The summer season in Japan is about to come to an end, but that doesn’t mean that it’s too late for another festival! Get yourselves off your feet and dance as you witness the quiet Tokushima prefecture celebrate one of the largest dance festivals in the world, the Awa Odori Festival (阿波踊り)!
The earliest origin of the celebration’s dance style came from the Japanese Buddhist priestly dances of the Nembutsu-odori and hinjitsu-odori of the Kamakura Period. This festival’s independent existence as a citywide dance party originated in the year 1586. During this year, Lord Hachisuka Iemasa, the daimyo of the Awa Province decided to host a drunken celebration for the opening of the Tokushima Castle.
After getting excessively drunk on sake, the locals began to stumble back and forth, sing and pick up commonly available musical instruments, starting to play a simple, rhythmic song in which revelers wrote lyrics to. The first verse of the popular folk song praising Lord Hachisuka Iemasa for giving Awa Odori, “Awa Yoshikono Bushi,” is where the order of events was based on.
A decree dating back to the 17th century states that the Awa bon-odori should last for only three days. The days are long enough to disrupt the normal functioning of the city. The order also implied that samurais would join alongside peasants and merchants with their brawling and improper behaviour. The bringing of swords, poles and daggers was prohibited in the year 1674. A few years after, revelers weren’t allowed to dance after midnight and dancers couldn’t wear head or face coverings.
The festival died down during the Meiji period. Tokushima’s indigo trade, the one responsible for financing the celebration, collapsed because of the importing of cheaper chemical dyes. At the start of the Shōwa period, the festival was revitalized and given a new name known as “Awa Odori.” The word “Awa” being the old feudal administration name of the Tokushima Prefecture and the word “odori” simply meaning dance. It was then promoted as the region’s leading tourist attraction.
Traditional music is mostly used during the festival. However, there are certain times where they would start to do stationary dance choreography where their songs will have lyrics in them. One of the examples of this type of music is the Awa Yoshikono. This song isn’t usually sung since some groups don’t have singers in them. Instead of singing, they would break out into the Awa Yoshikono chant. The hayashi kotoba is also chanted in order to encourage the dancers.
Different dances are used depending on the time of day. Nagashi is a restrained dance that is performed in the morning, while the livelier and frenzied dance, Zomeki, is done during the night. The dance for men and children are the same while the steps for women are similar, but differ in posture because of the kimono limiting their movement. Large groups of dancers known as ren have a yakko odori, or kite dance, which involves colorful acrobatic dancers doing somersaults and cartwheels with freestyle choreography.
The Awa Odori Festival is surely something worth seeing during the summer season in Japan!
It’s a celebration where everyone is welcome! If you aren’t a part of a ren, don’t worry! Dance groups are willing to teach you simple dances of the celebration and maybe you’ll be able to dance along with them too! It doesn’t matter if you’re skilled at it or not. As the motto of the festival says, “you’re a fool if you dance, you’re a fool if you watch, so why not dance?”