TIES TO THE PAST

Prologue
Art as religion, celebration
Peasant performances: A product of history
Fun to watch and to perform
Poor peasants, rich in humor
The future of the arts: Bright or bleak?


With over 2,000 varieties of traditional performance art being practiced and passed down in Aichi to this day, the prefecture can truly be said to be a storehouse of Japanese culture. A look at some of Aichi's representative arts gives a glimpse not only of the spirit of Japan as a whole but of the unique flavors Aichi has imparted to these artistic endeavors through the centuries.
Art as religion, celebration

A schoolgirl has her face made up.
(Photos by Kiyoshi Inoue )

Many of Japan's traditional performing arts find their roots in the country's festivals. Matsuri, or festivals, were held in all seasons as people prayed for bountiful harvests or for peaceful, fulfilling lives. In the course of these matsuri, as people gave prayers to heaven and earth, the forces of nature, and the spirits of their ancestors, they expressed themselves through music and dance. The classic examples of these religious arts are kagura and dengaku, many forms of which remain in the mountain villages of northeastern Aichi. Kagura grew out of sacred songs and dances performed before the gods, while dengaku has its origins in the songs and dances performed at paddy-planting time. The two arts have become fused in some cases, but the basic roots of the oldest traditional arts can be perceived in them both to this day.

Just under 60 households make up the Mitsuhashi district of Shitara, a town surrounded by 1,000-meter high mountains near the border with Nagano Prefecture. Each year in mid-November, after the harvest is completed, the Sanzoro Matsuri -a dengaku festival-is held here. On the afternoon of the festival day, an image of the Buddhist deity Kannon is carried down from the hills in a portable shrine to the Tsushima Shrine in town. That evening, the people of the community gather on the grounds of the shrine as huge torches are burned and water boiled in a large cauldron.

A dramatic entrance is made by the seven deities of good fortune, the leading characters of the festival, whose roles have been passed down within families in the village. From ancient times, Japanese legend has held these seven deities to be the bringers of luck. In this matsuri, the seven appear one by one and speak with the local priest, explaining why they have come to the town. Finally, to the sound of flutes and taiko drums, the gods gather around the cauldron in a slow, graceful dance. Often, the performers who have enjoyed a bit too much of the festival sake will flub their lines or stumble in their dancing, to the cheers and jeers of the audience. The festival concludes as the performers sprinkle the hot water from the cauldron onto the audience with leaves of bamboo grass, touching off frenzied commotion among the onlookers.

The boiling water is, of course, cooled down by the cold air of late autumn, but village legend says that being hit by the warm spray will keep one from catching cold throughout the winter to come. The visitations of Kannon and the seven gods of luck and the use of hot water to drive away sickness highlight the historical harshness of life in the hardscrabble mountain villages of Japan. The Sanzoro Matsuri is an example of the traditional art of dengaku true to its origins as a way for villagers to offer their prayers for rich harvests and long-lasting fortune.


Peasant performances: A product of history


Bo-no-te performances began from the need to protect oneself from bandits.
(Photos by Kiyoshi Inoue)

There are also some traditional arts that find their roots not in religion but in political and societal conditions. The bo-no-te (stick-in-hand) performances that survive to this day throughout the prefecture are prime examples. During the era of regional conflict in the sixteenth century, farmers worked to gain skill in martial arts to defend their homes from being overrun by bandits. Bo-no-te performances arose from the farmers' displays during local festivals of the skills they had learned.

Young villagers are the main actors in the performances. Each year in October, Sanage Shrine north of Toyota City, is the site of an offertory bo-no-te performance. More than a hundred young men in matching costume make their entrance to the sound of matchlock rifle fire, wielding weapons like swords, spears, long scythes, halberds, and staves.

