festival fan dance
With Japanese traditional dance there are no high leaps. One foot is flat on the floor most of the time. When a foot is lifted it is bent upwards. Each movement of the head, body, arms and legs has a symbolic meaning.

Many Japanese dances involve rhythmic stomping of the feet and the lifting of both arms into the air as a beckoning gesture. Kazue Fujima, a dancer from a famous dance family, said she learned from her mother "To stretch my hands, not like a robot, but with more grace and class."

1) Dainchido-bugaku court music and dance of Akita Prefecture; 2) Chakkirako, a girls dance to pray for good catches of fish and business success, of Kanagawa Prefecture; 3) Taue-odori, a dance to pray for a good harvest in Sendai’s Akiu district; and 4) Hayachine Kagura, a performance of sacred Shinto music and dance of Iwate Prefecture were added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2009.

Book: “International Encyclopedia of Dance”, editor Jeane Cohen, six volumes, 3,959 pages, $1,250, Oxford University Press, New York. It took 24 years to prepare.

Good Websites and Sources: Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive , Kagura and Bugaku ; Traditional Japanese Music and Dance ; Invitation to Bon Dance ; Awa Odori Dance Photos ; Contemporary Dance Association of Japan ; Butoh Net: The World of Butoh Dance ; Open Directory Butoh List ; Performing Arts Network of Japan ; Traditional Performing Arts in Japan ;


Good Websites and Sources on Japanese Music: “The Rough Guide to the Music of Japan” is a CD assembled by Paul Fisher, Short Introduction to Japanese Music ; Bibliography on Music in Japan ;Traditional Japanese Music and Dance ; Wikipedia article on Music of Japan Wikipedia ; Performing Arts Network of Japan ; Traditional Performing Arts in Japan ; Hear Music, a World Music Store with a ; Japanese, Chinese and Korean CDs and DVDs at Yes Asia ; Japanese, Chinese and Korean CDs and DVDs at Zoom Movie

Historical and Legendary Origins of Dance and Theater in Japan

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: The earliest archaeological evidence that is related to performing arts in Japan comes from the Yamato period (300–710 AD). Excavated objects include miniature instruments, masks, and ornaments. Clay figurines, called haniwa sculptures, include representations of dancers. The tradition of the earliest dances that are still performed, the kagura dances, stems from this period. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

The myth of the origin of theater and dance is from the 8th century AD. According to this myth, the Sun goddess was angered because of her brother’s pranks. She shut herself in a cave and thus darkness fell upon the world. Other gods gathered in front of the cave to beg her to come out. The beautiful maiden Uzume, the goddess of the dawn, began to dance in front of the cave so wildly and powerfully as if she were possessed by spirits. While dancing, she revealed her breast. The gods were so loud in their enjoyment of the performance that the Sun goddess became curious. She decided to peep out to see what was going on. Once she saw the dance, she did not want to return to the cave. Thus the world became light and warm again. **

Dance and Theater in the Nara (710-94) and Heian (794–1192) Periods

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: In the mid-6th century Buddhism reached Japan via the Korean Peninsula. Later, contacts were established with China. Together with Buddhism, and its several variations, various forms of culture were also adopted from the Buddhist East and Central Asia. They included, among other things, the gigaku mask theater. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

The Nara period (710–94) saw the emergence of a central state with its nucleus in the imperial court in Nara, a new capital with huge wooden Buddhist temples and monasteries. In the early 8th century Prince Shotoku sent an expedition of monks and scholars to China to absorb the Buddhist culture and to bring back manuscripts, works of art, instruments, masks etc. to Nara. Thus Nara became an integral part of the then Buddhist international cultural sphere, which extended from China to Central Asia and further to the Indian subcontinent. Among the influences were Buddhist mask dances as well as various other dances, which were adapted at the Nara court to form the bugaku court dance tradition, which is still practised today. **

In 748 Emperor Kammu moved the capital from Nara to Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto). Because the Buddhist monastic order was gaining too much wealth and political power, the temples and monasteries of Nara were dispossessed of their riches. During the Heian period (794–1192), a distinctly Japanese form of culture emerged with its own forms of art, poetry, literature and general aesthetics. One of the landmarks of the period is the “world’s first novel”, The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari), written by a court lady, Murasaki. **

