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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.