Dances with Demons

Oni Kenbai; a folk dance tradition where dance and martial arts meet.

One doesn't have to look far to see how pervasive dance is in Japan. Nearly every pop group has an intricate dance routine to accompany their performances. There are studios which teach everything from belly dance to hula to salsa, and festivals, particularly in summer, feature popular folk dances which anyone can jump in and join.

One dance which is not as well known, but will appeal to both dance and martial arts fans, is the Oni Kenbai, or `Demon Sword Dance`. It is sometimes called Oni Kenbu. This dance comes from Iwate Prefecture in Northern Japan.

Iwate was one of the area deeply affected by the 2011 great Tohoku Earthquake and may people lost their lives there along the coast due to the Tsunami.

Oni Kenbai features fierce looking demon masks, armor-like costumes and vigorous, athletic movements with either a sword or a fan. It is said to have a history of about 1,300 years.

The dance is usually performed by a group of eight though it can vary, and there is live music which accompanies the dancers. Oni Kenbai`s history began as an offering to ancestral spirits, but was later performed by soldiers before or after battle. The masks are colorful and usually there is a leader, whose mask is white or yellow.

An interesting aspect of Oni Kenbai, is that despite the ferocious looking masks, they are not meant to represent demons in the malevolent sense.

If one looks more closely, the `demons` don`t have horns. In fact the Oni Kenbai is intended as a prayer to Buddha. In the Kitakami City area of Iwate prefecture, Oni Kenbai is taught in elementary and junior high schools. There are images of `Oni` in various locations, and they are also sold as talismans.. They are considered guardians and protectors rather than monsters. Among the dozen or so groups who perform in and around Kitakami-shi, two of them have received special status as Intangible National Cultural Assets of Japan.

Fortunately, one does not have to go all the way to Iwate to see the Oni Kenbai.

There are groups in several other cites including Tokyo. Some years ago a friend spent several months learning Oni Kenbai as part of a theater production. Unlike some dances as mentioned above, where a spectator can pick up the movements after a short time and join in, the Oni Kenbai is precise, coordinated - and strenuous. It has a history as a dance of warriors.

It`s perhaps best enjoyed as a spectator, though it is certainly possible, recommended of you are interested, to learn from one of the groups in Tokyo or Kyoto.

Any chance to see this unique and exciting dance should not be missed.

Why not at the heart, if your timing is right:


The Oni Kenbai (Demon's Sword Dance) in Kitakami City!

Access if from JR Tohoku Shinkansen:
From Morioka Station to Kitakami Station: 19 min.
From Tokyo Station to Kitakami Station: 2 hr. 52 min.

By Car, it's about 30 min. from Kitakami-Ezuriko IC.

MORE INFORMATION? Watch a Dance on YouTube:

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