Oni Kenbai is a traditional dance in the Kitakami area of Iwate. “Onikenbai,” can roughly be translated as “Demon Dance with sword.” This local dance has enjoyed a long history dating back 1,300 years ago and has been performed by local people ever since. A typical performance requires performers to dance bravely and move their heads and waists vigorously with a sword and a fan in their hands. Each dance troupe consists of eight dancers. The leader wears a white mask and the other seven dancers wear green, red, and black ones. These four colors indicate the seasons and also depict Buddha (the wisdom king) as the one who saves people from demons. Therefore, it is said that the dancers represent Buddha and not actual demons. In 1993, it was designated as a national important intangible folk cultural property.
The origin of Onikenbai goes back 1300 years. During the Taiho Era (701-704 C.E.) the ascetic monk En no Gyoja began dancing a “Nembutsu Odori” in prayer for peace, bountiful harvest, and prosperity among the people.After that, this dance came to be practiced by many when going to war or after returning triumphantly from battle. Dancing while wearing an imposing-looking mask is generally called “Onikenbai” but actually the masks have no horns and they are not demons, but rather incarnations of the Buddha. The masks come in four colors: white, blue, red, and black.The white mask is called “Ichikenbai” and is only worn by the leader.
The Kitakami area’s local tradition of “Onikenbai” is technically one form of “Nembutsu Kenbai.” Because the dancers don menacing demon-like masks (which represent a manifestation of the Buddha) for their majestic performance, it became known as “Onikenbai” or the demon dance. There are 12 groups performing Onikenbai in the city, and two of these have been designated as national important intangible folk cultural assets. There are about 20 dances performed. Some of them become circle dances, others look like martial arts, and some have elements of acrobatics.