Accepted paper:

The "Dance of the Herons": Preserving a medieval performing art in changing times


Luise Kahlow (Hosei University Tokyo)

Paper short abstract:

This case study on the folk performing art "Dance of the Herons" introduces the history and characteristics of the tōya preservation organization in Yamaguchi and Tsuwano. Analyzing the challenges of preservation, I will discuss the present-day strategies of the two communities.

Paper long abstract:

The "Dance of the Herons" (sagimai in Tsuwano; sagi-no-mai in Yamaguchi) is a dance with instrumental and vocal accompaniment, performed by two dancers in full-body costumes representing a pair of herons. Born in the fourteenth century as a hayashimono, a musical 'encouragement' for the elaborate floats of Kyoto's Gion festival, it was transmitted via Yamaguchi to nearby Tsuwano (Shimane prefecture) and is only preserved in its old form in these two places. This raises the question of how this tradition was preserved until the present. Unlike many other Japanese performing arts, the "Dance of the Herons" does not have any written text or school; the tradition is handed down orally and by repetition of the dance movements. Responsibility for the execution and funding of the performance falls on the tōya, a term referring to both a person and his house. Found mainly in western Japan, the tōya system takes multiple forms to support religious ceremonies. I will show how this system developed, focusing on its local characteristics in Yamaguchi and Tsuwano, where it is associated with particular houses. Further, I will shed light on the shift from an emphasis on one family in its early period to a system with a number of rotating households in the early Edo period, challenges it faced in the Meiji period, and finally how it maintains its function in the modern age. Due to an aging population, decreasing birthrate and migration of young people to large cities, many communities in Japan now face difficulties handing down their folk performing arts. I will compare how the Yamaguchi and Tsuwano communities preserve their cultural heritage in the present. Are modern regulations, such as designating the "Dance of the Herons" as an Important Cultural Property or establishing a preservation committee (hozonkai), really effective? Do they compensate for the shortcomings of the tōya system? Does the "Dance of the Herons" contribute to forming a community identity that attracts young people? I will try to answer these questions, analyzing the results of my field research and putting them into historical context, relying on earlier research by Japanese scholars.

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