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  • Writer's pictureMomo

Dancing Through Tradition: Exploring Soran Bushi and Yosakoi Soran Festival

Updated: Apr 25

While many countries boast diverse cuisines and cultures, they also harbor a variety of dance forms unique to their respective cultures. As someone who grew up learning about and participating in one of Japan's most beloved traditional dances, I’m excited to share and unravel its profound connections to Japanese culture and its people: Soran Bushi.

It’s a style of dance that most people who aren’t from Japan would know. But having such a close connection to Soran Bushi from a young age, it’s a part of Japanese culture that I believe is worth showcasing to the rest of the world. Let's delve deeper and uncover the secrets behind this cultural phenomenon.

What is Soran Bushi?

At its simplest, it’s a dance style born from Hokkaido's herring fishing songs. Singing while working sounds unusual. However these songs were more than just melodies—they were the heartbeats of a community, enhancing camaraderie and efficiency during the arduous task of herring fishing. Originating from the northern shores of Hokkaido, particularly the Shakotan Peninsula in the Hiyama District, these songs were integral to the herring fishing tradition.

Half a dozen herring fishing ships in Hokkaido
Modern herring fishing ships from Hokkaido where the tradition of Soran Bushi was born!

My first encounter with Soran Bushi?

It all started when I was just an elementary school student. One day, out of the blue, our entire class was summoned to the gymnasium. Our teacher had a mischievous glint in their eye as they announced that we would learn a dance. Little did we know, we were about to be introduced to the captivating world of Soran Bushi.

As the unusual music began to play, our teacher launched into the dance with gusto, his movements both mesmerizing and comical. We, the bewildered students, watched his energetic shouts echoing through the gymnasium. It was a spectacle like no other, and I distinctly remember my eyes widening and my jaw dropping in amazement. In that moment, Soran Bushi captivated not just my eyes but my heart as well. Its infectious energy, rhythmic beats, and spirited calls ignited a passion I never knew existed.

School children performing Soran Bushi during School Sports Day
An old photo of my school grounds; my classmates and I performing Soran Bushi during sports day!

After that fateful day in the gymnasium, we embarked on a journey of daily rehearsals, fueled by excitement and determination. Over one hundred students, lined up neatly in the gymnasium, ready to dance in unison. With the music echoing around us, we all flowed together, moving to the beat of Soran Bushi. Every step, every shout, every move showed how tight-knit we were, and how well we worked together. I cannot thank my teachers enough for giving me such a fantastic and valuable experience. 

How Soran Bushi became popularized in Japanese schools?

In the 1980s, school violence and bullying became a common issue and efforts to address these issues were almost nonexistent. This period coincided with rapid economic growth and social transformation in Japan, leading to increased conflicts and competition among people, consequently resulting in higher rates of bullying and violence. In an attempt to change this situation, some teachers took it upon themselves to create their own versions of Soran Bushi dances, which students performed.

Children performing Soran Bushi during sports day
I vividly remember performing every Sports Day and feeling the unity with everyone!

The widespread adoption of Soran Bushi in school sports festivals began after the television drama Kinpachi Sensei aired an episode of the dance in 1999; the series aired from 1979 to 2011 and is renowned as one of Japan's iconic school dramas. The introduction of Soran Bushi into school events served as a means to foster unity, teamwork, and a sense of community among students. It provided them with a positive outlet for expression and helped shift the school culture towards one that embraced inclusivity and mutual respect. Now, it's a staple in school festivals and events nationwide, with students of all ages embracing its energetic rhythms and spirited choreography.

Watching Soran Bushi in the present-day

For residents of Japan, school events may be the most common place to watch the dance. But for travelers, that’s not quite ideal. For those who want to see it up close, there's a wonderful event anyone can experience the powerful Soran Bushi: the Yosakoi Soran Festival. It is an annual event held in Sapporo, Hokkaido. The festival began in 1992 with only 10 teams and 1,000 participants, attracting 200,000 spectators. It’s now evolved into a spectacle that draws around 30,000 participants and approximately 2 million spectators.

A man shouting in song, holding a drum for Yosakoi Soran Festival
Unlike many traditional Japanese style dances, Yosakoi Soran Bushi is quite the opposite with loud singing, drumming and energetic dancing!

What is the Yosakoi Soran Festival?

Unlike Soran Bushi, Yosakoi is a dance that originated in Kochi and gained popularity in 1954. Originally performed as part of religious rituals and festivals, Yosakoi exudes a vibrant and cheerful atmosphere. It features lively steps and energetic arm movements, creating an engaging performance for both participants and spectators.

A row of drummers at the Yosakoi Soran Bushi Festival
With the drummers especially enthusiastic, the dance is a great way to get into the festive spirit.

Yosakoi and Soran are traditional Japanese dances with distinct origins and styles. Yosakoi is known for its energetic, modern choreography and vibrant costumes, whereas Soran reflects Hokkaido’s fishing heritage with traditional movements and attire derived from herring fishing songs. Originally two distinct dances, Yosakoi and Soran merged to form Yosakoi Soran. 

Another distinctive feature of the Yosakoi dance is the use of a special traditional Japanese instrument called "Naruko." It’s a hand-held percussive instrument shaped like a small paddle. Naruko are typically made of wood or bamboo, with three “clapping” bachi on each side, usually colored black and yellow. When shaken, the bachi collide with each other, producing the essential sound for Yosakoi.

A red/orange Naruko handheld percussive instrument
The Naruko (鳴子) is an essential part of the Yosakoi Soran Festival dance!

Exploring the Timeless Beauty of Yosakoi Soran and Beyond

Even a decade after first learning about Soran Bushi, its rhythmic steps and spirited melodies remain vivid in my memory. With each note of the music, a flood of nostalgia washes over me, reminding me of the camaraderie and excitement of those days. Soran Bushi isn't just a dance; it's a cherished part of our cultural heritage, deeply ingrained in the hearts of the Japanese people, resonating across generations with its timeless appeal. As we explore one of Japan's most beloved traditional dances, let's remember the power of music to connect us, uplift us, and remind us of the bonds that tie us together, no matter how far apart we may be.

A group of woman dancing at the Yosakoi Soran Bushi Festival
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