The novel offers a glimpse of the extremely complicated and refined court life of the period. It tells about the loves of an exceptionally handsome prince, Genji. The novel reveals the roots of Japanese aesthetics in the customs and court etiquette of the Heian period, and it is still today a key work for understanding Japanese aesthetics. During the period, concepts like aware, okashi, and yousei (beauty thick with deep but repressed, delicately unostentatious feeling) were formulated. **

During the Heian period, the Buddhist gigaku mask dances gradually ceased to be performed, while bugaku court dances were further refined. New theatrical forms, based on earlier folk traditions, also evolved, such as denkaku and sarugaku. **

Traditional Japanese Dance

geisha doing a classic dance
In Japan today, there are around 150 schools of traditional Japanese classical dance, which is generally divided into two forms: 1) “mai”, distinguished by restrained ceremonial movements; 2) and “odori”, characterized by more earthy, extroverted movements. Elements of both styles have been incorporated into Kabuki dance. Dance instruction is often associated with Kabuki schools.

Mai (meaning "revolving") has roots in Shinto shrine rituals, still practiced today, involving shrine virgins who dance with sprigs of the sacred “sakaki” trees. This dance form was adapted to a stage dance using a fan that later developed into Noh theater.

Odori (meaning "jumping") has its roots in the Jodo (Pure Land) sect of Buddhism. This form of dance was developed by monks to accompany the chanting rhythm of Buddhist prayers. Vestiges of this style of dancing can be seen in “bon odori” regional folk dancing.

Some dances are very old. “Enbu” dances performed at the Yachi-Hachiman shrine in Kahokucho in Yamagata Prefecture have reportedly been performed there for 1,100 years and kept alive by the Hayashi family which has passed on the dances to at least one family member each generation. The dances were originally court dances performed as part of Buddhist rituals brought to Japan from China. The Hayashi family, lead by a master from the 18th generation, performs 11 different ritual dances.

Types of traditional dance include “bugaku”, slow-moving, symmetrical court dances associated with ancient religious ceremonies and originally brought from China and Korea in the 6th century; “gigaku”, slowing moving court dance performed by people is flowing, colorful robes, with its roots in Chinese Buddhism. “Bagaku” is still performed in some shrines.

In the Middle Ages, Noh. was developed. It incorporated elements of theater, dance and ritual. Later Kabuki developed out Noh. See Kabuki and Noh.

Types of dances classified as folk dances include “dengaku” (“field music”), developed for rice planting events, associated with agriculture and often featuring elements of theater and acrobatics; “furya”, dances associated with driving off evil spirits and featuring colorful costumes with objects attached to them; “bon” dances, performed during bon festivals; and a wide variety of local dances. Among the most popular folk dance is lion dance.

See Geishas

Kagura, Sacred ShintoRitual Dance

kids learning a traditional dance
The oldest known dance in Japan is the “kagura”, a ritualist dance that has its origins in shamanist trance dances and is still performed by young girls in Shinto shrines today. Written about first in the 8th century “Kojiki” (Chronicles), kagura now describes a number of different dances and rituals performed throughout Japan. What separates them from folk dances performed in other countries is that they still contain a religious element.

Kagura incorporates elements of shamanism, animism, emperor worship and veneration of nature and fertility and is said have been first performed by the goddess Ame-no-Uzume. The word kagura is probably derived from an ancient contraction for “seat of the deity.” In its earliest forms it was a ritual performed by shaman and shrine virgins trying draw gods out of natural or ceremonial objects.

