Japan is trying to get the Japanese traditional fork dances approved for the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2021.
Japan currently has 22 cultural practices/heritages in the the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Here is the list of these 22 cultural practices (Descriptions and videos are from https://ich.unesco.org).
- Kabuki theatre (approved in 2008)
“Kabuki is a Japanese traditional theatre form, which originated in the Edo period at the beginning of the seventeenth century and was particularly popular among townspeople. Originally, both men and women acted in Kabuki plays, but eventually only male actors performed the plays: a tradition that has remained to the present day. Male actors specialized in women’s roles are called onnagata. Two other major role types are aragoto (rough style) and wagoto (soft style). Kabuki plays are about historical events and moral conflict in relationships of the heart. The actors speak in a monotone voice and are accompanied by traditional instruments. The Kabuki stage is equipped with several gadgets, such as revolving stages and trapdoors through which the actors can appear and disappear. Another speciality of the Kabuki stage is a footbridge (hanamichi) that extends into the audience. Important characteristics of Kabuki theatre include its particular music, costumes, stage devices and props as well as specific plays, language and acting styles, such as the mie, in which the actor holds a characteristic pose to establish his character. Keshÿ, the particular make-up, provides an element of style easily recognizable even by those unfamiliar with the art form. After 1868, when Japan opened to Western influence, actors strove to heighten the reputation of Kabuki among the upper classes and to adapt the traditional styles to modern tastes. Today, Kabuki is the most popular of the traditional styles of Japanese drama.”
- Ningyo Johruri Bunraku puppet theatre (approved in 2008)
“Ranking with Nô and Kabuki as one of Japan’s foremost stage arts, the Ningyo Johruri Bunraku puppet theatre is a blend of sung narrative, instrumental accompaniment and puppet drama. This theatrical form emerged during the early Edo period (ca. 1600) when puppetry was coupled with Johruri, a popular fifteenth-century narrative genre. The plots related in this new form of puppet theatre derived from two principal sources: historical plays set in feudal times (Jidaimono) and contemporary dramas exploring the conflict between affairs of the heart and social obligation (Sewamono). Ningyo Johruri had adopted its characteristic staging style by the mid eighteenth century. Three puppeteers, visible to the audience, manipulate large articulated puppets on the stage behind a waist high screen. From a projecting elevated platform (yuka), the narrator (tayu) recounts the action while a musician provides musical accompaniment on the three-stringed spike lute (shamisen). The tayu plays all the characters, both male and female, and uses different voices and intonations to suit each role and situation. Although the tayu “reads’ from a scripted text, there is ample room for improvisation. The three puppeteers must carefully co-ordinate their movements to ensure that the puppet’s gestures and attitudes appear realistic. The puppets, replete with elaborate costumes and individualized facial expressions, are handcrafted by master puppet makers. The genre acquired its present full name Ningyo Johruri Bunraku – in the late nineteenth century, a period in which the Bunrakuza was a leading theatre. Today, the pre-eminent venue is the National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka, but its highly reputed troupe also performs in Tokyo and regional theatres. Approximately 160 works out of the 700 plays written during the Edo period have remained in today’s repertory. Performances, once lasting the entire day, have been shortened from the original six to two or three acts. Ningyo Johruri Bunraku was designated Important Intangible Cultural Property in 1955. Nowadays, it attracts numerous young performers, and the aesthetic qualities and dramatic content of the plays continue to appeal to modern audiences.”
- Nôgaku theatre (approved in 2008)
“Nôgaku theatre had its heyday in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but actually originated in the eighth century when the Sangaku was transmitted from China to Japan. At the time, the term Sangaku referred to various types of performance featuring acrobats, song and dance as well as comic sketches. Its subsequent adaption to Japanese society led to its assimilation of other traditional art forms. Today, Nôgaku is the principal form of Japanese theatre and has influenced the puppet theatre as well as Kabuki. Often based on tales from traditional literature, Nôgaku theatre integrates masks, costumes and various props in a dance-based performance. Moreover, this theatre requires highly trained actors and musicians. Nôgaku encompasses two types of theatre: Noh and Kyôgen, which are performed in the same space. The stage projects into the audience and is linked by a walkway to a “hall of mirrors’ backstage. In Noh, emotions are represented by stylised conventional gestures. The hero is often a supernatural being who takes on human form to narrate a story. The distinctive masks for which Noh is renowned are used for the roles of ghosts, women, children and old people. Kyôgen, on the other hand, relies less on the use of masks and is derived from the humorous plays of the Sangaku, as reflected in its comic dialogue. The text is written in ancient language and vividly describes the ordinary people of the twelfth to sixteenth centuries. In 1957 the Japanese Government designated Nôgaku as an Important Intangible Cultural Property, which affords a degree of legal protection to the tradition as well as its most accomplished practitioners. The National Noh Theatre was founded in 1983 and stages regular performances. It also organizes courses to train actors in the leading roles of the Nôgaku.”
