Japan is a festival land.
There are many festivals throughout the year, some national, some regional, with most having ties to communal and/or ethnic memory and traditions that have long become non-ethnic and homogenized in Japan’s march toward joining the world community of nations.
Today, many young Japanese are only beginning to learn that Okinawa ‘may have not been’ a version of a Japanese identity, or that the Buraku and the Ainu people exist, or that Zainichi Koreans have had a precarious relationship to the Japanese nation in relation to what the mainstream has been taught.
Like most first-world nations today, National Festivals and associated dances have their origins in communities resisting the onslaught of the nation-builders, dominant clans that would massacre them and keep them controlled. Now they are part of a ‘mosaic’ of ‘traditional Japanese’ dances and festivals, where before, they may have been resisting that ‘Japanese’ identity, which comes from an amalgamation, like other national identities, of particular groups of allied ethnicities and clans.
Many festivals have their origins in religious or post-war and post-battle strategies of appeasement toward certain communities after battle. Other festivals have roots in religious ceremonies in relation to the natural cycles of life or to honor gods and goddesses, while others have links with farmers and fishermen and bounty. Still others are ceremonies of survival and empowerment. In more than a few instances, they are a combination of these named situations, and more.
Many of these meanings have lost their focus in modern Japan. Most of the festivals and dances, of course, have needed to keep up with urbanization and modernization. This also includes Japan’s notion of itself as a homogenized, unified nation of a single people. The ‘other,’ then, are named legally other in laws and are distinctly excluded from nation, through micro-regulations, etc, much like most other nations of our present world.
Consequently, these beautiful dances, are sometimes left to signify and represent ‘artistic beauty’ or exoticism and entertainment, merely a personal ‘fun’, perhaps. Many of these dances have their origins in Okinawa, Kagoshima, and from the Ainu, and/or other areas and communities that were nationalized through colonization in earlier times (and ongoing today as ‘minority’ communities). Many elders and well-thought younger persons, who have significant memory and links to what has been lost and what it has cost to maintain these dances and songs, feel these motions and tones, music and forms in a way much deeper than how most mainstream Japanese today may feel them. Put another way: Japanese may be proud of these festival dances, and may even revere these traditions, but understand them as only a singular “Japanese” tradition from sometime long ago, through homogenized singular national ethnic myths or national versions of wars fought and natural disasters, stripping them of the uniquely diverse and possibly terrifying and most often empowering histories that point to people and communities that are not even recognized or trivialized.
In nations as old as Japan, what pre-figured (existed before) a “Japan,” is inside of these traditions. They are now considered ‘preserved Japanese traditions.’ In this way, it is a way for the people in the present, to feel their continuities and ancient histories, even though they are merely named ‘Japanese’ in the modern era. Thus, a “Japanese-ness” could be crafted by way of naming these festivals and songs and dances, as ‘traditions of nation.’ They are, and they are not. They may also signify resistance to nation, by communities and clans and ethnicities that were eventually assimilated into the Japanese nation. For this reason, it is important that these traditions are preserved and empowered.
This video is of an excellent performance group performing in August of 2012.
This style of dancing is called ‘Awa Odori’ 阿波踊り. The Awa Festival is a 3-day festival celebrated on Shikoku in Japan, in August, as one of the hundreds of events celebrating O-Bon お盆 (National Buddhist Festival honoring the Dead). Awa, is the old term from the middle ages, naming what is today–Tokushima prefecture. This style of dancing is believed to have begun in the late 1500s.
A fairly good overview of the Awa dance and festival is at wikipedia.
Today, most watch the thousands of trained dancers in parades through the streets. Originally, Everyone in the community would dance together. Today, most people feel too embarrassed to dance or say they ‘can’t’ (internalized oppression in the nation-state). People listen to and watch these dancers in parades and in one or more the hundreds of performances on the streets and in entertainment halls. There are, however, many smaller celebrations where some choose to participate themselves, accompanied by the traditional instruments (flute, shamisen, bells, taiko drums).
When history is lost and manipulated by various forces in nation-making, ideas become contested along the lines of haves and have-nots, and what is ‘best for the nation.’ When reading histories of the Awa-Odori, its religious and communal roots and relations to nations are fairly clear, yet bring up many questions and silences.
In any case, this performance of Awa-Odori by this group is wonderful. The clip contains short snippets of a few of the performances, where one can see the beauty of this form of Japanese dance. Each hand gesture, finger movement, leg and foot movement, degree of bending and leaning, signifies something. One can see the elements of nature (mountains, wind, oceans, etc.) in these movements and gestures.
I always remember these dances from childhood and remember them as more than just something ‘pretty.’ There is history in these dances, no matter how urbanized and nationalized and homogenized they are. They retain that spark of beauty, grace, and some of its original forms.