Cultural Heritage of Gujo Dance in Japan

By JIN Ying Crystal

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The History and Status of Gujo Dance

3. The Importance of Education for Gujo Dance

4. Education and Gujo DanceHeritage

5. Risks for the Cultural Heritage of Gujo Dance

6. Conclusion 

7. References

8. About the Author

1. Introduction

Bon Festival is a traditional Buddhist festivalfor the Japanese to commemorate their ancestors. It has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and, as time goes by, it carries forward the traditional culture by not only passing on the traditional customs but also injecting something new into them. By now the Festival has evolved into a family reunion holiday with many activities, one of which isBon Festival dance. Gujo dance is one of the three most famous Bon dancesin Japan, with a long history of around 400 years. This entry intends to introduce the traditional and modern significance of the dance. I will first present the historical background and contemporary situation of Gujo dance in Japan, then move to an analysis of the significance of the dance from traditional and modern perspectives, and the challenges it is facing. After that, some suggestions will be put forward for further work required for maintaining this cultural heritage.

2. The History and Status of Gujo Dance

Bon is the shortened form of Ullambana, which means the great suffering. Bon dance originated from a story: a disciple of Buddha saved his deceased mother who had fallen into the realm of hungry ghosts and suffered a lot. He was happy to dance for his mother’s release and also grateful for his mother’s kindness for sacrificing so much for him. This dance gradually became a custom to commemorate and appreciate the sacrifices of the ancestorsof the Japanese.

During the past few centuries, Bon dance has evolved into different kinds of dances that vary from region to region. Gujo dance is the traditional dance from the Gifu prefecture since the Tokugawa period (around 400 years ago). Gujo dance is famous for its ‘tetsuya’ dance, which means that people gather and dance through the whole night for four nights in mid-August. The number of dancers usually exceeds 30,000 people each night. Gujo dance is also famous for its easy accessibility, and it has become a sightseeing experience for foreigners. Anyone can join the dance, without caring about the clothes or their dancing skills.

3. The Importance of Education for Gujo Dance

Gujo dance originated from religious custom in Gujo, and its original significance is to honor the spirits of ancestors. The Japanese believe that they can use some special objects to help their ancestors come to this world during Bon festival, and then send them back to their world the same way. Thus, Gujo dance is one way for the people in Gujo to celebrate the arrival of their ancestors and spend the day together.

In the modern society, Gujo dance does not only preserve the traditional significance of commemorating ancestors, but adds something new to it. In fact, the religious factor does not play a major part in the cultural heritage of Gujo dance, and some new functions of Gujo dance have come to the fore. They include family reunion, neighborhood association, and a way of spreading the culture.  

During Bon Festivalthe Japanese have 4 to 7 days off which gives them an opportunity to reunite with their family members to chat with each other, participate in activities together, and join others in Gujo dance. As a large number of people return home during this period, causing traffic jams, the Japanese started to refer to this time as the ‘national movement’. 

In Japan, interaction with neighbors is regarded as an important event in daily life. To some extent, Gujo dance contributes to neighborhood association, as it provides an opportunity for everyone in the region to gather together and enjoy dancing and chatting. In contemporary circumstances, it even plays a more important role, given the accelerated pace of life which makes it almost impossible to spend time with neighbours.

The National Survey on Lifestyle Preferences (Cabinet Office, 2010) studied the participation rate in various activities of Bon Festival. As can be seen in Figure 1, the participation rate in the festival events, including Bon dance, is 49.5%. This means that around half of the whole population participated in the festival events. Although festival events have a very small influence on daily life, people still have a high interest in participating in them. 

Figure 1.  Activity participation in the past year (Cabinet Office, 2010).

Figure 1. Activity participation in the past year (Cabinet Office, 2010).

Figure 2 shows motivation for participating in the festival. From this figure, some key words such as ‘neighborhood’ and ‘region’ show the importance of interaction and communication with others. We can draw the conclusion that neighborhood association is onereason for maintaining Gujo dance.

Figure 2.  Motivation of participating in regional activities (Cabinet Office, 2010).

Figure 2. Motivation of participating in regional activities (Cabinet Office, 2010).

In 1996, Gujo dance was designated as an important intangible folk cultural asset. To keep this intangible folk cultural asset alive, we should emphasize its domestic heritage and spread it internationally as a part of the Japanese culture. The minister of the intangible culture asset department of the Independent Administrative Institution National Institutes for Cultural Heritage Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Propertiespointed out that Gujo dance is a way of facilitating international cultural communication. In the international performing arts festival that started in 1996, unique dances have been performed over 30 times. Bon dance including Gujo dance has been performed 8 times. At the same time, Gujo dance has gradually developed into an opening activity to invite foreigners to join in. This way it helps enhance cross-cultural communication.

4. Education andGujo DanceHeritage

Gujo dance, as an intangible cultural asset, differs from other kinds of tangible cultural assets, as it cannot be preserved without the participation of human beings. Thus, education as a unique form of inheriting knowledge and culture comes to the fore when we try to develop intangible culture.

