Staff writerKimono-clad Ang Chooi Kean floats gracefully along, accompanied by 1,400 years of Japanese tradition. Performing the “kokiriko,” a traditional Japanese dance, the Malaysia native, 5,300 km from home, seems an unlikely candidate to be preserving and spreading Japan’s ancient arts.Ang is one of a group of several students studying traditional Japanese dance in preparation for the 13th annual International Cultural Dance Festival in November. The students gathered recently in Kawasaki for their summer training camp.Ang, who hopes to be a Japanese teacher when she returns to Malaysia, first joined the Overseas Students and Japanese People’s Friendship Circle because she wanted to be a Japanese teacher and thought it was her best chance to learn about Japan, the people and the culture. “When I came to Japan I never imagined I would perform on a stage,” said the jovial Ang, a student at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. Although she has been a member of the group for four years, Ang still expresses surprise that she was able to overcome a lack of experience and stage fright to perform in front of the 2,300 people who attend the performance each year.The dance festival is the brainchild of Akira Shoda, 70, who cites the loneliness foreign students often experience as well as a provincial attitude and lack of awareness on the part of Japanese as major reasons for initiating the festival. At the time of the first dance festival in 1985, there were fewer than 12,000 foreign students in Japan, compared with more than 50,000 Oct. 18, Shoda said.Foreign students would attend their college classes and then, for lack of an alternative, just go home, he said. Shoda blames this on the inability of Japanese to socialize with foreigners.To provide a forum for cultural exchanges and help students adapt to Japan, as well as experience Japanese culture beyond Tokyo, Shoda hit upon the idea of fostering better relations through the study of traditional dance. “Tokyo is not Japan,” an emphatic Shoda said. If students are confined to the nation’s bustling capital and see only the inside of a classroom they end up with a narrow idea of the country, he said.Each year, students practice on weekends and attend training sessions in the summer, often traveling to visit the birthplace of a particular dance. Dances performed vary from year to year, but as a rule they are taught by instructors native to each dance’s area of origin. This year’s performance will feature two ancient dances, both from along the Sea of Japan. The kokiriko is from Taira, a small village in Toyama Prefecture, with an altitude nearly a third of its population of 1,500. The “zenidaiko,” is a dance from Okinoshima, a small island 44 km off Shimane Prefecture.Through interaction with tradition and a variety of Japanese people, Shoda hopes students come in contact with the culture and human element of Japan. “It is not just about politics and economics; culture is the lifeblood of a country. No matter how much you talk about politics and economics, people are at the center.”This year’s International Cultural Dance Festival will be held Nov. 30 at Nakano’s Sun Plaza in Tokyo’s Nakano Ward. It will begin at 1:30 p.m. For more information, call (044) 900-9234.
Foreign students bring new life to traditional dances