Kids at tsunami-hit school keep traditional dances alive

by Akane Sujino

Kyodo

Students at a junior high school in tsunami-hit Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, are making a fresh start in their efforts to keep traditional performing arts alive.

Tsugaruishi Junior High School was inundated by 60 cm of floodwater when the giant tsunami spawned by the Great East Japan Earthquake hit the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011.

Although all of the roughly 140 students and teachers at the school evacuated to safe ground, 52 of the 117 houses in the school district were damaged or destroyed.

For around 20 years, student volunteers at the school have been practicing four traditional performing arts from the region as an extracurricular activity.

These include the Norinowaki “shishi odori” (deer dance), the Sakae “dori daiko” (traditional drum ensemble), the Tsugaruishi “sansa” dance, and the Akamae “soran” (a local dance and folk song).

Over the years, the group has been helping to preserve the traditional art forms by performing them at the school’s annual culture festival.

But their efforts were disrupted in 2011 when their presentation had to be abandoned because of the havoc wreaked by the tsunami. The waves washed away the two public halls they used as rehearsal sites as well as the traditional instruments and clothes used in the performances.

Last fall, however, the local arts returned to the festival.

Toshiki Nagahora, who became deputy chairman of the student council in December 2011, was the driving force behind the initiative to get them back on the program.

Nagahora was initiated into the shishi odori as a third-grader. He was coached by his father Masato, 57, who belongs to a group trying to preserve the tradition.

“If (performances) had been abandoned for a second consecutive year, our local traditions would have died,” Nagahora, 15, said. “I love the deer dance, so I made up my mind to continue performing it.”

After students and teachers got behind him, the school gave him the green light to resume the presentations under certain conditions. These included ensuring all of the roughly 130 students participate in one of the performances. The instruments needed, including “taiko” drums, were assembled thanks to supporters from across the country.

Last August, a new batch of students started practicing for the culture festival in October.

Nagahora and some of the older students who participated in the performances two years ago coached them.

Takahiko Takanohashi, a teacher who supervised preparations for the shishi odori, praised them for “trying to pass on a genuine local art” with the support of the preservation group.

On Oct. 28, the day of the festival, the performances drew loud applause from an audience of around 300 in the gym, including parents and residents.

When the deer dance started, Nagahora’s father shouted out to the dancers, including his son.

“I couldn’t sit still. I was moved to tears,” he said.

His son vowed to keep the tradition alive.

“Even after graduation, I will continue to give lessons to the younger students.”