Mikomai (ancient Japanese Shinto dance) (巫女舞)

Mikomai (written in Japanese kanji characters either as 巫女舞 or 神子舞) is a type of dance performed by miko (shrine maidens) in a Kagura performance (a sacred music and dancing performance dedicated to the Shinto gods). Mikomai is also called "Mikokagura" (literally, "Kagura performed by shrine maidens") and "Yaotomemai" (literally, "a dance by eight maidens").

Summary

The dances performed by shrine maidens in ancient Japan, through which gods were believed to alight upon and possess the maidens who were performing the rituals for the gods, were later formalized and took the current form of dances for solemn prayer and dedication to the gods. Although some traces of ancient style dancing still remain, where shrine maidens whirl back and forth in accordance with traditional ritual rules to cleanse their bodies before being possessed to receive oracles from the gods, modern-style dances (such as the Yaotomemai) that emphasize the elegance of the dancing with graceful chanting of Kagurauta songs are dominant today. The shrine maidens clad in suikan (everyday garments worn by commoners in ancient Japan), hibakama (scarlet Japanese pants for men) and shirotabi (white Japanese socks), and grasping various torimono (hand-held divine items) such as suzu (bells), oogi (folding fans), sasa (dwarf bamboos), sakaki (branches of a kind of divine wood) and nusa (symbols of divinity made of cloth or paper and hung on a stick) that are regarded as yorishiro (objects representative of a divine spirit), perform mikomai dances in harmony with a hayashi (an orchestra of Japanese instruments) that includes drums, flutes, dobyoshi (two circular cymbals made of copper or iron) and other instruments. In some areas of the Kanto region, mikomai dances are performed by masked dancers as well.

History

Mikomai dances are said to have originated in Shinto rituals in which humans were possessed by gods. A shrine maiden grasping torimono (hand-held divine items) first dances a dance to cleanse her body, then continues whirling alternately in one direction and the reverse. Before long, her whirling motion increases in intensity until she is thrown into a trance to embrace the ingression of gods ("hyoi" in Japanese, meaning "spirit possession").

The original pattern of mikomai dance can be seen in the "Kojiki" (A Record of Ancient Matters) and "Nihonshoki" (Chronicles of Japan) as a historical event of Ame no Uzume no mikoto (the goddess of dawn and revelry), who performed a dance in front of Ama no Iwayato (a rock cave where Amaterasu, deity of the Sun, had hidden), and women of the 'Sarume no kimi' (descendants of Ama no Uzume no mikoto) were reported to have been successively engaged in offering the Kagura dance to gods as court ladies of Jingikan (a department of worship in charge of clergy and Shinto rituals). The dancers who performed at the Imperial Court during the Heian period are all presumed to have been mikomai, such as 'Sarume' (women regarded as descendants of Ama no Uzume, and engaged in offering Kagura dances to gods) and 'Mikannagi' (a woman in charge of dedicating various rituals to gods), both of which are referred to in the book titled "Jogan Gishiki" (the ceremonial manners observed during Jogan era). According to a description in the "Shuishu" (literally, "collection of gleanings" or an imperial anthology of Japanese waka poetry,) a Kagura dance was performed by miko (shrine maidens) called 'Yaotome' (literally, 'eight maidens') at Kasuga Taisha Shrine in Nara in 920. According to the "Shin-sarugoki" (a textbook written about lives and cultures of the people of Kyoto in the Heian period) by FUJIWARA no Akihira in the late Heian period, the four elements shrine maidens were required to master were the abilities of uranai (fortune-telling,) kami-asobi (playing music and dancing in front of gods,) yotsura (beating out strings of Japanese bows as a ritual to ward off evil spirits) and kuchiyose (mediumship or technique to communicate with spirits), and in this book Akihira described his actual experience of witnessing a shrine maiden playing kami-asobi (Kagura), which to him appeared as if an immortal mountain wizard was enjoying dancing with a god.
An anthology of then-current popular songs titled "Ryojin-hisho" (literally, "Songs to Make the Dust Dance on the Beams"), which belongs to a period slightly later than the "Shin-sarugoki," contains a scene of a shrine maiden named Tota who danced a dance swinging a bell in her hand in its phrase, 'Is it the manner to swing the bell, Tota miko?'

