Lion in Tokyo


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Lion Dancing In Japan Part 2: The Performance That Just Kept On Going

This post is part two of a three-part series that I am doing on Japanese lion dancing. In this post, I will talk about what happened during the 13 hour long performance day. Part one was about how I joined the Japanese lion dance troupe. Part three will be an analysis of Japanese lion dancing in comparison to Chinese lion dancing.

The Big day

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On performance day I arrived at the shrine where we practiced at 6:30 AM and found the others already getting dressed in special performance gear. It was akimatsuri, or fall festival day, so the shrine was also full of other people busy preparing for the parade later in the day. I found the leader and received my own set of gear. Our get-up consisted of a pair of performance pants, a jacket customized with the name of the shrine, and two pairs of thick wool socks that split your toes into two parts. That’s right: two pairs. We had to double bag our feet because we also had to wear these specially-made straw shoes that looked really authentic but also accurately simulated the feeling of walking barefoot over a carpet of Lego’s. I hate them with a passion.

Once everyone was dressed, the leader led us in paying our respect to the shrine. We then loaded our personal belongings, the drum and the lion onto a cart, or, as I called it, the lion-dance-mobile, and began our 13 hour performance.

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Why was the performance 13 hours long? Because we had to visit every single household, store and restaurant in town. Fortunately, we switched performers at every household, which meant that we only really danced a minute at a time every 15 minutes or so. It was a Wednesday, so even though everyone already knew that we’d be coming, some homes were empty as their owners presumably went to work. As a result, a third of our members always walked a block ahead of the group and knocked on every door Jehovah’s-Witness-style to see if people were home. Only one person turned us down the entire day; most people gladly accepted our offer and gave us an envelope after we finished with the payment inside. I’ll admit it felt a tiny bit like we were extorting people by forcing them to pay for our performance, since not having the lion dance at your house would be bad luck. But hey, tradition is tradition right?

Here’s a video of the routine we did at every house:

The first residence we danced for turned out to be the house of none other than the troupe leader himself. His mother, a grandma who looked to be in her 70s, offered us a plate of homemade rice balls after our performance. Not even 30 minutes later, we danced for a Barbeque restaurant that belonged to the relatives of another member. This time we were served rice balls, Japanese fried chicken, and bottles of Asahi beer. Breakfast for champions. An older member of the troupe walked around the restaurant with a bottle of Asahi and made sure everyone drank their limit and then some. He taught me the word パワハラ, pronounced pa-wa-ha-ra, and explained that it referred to the action of using your status to pressure those inferior to into doing something like drinking. He then refilled my glass and made me finish it in one go. It only took me another glass to figure out that “pawahara” is the Japanese way of saying “power harassment.”

Throughout the day, a surprisingly amount of people offered us food and alcohol. Some were relatives of current members, but most were not related to the team at all. It wasn’t because we gave them an especially good performance either—many of them actually missed the performance because they were busy preparing the food in their kitchens. They offered us food purely out of gratitude and to cheer us on for the rest of the day. The troupe always stayed a while to eat and chat. When we were in a hurry to finish a certain area, the leader picked out half the team to stay and eat while the other half went ahead and danced. I realized how silly I was for making the comparison to extortion earlier. It was clear that it didn’t matter whether or not we gave the best performance; the only thing that mattered was that we followed the tradition and brought fortune to the household through lion dancing.

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At noon we made our way to a neighborhood parking lot and put on a special performance. The first half was a skit featuring an old farmer, his wife and a mischievous monkey, all played by elementary school kids wearing costumes and masks. Dancing to the beat of the taiko, the monkey played pranks on the old farmer and his wife who were only trying to work in their fields. The performance itself was very slow and honestly a little boring to watch, but that didn’t stop the audience from watching the show from beginning to end with smiles on their faces.

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A picture of the skit. I’ll save you from the video as it was fairly boring.

