By Linda Uyechi
October 29, 2014

Thanks to a Living Cultures grant from ACTA, this August, Kyosuke Suzuki – respectfully referred to as Suzuki-sensei, sensei being the honorific form of address for “teacher” – traveled from Tokyo, Japan, to Mountain View, California, to share shishimai with members of Jun Daiko, a San Francisco Bay Area taiko group. Jun Daiko members were shishimai devotees who, except for one member, had been only second- or third-hand students of the art form.

Although generally translated as “Japanese lion dance,” one of the surprising things Suzuki-sensei’s American students learned is that shishimai, much like sushi and taiko, is better left un-translated. Shishi refers to a mythical lion-like creature, revered and respected in Shinto as a sacred protector and messenger of the kami, or gods. In shishimai, the shishi is portrayed by a dancer while a trio of musicians, playing the taiko (drum), atarigane (hand-held gong), and fue (bamboo flute) follow along. Mai is not a term that refers to generic dance, but rather to a performance by an individual, of deliberate and choreographed movements, designed to capture an intention or emotion. Furthermore, mai uses horizontal movements with turns or spins that evoke a sense of grace. Unsurprisingly, then, Suzuki-sensei urged his students to simply refer to the art as shishimai.

The art itself is well known in Japan, but less often performed in America. Suzuki-sensei is specifically a master of Edo Kotobuki Jishi, a version of shishimai from old Tokyo. He studied under Taneo Wakayama of the Wakayama School, an artist recognized by the Japanese Ministry of Culture to be an “Important Intangible Cultural Property of Fine Arts.”  Suzuki-sensei himself is now not only a master musician and dancer, touring regularly, but also a highly respected teacher in Japan with a growing fan club in North America. His interpretation of shishimai is a beautiful interplay between dancer and musicians.

In this version, the shishi, with its gold face, flowing mane, and articulating ears, enters the stage with a flourish. Suzuki-sensei becomes one with the persona of the mythical character as he snaps playfully at an imaginary butterfly, chews on a tangerine, spits out its peel, lazily settles for a nap, then wakes up and moves about, refreshed and ready to play. The basic performance lasts about seven minutes, but can take more than double that as the shishi, after his nap, works his way through the crowd to chase away bad luck and evil spirits, and collect paper money as he bestows a symbolic blessing and purification on the audience.

Throughout this mini-play, the musicians string together drum, gong, and flute patterns to support the shishi. The dance is intricate and requires many years of study before the audience will believe that the dancer under the flowing cloth is the elegant shishi. The musical part, too, is complex and requires intensive study and practice before the trio not only links the intricate patterns accurately but also effectively supports the storytelling of the dancer.

Unlike its Chinese counterpart, present at many Chinese American celebrations, proficiency in Japanese shishimai in North America has paled as kumidaiko, or ensemble drumming, has exploded in popularity in the Japanese American community. Thankfully, Kenny Endo, one of North America’s premier taiko players, studied Japanese musical arts in Japan for ten years, and returned as a strong proponent of shishimai based on his own studies with Suzuki-sensei.

Indeed, Suzuki-sensei’s residency is rooted in his relation with Endo, as five former members of the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble (KETE) – Susan Yuen, Loreen Ellsbury, Gabe Ishida, Joy Tanaka, and Hiroshi Tanaka – are now members of Jun Daiko, the taiko group that instigated and hosted the project. Those five had been sharing shishimai with other members of Jun Daiko, but of the five, only Ellsbury had studied directly with Suzuki-sensei. So when Ai Matsuda, a bilingual, bicultural broker for Suzuki-sensei, and herself a student of both Suzuki and Endo, approached Jun Daiko with the opportunity to study with the master, the group jumped at the chance.

Since 2010, Jun Daiko’s repertoire has included a version of shishimai, but even as they perform it, the group has been keenly aware of the gaps in their knowledge about it. Members of Jun Daiko are strong proponents of the idea that practitioners of an art form bear a responsibility to show respect to those who have made the art possible by learning as much as they can about it and, whenever possible, to learn directly from those who are the masters of the art. It was a lesson passed to them by Endo, who learned it from his teachers, including Suzuki-sensei. So when the opportunity to bring Suzuki-sensei to Mountain View with an interpreter, who herself shared the passion for shishimai, was presented, it was, in modern vernacular, a no-brainer. The results of the residency bear this out.

In preparation for his visit, and in order to accommodate lessons for upwards of a dozen students at a time, Jun Daiko members replicated the set of instruments needed to practice shishimai with plastic buckets, packing tape, salad bowl drums, cardboard, banker boxes, plastic CD holders, and cushions. They also practiced sitting seiza, the often leg-numbing practice of sitting on top of their folded legs, which is the traditional pose of both teacher and students during lessons. Their efforts were well rewarded as, at each session, under Suzuki-sensei’s tutelage, each group member gained greater proficiency in performance practice and deeper understanding for the context of shishimai.

Their admiration for Suzuki-sensei grew as they found him kind, attentive, and patient in class, and willing to reach out to them outside of class as well. In addition to shishimai, he brought elements of pedagogy that helped students look at practice in a new light, for example, helping a student correct a pattern and then having them juxtapose it with their mistake – ensuring that the lesson was deeply engrained.

It was not only the performance and practice aspects of the art form that Suzuki-sensei left with his students. He also shared the context of the art form with the larger community. As part of his residency, he presented shishimai to the Mt. View Buddhist Temple (MVBT) taiko community. At that demonstration, long-time MVBT member, Eileen Fujikawa, was surprised to learn that rather than extending one’s hand to the shishi for a gentle good luck “bite,” as is the custom most Japanese Americans have learned, the proper etiquette is to offer one’s head for a blessing. The shishi’s good luck bite is likely a mistaken interpretation of the other practice that Suzuki-sensei clarified: the proper offering of money is to be done with paper money, folded lengthwise, and held out for the shishi to collect with its mouth.

By the conclusion of the residency, Suzuki-sensei seemed satisfied that he had instilled in his new students the basics on which to build greater competency in shishimai, and his students, overwhelmed at times but deeply grateful, grew surer of the fine points they must hone to grow as practitioners of the art form. In hindsight, they would have initiated a two-year project, with the guarantee that Suzuki-sensei and Matsuda would return for a follow-up session the next year. So they are deepening their connections with others in Minneapolis, Seattle, and Los Angeles, who share their enthusiasm for shishimai in North America, and working to bring Suzuki-sensei back.

Indeed, the Living Cultures grant lives up to its name and intent as the members of Jun Daiko are now evangelists for Suzuki-sensei and shishimai: replacing the American interpretation of it simply as “Japanese lion dance” with its deeper sense, staying as true to the art form as possible while imbuing it with modern energy, sharing it through performance, and helping spread the word so that the term shishimai is one day as familiar as taiko and sushi.

[Thanks to Hiroshi Tanaka for his research of the term mai, and to Barden Shimbo, Elise Fujimoto, Gabe Ishida, Yumi Ishihara, Leanne Maru, and Eileen Fujikawa for sharing information from and reflections on Suzuki-sensei’s visit. Special thanks to Susan Yuen and Loreen Ellsbury for spearheading Suzuki-sensei’s residency.]