Traditional Tiger Dance Returns to Japan Town After 4-Year Absence

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Toramai tigers dance on a tile roof stage in Kami, Miyagi Prefecture, on April 29.

KAMI, Miyagi — A traditional event called the Hibuse no Toramai (Fire-quelling tiger dance) was performed in Kami, Miyagi Prefecture on April 29 for the first time in four years after being interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The participants’ happy mood was further buoyed by the miraculous return of a tiger head artifact that was stolen about 40 years ago.

The event — in which elementary and junior high school students dress up as tigers and dance to pray for the town’s prosperity and the prevention of fires — was performed with great determination by children keen to carry on the town’s tradition.

With one child in the head and another in the rear, they worked together to express the movements of a wild tiger as they paraded down the street to the sound of ohayashi musical accompaniment.

The dancers created an upbeat atmosphere that spread throughout the Nakaniida district. Later, the tiger dancers climbed onto a stage with a tiled roof and performed a bold, agile dance. A large crowd of spectators around the stage applauded and cheered unreservedly.

Twist in the tale

One of the tiger heads used on the day has an interesting backstory: Traditionally handed down through the years, the oldest tiger head was stolen during a festival about 40 years ago. However, it returned to the district last November.

Masayuki Sasayama, a resident of Kamaishi in Iwate Prefecture, works to return cultural properties washed away by the tsunami caused by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Sasayama purchased the item at an antique shop in Kyoto about eight years ago. He was aware of a tiger dance tradition in his own hometown, and began searching for its rightful owner. He eventually managed to connect with the town of Kami and its own local tradition.

The age, creator and facial features of the tiger head all matched the lost Kami artifact.

Shoichiro Mikami, a member of the local fire brigade that organizes the toramai tiger dance, considered preserving the restored tiger head due to its cultural value. However, the event is very important to town, where it has long been said, “After the toramai tiger dance, it’s time for rice planting, and as soon as the year ends, it’s time to prepare for the toramai tiger dance again.” As such, Mikami decided to use the tiger head in the event again, and it made its official return last year — the Year of the Tiger.

This year, the 96 elementary and junior high school participants were all first-time performers due to the four-year hiatus. The children began preparing for the day a week earlier than usual and received instruction from local high school students.

Ayata Zanma, a first-year junior high school student entrusted with controlling a restored tiger head, expressed relief after the performance, saying, “It was scary on the rooftop, but I was glad to see everyone looking happy.” Members of the fire brigade agreed that “the festival is the pride of the town.”

Tiger head finder Sasayama also was present. “I was moved to see the children dancing with the tiger head, which has returned to its rightful place.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The tiger dance procession is accompanied by flutes and drums.

Hibuse no Toramai

Designated as an intangible folk cultural property in 1974, this traditional event takes place in the Nakaniida district of Kami, Miyagi Prefecture. The dance is performed in pairs, similar to a shishimai lion dance. It is said to have originated about 670 years ago when, based on an ancient story, locals tried to calm the wind by “borrowing” the power of tigers after repeated fires were exacerbated by strong winds. The dance is performed in hope of preventing blazes, and members of the local fire brigade organize the event.