Overview of Japanese Dance

There is a tremendous diversity in traditional Japanese dance, from court and religious dance to the ritualistic noh dance-drama and theatrical kabuki dance. In modern times, JapanŐs avant-garde butoh dance has also attracted international interest.

Historically, kagura (dance of the gods) is the oldest form of dance in Japan. Originally performed by shamans, its influence is perceived in all Shinto dances performed at shrines today to appease or attract the favor of the deities.

From the 6th century, Japan received a great deal of cultural influence from other parts of Asia, especially China and Korea. The earliest imported dance was a form of masked dance-drama called gigaku, which came to Japan from Korea in 612. The main legacy from gigaku was a two-man shishimai dance, which is the ancestor of all lion dances in Japan today. From the 7th to 8th centuries in particular, a wide range of Korean and Chinese music and dance were introduced, and came to be known under the generic terms gagaku (court music) and bugaku (court dance). This bugaku was characterized by richly costumed dancers and the accompaniment of gagaku.

Outside the court, bugaku was also performed at shrines and temples along with kagura and Buddhist ceremonial dance. It is still performed to a limited extent today.

An acrobatic or circus-like performance (sarugaku) was used as the dance accompaniment of the court sumo festival in the Heian period (794-1185). Sarugaku and dengaku, originally a fertility ritual held in fields, eventually contributed to the development of the noh drama in the 14th century.

Meanwhile in agricultural and fishing communities around the country, folk and festival dances accompanied by hayashi music (ensemble of drums and flutes), and variations of nembutsu odori based on Buddhist incantations (giving rise to dances such as the bon-odori) were a vital element of community life, and continue to be so today.

The rise of a mercantile urban culture in 17th century Japan gave rise to the development of popular theater, notably kabuki and bunraku puppet theater, and a style of dance that reflected kabuki's love of gaudiness and spectacle. Shosagoto dances (originally for the roles of onnagata female impersonators) became the most important type of kabuki dance, differentiated according to whether a lyrical (nagauta) or narrative (tokiwazu-bushi, tomimoto-bushi, kiyomoto-bushi) style of music was used to accompany it. Kabuki dance was practiced in its own right by townspeople. The term Nihon buyo today refers to kabuki dances especially adapted for separate stage performance.

In the modern era, Fujikage Shizue (1880-1966) established the Shinbuyo (New Dance) movement under the influence of Western dance, which gave ordinary people the opportunity to perform kabuki dance as an independent art form. This led to a proliferation of dance schools (about 168 today) where pupils are mostly women.

Japanese Dance