How Japanese Traditions Work

Traditional Japanese Theater

For a people known to be reserved bout their emotions and feelings, performing arts such as theater can provide an acceptable outlet for more open expression in Japan. In fact, preserving these traditions is considered integral to Japanese culture. There are four main types of traditional theater in Japan: noh, kyogen, kabuki and bunraku. Noh is the oldest of these, with the same few hundred plays put on today that were first written and performed back in the 15th century. Noh is a dramatic, musical dance performance rich with symbolism. Plots draw on Buddhist and Shinto mythology. Noh actors were traditionally men, dressed in lavish costumes and often wearing expressive masks. The main character is known as the shite, and his foil is the waki.

In stark contrast to the formal, serious noh, kyogen are wild comedies. These short plays are often performed as interludes between noh acts (although kyogen may be put on by itself), and both forms of theater developed at the same time. All characters are still usually men (although some companies do allow for female actors), and the emphasis is on lively, slapstick action with elements of satire and parody.


Kabuki theater has more in common with noh -- it's a highly stylized combination of dance and drama, featuring actors with heavily painted faces. Kabuki originated in the mid-1600s and began with female performers who were often prostitutes as well. Unlike noh, historically, kabuki was very sexually suggestive. Women were banned from kabuki in 1629 (and today's kabuki is all-male), but the bawdy content continued until it another edict by the shogunate in the late 1600s prohibited it. Kabuki plays fall into one of three categories: shosagato, with an emphasis on dance; jidai-mono, historical stories of military conflict and political intrigue covering the Sengoku period from the mid-15th to the early 17th-centuries; and sewa-mono, post-Sengoku period stories of domestic life.

Bunraku, or Japanese puppet theater, has been around since the late 16th century. Performers in Bunraku operate four-foot tall puppets with elaborately-carved heads, and the plays share themes with kabuki. They also include music and chanting. There are usually three different types of performers: shamisen players, the chanters (tayu) who both narrate the story and recite the characters' parts, and ningyōzukai, the puppeteers. A traditional bunraku puppet requires three different puppeteers to move it. The main puppeteer controls the right hand and head, while another wields the left hand and a third operates the feet and legs. Puppeteers wear black robes and are in full view of the audience.

Traditional theater began to take a backseat in the entertainment world with the dawn of film. The century-old Japanese movie industry has not only spawned its own genres, but filmmakers who have influenced the medium world-wide. What makes Japanese movies unique? Find out on the next page.