About Noh

Noh Play is a classical theater performance, consisting of Noh and Kyogen.
Before, it was known as ‘Sarugaku’, then changed to its current name since the Meiji period (1868-1912), and ‘Nogaku’ is still used until now. It has the history of more than 600 years, and highly valuated even in overseas. On May 18th, 2001, Noh Play has been registered as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

About Noh

Since the Muromachi period (approximately from 1336 to 1573), Noh was first introduced by Kanami, and his son Zeami. Kanami and Zeami were taking in the best from the conventional public entertainment, in order to build up another type of play consisting of stories.
Nowadays, the Noh Play you see on stage are the one that Kanami and Zeami left behind for us, which are still played without much changes since then.
(Today, Noh Play is inherited from its original since more than 600 years ago; yet its form does not change much.) One of the reasons is because of the love from the Daimyou (Japanese feudal Lord) of each historical period.

From the very beginning, the Noh Play of Kanami and Zeami were charmed by the famous politician named Ashikaga Yoshimitu (1368-1394) from the Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto. After that, each Daimyo started falling in love with Noh Play also. Especially, a military commander named Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) did really enjoy Noh Play. At last, he even turned his own heroic stories into a Noh Play and performed it. At the time of politician named Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), the influence of Noh Play was increasingly high evaluated, and even treated as Shogunate’s ceremonial music.

After the Meiji period, resulted from the collapse of Daimyou system in Edo period, many hardships were faced. However, thanks to the release of national isolation, Japan welcomed various foreign cultures into the countries, and took this chance to look again at its own culture. At this time, a politician named Iwakura Tomomi (1825-1883) used the word ‘Nogaku’ (Noh Play) to officially called Noh, and were really proud to introduce it to the world as Japanese traditional culture.

Players of Noh

  • Shite
    Protagonist. The Noh Play is divided into the first and the second half. The first half is called ‘Mae Shite’, and the second half is called ‘Nochi Shite’.
    There are two ways to set the two halves of the Noh Play. The first setting can be two different characters in the two parts. The second setting can be the same character in both parts; yet there are also different cases such as, a character playing as an incarnation at first and turning into a ghost later in the second half; or a character with different personalities in the two halves.
    A performer who plays Shite is called ‘Shite kata’. There are five different schools of ‘Shite kata’, including Kanze, Kongou, Houshou, Konparu, and Kita.
  • Shitetsure
    Shitetsure also plays Shitekata, yet as a semi-protagonist who follows and serves the Shite.
  • Waki
    Waki plays the partner of Shite, and always appears as a real man. As a travelling monk, Waki is the opposite role with Shite. A performer who plays Waki is called ‘Waki kata’. There are three different schools of ‘Waki kata’, including Takayasu, Fukuou, and Houshou.
  • Wakitsure
    Wakisture also plays Wakikata, yet as a follower and server to the Waki.
  • Ai
    When ‘Mae Shite’ scene finishes and the ‘Nochi Shite’ scene is prepared to be set on stage, ‘Ai’ character appears in between of this moment as a villager or a government official, in order to connect the stories of the two halves. Ai is sometimes called ‘間’ also.
  • Hayashi
    Hayashi is the musical performance played as a signal to begin the Noh Play, or as background music on stage.
    Hayashi consists of three people, one plays the flute, one plays the small hand drum, and the other plays the large hand drum. Otherwise, the drum players form a group of four members, including:
    Fue…Flute: Noh flute, made from bamboo tree, is a transverse bamboo flute with seven holes, approximately 39cm long. There are three different schools of Noh flute, which are Issou, Morita and Fujita.
    Kotsuzumi… Small hand drum: is made from pony’s skin, has a very soft sound. There are four different schools of small hand drum, including Kou, Kousei, Ookura, and Kanze.
    Oozutsumi… Large hand drum: has a higher and sharper tone of sound compared to the small hand drum. There are four different schools of large hand drum, including Kadono, Takayasu, Ookura, Kanze, and Ishii.
    Taiko… Drum: is made from cattle’s skin, mainly plays only the second half of a song. There are two different schools of this type of drum, including Kanze, and Konparu.

The above characters are professionals, so they do not play each other’s roles. For instance, the Shitekata do not play Waki, and the Kyogenkata do not play Hayashi.

  • Jiutai
    Noh chorus: is a singing group, who through music explains the current situation on stage, or narrate how the Shite feels.
  • Kouken
    Backstage assistant: play as assistants to Shite, such as taking the props in and out, helping with changing clothes.

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Noh Masks

Noh Masks are used by the leading performer – Shitekata. Noh masks are various based on gender, age and whether one is a human character or not. Approximately, there are 60 different types of Noh masks, which are enough for all the Noh plays to be performed on stage. However, to be more specific, there are around 250 different types of Noh masks that can be introduced until now.
The significance about Noh masks is its change of face expression depending on the light. If the Shite looks up, the audiences can see the smiling expression, if the Shite looks down, the audiences can see the sad expression.

Noh costume and folding fan

All the Noh performers wear Noh costume when they are standing on stage, which is known as luxurious and gorgeous Kimono. All the roles do not only wear different Noh costumes depending on their different roles such as women, samurai, Gods or demons; but the way they dress up their costume is also various. There are costumes that could be used only for a specific Noh performance.
Noh folding fans are used for practicing, for dancing, for Noh chorus, and for the ceremonial folding fan (when closing the fan, the first half is kept open) by the Shite. For different purposes of usage, the fans are designed distinctively depended on which character is going to use the fan.
Both Noh costumes and Noh folding fans have different design based on the various schools of plays.