- Akiu no Taue Odori (approved in 2009)
In the Akiu no Taue Odori, residents of the town of Akiu in northern Japan pray for a good harvest by simulating in dance the actions involved in transplanting rice. Performed since the end of the seventeenth century in communities throughout the region, the Akiu no Taue Odori today takes place during festivals in the spring or autumn. Ten female dancers dressed in colourful kimonos and floral headdresses, assisted by two to four male dancers, perform a repertoire of six to ten dances. Holding fans or bells, the women align themselves in one or two rows and perform movements designed to evoke the gestures of the rice cycle, particularly taue, the transplantation of seedlings into a large rice field filled with water. Once believed to ensure an abundant crop, the performances have lost their religious significance as attitudes and beliefs have changed, and as modern agricultural techniques have replaced rituals such as the Akiu no Taue Odori as guarantors of plenty. Today, the dance is a cultural and aesthetic event, connecting townspeople to their agricultural heritage, to Japan’s tradition of reliance on rice, and to a group identity transmitted across centuries through folk performance.
- Chakkirako (approved in 2009)
Located on a peninsula in Kanagawa Prefecture in central Japan, Miura City developed as a military port on the Pacific and a harbour providing shelter to passing ships. Drawing on dances from other cities demonstrated to them by visiting sailors, the people of Miura began the tradition of Chakkirako to celebrate the New Year and bring fortune and a bountiful catch of fish in the months to come. By the mid-eighteenth century, the ceremony had taken its form as a showcase for the talent of local girls. Every year in the middle of January, at a shrine or before the houses of the community, five to ten women from age forty to eighty sing ‘a’ ‘capella’ to accompany the dancing of ten to twenty young girls in colourful kimonos. The dancers perform face-to-face in two lines or in a circle, holding fans before their faces in some pieces and clapping thin bamboo sticks together in others. The name of the dance, Chakkirako, evokes the sound these sticks make. Transmitted from older women to young girls, Chakkirako employs a medley of centuries-old songs and dances to entertain and reaffirm the continuing cultural identity of the performers and their community.
- Daimokutate (approved in 2009)
In Yahashira Shrine of Nara City in central Japan, young men of the Kami-fukawa community stand in a semi-circle dressed in samurai clothes and carrying bows. One by one, they are called to the centre by an old man who reads the name of a character in the tales of the feud between the Genji and Heike clans. Each in turn delivers his character’s lines from memory, in a distinctive accent but without acting or musical accompaniment. When all twenty-six characters have spoken, the youths rhythmically stamp their feet and sing themselves offstage. Originally a rite of passage at the age of seventeen to mark the formal acceptance of the eldest son into the community of the twenty-two families of Kami-fukawa, the Daimokutate is now performed annually in mid-October by young men of various ages and from many different families. Indeed, since the twentieth century, the dispersion of the original twenty-two families has meant that other residents of Nara have led the effort to preserve the ceremony. Unique in Japan as a dramatic performance without acting or music, the Daimokutate is an important marker of identity and plays an indispensable role in maintaining solidarity in this mountainous town.
- Dainichido Bugaku (approved in 2009)
According to legend, travelling performers of ‘bugaku,’ the ritual dance and music of the imperial palace, visited Hachimantai Town in northern Japan in the early eighth century, during the reconstruction of Dainichido, the shrine pavilion. The ritual performance of Dainichido Bugaku takes its name from this story, but the art evolved considerably since, reflecting local features as elders transmitted it to the young within each of the four local communities of Osato, Azukisawa, Nagamine and Taniuchi. On the second day of each year, the 2 January, the people of these communities proceed from dedicated sites to the shrine, where they perform nine sacred dances from dawn to noon as a prayer for happiness in the New Year. Some of the dances involve masks (including the imaginary lion-like ‘shishi’ of myths), others include child dancers, reflecting variations among the four groups. The practice deepens the sense of affiliation with the local community, for both the participants and the many residents who come to observe the tradition each year. Although the Dainichido Bugaku was interrupted for nearly six decades in the late eighteenth century, the people of Hachimantai take great pride in the restored tradition, which is the spiritual core of their solidarity.
