Awa Dance Festival
The Awa Dance Festival (阿波踊り Awa Odori ) is held from 12 to 15 August as part of the Obon festival in Tokushima Prefecture on Shikoku in Japan. Awa Odori is the largest dance festival in Japan, attracting over 1.3 million tourists every year.
Groups of choreographed dancers and musicians known as ren (連) dance through the streets, typically accompanied by the shamisen lute, taiko drums, shinobue flute and the kane bell. Performers wear traditional obon dance costumes, and chant and sing as they parade through the streets.
The earliest origins of the dance style are found in the Japanese Buddhist priestly dances of Nembutsu-odori and hiji-odori of the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), and also in kumi-odori, a lively harvest dance that was known to last for several days.
The Awa Odori festival grew out of the tradition of the Bon odori which is danced as part of the Obon "Festival of the Dead", a Japanese Buddhist celebration where the spirits of deceased ancestors are said to visit their living relatives for a few days of the year. The term "Awa Odori" was not used until the 20th century, but Obon festivities in Tokushima have been famous for their size, exuberance and anarchy since the 16th century.
Awa Odori's independent existence as a huge, city-wide dance party is popularly believed to have begun in 1586 when Lord Hachisuka Iemasa, the daimyo of Awa Province hosted a drunken celebration of the opening of Tokushima Castle. The locals, having consumed a great amount of sake, began to drunkenly weave and stumble back and forth. Others picked up commonly available musical instruments and began to play a simple, rhythmic song, to which the revelers invented lyrics. The lyrics are mention in the 'Song' section of the article.
Awa Odori is an extremely old festival, the very first years of celebration are unknown but as stated above there are rumours of it originating in 1586
This version of events is supported by the lyrics of the first verse of "Awa Yoshikono Bushi", a local version of a popular folk song which praises Hachisuka Iemasa for giving the people Awa Odori and is quoted in the majority of tourist brochures and websites. However, according to local historian Miyoshi Shoichiro, this story first appeared in a Mainichi Shimbun newspaper article in 1908 and is unsupported by any concrete evidence. It is unclear whether the song lyrics were written before or after this article appeared.
1. The bon-odori may be danced for only three days.
2. Samurai are forbidden to attend the public celebration. They may dance on their own premises but must keep the gates shut. No quarrels, arguments or other misbehaviour are allowed.
3. The dancing of bon-odori is prohibited in all temple grounds.
This suggests that by the 17th century, Awa’s bon-odori was a well established as a major event, lasting well over three days — long enough to be a major disruption to the normal functioning of the city. It implies that samurai joined the festival alongside peasants and merchants, disgracing themselves with brawling and unseemly behaviour. In 1674, it was “forbidden for dancers or spectators to carry swords (wooden or otherwise), daggers or poles”. In 1685 revelers were prohibited from dancing after midnight and dancers were not allowed to wear any head or face coverings, suggesting that there were some serious public order concerns.
In the Meiji Period (1868-1912) the festival died down as the Tokushima's indigo trade, which had financed the festival, collapsed due to imports of cheaper chemical dyes. The festival was revitalised at the start of the Showa Period (1926) when Tokushima Prefectural authorities first coined the name ‘Awa Odori’ and promoted it as the region’s leading tourist attraction.
The song associated with Awa Odori is called Awa Yoshikono and is a localised version of the Edo period popular song Yoshikono Bushi. Parts of it are sung, and others are chanted. The origins of the melodic part have been traced to Kumamoto, Kyūshū, but the Awa version came from Ibaraki Prefecture, from where it spread back down to Nagoya and Kansai. The lyrics of the first verse are:
Awa no dono sama hachisuka-kou ga ima ni nokoseshi awa odori
What Awa's Lord Hachisuka left us to the present day is Awa Odori
The song is usually sung at a point in the parade where the dancers can stop and perform a stationary dance — for example a street intersection or in front of the ticketed, amplified stands which are set up at points around the city. Not every group has a singer, but dancers and musicians will frequently break out into the Awa Yoshikono chant as they parade through the streets:
|踊る阿呆に||Odoru ahou ni||The dancers are fools|
|見る阿呆||Miru ahou||The watchers are fools|
|同じ阿呆なら||Onaji ahou nara||Both are fools alike so|
|踊らな損、損||Odorana son, son||Why not dance?|
The dancers also chant hayashi kotoba call and response patterns such as "Yattosa, yattosa", "Hayaccha yaccha", "Erai yaccha, erai yaccha", and "Yoi, yoi, yoi, yoi". These calls have no semantic meaning but help to encourage the dancers.