About Kyogen

The same with Noh Play, Kyogen was established since the Muromachi period as a performing arts.
Kyogen was known as a work of satire to make people laugh. It was taken in as noble and military family’s culture; yet its protagonists were performed by unknown government officials or people in town. Kyogen started as stories-telling, and soon later was highly welcomed by the mass of people. Nowadays, Kyogen has its friendly name as ‘The arts of laughter’.
There are two different types of Kyogen, which are ‘Honkyogen’ – the independent stories; and ‘Aikyogen’ – the shift between the two halves of a Noh Play.
Additionally, there are two schools of Kyogen, including Izumi, and Ookura.

Players of Kyogen

  • Shite
    the protagonist. Shite of Kyogen is different from Noh, who is not a traditional character, but is usually introduced under the title of Taro Kaja (a young servant), Yamabushi (itinerant Buddhist monk), or Daimyo (Japanese feudal Lord).
  • Ado
    the partner of the protagonist. Similar to Shite, Ado does not have a fixed name for most Kyogen Play.

Kyogen Masks

Many Kyogen plays do not use masks while performing. It is called ‘Hitamen’, means performing without a mask; yet Kyogen still has its specialized masks. However, if a character is not human, such as animals like monkeys and foxes; a mushroom fairy; a demon or a God…, they will wear Kyogen Masks.

About Noh Stage

Feature of Noh stage

Unlike dramas, Noh and Kyogen plays mostly do not use sets and props. Actions at a place and characters on stage are all explained by narration. Moreover, instead of using micros and speakers, the sound from talking and musical instruments are all raw voices.

About the pine tree on stage

At the back of the stage, always drawn an old pine tree, which is called ‘Kagamiita’. This was based on the legend said that in front of the ‘Yogo Pine tree’ of the Kasuga Grand Shrine (Kazuga taisha) in Nara prefecture, danced the Kasuga Great Gods.
Moreover, because Noh stage does not use any kind of equipments, the image of evergreen pine trees are drawn everywhere in the background of the stage throughout the four seasons, as a natural background.
The pine tree of Heiwa Shimin Park Noh Theater was designed by an artist named Tagawa Susumu from Kitsuki city.

Design of Noh stage


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  1. Kagamiita - Scene-panel
    There is a pine tree drawn on it. From a long time ago, a pine tree is where Gods come to dance, this legend was originated from the dedication of the Kazuga Great Gods, who came in front of the ‘Yogo pine tree’ of the Kasuga Grand Shrine in Nara prefecture to dance.
    This scene-panel also plays a role as transmitting the sound of performers and musical instruments from the stage to the audience seats. In addition, on the right side of the stage (the door side), there drawn a young bamboo tree.
  2. Fuebashira – Flute pillar, the upstage left pillar
    This pillar got its name because it is near the position of the performer who plays the flute. In Dojoji Temple (Dojoji) in Wakayama prefecture, it is even possible to hang on an extra bell.
  3. Kirido – a small wooden door at the rear of a Noh stage
    This is where the Noh chorus and stage assistants go in and out.
  4. Misunoma – Japanese style bamboo blinded room
    In the past, if people from high class social status appreciated Noh, they would watch the play from this room. Nowadays, this is where teachers of performers and their relatives use. 
  5. Jiutaiza – Noh chorus seating area
    The Noh chorus will sit in two lines.
  6. Wakibashira – Waki pillar
    Waki, who plays the role of Shite’s partners, will sit near this pillar.
  7. Kizahasi – stairs at the front of the Noh stage
    This remains from the time when the Noh stage was still outdoors. Governmental position in charge of managing the temples and shrines stood in this stairs when ordering to start the stage.
  8. Shirasu – gravel separating the Noh stage from the audience
    This remains from the time when the Noh stage was still outdoors. There are white gravel spread out like a river, plays a role to reflect of sunlight onto the stage as a lighting system.
  9. Metsukebashira – downstage right pillar on the Noh stage, used as a positioning guidepost for performers.
    As characters who wear Noh masks will have a very narrow sight of view, this pillar will be the landmark to guide them when they act. This pillar can also be called as ‘Sumibashira’.
  10. Agemaku – entrance curtain
    When performers get in and out of the stage, by manual operation raised this curtain up or down. Also, inside this curtain had the mirror room (Kagaminoma) where Shite can wear their masks and prepare to enter on stage.
  11. Hashigakari - Passageway bridge
    This is not only where performers walk to get in and out of the stage, but this is also where Noh performances can take place. Moreover, this passageway bridge also represents the boundary between the present live and the world of the dead.
    The trees run along this bridge, starting from the nearest one from the stage, are orderly counted as one, two, three, four to five. Additionally, the further from the stage, the smaller is the tree. Based on this, audiences can watch the play from different perspectives, such as far and near, here and there.
  12. Shitebashira – Shite pillar: upstage right pillar on the Noh stage.
    Shite stands beside this pillar to perform since entering the stage.
  13. Ato-za – Back position, rear part of a Noh stage
    The Noh chorus and props assistants will sit there.
    Orderly from the right, seated performers who play flute, small hand drum, large hand drum, and the standing drum. In the left hand side seated the backstage assistants, who are in charge of Shite’s manager.