Monday, June 4, 2012

Nihon Buyo

My love for Japan is based mainly in the traditional aspects of its culture, which survive alongside the hyper-modern, technology dictated lifestyle of the average person. Japanese people, especially the young, have a fading interest in such traditions, and many fascinating older aspects of the culture are only kept alive through tourism and the sometimes fanatic interests of foreigners. At my school, the Japanese culture department was taught by one charmingly neurotic British guy. Even I had to do a bit of teaching myself, when many of Japanese friends didn’t know how to don a yukata (summer kimono). Luckily, a few Japanese people still continue the old fashions, such as the instructor for the nihon buyo club. In fact, nihon buyo is one tradition that is experiencing a resurgence in the Japanese population, with people taking classes for entertainment as well as health reasons.

Nihon buyo, which translates as Japanese traditional dance, is a gorgeous art form, the many faces of which have captivated my curiosity since I was young. Dating back to the Heian period (794-1192), it has changed over time and influenced or drawn influence from several other forms of dance. Many types of dance were originally designed for daily use, particularly Shinto rituals. Although many of the traditional dances people watch today are performed as both stage art and ritual, such as dances by shrine maidens, or only stage art, such as noh, nihon buyo is one of the only forms designed for the stage from the beginning. It draws elements from various other forms of dance, such as bugaku (a form of dance performed for the Imperial court), nohgaku (from noh theater), as well as a variety of folk dances that vary based on locality. Elements of nihon buyo are incorporated into kabuki buyo (dances for kabuki plays) as well as other, traditionally inspired free form dancing.

This kind of dancing is designed to be performed in small spaces, and thus includes small, precise, and measured movements. The use of props, such as fans or poles, is common to help accent and dramatize the moves—the long sleeves and bright coloring of the kimono or yukata also help. The dances are choreographed so that each step flows easily in the next one. Whatever position one’s foot is in, the next position can be easily reached, and the arm movements will echo the movement of the feet. There are often subtle moves that are made in preparation for future steps, such as discreetly placing one’s foot behind the other in anticipation of a fluid turn. There are also independent movements of the hands and neck, and ideally the dance should be performed with a look of placid thoughtfulness on the face. Overall, this form of dance is very refined and delicate, and for some people it may be boring. However, for those with a longer, more observational attention span, it is a beautiful form of art, full of expression in every movement of the body.

Being a fan of most traditional Japanese culture, particularly dancing, this is the first club at Akita International University that I joined. Any other club came second to it, and luckily a lot of my friends joined as well. Including my roommate, I also had friends in the club from Taiwan, Malaysia, Hungary, and the Netherlands, which made getting over any embarrassment easier. The senpai* (senior members) of the club were all very nice and helpful, and the sensei (teachers), while sometimes relentless in their practices, were easily approachable when you needed a particular step explained. I only wish we could have met more frequently, as we only met once a week. Although I was only able to perform once, the experience was one of my favorites in Japan.

The club was split into several groups; one was for the new students, two other groups containing senpai performed more advanced dances, and then our single male member, who was new as well, performed his own dance. The above picture is of my group, ready for our performance, around the one guy. The new students worked on a dance accompanied by a folk song that every Japanese person grows up knowing: Sakura Sakura. It is a song that beginners on instruments play and that little kids learn to sing for concerts. Musicians often rework the melody to try to modernize the song, keeping its place firmly rooted in the culture.
Here is a recording of the song.

Here is a translation of the lyrics:
Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms,
Across the spring sky, as far as you can see.
Is it a mist, or is it cloud? Fragrant in the air.
Come now, come, let’s look, at last.

As you can see, it is a short song, like many folk songs, with a simple melody and simple, poetic words. I wish our recording had been as lovely as this one, but for some reason our sensei insisted on using an outdated, poor quality tape recording. I even own such a tape myself now, courtesy of my sensei as a gift at the end of my trip. What am I going to play it in, since I don’t own a tape player? No idea, but it’s a nice keepsake regardless.

As beautiful and graceful as nihon buyo is, learning it is not so delicate. The moves were difficult and sometimes felt quite awkward to my foreigner’s feet. We had to bend our knees slightly in the traditional feminine style, which made my calves and knees hurt in the beginning weeks. This was always difficult for me, and my sensei was always reminding me to bend lower. (I think it’s because I was taller than the other girls.) Our first lesson didn’t involve explanations of each individual movement, but rather was a sink-or-swim plunge that involved watching the senpai perform it once, and then giving it a go ourselves until we figured it out. The fans require a special technique to open them, which made them unreliable at times, especially since our practice fans were worn out and tended to stick every once in a while.

Eventually, after extra practicing on my own with fellow members, we finally got the dance down and were ready to perform it at a student festival near the end of the semester. I invited my host family (who I will tell you about in a later post), and they said they were really impressed, describing our performance with complicated words that were definitely out of my vocabulary! I was sad to be done with the club, but I have many pieces of memorabilia that keep the experience fresh. I have pictures and recordings of our performance, as well as a tape recording, my tabi (Japanese socks), and a pretty dancing fan that I bought for myself in the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo. I can even remember the dance moves, a year later. Although I am far from achieving the grace of the dancers I admire so much, it is comforting to know that despite being a foreigner, I can still perform dances with origins dating back a thousand years, and not look like a complete idiot. If you ever travel to Japan, I highly suggest going to a performance or, if you can, maybe try a lesson or two. In the meantime, here are some videos of my club's performances! I apologize for the horrible video quality; it was filmed on my dinky camera by my boyfriend in a crowded room.

(I am in the front on the right.)

(My friend from the Netherlands doing his awesome one-man dance. The difference in style is pretty cool.)

(A few senpai performing a really lovely dance with streamer fans.)

(Here are some videos of girls performing nihon buyo at a festival I saw. They're much better than me, and  the youngest ones are so cute!)

*Many people who might be familiar with common Japanese words may have a problem with me writing "senpai" instead of "sempai." I also write "tenpura" instead of "tempura," and "kanpai" instead of "kampai." Why do I do this? Because it's the correct phonetic translation. The 'sen' in 'sensei' is the same character/pronunciation as the 'sen' in 'senpai.' There is no single 'm' sound in Japanese, but there is a 'n' sound, written like: ん. It just sounds like an 'm' when next to a 'p' sound, but that doesn't reflect the transliteration properly. So, this is how it will be written in my blog, no matter what. 


  1. This is fantastic blog, just the sort of information i was after. I heart you. Just started 日本舞踊 classes, in Hanzomon, Tokyo. SO excited - I'm so the sycophantic foreigner enthusiast, but I don't even care.
    Emma (O.o)

    1. That is so great! I hope you really enjoy them! Thank you so much for checking out my blog. And please, being a sycophant will get you places! And, if you don't mind, I'd like to embarrass myself by thanking you from the bottom of my heart for being the first person outside of my Facebook friends to read or comment on my blog, lol! So I heart you back!