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Noriko Hayashi


In Rural Japan, a 370-Year-Old Tradition Falls to OneChild.

Every year, students in a mountain village spend months preparing for an elaborate Kabuki performance. An aging society has put their show — and their school — in jeopardy.

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.

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.

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...

Published April 13, 2020Updated April 14, 2020 - The New York Times- To read the article:

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