5 Tips For Explaining Traditional Japanese Arts in English


If you want to introduce an international customer to traditional Japanese arts, it doesn’t matter how good the artist or stage you book is, if your customer doesn’t know anything about Japanese culture beforehand, it’s going to cut their enjoyment in half.

It’s often overlooked, but the problem of communicating the important points to your audience seems like a pretty big one, doesn’t it?

There’s a big difference between an everyday business interpreter and an interpreter who can fully explain traditional arts. In this article, I’d like to discuss translating traditional Japanese arts into English.

Difficulties of Explaining Traditional Japanese Arts in English

Traditional Japanese arts are skills and arts that have been passed on from ancient times.

You could divide them into several categories: poetry, dance, theatre, music, performing arts, handicrafts, and ceremonial arts.

As introductions to Japanese culture, these traditional arts are very popular.

When you think of Japanese arts that are popular overseas, here are a few that might come to mind:

– Poetry: Haiku

– Dance: Kagura (Shinto dance), Gagaku (Court dance), Sarugaku (monkey dance)

– Theatre: Kabuki, Noh, Kyogen (farce), Puppet shows

– Music: Traditional music (samisen, koto, etc), Songs, Jourori (dramatic recital)

– Performing Arts: Rakugo (comedy), Rokyoku (storytelling)

– Handicrafts: Engraving, Lacquerware, Pottery

– Ceremonial Arts: Tea ceremony, Incense ceremony, Martial arts, Calligraphy, Ikebana (flower arrangement)

It feels like even trying to list all these requires a certain amount of specialized knowledge.

Each traditional Japanese art has a deep history, and even today, the techniques continue to be polished and refined.

However, because of this deep history and their uniqueness to Japan, it would be a waste to only come away with a vague appreciation of them.

If they know the background and culture, customers from overseas will better be able to understand and appreciate the art being performed in front of them.

What’s most important is the ability to communicate clearly to the customer what they are witnessing, without losing any of the essence of the traditional art.

Traditional Japanese plays are performed using Classical Japanese, and the historical backdrop is very different from the modern day.

Also, translating into other Asian languages with a similar culture, such as Chinese and Korean, is very different from translating into English. The interpreter has to take this all into account.

So, international customers will probably ask a lot of questions so they can feel like they understand all these various living arts and performances.

Your interpreter will need to be prepared to offer satisfying answers for questions from all sorts of perspectives.

You will be searching for someone with a different skill set than normal, everyday business interpreting.

So, what should you be looking out for? Let’s think.

Communicating the Essence is Vital

Please refer to below article if you are interested in Japan Traditional Experience

Traditional Japanese Arts and Nine Opportunities to Experience in Tokyo

If you or I went to Europe without any prior knowledge and wandered into a high-class performance like a ballet or an opera being put on in its native country, it would feel like a wasted opportunity.

However, if we had someone with us to explain the ballet or opera to us in Japanese, even without understanding the original language, we could enjoy the show fully.

In the same way, watching a traditional Japanese art in its birthplace of Japan gives off a distinctly Japanese impression. It’s exotic.

However, if that exotic feeling is all you get, then there’s so much more that you’re missing out on.

In order to give someone a full taste of the extraordinary atmosphere of traditional Japanese arts, explaining the essence is the most important part.

A detailed, fitting explanation or history can act as a doorway to appreciating the true essence of the art.

In order to get an in-depth understanding, a combination of knowledge and first-hand experience is necessary.

That first-hand experience comes from visiting Japan and watching the successors of these arts perform right in front of your eyes. Now that’s a true experience.

However, this experience won’t truly move you unless they can follow the signposts provided by the interpreter.

If you can open this doorway, and then provide your customer with the first-hand experience of an authentic art, this will leave a lasting impression.

5 Pointers for Explaining in English

So, when trying to explain traditional Japanese arts in English, what should you be careful of?

Here are five pointers to think about.

1. Explain the Terminology Beforehand

Because of their deep history, traditional Japanese arts carry with them a lot of technical terminology.

You should look into preparing a summary of the experience as well as researching any technical terms of whatever art you are going to be appreciating.

Then, it’s best to write the technical terms in a list app so you can memorize them.

That way, you will be able to answer your customers’ questions quickly off the top of your head.

2. Explain the Historical Background Beforehand

Traditional Japanese arts come from various historical backgrounds.

These arts are built on the foundations of the time period, so you cannot avoid explaining the historical backdrop.

Japanese students gain a general understanding of Japanese history through childhood education, but people from outside of Japan will have no idea unless they have looked into it themselves.

Try to find time periods in their country’s history that parallel whichever Japanese era you are discussing. Comparing it or relating it with something they know will make it a lot easier to understand.

If you can explain the relationship between the art and its historical background, it will help your customer gain a closer understanding.

3. Noh and Kabuki are Difficult Even for Japanese Speakers

In Noh or Kyogen, you won’t understand the meaning of the masks or the nature of the characters (whether they are human, spirit, etc.) unless you know the meaning of the set dressings.

The atmosphere itself is somewhat moving, but after all the effort of treating your guest to this entertainment, you want them to come away with a deeper understanding.

So, taking care to translate the contemporary language of the play into English is an aspect of hospitality.

For Kabuki and Jourori, knowledge and observation of the historical setting are vital.

The nature of the Edo Period, the personalities who inhabited it, and the idea of forbidden love between social ranks, while easily understandable to modern Japanese theatre-goers, might require some explanation to others.

It will be much easier for English speakers to understand what’s going on if you can explain the historical background, which they probably have little familiarity with.

When it comes to Japanese performing arts, the amount of research you do beforehand can drastically affect how much fun you have.

4. Rely on Colleagues Who Have Lived Abroad

If you have colleagues who have lived outside of Japan, their support can be of great help. Taking advantage of this opportunity can help you form a stronger bond with your customer.

Japanese people who have lived abroad will understand the everyday life and language of the country they lived in. More than just their knowledge of the language, their first-hand experience of using it in its native setting will make them great interpreters.

Their knowledge of idiomatic expressions and cultural touchstones will help them provide clear explanations for your guests.

5 If You’re Lost, Find an Interpreter With Plenty of Experience

If it turns out that you can’t find anybody close with enough detailed knowledge of the traditional art, don’t hesitate to call on a professional.

If you do, it’s best to find someone who has background knowledge of the art, knows the terminology, and has experience interpreting for cultural events.

There is a large difference between everyday interpreting, and interpreting for special events or subjects.

Before and after the performance, the interpreter will have to field all sorts of questions.

If their knowledge isn’t up to snuff, if they can’t find the right translation of a certain term, or if they don’t have the right technique for explaining history and culture, then your customer is going to have a frustrating experience.

But if the interpreter can provide satisfying answers to all their queries, your customer will truly appreciate the traditional arts of Japan, and they will go home satisfied.


When you have VIP customers, treating them to an experience of traditional Japanese arts is a great plan.

However, no matter how great the performance is, if your customer doesn’t understand what’s happening, they’re only getting half the experience.

The help of a skilled interpreter will allow them to fully discern the quality of the performance as they watch. So, meeting with an interpreter for a thorough explanation beforehand is essential.

It feels great to be able to communicate the essence of Japanese traditional arts to an important guest.