IZAKU TAIKO ODORI 伊作太鼓踊り (IZAKU DRUM DANCERS) for the first time in the UK

2015 has marked the 150th anniversary of the arrival of 19 young samurai from Satsuma (present-day Kagoshima) in the United Kingdom. They came to learn, many at University College London, and on their return to Japan, many of them played important roles in the creation of modern Japan after the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

The legacy of these ‘Satsuma Students’ is important for the people of Kagoshima. The students’ pioneering spirit and openness is a source of pride and the prefecture’s long-established links with the United Kingdom are manifold (not least the name of certain small oranges).

In order to commemorate the ‘Satsuma Students’ and to celebrate links between Kagoshima and the United Kingdom, a group of people came together to form SATSUMA 150. One major activity undertaken by this group of volunteers was to bring to this country some spectacular entertainment from Kagoshima. Throughout the prefecture, there are a number of drum dancing (taiko odori) traditions performed by the inhabitants for particular local festivals, often associated with a particular shrine. One of the most spectacular of these is the drum dancing tradition, designated an Intangible Folk Cultural Property of Kagoshima Prefecture, from the region of Izaku on the west coast of the Satsuma peninsula. The dance is performed by a group of men at Minami Kata Shrine each year on 28 August. The Izaku Drum Dancers continue a tradition passed down through the generations for over six centuries. It is the victory dance of Lord Shimazu Hisayoshi, a Muramachi-period warlord, dating from 1406 CE and the dancers’ outfits resemble those of the warriors of the time.
Each drum dancer (hira-uchi) wears a banner (yabata) of bamboo and paper, 2.5 metres tall, in the shape of a ceremonial military fan (gunpai) decorated with sun and the moon motifs, strapped to his back. Each hira-uchi drum dancer is adorned with a horo made of the black tail feathers of the Satsuma rooster and beats a drum fixed to his chest. Each outfit weighs nearly 20 kg and it takes about three quarters of an hour for the group to get ready and secure all the outfits. The accompanying music is provided by four young boys (naka-uchi) hitting gongs and small drums and the singing by the group elders.

Those who may have taken part as young boys, having learnt the complex drum and gong rhythms, may become hira-uchi drum dancers the next time it is the turn of their locale.

Izaku Taiko Odori (c) Kagoshima Prefecture

And when they feel they are too old to dance they teach the new members and provide the accompanying songs. Each year, brand new yabata are made from paper and bamboo, old outfits are repaired and new ones made, drums, hats festooned with flowers, kimono and horo are brought out of storage and dance practice starts in the spring ready for the two-day festival in August.

The task of bringing a group of at least 12 hira-uchi dancers, each of their outfits including the yabata, the drums, the feathered and horned horo, 4 children and a number of group elders who provide the accompaniment and importantly dress each of the dancers all the way from the south-western tip of Kyushu to London was not small.
Nothing would have happened without the generous support of the Japan Foundation, the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation and the Japan Society.

A group of 24 travelled from Kagoshima to London on 17 September for a stay of only 4 days. It was difficult for some to take time away from their work – especially those who work the land in this rural part of Japan – and permission was sought for the young boys, integral to the performance, to take time off from their schools. The dancers are not professional; each year the performance of the dance is taken on by a group of men in a different community within the Izaku area. At present in the area there are six groups (in the past there have been more) and each group takes on the responsibility once every six years. This year, it was the turn of the group from Iriki.

Izaku Taiko Odori at Japan Matsuri 2015
The objective of the trip to the UK was for the group to perform at Japan Matsuri in Trafalgar Square on Saturday 19 September but also importantly to visit schools to raise awareness of the Satsuma Students’ anniversary and involve pupils in various workshops and to perform with dancers of English folk traditions. There was a trip to Oxford where the group, accompanied by the Kagoshima characters Satsuma Kenshi Hayato and Yassembo, performed twice at the Ashmolean Museum where a special exhibition of Satsuma porcelain was on display. There were also two school visits: one to pupils and teachers at St Nicholas’s Primary School (Oxford) and another to Westbourne Primary School (Sutton, Surrey).

Izaku Taiko Odori & Satsuma Keshi Hayato at Ashmolean Museum,
Oxford (c) SATSUMA 150

Izaku Taiko Odori at St Nicholas' Primary School,
Oxford (c) SATSUMA 150

Another important aim of the visit was to allow the dancers to engage with folk dancers and musicians in London. One afternoon was given over to a walking tour of the Southbank dancing at key locations along the way with the Hammersmith Morris Men. This type of performance, dancing at a number of locations over a number of hours, closely resembles the way Izaku Taiko Odori is performed in Japan.

For the group from Iriki, 2015 has been a busy year. Although the important ritual at the shrine was the highlight for the community, a television company had been following the group for several months in the lead-up to the festival in order to make a documentary; the dancers were then invited to perform in the UK and to top it all, they took part in the opening ceremony of the annual National Festival of Culture, which in 2015 was hosted by Kagoshima Prefecture in November.


If you would like to see what the dance is like and how it is performed in Kagoshima in the height of summer, including the various stages of preparation please see the following link: Izaku Taiko Odori 伊作太鼓踊り (Izaku Drum Dancing)