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Photo © Renae Smith

Kagura is a form of dance-theatre literally meaning ‘entertaining the gods’. It originated as dance and music rituals based on Japanese mythology that were performed during Shinto religious ceremonies.

Stories told in kagura performances are mostly based on tales from the ‘Kojiki’, an ancient Japanese collection of myths, legends and semi-historical accounts often involving battles between gods and demons.

Kagura spread throughout Japan, giving birth to many forms of performance. Each region has enjoyed its own form of kagura for many generations. In Shimane Prefecture, western Japan, 'Iwami Kagura' is a local style of kagura known for its fast pace, colourful costumes and simple storylines drawn from Japanese mythology.

Masks made of paper

Recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage, Sekishu washi is paper made from plants native to the Iwami region in Shimane Prefecture. It is highly valued for its strength and durability. 

In Iwami Kagura performances, elaborate masks and serpent torsos are made from this hard-wearing yet light paper, which suits the energetic and dynamic style of dance.

Master mask makers

Historically masks used in Iwami Kagura performances were made from wood. Today the masks are created by pasting tiny pieces of ripped washi onto a clay mold, building up in layers. When the paper has dried and hardened, the mold is broken and the decorative finishing begins. Self-taught master mask maker Kakita Katsuro and his son Kenji create kagura masks from start to finish in their atelier in Iwami. Each masks takes around one month to create.

Gods and demons

There are many different characters in kagura performances, but the most common are gods and demons. The gods usually carry a hei (a Shinto staff with paper streamers), a sword, or a bow and arrow. The demons generally carry an onibo, or demon stick. The expressions on each mask also offer important clues: god masks have closed mouths while demon masks have gaping mouths. In 2019, Japan House London presented a display of Iwami Kagura, which included a mask depicting the jealous female demon Hannya by master maker Kakita Kenji.

Paper dragons

Iwami Kagura is known for its vibrant costumes and real silver and gold thread embroidery. Each costume is handmade, taking four people up to four months to create. Costumes can weigh up to 20 kilograms, but performers must still move vigorously on a small stage, requiring considerable endurance and skill.

The largest of all kagura costumes is the dragon-like serpent. When fully stretched out, the body reaches a length of 17 metres and weighs 12 kilograms. A serpent body is constructed in a method similar to the masks, by gluing together sheets of washi paper, which makes it strong and lightweight. Bamboo dried for one year provides the frame for the serpent body. In 2019,  Japan House London presented a display of Iwami Kagura which included a miniature serpent.

Myths and legends

The performances often involve clashes between gods and demons. These myths are thought to originate from the belief that demons caused draughts and flooding and that, through prayer, the gods could defeat these demons, ensuring a good harvest and warding off natural disasters. Stories are short and easy to follow. Popular tales include Ebisu, the lucky god of merchants and fishing who scatters sweets into the audience to spread good fortune; and Orochi - a serpent that keeps eating young women until it is fooled by the gods with a potent sake and gets its head chopped off. 

A local passion

Kagura roles were once performed exclusively by shrine priests and attendants. While the ties with Shinto shrines remain strong, it is now local residents who practice in the evenings and on weekends to bring these elaborate performances to life. Kagura in the Iwami region of Shimane thrives as a popular form of both entertainment and ritual. It is common for people in the Iwami region to learn kagura from childhood. There are more than 130 active Iwami Kagura organizations.  

Music for the gods

Performances are accompanied by live music, generally performed by four musicians. A six-hole flute leads the overall musical performance by playing the melody. A small drum leads the rhythm and is played with a wrist-snapping motion; the most technical part of the ensemble. Palm-sized metal cymbals are rubbed back and forth to keep the rhythm. The most important instrument for leading the stage performers is a large drum; played by a skilled member of the kagura group, this person also sings the accompaniment. Added to this is noise form the audience; the highest form of compliment for a performer after a dance is a clap, shout and whistle. 

See Iwami Kagura in Shimane

Iwami Kagura is performed on a regular basis on weekends and more frequently in the annual autumn festival season. Shinto shrines still regularly host performances. Notable venues include Tatsu no Gozen Shrine in Yunotsu Hot Spring; Taikodani Inari Shrine in Tsuwano; Sanku Shrine in Hamada; EAGA in Masuda; and the hot spring resort of Arifuku. Performances are often free. Find a list of venues where Iwami Kagura can be seen in Shimane, on the Shimane Prefecture website.

Iwami Kagura masks at Japan House London 

A display of Iwami Kagura masks and costumes were on show in The Shop at Japan House London in October 2019. Included was a mask by master mask craftsmen Kakita Kenji and Katsuro , along with clay moulds showing the process of how the masks were made. Not only used for performance, Iwami Kagura masks are also often placed in the entrance of Japanese homes to scare off bad spirits, or to attract good fortune.

Also on display were lightweight fox masks. In Shinto foxes are believed to be messengers of the god Inari, who is the protector of rice, agriculture and fertility. The gods themselves can appear in fox shape. Foxes are believed to bring rich harvests and are a symbol of wealth.