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Goin’ Japanesque!

Touring Group of Ise Daikagura’s Shishimai Lion Dancers Bring Good Luck Around Japan

You would often find Shishimai (lion dance; traditional dance performance in which a dancer or a group of dancers wear a lion costume with a lion mask and mimic the movement of a lion) performed at shrines, department stores and other crowd-pulling spots during New Year’s holidays. Shishimai is said to be the most widely spread folk performance art in Japan. Through its long history, it has branched off into various forms and styles. Shishimai has never really become obsolete while people’s life styles have largely changed. That is probably because people have cherished the spiritually invigorating power of Shishimai and other forms of traditional performance art.


History of Ise Daikagura


Writer’s Photo

Ise Daikagura was started more than 400 years ago, for people who lived far away from Ise Jingu Shrine and could not visit the shrine. Kagura (shinto ritual dance) performers, who are dispatched from the shrine, tour around the remote areas, dedicating prayers of purification, distributing lucky charms of the shrine at each household and perform the ritual dance at the shrine of each area. Ise Daikagura Kosha, the official performance groups of Ise Shrine, was designated as a nationally important intangible folk cultural asset in 1981.

Writer’s Photo

A group of kagura performers visit each household and perform the purification ritual in the kitchen, the altar and other spots in the house. Until around some decades ago, the visit by the performing group was considered a great entertainment event for those in the remote rural areas and people really looked forward to the grand dance performance held at their local shrines. The performing group sets out on a tour around the same period every year but as many married couples tend to be absent from their houses because of work nowadays, people can send in postcards indicating the requested day of the performing groups to visit, so many people can enjoy their performance at their houses on the day they designate in advance. You can also have them perform a purification ritual for your house even if you are not present by pasting an envelope of gift money for them on the entrance of your house in advance.


Shishimai Lion Dance

Writer’s Photo

The Shishimai dance we can enjoy today can be traced back to two origins.

The style of Shishimai in which two performers dance to mimic the movement of a lion, as seen in the photo above, has derived from the traditional performance art (Bugaku / Gigaku) of around the 7th century and is considered to have been introduced from China.

Another style of Shishimai performed by only one dancer has derived from the traditional performance art created around the 16th century and called “furyu.” This form of Shishimai has then branched off into a style of Shishimai performed by a group of three dancers (Sanbiki Shishimai) and the one performed by a group of 8 dancers (Shishi Odori), which are seen today respectively in the Kanto and the Tohoku area but no Shishimai of the same origin as these can be seen today in the western Japan.

Writer’s Photo

Shishimai dance is performed with various props.

In Suzu No Mai (dance of bell), which is performed first among a whole set of dances, dancers holding “gohei,” a pair of sticks of bamboo or other wood with a white piece of paper between them, in one hand and a bell in the other, praise the virtue of all the gods and goddesses and pray for the repose of the dead souls.

In Tsurugi No Mai (dance of sword), the lion head worn by one of the performers has a treasure sword in its mouth, and dances around to purify the evil spirits in all directions amidst the sound of drums.


Japanese Musical Instruments

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Now let’s take a look at the musical instruments played in kagura performance.

Kagura flute is a Japanese traditional instrument made of bamboo.

Kagura drum is also referred to as “shime daiko” and played with two drum sticks in the traditional performance art called Bugaku.


Ise Daikagura’s Areas of Activity

Writer’s Photo

All the photos in this article are of the kagura performance group called Morimoto Chudayu. It is one of the groups of Ise Daikagura Kosha and is said to be the most truthful to the traditional style of ritual performance. There used to be 12 groups of Ise Daikagura Kosha in its heyday but today there are only 5 groups all based in Kuwana City, Mie Prefecture. Each of them has its own area of activity and distributes the lucky charms of Ise Jingu Shrine in the area.

The areas of activity of Ise Daikagura Kosha cover 12 prefectures in the Kinki and the Chugoku areas as well as Shikoku Island. All the members of Ise Daikagura Kosha come to Kuwana City at the time of the shrine rituals held in Mie Prefecture. Every year, they first participate in the ritual at Masuda Shrine in Kuwana City, Mie Prefecture, on the 24th of December and then set out on a one year tour of purification from New Year’s eve.


Traditional Performance Art and Cultural Identity

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If you look outside Japan, there is also a traditional performance art called Barong in Indonesia’s Bali, which is very similar to Japanese Shishimai, and Chinese version of “Lion Dance” is performed in many China towns around the world.

In Japan, people who moved to Hokkaido in the early 20th century started to perform the traditional performance art they brought from their home countries and founded shrines in Hokkaido, which was still largely undeveloped at the time. The particular rhythm and the style the traditional performance art must have had a power to heighten and solidify their cultural identity.


Shishimai Lion’s Bite on the Head

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If you have a chance to watch a Shishimai performance, make sure to have your head bitten by the lion. The idea is that the lion of Shishimai is believed to eat evil spirits and protect you against bad lucks and illness. People customarily have their children’s heads bitten by the lion to pray for their health and success at school. Many children become scared of the lion and cry, but parents brave it to pray for the happiness of their children.

While only the dances and the cool style of performance in Shishimai tend to catch people’s attention, every religious and cultural aspect of it is significant in determining its importance as a cultural tradition.

Related Articles:
The Japanese Traditional Musical Art Gagaku is the World’s Oldest Orchestra
Japanese Taiko Drum Basics: See the Shape, Know the Name

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About the author

I have worked in a museum as a curator and I specialize is in craft products. I have grown up in the city, but now enjoy the country life. From an environment rich in nature, I will report to you on seasonal events and customs of Japan, foods and how to make them. I look forward to introducing special moments in Japan that you will not see in ordinary guidebooks.

View all articles by Kunie