Explaining the differences between Kabuki and Noh! Understanding Traditional Culture by Knowing Its Roots

There are significant differences and similarities between the traditional Japanese cultures of Kabuki and Noh.

This article details the differences between Kabuki and Noh that every Japanese person should know.
You will be able to understand the differences between the two traditional cultures and be able to answer quickly when asked by friends or foreigners.

The roots and trivia of Kabuki and Noh are also explained, so please read to the end.


Differences between Kabuki and Noh

Kabuki and Noh are often thought of as similar traditional cultures, but there are distinct differences.

One major difference is that Kabuki “changes with the times,” while Noh is “a complete form with various elements stripped away.

Why distinct differences emerged can be better understood by knowing the roots. The following is an explanation of the roots of Kabuki and Noh.

Roots of Kabuki

Kabuki is said to have its roots in the Kabuki Dance, which was started in 1603 by a man named Akuni of Izumo.

Kabuki has been loved and enjoyed by many people up to the present day, with the word “kabuki” originating from “kabuku,” meaning “to dress or act strangely.

This “strange dress and behavior” called kabuku changes with the times. Just as fashions and trends change with the times, kabuki also changes daily.

For example, recently there have been performances featuring the virtual idol “Hatsune Miku” and Super Kabuki based on the popular manga “One Piece,” and the stage productions and content are constantly being updated.

Kabuki, in accordance with the word “kabuku,” is a traditional culture that does not go against the times or their currents, but is constantly changing.

kabuki ring

The Roots of Noh

Noh is believed to have its roots in “sangaku,” or scattered music, which came from mainland China in the 8th century (701-800 A.D.). The word “sangaku” means “not formal” or “miscellaneous,” and included a wide variety of performing arts such as puppet shows and magic tricks.

However, in the Heian period (794-1185), sangaku underwent a metamorphosis under the influence of urban and court culture.

Instead of acrobatics and magic, which had been the signature arts of sangaku, skits that drew laughter from the audience became popular with the people. As a result, masked performing arts with masks were born, and song and dance were fused together to create a new art form, Noh.

Noh was loved by the powerful from time to time, and Hideyoshi Toyotomi and Tsunayoshi Tokugawa, the fifth shogun of the Edo Shogunate, once took the stage and danced the Noh play themselves.

In Edo Castle, the shogun’s residence, a Noh stage was set up for commemorative ceremonies and for the townspeople to enjoy.

Noh has its roots in China, but by the time it was handed down to the present day, it had undergone so many influences that it had to be stripped of its superfluous elements to reach its current state of perfection.

Incidentally, Noh is one of the oldest performing arts in the world and is registered as a World Intangible Cultural Heritage, a traditional culture.

Brain Link

Commonalities between Kabuki and Noh

Kabuki and Noh have not only differences but also similarities. As a rule, only men are allowed on stage in both.

Their backgrounds differ. The person who started kabuki, Izumo no Akuni, was a woman, and for a while after the “Kabuki Dance” became popular, “Onna Kabuki” imitating Akuni became popular.

Later, under a strict decree by the shogunate, it was replaced by “wakashu kabuki” performed by young boys because it was considered to be disturbing to public morals.

Incidentally, a genre painting of Izumo no Akuni performing kabuki for the first time on a Noh stage with Noh instruments still remains as a national treasure. Noh was also involved in the roots of Kabuki.

Noh has long been considered “forbidden to women” due to the need for purity and observance of taboos when praying to the gods and Buddha. However, this restriction has changed over time, with the emergence of female Noh performers.

Their stage structures are also similar, with one common feature being the “hanamichi” in Kabuki and the “hashigakari” in Noh, which is a path for the main actors to enter and exit the stage.

We have briefly explained the differences between Kabuki and Noh, but there may be some points that are difficult to understand. Here is a list of the differences between Kabuki and Noh for your reference.

List of differences between Kabuki and Noh



Period of arrival

Nara period (710-794 CE)

Edo period (1603-1868 CE)

outward appearance

Wearing Noh masks


Outlandish Costumes


classical literature

Depicting the tragedy of a historical figure

The saga of a military commander

Love of the common people, etc.


Dances to chants and musical accompaniment

Large-scale stage set-up

Contemporary Expressions

Tragic Musical


You can see that Noh and Kabuki differ in their roots, their time periods, and their content.

