Every few years at the largest full moon of the year there is a small festival in the Kanegusuku area of Kume Island. As with many events in Okinawa, the date of the event is based on the kyureki (lunar) calendar. While this means that the event is on a different day each year, the lunar timing means that the event always takes place at a full moon. In this case, August 15th of the kyureki calendar.
This particular festival begins at a small shrine near the Ferry Port just after sunset. A shishi (lion) and two Hachaburo (ハチャブロー) dance to local music. After the shrine, a small parade ensues around the neighborhood where they dances scares away bad luck, disease, etc. It’s thought that the shishimai (lion dance) will ensure health and prosperity for the neighborhood throughout the year.
The Hachaburo are two locals dressed in red robes and painted masks similar to a clown, but are actually meant to represent a pregnant woman. This festival also is important for local children as it’s thought a child who is ‘bitten’ by the lion will be lucky and become smart. During the last lion dance the shishi gently bite’s the hachaburos’ fake stomachs to impart its protection.
The lion and lion dance originally come from Chinese culture. In Okinawa there are many traditions adopted from the historic close ties between the islands and mainland. The lion is composed of a large head, usually wooded, with a jaw that can be operated with two hands. During the dance the lion will snap its jaws shut which makes a large sound to emphasize musical points and scare away bad things. The rest of the lion is a long fur that is draped over the two people inside the lion. The two operators must work together to bring the lion to life.
The Shishimai is the lion dance. While short versions are performed during the parade, the main event of the festival occurred toward the end. The staged dances began not with shishimai, but firstly with two women dancing alone. The dances throughout the night tell a kind of caricature narrative of courtship to birth.
The first dance was two women performing a traditional Okinawan dance with large hats called hanagasa. They performed the dance alone.
Later, the same women danced, but while they danced, two men in masked costumes came out to observe. Their ‘manly’ displays included fist pumping and close inspection of the cloth head wear the women had (behind their backs). Together the dance was a humorous look at male vs female and the apparent distance between both during relationships.
Finally, two men dressed as Hachaburo came out to begin the shishimai dance. The lion slowly made its way out to the stage and moved around in time to the music. The lifelike movements make the dance a difficult one. Working together the two performers have the lion sit, jump, and sway, occasionally sending a crack of wood crashing together when it snaps it teeth. Several small children ran behind me when it caught them off guard.
At the end, the shishi jumped from the stage (talk about coordination) and then went around biting children’s heads. Many ran away but the brave few who received a symbolic bite are expected to grow in intelligence.
More on the Festival
In addition to the cultural and symbolic importance of the events and shishimai, the festival is a great opportunity for locals to come together for entertainment and fun. To pay for the event and local operating expenses for the community center most attendees donated at least 1000yen ($10) in an envelope when they arrived. In return the guest receives a bag with a drink, snack, and thank you note. Families and friends sit together and enjoy food either bought at the festival or brought along. Locals set up tents with beer, shaved ice, and Japanese festival food.
Interspersed with the lion dances were sets of live music by several local groups. Each had a different flair and served as a kind of intermission throughout the evening. At the same time the festival gave children from several areas a chance to come together and play while their parents enjoyed the show.
All together this festival is a unique and culturally interesting event that I seem to find out more about every year. For another perspective check out my reaction from two years ago.