Harness UNESCO registration to help preserve traditional culture

It is welcome news that the value of a part of traditional Japanese culture that local communities have carefully preserved and handed down from generation to generation has been recognized by the world. This should also be a source of encouragement for people involved in preserving and passing on traditional culture in various parts of the country.

Furyu odori, a set of traditional Japanese folk dances that includes Bon Odori summer festival dances and Nembutsu Odori dances with incantations, is expected to be added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. A formal decision will follow on the heels of the recommendation for registration by the UNESCO advisory panel that conducted the preliminary screening.

The U.N. body’s intangible cultural heritage registration system is intended to protect folk performing arts, rites and festivals and other elements of traditional culture in various countries. Currently Japan has 22 items registered as intangible cultural heritages, including kabuki and washoku Japanese cuisine.

The government has proposed the registration of 41 folk performing arts in 24 prefectures that have been designated as national important intangible folk cultural properties, including the Gujo Odori dance of Gujo, Gifu Prefecture, known for its all-night dance performances.

Furyu odori is a set of folk performing arts with such purposes as exorcising evil spirits, praying for a good harvest and rain, reflecting each local climate. Many of the dances are hundreds of years old.

Because they involve a variety of elaborate costumes and equipment and lively dancing to drums, flutes and songs, restrictions were placed on furyu odori for “disturbing public morals” in the Edo period (1603-1867) and the early Meiji era (1868-1912).

Still, the performing arts have survived, probably because they served to maintain strong community ties. UNESCO’s screening panel also credited furyu odori with giving local residents a sense of solidarity to overcome disasters, epidemics and other crises.

At a time when Bon Odori supported by neighborhood associations and other local organizations are disappearing one after another due to a shortage of successors caused by the shrinking population and fewer residents in rural areas, preservation groups have supported the tradition in the areas to be registered this time.

It is said that the Ayako Odori dance in the town of Manno, Kagawa Prefecture, in which children pray for rain, originated in the Heian period (794-late 12th century) when residents danced to pray for rain during a drought, which resulted in a heavy rainfall.

The dance was discontinued for a time after the end of World War II, but people who remembered the dance formed a preservation society and established a system to instruct children.

Members of a local group in Kitakami, Iwate Prefecture, and elsewhere teach elementary and junior high school students how to dance the Onikenbai dance (sword dance by demons) in which people wear demon masks to pray for the exorcism of evil spirits. A high school in the city incorporates the dance into its club activities and uses it to help nurture those who continue the tradition.

Collaboration among preservation groups in various parts of the country to create more opportunities to present their performing arts will also help vitalize the activities to pass on the traditions.

Seven furyu odori organizations in the Tohoku region will hold a joint performance in Kitakami in December. The growing momentum for the UNESCO registration has encouraged these groups to work together.

With this registration, it is hoped that each organization will put even more effort into passing on and promoting the appeal of furyu odori.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 3, 2022)