Sacred dance helps preserve community spirit in Tohoku

by May Masangkay

Kyodo

When Masayuki Sasayama’s house was swept away by the tsunami three years ago, he was temporarily separated from his family and forced to stay in an evacuation shelter, but the tragedy did not stop him from helping preserve his hometown’s “kagura,” a traditional performance art dedicated to Shinto gods.

Sasayama, who has been reunited with his family but still lives in temporary housing, is a member of Nanbuhan Jushoin Nengyoji Shihaidaikagura, a group that performs a Shinto dance and plays music dating back to 1699 and which is a vital part of an annual festival in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. Kamaishi is one of the coastal communities devastated by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.

Seven months after the disasters, the group began performing the dance again on a regular basis, even if it meant having to borrow vital supplies, including drums.

Their passion to keep the tradition alive resonated with the private sector and officialdom, both of which have been shifting from post-disaster emergency aid to the long-term rebuilding process that focuses on addressing the psychological care of the affected communities.

As a result, financial help has been extended to intangible cultural assets such as festivals, which are abundant in the Tohoku region.

Last year, the Iwate Prefectural Government officially recognized the local kagura as an intangible cultural asset. Private organizations such as the Foundation for Cultural Heritage and Art Research have offered aid to ensure that the art is protected, giving the final push for Sasayama’s group to make a “full-fledged comeback.”

Aid to intangible cultural assets is part of the foundation’s 2011 “Save our Culture” program launched in the aftermath of the tsunami. Working in cooperation with the New York-based World Monuments Fund, the aim is to preserve and restore cultural heritage, including historic sites and objects damaged on March 11.

“Once a disaster strikes, the focus is on securing food items, medical supplies and shelter, but just as important is the emotional care to the affected people,” said the foundation’s executive director, Hiroshi Komiya.

The project also has support from the Cultural Affairs Agency.

“In the face of a disaster of unprecedented scale, it becomes all the more compelling (for us) to support traditional art and festivals which carry the wishes of reconstruction,” said Satoshi Yamato, the agency’s councilor on cultural properties.

Sasayama, whose group is based in the Tadakoe neighborhood in Kamaishi, recounted how he and other members, while still in the evacuation centers and only two days after the disaster, started looking for their instruments and other materials that were washed away by the tsunami.

Five lion masks, which are central to the dance, were initially lost, although four were later retrieved.

Despite the tragedy and time constraints in preparing for the annual October festival at Ozaki Shrine in Kamaishi, the group pushed through with it.

The 46-year-old Sasayama, who learned the art as a child, felt the festival could not begin without their group, which is responsible for carrying the “goshintai,” or “sacred body of the deity,” from an island via ship to the Shinto shrine where the festival is held.

“The festival is an important opportunity once a year to bring the community together,” he said.

Sasayama, who is self-employed but spends a great deal of time promoting the performance art, said the 3/11 disaster “gave us an even greater sense of crisis that we should be prepared to protect our art just like our forefathers have done.”

“We hope that the full-fledged comeback of this traditional performing art could somewhat serve as a source of strength and inspiration to people,” he said.

And he is hopeful he can pass on the art to future generations.

Tomoya Kikuchi, 15, is one of the youngest performers of the kagura dance. He is ready to inherit the legacy.

“I like everything about this art, the dance, the sound of the drums and flute,” said Kikuchi, a Kamaishi-based junior high school student.

“Right now, Kamaishi is doing its best to rebuild and I hope our dance can brighten up the spirits of the people here,” he said.