Azuma-asobi (ancient Japanese dance suite that originated in eastern Japan) (東遊)

Azuma-asobi is a fairly long suite that needs approximately 30 minutes to be completed, which is classified into the Kuniburi no Utamai (native-style songs and dances based on the music of ancient Japan), a type of gagaku (Japanese Imperial Court music).

Performers dance to the accompaniment of folk songs developed in the eastern provinces. A dance group consists of six or four dancers, and songs are performed with a pair of hyoshi (wooden clappers), a wagon (Japanese harp) accompanied by kotomochi (harp holders), an Azuma-asobi bue (Japanese flute with six holes, which is also called chukan), and a hichiriki (oboe), accompanied with a backing chorus. At present, however, a koma-bue (horizontal bamboo flute with six holes) is used instead of an Azuma-asobi bue in most cases, except for the Music Department, the Board of the Ceremonies, the Imperial Household Agency.

Azuma-asobi is generally performed as a Shinto ritual dance, and it has been performed at some Shinto festivals such as Korei-sai Festival (an equinoctial ceremony held by the Emperor at the shrine of imperial ancestors) since the Meiji period.

This performance is said to be based on the dance performed by heavenly maidens who arrived at Udohama, Suruga Province in the reign of Emperor Ankan.

The Moro-mai (literally, "various dance") consists of two dances called Suruga-mai (dance) and Motomego dance, and the Kata-mai (literally, "one-song dance") refers to a performance which consists of the Suruga-mai only.

During the Heian period, Azuma-asobi was performed by six or ten dancers who followed the style of the Imperial Guard's soldiers and wore Saiei no Kanmuri (crown with two rounded strings on the top) with a spray of cherry blossoms on the right top of the crown, Omigoromo (ceremonial jacket used for the Shinto rites at the Imperial Court), and swords and four music players (one performer each of shaku-hyoshi [wood clappers], a flute, a hichiriki, and a wagon). When Azuma-asobi is performed as court music and dance, it is performed as an uho yonin-mai (which literally means "four-dancer performance at the right-hand side," representing a Japanese court dance and music style with four performers) or a rokunin-mai (six-dancer performance).

Azuma-asobi, which is older than Saibara (a genre of the Heian-period Japanese court music, primarily consisting of gagaku-styled folk melodies), had been originally performed in the eastern provinces, but it was introduced to the capital city as foreign music became popular.

It is notable that Azuma-asobi was performed along with Togaku (the Tang-era Chinese music), Komagaku (the old Japanese court music introduced from Korea), and Rinyugaku (Indian songs and dance) when the Daibutsu kuyo (dedication ceremony for the Great Buddha) was held at Todai-ji Temple on May 1, 861, even though Azuma-asobi nearly ceased to exist at that time.

Azuma-asobi began to be performed at Kamo-sai Festival from December 889, and this meant the folk music and dance from the eastern provinces became a ritual performance in the capital city.

In May 942, Azuma-asobi was performed when the Iwashimizu Special Festival began.

Emperor Ichijo was worried that kagura (sacred music and dancing) might be dispersed and lost, and when he worked hard on maintaining kagura songs, five songs from Azuma-asobi were also included in his collection.

It is believed that these five songs are present-day Ichi-uta (literally, "the first song"), Ni-uta (literally, "the second song"), Suruga-uta (literally, "the Suruga song"), Motomego-uta (literally, "the seek-a-child song"), and Kataoroshi (also called Ohire-uta), but according to an old Azuma-asobi music book compiled in the Tenji era, the songs included in Azuma-asobi were selected on December 27, 920, by Imperial command.

It is generally said that only limited lyrics are handed down to the current generation because some of original lyrics were removed when Azuma-asobi was adopted as a religious rite.

After the Meiji Restoration, Azuma-asobi was performed in front of the Korei-den (the Imperial Ancestors' Shrine) by gagaku performers at Jinmu Tenno-sai Festival (Emperor Jinmu Festival) and Spring and Autumn Korei-sai Festivals.

[Original Japanese]