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There is no place that loves Sakamoto Ryoma like Kochi.

Born in 1836 in the area that is now known as Kochi Prefecture, Sakamoto was one of the leading figures who opposed the Tokugawa shogunate and brought an end to the Edo Period in 1868, ushering in an era of modernization under the restored rule of Emperor Meiji.

Statues of the hometown hero dot the city of Kochi, whether they’re towering above its beautiful Katsurahama coastline or reclined in front of a local farm-to-table restaurant. Japan’s most populous Sakamoto fan club regularly hosts meetings and events in his honor, but above all, a yearly birthday celebration held in Chuo Park in November draws hundreds, even thousands, of spectators. This year, his birthday held even greater significance: It was a second chance for the Yosakoi Festival to take place in 2020.

The festival started in Kochi in 1954 and has since been adopted by other Japanese cities such as Osaka and Sapporo, and even pops up overseas in New York, Paris and Sao Paulo. While the main event usually takes place in August, for the past 11 years, Sakomoto’s birthday celebration has also incorporated Kochi’s dance of the same name.

“In the Edo Period, Sakamoto Ryoma had a low position among the samurai,” says Yoshitsugu Katata, lead organizer for the Sakamoto Ryoma birthday festival. “He rose up not because of his status, but because of his independent thinking on how to make Japan a better place.

“A sense of freedom and independence is reflected in the yosakoi dance. In order to make that spirit a central part of the birthday festival, we decided to hold yosakoi events on his birthday.”

This year, the main Yosakoi Festival was canceled for the first time since its inception due to concerns related to the spread of COVID-19. This made Sakamoto’s birthday celebration on Nov. 15 the final opportunity in 2020 for yosakoi performers and fans to enjoy the dance in the city where it was born.

“Due to coronavirus, we haven’t danced in so long,” says Sakai, 81, who has danced in the past 50 Yosakoi Festivals. “It was beyond disappointing that we couldn’t dance in August, like we always do.”

“This has definitely been the most challenging year for Yosakoi,” says Megumi Moriki, the birthday celebration’s master of ceremonies. “It’s hard to not be able to welcome teams from outside the prefecture.”

The Yosakoi Festival is a titan among summer celebrations. Unlike many others, the event doesn’t have religious origins — instead, it was established by local businesses in an effort to revitalize the city. Held over four days each year in August, it started with 21 teams and 750 dancers. By the 60th edition in 2013, there were 214 teams and roughly 20,000 dancers in total. Four years later, delegations from around the world came to participate in the Kochi festival for the first time.

“Normally, in a festival there is distance between the dancers and the spectators,” says Tanabe, who has danced in 47 straight festivals. “But in Yosakoi, people march right beside the spectators, so we are close together.

“Plus, there is the meaning of yosakoi (a combination of the words yoru, meaning night, and koi, to come). There is an erotic component to it as well.”

The rules of Yosakoi are simple: There are a few basic moves that all teams must incorporate into their performances, including the use of small, paddle-like instruments called naruko to make a clapping sound.

Dance teams parade through the city in front of trucks adorned with decorations and huge, decadent flags. The dance performances are enhanced by lavish, colorful costumes, the tireless sounds of the naruko and a fusion of pop and festival music, with accompanying movements spanning everything from traditional Japanese to hip-hop to elements adopted from other cultures and traditions. Yosakoi’s expansion beyond Kochi is a testament to the festival’s willingness to embrace creativity, freedom and outsiders.

“I think anyone who sees the dancing and the festival can fall in love with yosakoi in an instant,” Moriki says. “Even if you don’t understand Japanese, it’s the energy and the spirit.”

The makeup of the teams is just as fluid: Some comprise entire families of all ages (this year’s age range went from 4 to 82), some feature skilled dancers who rehearse for months in advance, and some include old-timers who’ve participated so many times they don’t bother practicing anymore.

In all this year, more than 25 teams of dancers took part with around 500 performers. While this year’s numbers pale in comparison to previous editions of the Yosakoi Festival, the decision to hold an event of any scale is worth questioning due to the threat posed by the coronavirus. Although on the day of the birthday event, Kochi Prefecture had zero active cases of COVID-19, many people had flown in from around Japan to experience the festival while taking advantage of deals offered by the Go To Travel campaign.

As an extra precaution, every participant was required to pass health screenings in advance, practices were held remotely and the parties that surround the main event were canceled. At the event itself, those entering Chuo Park had their temperatures checked and sanitizer applied to their hands. According to government data, three people have tested positive for COVID-19 since Nov. 15, though The Japan Times was not able to trace where these cases came from.

“Everyone from the dance team leaders to the food tents had to do more than usual. I’m very thankful for how much extra effort everyone put in in order to pull this off,” says Katata. “It’s really hard for us to try to create something new every single year, but that is a part of the spirit of yosakoi. We want people to be able to freely enjoy themselves.”

This year, the sole Yosakoi event held in Kochi was preceded by a chorus of “Happy Birthday” in honor of Sakamoto, and the reveal of a massive, three-story cake adorned with 185 lit candles. Despite a year mired by a pandemic, Kochi’s sense of identity and pride has endured.

“In actuality, Sakamoto Ryoma and yosakoi aren’t connected,” Katata says, “but I think that they both represent the lively and independent spirit of Kochi.”

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