Gujo dance is held every year as an informal education which creates an opportunity for the younger generation to hear traditional folk stories retold by the older generation and learn how to dance. The Japan Broadcasting Corporation made a documentary about Gujo dance in a TV program called ‘Seasoning the Seasons’ (NHK, 2012). The program describes Gujo dance as a ‘dancing dance’ rather than a ‘watching dance’. Meanwhile, the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan has published a document named Protection system of intangible cultural heritage, pointing out some policies and measures to assist the sustainable development of traditional culture, including Gujo dance. 

Although education for inheriting Gujo dance is taking place, it does not seem enough for transmitting and developing this unique culturalheritage in the long-term. One example of education for cultural heritage is the Iemoto system which is applied in learning about two kinds of traditional Japanese culture connected with music and dance, named nogaku and kabuki (Cang, 2008). The Iemoto system is a cross-generational learning led by an authority figure who is considered the master of the art being taught. This system could be usedfor education for inheriting Gujo dance, if careful modification could be made according to the characteristics and context of Gujo dance.

5. Risks for the Cultural Heritage of Gujo Dance

Although Gujo dance has become so popular as to even being performed on the international stage, we cannot overlook the risks of losing the pure and traditional part of Gujo dance. Sometimes, internalization of Gujo dance may lead to ignoring the original motivation and traditional customs, since sacrifices must be made to conformto international standards and trends. 

In Japan, tourism industrialization of Gujo dance brings challenges that may impede the original intention of a traditional culture. Tourism is no doubt a useful way to facilitate regional development (Torigoe, 2014). However, as visitors’ needs have to be met, the activity gets re-organized in a way that serves tourists. For example, in the past, during the overnight Gujo dance, everyone in the region would participate in dancing; thus every restaurant and shop would close for everyone to enjoy dancing. Now the situation seems to have been changed so as to make visitors’ experience with Gujo dancebetter: other services such as meals, costume rental, dance teaching, need to be provided. 

Dancing with visitors using simpler movements gradually leads to a sense of burden, instead of enjoyment of the activity. Under the pressure of providing better services to visitors, which sometimes has already been seen as a mental burden, in turn leads to the disregard of the personal pursuit of happiness for local people during Gujo dance. This transforms local people from participants to servers, andGujo dance from a local activity to an over-commercialised touristicperformance. Although bringing visitors could inject some energy or vitality into the dance to some extent, there can be negative changes too. Adachi (2004) did a study in Gujo and opined that Gujo dance was no longer a local dance. While the tourism industry opens a door for Gujo dance to spread all over the world, it also brings rirks, the overlooking of which may make Gujo dance pay a heavy price. 

6. Conclusion

Gujo dance has a long history of over 400 years and is identified as an intangible cultural folk asset, as well as one of three most important Bon dances in Japan. Although it originated from religious customs to commemorate ancestors, now it is developing by injecting something new into it. This development calls for education that can help transmitGujo dance. First, the Bon vacation can create an opportunity for family reunion, which seems very significant since it could be the only chance for many people to go back to their hometown during the whole year. Second, Gujo dance is so popular that the whole region participates in it, which also creates an opportunity for neighbors to communicate with each other, leading to the development of neighborhood association. Finally, Gujo dance contributes to cultural heritage from a domestic view, and spreads Japanese culture to the whole world. 

Some efforts for improving education for inheriting traditional culture have been seen, but there is still room for caution . The tourism industry can help preserve the dance and develop it by adjusting to the modern times, but it also brings the risk of over-commercialization, and the loss of the traditional core. There is a  need for a balance between globalization and cultural heritage. What can help is prioritizing preservation of the original local dance in a form acceptable by the local population, while placing the development of tourism as a secondary task.

7. References

Adachi, S. (2004). Nosutaruji wo Tsuujita Dento Bunka no Keisyu – Gifuken Gujoshi Hachimantyo no Gujo Odori no Jirei kara. (In Japanese) [The Inheritance of Traditional Culture through Nostalgia: A Case Study of Gujo Odori (Gujo Bon Festival Dance) in the Town of Hachiman, Gifu Prefecture.] Journal of New Developments in Environmental Sociology, (10), 42-58.

Cabinet Office. (2010). National Survey on Lifestyle Preferences. Retrieved from

Cang, V. G. (2008). Preserving Intangible Heritage in Japan: The Role of the Iemoto System. International Journal of Intangible Heritage3, 72-81.

NHK. (2012). Seasoning the Seasons: Gujo Dance. Retrieved from:

Torigoe, H. (2014). Life Environmentalism: A Model Developed under Environmental Degradation. International Journal of Japanese Sociology, (23), 21–31. doi: 10.1111/ijjs.12022

About the Author

JIN Ying Crystal

MEd, The University of Hong Kong