Noh mask
Classical Japanese theater includes (in historical order of development): “bugaku” (court dance and music), “Noh” and “kyogen” (a type of comic drama), “bunraku” (puppet theater), “kabuki”, “shingeki” (literally new theater) and musicals. Bugaku is still performed in some temples. It slow-moving, symmetrical court dances associated with ancient religious ceremonies and originally brought from China and Korea in the 6th century. It is now more associated with dance than drama.

Traditional Japanese arts are very esoteric. The archaic language that is used is often difficult for even Japanese to understand. To fully appreciate them takes some preparation and study. These days many theaters offer booklets and earphones with English translations that help explain to foreign what is going on. Many also have booklets and earphones with Japanese language descriptions to help explain to Japanese audiences what is going on.

The kamishibai storytellers livens up the story using different voices for different characters and provide sounds effects such as stomping on the ground

Historical and Legendary Origins of Dance and Theater in Japan

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: The earliest archaeological evidence that is related to performing arts in Japan comes from the Yamato period (300–710 AD). Excavated objects include miniature instruments, masks, and ornaments. Clay figurines, called haniwa sculptures, include representations of dancers. The tradition of the earliest dances that are still performed, the kagura dances, stems from this period. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

The myth of the origin of theater and dance is from the 8th century AD. According to this myth, the Sun goddess was angered because of her brother’s pranks. She shut herself in a cave and thus darkness fell upon the world. Other gods gathered in front of the cave to beg her to come out. The beautiful maiden Uzume, the goddess of the dawn, began to dance in front of the cave so wildly and powerfully as if she were possessed by spirits. While dancing, she revealed her breast. The gods were so loud in their enjoyment of the performance that the Sun goddess became curious. She decided to peep out to see what was going on. Once she saw the dance, she did not want to return to the cave. Thus the world became light and warm again. **

Dance and Theater in the Nara (710-94) and Heian (794–1192) Periods

famous kabuki actor
Kamakura Gongoro in 1895
Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: In the mid-6th century Buddhism reached Japan via the Korean Peninsula. Later, contacts were established with China. Together with Buddhism, and its several variations, various forms of culture were also adopted from the Buddhist East and Central Asia. They included, among other things, the gigaku mask theater. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

The Nara period (710–94) saw the emergence of a central state with its nucleus in the imperial court in Nara, a new capital with huge wooden Buddhist temples and monasteries. In the early 8th century Prince Shotoku sent an expedition of monks and scholars to China to absorb the Buddhist culture and to bring back manuscripts, works of art, instruments, masks etc. to Nara. Thus Nara became an integral part of the then Buddhist international cultural sphere, which extended from China to Central Asia and further to the Indian subcontinent. Among the influences were Buddhist mask dances as well as various other dances, which were adapted at the Nara court to form the bugaku court dance tradition, which is still practised today. **

In 748 Emperor Kammu moved the capital from Nara to Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto). Because the Buddhist monastic order was gaining too much wealth and political power, the temples and monasteries of Nara were dispossessed of their riches. During the Heian period (794–1192), a distinctly Japanese form of culture emerged with its own forms of art, poetry, literature and general aesthetics. One of the landmarks of the period is the “world’s first novel”, The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari), written by a court lady, Murasaki. **

The novel offers a glimpse of the extremely complicated and refined court life of the period. It tells about the loves of an exceptionally handsome prince, Genji. The novel reveals the roots of Japanese aesthetics in the customs and court etiquette of the Heian period, and it is still today a key work for understanding Japanese aesthetics. During the period, concepts like aware, okashi, and yousei (beauty thick with deep but repressed, delicately unostentatious feeling) were formulated. **

During the Heian period, the Buddhist gigaku mask dances gradually ceased to be performed, while bugaku court dances were further refined. New theatrical forms, based on earlier folk traditions, also evolved, such as denkaku and sarugaku. **

Gigaku, Buddhist Mask Theater

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: Gigaku was a form of Buddhist processional dance drama, which reached Japan in the 7th century from Central Asia through Korea and China. Gigaku blended religious themes with comedy, and even burlesque scenes, while the performances took place in temple courtyards. Its performance tradition died out in the Heian period (794–1192). Wooden gigaku masks are now valued as high-quality artefacts, preserved in temple treasuries and museums. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

It is assumed that gigaku originated in India, from where Buddhism spread to Central Asia and from there, via the so-called Northern Silk Road, further to China, Korea and Japan. The Silk Road was a network of caravan routes, which for thousands of years connected the Mediterranean world with India, Central Asia and East Asia. Before the Muslim invasions in Central Asia there flourished numerous prosperous Buddhist centres, with which China, Korea and Japan had close contacts. Central Asian Buddhism and arts deeply influenced the culture of East Asia. **