Most modern kagura dances have two parts: 1) a series of purification rituals used to invoke the gods; and 2) movements intended to entertain the spirts that have been invoked. Some kagura are performed in shrines by girls dancers called “miko”. Others are essentially local dances performed in honor of local gods. These are often performed to the music of pipes and drums at shrines and festivals and are performed by dancers in humorous masks and bright colored kimonos. Some of these dances use lion masks and involve boiling water and sprinkling it while masked dancers dance. There are special kagura performed for the Emperor. The dances performed at the flower festival in Aichi prefecture are regarded as kagura. See Festival Dances Below.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: The still thriving tradition of archaic kagura (god-performance) dances is deeply related to Japan’s earliest belief system, Shinto. Once strictly a form of ceremonial art, kagura has evolved into various forms over the course of a thousand years. Some of these forms are still related to Shinto shrines, and some to court practices, while many of the dances are linked to the rhythms of the agricultural calendar. Some of the forms employ masks, while some forms, more theatrical in character, involve storytelling and the re-enactment of stories.[Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

The origin of the kagura tradition is not completely clear, but it is suggested that it predates Noh theater, which evolved at the turn of the 14th century. Japanese epics relate kagura to the mythical dance of the maid Uzume in front of the Sun god’s cave, as mentioned above. Originally, sacred kagura dances were performed by shrine maidens. Later, the dances inspired many forms of popular ritual dances, which were based on earlier folk forms. Over the centuries various forms evolved, including forms of dance-drama and also completely secular variants. **

The originally court-related kagura dances are called mikagura. They were performed in several sacred places, such as the Imperial Sanctuary and various Shinto shrines all over the country. They also formed part of the Imperial harvest festival, a practice, which still seems to continue in secret in the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. The folk forms of kagura, originally derived from the court variants and incorporated with various popular traditions, are called satokagura, or “normal kagura”. They include dances performed by temple maidens, who originally became possessed by gods. Now the dances are formalised throughout. **

Most of the kagura dances are based on prototypes performed at certain Shinto shrines. Later these new variants also became popular in other parts of Japan. These kinds of kagura dances are related to particular ceremonies, such as ritual purification, the celebration of an auspicious day and to other temple festivals. The kagura repertoire includes one version of the Lion Dance, performed by a dancer wearing a lion mask. Lion dances are known in many variations in several parts of Asia. Kagura also became used in the enactment of stories and thus some of its forms have a secular theatrical quality. In Edo kagura even evolved towards street performances, called daikagura. They involved acrobatics, various dances, juggling etc. **


Bugaku, Ceremonial Dances

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: Bugaku refers to a group of ceremonial dances, performed both in temples and at the imperial court. The dances were originally adopted from China and Korea in the 7th and 8th centuries and they were further refined during the next two centuries. They are still performed both in the temple context and in court festivities, such as the Emperor’s coronation ceremony. Nara’s Prince Shotoku was an ardent admirer of bugaku dance. A Bureau of Music was set up at the imperial court in 701. It supervised the training of bugaku dances. The dancer Hamanushi was regarded as the master of bugaku. In the mid-8th century, he travelled to China to familiarise himself with the court dances of the Tang period. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

The bugaku repertoire was further shaped in present-day Kyoto during the Heian period (794–1192), when the dances became a passion of the courtiers at the imperial palace. They composed their own dances, which they themselves also sometimes performed. Later, when the imperial court lost its wealth and could not afford dance groups, temples began to maintain the tradition. Nowadays the imperial household has an institution that is responsible for continuing the tradition. Every now and then performances are also staged at temples and important scenic spots, as well as on public stages, removed from their ritual context. **

The bugaku repertoire is divided into two basic groups, that of the “dances of the left” (saho no mai), which were adopted from China, and that of the “dances of the right” (uho samai no mai), which originally came from Korea. The groups can be differentiated by their accompanying music and by their costuming. In the dances derived from China the colour scheme of the richly embroidered court costumes focuses on red, whereas in the dances derived from Korea the prevalent colour is blue. **

Many of the bugaku dances use wooden masks. This is the case particularly with the demonic characters, since any kind of facial expression in the court context was regarded as vulgar. Thus masks were used in order to portray particularly the powerful characters. Compared with the above-mentioned gigaku masks, bugaku masks are less dramatic in their characterisation, as they do not form part of actual dramas but of highly stylised dances, which only rarely have clear dramatic content. **

