“Japanese Traditional Performing Arts”: Introduction to 6 Categories of Traditional Japanese Cultural Performing Arts and Key Points to Highlight When Introducing Them to Foreigners!

Mayumi Folio
Mayumi Folio

From ancient times, Japanese traditional arts and techniques have been inherited and passed down to us, and they still evoke a sense of Japanese spirit in various scenes today.

Japanese traditional arts refer to a wide range of arts that have been handed down in Japan, with more than 50 types of traditional arts.

It is a unique artistic system that originated from Japanese history and culture, such as seasonal landscapes and religious rituals.

However, even Japanese people may not know much about Japanese traditional arts.

In this article, we will introduce an easy-to-understand overview of the charm of Japanese traditional arts, which are also attracting attention from overseas.

・What is Japanese traditional performing arts?

・What kinds of traditional performing arts are there in Japan?

・I want to learn more about Japanese traditional performing arts.

We will explain the overview of Japanese traditional performing arts in an easy-to-read manner, focusing on the contents mentioned above.

Please read this article and become more familiar with Japanese traditional performing arts.

What is Japanese traditional performing arts?

About Japanese Traditional Performing Arts

“Geinou” refers to skills and techniques that are expressed through physical movement, learned through practice and training. It includes not only theater and music but also tea ceremony, crafts, martial arts, and more.

Japanese traditional performing arts refer to “art and skills that have been passed down in Japan since ancient times” and are mainly based on cultures that were matured before the Meiji era.

Japanese traditional performing arts include not only stage arts such as Kabuki and Noh, but also fireworks, paper cutting, and “do” practices such as tea ceremony and Judo.

However, after World War II, there was a period in which Japan’s traditional culture was not highly valued, and there were fewer opportunities to encounter traditional performing arts in Japanese society.

Also, it can be difficult to understand traditional performing arts without considering their historical background, which led to the perception that they were enjoyed only by a few experts and cultured individuals.

As a result, many traditional performing arts lost their successors and became extinct.

In modern times, there is a tendency for the Japanese people as a whole to rediscover nationalism, and traditional performing arts are once again receiving attention.

In addition, there is a growing trend of renewed interest in Japanese traditional performing arts from overseas, and they are being rediscovered through various inbound tourism projects.

Against this background, it is expected that Japanese traditional performing arts will regain their popularity in the future.

Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology: What are traditional performing arts and stage arts?

History of Japanese Traditional Performing Arts

Each genre of Japanese traditional performing arts has its own unique history, but it is said that most of these cultural traditions had matured and fully developed before the Meiji Restoration.

Many of these traditions have existed since the time of the Kojiki, and their techniques and philosophies have been cultivated throughout Japanese history.

When considering the origins of performing arts, it is important to understand the Japanese people’s religious beliefs. Since ancient times, the Japanese have offered food, dance, songs, and music as dedications to the gods.

The gods were believed to be special beings who rarely interacted with humans, and only descended to earth on special occasions. The Japanese people offered prayers to the gods and presented various songs, music, and dances as offerings in the hope that their wishes would be granted.

This is considered the beginning of Japanese performing arts, and there are still many regional traditions that strongly reflect this history.

Genres of Japanese traditional performing arts

Traditional Japanese performing arts can be roughly divided into six major genres, with about 50 or more specific types of performing arts.

In order to fully appreciate traditional Japanese performing arts, it is necessary to understand their historical background, and there is an interesting aspect that cannot be fully understood without such knowledge.

Despite the word “traditional,” these performing arts were considered cutting-edge high culture during their mature periods.

The six major genres of traditional Japanese performing arts are theater, Japanese dance, music, variety entertainment, martial arts, and crafts.

So, what specific types of performing arts are included in each genre? They will be introduced below.

The genres of Japanese traditional performing arts can be roughly divided into six categories, with over 50 different types said to exist.

The traditional arts require knowledge of their historical background, and there are aspects that cannot be appreciated without an understanding of that background. Although it is considered traditional now, at the time when they matured, these arts were enjoyed as sophisticated culture at the forefront of the times.

The genres include theater, Japanese dance, music, variety arts, martial arts, and crafts.

So, what types are there? Here are some examples:

演劇 (Engeki) – Theater

Noh drama, Kyogen, Kabuki, Joruri

Theater in Japan includes Noh and Kyogen, Kabuki, and Joruri puppet theater.

日本舞踊 (Nihon Buyo) – Japanese dance

Nihon buyo, Kabuki dance, Kagura

Japanese dance is a traditional art form that has been performed for centuries, featuring graceful movements and costumes.

