In Rural Japan, a 370-Year-Old Tradition Falls to One Child

SHITARA, Japan — More than three centuries of tradition rest on Mao Takeshita’s narrow shoulders.

Mao is 6 years old and swaddled in a heavy kimono, her face covered in the thick white greasepaint of a Kabuki actor. Before her, an audience of hundreds sits on tatami mats. She steps forward, toward the footlights, and performs a dance, then introduces herself in the droning style of an ancient soliloquy.

Her appearance is an initiation of sorts, and Mao does it alone. When the new academic year begins, she will be the sole first grader at her school in Damine, a village in mountainous central Japan, where she will join a long but dwindling line of children who have performed the stylized dramas of Kabuki.

Every year, the students spend months preparing for their roles in an elaborate production staged by the villagers in honor of a Buddhist goddess. The intense commitment to the performance, for which Damine’s residents build a temporary theater from bamboo, has helped keep the elementary school alive even as many others across rural Japan have closed for lack of children.

As Damine contends with the same forces decimating other Japanese villages — an aging population and an exodus to cities — this ritual stretching back a dozen generations may one day disappear. But for now, its magical quality endures.

The atonal chanting of the chorus, combined with the whine of the banjo-like samisen, transports the audience, bundled against the cold in the darkened theater, to a Japan far removed from the bustling streets of modern Tokyo or Osaka.

At the heart of the performance, held each February, are the children. Energized as they put on their makeup backstage, they dash across the hanamichi, a narrow secondary stage where the lead actors make their dramatic appearances, then stomp their feet and brandish their swords. The crowd roars its approval, throwing sachets filled with coins at the stage, where they land in a metallic patter.

This year, there were 11 young performers. But after Mao enters first grade, some classes that follow at Damine Elementary will have no students at all.

More than 15 years ago, not long after I finished college, I taught English to Damine’s students one day a week as part of a Japanese government program that brings young people from abroad to work at schools and government offices around the country.

During the cold winter months in the mountains, I studied the basics of Kabuki with the children, appearing twice on the stage in the theater erected next to the local temple to Kannon, the goddess of mercy.

I played minor roles: a samurai’s loyal retainer and a bumbling innkeeper. I stumbled through the archaic Japanese dialogue alongside adults who had played their roles since childhood and delivered their lines with the verve and confidence of professionals. They know their parts so well, they claim, that they can perform them without rehearsing.

For the students, the months of preparation take place inside the school, an old-fashioned wooden building with three classrooms, a library and a small auditorium where they gather for music practice and lunch.

Pictures that line the long central hallway show more than 100 years of graduating classes. It’s a story of decline, beginning with stern black-and-white photos of groups of children clad in kimonos and ending in color snapshots of one or two children in stiff Western attire, outnumbered by their teachers.

Damine’s festival is, in some respects, a living fossil. It’s one of the few performances still held outdoors in a temporary pavilion built for the occasion. Its origins trace back more than 370 years, to a time when Japan was ruled by a shogunate that strictly controlled daily life.

Kabuki festivals are a tradition in the surrounding region, Chubu — whose name, which translates as “central part,” is geographically literal but also historically resonant. The warlords who contended to unify the country in the late 16th century called the region home.

Residents in Damine say their festival began with a miracle. One summer, the story goes, a group of men went into the shogun’s woods and stole some timber to rebuild a local temple, a capital offense.

After the feudal government sent an official to investigate, villagers prayed for Kannon to save them, pledging that as long as even three households remained in Damine, they would hold a festival in her honor each year.

A freak blizzard stopped the official from entering the village, according to lore, and there has been a performance every year since, even during World War II.

The task of teaching the children Kabuki now falls to Suzume Ichikawa, 82, who travels the festival circuit with a small group of old theater hands, coaching young actors through their performances.

As a teenager, Ms. Ichikawa joined a troupe of young women who performed around the country, a sort of prototypical version of the girl groups that rule Japan’s modern pop scene.

Decades later, she cuts a graceful figure as she runs students through their lines and demonstrates the emphatic movements and striking poses that have become shorthand for Japan’s most famous traditional theater.

Ms. Ichikawa believes Damine’s Kabuki festival is the oldest of its kind in the region. But it’s not clear how much longer it can last: Not only the children, but their teachers, too, are disappearing.

Once Ms. Ichikawa is gone, she doesn’t know who will take her place. No one is willing to make a full-time commitment to Kabuki any more, she said. The children, if there are any, will “probably have to learn by watching a video,” she said glumly as she waited for the adults to begin their rehearsal.

While the festival has remained largely the same through the years, the village, and the township to which it belongs, Shitara, have changed in ways big and small.

In the time since I lived there, Shitara has been diminished. Several of the old-fashioned Japanese-style inns that lined the main street have gone out of business.

Over a meal of Japanese beef with the Couch Potatoes, an English conversation club I used to teach, one of the members, Taeko Goto, reminisced about the Shitara of her youth, when the town had two movie theaters. A train line ran along the river and down through the mountains, where loggers harvested the raw materials us
ed to rebuild postwar Japan.

The railroad shut down in the 1960s. Now there is just a bus that slowly wends its way to the city of Shinshiro, about an hour away. On most days, the bus is nearly empty.

Shitara also shows confounding signs of growth, though: The national government has pumped tax dollars into the township as part of a quixotic attempt at rural renewal.

As in many small towns and villages in Japan, large, modern and artfully designed public buildings sit beside old wooden houses and rusty, age-stained shops made of concrete and corrugated steel.

The musty town hall where I worked for two years has been demolished. A new one, all wood and glass, has appeared in the center of town. Where winding, narrow roads once barely allowed one car to pass, now wide thoroughfares are being constructed to cut through the mountains.

I worked in the town’s planning department, and my co-workers spent their days dreaming up schemes for attracting young people to the village.

At the time, Damine was aggressively wooing residents from nearby cities, building spacious new homes and selling them at attractive prices to people looking for fresh air and a change of scenery.

One of them was Takeko Takeshita — no relation to Mao — who moved to the village in her 30s, looking for a more nurturing environment for her twin girls, who had struggled in big-city schools.

“The twins just did so much better here,” said Ms. Takeshita, who works for a local collective that makes tea harvested from the terraced hills around the elementary school.

But of the 13 children I taught in Damine, only two remain. Better jobs are readily available a relatively short move away, at the headquarters of Toyota and in cities like Nagoya in the country’s industrial heartland.

Ms. Takeshita’s own daughters have returned to the cities they left as children. One is a nurse and one a police officer.

The town’s only real growth industry is elder care. There are 70 new jobs at the nursing homes that have sprung up on its outskirts, said Masahiro Toyama, who once worked in my section in the town hall and is now head of the town’s education department.

This year, the township plans to begin consulting with villagers about Damine Elementary’s future. It is considering merging the school with one of the others in a nearby valley.

“It’s a difficult problem,” Mr. Toyama said. “Closing the school would be like tearing out the village’s soul.”

Makiko Inoue contributed reporting.

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