Japan Culture Lab

I explain questions of Japanese culture easily.

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What is the meaning and origin of shishi-mai? Why does the shishi-mai bite your head?

      2017/12/19

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Shishi-mai (獅子舞) or lion dance is performed on various occasions such as New Year celebrations, festivals, and other celebrations, but probably not many of you know what is the meaning and origin of shishi-mai.

Shishi-mai lions bite heads of a crowd around, and many kids start to cry in fear.

Why does shishi-mai bite people on the head?

Let’s find out the meaning and origin of shishi-mai  this time.

 

 

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What is the meaning and origin of shishi-mai?

The purpose of Shishi-mai is to drive away evil spirits, famines and plagues.

Shishi-mai is thought to have been introduced from India to China, and then to Japan.

“Shishi” in shishi-mai means “lion” in Japanese, and India’s nomadic tribes came to worship strong lions as a spiritual animal or god, and created a dance mimicking a lion. This is thought to be the origin of shishi-mai.

In Japan, it is believed that shishi-mai started in Ise no Kuni (Ise province, modern Mie prefecture) at the beginning of the 16th century during the Muromachi era (approx. between 1338 and 1573), in order to drive away famines and plagues in the new year.

 

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Then, it was brought from Ise to Edo (modern Tokyo), shishi-mai had been established and performed at celebrations and festivals. By the early Edo period (1603 – 1868), groups so-called “Edo Daikagurashi (江戸大神楽師)” and “Ise Daikagurashi (伊勢大神楽師) ” travelled around the country to drive away evil spirits, and shishi-mai was spread throughout Japan.

 

What are variations of shishi-mai?

There are various styles of shishi-mai in different parts of Japan, but it can be roughly categorized into two styles.

“Gigaku-kei (伎楽系)” shishi-mai is popular mainly in western Japan but spread all over the country, and basically two or more persons perform one lion. This style is more common for  New Year celebrations.

Shishi-mai, mainly performed in the Kanto and Tohoku regions, is called “Furyu-kei (風流系)” and basically a single person performs one lion. There is also a style that a performer dances alone, while beating a Japanese Taiko drum tied around the waist.

Another feature of “Furyu-kei” is that animal masks performers wear are not only a lion but also other animals as well.

Other than a lion, there are dances mimicking various animals such as deer, cow, Chinese mythical creature “Kirin (麒麟)” and others, depending on what is worshiped in the specific region.

 

  

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Why does shishi-mai bite your head?

Then why does shishi-mai bite your head?

This is because shishi-mai eats up the evil spirit of the person by biting on the head. The purposes of Shishi-mai are to drive away evil spirits and eradicate plagues, therefore it is considered as beneficial and protecting from evil.

For children, it is said to be more effective in driving away evil spirits and bring them benefits and good lucks such as academic improvement, good health, and healthy growth.

It is also believed that you can have a better year if you are bitten by shishi-mai during Hatsumode (初詣), the year’s first visit to a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine, as a protection from evil.

In addition, it also means that “god will bless you when lion bites”, as a play on words as “Kami ga tsuku (“god will come to you” in Japanese)” sounds similar to the word “Kamitsuku (“bite” in Japanese).”

 

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Shishi-mai  is a long lasting tradition from the Muromachi period.

Not only to drive away evil spirits and protect yourself from diseases, our wish to have a better year hasn’t changed from ancient times.

Some children get scared and start to cry when shishi-mai  comes closer to them, but parents who wish for healthy growth of their children probably want shishi-mai to bite their head even if they cry.

Therefore, you and all the family should go and let your head bitten if you see shishi-mai at your Hatsumode!

 

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 - January, Uncategorized