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Japanese pop culture is more than manga and anime

Of all the students we got to know in twenty-one years of outreach to university students in Sendai, Tado stood out the most. He started coming to weekly English and Bible meetings in his first year at university, and he was there almost every week until he finished his doctoral course. There were two other things Tado was also passionate about—kendo and yosakoi.

Many people are familiar with kendo, a Japanese form of fencing using bamboo swords and traditional protective gear. But yosakoi, though extremely popular in Japan, isn’t well-known outside the country. Yosakoi is group dancing by performers wearing brightly-colored, kimono-like costumes (called happi) and using wooden clappers (naruko).

Yosakoi originated in Kōchi Prefecture in southern Japan in the 50s. Yosakoi festivals have spread to more than two hundred places in Japan. At the beginning of June every year, Sapporo, where we live now, has a five-day Yosakoi festival called YOSAKOI Soran. “Sōran” refers to the music and lyrics used in the dance—the traditional folk song sung by fishermen in Hokkaido as they pulled in their nets. Today, performers and visitors come, not only from Hokkaido, but from around Japan, and even some international participants as well.

I think one of the reasons yosakoi has become so popular is that anyone can participate and enjoy it—from small children to the elderly. Many universities have yosakoi clubs, elementary school children dance yosakoi at their sports festivals, and local communities and companies also have clubs. We’ve even heard about a new OMF missionary who joined a club while studying Japanese language and performed at a festival.

We used to go to see Tado perform with his Yosakoi club members at his university festival and the Sendai city-hosted festival. I was quite surprised and entertained by people of many ages in brightly-colored costumes dancing with so much energy, perfectly in time with each other, to music incorporating traditional, local folk songs. I was delighted to see people freely expressing so much joy through their movements.

Japanese people are often perceived as conservative, modest, and shy. But yosakoi dancers look very different to that: outgoing, cheerful, and energetic. But looking a little deeper there are many similarities between traditional Japanese values and the popular modern yosakoi. Performers must practice together almost every day until their movements and smiles happen in unison. Attaining this level of skill requires hard work, commitment, and discipline, and group cooperation—all traditional values.

I have heard from many newly-arrived missionaries that what first attracted them to Japan was an interest in some form of pop culture, often manga, anime, or video games. Yosakoi demonstrates that Japanese pop culture is much broader than just these internationally popular forms. Many people find themselves drawn to Japan as a whole by anime or manga, and then they find themselves learning about traditional values and history, just like popular yosakoi unexpectedly reflects important cultural values.

How about you? Are you open to learning more about Japan? What area would you like to explore?

By Terui, an OMF missionary

Will you pray for Japan?

  • Pray for new missionaries—that they will be interested in learning about Japan’s culture and history.
  • Pray that Christians interested in Japan’s pop culture will see Japan’s deep spiritual needs and be drawn to make a difference.

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