This article is a part of the East-West Center in Washington – US JET Alumni Association guest contributors program, in which former Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program participants share their experiences and insights about US-Japan people-to-people ties.
“The night is here, come out and dance,” sings the upbeat spin on an old folksong, “Yosakoi, Yosakoi!” Yosakoi has since become the name of Japan’s most spirited festival dance form. The steps, music, and costumes borrow heavily from tradition, but the dance’s energy leaves the greatest impact. Large groups shout “wasshoi!” (a festival chant) as they pull imaginary ropes, an anchorman waves an enormous flag, and small children and elders alike dance with kicking, twisting choreography.
Its magnetic quality garners spectators from all over the globe, and has summoned people like Laura Powell to join. While living in Japan, Powell participated in Koshigaya City’s Ōbirin team for three years, and she started a sister group, Pikes Peak Yosakoi Ōbirin (PPYO), upon returning to Colorado Springs in 2016. As a 501c charitable organization, it operates under the motto, “Learn Japanese culture through dance. Connect with the community. Establish ties with the world.”
PPYO members with Yosakoi experience in Japan teach the dances and lead performances around the city, but most of the members picked up the hobby very recently. For example, Atsuko Lindsey, who moved to the United States long ago, had never practiced it in Japan but joined for a feeling of solidarity with Japanese people dancing Yosakoi around the world. Marsha Cook and her daughters, who had little familiarity with Japanese culture beforehand, started participating as a family after seeing one of the PPYO performances. For others who already had an interest in Japan, PPYO has provided an avenue to delve deeper.
In August 2018, three PPYO members were invited to Kochi Prefecture’s annual Yosakoi Festival in Japan, which has been running since 1954. They learned Kochi’s traditional dances, were appointed Yosakoi Ambassadors, and made connections with other Yosakoi groups from around the United States and the world. This led to one of the first joint stateside performances last October, when Kansas State University’s team joined PPYO for the Japan-America Society of Southern Colorado’s annual bazaar. Their group had similar members: Japanese citizens, Americans getting a taste of Japanese culture, and leaders who loved their experiences in community Yosakoi groups across Japan.
While the focus remains community oriented, PPYO is taking steps to become a polished team on a wider stage, starting by sending a few members to participate in a Yosakoi event at the San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival. While some dancers prepare to make a second trip to represent Colorado in Kochi this summer, other members hope to participate in a newly forming international team by 2020. Around the world and especially in places like Kochi, there is hope that Yosakoi might make an appearance at the Tokyo Olympics. As more and more people answer the call to come out and dance, Yosakoi is set to prove itself as the newest flower to bloom on the international stage.
Brittany Partin was a Coordinator for International Relations in Matsue City, Shimane Prefecture, from 2012-2016.
The United States Japan Exchange & Teaching Programme Alumni Association (USJETAA) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational and cultural organization that promotes grassroots friendship and understanding between the United States and Japan through the personal and professional experiences of over 30,000 Americans who have participated on the JET Programme since its inception in 1987. USJETAA serves as a resource for individual JET alumni, JETAA chapters nationwide, and potential JET participants; supports the leadership of JETAA chapters with programming, membership recruitment, chapter management, leadership, professional development, and fundraising; and, supports the JET Program(me) and engages with the U.S.-Japan community.