After the farmer, his wife and the monkey exited the stage, the lion entered and began the second half of the performance with a longer version of our regular routine. There was even a “head stack” at the end where the head of the lion sat on the shoulder of the tail and got lifted up for a good 30 seconds. After the head came down, one of the elementary school kids walked onto the stage wearing a hunter costume. He studied the lion for a bit, pulled out his gun, and shot the lion from a distance, stunning it in its place.

Then the hunter walked up, pulled out his katana, and slit the lion’s throat in triumph.

Seriously watch the video below. The first two minutes is the lion stack. At 3:43 the hunter shoots the lion and proceeds to kill it.

Now if you know anything about Chinese lion dancing, you might be FLIPPING THE FUCK OUT right now as I did back then watching this thing happen in real time. The lion is supposed to be a holy creature blessed with the powers to banish evil and bring untold fortune; it is a creature that you treat with respect. I mean, I yelled at people in my troupe for just holding the lion head a wrong way, and here some hunter kid just nonchalantly butchered the lion like a beast. After practicing with the team for a month, I had just developed the notion that even though lion dancing came into Japan from China more than a few hundred years ago, it mostly remained the same in Japan both technically and culturally. Turned out I was very wrong.

The rest of the day went much like the first half, except every performance got a lot sloppier as we gradually got more tired. The minute-long routine was somehow only 30 seconds by the end of the day. We performed for countless houses, a dozen restaurants, the police station, a construction site on a mountain that we had to take a truck up to get to, two gas stations, a hotel where some German tourists took pictures of us, a hospital,  and even two retirement homes. Many of the old folks were unable to see or hear very well but put up big smiles anyways as the lion danced and then walked around the room to tap every old person on the shoulder, an act that I presumed brought them fortune and health. In the evening we did our special performance (skit + lion-killing routine) again at another parking lot on the other side of town. I watched the lion die a second time and died a little inside.

It got dark at around 6PM, but we didn’t finish our day until 8:30PM, 13 and half hours after we started. Everyone was on the verge of collapse when the leader finally announced that our day was finished. We walked the lion-dance-mobile back to the shrine where we changed out of our performance outfit. There was one more thing to do before the day was done: splitting the loot.

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Stacks on stacks on stacks.

Everyone took a pile of envelopes out of the bag where we had been storing them and started opening them one by one. Most of them contained 500 yen coins (roughly $5) and 1000 yen bills ($10), but a few of them had 5000 yen and even 10000 yen ($100) bills. After everything was counted for, the leader took out roughly a third of the pile to be used to run the troupe next year, and divided the rest equally between the 20 or so members. We each got around $170 worth of pay for the day’s dancing.

And thus ended the longest lion dance performance of my life, my first and hopefully not last Japanese lion dance performance. The day was grueling and exhausting, but I had learned more than I could’ve imagined about both Japanese culture and Japanese lion dancing, even though some parts were more than shocking. In part three of this series, I will use what I learned to do a detailed comparison between Japanese and Chinese lion dancing.


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Lion Dancing in Japan Part 1: Strengthen Your Kidneys, Not Muscle

This post is part one of a three-part series that I am doing on Japanese lion dancing. In this post, I will talk about my month practicing and preparing for the performance. Part two is about what happened on the actual performance day itself. Part three will be an analysis of Japanese lion dancing compared to Chinese lion dancing.

On October 12th, 2016, I had the amazing opportunity of performing for 13 hours straight with a local Japanese Lion Dancing Group. Even as I started writing this blog post, a week after the performance, I still feel nothing but fascination, joy, and also complete soreness in every muscle of my body. The experience taught me more about Japanese Lion Dancing and culture than I can imagine. I hope to share everything I learned with you.

Some quick background info: I am an Assistant Language Teacher with the JET Program in the Ehime prefecture of Japan. All throughout my 4 years of college at University of Pennsylvania, I was a member of Penn Lions, Penn’s premiere Chinese Lion Dance Troupe. I will be using what I learned from there to make comparisons between Chinese and Japanese lion dancing in subsequent posts.

