Kakubeejishi (pronounced kakubeh eh jishi not “bee” like the insect) were another subgenre of lion dance, similar to the daikagura. The origins of the name are unclear, possibly someone called Kakubee carved the original lion masks or invented the dance. The kakubeejishi began in Echigo, Niigata in the 18th century and were also known as Echigo-jishi.
They never established an officially endorsed Edo-based organization but claimed legitimacy from their Echigo roots and that shishi dancing began in India and China and was a part of Japanese religious life. They started to appear in Edo festivals from the late 18th century.
After the shishi dances, the acrobats would climb to the top of a tall bamboo pole and then descend just using the feet. They also performed contortionist and tumbling tricks – usually by young boys or girls of 12 or 13 to as young as 7.
Training started at the age of 7 and retirement was around 14 or 15. The children of unrelated families were contracted for a stint of 3 to 5 years. The training was so harsh, children in Niigata were threatened with being given away to a shishi troupe if they did not behave.
In 1874 the Meiji government proclaimed that all children purchased for the Echigo-jishi troupes were liberated but their use continued.
In 1919 a writer lamented that kakubee-jishi troupes were no longer based in Echigo but instead were Tokyo youngsters who had been given away as babies by impoverished parents.
It seems likely that the younger children in troupes (“five boy contortionists”) such as the Royal Tycoon’s Private Troupe were recruited as kakubeejishi and not actually related to older troupe members.
The transformation acrobatics that Tommy the Wolf performed with Tannaker’s troupes, where he turned into a wolf also sound reminiscent of the lion dances.