Desire to convey Japan’s charm to the world through daikagura
Performing a traditional art form with more than 1,000 years of history in multiple languages
My sphere of work, the daikagura, is a Japanese performing art being practiced for more than 1,000 years. It is broadly composed of shishimai, a dance with a lion mask, to drive away evil spirits, and kyokugei acrobatics including umbrella twirling. The beginnings of the art form is said to be rooted in the practice of daikagura troupe visiting households in the countryside, where people who could not make the pilgrimages to the large shrines, to drive away evil forces by dancing the shishimai and giving them amulets. Nowadays, it is an auspicious art form performed during celebrations or at the beginning of the New Year, and is positioned as variety shows between rakugo storytelling at yose theaters, similar to manzai comedy and magic shows, which are forms of entertainment centered around rakugo.
I am currently performing at various stages such as at yose held at entertainment halls in various places in addition to parties and art appreciation events at schools. I am on stage at least 20 days a month, and on days when there are no performances, I practice my art and catch up on office work. I am also a mother of a child and, although I'm busy trying to balance my work and childrearing, my days are enjoyable.
Recently, with the rise in inbound tourists to Japan, there has been an increase in the opportunities to perform the art for foreigners. I also perform overseas once a year and have so far visited various places around the world including Europe, North and South America, and Southeast Asia. I leverage the language skills I developed in my student days during those trips to perform daikagura in English and French. I am not only using foreign languages to perform but also striving to convey the "OMEDETAI (auspicious) culture" associated with daikagura to the world. I was under the impression that daikagura was not that difficult to explain, unlike rakugo, as it is an "art that you can see and understand," but when I started doing it, it was not that simple.
First of all, there is no concept of "OMEDETAI" in no other countries but Asian. While there is the term "congratulations" in the sense of blessing, it is not "auspicious" as when there is a good omen. Given that, I interpret OMEDETAI as sharing happiness among everyone and translate it accordingly depending on the scene. As for the trick of rotating masu, the word for square wooden measure cup, on top of the umbrella, the fact that in Japanese the umbrella spreading out is metaphorically considered as being "increasingly successful" and masu, is taken as masumasu, meaning more and more, which as such are appreciated in Japan, people overseas do not know what masu is. I need to explain that the square wooden measure cup is called masu and masumasu means more and more in English. Such difficulties exist, but when a foreign person tells me after a performance that they felt happy, I become extremely delighted that I was able to "get it across."
From aspiring to become a diplomat to getting a job in a PR firm. Then, I came upon yose .
I came to know of ICU from my senior at middle school and high school, who was attending ICU, and that was the trigger. I had a yearning for overseas right from childhood and was captivated by ICU with its high international character. I was impressed by the academic culture where students of multiple nationalities not only study together but also mutually accept the differing cultures and concepts through conversation. And, upon actually joining ICU, I was surprised thinking, "There's a place where I can live so freely." I felt comfortable and free with the environment at ICU that enabled everyone to interact on level terms without judging anyone by gender, age or nationality.
I was in the then Division of Social Sciences at ICU and was primarily studying medieval European history. The theme of my graduation thesis was "Medieval graves." I was interested in religion and views on life and death and devoted myself to research, as I was deeply interested in respective ideas expressed in the various formats of graves. I can talk endlessly also about my life outside of studies, such as club activities and the thoroughly enjoyable dorm life I had at ICU.
After graduating, I wanted to become a diplomat. That idea originated from a study abroad program to France as a high school student. It was before the days when people started admiring cool Japan and the French people's impression of Japanese was quite dreadful. They thought that Japanese were a race of people who just worked seriously, and I was surprised when someone asked me, "Do Japanese people kiss?" Such experiences made me think of taking a job in the future where I can convey the goodness of Japan to the world and started thinking of becoming a diplomat while studying at ICU. Unfortunately, I could not clear the test to become a diplomat and I ended up working in a PR firm thanks to a classmate who was working there. PR work is to convey something in an attractive form and I thought if I could learn that technique it would be good. Subsequently, I worked as a company employee for around six years doing that PR job.