At the command of older instructors, the young men fight one against the other, sword versus spear, scythe versus staff. All the fighting-the slashes of the swords and the thrusts of the spears-is a stylized rendition of a real battle. The performance is decided right down to who will win and who will lose, making it unlike an actual display of martial arts. At first it seems unlikely that villagers of the past could have repulsed determined evildoers with staves for weapons, but the sight of the young men clashing their weapons together in midair as they enter and leave the shrine grounds is thrilling in its energy, and puts the observer in mind of the true strength of a village when it rose up as one.

Bo-no-te festivals were widely held during the peace of the era of Tokugawa power. The ceremonial details of the festivals were strictly prescribed, making it seem almost as though the participants were agrarian soldiers within some military system. It is perhaps only natural that rural villagers should have devoted such vigor to keeping the bo-no-te tradition alive in Aichi, the land that gave rise to the three military unifiers of Japan: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. These festivals show the people's faithful spirit toward and pride in that history.


Fun to watch and to perform

Among all the traditional arts performed as offerings at shrines, it was jishibai-the kabuki of the farming villages-that proved the most popular in the entertainment-starved, poor rural regions. Kabuki, one of Japan's best-known classical arts, became overwhelmingly popular in the large cities of Edo (now Tokyo), Kyoto, and Osaka during the Edo period (1603-1868). But those living in the countryside had almost no opportunity to experience this spectacle. Unable to see the real thing, villagers decided to put on kabuki shows themselves, and jishibai performances, which spread throughout the country from the middle of the Edo period, were the result.

Historical surveys show that jishibai performances have been maintained most faithfully in the Chubu district (central Japan), and in Aichi and Gifu Prefectures in particular. Bunkichi Yasuda, a professor at Nagoya's Nanzan University and a noted researcher of kabuki and joruri, the narrative chanting that accompanied bunraku puppet theater performances, explains why: "In that era, the performing arts were the height of entertainment. They were so popular, in fact, that at one point the Tokugawa government passed laws to ban them as a harmful extravagance. But the area that is now eastern Aichi Prefecture, perhaps because of its concentration of lands under direct shogunal control, saw looser application of these sumptuary laws."

Two jishibai performances are held each year in Obara, one of the best-preserved villages in Aichi. These performances used to be given on a special stage attached to the local shrine, but these days they can be seen at the village's modern cultural facility. The Obara Village Cultural Festival, held one weekend in late autumn each year, centers on the performance of traditional jishibai. The four plays put on, including one performed by a troupe of middle school students, run as long as six hours in all!

At last, the time rolls around for the performance the audience has been waiting for: the Obara Village Kabuki Preservation Society's presentation of the Kanadehon Chushingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers). This tale, cherished by the Japanese, tells of the unjust execution of the lord of the domain of Ako and the revenge his loyal retainers exact on the architect of his death. A look into the dressing room shows the 50-odd members of the Preservation Society bustling about, putting the finishing touches on their makeup and costumes. The president of the Society, 75-year-old Koichi Ogata, is standing somewhat apart from everyone else memorizing his lines. The day before the performance, an actor playing one of the major characters injured himself doing some farm work, and Ogata is set to stand in for him. The Society performs over 30 pieces in all, and he has a bewildering range of duties to attend to, but Ogata is perfectly at ease: "Well, I've been up on stage since I was 15, so I'm sure I'll manage just fine."

The majority of the members are in their sixties, but under the thick makeup used on the kabuki stage, they all cut youthful figures. The elderly man who plays the lord forced to commit seppuku in today's performance, speaks about his role: "It's a central part in the play, so I got a video of a professional kabuki performance and watched it over and over. I think one reason jishibai was so popular in the old days may have been that simple farmers, locked into their positions in society, could have a go at being a lord or a samurai for a while." It seems the enjoyment to be found in becoming another person remains the same to this day.

