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Saturday, Sept. 25, 2004

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Look at the moon! Hiraite, chong, chong


My next-door neighbor Kazu-chan was standing in my "genkan." "Amy, I've signed you up to take part in the dance performance on Respect for the Aged Day." This national holiday was observed on Monday, but our island celebrated it on Thursday, the autumnal equinox.

"We only have eight women in our neighborhood who can dance," she said, referring to the yearly decrease in warm bodies on the island. Our neighborhood especially has been dying off in recent years.

Dancing in the Respect for the Aged Day Festival was, I learned, part of our neighborhood obligation, since this year we have "matsuri toban," or festival duty.

I agreed to dance in the festival, recognizing that asking a "gaijin" to do a Japanese dance was a desperate attempt to continue traditions at all costs.

Dancing is something every islander can do. Boys and girls start dancing in kindergarten by learning the Shiraishi Dance, the island's 400-year-old traditional dance. During the summer Bon Festival, the islanders perform this dance into the wee hours of the night. They continue to learn other traditional dances throughout their lives, and I often see "o-baa-chans" walking around the island with baseball bats over their shoulders. These ladies are going to dance practice, and what looks like a baseball bat covered with a patchwork quilted hand-made bag is actually an umbrella, a prop often used in dances. Dancing becomes an integral part of the way the islanders move, such that everything they do, from pushing a cart to riding a bicycle, is done with a certain grace. If you asked an islander directions to the post office, for example, they would never point in the direction and say "Over there." Instead, they'd indicate the direction with an open palm and say, "Over" -- flick of the wrist -- "there."

For Respect for the Aged Day, we would learn a new dance, one from Matsuyama in Shikoku. Kazu-chan went to the mainland one day, learned it and came back and taught the rest of us. It was one of those typical country dances performed in a circle to the tune of screechy festival music with high voices in the background going "Hip -- Hey!" followed by something that sounds like yapping poodles. There is nothing quite like Japanese festival music.

The moves of these country dances often mimic everyday activities of long ago. This dance integrated motions for taiko drumming and looking at the moon, while clapping and walking around in a circle. Practice went something like this, with Kazu-chan barking out instructions: "Hit the drum! Look at the moon! Hiraite, chong, chong" while the music in the background went "Hip -- Hey!" and the poodles went "Yap, yap!"

And of course, we would wear costumes: "happi" festival coats sewn by one of the o-baa-chans, "supatsu" pants (tight at the calf, ballooning out at the knees), "tabi" socks and "hachimaki" headbands.

Every night for 10 days I went to dance practice and hit the drum, looked at the moon, "hiraite, chong, chong" while the music in the background went "Hip -- Hey!" and the poodles went "Yap, yap." I'm pretty confident I can pull off the dance with only a few major mistakes.

In the meantime, other groups of islanders were diligently readying their own performances. The "zeni daiko" club would perform, the koto club would give a concert and the kindergarteners would sing a song.

But perhaps the most enduring preparation was for the elementary school children. Every year, these kids write letters to the old people telling them how much they are appreciated. These letters are presented at the end of the ceremony. But this year, there are so few students and so many old people, each student had to write 11 letters!

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