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Japanese Traditional Performing Arts: Making Us Love Like We Used To



The Noh play Teika by Bunzo Otsuki, the Kanze school shite-kata actor and Living National Treasure



“I want to grow wings and fly to him…”


She yearns for her lover. The enduring passions of love from the Japanese civil war era overflow from Princess Yaegaki, brought to life by the Bunraku puppeteer, Kanjuro Kiritake.


Honcho Nijushiko is a masterpiece of the Bunraku historical genre. Princess Yaegaki falls in love with Takeda Katsuyori, a man from a rival family. She decides to betray her father in order to save Katsuyori from an assassin that the former had sent.


Women who appear in Japanese traditional performing arts are all passionate when it comes to falling in love.



In a classic Kabuki scene in The Love Suicides at Sonezaki by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, the 19-year-old courtesan Ohatsu questions her lover Tokubei about his resolution to commit suicide together, then leads him by the hand to their deaths.


The Bunraku puppeteer, Kanjuro Kiritake talks with a doll Ohatsu from The Love Suicides at Sonezaki


Ohatsu was one of the most successful roles played by Tojuro Sakata, a Living National Treasure. He says, “No matter which overseas country I perform in, people are moved because her love is so strong that she is even willing to commit suicide.”


Tojuro Sakata  a Living National Treasure


On the other hand, it’s said that the Japanese youth of today are not falling in love as they used to.




Today’s Unassertive Men


In fact, statistics show us some shocking facts. According to the 15th Annual Population and Social Security Survey (2015) by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, roughly 70% of men and 60% of women between 18 and 34 are not married or seeing a partner of the opposite sex.


Additionally, over 40% of the unmarried men and women have not had any sexual experiences. This shows an increase by several points compared to the previous survey conducted in 2010. There has definitely been an increase in young people who do not have any sexual experiences or a partner.  


Various explanations have been proffered for this phenomenon. One is the rise of soshokukei danshi (literally, herbivore men), which refers to unassertive men who don’t take the initiative to approach women. Another suggestion is that many young people get absorbed in virtual worlds offered by the internet or games, and can’t be bothered with the complicated relationships in real life.


Most romantic traditional works performed in Bunraku and Kabuki were created during the Edo Period. The romance between a lady from a rich business family and a servant-apprentice was an outrageous taboo. Women who had relationships outside of their marriage were prosecuted for adultery. Redemption money had to be paid to set a courtesan free. People were more willing to endure such tumultuous passions in a society that was so merciless. Perhaps love burns more fiercely when there are more obstacles.



Now, there are hardly any obstacles to love in the modern world. This summer, Junko Sakai’s fascinating essay was published in the culture column of the morning paper issued by the Sankei Shimbun Osaka headquarters.


Sakai describes the current society as “a place where the appetite for love is satiated.” She writes: “During the 1890s when the average lifespan was roughly 40 years, first love must have been more serious and meaningful. Now, anyone can have romantic relationships as many times as they want, but the young people think love is too bothersome.”


Love, Joy, Suffering


Recently, I watched a Noh play that left me awestruck. The Noh play Teika is a love story about Princess Shikishi and poet Fujiwara no Teika. Even after their deaths, Teika’s infatuation torments the princess’s spirit by tenaciously clinging to her grave in the form of a kudzu plant.  


What shocked me was the ending. The princess endures the pain and returns to her grave, where Teika’s passions still linger. The depth of love that propelled her to do this is unimaginable. Bunzo Otsuki, the Kanze school shite-kata actor and Living National Treasure says, “In love, joy and suffering are one.”



Falling in love inevitably brings both joy and suffering. It makes one put another’s happiness before one’s own. The effects of love on a human’s heart are limitless.


Our souls are moved by traditional plays written hundreds of years ago because fierce, enduring love tells us about the human soul and the complicated nature of our hearts.



Noriko Kameoka is a senior staff writer for the Sankei Shimbun Osaka Headquarters’ department of culture. She joined Sankei Shimbun Osaka in 1990. She has been reporting on traditional performing arts, such as Noh, Kabuki, and Bunraku, for the department of culture for many years. Her motto is, “Watch once-in-a-lifetime performances, listen to invaluable stories from the actors and actresses, then present them in an article for a modern audience.” The only problem is the seiza, a traditional, formal way of sitting that is unavoidable for traditional performing arts reporters. Conducting an interview in the dressing room while enduring the seiza is a trial of discipline for someone who was raised in a Western lifestyle. Her works include Bunraku All Day and The Dream: the Heisei Tojuro is Born (published by Tankosha).




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