音曲 (Ongaku) – Music

Gagaku, Traditional Japanese instruments, Joruri music, Folk songs, Kabuki music and dance

Traditional Japanese music includes Gagaku (ancient court music), Shomyo (Buddhist chanting), and traditional Japanese instruments such as the koto and shakuhachi.

演芸 (Engi)-Variety arts

Rakugo storytelling, Manzai comedy, Kumadori makeup, Juggling, Magic

Variety arts in Japan include Rakugo (comic storytelling), Manzai (comic duo performance), and magic shows.

芸道 (Geido) – Martial arts

Kendo, Judo, Karate, Kyudo

Martial arts in Japan include tea ceremony, flower arrangement, calligraphy, and martial arts.

工芸 (Kogei) – Crafts

Calligraphy, Ikebana flower arrangement, Tea ceremony, Kimono, Origami, Lacquerware, Woodworking, Pottery, Sword making

Crafts in Japan include pottery, lacquerware, textiles, and woodwork.

Recommended related article: What is Japanese traditional culture? A list of 105 genres including performing arts, crafts, festivals, and daily life with their unique features.

Overview of Categories in Japanese Traditional Performing Arts

演劇 (Engeki) – Theater

Theater is a performing art in Japanese traditional culture, and it includes Noh theater (Kyougen and Noh), Kabuki, and Joruri.

Noh theater is performed with chant and accompaniment by a small ensemble of musicians. The performers wear masks called Noh masks and their movements are stylized and simple. Noh plays generally have a high degree of sophistication.

On the other hand, Kyougen is known for its gentle humor, and some of the masks used in Kyougen have more expressive faces than Noh masks.

Kabuki plays often focus on the lives of common people in medieval Japan and explore themes of humanity, and many are comedies or sentimental plays. Kabuki performances are also known for their elaborate costumes and makeup that reflect Japanese aesthetics and have gained popularity among foreigners.

Joruri is a puppet theater that uses traditional Japanese dolls, and is also called Bunraku. The dolls are manipulated by puppeteers, and the performance is accompanied by shamisen music. Joruri is a unique form of theater in Japan that has gained attention for its distinctive style.

音曲 (Ongaku) – Music

One of the most diverse categories in Japanese traditional culture is music, where various types of music with different origins and evolution have been cultivated in Japanese culture.

Along with the unique sounds of traditional Japanese musical instruments, vocal music such as storytelling and singing also plays an important role in Japanese culture.

There are four main categories of Japanese traditional music: Gagaku (court music), traditional Japanese music, Joruri (ballad drama), and folk songs, with each category further divided into many sub-genres.

日本舞踊 (Nihon Buyo) – Japanese dance

Traditional Japanese dance includes both Kagura, which began as a way to dedicate performances to the gods, and folk dances that have been passed down through regional traditions.

Throughout history, different styles of traditional dance have influenced each other, leading to the creation of new forms of dance.

Many of these dance styles have developed from indigenous religions that have been practiced in Japan for centuries, so studying dance also provides a window into the country’s folklore.

There are 15 types of traditional dance, including Kagura, Dengaku, Gagaku, Bugaku, Sarugaku, Shira-ha, Nenbutsu-odori, Bon-odori, Kabuki-mai, Kamigata-mai, Daikoku-mai, Ebisu-mai, Maimu, and Onagori. Learning about the wide variety of these dances will give you an idea of the breadth of traditional Japanese dance.

演芸 (Engi)-Variety arts

演芸 (engei) is a general term for Japan’s popular variety show entertainment, which especially flourished with the development of the “yose” theaters during the Edo period.

Even now, the field of engei continues to evolve through media and other channels, and it can be said to be the most familiar traditional Japanese performing art to the people of Japan.

There are 13 types of engei, including “kodan” storytelling, “rakugo” comic storytelling, “naniwa-bushi” ballads, magic shows, acrobatics, “odori” dances, female impersonators, “taikagura” shrine dances, paper cutting, spinning tops, “utsushi-e” picture changing shows, and fireworks.

It is said that the reason why Japanese TV programs are different from foreign ones is also due to this tradition.

The fact that tradition continues to live on and breathe naturally while adapting to modern society is also a unique and special aspect of Japanese culture.

工芸 (Kogei) – Crafts

Traditional Japanese crafts have always attracted attention regardless of the era.