Bugaku Rituals and Performance Spaces

Bugaku is traditionally performed on a raised platform measuring 7 by 7 metres. In the introductory part the dancers slowly appear on the stage. The tempo of the music gradually gets faster, while the dancers begin their extremely slow, solemn, almost minimalistic movements. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Some of the dances may originally have had a narrative content, such as the battle of an Indian king with an invisible opponent, or a simple ball game, while some of them also include features of parody. Many of the dances, however, are completely abstract. Generally the original narrative content has been dispelled by the increasing addiction for ceremonial elegance, prevalent at the Heian court. **

Strict symmetry is favoured in bugaku dances and the movements are usually executed in the direction of the four cardinal points. This reflects the ancient Hindu-Buddhist cosmology in which the four points and the centre are seen to comprise the structure of the entire universe. In the whole Indian-influenced region of Asia, the purpose of many archaic dances has been to reflect, contemplate and venerate the laws of the universe. In bugaku dances the exactness of the repetitive movements is of the utmost importance, since it has been believed that it ensures the continuation of the universe.

Festival Dancing in Japan

Awe odori
Bon dances are widely performed during the Bon festival in mid August. In the Inland Sea area this dance is often performed outside the homes of people who have died the previous year and then at a beach where towers have been set up. The dance goes on through the night and features four sets of dancers, each in different costumes and steps, to drumming, chanting and singing songs that commemorate the dead.

Some interesting folk dances include the “Bo odori” dance of Kagoshima Prefecture in which boys wearing kimonos and headbands perform while holding sticks; the “Miwasaki no Aya odori” dance of Wakayama, performed to invoke a bountiful whale catch; and the “Ayakomai” dance of Niigata Prefecture, which resembles kabuki from the early 17th century.

The dances performed at the flower festival in Aichi prefecture are regarded as kagura. Dancers gather on an earthen dance floor around a cauldron with water that boils through the night. After the spirits are invoked, dancers in specific age groups perform a series of dances, some with masks and some without. Towards the end of the night water in cauldron is sprinkled on the audience as a form of purification. Towards dawn dancers in lion and devil masks appear. At dawn dancers representing fire and water emerge and restore order and close the festival.

Masked Dancing in Japan

sacred dance
“Menfuryu” is a form of traditional dance performed at shrines by dancers, called “furyumen”, in demon masks. This form of dance is still practiced in about 100 areas in Saga Prefecture on Kyushu. Demons addressed in the dance are not regarded as evil but are seen as guardian spirits and protectors from evil.

Masked dances along the Japan Sea in central Japan are festive affairs. Describing a local drum dance performed to get rid of demons in Majima on the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture, Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, "The masked dancers appeared one by one. Their movement could not be described as graceful. In fact, it was often jerky, with bent postures and sharp sudden movements tied precisely to the drum beats. Legs and arms were lifted and extended at sharp angles, and heads were whipped around at startling, almost unnatural speed."

"Some of the dancers were clearly quite drunk,” Short wrote. “One in particular was naked except for his mask, a twisted face with an octopuslike mount, and a very skimpy loincloth. With every quick, jerky move his body sprayed sake-drenched sweat across the stage and into the audience."

Gigaku is a form of ancient dance drama performed with masks, containing a mix of cultures from western regions of ancient China along the Silk Road, and parts of southern China. The Gigaku Mask Suiko-O, part of the Shoso-in collection in Nara, is a type of mask used in gigaku plays that were once performed in Buddhist ceremonies at Todaiji temple in Nara. Made of camphor, the mask was worn by actors playing the role of a drunken foreign king. A beast resembling a winged tiger adorns the upper part of the mask. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun , November 5, 2011]

The artist Yasumasa Morimura told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “It seems the dramas were frequently performed at Buddhist religious services at Todaiji temple and on other occasions in the seventh and eighth centuries. I'm sure they were very bright, colorful and lively occasions. Actors who wore this mask played the role of a drunken Persian king. The deeply chiselled carvings bring out the three-dimensional nature of the mask, and the shape of the winged beast motif above the face is also interesting. The wild look of the mask can probably be explained by the chaos that resulted from the mixture of Japanese culture with those of mainland Asia.