Among the cultural expressions adopted from Central Asia was also a tradition of Buddhist mask processions, known in Japan as gigaku. In fact, most of the evidence of the tradition, in the form of wooden masks, can now be found in Japan. Due to the Japanese tradition of carefully preserving religious artefacts in monastery treasuries, there still exist as many as some 250 masks. Besides the masks, there also exists textual evidence that throws light on gigaku’s history. According to this evidence, it was in the 7th century that gigaku was brought from Korea to Japan, although gigaku masks and costumes had already been known there. It is believed that gigaku was performed in Japan for the first time by a Korean actor in 612. **

The dancer was invited to teach the art of gigaku to Japanese boys. Thus this tradition, which was widely practised in the Buddhist world, was also adapted to the Japanese context. It replaced earlier Buddhist types of performance and it flourished particularly in the 8th and the 9th centuries. Its popularity gradually diminished in the 10th to 12th centuries and soon the tradition completely died out. **

Gigaku Masks and Performances

Gigaku masks are classified as follows: 1) Kojin, foreigners or “barbarians”: This group includes masks representing members of various nations from the Silk Road regions, such as the Drunken Persian King. 2) Gojin, people of the Wu kingdom: This group includes the King and the Princess of Wu as well as Buddhist guardian spirits and several ordinary citizens, such as a wrestler, an old couple with children etc. 3) Nankaijin, native of the Southern Sea: The main character in this group is the Konron, or the demonic arch-villain, who represents greed and other “low” human qualities. 4) Irui, various animal characters: This group includes a lion, a protector of Buddhist doctrine and a bird related to the mythical bird of Hinduism, Garuda. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

According to textual sources the performance took place in a temple courtyard at which the masked actors and their accompanying musicians arrived in a solemn procession. The orchestra included two flautists, two cymbalists and twenty drummers. The procession proceeded for a couple of times around the temple building and was led by a lion and its attendants, two dancers wearing children’s masks. They performed a dance in order to venerate the five cardinal points of the universe. Variants of the Lion Dance are still known in many parts of Asia today. **

After the procession, the actual play, called Konron, began with the entrance of the King of Wu, after which a mythical bird performed its dance. The beautiful Princess of Wu was then introduced. She inspired the lustful demon Konron to perform his wild dance with a phallic staff in his hand. The demon kidnapped the princess. However, Kongo, the frightening, yet benevolent, guardian of the Buddhist doctrine arrived and was able to bin the phallic staff with ropes. Three mime scenes followed the main play. The first one showed a poor, fallen monk, who is washing his baby son’s clothes. The second mime scene described a poor grandfather, who with his orphaned grandchildren is making offerings in a temple. The third scene elaborated the stock character of a Drunken Persian King. The whole programme ended with a joyous procession. **

Feudal Japan: Zen Buddhism, Samurais and Noh Theater

Japan’s long feudal period was characterised by the emergence of a ruling class of samurai warriors. After a series of battles between feudal clans, Minimato no Yorimoto was appointed shogun and he established his centre of power in Kamakura, while Heian still formally retained its status as the imperial capital. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

New religions, such Chan Buddhism, were adopted from China. Chan Buddhism was soon localised in Japan, where it came to be known as Zen Buddhism. It became the religion of the samurai class in the 15th–16th centuries. It has left its strong imprints in Japanese arts, including theater. The Zen artist aims to suggest, by the simplest means possible, the inherent nature of the aesthetic object. **

The minimalistic aesthetics of Zen influenced the austere splendour of Noh theater, which evolved during the Muromachi period (1333–1568). During that time the capital was moved from Kamakura back to Kyoto. Noh, which was originally favoured by the monks and samurai class, has retained its essence, stage, acting technique, and music up to the present day, and it is now regarded as one of the great traditions of world drama. **

Edo Period and The Westernisation of Japan

The period from the mid-15th century to the beginning of the 17th century was overshadowed by constant wars between the ruling clans. In 1600 Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated rival clans. As a result he established the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo (modern Tokyo). It was the beginning of the Edo period (1600–1868), which was marked by long-lasting, yet tenuous political unity. The period saw the rise of a new merchant middle class, which was no longer restricted by the Zen philosophy or the strict code of ethics of the samurai class. The new audience, the townspeople, wanted a new kind of entertainment. Two remarkable forms of theater evolved, the bunraku puppet theater and the sensational, erotic kabuki, which was originally performed in the teahouse theaters of the notorious red light districts of the growing cities. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

The intervention of the USA in 1854 forced Japan to open up to the outside world. Adopting Western political, juridical and military institutions, the Cabinet introduced the Meiji Constitution. During the following Meiji Period (1868–1912) the Empire of Japan was transformed into an industrialised world power. It embarked on several wars to expand its sphere of influence. New regulations and manners were satirised by shimpa plays, which were later transformed into relatively realistically staged melodramas. Gradually, Western theater, with its stage aesthetics and dramas, was adapted. Under the Western influence, a new kind of theater, shingkeki or “new drama”, evolved while, at the same time, Western plays were also translated and staged. **

Western Influences and the Fate of Traditional Theater during the Late 18th and 20th Centuries