Mikomai dance became customary at every well-known shrine throughout Japan from the medieval period. During that period, mikomai came to be regarded as having an element of prayer in pursuit of clients' interests in the secular world, in addition to its conventional feature of spiritual possession. Further development in mikomai took place in local areas, where shrine maidens and shugenja (ascetic monks) joined together and created new mikomai that were influenced heavily by the prayers and folkways aiming for repose of souls.
This fact is considered the reason why even today some people say 'Kagura' or 'Kagura wo ageru' (literally, 'to dedicate Kagura dances') to mean simply 'a prayer' itself or 'to offer a prayer.'

Many historical documents about mikomai in the medieval period have been kept at Kibitsu-jinja Shrine in Bizen Province (Okayama Prefecture), and according to one documents named "Ichinomiyasha ho" written in 1342, Ichinomiya (i.e. Kibitsu-jinja Shrine) retained 'mikoza' (literally, 'a group of miko') composed of twelve shrine maidens, some of whom were dispatched to offer Kagura at local shrines upon request, while Ichinomiya also received shrine maidens from local shrines to dance Kagura at Ichinomiya. On the other hand, according to the 'Soshake Shaso chu Shinzen Gokinen no koto nado Chumon' (literally, 'the regulations on prayers to be performed in front of gods by Buddhist monks who belong to all successive shrine priest families') written in 1471, shrine maidens were separated into miko responsible for divine affairs and those engaged in other affairs including oracles, by classifying them into Miya miko (literally, shrine maidens belonging to shrine families) and Murakata no miko (literally, shrine maidens belonging to village people), and further classifying Miya miko as either Ichi no miko (literally, the first rank miko) or other general Miya miko, with only the first rank shrine maidens being allowed to dance Kagura silently (but prohibited to make oracles and other performances) and Miya miko generally permitted to offer prayers only but not allowed to engage in fortune-telling, oracles and yutate (a ceremony to boil fresh pure water and perform ablution by splashing it on themselves in front of gods), which were conducted at wakiden (a hall standing nearby main hall) by shrine maidens other than Miya miko.

However, some Kokugaku (study of ancient Japanese literature and culture) theories that rose to prominence in the late Edo period asserted that any spiritual phenomenon including shinrei no hyoi (spirit possession) should be considered as inshi jakyo (evil heresies), which led to a negative campaign against shrine maidens themselves, who tended to be linked with such folkways. Following the Meiji Restoration, the government reviewed the entire system of divine rituals at shrines from the viewpoint of Kokugaku on Shinto religion, and in 1873 the Kyobu-sho (the Ministry of Religious Education) totally banned all activity to obtain oracles of gods through spirit possession and other spiritual methods. This prohibition ordinance was commonly called the Miko-Kindan-rei (an order to forbid shrine maidens from obtaining divine oracles through spirit possession).

Although this order compelled shrine maidens who did not remain continually at one shrine to give up their duty of offering folk prayers among the public, some maidens could continue their activities by staying at some shrines. Mitsuyoshi TOMITA and others from Kasuga Taisha Shrine later appealed to the importance of shrine maidens in Shinto religion and pleaded for continuation of mikomai, and also contributed to the restoration of shrine maidens and mikomai by refining the original mikomai dance performed by 'Yaotome' to boost its artistic quality. Thus even though mikomai has developed into the style seen today, there still remain some older, albeit rare, style of mikomai with its tradition of 'kamigakari' (literally, 'spiritual possession'). On the other hand, there are shrines such as Sada-jinja Shrine in Matsue City, Shimane Prefecture, where another style of mikomai is performed by a male Shinto priest disguised as a female with a mask of a princess.