Ballroom Dancing in Japan

Japan has more ballroom dancers than other country. Ballroom dancing magazines estimate that 14 million Japanese enjoy the pastime through classes at dance schools, university social dancing courses, clubs, and competitions. They also spend a fortune on tuxedos, chiffon-trimmed gowns, and videos that give tips on dancing the waltz, fox trot, tango, cha-cha, rumba and pasa double. Many of the dancers are over 40. They say they dance to get exercise, meet people and have fun. One of the most common dance numbers is the 1960s pop hit “Sukiyaki”.

In 1880s, after Japan opened up to the outside world, ballroom dancing was all the rage, but it was soon prohibited as a form of Western decadence. Describing the first encounter with Western-style dancers in Victorian London in 1872, one Japanese government official wrote, "Several couples of men and women appeared, separating and joining together, moving backwards and forwards quickly and slowly...They simply went round and round to the quickening rhythm and here was no singing at all. The music all sounded savage to our ears, and to savage to bear."

Another ballroom boom occurred after World War II when hundred of dance halls were built for occupying American soldiers. But even then it was still considered a seamy "excuse for men to approach to women," one dance instructor told Newsweek. Until recently most dance schools were located in shady neighborhoods near Turkish baths and pachinko parlors. Only in the last decade or so has it been embraced by mainstream Japan.

Ballroom Dancing in Japan Today

The ballroom dance industry was helped immeasurably by 1995 film “Shall We Dance?," which was seen by more than 2 million people, a large number for a Japanese-produced film. Schools reported a 20 increase in attendance after the film came out.

Explaining the appeal of ballroom dancing, the dance critic Sako Ueino told Newsweek, "Since the 1980s, Japanese have learned that having lots of things’supported by a strong economy — does not make their art or life particularly rich. That is why more people are now being drawn to dance, the simplest form of art, which you create with your body and nothing else."

Many ballroom dancing fans compete in competitions in which they dress in evening wear and swirl around a parquet dance floor with numbers pined to their backs.

Despite the popularity of ballroom dancing, parties and wedding rarely feature dancing. People usually eat, drink and sing karaoke.

Tango, Belly Dancing in Ethnic Dancing in Japan

street hip hop dancing
Salsa, flamenco, samba, tango, hula, belly dancing, and some Asian ethnic dances are all very popular in Japan but the way they are enjoyed is different than the way they are enjoyed in their home countries. Rather than going to clubs and festivals to dance the night away or attending performances, most Japanese attend classes were they learn to do the dances, step by step, as if they were learning to make a cake.

In August 2009, a Japanese pair — Hiroshi Yamao and his wife Kyoko — won the Seventh World Tango Championships in Buenos Aires, Forty-five pairs from all over the world competed in the finals. The Yamaos were the first Japanese to take first place. Representing Argentina, Tokyo-born Chizuko Kuwamoto and her Argentine partner Diego Ortega won the 2010 Tango World Championship in Buenos Aires.

Japanese Kasumi Kimura is the only Asian professional belly dancer in Cairo. She taught yoga and dance after finishing junior college and was inspired to take up belly dancing after seeing it in a movie. “I knew this was the dancing I had been searching for,” she told the Yomiuri Shimbun. After studying under famous choreographers in Turkey and Egypt she made her debut in 1987 and was still performing in 2009.

One dance teacher in Tokyo told the Japan Times, “(Many) Japanese people are lacking in their sense of rhythm, but I find them striving to reach a certain goal.” A professor of biomechanics at Tokyo University said, “Dance is interesting because of such immeasurable factors.”

Hula Dance in Japan

Hula dancing became popular in the early 2000s on the coat tails of the hugely popular film “Hula Girls”. Staring the exceptionally cute actress Yu Api, the film is based on a true story of a group of young girls preparing for the opening of the Joban Hawaiian Center (now Spa Resort Hawaiians) in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, by taking hula dance lessons from a professional dancer from Tokyo. In the film the shy and awkward girls become good dancers and fulfilled human beings and put on a show-stopping performance at the end of the film to mark the spa’s grand opening.

Hula and Hawaiian and Japanese culture, hula promoter Michael Casupang told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “We have seen parallels between Hawaiian and Japanese culture, and they are very much the same. Respect for your elders, for your kupuna...Always taking care of them. Respect for the land and nature. I think [Japanese] fit well [with Hawaiians] because we have the same value system...When you go to someone's house, you bring omiyage [gift]...that's just one parallel.”