In the latter nineteenth century, some of Obara's talented performers formed a jishibai troupe and became semiprofessionally involved in show business, doing contracted performances both in and outside their village. After World War II, however, the spread of movie theaters and then television sets led to the withering of jishibai. Obara's Kabuki Preservation Society was formed in 1975 by people worried that the art might disappear for good. The Edo-period crowds at the shrine are today mirrored by the standing-room-only audience before the largest stage in the village. In 1976 a local performing arts club was founded at Obara's middle school. In this village of just over 4,600 people, more than 150 children have already experienced jishibai in this way, promising a bright future for the preservation society.


Poor peasants, rich in humor

A group of goten manzai perfomanrs.
(Photos by Kiyoshi Inoue)

Not all traditional arts were performed by villagers themselves: Some were carried out by itinerant performers. One such art is manzai, which has spread from Aichi to become famous nationwide. In its origins, manzai consisted of a pair of strolling singers who would go from door to door offering congratulations on the new year and blessings to confer safety in the household and success in the workplace. The art spread from the Nara region to the districts of Owari and Mikawa, both in present-day Aichi Prefecture, in the thirteenth century; from there manzai became a nationwide phenomenon. Eventually the art diverged and developed into such forms as goten manzai, where groups consisting of four or five artists would perform in the mansions of daimyo (regional lords), and sankyoku manzai, where the skits were accompanied by stringed instruments like the shamisen and kokyu. The form of manzai so popular on television today, which showcases the comedic talents of a pair of performers, finds its roots in these early forms of the art.

The city of Chita is the site of Owari manzai performances by a group headed by 64-year-old Kotaro Kitagawa. In the manzai performed by a pair of strolling singers, one artist-the tayu-would say the congratulatory lines while gesturing with a folding fan, while the second-the saizo-would keep rhythm on a taiko drum. The tayu, after delivering the humorous lines and dancing in time with the drumbeat, ended each performance with the simple phrase, "Congratulations to you. May prosperity come to your household." Compared with this Owari manzai, the goten manzai performed by a larger group seems like much more of a stage production, with its synchronized rhythm, dancing, lines, and expressions.

Kitagawa speaks of the history of his art and its present state: "I think one reason Owari manzai took root in the Chita district was the fact that the farmlands weren't that good and the farmers were quite poor. In the 1910s, there were over 1,000 manzai artists from the district making a living of the art. My father was a fish seller, but for three months of the year he, too, went on the road as a manzai artist. I got involved with the art when I was young. The number of artists plunged with the land reclamation projects and the booming industrial presence of the 1960s, though."

The manzai preservation society now headed by Kitagawa consists of 16 members, ranging in age from their thirties to their sixties. As 13 of them are company employees, according to Kitagawa, they have trouble accommodating requests for weekday performances. But they are conscientious about getting in their practice whenever they can. Thanks to efforts of this society, 1996 saw Owari manzai follow in the footsteps of another Aichi art, Mikawa manzai, in its designation as one of Japan's Important Intangible Folk Cultural Properties.


The future of the arts: Bright or bleak?

All these traditional arts, whether they sprang up and were handed down in farming communities, mountain hamlets, fishing villages, or large cities, face a common problem: a lack of performers to carry on their practice. The town of Shitara, the site of the Sanzoro Matsuri (also designated an important intangible folk cultural property in 1996), is in a remote, mountainous location, and faces a shortage of young people. According to 58-year-old Matsushige Hagai, who has served as an organizer for the festival, "Since most young adults head for the big cities these days, for the past four years we've been holding a Sanzoro Matsuri for elementary and middle schoolers. If they experience the festival during their childhood, after they grow up it'll be easier for them to jump right into it when they come back to visit their hometown." It seems his plans are in place for the future of the festival.

The traditional performing arts of Aichi's various regions are now being carried on by people passionate about their survival. That which these people have in common is their love for their homeland. Support for these arts is indeed made possible only through this love. In the coming century as well, so long as the younger generations of Aichi care for the traditions and environment within which they were raised, the performing arts will be in no danger of coming to an end.