Kagura, a form of Shinto theatrical dance, is increasingly winning the hearts of young women in Shimane Prefecture, carving out a new fan base in the traditionally male-dominated music ritual that is grappling with a shortage of successors.
Dubbing themselves “kagurājo,” (kagura girls) these women typically express their admiration for the tradition by photographing various kagura shows, even going so far as to organize annual photo exhibitions to showcase their work.
One of the chief architects of the new movement is 32-year-old Kanae Takemoto of the Shimane city of Hamada.
“I remember that when I once went to watch a kagura show, there were a few young girls in the audience who looked just as fascinated as the elderly and children around them with the performance on stage, and I was curious to know who they were,” Takemoto said.
“Forming a community with them has broadened the way I enjoy and appreciate Kagura.”
Kagura, which can be literally translated as “God entertainment,” originates from ancient Japanese mythology and is said to have been dedicated to Shinto deities to entertain them. In the prefecture’s western Iwami region, where the practice is popular, the ritualistic dance is known as Iwami kagura.
The kagura girls started their activities nearly six years ago when about 15 of the aficionados hailing from the Iwami district held their first-ever joshikai (all-girl gathering) to discuss their favorite actors and programs.
They then held their first photo exhibition in fall 2015, followed by subsequent sessions that spanned four different locations in the Shimane cities of Hamada and Gotsu. Their photographs quickly gained popularity with depiction of actors’ extravagant attire, dignified facial expressions and the way they play instruments.
Once word spread on social media, their exhibitions began attracting a rush of visitors, even including those previously uninterested in the theatrical dance. The exhibitions eventually expanded into much bigger events that now cover 10 different locations in cities such as Matsue and Izumo.
A native of Gotsu, Takemoto has dedicated herself to the practice of kagura performance together with her younger brother since she was an elementary school child. Even now, she periodically helps local children practice the ritual, but she laments that she can’t help but notice the number of participants has been decreasing in recent years.
Not only that, the demographic of kagura actors is increasingly graying and shrinking, Takemoto said, voicing concerns over the uncertainty that clouds the future of the passion of her life.
Such a view is echoed by Megumi Okamoto, 44, another kagura girl.
“I hope that (the group’s) activity will spark an interest among more people in taking up the genre and going to visit the theaters to watch it,” she said, expressing hopes that the ritual traditionally dominated by men will find a new demographic to sustain its survival.
The group’s recent activity has included creating desk calendars featuring their photographs as gifts for supporters who have helped fund exhibitions. Their notoriety has risen so much that kagura actors and operators now occasionally reach out to them and ask if they can provide their photos.
“Their photos exquisitely capture fine details of actors’ demeanors and expressions on stage,” said Toyoichi Yamaguchi, 71, head of an Iwami kagura association based in Gotsu.
“When people talk about Iwami kagura, they tend to focus on how powerful its dance is, but I appreciate how their photos draw attention to different aspects of the performance,” he said.
This monthly feature focuses on topics and issues covered by the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the Chugoku region. The original article was published on March 13.