KAGURA : The roots of Japanese traditional performing arts

The History and Present Situation of Kagura as a Foundational Form of Japanese Culture
(Abstract)
Mikami, Toshimi

What is Kagura?

In the field of folklore studies, kagura is classified as a type of folk performing art and is considered to be a source of many other folk performing arts. Kagura encompasses a wide variety of diverse forms.

Matsuri  (Japanese Shinto festivals) are believed to have their origin in the distant past, in the summoning of the gods in conjunction with dance and music. The word kagura is thought to be derived through a phonetic change from kamukura, which in turn was derived from kamikura, the building in which the god was believed to reside during matsuri.

The Shinto religion was born from this type of ancient religious practice and nature worship. Belief systems that arrived in Japan later, such as Buddhism, merged together with Shinto, and the uniquely Japanese fusion of Shinto and Buddhism known as Shugendo emerged and flourished. Still today, the influence of Shugendo can be seen in numerous matsuri.

The earliest form of kagura is thought to be that in which a miko (female shaman) is voluntarily possessed by a god and receives a divine message. Today miko dances that retain traces of kamigakari  (spirit possession) still exist in several places, and are known as miko kagura in the currently accepted system of classification for kagura.

Over time, a basic structure for these rituals was established: create a ritual space where the god will be summoned; purify the space; summon the god; eat and drink together with the god; soothe or appease the god; and finally, after prayers and the reception of oracles, bid farewell to the god.

Other major categories of kagura include torimono kagura, yudate kagura, and shishi kagura.

The torimono of torimono kagura refers to objects held in the hands of dancers. This category includes liturgical dances in which a mask is not worn, such as purification dances, dances for summoning a god and dances for bidding farewell to a god, as well as dances in which a mask is worn to signify that a god has appeared. From the beginning of the 17th century, under the influence of the highly successful Noh theater form, dances on mythical subjects similar in form to masked dramas became popular.

In yudate kagura water is boiled in a cauldron, around which gods are summoned by means of liturgical dances. Many of these festivals are performed in the winter and continue through an entire night; at daybreak the hot water is scattered over the participants, and those touched by it are cleansed of the year’s pollution and reborn in a purified state.

Shishi kagura (lion kagura) are lion dances that were transmitted from the continent and have undergone changes in Japan. A god is called upon to reside in the lion’s head, and the lion goes through the village, stopping at each house to perform a ritual prayer dance. Even today, the lion dance group “Ise Daikagura” continues to perform around Western Japan in a form that has remained virtually unchanged for 400 years. In the Tohoku region as well, during certain periods of the year, a few remaining shishi kagura groups continue to make their rounds.

Kagura forms are classified into these four categories on the basis of their central features. The contents of these categories are not clearly separated, however, and are often intermixed in particular cases.

The present situation of Kagura and its practitioners

In the past, kagura was mainly performed by Shinto priests. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, however, the new government’s policy of separating Shinto from Buddhism led to the establishment of State Shinto, under which Shinto priests were forbidden from taking part in performing arts. As a result, kagura traditions in many areas were carried on by local lay people.

In many kagura of the present day, priests carry out the liturgical rituals, while performing arts are often undertaken by “preservation societies” consisting of lay people. While some kagura traditions are in danger of disappearing due to population decline and a shortage of new tradition bearers, in other areas kagura traditions are being transformed into folk performing arts and are flourishing in that role.

Kagura and Japan’s foundational culture

Among the diverse forms of kagura that have developed in accordance with the climates and cultures of various regions, many still exist that allow one to imagine the original religious outlook and the foundational culture of Japanese people.

Kagura is matsuri, and basically the first god to be summoned at a matsuri is the local god who is worshipped (matsuru) at the village shrine, after which the “eight million gods” of the entire country are summoned. In many kagura, after these gods have been called, “wild gods” appear who have not been summoned, such as demon gods (kishin) and mountain gods. These wild gods may arrive angrily, saying for example “What do you think you’re doing, holding a matsuri without my permission? I refuse to let you use even a single tree from this mountain!” At this point the head priest begins a negotiation with the angry god, and the ensuing verbal argument is expressed by kagura in many cases.

The masks for these wild gods are usually fearsome masks, known as kishinmen. Gods appearing in the aspect of demons are a clear expression of the fundamental religious outlook of Japanese people, and in the opinion of this writer the kishin or demon god is an embodiment of nature itself.

The Japanese archipelago is rich in water and vegetation, and since the Jomon Period has been favored with a variety of food sources. On the other hand it is an environment where volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and typhoons are frequent occurrences. Famines and epidemics were also terrifying events beyond human control.

Natural disasters are inevitable. Nature provides its blessings to human beings, but at times snatches away those blessings and takes away human lives as well. Thus people came to see nature as having a double aspect, as god and as demon, and created the concept of the wild god known as kishin.

Matsuri and the Rebirth of Japan

The Tohoku region, which suffered massive destruction from the Great East Japan Earthquake in March of this year, has been visited by similar disasters in the past. For this reason the people of the region have a strong religious faith, and have developed many types of kagura and folk performing arts.

Even this summer, under extremely harsh conditions, many performances of kagura and performing arts were held across the Tohoku region. People who have lost their families or their property, people who have lost their shrines and the tools that are normally necessary for carrying out matsuri, have nevertheless regained the power to live by participating in folk performing arts.

It is clear from this that for people in the disaster area, matsuri and folk performing arts have become a vital source of support. Reviving matsuri throughout the country is of great importance, I think, for carrying on the way of life of Japanese people and for the rebirth of Japan. I believe this is also a part of the foundational culture of East Asia, a common heritage that I hope we will continue to share.

(English translation by Edgar W. Pope)

For 2011 Hangzhou ・Symposium on Traditional Chinese Operas         10/15-17

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text & photo ⓒ Toshimi Mikami
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