ll be bringing back the mawari odori, or the turning dance, in Yoshinogawa, Tokushima, in August. You’d think they wouldn’t have willingly let the city’s intangible cultural treasure die out, especially because it’s at least 500 years old, but depopulation was the problem. This is the second comeback for the dance, different forms of which are considered one of the three major types of popular festival dances in Japan. It ended the first time in 2003, was restored in 2007 and 2008, and then ended again after a municipal merger and the organizations for maintaining it had not been created.

A city NPO formed an executive committee to keep it going this time, and the committee will transform itself into a preservation committee after August. Their intention is to promote its spread to other small settlements in the area. The mawari odori is actually a combination of song and dance that is an offering to ancestors, but it’s also a form of summer entertainment. The song is in the form of a male-female dialogue during the mid-August bon festival, and believe it or not, the now-sedate bon odori was once an excuse for the young men and women of isolated farming communities to have a little adult fun. An invitation to dance was a de facto invitation to head to the nearest clump of dark bushes as soon as possible to continue with the eternal dance. Bon odori was so bawdy it was actually banned on a couple of occasions during the Edo period.

A chorus leader begins the song, which is the signal to form a circle and start dancing, somewhat like an American square dance. There’s a greater sense of urgency this time; there are only two or three chorus leaders who remember all the words, and they’re getting old. Besides, young adults have plenty of other opportunities to get friendly nowadays. Said the director of the committee: “If we don’t pass it on now, we’ll never be able to revive it again. I hope that many people participate and we can spread the circle of activity.”

Here’s a different version of the dance in Kuroishi, Aomori.

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One Response to “Matsuri da! (124): Kareki ni hana

  1. toadold said

    Depopulation and loss of cultural heritage is not just a Japanese problem. The US has a birth rate that is high enough to grow the population but it is in selective areas and population groups.
    Graduates of “elite” educational institutions tend to have children under the replacement rate for instance. Also the entire teaching of history has gone re-constructionists and has left out a lot of history and concepts, “Dead White Men” for example and in depth studies on why the Roman Republic and subsequent Empire fell.

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