- Gagaku (approved in 2009)
Gagaku, characterized by long, slow songs and dance-like movements, is the oldest of the Japanese traditional performing arts. It is performed at banquets and ceremonies in the Imperial Palace and in theatres throughout the country, and encompasses three distinct arts. The first, Kuniburi no Utamai, features ancient Japanese songs, partial accompaniment by harp and flute and simple choreography. The second consists of instrumental music (especially wind instruments) and a ceremonial dance developed on the Asian continent and subsequently adapted by Japanese artists. The third, Utamono, is danced to vocal music whose texts include Japanese folk songs and Chinese poems. Influenced by the politics and culture of different periods over its long evolution, Gagaku continues to be transmitted to apprentices by masters in the Music Department of the Imperial Household Agency, many of whom are the descendants of families with deep roots in the art. It is not only an important cultural tool in confirming Japanese identity and a crystallization of the history of Japanese society, but also a demonstration of how multiple cultural traditions can be fused into a unique heritage through constant recreation over time.
- Hayachine Kagura (approved in 2009)
In the fourteenth or fifteenth century, when the people of Iwate Prefecture in the northern part of mainland Japan worshipped Mt. Hayachine as a deity, they began a tradition of folk performance that continues to enliven the Great Festival of the Hayachine Shrine held in Hanamaki City on the first day of August. The Hayachine Kagura is a series of masked dances accompanied by drum, cymbals and flute: six ritual dances begin the performance; five dances recount stories of the deities and medieval Japanese history, and a final dance features a performer dressed as a ‘shishi,’ an imaginary lion-like creature representing the Hayachine deity himself. Originally danced by holy officers of the Shrine to demonstrate the power of the mountain deity and bless the people, the Hayachine Kagura is now performed by representatives of the entire community, who take pride in their distinctive culture. To transmit and display the ritual is to reconfirm a sense of identity within the group and to contribute to the continuity of an important tradition. Its enactment also commemorates events from Japanese history and celebrates one of the mountain deities worshipped throughout the country.
- Ojiya-chijimi, Echigo-jofu: techniques of making ramie fabric in Uonuma region, Niigata Prefecture (approved in 2009)
The high-quality, lightweight patterned textiles made from the ramie plant are ideal for the hot and humid Japanese summer. Ojiya-chijimi, Echigo-jofu: techniques of making ramie fabric in Uonuma region, Niigata Prefecture developed in the north-western part of Japan’s main island and bear the mark of the region’s cooler climate – particularly its snowy winters. Ramie fibres are split from the plant by fingernail and twisted into threads by hand. In tie-dying, bundles of ramie threads are bound tightly with cotton before dying so as to produce a geometric or floral pattern when the thread is woven into fabric using a simple back-strap loom. The cloth is washed in hot water and massaged with the feet, after which the wet fabric is placed on the snow-covered fields for ten to twenty days to be lightened by the sun and the ozone released by the snow’s evaporation. Clothes produced by this method have been popular among people of various social classes for centuries. Practised today mainly by older craftspeople, the art remains a point of cultural pride and an important tool for reinforcing a sense of identity for the community.
- Oku-noto no Aenokoto (approved in 2009)
Oku-noto no Aenokoto is an agricultural ritual transmitted from generation to generation by the rice farmers of the Noto Peninsula, which projects from Ishikawa prefecture in the centre of Japan’s main island, Honshu. The twice-yearly ceremony is unique among the harvest rituals of Asia in that the master of the house invites the deity of the rice field into his home, behaving as though the invisible spirit were really present. In December, to express gratitude for the harvest, the farmer draws a bath and begins to prepare a meal, summoning the deity from the field with the sound of pounding rice cakes. Welcoming his guest in formal clothes with a lantern, the farmer allows it to rest in a guest room before assisting it with a bath and offering a meal of rice, beans and fish. Because the deity is said to have poor eyesight, the host describes the meal as he serves it. A similar ritual is performed before planting in February to ensure an abundant harvest. Performed with individual variations throughout the region, Oku-noto no Aenokoto reflects the everyday culture of the Japanese, who have cultivated rice since ancient times, and serves as a marker of identity for the area’s farmers.
