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77-year-old performs, preserves traditional lion dance in Tohoku

by Maiko Sugano

Kyodo

As the oldest member of a group performing the Omagarihama lion dance, Shinichiro Tsuda, 77, feels a powerful duty to preserve the tradition that stretches back more than 300 years in Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture.

“I would like to continue to hand down this tradition,” Tsuda said in an interview.

The lion dance is integral to the Omagarihama district, famous for seaweed farming until the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami destroyed the business. The dance has been designated by the coastal city as an intangible cultural asset.

The Omagarihama Shishimai preservation group to which Tsuda belongs lost four of its roughly 50 members in the disasters, including its chairman, Kazuhide Atsumi.

The shrine to which the group had dedicated the dance was also washed away by the tsunami, along with nine lion costume heads used in the dance.

In the face of this adversity, younger members, including Atsumi’s 31-year-old son, Akiyoshi, came forward to preserve the dance.

Tsuda, who was almost prepared for the breakup of the group, said he was delighted when he saw younger people stepping up to become lion dancers and felt “his effort finally paid off.”

Tsuda joined the preservation group when he was in junior high school.

“I was fascinated by the harshness and vigor of the lion,” Tsuda said.

After performing as a whistle player for a time, he wore the lion costume for the first time when he was 20.

“I felt like I had finally become a grown man” by taking part in one of the major events in the district, Tsuda said.

In the many decades that have followed, he has performed on such occasions as the New Year’s festival at the shrine to pray for people’s health and happiness as well as wedding parties, while working as a seaman aboard cargo ships.

Members of the group have described him as “indispensable.”

Following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the group has received numerous requests to perform the lion dance from volunteers visiting from outside to help reconstruct the region.

In January 2012, the group resumed the tradition for the first time since the disasters.

But instead of their previous practice of walking to the shrine to which the dance had been dedicated, they walked through sites where many residents lived before their homes were destroyed, as well as places where temporary housing has been set up.

Some of the 500 people in the audience were moved to tears as the dancers shouted and drummers banged their instruments.

Seeing the response, Tsuda said he realized that “Omagarihama needs this lion dance.”

The group has since danced some 110 times in less than two years. Tsuda has participated in almost all of the events.

He looks happy whenever he is told by an audience member, “Your lion was the best.”

“I will come and perform anywhere while I am able to,” he said.