Although there are similarities, the themes and production methods are different, so when explaining them to others, it will be easier to understand if you focus on the differences.

Kabuki Tidbits

Before you go to see a Kabuki performance, here are some trivia you should know in advance. By learning about the costumes, the stage, and even the background of the performance, you can enjoy Kabuki even more.

Kabuki Costumes

The costumes for kabuki, which began in the Edo period, are mainly “kimonos. In addition to flashy kimonos, yukata, hanten, and other kimonos worn by ordinary people are also used.

Costumes are another point of interest when viewing the performances, as different costumes may be used when performing a realistic story based on the culture of the time or when expressing a fantastic dance.


In Kabuki, the “kumadori,” or makeup applied to the face, is as distinctive as the costumes.

Kumatori are characterized by their role in emphasizing the emotions and facial expressions of the characters, with red kumatori representing courage and justice, and blue kumatori representing ruthlessness and evil.

Brown kumadori is also used for imaginary beings such as yokai and demons.

The unique makeup, kumadori, also has a meaning, and you can enjoy Kabuki more if you pay attention to it along with the costumes.

Kumatori Link

kabuki play

It is said that there are more than 300 plays currently performed as kabuki, which can be divided into several types based on their content and origins.

There are three types of plays: “jidaimono,” which depicts incidents that occurred in the distant world of samurai and court nobles as seen by the townspeople; “sewamono,” which depicts a world more familiar to the townspeople; and “shosagoto,” which is a dance drama.

They can also be divided into three categories based on the origins and timing of the performance.

Gidayu kyogen,” in which ningyo joruri scripts are transplanted to kabuki, “pure kabuki,” which was written for the purpose of being performed as kabuki, and “shinkabuki,” which was written by people unrelated to kabuki after the mid-Meiji period (1868-1912).

When viewing kabuki, knowing which classification the performance belongs to will help you enjoy it more deeply.

Tidbits of Noh

There are also some trivia about Noh that you should know before viewing it. Three tidbits of knowledge are explained below.

Waki, a word born from Noh

In Noh, the leading actor is called “shite” and his partner is called “waki.” The term “supporting actor” often used in dramas and movies comes from “waki” in Noh.

When you watch a drama, you may say, “This person is in it again.” In Noh as well, it is often the case that an actor you have seen in a Noh theater is performing on stage in another Noh theater.

Courtesy modeled on Noh

The etiquette of the tea ceremony includes movements modeled after those of Noh.

One of the basic movements of Noh is the “toe up” walk, in which the body’s center of gravity is lowered to the middle of the back and the toes are lifted so that the heels do not lift off the ground.

In order to prevent the shite’s mask from blurring as he walks, the “surisoku” technique, which is also seen in sumo, judo, and kendo, was adopted.

This surisoku is considered truly rational and beautiful when moving in kimono, and is also incorporated into the etiquette of the tea ceremony. It is surprising that there is a correlation between Noh, a traditional art form, and the tea ceremony.

A bridge to another world, a “bridging”.

The Noh stage has a bridge called Hashigakari between it and Kagami-no-Ma, which is also a dressing room. This bridge is sometimes used as an extension of the main stage, and performances are also held on the bridge.
The bridge that the Noh performer walks from the Kagami-no-Ma (mirror room), the human world, to the “Honbutai (main stage),” another world, is said to be a bridge between the other world and this world. Hashigakari plays a very important role in Noh, which is mainly concerned with the world of the dead and the regret of the dead.

Similarities of Vocalization in Kabuki and Noh

Kabuki and Noh have a unique way of delivering lines, and some people may not understand what is being said.
It is not that the old Japanese pronunciation was unique, but because the stage was outdoors.
It is believed that the lack of microphones and other sound equipment at that time led to the unique way of saying lines in order to make them reach farther.
It is also similar to the vocalization method of singing, and it is believed that opera used to be performed outdoors, which is why the unique singing style took root.
Knowing the situation in the past, we can enjoy Kabuki and Noh more deeply today.


This article has explained the differences and similarities between Kabuki and Noh.

Kabuki is constantly evolving, while Noh has cut unnecessary expressions to the utmost limit and continues to preserve its completed form.

Both are traditional performing arts that Japan is proud of, so it is a good idea to know the difference between them and be able to explain them to others.

Motenas Japan also conducted a survey on traditional Japanese culture. If you are interested in learning more about traditional culture, please refer to this article.

Survey article link

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