- Traditional Ainu dance (approved in 2009)
The Ainu are an indigenous people who today live mostly in Hokkaidō in northern Japan. Traditional Ainu dance is performed at ceremonies and banquets, as part of newly organized cultural festivals and privately in daily life; in its various forms, it is closely connected to the lifestyle and religion of the Ainu. The traditional style involves a large circle of dancers, sometimes with onlookers who sing an accompaniment without musical instrumentation. Some dances imitate the calls and movements of animals or insects; others, like the sword and bow dances, are rituals; and still others are improvisational or purely entertainment. Believing that deities can be found in their surroundings, the Ainu frequently use dance to worship and give thanks for nature. Dance also plays a central role in formal ceremonies such as ‘Iyomante,’ in which participants send the deity embodied in a bear they have eaten back to heaven by mimicking the movements of a living bear. For the Ainu, dance reinforces their connection to the natural and religious world and provides a link to other Arctic cultures in Russia and North America.
- Kumiodori, traditional Okinawan musical theatre (approved in 2010)
Kumiodori is a Japanese performing art found on the Okinawa islands. It is based upon traditional Okinawan music and dance, but also incorporates elements from mainland Japan, such as Nogaku or Kabuki, as well as from China. Kumiodori dramas recount local historical events or legends, accompanied by a traditional three-stringed instrument. The phrases have a particular rhythm, based upon traditional poetry and the distinctive intonation of the Ryukyu scale, and are performed in the ancient language of Okinawa. The physical movements of the performers evoke those of a pythoness at traditional rituals of ancient Okinawa. All parts are performed by male actors, and techniques unique to Okinawa can be seen in the methods of hair-dressing, costumes and decorations used on stage. The need to strengthen transmission motivated Kumiodori performers to establish the Traditional Kumiodori Preservation Society, which trains performers, revives discontinued dramas, and carries out performances on a regular basis. In addition to classical works that emphasize themes of loyalty and filial duty, new dramas have been produced with modern themes and choreography, but retaining the traditional Kumiodori style. Kumiodori plays a central role in preserving ancient Okinawan vocabulary as well as transmitting literature, performing arts, history and ethics.
- Yuki-tsumugi, silk fabric production technique (approved in 2010)
Yuki-tsumugi is a Japanese silk-weaving technique found principally in Yuki City and Oyama City, along the Kinu River, north of Tokyo. The region boasts a warm climate and fertile lands, which are ideal for the growth of mulberry trees and sericulture. The Yuki-tsumugi technique is employed to produce pongee silk (also called raw silk) – a light and warm material with a characteristic stiffness and softness, traditionally used to make kimonos. Production of the material includes several stages: silk floss is spun into yarn by hand, with patterns added by hand-tying bundles of yarn before dyeing the yarn, then the silk is woven using a back-tension loom. The silk floss for the yarn in Yuki-tsumugi weaving is produced from empty or deformed silkworm cocoons, otherwise unusable for the production of silk yarn. This recycling process plays a significant role in supporting local sericulture communities. The traditional techniques to produce Yuki-tsumugi are transmitted by members of the Association for the Preservation of Honba Yuki-tsumugi Weaving Technique. This association is directly engaged in maintaining traditions of spinning, dyeing and weaving, passed down from generation to generation within the community. It promotes transmission of Yuki-tsumugi through exchange of skills, training of young weavers, and practical demonstrations.