This is due to Japan’s unique aesthetic and unparalleled delicate craft techniques. There are many people who admire Japanese craftsmen and come to Japan to study.

Japanese craft techniques have developed in various ways depending on the climate and region, and the Japanese identity can be seen in the beauty of their styles.

Crafts include metalworking, lacquerware, pottery, and textiles, and people all over Japan continue to hone their skills and carry on these traditions.

芸道 (Geido) – Martial arts

“Japanese traditional arts with the suffix ‘do’ represent traditional Japanese culture. Tea ceremony, incense ceremony, flower arrangement, martial arts, calligraphy, and other traditional arts with the ‘do’ suffix are always highly regarded from overseas.

The reason for this is that these arts have their own unique practices, where the art is learned through strict training in order to master the philosophy and principles that are inherent in each art form.

Even now, there are many people who want to learn the teachings and customs of these traditional arts, and this interest is spreading not only in Japan but also worldwide.

Among foreign visitors to Japan, there has been a significant increase in the number of people who wish to experience traditional Japanese culture through cultural experiences, workshops, team-building, and other activities.”

How foreign visitors can enjoy Japanese traditional performing arts

Traditional arts x entertainment.

Tradition and entertainment.

By combining these seemingly different vectors, we can create a unique Japanese artistic stage that cannot be seen anywhere else.

At Motenas Japan, we have provided productions based on Japanese traditional arts and entertainment for many foreign companies’ celebratory and social events, VVIP receptions, and tours.

For example, Noh theater combined with entertainment. Noh has a solemn atmosphere and can express Japanese culture prominently.

However, people who are not interested in it or are watching it for the first time may be concerned that it will lack excitement in the long lecture-like performance on the stage.

In glamorous events with many people, there are time limits, and we need to enliven the venue more effectively.

Therefore, at Motenas Japan, we provide a spectacle by adding cutting-edge video and sound effects to Noh, a traditional Japanese art, as a base. It is perfect for planning a Japanese-style party, so please contact us if you are interested.

We also have a related article with more details, so it’s recommended for those who are interested.

Recommended Related Article: Luxury & VIP Hospitality, Event Planning | Examples of Unique Japanese Programs and Events

Traditional Performing Arts x Team Building / Foreigner Training”

The appeal of combining traditional culture with team building activities or foreigner training lies in the fact that foreign visitors can experience Japan’s traditional performing arts themselves.

Currently, there is a trend among foreign visitors to move from “material consumption” to “experiential consumption”. This means that people are more interested in experiencing the culture of the country they are visiting rather than buying souvenirs to take home.

At Motenas Japan, we offer a unique and exclusive VIP experience that combines traditional performing arts with team building activities or foreigner training. Our tailor-made programs include activities such as experiencing both tea ceremony and flower arrangement while wearing a luxurious kimono, or practicing karate in a Japanese garden.

Our programs have been highly praised by wealthy individuals who have enjoyed our unique experiences.

For more information, please check out our related articles:

Recommended related article::“Special Japan Experience Examples and Top 5 Recommended Workshops for Foreign Wealthy Individuals”

Traditional Performing Arts x Team Building / Foreigner Training.

The combination of traditional performing arts and team building is actually very effective for foreign employees to learn a lot.

Within Japanese culture, there are unique ideas such as the spirit of respect for others and the concept of “wabi-sabi,” which are deeply rooted in Japanese society.

By combining traditional performing arts with team building or foreign employee training, participants can naturally experience the heart of Japan.

Moreover, as an experience that can only be had in Japan, it becomes a significant memory for the employees, and they can create a stronger bond with their colleagues who share the same memories even after returning to their home country.

There is a more detailed related article available here, which is recommended for those who are interested.

Recommended Reference Article: Japanese Culture | Top 6 Recommended Workshops for Foreigner Training and Team Building: Introduction to Ikebana, Tea Ceremony, Karate, Sumo, Sushi, and Taiko!

In summary

This time, we introduced traditional Japanese performing arts.

Japanese traditional performing arts are an artistic system and a technique that has developed along with Japan’s history and culture.

They incorporate aesthetics, philosophy, thoughts, and techniques that cannot be seen in other countries.

When foreign visitors stay in Japan, they are most interested in Japanese traditional performing arts.

Therefore, it is impossible to exclude Japanese traditional performing arts from the image of Japan.

If we, as Japanese people, can enjoy Japanese traditional performing arts more, we can also provide more enjoyment for foreign visitors.

Let’s take this opportunity to enjoy Japanese traditional performing arts even more!