Awa-odori Dance Festival in Koenji

Koenji Awa-odori Dance Festival (official site in English) took place this year on 27th and 28th of August 2011. Awa-odori (Awa dance) is a sort of "Bon odori" (1) which has a 400 years tradition, however, not in Asagaya but in Tokushima Prefecture in Shikoku(2).

(1)Traditional style group dance which is danced during the Buddhist Bon festival)
(2) "Awa" was one of the 68 provinces which existed since the 7th century till the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Those provinces were then reorganized into 47 prefectures which exist now. Awa is almost identical with the present Tokushima Prefecture.

Readers of this essay might wonder why a town in Tokyo is the venue of bon dance which was originated far away in Shikoku. I also had the same feeling when I heard for the first time that Awaodori took place in Koenji. The tradition of Koenji Awa-odori can trace back to the post war period. Koenji at the time badly needed to attract people to its shopping streets so as to vitalize the town which was totally destroyed by air raids during the war. Koenji wanted an appealing event but it has neither wide streets nor large open spaces to have a large scale festival. However, Awa-odori could be danced in narrow streets.

There are two types of dance, Onna-odori (Female dance - above) and Otoko-odori (Male dance below), though Otoko-odori can be danced by women as well.

The use of nationwide famous festivals was already a popular tool to attract guests to shopping streets when Koenji started to introduce Awa-odori in their local festival. People in Koenji knew that Asagaya, a neighboring town, for example had already started Sendai style Tanabata festival.

Koenji chose Awa-odori in 1957. However, none of the promoters knew Awa-odori personally. Therefore, they danced in the first years what they believed to be Awaodori. They slightly heistated to name their dance "Awa-odori" and called it Baka-odori (fool dance). However, the public acceptance was not very well and some of the leaders felt ashamed of their dance. Therefore, they asked the people from Tokushima to train them to dance the authentic Awa-odori. This produced excellent results.

They adopted the proper name "Awa-odori" in 1963. As the number of Ren (group) participating in the Koenji Dance Festival increased rapidly, so did the number of spectators and the popularity of Festival.

In 2011, the 55th year of Koenji Awa-odori, Awa-odori took place for the first time in the afternoon between 15:00 and 18:00 in order to contribute to the power saving which was made necessary this summer because of the accident at the Fukushima Power Station. Nevertheless about 900,000 spectators gathered to Koenji and 10,000 dancers participated in the two days lasting festival. In total 99 groups of dancers participated not only from Koenji but also from other districts of Tokyo, Kanto, Tohoku, Hokkaido and of course from Tokushima. Among them were also groups from the regions damaged by the Great East Japan Earthquake such as Minami-Souma.

Male dancers from Minami-Souma

In the meantime, dancing a famous folkdance outside of its original place as the main attraction of local festival became a nationwide trend. The groups participating in Koenji Festival from various areas of Japan dance Awa-odori in their own towns or villages. They visit one festival after another whenever they have chance to dance with and often go abroad to participate in Japan festivals held in foreign towns.

Awa-odori is a representative folk festival dance which is danced outside of its original festival. Another famous example is Yosakoi-odori, originally danced in Kochi, the neighboring prefecture of Tokushima. Nowadays, a variation form of Yosakoi-Soran-odori became the main attraction of the fold festival in Sapporo. Awa-odori and Yosakoi-odori compete with each other in attracting people.

Accompanying music - from top closkwise: Fue (flute), Taiko (drum) and Kane (bell).

There are eight zones in two main streets in Koenji where Awa-odori is performed. Each group proceeds in the street from the starting to the finishing point and tries to appeal to the spectators who stand or sat on both sides of the street. The one street is wide, so that some 10 people can dance in parallel. However, the other street – Look Street – is so narrow that only two people can dance side by side. The distance between dancers and spectators is virtually zero and I am fond of this atmosphere.

A passage of the accompanying song of Awa-odori says "Dancers are fools. Spectators are also fools. If they are both fools, why not dance together as dancing fools enjoy better!" Awa-odori dancers are often described as fools, because they indulge too much in dance and thereby forget every other thing. Though I am not tempted by such provocations, I am fond of feeling summer in the chaos of a Bon festival. Awa-odori festivals are not intangible cultural heritages which should be protected by UNESCO so as not to be extinct. Though they look traditional, they are evolving year by year and building a new tradition.