Japan's Queen of Flamenco

Hideki Sukenari wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Fifty years ago, Yoko Komatsubara traveled to Spain to learn the national dance. "Ever since I was a child, I've been tomboyish and have never been shy about showing my emotions. Maybe this made me well suited for flamenco. These years have passed quickly," she said. [Source: Hideki Sukenari, Yomiuri Shimbun, January 4, 2012]

Komatsubara was born in Yanagibashi, Tokyo, in 1931 as the eldest daughter of Tokiwazu Katsuzo, a master of Tokiwazu traditional music. She began her performing career in ballet and as a stage actress, but a passion for flamenco was kindled when she saw the famous Spanish dancer Pilar Lopez perform in Tokyo in 1959. She went to Spain to learn flamenco in 1962. She studied under various teachers in the birthplace of flamenco, studying classical dance under Victoria Eugenia, more soulful styles under Enrique el Cojo and the elegant techniques of Matilde Coral.

At 81 years old, Komatsubara's performances are filled with an air of dignity. In addition to dancing, she also employed her skills as a producer for the concert. Yoko's Flamenco, with its unique combination of sophisticatedly designed costumes, sets and lighting, plus a hint of Japanese culture, has pleased audiences all over the world.

Disco Dancing in Japan

harushi dance game
Disco dancing became very big in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Disco fever CDs sold well, songs by K.C. and the Sunshine Band and Earth, Wind and Fire popped up in television commercials, and people signed up in droves for disco dancing classes and sported Saturday Night Fever fashions. The only problem was there wasn’t many places where people could go to strut their stuff. Japan doesn’t have many discos. Instead they went to arenas and wedding halls that had special disco nights.

Describing the scene at “platform of love” night at Velfarre, a dance hall in Tokyo, Sayaka Yakushiji wrote in the Asahi Shimbun, “The air thumped with the beat from two towering amplifiers, as scantily dressed women crammed atop elevated platforms shook their booties and screamed with ecstacy. Beads of sweat collected in the cleavage of one woman in a pink lame bikini top and ultra-mini shorts. White smoke spewed from the ceiling and spectral lights reflected by a meteor-sized mirror ball whizzed across the walls.”

This wasn’t the first time disco fever hit Japan. Xanadu was a legendary club in the 1970s. Julianas was a big hit in the Bubble Economy era of the late 1980s. There scantily-clad office ladies danced on a platform there while salarymen jockey for position below so they could look up their skirts. When disco fever returned in the early 2000s many of the people involved were the same ones involved in previous disco fever only now they were much older.

Para para was a Macarena-like dance with set sets done in unison by large groups of people that became popular at clubs and parties for a brief period in Tokyo and then spread to other cities in Asia. Performed to Eurobeat songs, the dance was presented as a way of relieving stress. In cities such as Hong Kong it the dance was done by hundreds of people at large shopping malls and parks.

A very recognizable figure in the late 1990s was Dance Man, a Japanese guy who donned an Afro wig, pasted-on sideburns, platform shoes, crocodile-skin pants and an ankle-length pimp coat and appeared at Japan's last remaining discos, doing 70s disco classic like Chic's “Good Times”, Wild Cherry's “Play That Funky Music”, and Kool and the Gang's “Get Down on It” with comical Japanese lyrics. During some songs he distorted his voice with inhaled helium.

Papaya Suzuki was another Japanese disco dance figure. Sporting an Afro perm, satin shorts and chains, he popped up everywhere, on variety shows, dramas, and music shows. Harvey Dickson wrote in the New York Times: "Papaya (real name: Hiroshi Suzuki) is an older and, frankly, tubby dancer who often wears polyester suits that resemble the house uniform at the Giraffe, a disco I once frequented in Kalamazoo, Mich., in the mid-1970s. On game shows and music shows, Papaya, in his trademark Japanese afro, is there to provide the comic relief, which he does. But he is something more than that. There aren’t many middle-aged role models in Japan that aren’t perfectly put together. Papaya looks like an uncle who had a little too much to drink at a cherry-blossom-viewing party. Mostly I can never decide if Papaya is the greatest hoofer since Astaire or is completely insane. Precious little of his work is online, and this clip doesn’t really show him at his best (he often appears, as here, with his troupe — the Oyaji Dancers; “oyaji” means “old man”): The Most to Lose [Source: Harvey Dickson, New York Times, June 1, 2011]

