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Yosakoi: Japan’s Most Interesting Dance Festival

Photo from the Yosakoi Festival in Chofu, Tokyo, Japan. August 2023.

There are a lot of festivals in Japan — and many of them involve dancing — but Yosakoi is probably the most fun, most colorful and most interesting. This article will go into what Yosakoi is, a little about its history and some festivals you might want to go to.

What is Yosakoi?

Yosakoi is both a festival (matsuri) and the name of the dance that people do at the festival. The dance itself is really fun and is not always the same. It combines both traditional and modern Japanese elements. The dancers wear colorful costumes and dance as they move (little by little) down the street they’re on.

The dancers are in groups. As one group goes down the street, the next group follows — every group doing their own different dances to different songs. You’ll probably notice that the dancers are also holding something in their hands. These are called naruko — wooden instruments that make a sort of clapping, percussive noise when they’re moved around. Apparently, naruko used to be used by farmers for scaring birds away, but now they’re used in Yosakoi dance (and as children’s toys).

The Yosakoi festival isn’t only a dance party — it’s also a competition. The dancing groups are competing for prizes — not only for money (which they might get), but also just for the recognition and satisfaction of doing a good job and making onlookers happy.

Photos from the Yosakoi Festival in Chofu, Tokyo, Japan. August 2023.
Teams of dancers waiting to perform at a Yosakoi Festival in Chofu, Tokyo, Japan, August 2023.

The History

The very first Yosakoi was in the early 1950s in Kochi City — located on the smallest of the four main islands of Japan (Shikoku). The city wanted to create a dance festival that would rival another major dance matsuri nearby. So, Kochi City commissioned some well-known dance choreographers and a composer (Eisaku Takemasa) to create the music and dance that would define it. Takemasa wrote a song called “Yosakoi Naruko Dance.”

Why the naruko (wooden clapper instrument)? Well, the dancers in the popular neighboring festival clapped their hands when they danced, so Takemasa thought using naruko would be louder and make the Kochi festival more competitive. And, it worked.

A couple of dancers at Chofu Yosakoi in brightly colored costumes, Tokyo, Japan, August 2023.

It seems that people would dance to this song at the festival in a style similar to bon odori (a traditional Japanese dance) in the early days, but “the atmosphere began to change around 1972. Teams began to appear that danced to samba and rock-style songs at Yosakoi festivals,” according to this Japanese Yosakoi website.

So, this unique dance festival and dance began to evolve. It also began to grow in popularity outside of Kochi. In fact, Hokkaido’s festival became one of the most popular in Japan. Hokkaido is the northernmost island of Japan’s four main islands, and it’s capital of Sapporo held its first “Yosakoi Soran Festival” in 1992.

The colorful, lively matsuri continues to be popular to this day. It has even expanded to other countries. Take a look at the London Yosakoi group, for example. Even people overseas love this dance and festival.

A team of young dancers at Chofu Yosakoi, Tokyo, Japan, August 2023.

Yosakoi Festivals to Go To

There are many Yosakoi dance festivals all across Japan. So, how do you decide which one to go to? Well, you can always google it, but here are a few recommendations.

  • Yosakoi Soran Festival, Sapporo – This one might be the most famous festivals of its kind these days, even though the original was on the island of Shikoku.
  • The Original Yosakoi Festival, Kochi – This festival is where it all began, so why not experience the original?
  • The Harajuku Omotesando Genki Matsuri, Tokyo – If you’re looking for a Yokasoi festival near Tokyo, this is probably the biggest and brightest.
  • Chofu Yosakoi, Tokyo – Simply called “Chofu Yosakoi,” this festival takes place in (perhaps obviously) Chofu. Still in Tokyo, but a bit further out from the main part of the city. Note: The photos in this article are from the Chofu Yosakoi.
Video from the 2022 Chofu Yosakoi Festival in Tokyo, Japan.
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