By Takahiro Yamagami / Yomiuri Shimbun Hiroshima BureauHIROSHIMA — Smoke blew out furiously. Demons ran out from the back of the stage and came close to the audience. On the stage set up at a shrine pavilion, male dancers jumped and danced.
“Is the cord long enough?” a woman asked, to which another replied, “It looks good.” The women were helping dancers put on costumes, as support staff for kagura performances of Shinto music and dance.
Along with the appeal of kagura itself, such as the gorgeous, ceremonial atmosphere of music, dancing and costumes, these performances also reflect the enthusiasm of the women who enthusiastically support it.
Hiroshima Kagura Joshi (girls) is a network of women connected via Facebook. They come from other parts of the country to Kitahiroshima, Hiroshima Prefecture, bringing fresh energy to the town’s traditional performing art.
Leading member Hiroe Sumikawa, 49, came up with the idea 3½ years ago of building a network of women like the Carp Joshi, a network of female fans of the Hiroshima Toyo Carp professional baseball team.
Sumikawa, who currently lives in Minami Ward, Hiroshima, and works in the bridal industry, used to go to her maternal grandparents’ house in Kitahiroshima during summer holidays and on other occasions when she was a child. She and her brother Takahiro, who was two years younger, often went to see kagura performances while there.
She lost touch with kagura performances as she grew up, but in the summer of 2005, Takahiro died in a car accident. Overwhelmed by emptiness, Sumikawa learned that a group of kagura performers would participate in an autumn festival in Hiroshima, where her parents lived. She visited the festival with her family, and saw young people in their teens and 20s dancing all-out, which reminded her of her younger brother’s dedication to his band.
Deeply impressed, she started going to see kagura frequently and noticed young women in the audience. In Hiroshima Prefecture, mainly in the northern region, kagura performances have long been popular and are often held. Since around the 1990s, “kagura as performance,” with showy staging and up-tempo music, has attracted attention.
In July 2014, Sumikawa created a Facebook community page called Hiroshima Kagura Joshi. This quickly drew a reaction and her circle of friends grew. In addition to information about kagura performances, they introduce food and other charms of Kitahiroshima, and have refurbished a vacant house in the town into a community space where kagura fans can gather before and after performances.
There are more than 50 kagura performance groups in the town, and the Kitahiroshima town office also has an eye on the kagura girls group. The popularity of skiing and snowboarding, which are a tourism resource for Kitahiroshima, has declined since peaking in the 1990s, and new assets are needed.
In 2016, Sumikawa and others organized a bus tour with a local tourist company to visit various kagura performances.
Sumikawa has been a member of the Gounosaki kagura group in Kitahiroshima since 2008, and now plays a Japanese flute. Another woman who joined after Sumikawa is thinking of moving to the town from Hiroshima City.
According to a survey conducted by Kitahiroshima in 2013 and 2014, young people in their teens and 20s accounted for 28 percent of all kagura group members. When another kagura group in Hiroshima Prefecture performs in Hiroshima City, Kitahiroshima groups also participate to appeal to young people.
“I hope they’ll be a bridge between kagura, women and young people,” said Tomokatsu Ugawa, 54, the leader of the Gounosaki kagura group.
More than 200 people are now registered on Sumikawa’s Facebook community page. “I want to revitalize kagura and the community through the power of women, like the Hiroshima Carp girls,” Sumikawa said.
Kitahiroshima is a basin located in the Chugoku Mountains at 300 to 800 meters above sea level, and positioned roughly in the center of the highland region, the northern part of Hiroshima Prefecture. The town has heavy snowfall and is visited by many skiers and snowboarders in winter.
Kitahiroshima town was born through the merger of four towns in February 2005. As of the end of October 2017, the town had a population of about 19,000, a drop of about 10 percent since its creation.