Japanese Hip Hop Dancing and Dance Revolution

harushi dance game
Break dancing and hip hop dancing are very popular in Japan. Groups of dancers like to gather outside Jidokan in Shibuya and show off their routines. In the early 2000s there was a television show called G Paradise in which dance wanabees are judged and given advise by Sam, the famous dancer teacher of husband of pop idol Namie Amuro. Similar shows are popular today.

Hip hop in Japan can trace its origins back to break dancers performing in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park in late 1983. Some Japanese hip hop groups explore topical social and political issues life school refusal, child abuse, 9-11 and Japanese nationalism.

Hip hop street culture began making itself present in Japan in the 1990s. Kids dressed in baggy jeans, T-shirts, backwards baseball caps and Nikes. They also began braiding their hair and wearing dreadlocks and corn rows and darkening their skin. Now there are record shops that specialize in in providing vinyl for scratchers, areas where graffiti artist can spray paint with impunity and Hip Hop magazines with 120,000 readers.

Some nightclubs have projected images of dancer that people on the dance floor can follow. Dance machines were all the rage at video arcades in the later 1990s. Describing a 19-year-old young man using Konami's Dance Dance Revolution, Tim Larimer wrote in Time. "He plops two 100 yen coins into a slot, taps his game choice on a video display and waits for the music to begin. Standing on a small platform in front of the screen he tries to match the moves of the digitalized dancer. 'Perfect!' the screen's message announced as he furiously stamps on four large neon squares. 'Great!' it assures him.”

“Love and Berry Dress Up and Dance” was popular game with kindergarten and primary school girls. Players earn points by dressing up two witches, Love and Berry, and getting to dance. Players chose how the witches will prepare for a dance by feeding “Oshare Maho” (“magic makeover”) cards with hairdos, dresses and shoes into the machines. Participant can earn points by rhythmically pushing buttons as the witches dance with the winner being the one who is most stylish. A similar online girls game features Japanese schoolgirls competing in dancing contests.

Japanese Hip-Hop Dancer Makes a Splash at Harlem’s Apollo

Shoji Ichihara wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Japanese hip-hop dancer TAKAHIRO has been in the limelight since making his professional debut in the United States after a record streak of victories in a televised contest at the Apollo Theater, a sacred place for the art in New York. The art was born in New York's black community in the mid-1970s. Although TAKAHIRO is a Japanese native of Tokyo, his technique has surprised even experienced aficionados of hip-hop dance in the United States. How was he able to dominate the contest for so long? [Source: Shoji Ichihara, Yomiuri Shimbun, December 28, 2012]

The 31-year-old B-Boy, whose real name is Takahiro Ueno, was not so active in studies and sports. Through his high school years, he wondered how he could attract the attention of others. When TAKAHIRO was a first-year university student, he saw a senior member of his dance club spinning dynamically on his back. At that moment he had a flash of inspiration; he suddenly knew what he wanted to do, and began to pursue a career in dance. Although he injured his lower back and suffered spinal problems, he trained hard in the art of hip-hop dance. After graduating from university, TAKAHIRO took a job at a public relations firm. But his desire to challenge the world with his dance intensified, and he left Japan for New York with no prospects for success when he was just 23.

TAKAHIRO made his mark in the United States when he appeared in a TV break dancing contest, Showtime at the APOLLO, at the Apollo Theater in New York, and became a nine-time champion, the longest run in the program's history, launching his professional debut in the United States. His motto is to "demonstrate Japan's appeal to the world and introduce the world's arts to Japan." When he danced at the Apollo, he used Japanese culture to his advantage. "I wanted to use an idea or movement that was uniquely Japanese," TAKAHIRO said. His moves incorporate elements of karate and other martial arts, Japanese animation and video games.

