Autumn Beauty of Kagura Mai, Traditional Japanese Ritual Dance

Photo: Copyright Yasukuni Shrine. Used with permission.

Autumn Beauty of Kagura Mai, Traditional Japanese Ritual Dance

Alma Reyes

The theatrical dance plays an important source of visual appreciation in Japanese traditional culture. Although television has become the major medium of home visual entertainment since its invention, live comedy skits, stand-up comedy “manzai,” and studio drama series all stem from theatrical arts.

Court dances were especially prominent as early as the 7th century when the traditional “bugaku” dance forms introduced from Korea entertained the Imperial Court with stylized movements, drum accompaniment and richly embroidered costumes. All the other Japanese traditional dances, such as Kabuki, Noh, Buyo, and folk dances have served Imperial Courts from the Momoyama and Tokugawa periods until today.

“Mai,” which means dance, is a particular genre of Japanese traditional dance depicting circular movements. “Kagura” refers to the Shinto theatrical dance dedicated to honor Shinto gods and are known to predate the Noh tradition, therefore, evolving as early as the 14th century. The Kagura Mai dance is perhaps one of the oldest forms of Japanese ritual dance performed in many shrines all over Japan, and consists of several types: Miko Kagura, performed by shrine maidens (miko), Shishi Kagura (lion dance), Daikagura performed by priests from Ise and Atsuta shrines, Satokagura, more common dances performed in villages, and others usually deriving from regions, such as Hiroshima (Hiroshima Kagura), where they are popularly celebrated.

Kagura Mai performers

Photo copyright Yasukuni Shrine, used with permission.
Every year, the Yasukuni Shine offers a special early autumn nocturnal Aki no Yonaga Mikagura (秋の夜長御神楽) theatrical performance in September for the public, which includes the Kagura Mai dance. Several mythological stories describe the roots of this enchanting performance. A popular legend speaks of the sun goddess Amaterasu who hibernated in a cave, therefore bringing darkness to the universe. The goddess of dawn Ame-no-Uzume summoned other gods through wild dancing to pull out Amaterasu from the cave.

The performance comes in five acts. The first act is a celebration of the Urayasu Dance, which is a Shinto ritual dance that emerged in 1940, and dedicates prayers for peace and security. Four court dancers in elegant bright orange and lime green costumes perform graceful unison movements against the chanted poetry and gentle sounds of the traditional koto instrument, oboe and gong. The second act performs the songs of Biwa, and depicts four male dancers in bright orange attire moving with a sudden change of movements. Four dancers in battle costumes also appear in the third act, with the Mai dancer seen behind a phoenix in a green mask, and is allured by the flute and drum. The fourth and last act pay more attention to the Mai dancer with a red face, this time with a dragon image in red bamboo cloth and holding a sword. The dance flows with the serenity of the music, at the same time evoking powerful movements by the performers.


Photo © Copyright Alma Reyes

Photo © Copyright Alma Reyes

Photo © Copyright Alma Reyes
Such an auspicious ritual dance viewed among the lit trees and religious architecture around Yasukuni Shrine invokes the perfect atmosphere for solemnity and delicacy of tradition. Visitors to Japan would surely be awed by the refined sounds of the Japanese instruments, the sophisticated costumes and precision of the dance steps.

Aki no Yonaga Mikagura (秋の夜長御神楽)
Yasukuni Shrine
3 Chome-1-1 Kudankita, Chiyoda, Tokyo 102-8246
Yasukuni Shrine Website