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Home » 5. Rites and Festivals » Performing Arts
Kagura is a sacred artistic rite performed when making an offering to the kami. Usually performed annually or even less frequently, the kami is invited (kanjō) to occupy the sacred area and is worshiped with performances of music, song and dance. The prevailing explanation for the etymology of kagura is that it is a corruption of the word kamukura (seat of the god). The account in the Kojiki of Amenouzumenomikoto's divine possession (kamigakari) and comic performance before the Amanoiwayato is recorded as "asobi oshi," the character for "asobi" being , the second character in kagura. In the Kogoshūi of 807 the Settling of the Soul Ritual (chinkon no gi) performed in the Imperial Palace by Sarumenokimi (allegedly a descendant of Amanouzume) are written as , the same characters used for kagura. How these two characters were pronounced during the ninth century is unknown but the ancient form of kagura is said to have consisted of kamiasobi used to accompany the Settling of the Soul (tamashizume) and tamafuri rituals. A torimonouta thought to be a mikagura is recorded in the Kokinshū as a kamiasobinouta. Currently Kagura occur throughout Japan in various forms, but there is a clear distinction drawn between the kagura performances associated with the Imperial Court, known as mikagura, and kagura performances occurring outside of the Imperial Court, known as satokagura.

Mikagura of the Imperial Court
The ancient name for mikagura was naishidokoro no mikagura. According to one account, the Emporer Ichijō established naishidokoro no mikagura in 1002 but from 1098, during the time of the cloistered Emperor Horikawa, naishidokoro no mikagura became a annual ritual of the 12th month. The contents of naishidokoro mikagura were based on the unification of numerous older rituals from the Imperial Palace, primarily the Chinkonsai for the pacification of the Emperor's spirit, the Kinkashin'en (ײο) in the Seishodō during the Daijōsai, the ritual offerings of the Sononarabikarakami festival in the Imperial Palace, the kagura of the kaeridachi of the Kamo irregular festival and the Spring and Winter kagura of Iwashimizu Hachimangū. Performances of naishidokoro no kagura take place in the forecourt of the naishidokoro, the present day kashikodokoro, in which the Sacred Mirror is enshrined. A bonfire is lit and two groups of musicians sit facing the naishidokoro, the group on the left known as the motokata, and the group on the right known as the suekata. Behind the musicians, a seat is made for the ninjō, or leaders of the kagura. With the appearance of the Emperor in the evening, the Bonfire Song (Niwabi no kyoku) is performed as a prelude to the Ajime Ritual. The kagura begins with the conclusion of this ritual and is divided into the torimono, ōsaibari, kosaibari, and zōka. In the Heian period, sake was distributed at the end of karakami whilst this took place there was either a performance of Yamato-mai or a comic performance of impersonations by zai no onoko. The instruments used in mikagura are the kagurabue (a transverse flute), the hichiriki (a small double reed wind), the wagon (a six-stringed zither), and shakubyōshi (wooden clappers used to mark time). The primary focus of the ritual is the exchange of songs between the motokata and suekata in a call and response fashion; the motokata performing kamiuta, songs resembling torimonouta, and the suekata performing works with ancient folk song texts resembling saibari. During the performance of hayakarakami in the torimono section and during the performance of Sonokoma in the zōka section, the ninjō dances with a branch of sakaki which has rings attached to it. After the all-night mikagura performance, this branch is presented to the Emperor. In contemporary performances of mikagura, the number of pieces has been reduced, re-organized, and simplified. Nonetheless, the shape and contents of the ritual remain much the same. As well as conducting the customary December mikagura in the forecourt of the kashidokoro, the musicians of the Imperial Household Agency music department also take part in the Daijōsai and other ritual functions.

