There are a lot of different ways expats respond to living in Japan. Becoming an alcoholic, is the choice of many young, college graduates, flush with their first consistent paycheck, far from home and with a willing group of drinking buddies, they settle comfortably within the ‘Gaijin bubble“, learn enough Japanese to order beer and slowly destroy their livers.
Others, like Ken, former Ibaraki JET highschool teacher, try to experience Japanese culture a different way. A more… cultural way. During his two years in Japan, Ken joined his school’s Japanese archery club and the local Mito Yosakoi dance group.
I attended a small Yosakoi event in December, 2010, to watch as Ken and the other dancers perform. Despite the grey and chilly weather, spirits were high, as members of the audience were invited to dance alongside, their agility tested as uncoordinated, sometimes-trips-when-walking people (me) consistently moved in the wrong direction.
A few months later, all the Yosakoi festivals were postponed along with many other aspects of normality, when the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami destroyed the north Japan coast. Ken returned home to the US in August of that year.
Despite the upheaval, the Mito group were making plans for 2012’s Soran Matsuri in Hokkaido, plans that would see Ken return to Japan for 3 months of dedicated practice culminating in the matsuri in early June.
Since it is the season for festivals and Yosakoi dancing in the streets, I recently asked Ken a few questions about the experience, described as, “All I could have hoped for and more.”
There was a festival in Mito, the Komon Matsuri, where dance teams and companies and any groups who put together a team and a dance would dance down the main street of Mito (almost) non-stop for 4 hours. When I saw some of the yosakoi teams going by, I thought “Wow. That looks like a ton of fun. I wonder if I could do that?” Turns out, I could!
How would you describe it to someone who has never heard of Yosakoi?
Yosakoi is a combination of traditional Japanese dance moves with modern music. There are a lot of moves where the dancers look like fishermen laboring at sea, casting their nets, heaving their catch to the boat, and other moves like that. It’s a very energetic style of dance.
What has been the most rewarding aspect?
Without question, the most rewarding aspect of yosakoi was that everyone in my dance group kind of adopted me as their gaijin brother/son/cousin/whatever. It was a great sense of family, and everyone looked out for each other. I’m really grateful for that.
What has been the most challenging aspect?
The language barrier. I could stumble through Japanese, and I could understand very simple Japanese if they slowed down while they were talking to me, but communication was always a time sink. On the plus side, it did encourage me to study Japanese more.
I’ve seen a few foreigners performing, but they’re very rare. And unfortunately, because events are always very busy, there’s not really time to go over and chat for long. As far as the audience goes, there are usually some foreigners around if the festival is large enough to attract foreigners. Interestingly enough, the weirdest reactions come for the foreigners who are performers. It’s rare enough seeing another foreigner in Japan if you live in a rural area, but seeing a foreigner doing this almost exclusively Japanese activity? It’s always memorable and usually gets severe double takes.
When you left Japan in 2011, did you know then that you would return in 2012? Why did you come back?
I didn’t know 100% that I’d be coming back, but I had plans to return, and I was happy I could follow through on those plans. The main reason I came back to Japan was for yosakoi. Because of the Tohoku earthquake last year, our team couldn’t go to the Soran Matsuri, one of the biggest yosakoi festivals in Japan. We worked out that if I could commit to being in Japan for the 3 months before the festival, then I could perform with them. Also, there were some things that I felt I had left unfinished in Japan, and this trip let me tie off those loose ends.
Your sister organised a Yosakoi flash mob for you while you were at home, do you think it is something that could become popular in America?
Absolutely. Many Americans are interested in Japanese culture, so I don’t see why yosakoi couldn’t become very popular if enough grouos started performing across the States.
For the forseeable future, it’s the end of me doing yosakoi in Japan. However, I still have every intention of dancing yosakoi in America. There’s a group in NYC that I’m hoping to join, or maybe I’ll start up my own group if that doesn’t pan out. Who knows?
Anything else to add about Yosakoi/your experience/Japan/anything?
One of the things I found out about yosakoi when I first learned about it is that it’s supposed to be a dance style that anyone can do regardless of age, gender, nationality, whatever. I found that to be 100% true. And I wouldn’t trade my experience with yosakoi for anything.
Thank you to Ken for taking the time to answer my questions. All the best with your life after Japan though you’ll always have a part of it.