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The Lifeforce and Prayers that Thrive in Traditional Performing Arts

Words by Mari Hashimoto

Since ancient times, a diverse range of performing arts have sprouted from the soil of the Japanese archipelago. Gagaku was the first to emerge in the 10th century, followed by Noh in the 14th century, Kabuki in the 17th century, and Kumiodori in the 18th century, among others. These have been perfected over time and carefully passed down to the present day. The four performing arts mentioned above have also been registered as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, so they are probably familiar to many.
These kinds of traditional performing arts are not just entertainment, with many formed within the context of religious and spiritual concepts about praying to the gods for fertility or prosperity, for instance, or celebrating rites of passage such as coming-of-age or marriage. Others borrowed from Buddhist ceremonies or developed from Shinto festivals. As part of Japan Cultural Expo 2.0’s activities, this article introduces some performing arts still thriving today while also exploring the spirituality behind their emergence.

The Hagoromo (Feather Robe) play is performed as part of the “The Noh Theater SANPO” program. The lead role (shite) is a celestial maiden who is shown here crossing the bridge-like corridor connecting the backstage to the stage.

“Nohgaku” is the collective term for Noh and Kyogen. Noh is a type of theater which tells stories through dance-like movements accompanied by chanting and instrumental music, while Kyogen is dialogue-based form of comic theater. Nohgaku’s origins trace back to a form of light entertainment that arrived from China in the 8th century and principally featured mimicry, acrobatics and conjuring. Nohgaku subsequently assimilated other influences, including dances performed at Buddhist temple services, and a performing art in which a deity disguised as an old man comes to bestow blessings. Eventually, it was refined into the sophisticated artform we see today, one with its own unique scenarios, music and acting methods performed on a special Noh stage by actors wearing masks.
Around 240 Noh plays are still being performed today. In addition to human protagonists, the plays feature a plethora of otherworldly beings, including Shinto and Buddhist deities, spirits, demons and ghosts.

Tsunao Yamai, a Noh performer of the Komparu School, talks about how he transforms into gods or demons during performances.

“In pre-modern times, an official Noh program was called a “goban date” (“five-play program”). It is rare to see a full goban date program performed today, but it consists of five plays performed in succession. Gods are the protagonists in the first play. The second tells the tales of warriors suffering in the hell that Buddhism says is reserved for people who fought in wars. Women are the protagonists of the third play, while the fourth play features ladies searching for departed lovers or lost children. In the fifth play, the protagonists are non-human characters like demons or tengu goblins. In other words, you transform from a god to a demon to a human all in the course of one day. While suggesting these protagonists are essentially two sides of the same coin, this program structure also acts as a mirror reflecting how the human soul exists as a fusion of these elements.”

Nohgaku is performed at the National Noh Theatre and at theaters owned by each Nohgaku school. “The Noh Theater SANPO” is a program that holds exhibitions, performances and workshops geared towards foreign visitors who may be unfamiliar with Nohgaku. For example, in November-December 2023, Kanze Noh Theater in Tokyo’s Ginza district was opened up before performances for guests to freely explore, with the theater also holding an exhibition of Noh masks and costumes in the lobby. Noh performers also came to the lobby 30 minutes before the performance to help visitors try on Noh mask and costumes and to give explanations about how to handle Noh tools.

Left: At a “The Noh Theater SANPO” event held at Kanze Noh Theater, Noh performers from the Kanze School came to the lobby before performances to help visitors try on Noh masks. Right: Old masks were also on display in the lobby.
Visitors could look closely at the gorgeous costumes worn by the Noh performers on stage.

 When you try on a Noh mask, it is surprising how small the eye holes are and how little you can see. The event certainly caused a stir, with participating guests surprised and amazed at how the performers could act while essentially blindfolded.

The main actor (shite) and supporting actor (waki) took to the stage to show people how to chant in time. English interpretation was also available, so everyone could enjoy singing along.

The program selected the all-time-best “masterpieces” from the current repertoire of around 240 Noh plays. In another activity, guests took place in a real “warm-up exercise” before an actual performance. Noh performers took to the stage to act as guides, with the audience invited to chant the lyrics and copy some characteristic Noh postures. This activity surely dispelled any sense that Noh was something unfamiliar or unapproachable.

