As with many cultures, before modernization the Japanese people relied heavily on agriculture, holding a spiritual affinity with and respecting the power of nature. Bountiful harvests were celebrated in festivities that played a significant role in community activities, and the distinctive folk rituals that arose in Japan’s various regions reflected traditional ways of life.

To photographer Yusuke Nishimura, this is all fascinating. Over the course of 3½ years, he traveled all across Japan to take photos of locals performing traditional Japanese folk dances and rituals. The collection of portraits, published as the photobook “The Folk” on Dec. 25 last year, is a departure from his usual work as a well-known commercial photographer.

“I like taking pictures of people because it’s a very different approach from how you see objects,” says Nishimura. “People, unlike objects, are not always perfect and I enjoy the randomness of it.”

Nishimura, 32, moved to California in 2002 and enrolled in the California State University, Long Beach, originally to pursue his career in filmmaking. While working on a movie set, however, he developed a keen interest in photography and decided to study commercial photography at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Since then, he hasn’t looked back, taking advertising and editorial images for the likes of Vogue Japan and Fuji TV.

The project on folk performing art, though, provided a different experience. “There’s a human connection that’s hard to find in commercial work,” he says as he explains how capturing the power and spirituality of a dance is no easy feat.

“When I first encountered Japanese folk performing arts at Meiji Shrine, it was after the sun had set and torches had been set up along the road leading to the main temple,” he continues. “It was in that limited light that I saw a shishi-odori (deer dance) from Iwate. When I got close, my first impression of it was that it was scary, but at the same time I felt something spiritual.”

It was the darkness of the surroundings that, Nishimura says, contrasted perfectly with the vibrant colors of the dancer’s costumes and highlighted the energy of their movements. And it was for this reason that his dramatic portraits are all set against jet-black backgrounds.

Many of the performing arts documented in “The Folk” are registered UNESCO Intangible Cultural Assets, which means that they are protected by the government, something that the photographer views, perhaps surprisingly, as a double-edged sword. Although communities are proud of obtaining such statuses for traditional activities, once something is labeled as an Intangible Cultural Assets there is little or no room for experimentation or change, says Nishimura.

“What is the true reason for performing (these rituals)?” he asks. “Many of the folk performing arts are linked to rituals and prayers to incite a good year and healthy harvests. These are practices that have become obsolete in our information-oriented society. And what’s the motivation to continue when you can’t change anything?”

While they do still exist, though, such traditions have much to tell about Japan’s history and the photographer encourages those interested to explore folk dances beyond the nation’s tourist attractions.

Forget Tokyo and Osaka, he says, “You’ll probably get tired after going to them so many times.” Instead, he recommends traveling to rural areas to discover a lesser-known side of Japanese culture. On the island of Miyakojima in Okinawa, Nishimura himself was surprised to encounter several masked locals who, while covered head to toe in mud, walked around a village smearing more mud onto people and their houses. Referred to as Paantu, these men were performing a ritual to exorcise evil spirits.

“It’s rare to see something like that in Japan,” says Nishimura. “It’s completely different from what I had seen of Japanese culture.”

Visiting small localities has other advantages, he adds: “Locals are very welcoming to newcomers. When they see new people, they’re very happy and want to treat them like family.”

One of the photographer’s favorite shoots took place in a rural district of Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, where he witnessed a performance of Fujimori no Taasobi, a yoshuku geino (preliminary celebration), an annual March festival at the Oi Hachimangu Shrine that includes dances that emulate the process of rice production. The dancers are boys, ranging from elementary to high school students, and each is assigned a role by his age. One photo portrays a performer donning a colorful sash and a hanagasa (flower hat) called a Shokko, which is made from gold and silver paper. Adorning the headdress are cherry-blossom ornaments that project upward, and for the Sarudengaku dance, young men move their heads to mimic swaying cherry blossoms, while praying for a good harvest. As the local boys get older and their minds and bodies grow, they also go through the festival’s rite of passage as their dance roles change.

To Nishimura, this highlights one of the values of such traditions.

“I think,” he says, “it’s a very healthy way to learn about nature and how important life is.”

“The Folk,” which has an English appendix explaining each image, is published by Little More and is ¥9,504 at their online store www.littlemore.co.jp.

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