LETTER FROM JAPAN

By Billy Fox, Cartwheel Initiative Music Workshop Instructor

“Thanks to a grant from the Asian Cultural Council, I’m currently conducting research in rural Shimane Prefecture, Japan. My primary area of interest is provincial religious practices that survived Meiji-era reforms intended to establish centralized, State Shintoism.

I didn’t expect to find parallels to my experiences in Sri Lanka, but as I learn forms of music and dance that are new to me, and observe children practicing and performing, I’m continually reminded of the transformative power of the arts.  Intertwined with local religious traditions is a form of music and dance called kagura, which is performed for the entertainment of kami (often translated as “gods,” but perhaps “spirits of a place” is more accurate). Kagura normally takes place in shrines during seasonal matsuri (festivals). These are intense affairs, typically beginning about 10pm and continuing without break until sunrise. Not only are they marathon sessions, but dancers perform physically demanding routines while wearing ornate costumes and masks that are bulky and hot. More than once I’ve witnessed dancers faint the moment they step off stage.

Tanijyugo Kagura Shachu, the kagura group based in the village where I’m residing, graciously invited me to join them for rehearsals and performances. I’ve been learning Shioharai, a purification dance, and have performed it twice during matsuri. I’m also learning to play small handheld cymbals, which are simple looking but diabolically tricky to play correctly. I normally play these for about three or four hours during each matsuri, which is quite a test of endurance.

Although I’ve been mightily impressed with Tanijyugo Kagura Shachu’s talent and discipline, the thing that most impresses me is their dedication to nurturing the talents of children. Several boys under the age of 10 perform as dancers and musicians in a few pieces each night. I’ve been astonished at their skill and artistry, and it’s reassuring to know that the future of kagura is safe in their hands.

These experiences bring back thoughts of Sri Lanka—how poised and mature the children we worked with were despite suffering the horrors of a brutal and protracted war. I’m also reminded how artistic performance and creative expression are crucial tools for shaping character and achieving emotional balance.

As a neophyte, I’m humbled to perform with a top-notch kagura group. But I also see myself growing as an artist and person during these trials by fire. I’m experiencing the transformative power of art in myself, and I am now all the more devoted to the Cartwheel Initiative’s mission. I know that our workshops truly do have the power to change the lives of children who have survived conflict and disaster.”

For more on Billy’s experiences in Japan, visit: www.billykitsune.tumblr.com