Satokagura refers to all forms of kagura occurring outside of the Imperial Palace. After the Meiji Restoration, kagura formerly transmitted by shinshoku and shugen (mountain ascetics) became widely practiced by commoners. The structure, contents, and the performing arts of satokagura vary radically from region to region, and it appears rather complex, but Satokagura can be divided into four large groups: miko kagura, Izumo-ryū kagura, Ise-ryū kagura, and Shishi (lion) kagura. Miko kagura is also referred to as mikomai, in which several or one miko, holding bells, folding fans (ōgi), fronds of bamboo or sakaki as torimono dance at either at the haiden or within the shrine precincts. There are also performances of mikomai as part of the Chinkonsai and the Sononarabikarakamisai of the Imperial Court, and in the mikagura of the Iwashimizu Hachimangū. Mikomai has been part of the kagura of Sumiyoshi Taisha, Kasuga Taisha and at the Grand Shrines of Ise from very early on. One of the functions of the miko was to be possessed by the gods (kamigakari) and serve as an oracle (takusen). In the past, the most notable aspect of the mikomai was the reversal of the circumambulation leading to the possession of the miko by the god. Present performances of mikomai, however, have been refined into elegant dances and only vestiges of the possession and oracular functions can be seen in the mikomai of the Shimotsuki-kagura of Horohayama, in Ōmorichō, Akita Prefecture, and the mikomai of Kuromori Shrine in Iwate Prefecture. The Izumo-ryū kagura (Izumo style kagura) is found from the Chūgoku region throughout much of Western Japan, including Shikoku and Kyūshū. The kagura of the Gozakae ritual at Sada Shrine in Kashima-chō, Yatsuka-gun, Shimane Prefecture is said to be the center of Izumo kagura. Izumo kagura developed from the torimonomai used in Shichiza rituals and Shin'nō (sacred Noh), masked performances of sacred myths and shrine omens. Since the Meiji period, this kagura has been referred to as Sada Shin'nō. Kagura sharing the same structure is found in all of the above mentioned regions and commonly referred to as Izumo-ryū kagura and constitutes the largest percentage of all kagura. Within Izumo-ryū kagura, it is still possible to see the forms of spirit possession in the Ōmoto kagura and Kōjin kagura of the Chūgoku region. According to kagura performers from the Kantō Kōshin region through to the Tōhoku region, the Daidai, Tōkyo, Kanagawa, and Saitama kagura that they perform all belong to Izumo-ryū kagura. Ise-ryū kagura is also known as Yudate kagura or Shimotsuki kagura. The Yudate kagura, of the Outer Shrine of the Grand Shrines of Ise, was held at the residence of the Ōshi until the Meiji Restoration. Throughout the mountainous region from Okumikawa of Aichi Prefecture to Nagano Prefecture, there are many festivals with names such as Hana matsuri, Shimotsuki matsuri, and Fuyu matsuri. At these festivals, a caldron is placed in the sacred area for the purpose of offering a yudate (a ritual purification with boiling water) to the gods. During this time, there are performances of torimonomai and masked dances throughout the night. The miko are the primary focus in the Shimotsuki kagura on Horohayama, Ōmorichō, Akita Prefecture, as they perform a prayer (kitō) and yudate mikomai. There are two types of Shishi kagura. One type consists of the yamabushi kagura of Iwate Prefecture, the bangaku of Yamagata Prefecture, and Akita Prefecture, and the nōmai of the Shimokita Peninsula in Aomori Prefecture. The second type is the Dai-kagura of the Grand Shrines of Ise. In both types, the lion head is worshipped as the sacred body (shintai) and the shaking of the lion's head is a form of prayer (kito) or purification (harae). The shishimai (gongenmai) performed by the Yamabushi kagura is the core of yamabushi kagura and either an extremely rough and violent dance of the mountain ascetics or a more sedate dance in the manner of Noh. The Dai kagura tours each region performing shishimai as entertainment in a Sangaku fashion with acrobatics and kyōgen plays. The above kagura is a three-part structure in which the god is greeted, entertained, and seen off. Many of the kagura are firmly established as part of ritual performance arts in villages and consist of welcoming the god to the sacred spot, and prayers for successful crops, health, and longevity. The richness and variety of satokagura attests to its vitality and importance.

— Takayama Shigeru
A performance of Edo Satokagura at Shinagawa Jinja.

Tokyo, 2007

©Ichida Masataka

The Daidai Kagura is a type of Satokagura, in which dancers perform for a general audience.

Tokyo, 2007

©Ōsawa Kōji

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