Lion in Tokyo


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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.

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