The Dance of Princely Divinities: Scenes from the Ōji Shrine Dengaku Festival

To members of my dissertation committee, the recent influx of matsuri entries on my blog might raise eyebrows (i.e., that I’ve gotten a bit sidetracked from my main research).  Nevertheless, here’s another.

The shots below are taken from the Ōji Jinja Dengaku Mai 王子神社田楽舞, an annual festival in a northern section of Tokyo that centers on the dengaku dance.   Dengaku is a performance with roots in Kyoto.  As a form of kagura, it was historically intended to engage the deities, who descended into the bodies of the dancers through kamigakari 神懸かり (literally, “divine possession”).  The performance thus encompassed the movements of the deities, whose presence brought blessings to both dancers and spectators. (For an excellent, in-depth study, see Irit Averbuch’s book, The Gods Come Dancing.)

Ōji literally means “prince,” and accordingly, the performers of the Ōji dengaku are boys and girls around the ages of 8-10.  Children often occupied a liminal role in East Asian ritual (examples include Song period Daoism and Shugendo in Japan), in which they provided an interface between the spirit world and the human world.  As a comparative, children in North American/European cultures have also often been imagined to dwell close to the spirit realm (just think of The Shining, The Exorcist, or The Sixth Sense).

In Shugendo especially, young gods known as dōji 童子 acted as divine messengers, attendants of powerful deities like Fudō myōō 不動明王, occupants of mandalized mountains, and protectors of practitioners during their time in the mountains.  Ōji are in fact, a class of dōji originally from Kumano, thus suggesting a historical link between Kumano and the Ōji Shrine as well as the implied, divine nature of the dancers.

Dengaku and kagura 神楽 in general, nowadays, are no longer equated with acts of possession.  However, the specific step sequences of the dances still reflect the original choreography.  Moreover, the performances demonstrate how children continue to occupy a central role in many festivals throughout Japan.

(Click photos to enlarge.)

About calebscarter

I specialize in Japanese religions within the broader context of Buddhism and East Asian cultures. Within these fields, I focus especially on Shugendō, a mountain-based tradition in Japan developed largely from esoteric, Zen and Pure Land Buddhism with additional influences from Chinese religions and local spirit worship (later identified as Shintō). I approach these subjects from an interdisciplinary perspective that draws on literary, economic, political, social and intellectual history. I received my Masters (2008) and PhD (2014), both in Buddhist Studies from UCLA, with a BA (2000) in Philosophy from Colorado College. I currently teach full-time for the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at UCLA. Outside of research and teaching, I play a three-stringed instrument from Okinawa called the sanshin and spend time with my family at nearby playgrounds and campgrounds. I also love the outdoors, especially climbing in the mountains—an orientation that has in many ways shaped my current intellectual path. View all posts by calebscarter

5 responses to “The Dance of Princely Divinities: Scenes from the Ōji Shrine Dengaku Festival

  • Frans Stiene

    Hi Caleb,
    Thanks for another wonderful article and photos.
    Just looked up the book you mentioned, pity it is so expensive on Amazon, sounds like a great resource.
    Cheers
    Frans

  • John Carter

    Hi Caleb: Very interesting. Amazing, creative, colorful costumery. Children are, indeed, close to God, bridges. I suppose that is one reason the Christian nativity story has such a firm hold on the western imagination.
    The crowds of on-lookers are quite intent on what is going on. Do they have a sense of the meaning of the ritual dance? Or, is it the color and ritual itself that appeal?
    LD

    • Caleb Carter

      Thanks Dad. Interesting comment on resonance with the Christian tradition.
      It probably varies with each spectator, but my guess is that the description I provide (children embodying the gods, etc.) is more historically relevant. The costumes – much of which are handmade – are striking though!

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