A roar pierces the air as the music begins, and what looks like a psychedelic ninja squadron leaps into action, their long sleeves and headbands trailing behind them. Their movements are flamboyant, and their costumes even more so. This isn’t some new anime or RPG — it’s a yosakoi festival, one of many that takes place in Japan every summer.
Yosakoi is a dance that originated in Kochi prefecture, on the southern island of Shikoku. It grew out of awa odori, a traditional dance style and festival from neighboring Tokushima prefecture. Awa odori’s roots lie in the Buddhist custom of obon, making it a ritualistic dance with a long established set of moves.
In comparison, yosakoi is a modern dance style with few rules. The first festival was held in Kochi city in 1954, as part of an effort to revitalize the local economy and people. Since then, the festival has been held in Kochi every year. Yosakoi’s spirited energy and mixing of traditional and modern Japanese culture have also made it popular across Japan, with festivals in various prefectures now part of the country’s regular summer festivities.
Check out this video of dance troupe Odori Samurai who travel around the country to participate in different yosakoi events.
Like awa odori, yosakoi is performed in teams. The choreography is left completely up to each team, allowing for innovative and surprising performances, the most impressive of which have complicated routines involving hundreds of dancers. Even the choice of song is left up to the individual teams, with the original festival in Kochi stipulating only that the music must contain part of the official “Yosakoi Naruko Dancing” song. Most Yosakoi performances blend elements of traditional Japanese song and dance with upbeat, contemporary pop/rock music and an unrestricted range of movements.
Perhaps it’s this freedom of creation that has turned yosakoi into such a unique and dramatic spectacle. The colourful costumes look like something out of a video game, and the dances can include costume changes quite literally on the fly, with dancers tearing off happi coats to reveal contrasting colours as they leap through the air. Matching props and makeup are a common feature of the costumes. Dances involve exuberant chanting and even screaming, which are audible over the music since yosakoi performances rarely include live instruments. Instead, dancers keep time with naruko, wooden percussion clappers which were originally used by farmers to scare birds away from their crops.
There are now over 200 yosakoi festivals and competitions in Japan. I had the fortune of participating in one of the biggest, the Yosakoi Soran Festival in Sapporo. As yosakoi spread from Kochi to other prefectures, many of them put their own spin on the style. Yosakoi Soran is based on the Soran Bushi, a traditional Hokkaido fishermen’s chant, which all competing teams must incorporate into their performance.
Even my small community team took the training very seriously. For large competitive teams, usually affiliated with universities, the training schedule is rigorous and teams fly across the country to compete. Although teams only perform one routine at a competition, the choreography changes depending on the venue – for instance, a stage versus a parade route where dancers need to advance a certain distance – so dancers need to practice and memorize multiple variations of their routine.
The festival runs for only a few days, with the main competition taking place on a summer weekend. Hundreds of yosakoi teams invade the city, racing from venue to venue in their ergonomic tabi sneakers and cheering “otsukaresama!” as they pass one another in the streets. When they dance, they’re flanked by flag-bearers waving flags the size of trucks, and real trucks, tricked out jikatasha, that carry the group’s live announcers and singers. The teams hold nothing back when it comes to theatrics.
The atmosphere is evocative of a carnival, especially in Sapporo where there is so little summer to be enjoyed! Of all the festivals in Japan, yosakoi is one of the most exuberant. The dancers, ranging from young children to seniors, push their physical limits as they perform over and over to the rousing yosakoi music, smiling maniacally the entire time. Their energy is infectious. The party continues long into the night—fitting, since yosakoi means “come at night” in Shikoku’s traditional Tosa dialect. With all its adrenaline and colour, it’s the perfect celebration of summer.
Large yosakoi festivals are also held in Nagasaki, Tokyo, Saitama, and Osaka. If you live in Japan, chances are that there’s a team nearby you can join. Yosakoi is even catching on internationally: there are teams based in the U.S., Canada, France, the Netherlands, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Ghana. An anime series called “Hanayamata” was produced in 2014, about a group of middle school students who form a yosakoi group. Yosakoi’s popularity is unsurprising. It’s a jubilant showcase of the best of both traditional and contemporary Japanese culture, with the freedom to explore new directions.