The actors performed the masterwork Hagoromo (Feather Robe), the most commonly performed play in the current repertoire.

The program’s structure and coordination were handled by Munenori Takeda, a Kanze School Noh performer who also specializes in participatory performances aimed at beginners. Takeda has used his masterful ability to communicate and captivate audiences to hold over 1,000 hands-on performances in Japan and overseas.
“Even many Japanese people are unaware there is a Noh theater right in the heart of Ginza, so it’s no surprise many foreign visitors don’t know either. First off, I would just be happy if more people became aware of this. More than anything, though, I planned these events to instill in people the idea that Noh is surprisingly interesting, so that they’ll try to catch a performance the next time they get a chance. I don’t want participants going away happy with just this one performance; the idea is to leave them wanting for more.”

Munenori Takeda

Another “The Noh Theater SANPO” event will be held in February and March this year at Yarai Noh Theater, in Tokyo’s Kagurazaka neighborhood. Built in 1952, Yarai Noh Theater is the second oldest Noh venue in Tokyo, with this marvelous example of a modern Noh theater also a registered tangible cultural property of Tokyo. Visitors here will encounter a different flavor of event to the one staged in Ginza.

National Theatre Okinawa

A new work entitled Shukuju-no-mai (Celebratory Dance) is performed at the Reception Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of National Theatre Okinawa event (created, choreographed and directed by Shinji Kinjo).

Our next port of call takes us to Okinawa Prefecture, the most southwesterly place in the Japanese archipelago. Encompassing a huge territory that ranges around 400km from north to south and 1,000km from east to west, the prefecture comprises approximately 691 islands, only 47 of which are inhabited. With a hot and humid subtropical climate, the region is home to many endemic species of flora and fauna that have undergone their own unique evolution on the islands.

In 1429, three kingdoms in Okinawa were unified to form the Ryukyu Kingdom. The new state had sakuho (tributary) relationships with Ming-dynasty China and it also had close diplomatic and trading relations with Japan and Southeast Asia, with the maritime nation thriving as a nodal point connecting seafarers from each region. The kingdom fell under Japan’s sphere of influence after the Satsuma Domain invaded in 1609. However, it remained an independent kingdom and it maintained relations with Ming and later Qing China. It also produced several reformist politicians to see the state through difficult times. In 1872, the kingdom was transformed into Ryukyu Domain after the Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown and the Meiji government was established in Japan. It was then mandatorily converted into Okinawa Prefecture in 1879, with the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom officially over. The Okinawan people were later swept up in fighting during the Asia-Pacific War and Okinawa was then placed under American control for 27 years after the Battle of Okinawa. It was returned to Japan in 1972, with the region long buffeted by historic upheavals.

National Theatre Okinawa (designed by Shin Takamatsu)

The nature and culture of Okinawa is quite distinct from areas like Tokyo and Kyoto, with Okinawa also nurturing several unique performing arts. For Shinji Kinjo, though, these performing arts are not exotic and rarefied but rather something commonplace and rooted in everyday life. In 2022, Kinjo became artistic director of National Theatre Okinawa at age 34. As well as organizing a series of events to commemorate the theater’s 20th anniversary in 2024, Kinjo also takes to the stage as a performer and inheritor of “Kumiodori.” Kumiodori is a type of theater composed of words, traditional Okinawan music and dance, and dance-based stylized movements. Kumiodori is also registered as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage alongside Noh, Kyogen and Kabuki. Other Okinawan performing arts include the folk songs enjoyed by Ryukuan people in their day-to-day lives; folk performing arts such as dances performed for the gods during religious festivals; and court performing arts developed at the Ryukyu Kingdom court. Kumiodori is a representative example of the latter. It was first performed in 1719 and was originally devised by the dance magistrate Tamagusuku Chokun to entertain envoys sent by the Chinese Emperor to the Ryukyu Kingdom.

The Iriko Odori dance is performed at the Reception Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of National Theatre Okinawa event. The same dance was performed 20 years ago when the theater first opened.