- Mibu no Hana Taue, ritual of transplanting rice in Mibu, Hiroshima (approved in 2011)
Mibu no Hana Taue is a Japanese agricultural ritual carried out by the Mibu and Kawahigashi communities in Kitahiroshima Town, Hiroshima Prefecture to assure an abundant rice harvest by celebrating the rice deity. On the first Sunday of June, after the actual rice transplanting has ended, the ritual enacts the stages of planting and transplanting. Villagers bring cattle to Mibu Shrine to be dressed with elaborately decorated saddles and colourful necklaces. An elder carrying a sacred stick then leads them to a rice field specially kept in reserve for the ritual. After the cattle have ploughed the field, colourfully dressed girls place seedlings inside a case while singing a song under the direction of an elder. Then the rice field is levelled with an implement ‘(eburi),’ said to contain the deity of rice fields. The girls then transplant the seedlings one by one, walking backwards, followed by the ‘eburi’-user and the person carrying the seedlings, who level the field as they pass. Ritual songs are sung accompanied by drums, flutes and small gongs. Once this ritual transplantation is completed, the ‘eburi’ is placed upside down in water with three bunches of rice seedlings. Transmission is ensured by the elders, who know the songs and music for rice planting and oversee the ritual’s smooth execution.
- Sada Shin Noh, sacred dancing at Sada shrine, Shimane (approved in 2011)
Sada Shin Noh comprises a series of ritual purification dances performed every year on 24 and 25 September at the Sada Shrine in Matsue City, Shimane Prefecture, Japan as part of the ‘gozakae’ ritual of the changing of the rush mats. The dances are undertaken to purify new rush mats ‘(goza)’, upon which the tutelary deities of the shrine will sit. The replacement of mats elicits their blessings for the community. Diverse types of dance are performed on a stage specially constructed within the shrine. In some, performers carry swords, holy wooden sticks and bells; in others, dancers wear masks depicting the faces of old men or deities and re-enact Japanese myths. During the ‘gozamai’ ritual dance, performers hold the rush mats to purify them before they are offered to the deities. Singing, flute and drums accompany the dances, played by musicians sitting around the stage. People believe that Sada Shin Noh should be performed regularly in order to re-enact the power of the tutelary deities, and to guarantee a rich and peaceful future for the people, their families and the community. Sada Shin Noh is transmitted from generation to generation by the people of the community and is actively safeguarded by members of the Association for the Preservation of Sada Shin Noh.
- Nachi no Dengaku, a religious performing art held at the Nachi fire festival (approved in 2012)
Nachi no Dengaku is a Japanese folk performing art with a deep connection to Kumano Sanzan, a sacred site in Nachisanku. It is performed on a stage inside Kumano Nachi Shrine during the annual Nachi Fire Festival, celebrated on 14 July. It is a key component of the festival and takes the form of ritual dancing to flute music and drums for an abundant harvest of rice crops. Nachi no Dengaku is performed by one flute player, four drummers with drums tied around their waists, four players of Binzasara, a musical string instrument, and two others. Eight to ten performers dance to the music in a variety of formations. There are 22 repertoires, each performed in 45 minutes. The dance is currently performed and transmitted by the Association for the Preservation of Nachi Dengaku, consisting of local residents of Nachisanku. Nachi no Dengaku is transmitted against a backdrop of a belief in Kumano Sanzan and its shrine. The local people and transmitters respect and worship the shrine as a source of mental and spiritual comfort.
- Washoku, traditional dietary cultures of the Japanese, notably for the celebration of New Year (approved in 2013)
Washoku is a social practice based on a set of skills, knowledge, practice and traditions related to the production, processing, preparation and consumption of food. It is associated with an essential spirit of respect for nature that is closely related to the sustainable use of natural resources. The basic knowledge and the social and cultural characteristics associated with Washoku are typically seen during New Year celebrations. The Japanese make various preparations to welcome the deities of the incoming year, pounding rice cakes and preparing special meals and beautifully decorated dishes using fresh ingredients, each of which has a symbolic meaning. These dishes are served on special tableware and shared by family members or collectively among communities. The practice favours the consumption of various natural, locally sourced ingredients such as rice, fish, vegetables and edible wild plants. The basic knowledge and skills related to Washoku, such as the proper seasoning of home cooking, are passed down in the home at shared mealtimes. Grassroots groups, schoolteachers and cooking instructors also play a role in transmitting the knowledge and skills by means of formal and non-formal education or through practice.