Among his most unique moves was a dance that directly referenced a comedic manga he liked when he was a high school student. He perfectly mimicked the movement of the manga's protagonist by wiggling and jiggling like a tentacled sea creature. He named the dance "Daba Daba." It later fascinated no less a performer than Madonna, who decided to use TAKAHIRO as a stage dancer for her world concert tour in 2009.His original movements are a mixture of orthodox hip-hop dance, which represents black culture, and his own Japanese culture. "Even if Japanese people really try to copy the moves of black people, it would only be a superficial imitation in the end. But I created a hip-hop dance with an element of Japanese culture, so I'm highly praised in the United Sates," he said.

As TAKAHIRO continues to temper his body with physical training, he also nourishes a mind as ceaselessly inquisitive as it is flexible. He has diligently studied more than 20 arts, including tap, ballet, modern and contemporary dance, theatrical swordplay in period dramas and films and traditional Japanese dance. He sometimes secretly attends idol events in Tokyo's Akihabara district to study the original dances invented and performed by fans to support their idols. "If you want to do something truly different, you have no choice but to constantly investigate and expand your definition of 'great,'" he said. TAKAHIRO considers innovative imagination to be important.

Hip-Hop Dance Poplar with Japanese Schoolkids

In the spring of 2012, dance became a mandatory part of health and physical education classes for both boys and girls in the first and second year of middle school. The new curriculum may include street dance such as hip-hop. Yoshiko Uchida wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “As the government introduced new guidelines this spring to make dance classes compulsory in middle school, the number of people who are interested in the activity is expected to grow. In April 2012, an event called "Girls' Buyuden" was held in Tokyo. [Source: Yoshiko Uchida, Yomiuri Shimbun, May 25, 2012]

The event was a girls-only contest with no age limit. About 70 percent of the 300 groups that performed consisted mainly of primary school students. The competition was won by Onparade, a group comprising one high school student and six middle school students. Their performance was cheerful and playful, involving dynamic movement.

In 2001, leading music agency Avex Group Holdings Inc., based in Tokyo, created dance schools for children. Student enrollments increased steadily each year, and Avex now runs 140 schools. Some are freestanding and others are housed in sports clubs. "At one stage, the idea of young people dancing might have made you think of them secretly gathering in open spaces of the city at midnight," said Emi Sato of Avex. "But children today take dance because it is like a culture lesson or sport. The number of children who want to learn dance has rapidly increased over the last couple of years, especially among girls from the fourth grade of primary school to the first year of middle school.”

To attract girls of that age group, Shufunotomo Co. launched the kids dance magazine Girls Stage in spring. The magazine's editor in chief, Chiemi Furuta, said: "Children think it's cool to dance to music. Their mothers love dance, too. They make costumes and do their children's hair before contests. "They seem to enjoy the hobby together.”

Yuino Mamiya, 10, is a fifth-grade student at a Tokyo primary school who has been learning hip-hop dance for five years together with her friend who lives nearby. Before Yuino performs at events and festivals, her mother Sayuri says she "conjures up an image of a hairstyle that matches Yuino's costume and choreography." Sayuri, 39, said she's good at cornrows, narrow braids that are pulled tight in rows close to the scalp. She said she once braided more than 100 rows in her daughter's hair, which had extensions in it. Sayuri often meets the mothers of other children who dance and discusses ways to create interesting hairstyles."I like watching children dance and enjoying themselves," Sayuri said.

Fuka Bito, a sixth-grader at a Tokyo primary school, attends dance lessons three days a week. When she performs at events, her mother, 36, adds a special touch to Fuka's costume. "I enjoy making her costume by stitching sleeves of different colors to a T-shirt," the mother said.

The Japan Street Dance Association has held workshops since March to help physical education teachers who are unfamiliar with teaching dance come up to speed. The first session attracted 41 applicants, exceeding the event's capacity of 20. Kido, one of the instructors from the association, said: "Whether children dance well or badly is not important. We just want more children to enjoy dance.”

Image Sources: 1), 7) Ray Kinnane 2) Liza Dalby's geisha site 3) Andrew Gray Photosensibility 4) 5) 6) JNTO 8), 9) xorsyst

Text Sources: Encyclopedia of Dance; Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **; New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2014

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