Chokun created Kumiodori based on the Noh, Kyogen and Kabuki theater he had seen during official trips to Edo (modern-day Tokyo), though his subject matter was classic Ryukyu folk tales. One distinctive feature of Kumiodori was the way the actors and musicians were children from the warrior class rather than professional performers. When the Ryukyu Kingdom came to an end, Kumiodori was propagated through each region and it became a form of popular entertainment or a dedicatory artform performed in village festivals.
This transmission was in danger of fizzling out after the Second World War, so National Theatre Okinawa was opened in 2004 to protect and promote Okinawan performing arts. As well as staging performances of Kumiodori, Ryukyuan dance and Ryukyuan music, the theater is also engaged in training Kumiodori performers, planning new works, and collecting and publicizing materials, for example. Kinjo was among the theater’s first group of trainees and he has seen first-hand how the theater had grown and developed over the years.
“The establishment of National Theatre Okinawa totally transformed the status and presence of the Ryukyuan performing arts. It has greatly increased the opportunities for people from outside the prefecture to find out about Ryukyuan dance and music, and it seems the richness of Okinawa’s performing arts has become widely recognized. However, folk performing arts like those I experienced in my youth are disappearing from daily life. They have shifted from ‘something found in the home’ to something external that people ‘go to see’ at National Theatre Okinawa. I think a new role for our theater could be to make these performing arts part of everyday life again.”

Shinji Kinjo, artistic director of National Theatre Okinawa.

Reception Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of National Theatre Okinawa was one of the performances held to celebrate the theater’s 20th anniversary. It opened with Omoro/Koneri and Iriko Odori, two dances also performed at the theater’s opening ceremony 20 years early, and it concluded with Shukuju-no-mai, a new work created, choreographed and directed by Shinji Kinjo.

The Omoro/Koneri dance is performed at the Reception Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of National Theatre Okinawa event.
A new Kumiodori work entitled Shukuju-no-mai (Celebratory Dance) is performed at the Reception Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of National Theatre Okinawa event. It depicts the bonds between a family as it rushes to prepare an unusual dance to perform at the 73rd birthday party of their dance-loving mother.

Young performers who weren’t even born 20 years ago danced vigorously around the stage to the applause of a discerning audience that still had memories of the theater’s opening ceremony. In this way, National Theatre Okinawa is place where contemporary performing arts can energetically grow through a fraternal fusion of old and new. The theater plans to hold a variety of performances in future and it looks forward to welcoming guests from Okinawa and elsewhere.

One place to get a panoramic view of Okinawa’s nature, history, culture and performing arts is at Okinawa Prefectural Museum & Art Museum in Omoromachi, Naha City. The folk heritage that nurtured Okinawa’s traditional performing arts is introduced in the Folklore Gallery “Tradition and Life in Okinawa,” one of the museum’s permanent exhibitions. Here, visitors can get an up-close view of the everyday folk culture passed down through the ages. At the entrance is a section modelling the village structure as a “space” nurturing Okinawa’s folk heritage. This is a great place to learn about the fundamental forms of Okinawan society and faith. The sprawling village faces the sea with a forest in the background. Within this forest is an utaki, a sacred site where people venerate the gods (ancestors and ancestral spirits) that protect the village. The display also introduces two aspects of Okinawa’s female-centered folk religion. On the one hand, people hold community rituals in village utaki, with women from designated households acting as priestesses. On the other hand, individual families with their own religious beliefs and incantations perform their own rituals, with other women acting as shamans (however, this structure has also undergone changes in recent years). The museum also features many other artifacts, models, videos and audio guides to help the visitor gain a deeper understanding of Okinawan culture.

This is a recreation of a formal garment worn by a high priestess who was also the elder sister of King Sho En (reign: 1469-1476).
This exhibit shows daily life inside a house built to suit Okinawa’s climate.
From early modern times to just after the Second World War, bodies of the deceased were exposed to the elements rather than being buried. The funeral would be held several years later, with the bones cleansed and placed in a tomb. The museum has a number of funerary urns used in these ceremonies.
In Okinawa, incense burners were treasured as receptacles used to worship gods and ancestral spirits. They were placed in utaki (sacred sites) and uganju (places of worship); in small shrines set up near the home (for tutelary gods) or in the kitchen (for the god of fire); in family Buddhist altars; and in ichibanza guest rooms. Stone censers were also used in this way.

