2023 NO.35


Dancing Japan!


Why Do Japanese People Dance?

In theaters, in towns, and in public squares...
At school, at home, and on social media...
Why is it that Japanese people like to dance so much?
The reason is concealed within a long history.


A painting depicts a bugaku dance known as Seigaiha, waves of the blue ocean, being performed in the imperial court around the 11th century. From Genji Monogatari Gacho (“Album Set of the Tale of Genji”), Tosa School: Momiji no Ga (“Celebration of Autumn Foliage”; partial) Collection of Sakai City Museum

It is difficult to identify the very beginning of Japanese dance, but kagura is thought to be one starting point. Kagura emerged as a religious dance form intended as an offering to kami deities. The introduction of various musical instruments from outside Japan around the 7th century led to the advent of bugaku, a form of dance that developed out of the ancient Japanese kagura form. Bugaku dances accompanied by instruments including sho (free-reed wind instruments), transverse bamboo flutes, and taiko drums was under the patronage of the imperial court and nobility. The movements used in bugaku, with dancers slowly turning their outstretched arms, can be seen as the prototype for the light, graceful motion that later came to characterize Japanese dance in general.

Noh, which originated in the 14th century as a derivation of bugaku, is a song and dance-based theatrical form. In noh theater, the main protagonist, known as the shite, performs solemn, austere dances along with other characters. The movements are accompanied by spoken lines, sung lyrics describing scenes, and instrumental musical performances. Several schools of noh, which developed with the patronage of the leaders at that time, still exist today, 600 years later. Heir to the tradition’s unique formal beauty (see this page), they utilize masks, dazzling costumes, and special, dedicated stages.

Around the 15th century, a form of dance called Furyu-odori became wildly popular. It is thought to have originated with festivals and costumed parades. This style of group dance, in which great numbers of participants dress up in showy costumes and dance together, accompanied by instruments such as small disc-shaped gongs called kane and taiko drums, took root all over Japan (see this page). Furyu-odori is a form of folk entertainment known for its very diverse range of distinctive local traditions.


The Takachiho no Yo-Kagura (Night Kagura) has a long history in the Miyazaki Prefecture town of Takachiho, with all-night dances offered to kami deities that are summoned to the performances.

Kabuki Dance

Izumo no Okuni, the founder of kabuki dance, which enjoyed enthusiastic popularity among the common people of her time. From Okuni Kabuki Zu Byobu (“Okuni Kabuki Screen”; partial) Collection of Kyoto National Museum


Kyoganoko Musume Dojo-ji (“The Maiden at Dojo-ji Temple”), a dance drama, expresses the various emotions of a young woman in love, with gorgeous costume changes and dance props. Here, Fujima Murasaki (III) dances in this representative Nihon-buyo program. (Photo courtesy of Murasakiha-Fujimaryu Fujima Office)

Furyu-odori later developed into two distinct forms: bon-odori dances where ordinary people take part as they please, and kabuki stage plays offered by professional performers. The origin of kabuki can be traced to around 17th-century Kyoto, when popular kabuki-odori dances were performed by Izumo no Okuni, a female entertainer who would dress in male costumes and incorporate popular, contemporary songs into her performances. Eventually the center of kabuki performance would shift to Edo (present-day Tokyo), where it is characterized by distinctive movement and style, virtually instantaneous costume changes, and modes of expression employing small stage props such as folding fans and hand towels. Meanwhile, in Kyoto and Osaka, kamigata-mai developed out of kabuki dance as a form of banquet performance. These traditions developed into Nihon-buyo (“Japanese dance”), which is performed at theaters and banquets. Over 100 schools of the art exist, each with their own iemoto founder or master.

Today, in the 21st century, noh and kabuki been recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritages. Meanwhile, a considerable number of Japanese performers are active on the world stage in genres including ballet and contemporary dance. Dance has also come to be a pervasive presence in the lives of ordinary people in Japan. Dance is included as a required junior high school subject, and it is commonly incorporated into school life in all types of settings, as well. Adults also dance to express their support for favorite sports teams, idols, and other performers. On social media, videos of dancers dressed up as anime characters inspire people to post their own versions, creating opportunities for young people to dance together with many others.

In all these ways and more, the Japanese people over the centuries have fostered a culture of dance as a means of promoting bonds of affinity.


The dances of a bon-odori festival, where participants of all ages and genders dance together around yagura scaffolds, is a distinctive tradition of summertime in Japan. (Photo: Aflo)

Contemporary Dance

Natsubatake (“Recollection of sunny field”) from DANCE ARCHIVES in Japan 2023 introducing Japanese contemporary dance Choreography: Orita Katsuko; Performed by: Hirayama Motoko, Shimaji Yasutake; Photo: SHIKAMA Takashi Photo courtesy of New National Theatre, Tokyo