“Mr. Hachisuka, the lord of Tokushima left Awa Odori to posterity.” This is the verse from “Awa Yoshikono-bushi,” the Japanese folk song often sung during Awa Odori, and this is based on the theory that the origin of Awa Odori was the completion of the castle by Lord Iemasa Hachisuka, the founder of Tokushima clan.
This “Castle Construction Origin Theory” is the most well-known tale. Lord Iemasa Hachisuka commemorated the completion of the castle by letting the local people have a dance party within the castle grounds. Therefore, with this information we can tell you that Awa Odori has a history of more than 430 years.
However, there are still some doubts about this theory, and the “Bon Odori Origin Theory” seems more convincing now. This theory claims that the root of Awa Odori is Bon Odori which is the traditional dance done at memorial services for ancestors, and dedicated to them on summer festivals all over Japan. But still, as this Bon Odori was held in the castle town of Tokushima, “the history of more than 430 years” is still technically correct.
As indigo was the principal product of Tokushima, indigo dealers in Tokushima were known to be wealthy merchants, and they became leaders of the nationwide cultural exchange during the Bunka-Bunsei eras (from 1804 to 1829) . During this time Awa Odori integrated various elements of other festivals from different places in Japan.
In this way Awa Odori, which was based on Bon Odori, had eagerly embraced various cultural elements and had taken root as a traditional art of Tokushima, supported by the common people.
The culture in Japan modernized drastically during the Meiji-Taisho eras (from 1868 to 1926). At the same time, Awa Odori was also modernized in various ways, such as adding a violin part, or wearing outfits with bright stripes, and so on.
Koyurugi Tada, known by her nickname of “Okoi-san” and the greatest singer of “Awa Yoshikono-bushi,” released that song on record in 1931, and it became a smash hit in Japan. This triggered of the growth of the popularity of Awa Odori nationwide.
However, Japan had a dark and chaotic period between 1937 and 1945 because of the war, such that Awa Odori was often called off during those years. Tokushima City itself was fire-bombed from the air in July 1945, and around 62% of the city was burned to the ground. The war ended in August, a little over a month after the Tokushima air raids.
Awa Odori was revived in 1946, the year after the end of the war, when the city was just starting to build some barracks for the start of postwar rehabilitation. The dance was not sophisticated, as it did not have all kinds of different ways of dancing, but everybody enjoyed dancing at Awa Odori Festival. And one by one, some of the most famous teams of Awa Odori were established at this time.
In 1957, an Awa Odori festival was held in Koenji, Tokyo, which became the first Awa Odori held outside of Tokushima.
The Japan International Exposition was held in Osaka in 1970. Some Awa Odori dance teams did their performance on the stage of the EXPO and started going abroad to stage some performances later on. Therefore, “Awa Odori, a traditional festival in Tokushima” turned into “Awa Odori, a traditional festival in Japan.” At the same time, dancers and Awa Odori teams started considering “showing Awa Odori which attracts people,” not only “dancing for themselves.” Then the dancing and the sound were changed to a more sophisticated style of performing art.
Also, some groups emerged which did Awa Odori with an 8-beat rhythm, other than 2-beat rhythm which is the traditional (or orthodox) rhythm. This has led to a greater diversity and uniqueness among the many Awa Odori dancing teams.
Now various Awa Odori Festivals are held in every region of Japan, and the number of these festivals is around 50.
In Tokushima, as the home of Awa Odori, there are many teams of Awa Odori dancers who uphold traditions, seek new possibilities, and inherit the soul of Awa Odori for next generations. Awa Odori has always maintained a discipline that should be protected, and yet embraced the change of time.
This is the actual “tradition” of Awa Odori, and gives it the strength to make it go on to the future.