Wed, Mar 25, 2020

Iki Kagura: Sacred dance performance
of Shinto priests to ward off misfortune

Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs

Daidai-Kagura, or the Grand-Kagura. The six-hour performance is held only twice a year, in August and in December. (Photo courtesy of Iki-Biz)
By Matthew Sueda / CIR for Iki, Nagasaki Pref.

Have you ever heard of Iki Island? Iki is one of Nagasaki Prefecture’s remote islands, located off the northern coast of Kyushu in southwestern Japan. In Japan’s oldest historical record, the Kojiki, there is a legend about the birth and formation of the nation which places Iki as the 5th island created in the archipelago. In this document, Iki is sometimes referred to as “Amenohitotsubashira,” the “bashira” in this name meaning ‘pillar,’ indicating a location that connects the heavens and earth. It is thought that Iki was given the designation as a bridge connecting these two realms because of its spiritual importance to people at the time.

Historical ruins also demonstrate Iki’s central role in the early trade of physical goods, ideas, and culture between the areas that comprise modern-day China, Korea, and Japan. The island continues to maintain more than 150 Shinto shrines, some of which are amongst the oldest in all of Japan. These spiritual places are an important part of the lives of the people who live on Iki; many can be found in the middle of the forest or near the ocean, so visiting them is a great way to learn about the island while enjoying its natural beauty.

Daidai kagura is held at Sumiyoshi Shrine on Dec. 20 every year. (Photo courtesy of Iki-Biz)

It is within this context that I would like to introduce Iki Kagura, a performance of Shinto rites that has been passed down for nearly 700 years. Generally speaking, a kagura is a dance performed in times of celebration in order to honor and call upon the gods. In Iki’s case, kagura is also used as a purification rite in order to ward off misfortune. Iki Kagura is firmly grounded in traditional ceremonial rites, presenting the viewer with many fresh discoveries.

A performance to celebrate the great deeds of Sarutahiko* (Photo courtesy of Iki city)

Different from the Kagura traditions in other regions, where members of the general public may get together and perform, the individuals who dance and play the music in Iki’s kagura must be part of the Shinto priesthood in order to perform and pass down their knowledge; because of this exclusivity, it is considered to be a very sacred and valuable cultural asset. In 1987, the Japanese government designated Iki Kagura as one of the nation’s important intangible folk cultural properties.

A kagura performance to praise the noble achievements of Yatagarasu, a mythical three-legged crow. Yatagarasu was sent by the gods as a guide and oracle for Emperor Jinmu on his journey eastward in search of a proper place to rule the land. (Photo courtesy of Iki-Biz)

It is said that Kagura originated during the Nanboku-cho period (Northern and Southern Courts period), spanning from 1336 to 1392. An examination of historical documents handed down in Iki’s shrine families reveals that in the seventh year of the Eikyo period (1435), there were a number of kagura dancers on the island; during the early days of the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573) the kagura was already being widely performed. However, during this time, the kagura was quite different from the regulated performances of today. It is said that the old performances reflected a mix of Shinto and Buddhist teachings without clear distinctions.

The old performance style was revised in the first year of the Kanbun period (1661) in order to create a uniquely Shinto kagura. With this revision, the songs in Iki Kagura became accessible to the general public for the first time. Successive alterations over the years changed the hand gestures and movements of the dance, slowly developing into the Kagura we know today.

In its current form, Iki Kagura is classified into four different categories (Hei-kagura, Sho-kagura, Dai-kagura, Daidai-kagura) depending on the scale of the song and dance, and priests perform around 200 times around the island throughout the year. Out of all the Iki Kagura performances, the Daidai-kagura, or Grand Kagura is the most solemn and deferential; it is a very special Shinto ceremony.

At least twelve priests must gather to perform a series of dances involving spears, swords, bows, and other props. There are masked retellings of old legends, purification ceremonies, and even displays of sumo wrestling techniques. Did I mention that all dances are performed in the small space of two tatami mats (1.8 square meters)? The Daidai-kagura takes seven to eight hours to complete, and it is performed only twice every year, once in the summer and once in the winter.

Iki Kagura has a rich history, and its form continues to shift with the times. Kagura brings us together in a celebration of history and tradition, and yet it also reminds us to look forward; its performance prompts us to reflect upon the continually changing nature of our communities, our values, and our hopes for the future.

Shiken, or four swords

Performers chant and dance about the many different swords that make appearances in the Kojiki. Performers cut and chase away evils and misfortunes, dispersing them away in all directions.

Shiken
Sarutahiko*

In Japanese mythology there is a legend called Tenson-korin that tells the story of the descent of Amaterasu’s grandson Ninigi from the heavens to Japan. The way down to earth is difficult and the road splits in many different directions; Sarutahiko comes to greet and guide Ninigi. Sarutahiko is a symbol of strength and guidance and this kagura praises his great deeds.

Sarutahiko
Honen-mai, or dance for a bountiful year

This dance expresses gratitude for the rich agricultural harvest and the prosperity it brings. Mochi rice cakes are scattered into the audience.

Honen-mai

(Photos courtesy of Iki City Tourism Federation
and Iki Kagura Preservation Association
unless otherwise indicated)

(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)

Profile

Matthew Sueda

Matthew is a fourth generation Japanese American living on Iki island, where he works as the Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) in the local government. He was born and raised in Hilo, Hawaii, and he attended a small liberal arts school called Swarthmore College, where he began studying Japanese to learn more about his heritage.

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