Traditional Performing Arts in Japan

This page is based on Japan: A Pocket Guide, 1996 Edition (Foreign Press Center)

Classical Theater


Noh drama was perfected in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by Kan'ami and his son Zeami, who refined the rustic mimetic art known as sarugaku. Noh received a great impetus under the patronage of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (shogun from 1368 to 1394). In the Edo period ( 1603-1868) the Tokugawa shogunate authorized five schools of noh for the entertainment of the samurai class. Noh is a highly stylized form of dance drama in which the main actor, who is usually masked, dances to the accompaniment of chanting and instrumental music.

NOH MASK HOME PAGE is a collection of about 20 historical character masks


Kyogen, short comic plays developed at about the same time as noh and generally performed in conjunction with it, are characterized by realism and down-to-earth humor, in sharp contrast to the lofty and minimalist tone of noh.

Senbon-enmado temple nenbutsu kyogen


Kabuki dates back to the early seventeenth century when Okuni, a maiden consecrated to lzumo Shrine in Shimane Prefecture, created and performed original dances and led a troupe of her own. But the government banned first women and then young boys from perform-ing kabuki. After around 1652, therefore, kabuki devel-oped as a theatrical art performed by adult males alone, giving rise to the institution of oyama or onnagata male actors who specialize in female roles.

Kabuki was extremely popular with the general public in the Edo period, and its content and style mirror the manners and customs of that time. Although kabuki entered a phase of decadence and decline around the end of the Edo period and the beginning of the Meiji era (1868-1912), some of the leading actors of the day spearheaded a revivalist movement that led to the creation of a number of new works, mostly dance dramas inspired by noh themes. Some of these plays have won a lasting place in the repertoire.

Kabuki, adhering to traditional forms, continues to enjoy steady popularity today. lchikawa Ennosuke first appeared in "Yamatotakerur" in February 1986,"Oguri" in April 1991,and "Kaguya" in April 1996. Dubbed "super-kabuki," these works have proved tremendously popular and are becoming a core element of new-style kabuki. Bunraku is a highly sophisticated form of puppet theater featuring large puppets (each manipulated by three men), narrators (tayu), and samisen musicians.

Kabuki for EVERYONE is a good starting point to the world of Kabuki


Bunraku developed at the same time as kabuki and deals with the same themes. In fact many of the most famous kabuki plays were originally written for the puppet theater. Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724), who wrote many bunraku plays that were also adapted for kabuki, is still revered as one of Japan's greatest playwrights.

Bunraku (in Japanese)

In 1966 the government completed the National Theater in Tokyo to present Japan's traditional performing arts. The National Noh Theater was completed in 1983 and the National Bunraku Theater in 1984. A new national theater in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, is scheduled for completion in spring 1997. Its opening will be commemorated by opera, ballet, and other performances from October 1997 to February 1998.

Traditional Japanese Music

History of import

The history of music in Japan has been a continuous process of taking in foreign musical styles and digesting or reshaping them to suit Japanese tastes. Examples of this process are seen in the histories of some musical instruments that have come to be considered traditionally Japanese. Among them are the koto (a 13-stringed zitherlike instrument), the shakuhachi (a bamboo flute), and the samisen (a 3-stringed banjolike instrument).

The koto was brought to Japan before the sixth century, a primitive type of shakuhachi in the eighth century, and the modern shakuhachi in the thirteenth century, all from China; the samisen was introduced in the sixteenth century from Okinawa. The koto underwent great improvements in Japan, and the shakuhachi disappeared from China while surviving in Japan. New samisen playing techniques were developed with the aid of the bachi, a large plectrum held in the palm of the hand.

Shakuhachi Home Page

From gagaku to sarugaku

Seventh-century Japanese enthusiastically studied the music of continental Asia. An office of music was created within the imperial court in 701. With official encouragement gagaku (court music) developed a style of its own and gained a permanent place as the music of court ritual. Gagaku is still practiced under the sponsorship of the Imperial Household Agency.

After the ninth century the rise of a kind of cultural nationalism prompted the Japanization of foreign musical styles and their blending with indigenous folk music. Dengaku (a kind of classical dance originating in rituals connected with planting and harvesting) and sarugaku (a light-hearted forerunner of noh also having rural origins) became popular forms of entertainment among the common people.

GAGAKU Home Page

Tale and Theater Music

From the thirteenth century onward reciting tales from the Heike monogatari (The Tale of the Heike, an epic about the rise and fall of the powerful Taira clan in the twelfth century) to the musical accompaniment of the biwa (a lutelike instrument) was a popular pastime among the warrior class.

In the latter part of the fourteenth century the new genre of noh music emerged. At about the same time the shakuhachi saw a revival when a Buddhist sect that had adopted it for religious music grew in influence. The latter half of the sixteenth century witnessed a nationwide renaissance of performing arts by and for the common people.

In the Edo period (1603-1868) samisen music grew in popularity, as it was used in performances of kabuki plays and bunraku puppet shows.

Meanwhile, koto and shakuhachi performances were brought under the control of the iemoto, or school, system based on long apprenticeship to authorized teachers, and the playing and teaching of both instruments became the monopoly of a handful of people authorized by the masters of the schools.

(note: all the Japanese names here follow the Japanese practice of placeing the surname first)