The COVID-19 pandemic has driven to the brink of folding the only apparel shop in Hiroshima Prefecture that specializes in creating costumes for performers of kagura, a form of Shinto theatrical dance.
The predicament faced by the shop, which has long helped sustain the local tradition, is now putting the survival of the ritualistic dance, defined by its sartorial beauty, at risk in Hiroshima.
Founded in 1998, the shop, Kaguraya, has dedicated itself to producing kagura outfits with their meticulously designed embroidery.
But its cash flow situation started to deteriorate in February, when orders from local kagura communities — themselves grappling with the economic fallout of the pandemic — stopped coming in.
With the resumption of orders still nowhere in sight, the shop was eventually forced to lay off all of its seven employees, including four full-time workers, at the end of May.
“We had artisans who had worked for us for more than 10 years,” lamented Hidemi Sugezawa, 62, president of the shop, adding that he felt sorry to have to let them go. The layoffs have now left Sugezawa as the only person keeping the shop running.
Each outfit is typically the result of months of hand stitching by artisans, making it difficult for the shop to earn revenue on a daily basis. The most elaborate costumes require more than six months of work and sell for around ¥2 million apiece, but even they are not as profitable as many may think.
“I’ve had some rough patches over the years, but I’ve been able to get through them because of the sheer passion I have for kagura,” said Sugezawa.
“This time around, though, I just don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s tough.”
His dismay is shared by his 64-year-old brother, Yoshinori, who, as an artisan of the traditional masks worn by kagura dancers, runs his own business at a studio in the town of Kitahiroshima.
Yoshinori, too, saw the flow of new orders stop after February. As a show of support, a couple of kagura fans bought masks that cost them ¥30,000 to ¥40,000 a piece, but that has done little to allay his concerns over the future of the business.
Kagura communities have been unable to commit to buying new costumes because the cancellations of their shows have cut off their main source of income. Shows slated to be performed at Hiroshima Prefectural Citizen’s Culture Center, for example, have all been called off, with the fate of fall festivals now in jeopardy. Not only that, it costs a lot just to maintain the trucks they use to carry equipment.
“Even if the shows resumed, I wonder if profitability would be good enough because they would have to keep some seats empty” for social distancing purposes, Yoshinori said.
“Orders for masks will remain sluggish as long as the shows continue to be scaled back.”
Shinji Ueda, a representative of a kagura community in the Otsuka district of Kitahiroshima, says he has been making purchases from the Sugezawa brothers, placing great trust in the services the two provide.
“We’ve known each other for a long time, and they have always been meticulous in responding to even my most abrupt and minute requests,” Ueda said.
It’s the kind of relationship of trust that Sugezawa cherishes.
“What I think is ideal is the tradition of kagura being supported by local artisans and fans. I want to keep my shop afloat no matter what,” Sugasawa 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 June 2.