Shin’yūsha on Kagura

On Sunday, I watched an “online talk session” about kagura (sacred dance) organised by Shin’yūsha. I have mentioned Shin’yūsha before — it is a group that organises sessions about traditional Japanese culture, primarily aimed at children, but with a broader focus now. Before the pandemic, my daughter and I went to quite a few of the sessions, which were practical opportunities to experience some thing, but since the pandemic started they have moved most of the sessions online, and my daughter has become a teenager, and less interested in doing that sort of thing. Shin’yūsha has a relatively high proportion of Shinto-related events, because there are a lot of Shinto priests involved in running it. The group is headed by Her Imperial Highness Princess Akiko of Mikasa, who makes a “Special Guest Appearance” at every event. (I suppose she might have missed one or two through illness, but I haven’t noticed.)

The kagura talk was given by Revd Nishikida, the chief priest of Mankusen Jinja in Shimanë Prefecture. Part of it was aimed at elementary school students, and part of it was aimed at adults, and although I was basically familiar with the contents (I’ve written an essay about kagura, after all), it was very interesting to hear about it from a new perspective.

The part that was most obviously aimed at children was the retelling of the legend of the Cave of Heaven, in which Amë no Uzumë dances to draw Amaterasu Ōmikami out. This myth is taken to be the origin of kagura, and so it was obviously going to be part of the talk. There were a couple of interesting points, however. First, the illustration showed Amë no Uzumë wearing a double sash — one over each shoulder. While he was talking, Revd Nishikida gestured across his chest to indicate a double sash as well, so that was not just an accidental feature of the drawing. I had always imagined a single sash, in part because when priests wear a sash today, it is almost always a single sash. (Indeed, Revd Nishikida showed a video of a kagura performed at his jinja, at which the priests were wearing single sashes.) Japanese does not distinguish singular and plural, so the double sash is entirely consistent with the myth, but I wonder why she was drawn that way. (She was also drawn topless (and facing the viewer), which is an important feature of the Kojiki myth, but extremely unusual in contemporary portrayals directly connected with the Shinto world.)

He also introduced the original versions of the myth from the Kojiki and Kogoshūi, one of which includes the origin myths for a number of Japanese words meaning things like “funny” and “fun”. The last word of this sequence in the myth is “okë”, and Princess Akiko speculated that this was the origin of “OK”. The consensus was “probably not actually”… It is an odd coincidence, though. (And the origins of “OK” are obscure.)

Revd Nishikida performs kagura at his jinja. He said that the Meiji government forbade priests from dancing kagura (they probably didn’t think it was dignified enough), but that the priests at some jinja in Izumo (eastern Shimanë) had continued to do so secretly, because they didn’t want to break the tradition. That may have included his jinja. When he summarised his feelings about kagura, he said that it was important to remember both the kami and the human audience. If the human audience is not interested, it will be hard to maintain the tradition, and those who do attend will be bored. On the other hand, if the performers forget that kagura is for the kami, the dance is no longer kagura, but merely a performance. Both the kami and the people are of great importance.

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2 thoughts on “Shin’yūsha on Kagura”

  1. I am currently doing some research about a Meiji-era Jingu priest who called for kagura by priests to be re-legalized. According to his own account, he was expelled from the Jingu because of his advocacy and forced to enter private society as a classics teacher. (I have only about 70% trust in his account for various reasons.) According to Iki Island sources, the Iki-kagura was also preserved through the ban, so I have to wonder who actually felt pressured by the ban and who this priest was arguing against.

    1. Yes, I believe the kagura at my local jinja was also preserved through the ban. Mind you, the priests there were not even aware that hereditary priesthoods had been made illegal, so maybe they simply didn’t notice.

      It certainly looks as though one must apply caution when using regulations as a source for what was actually going on at jinja…

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