Shimane: Women’s kagura dances toward March debut

Yomiuri Shimbun photo
Maihime Shachu performs at an interim presentation in Hamada, Shimane Prefecture, in November 2021.

HAMADA, Shimane — Women are making their mark in the world of Iwami Kagura, a Shinto ceremonial dance that has a long history in western Shimane Prefecture. A group comprising only female performers was established last spring and is preparing for its debut in March.

The origins of Iwami Kagura are not well-known, but as it was performed by Shinto priests during the Tokugawa shogunate period, it is believed to have existed before then. After the fall of the shogunate in the 19th century, the new government banned priests from performing the dance, so worshippers took up the mantle. However, since the Iwami Kagura requires wearing costumes that weigh more than 10 kilograms, it was traditionally performed by men.

Yomiuri Shimbun photo
Female kagura dancers perform a scene from “Orochi.”

The idea of establishing a women-only group came about because many kagura companies are struggling from a lack of successors due to the chronically low birth rate, aging population and depopulation.

The Hamada Education and Culture Foundation, a group involved in preserving the kagura tradition, thought that fostering female performers would attract more interest in the traditional art, so the group put the call out to a wide range of people, from nursery school teachers to high school students.

More and more women seem to be developing an interest in kagura. They are not only watching the dance but also becoming fans of and following their favorite kagura companies.

The women’s kagura group Maihime Shachu, which was established last April, is made up of about 20 women from Shimane Prefecture and other neighboring prefectures. As shachu refers to a kagura company, Maihime Shachu means “Company of dancing princess.”

Yomiuri Shimbun photo
A member of Maihime Shachu expresses her enthusiasm for the group being established, in Hamada, Shimane Prefecture, in April 2021.

The members study the history of Iwami Kagura and are taught by male performers from other kagura companies three times a month.

After learning a ritual dance called shioharai, members of Maihime Shachu began practicing a couple of dances and learned how to play the instruments. Although they were forced to suspend their activities this summer because of the pandemic, the women continued to practice on their own.

“I didn’t want to forget what I learned,” one woman said.

The women were able to show the fruits of their labor at an interim presentation held in Hamada on Nov. 30. The group performed a scene from “Orochi,” which is a famous Iwami Kagura dance.

“Orochi” is about a mythical serpent slayer and is based on a legend about the god Susanoo no Mikoto who fought with Yamata no Orochi, an eight-headed serpent.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

This kagura work has a spectacular scene in which eight giant serpents dance across the stage. The dancers, with their beautiful yet heavy serpent costumes, moved around on stage in time with the quick tempo of the drums and flutes. One after another, they coiled their bodies and faced the audience before spinning around again. The scene was highly praised.

The veteran male performers, who were watching from the audience, were amazed at the physical strength of the women as the costume used for each serpent is 17 meters long and weighs 12 kilograms.

The male performers made such comments as, “They’ve improved a lot, and I’m looking forward to their show [in March], and, “Their movements were very smooth, and their voices were strong.”

Mariko Eguchi, 59, who plays the role of one of the serpents, said: “Thanks to the kindness and guidance of our instructors, our performance is finally starting to come together. We want to attract more female fans by letting everyone know what Maihime Shachu does.”