Nakamura Yae
Professor, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies College of
Japanese Studies Division of Integrated Japanese Studies

The lion dance is a performance art known throughout East Asia, in which practitioners wear lion masks. It is thought that the lion dance was introduced in Japan as a religious play together with Buddhism in the seventh century. The dance tells the story of a lion with magical powers that played a role in expelling evil from the path on which the spirits travel.

Today, it is a much-loved performance used to celebrate auspicious occasions, to bring peace, happiness, health, and long life. It is also commonly performed in New Year celebrations and festivals. Several entertaining performance groups traveled around performing the lion dance during the Edo period, which gave momentum to the spread of the dance all over the country. The dance is light and has strong recreational characteristics including acrobatic elements.

In a lion dance performed by a team of two, one person wears a lion’s head and acts as the lion’s front legs, while the other enters the fabric cover of the lion’s body costume and takes the part of its hind legs. The head is modeled on a lion but in fact can bear closer resemblance to a dog with drooping ears and a red face. The body is usually covered with green cloth. In Tottori prefecture, a unique lion dance has been handed down that differs significantly from more typical lion dances. This is the kirin (麒麟) lion dance. Kirin is well known as the name of a popular Japanese beer brand but actually it is a legendary Chinese sacred animal that is said to appear in a peaceful world. In this dance, the lion’s head is shaped more like a kirin’s explaining why this dance is called “kirin lion.”

There are 148 kirin lions in the eastern area of Tottori Prefecture and 14 in the northeastern area of neighboring Hyogo Prefecture. The city of Tottori, with less than 200,000 inhabitants, has one of the smallest populations of any prefecture capital in Japan. The kirin has become an icon of local revitalization as well as peace and happiness, appearing in village-style festivals held in this small city that is experiencing depopulation.

The most distinctive feature of the kirin lion is its external appearance. Although it looks a bit different depending on the region, it usually has a big horn and a large mouth and a long face that looks like a dragon’s, and is painted in brilliant gold. On the vivid scarlet cloth that represents the body, a black backbone is expressed to emphasize the vivid contrast of colors. Whereas a lion typically has a humorous face, the kirin lion has a brave expression and sacred face.

In the kirin lion dance, another Chinese imaginary creature, Shouzou (猩猩), also appears and leads the kirin lion. The Shouzou is a kind of red monster that is very fond of drinking. It also appears in Noh, another traditional performance art of Japan. With the musical accompaniment of gong, drum, and pipe, the Shouzou appears, brandishing sticks, before the kirin lion offers its elegant and dignified dance to God.

The origin of most traditional performing arts is ambiguous or unclear; however, the origin of the kirin lion dance is comparatively well known. It was in 1650 that Ikeda Mitsunaka, the first feudal lord of the Tottori clan, separated the spirit of Ieyasu from Nikko Tosho-gu (日光東照宮) where Ieyasu was originally enshrined, before moving it into the newly built Tottori Toshogu Shrine (鳥取東照宮) to demonstrate that he was also a member of the Tokugawa clan (his grandmother was a daughter of Tokugawa Ieyas). It was recorded in ancient materials that the kirin lion appeared in the magnificent procession held in this Shinto shrine.  Mitsunaka made the kirin, which was one of the motifs on the buildings in Nikko Tosho-gu, a symbol of his authority.

Thus, from its origins at Tottori Toshogu Shrine, the kirin lion dance disseminated throughout the entire Tottori area. It can be said that the symbol of the authority of Han (藩,
Japanese historical term for the estate of a daimyo in the Edo period and early Meiji period) has been fused with indigenous belief in nature and the Ujigami belief (氏神信仰) in worshiping local guardians.

The photographs accompanying this article were taken in my home village Oyudana (大湯棚). In this small village of just fifteen houses in the mountainous region, there is an Owasaminomikoto shrine (大和佐美命神社), and here the kirin lion appears in the fall festival in October. The lion’s head that is said to have been made in the middle of the Edo period (around the seventeenth or eighteenth century) remains and
was registered early along with the dance as an element of cultural heritage due to its artistic value.

A couple with a Kirin lion in a neighbouring village. © Oyudana lion dance preservation society

The dance is a performing art basically dedicated to God.
Men in local communities dance in the precinct of a shrine. After that, they go from house to house, giving a short dance performance and wishing for the safety of the family and their good health and long life. In particular, it is said that a child will live a long life, free of illness, if a they are bitten on the head by the kirin lion. Each family serves liquor and food to the dancing men in return and spends some time talking with them. It is a solemn yet very friendly event.

For locals, “lion dance” always means the kirin lion dance. The reason for the adoption of the kirin name is related to the desire to differentiate it from other lion dances while trying to make it a source of tourism in the Tottori area. Since local residents have grown up seeing this kirin lion dance, they can take it somewhat for granted — they are often even unaware of what kinds of lion exist in other villages. On the other hand, they tend to be proud of their own unique kirin lion. They may feel a sense of disconnect whenever they see the ordinary lion that looks more like a dog’s face on TV and think, “Our lion is much more stylish.”

For Tottori as a whole, the kirin lion is a very precious tourism resource. The efforts of people who connect various communities into a horizontal network and promote their communities nationwide by using the rare kirin lion to revitalize their regions are great. Thanks to this valuable effort, the kirin lion dance was registered as an element of Japanese heritage. It is also encouraging that several lion dances have been raised to national ICH status from being merely local elements of ICH. The kirin lion dance is now also known internationally, having appeared in movies and been performed abroad.

However, the common concern of every community is the lack of human resources to inherit this heritage. The number of children who want to be bitten on their heads by the lion
has also definitely decreased. The doors of the lion dance organizations, which were restricted to young men in the past, were widely opened to women, children, and even outsiders, but still most small communities have to transmit this technically difficult dance and rhythm while maintaining related organizations with a limited number of people. Their difficulty in maintaining the heritage is no little thing. In the light of a decreasing national population, the difficulty of transmitting tradition is a common challenge for every community in small cities.