Omagarihama Lion Dance revived


Omagarihama Lion Dance is an intangible folklore cultural asset handed down for generations in the Omagarihama district of Higashi-Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture. It dates back to the Edo period (1603-1868) when it was first dedicated to Tamatsukuri Shrine in the district during the reign of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646-1709), the fifth shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty. It was danced excitedly and heroically by local fishermen.In the early days, fishermen used to begin dancing on January 20 in the lunar calendar and kept doing so for three days and three nights visiting each household in the district. Unfortunately, the dance with such a long history came to be rarely performed in modern days. So locals formed the current "Omagarihama Lion Dance Preservation Society" in 1973. The society began giving dance lessons at junior high schools in the district in the 80s, hoping to pass the heritage down to future generations.



However, the fishing village of Omagarihama was ravaged by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami along with many other areas in the Tohoku region. The preservation society was no exception. Many of its members and their families and relatives lost their lives. All its nine lion masks were washed away together with costumes, flutes and drums.The society was forced to become dormant. Surviving members were divided in opinion over whether they should or could resume their activity. For most elder members, the top priority was an early recovery of their stable living environment. In contrast, younger members wanted to resuscitate the traditional dance in hopes of cheering the afflicted people in their district. Yet no one wanted to see the society disbanded. All the members, young and old alike, seemed to be agreed on continuation of their society. When they met in August that year, they came to a unanimous decision on the society’s continuation. They shared the view that the sooner they resumed their activity, the better and easier they could expand it and get support from their community.


As they tried to revive the dance, they were faced with two big problems – how to get tools and dancers. All the tools necessary for the dance had been washed away. Fortunately, however, four heavily damaged lion masks were recovered from the debris and two of them were repaired with the aid of the Agency for Cultural Affairs. They enlisted support from various people and groups across the country to regain minimum necessary costumes, drums and flutes. How to get good dancers was more challenging. Many of the members were young and they still lacked training. In particular, most of them could not sing hamajinku and saitarobushi – the important elements of the lion dance. The two songs are sung while the lions take a rest after dancing. Members had to practice repeatedly before the dance could be reperformed. Their hard work was featured in an NHK program. Enka singer Sayuri Ishikawa volunteered to train some members to sing saitarobushi, a popular folk ballad of Miyagi Prefecture.


In January 2012, ten months after the quake-tsunami tragedy, the members of the preservation society visited the temporary houses for evacuees in Higashi-Matsushima and performed the lion dance to remember the victims, thank Omagarihama for bringing them up and cheer the afflicted people there. The dance made its comeback. Many locals rejoiced in tears at the revival of their tradition.


 Some time after the revival performance, a troupe of lion dancers organized by the society went on a nationwide tour  to express their thanks for the support offered during their hard time. For a while after that, members of the society were kept busy appearing in traditional arts contests and other events held in various parts of the country. They are less busy as they get fewer offers these days. They get less support accordingly.

The society has resumed giving dance lessons to children in a bid to ensure its continued existence. It is now steadily becoming self-reliant. Omagarihama Lion Dance is indeed one of Japanese traditions everyone hopes to see passed down to successive generations.


(Written by: Naoto Takeda)


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