The shishi-mai (lion dance), which is part and parcel of New Year’s celebrations, is a traditional folk dance performed by dancers wearing large lion-headed costumes. Because lions are considered spirit animals that can ward off evil, these dances are performed at many other festivals and celebrations throughout the year, not just at New Year’s. Similar traditional dances can be found throughout Asia, and the shishi-mai in Japan is thought to date back to the Nara period (710~794). The dances vary widely from region to region, but in this article, we focus on the three styles of shishi-mai that are registered as intangible cultural properties of Fukuoka City.
The first style is called gigaku. Gigaku is an ancient form of traditional masked dance from China. The most famous example of this style is the Kashii Shrine Ceremonial Lion Dance, which is performed every April and October during the shrine’s grand festivals. Shrine parishioners dress up as two lions, one male and one female, and dance dynamically to the lively music of drums and flutes.
The next style of lion dances has strong theatrical and kyogen (comic theater) elements, and these include the Imajuku Aoki Shishi-mai, the Udagawara Honen Shishi-mai, and the Motooka Shishi-mai. All of these originated from lion dances that were widespread in the former counties of Itoshima and Sawara. There are several performances, including “Kadozuke,” all of which depict a grand story. Over the generations, the dancers of some pieces have dwindled to zero or the dances have stopped being performed for some other reason, so some of these dances have died out.
The last style of shishi-mai is called harai-shishi (lit. “exorcism lion”). The main feature of this type of performance is that the lion does not dance, but carries a lion’s head and walks around the town to purify houses, either at their entrances or in their kitchens. According to lore, if a child is “bitten” on the head by a lion, he or she will remain safe for the rest of the year and will become brighter, so you will often see people letting the lions “bite” their children’s heads. Currently, harai-shishi are performed in 24 areas throughout Fukuoka City, and together they are registered as an intangible cultural asset.