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Hometown heritage focus with Satoshi Takahashi #9: 500-year-old ascetic dance kept alive

Children perform a "Yamaya Bangaku" dance titled "Gojonohashi" at a ceremony to mark the end of the year's lessons at the former Yamaya Elementary School in the city of Akita, on Nov. 27, 2021. (Satoshi Takahashi)

In this series, Japanese photojournalist Satoshi Takahashi has been focusing on the diverse heritage of his home prefecture, Akita, in northern Japan. For this ninth article, Takahashi visited children in the capital city, Akita, who are studying to preserve an ancient dance and music performance locally known as "bangaku," a type of "kagura," a show dedicated to gods.

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    Born and raised in the city of Akita, I grew up viewing Mount Taihei from my home, and I feel both close to the mountain and awed by its divine sight.

    In a district at the foot of this mountain, an ancient folk dance and music performance has lived through more than five centuries to this day. Apparently, "Yamaya Bangaku" was originally performed and dedicated to gods by ascetics that practiced in the mountain. It is now kept alive by the people of the Taihei Yamaya district.

    In the old times, Yamaya Bangaku dancers wore the 15 masks that were, and are still now, enshrined at local Shinto shrine Seimen Jinja, to pray for good grain harvests and the end of epidemics. In 1967, the Akita Municipal Government designated the performance an intangible folk cultural property, and the same year, a group now headed by Kurayoshi Kamada was established to inherit the culture.

    As part of the effort, from 1984 to 2012, children at Yamaya Elementary School participating in a club activity received lessons from the preservation group. The school was later closed permanently, and since then, students and graduates of Taihei Elementary School and Taihei Junior High School have taken up the role. Today, 25 or so of them gather on Saturdays to be trained and to practice, though the events are now subject to COVID-19 restrictions.

    Mayumi Yomogida, a 61-year-old advisor to the preservation group, said, "Thanks to the passion of local residents and children, we can maintain the Yamaya Bangaku performance. The closing and reorganization of elementary schools and junior high schools, as well as aging and depopulation, make the situation difficult, but we will do our best to sustain these activities."

    I visited Taihei Elementary School to see the children proudly and heroically perform for the residents of the district, and went to the former Yamaya Elementary School on a separate day to watch an annual closing ceremony after one year of lessons. As the audiences looked on affectionately, I sensed each venue was filled with the deep-rooted wishes of the people of this area.

    (The Japanese original of this article by Satoshi Takahashi was published on Jan. 10, 2022.)

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    Satoshi Takahashi was born in the city of Akita, Akita Prefecture, in 1981. Residing in Phnom Penh from 2007 to 2018, he captured the social problems of Cambodia through his photographs, which were published globally. In 2019, his publication titled "RESISTANCE" (whose subtitle roughly translates to "the undaunted spirit of Cambodians") won the 38th Domon Ken Award sponsored by The Mainichi Newspapers Co.

    More information in Japanese can be found at the following Mainichi Shimbun page online:

    Domon Ken Award: https://www.mainichi.co.jp/event/aw/domonken_archive.html

    In Photos: Children of Japan's Akita city keep alive 500-yr-old ascetic 'dance for gods'

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