Sefa Utaki

Okinawa has a gentle polytheistic religion centered around nature worship and ancestor worship. During the Ryukyu Kingdom era, there was close unity between religion and state, with the king serving as head of the country’s administrative institutions and a “kikoe-ogimi” (high priestess) as head of the female priesthood. Kikoe-ogimi conducted state religious services and provided spiritual protection to king and kingdom, with female royalty like the king’s sisters appointed to the role. Sefa Utaki was the Ryukyu Kingdom’s holiest place, with inauguration ceremonies for new kikoe-ogimi held here.

The third and fourth sanctuaries at Sefa Utaki are the Shikiyodayuru-Amaganubi and Amadayuru-Ashikanubi pots. These collect holy water dripping from stalactites above.

Sefa Utaki is located in the mountains of Nanjo City, Okinawa Prefecture. In 2000, it was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site as part of the “Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu,” with many pilgrims still visiting this sacred area today.

Near the entrance to Sefa Utaki is a spot where pilgrims can distantly worship Kudaka Island, a holy site located 5km to the east of Cape Chinen in the southern part of Okinawa Main Island. Kudaka Island also appears in Ryukyuan creation myths. It is said the seeds of the five essential grains first washed up on the island.

Within this sacred site are six sanctuaries known as “ibi.” Three of these are called Ufugui, Yuinchi and Sangui, names shared with buildings and rooms within Shurijo Castle. This reveals the close relationship that prevailed between the royal and religious authorities.

Ufugui is the first sanctuary we come across after passing through the Ujoguchi approach. “Ufugui” means “great hall” or “guest room.”
Several incense burners are placed at the Ufugui site too.
A stone-paved platform for offerings sits in the overhang of a large rock. This is Yuinchi, one of the six “ibi” sanctuaries at Sefa Utaki. In the Ryukyuan language, “yuinchi” means “kitchen,” though no cooking is carried out here.
Nestled in spaces where two giant rocks meet are Sangui and Chonohana, the two most photographed sanctuaries at Sefa Utaki.
The area beyond Sangui’s entrance is restricted and off limits to general worshippers and sightseers.

State religious services ceased when the Ryukyu Kingdom came to an end. Instead, members of the general public began to worship at holy sites that were once forbidden to all but the select few. Today, we need to be very respectful when we visit this place, where we might encounter worshippers offering reverential prayers. At the entrance to Sefa Utaki is a guidance center called “Midori no Yakata Sefa.” Here, visitors can learn about the site’s history and religious significance through videos and displays. From performances and exhibitions to pilgrimages to places of worship, all these diverse encounters transcend the framework of casual tourism to offer visitors the chance to experience the very essence of Okinawa.

Mari Hashimoto

Director of Kankitsuzan Art Museum establishment preparation office, Odawara Art Foundation.
Former Vice-chairperson of Eisei Bunko Museum (Private Museum of Hosokawa dynasty)
Visiting Professor, Kanazawa Institute of Technology

She is a writer/editor who specializes in Japanese arts. She is known for her contributions to major newspapers/magazines and for her appearances on arts programs on NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation). Her publications include Kazaru Nihon (Decorate Japan, Iwanami Shoten); Bijutsu de tadoru Nihon no rekishi (Japanese history traced by art, 3 volumes, Chobunsha Publishing); Kyoto de Nihon bijutsu wo miru [Kyoto Kokuritsu Bijutsukan] (Appreciation of Japanese arts in Kyoto [Kyoto National Museum], Shueisha Creative Publication); Kawari Kabuto Sengoku no COOL DESIGN (Kawari Kabuto, Cool design of the Sengoku period, Shinchosha Publishing); Shungart (co-authored, Shogakukan); Gensun bijutsukan 100% Hokusai! (Full-scale museum, Hokusai 100%!, co-authored, Shogakukan); and Nihon bijutsu zenshu Vol. 20 (Complete collection of Japanese Art Vol. 20, Shogakukan, edited).