Strengthen your kidneys, not muscle

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The Town of Uchiko where I live and work. Population: 17,000

Not even a week after I arrived in the town of Uchiko where I would be teaching for the next year, I was sought out by the local lion dance troupe’s leader. Turns out he worked in the same building as me. Introducing himself as Suzuki, he invited me to join his troupe and perform on the October 12th for the town’s Akimatsuri (秋祭り), or Fall Festival, where people celebrate the year’s harvest. I assumed that he had heard of my background as a Chinese lion dancer and wanted to borrow my talents, so I agreed without a second thought.

A while later I found out that he had always invited the foreign teachers to join his troupe for the sake of international exchange. Or maybe it was just hilarious to have your house blessed by a lion only to find out it was a foreigner inside all along.

Note that even though I called it a “troupe”, the group was really just a bunch of volunteers who would get together a month before the performance day, practice every night, perform on the day of, and never touch the lion again until the same time next year. There was no comparison to my own troupe back in college, where we practiced rigorously for 5 hours a week throughout the year. The casual atmosphere was immediately evident when I arrived at the Shinto Shrine where the team practiced and found everyone sitting in a circle, chatting, smoking and sipping on sake. I spotted Suzuki and quickly joined the circle. After introducing me to everyone, Suzuki wasted no time and handed me a freshly poured cup of sake. “Lesson number one,” he said, “the more you drink, the better you dance.”

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Drinking on the wooden floor of the shrine.

There were around 10 people at practice including myself and other new members. Most of the veteran members were men in their 30’s and 40’s who had been lion dancing for many years. Suzuki himself had been lion dancing for the last 20 years. The team itself, however, was started all the way back around the First World War. Similar to Penn Lions, there was no shifu or coach responsible for training all members like in traditional Chinese lion dance teams. Instead, everything was simply just past from older members to newer members from generation to generation. In all the years of the troupe’s existence, however, there had never been a female member. Suzuki explained to me that the day-long performance would simply be too physically grueling for women. I personally suspected that it was more a result of the ever apparent gender roles in Japan’s society.

We sat around for another half an hour just drinking and chatting before everyone finally decided to practice a little. Suzuki opened a closet on the side of the shrine and took out the lion along with a Taiko drum and its drum stand. The lion looked just as I had expected from Google Image Search: like a northern style Chinese lion with hair similar to that of a Japanese Oni (demon) mask. The drum was just a regular Japanese Taiko drum, but the drum stand was decorated with little branches and paper cutouts that remind me of the exorcism staffs used by Shinto priests. The experienced members got in the lion and showed off the basic routine, which starts and ends with the lion going into the doorway of a house to give blessing to the household. The entire thing only lasted a minute, which was apparently enough dancing for one day as everyone quickly returned to the circle and resumed the drinking for the rest of the first practice.

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The lion. It is apparently as old as the some of the members.

For the next month there were practices every single night of the week; I only ended up going once a week. All the practices had the same basic structure as the first one: show up, sit around and drink, practice for five minutes, sit around and drink some more, mayyyybe practice for another five minutes, sit around and drink, and then clean up. It seemed that after doing this for so many years, most of the guys show up more for the sake of hanging out instead of practicing. I couldn’t blame them: the routine was dead simple. Even the slowest of the new members picked it up after just a few practices. Considering that we would have to perform for 13 hours on the big day, there wasn’t much incentive to perfect the movements either since everyone will get sloppy anyways after the first few hours.

I also found out that on performance day, most households we visit would offer us food and beer to thank us for performing. We would then have to eat and drink out of respect even if we can’t eat another bite. As a result, most of the team end up dancing drunk through most of the day. “And this, is why we drink so much during practice,” Suzuki said to me one night during practice. “Strengthen your kidneys, not muscle.” He then downed his third drink of sake.

For what happened during the performance day itself, continue onto post two of the series.