Awa Odori and Pow-Wows

In July, I moved to Japan after years of dreaming about doing so, and it’s been a whirlwind. Living in a foreign country can be very stressful as you do your best to understand and use a language that you’ve never needed to use in a practical way before. It’s a strange change from the way I had to actively seek out Japanese when studying it at home, and it’s entirely different.

Living somewhere new also means adjusting to a new culture, and Japanese culture is very different from the American Midwestern culture.

One of my experiences in Japan so far was Awa Odori. Bon Odori is a festival that takes place throughout Japan, but Awa Odori is specific to Tokushima, the prefecture I’m living in. It’s a special dance meant to honor one’s ancestors and is unique from the Odori dances of other areas of Japan. Legend has it that the Awa dance was created by drunk people, which explains why it looks the way it does. (If you want to see if for yourself, there are plenty of videos on Youtube.)

The Awa dance is older than the United States, yet people still celebrate it year after year. Schools here in Tokushima teach it to students, I’ve been told, and there are so, so many different groups who perform in the festival, some of them famous and some of them just doing it for fun. There are even more people who practice Awa dance but never plan to enter in the festival.

The closest experience I’d had to Awa Odori previously was attending a pow wow in the United States. Music and dance play fundamental roles in both events, and both have roots older than the United States. They also both have huge religious and cultural significance.

Maybe you weren’t expecting me to start comparing Japanese and Native American cultures in this post, but I think they have a number of things in common, even if the initial realization kind of surprised me too. I was struck by it as I watched the dancers at Awa Odori, and I was struck again when, while talking about traditional Japanese music, a student commented that Japanese and Native American people “have the same origins”. (That is one theory by the way, though not one undoubtedly proven or accepted by everyone.)

That being said, there was one key difference: the amount of people.

I saw more white people in Tokushima during Awa Odori than I had the entire rest of my time here. People travel from all over Japan to see it too. It’s a huge event with entire streets lined with food stalls and various groups all dancing at once.

The pow wow I attended, however, was much smaller. It was inside one building. There was one dance going on at a time, one stand serving food. And, as my sister so aptly pointed out, the two of us were the only white people there.

The same pride went into both events, but the amount of outsiders who cared was vastly different. It’s a striking difference. The two events felt so similar in tone and even in what events they contained, yet I wouldn’t be surprised if more Americans expressed a passing interest in attending Awa Odori than the pow wows that happen in their own backyards.

(Please note that this is not a call for Americans to take over pow wows, and I’m definitely not saying that Native Americans need for white people to be interested in their events. If you go to a pow wow, please be respectful of the fact that it’s not your event. Also, make sure you’re actually invited, not personally but as someone who isn’t a member of that Native nation.)

I’d highly recommend going to both if possible. After all, I can’t judge anyone for wanting to experience Awa Odori, it’s a truly great experience, but don’t assume that America doesn’t contain the same richness of culture or events that have been handed down for centuries. (A lie that even I fall for at times.) It does, even if, in America’s case, it’s not white culture.

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