- Washi, craftsmanship of traditional Japanese hand-made paper (approved in 2014)
The traditional craft of hand-making paper, or Washi, is practised in three communities in Japan: Misumi-cho in Hamada City, Shimane Prefecture, Mino City in Gifu Prefecture and Ogawa Town/Higashi-chichibu Village in Saitama Prefecture. The paper is made from the fibres of the paper mulberry plant, which are soaked in clear river water, thickened, and then filtered through a bamboo screen. Washi paper is used not only for letter writing and books, but also in home interiors to make paper screens, room dividers and sliding doors. Most of the inhabitants of the three communities play roles in keeping this craftsmanship viable, ranging from the cultivation of mulberry, training in the techniques, and the creation of new products to promote Washi domestically and abroad. Washi papermaking is transmitted on three levels: among families of Washi craftspeople, through preservation associations and by local municipalities. Families and their employees work and learn under Washi masters, who have inherited the techniques from their parents. All the people living in the communities take pride in their tradition of Washi-making and regard it as the symbol of their cultural identity. Washi also fosters social cohesion, as the communities comprise people directly engaged in or closely related to the practice.
- Yama, Hoko, Yatai, float festivals in Japan (approved in 2016)
In cities and towns throughout Japan, float festivals are held by communities annually to pray to the gods for peace and protection from natural disasters. The element of Yama, Hoko and Yatai float festivals encompasses 33 representative examples in various regions throughout Japan showcasing the diversity of local cultures. They involve the collaborative efforts of various sections of the community and as a traditional practice are an important aspect of the cultural identity of participants. Men, women, the young and elderly from cities and other parts of the area share responsibility for the organization and running of the festivals. This includes every step from the design and construction of the floats that reflect the diversity of local culture, to the accompanying music and overall event coordination. The Takaoka Mikurumayama Festival, for example, involves residents from the city centre assembling the floats while those from surrounding areas are in charge of pulling the constructs and playing the music. Tasks cater for specific ages with senior bearers providing guidance to those less experienced and classes run for young people. For instance, for the Ueno Tenjin Festival participants first learn how to play the music (they are referred to as hayashikata), they then progress to steering the floats (tekogata), guarding them (keigoyaku) and finally, managing the festival (saihaiyaku).
- Raiho-shin, ritual visits of deities in masks and costumes (approved in 2018)
Raiho-shin rituals take place annually in various regions of Japan – especially in the Tohoku, Hokuriku, Kyushu and Okinawa regions – on days that mark the beginning of the year or when the seasons change. Such rituals stem from folk beliefs that deities from the outer world – the Raiho-shin – visit communities and usher in the new year or new season with happiness and good luck. During the rituals, local people dressed as deities in outlandish costumes and frightening masks visit houses, admonishing laziness and teaching children good behaviour. The head of the household treats the deities to a special meal to conclude the visit, and in some communities the rituals take place in the streets. In some communities, men of a certain age become the Raiho-shin, while in others women play such roles. Because the rituals have developed in regions with different social and historical contexts, they take diverse forms, reflecting different regional characteristics. By performing the rituals, local people – notably children – have their identities moulded, develop a sense of affiliation to their community, and strengthen ties among themselves. In accordance with their ancestors’ teachings, community members share responsibilities and cooperate in preparing and performing the rituals, acting as the practitioners responsible for transmitting the related knowledge.
- Traditional skills, techniques and knowledge for the conservation and transmission of wooden architecture in Japan (approved in 2020)
The conservation and transmission of wooden architecture in Japan consists in a set of traditional skills, techniques and knowledge. Roughly seventy per cent of the country is forested. Therefore, wood has been used in houses since ancient times. In fact, the world’s oldest surviving wooden structure is the Horyu-ji temple that was built in the early seventh century. Some examples of the seventeen skills described in the nomination file, include sakan plastering, the harvesting of Japanese cypress bark, lacquer painting of traditional structures, the production of tatami mats (flooring material), and many more. Until the nineteenth century, master craftsmen trained apprentices as successors to transmit knowledge of the traditional skills. Due to modernization, however, this process became more difficult, so preservation associations were formed. Knowledge includes not only techniques for building new structures, but also restoring existing ones. Due to the country’s hot and humid climate, repair work must happen often. At restoration sites, craftspeople with different skills must complete the work together. Some maintenance work also requires the involvement of local residents. For example, reed or straw thatch on a roof needs to be completely renewed every twenty years, which is a labour-intensive job. The element thus serves a social function by fostering cooperation and social cohesion and strengthens Japanese people’s sense of cultural identity.