You might wonder why I switched from the PR company job to the world of daikagura. My father enjoys watching yose performances, and one day while I was working for the PR company, he took me to an entertainment hall to watch yose. There, I was overwhelmed by the performance including rakugo. There was also a daikagura performance and when I looked into it, I learned that it had a deep connection with Shinto religion and has a very long history. I loved history as a young child and I indulged myself in learning religious history at ICU, so daikagura was more interesting than anything else for me. Daikagura being a happy art in all aspects and its power to appeal even though it does not involve speech were the other factors that attracted me.
Since then, I began going to yose and my interest in daikagura grew further. That was when I saw the National Theatre's flyer recruiting trainees for daikagura at the first yose of the year in January 2007. Then I had a gut feeling. "If I perform daikagura, I may be able to 'communicate the goodness of Japan to the world,' which is my original goal." I applied to become a trainee and successfully joined the daikagura world.
Realizing my dream, in a different form
The one thing that I cultivated at ICU and has been most helpful to me in this world is the attitude to accept difference. That is because there is an absolute hierarchy in the world of yose, in which those who join it earlier is your senior even if the difference is just a second. If a senior says a crow is white, it is white. In a sense it can be termed as irrational, and it was significant that I was able to accept it naturally by thinking "There is a culture like this one."
I joined this world rather late and I have quite a number of seniors who are younger than me. Ordinarily it could be difficult to listen obediently to someone younger than you, but I had no resistance to this. When we start career in yose world, we work as stage assistant for several years. We call that people zenza, literaly means opening performer. And I also worked as zenza for 1 year. During zenza period, we are always being scolded, but it is a great opportunity to get seniors to correct what you are doing wrong. Once you graduate from zenza, no one will alert you. I feel that I was lucky as a performer to have the attitude to listen to warnings and advice from those around me.
Having the attitude to accept something different also brings about an attitude of being unafraid of changes. This may be why I was able to switch from being a company employee to a performer without hesitation. Some people around me were astonished by my "audacious decision" but my friends from ICU were not so surprised. Their responses were, "You have your own life," and "You are a typical ICU student." I guess that the mindset of living one's own life without being afraid of changes is deep rooted among ICU students.
My goal, no doubt, has been to communicate Japan's goodness to the world and this has been consistent regardless of whether I had become a diplomat or when I was working at a PR company or currently as a daikagura performer. I feel that I was able to realize my dream in another form. Some of you may currently be pursuing your dreams and it is not always so that the dream will come true in a straightforward way. There are numerous ways to approach your dream and it can also come true in different forms, so I would like you to persevere without giving it up. I believe that ICU gives you such flexibility and the strength to take on challenges.
One last thing. I feel that the Japanese culture is very interesting, especially because I had experienced different cultures from around the world at ICU. People seem to think that Japanese culture is rigid but in fact it is very flexible and attaches importance to personality. For example, Western clothes have a fixed shape with buttons and zips while Japanese kimono consists of cloth and strings and fits the person's figure and movements. Shamisen has a part called koma, which transmits the vibrations from the strings to the skin on the shamisen body. The location of koma should be two fingers from the edge of the do (body). However, the thickness of fingers differ from person to person and this difference is considered as individuality. The Japanese culture has an abundance of such charm that is unknown to most people. I sincerely hope that, along with learning about the world at ICU, you will also turn your eyes to the Japanese culture.
Michiyo KagamiDaikagura performer
2003 B.A. in Arts and Sciences (Social Sciences)
After graduating from ICU, Kagami worked for a PR agency till March 2007. She was a daikagura trainee of the the National Theatre of Japan from April 2007 to March 2010. In April 2010, Kagami became an apprentice to Yujiro Kagami of Bonbon Brothers. For the next year, she trained zenza, the stage assistant, at Rakugo Geijutsu Association, along with other zenzas of rakugo storytellers. In April 2011, Kagami started her stage career at the Asakusa Engei Hall. Kagami is currently exploring new possibilities of daikagura through her performances in English and participation in overseas events by leveraging her language skills, which is rare in the world of yose.