During the daytime a restrained dance called Nagashi is performed, but at night the dancers switch to a frenzied dance called Zomeki. As suggested by the lyrics of the chance, spectators are often encouraged to join the dance.
Men and women dance in different styles. For the men’s dance: right foot and right arm forward, touch the ground with toes, then step with right foot crossing over left leg. This is then repeated with the left leg and arm. Whilst doing this, the hands draw triangles in the air with a flick of the wrists, starting at different points. Men dance in a low crouch with knees pointing outwards and arms held above the shoulders.
The women's dance uses the same basic steps, although the posture is quite different. The restrictive kimono allows only the smallest of steps forward but a crisp kick behind, and the hand gestures are more restrained and graceful, reaching up towards the sky. Women usually dance in tight formation, poised on the ends of their geta sandals.
Children and adolescents of both sexes usually dance the men's dance. In recent years, it has become more common to see adult women, especially those in their 20's, dancing the men's style of dance.
Some of the larger ren (dance groups) also have a yakko odori, or kite dance. This usually involves one brightly dressed, acrobatic dancer, darting backwards and forwards, turning cartwheels and somersaults, with freestyle choreography. In some versions, other male dancers crouch down forming a sinuous line representing the string, and a man at the other end mimes controlling the kite.
Awa Dance Festivals elsewhere
Kōenji, an area of Tokyo, also has an Awa Dance Festival, modelled on Tokushima's, which was started in 1956 by urban migrants from Tokushima Prefecture. It is the second largest Awa Dance Festival in Japan, with an average of 188 groups composed of 12,000 dancers, attracting 1.2 million visitors.
- Miyoshi Shoichiro (2001) Tokushima Hanshi Tokuhon
- e.g. http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/indepth/history/traditionalevents/a46_fes_awa.html
- Miyoshi Shoichiro (2001:35) Tokushima Hanshi Tokuhon
- Miyoshi 2001: 37
- Wisneiwski, Mark (2003:2) ‘The Awa Odori Trilogy’ in Awa Life
- Wisneiwski, Mark (2003) ‘The Awa Odori Trilogy’ in Awa Life.
- Wisniewski, Mark (2003:3) ‘The Awa Odori Trilogy’ in Awa Life
- Awa Odori video available from Tokushima Prefecture International Exchange Association (TOPIA)
- Official Koenji Awa Odori Website
- Miyoshi, Shoichiro (2001) Tokushima Hanshi Tokuhon
- Wisniewski, Mark (2003) ‘The Awa Odori Trilogy’ in Awa Life, published by TOPIA (Tokushima Prefecture International Association)
- de Moraes, Wenceslau (1916) Tokushima no bon odori.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Awa Odori.|
Official Japanese sites
- Awa Odori by the Japan National Tourist Organization
- Japan Atlas - Festivals by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (click "19" for Awa Odori)
- Koenji Awa Odori Official Site
- Awa Dance homepage by www.awaodori.net (English translation by Google)
- Awa Odori by web-japan.org
- Dance of Fools: Awa Odori Festival, Japan by www.pilotguides.com
- Japanese Line Dance? by www.country-dance.com (many pictures)
- (Dyeing to Dance: an English Translation by Mark Wisniewski)
- Official homepage of Tokyo Ebisuren, a Tokyo-based classical style Awa Odori team (English site, contains pictures and video)
- Awa Odori dance video (Japanese)