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: Western influence began to be felt in Japanese cultural life during the Meiji period (1868–1911), when the Japanese Empire was transformed, through the so-called Meiji Restorations, into an industrialised world power. Many aspects of Japanese society, its infrastructure, army and laws were remodelled according to Western models. The long-lasting rule of the shogunate was demolished and Emperor Meiji (who ruled 1867–1912) became the actual ruler. The old Shinto religion was reinterpreted so that it emphasised the divine origin of the imperial house and thus the emperor became the head of the Shinto cult. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

In Japan’s rapid process of opening itself up to the outside, particularly Western, world, everything Western became highly fashionable. This also led to drastic changes in the fields of theater and dance. Noh and kyogen were regarded as odd and old-fashioned, although noh was protected and supported by the imperial court. It also maintained even older forms, such as kagura shrine dances and bugaku court dances. Bunraku puppetry mainly flourished in Osaka.**

Kabuki, on the other hand, did not lose its popularity. However, even it was influenced by Western stage realism, as can be seen in the “new kabuki” or shin kabuki plays of the period in which stage realism was favoured and kabuki’s many special features and stage tricks were eliminated. Japanese intellectuals quickly familiarised themselves with Western dramatic literature, which partly influenced the new trends in kabuki too. A reform group was founded, which established a Western-influenced administration system for kabuki. **

Kabuki actresses, who were unheard of in kabuki’s history since 17th century, were trained, although this reform was doomed to be short-lived. Patriotic themes were adapted for the kabuki stage, which led again to a new sub-genre of kabuki, katsureki geki or “plays of contemporary history”. In these new forms of kabuki it was the Western-influenced stage realism that dominated. One of the reformists of the period was the prolific playwright Kawatake Mokuami (1816–1893), who wrote some fifty kabuki plays. Most of them represent various traditional categories of kabuki, but he also wrote so-called zangirimono plays or sewamono plays set in the Meiji period. He also translated Western dramas into Japanese. **

International Influence on Japanese Theater

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: At the stormy beginning of the 20th century, the new forms of theater were used as a platform for patriotism and political reforms. One of the important men in theatrical life at that time was Kawakami Otojiro (1864–911), who, with his wife, a famous actress, established his own theater company, the Kawakami Company. Otojiro’s style was based on kabuki with a Western flavour. For a while he studied in Paris. After returning to Japan, he wrote plays with both political and patriotic undertones. Otojiro’s troupe toured America and Europe with great success and influenced the trends of European theater and dance during the period of great interest in things Japanese, often called Japonisme (related article on Japanese influence on European theater and dance). [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Japan’s influence was also felt in its neighbouring countries. The Western type of spoken theater found its way to Korea and China via Japan. Many Korean intellectuals studied there during the Japanese occupation in the early 20th century. Contacts between the countries remained close even after the occupation. The Chinese tradition of spoken theater (huaju) was also initiated in Japan. A Chinese student group, called The Spring Willow Society, staged the first act of La Dame aux Camélias in Tokyo in 1907. This new form of theater soon spread to China, particularly to international Shanghai. **

One form of the fusion of Japanese and Western theater was represented by the shimpa plays of the Meiji period, which, in a way, antagonized the stylized, baroque kabuki. The realistic shimpa plays focused on various problems of contemporary Japan; actresses also appeared on the stage. Growing interest in Western drama led to the establishment of the Literary Society in 1906. Its leading figure was the scholar, dramatis and translator Tsubouci Shoya. Some amateur actors who had links with the Literary Society staged excerpts from Western plays for the first time in Japan. This novelty was called shingeki or “new plays”. This was also the beginning of Japan’s Shakespearean tradition, which still continues today. **

A group called The Free Theater was founded in 1909. It consisted of experienced kabuki actors who were interested in Western drama. More works by Western dramatists were translated and staged, such as plays by Ibsen, Wilde etc. However, tightening censorship before and during World War II seriously restricted freedom of expression. **

Japanese Theater After World War II

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: As elsewhere in the world, in Japan, too, the new media, the movie industry and TV, have dominated the world of entertainment since World War II. However, in Japan a serious revival of the traditional performing arts also began. So the future of noh, kyogen, bunraku, and kabuki seem secure. Many new trends seem to prevail, particularly in the field of kabuki, from the flashy “Super Kabuki”, with its new tricks and technologies, to serious attempts to study kabuki’s past. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Several Japanese writers began to work in the field of spoken theater. In the West, the best-known is Yuokio Mishima (1925–1970). He wrote, among other dramas, a collection of modern noh plays in which he captured the spirit of noh in a completely new way. Among other important writers are Kobo Abe (1924–1993) and the “father” of Japanese absurd drama, Minoru Betsuyaku (1937– ). **

The theater scene in the Japan of today, with its various genres such as the traditional forms, the spoken theater, experimental forms, musicals, Western opera and ballet etc. is so overwhelmingly rich and varied that it is simply impossible to form an overall view of it. There are, however, some 20th-century forms of performing arts, which grew from or comment on the Japanese traditional forms of theater and dance. They include the all-female Takarazuka Revue as well as modern butoh dance, which has also had its impact on the contemporary dance scene in the West.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **; New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated December 2013

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