Traditional Japanese theatre is highly unique to Japan. It takes several different forms, each a highly formalized method of storytelling with rich history and meaning.

For foreigners, traditional Japanese theater is a very intimidating prospect. Many believe the cultural and language barriers are too high to overcome, leading to a confusing, disappointing experience that takes time out of an already too-short vacation. However, Japan values this tradition so much and has sought to share it with the world that many theaters have carefully crafted experiences to be accessible to people from around the world.

Let’s take a look at the three forms of Japanese traditional theatre.

1. Kabuki

Kanamaru-za, the oldest kabuki theatre in Japan. Photo Credit: Yoshikazu TAKADA at Flickr.

Kabuki Theatre dates back to the Edo period. It’s an elaborate art. Every performance is as much about the details of the production as the story itself. The costumes, wigs, and exaggerated highly-stylized actions of the actors all work to help tell the story, which is helpful because Kabuki Theatre uses an archaic form of Japanese that even native speakers can struggle to understand.

The stage is highly dynamic, full of trap doors and revolving sets to allow scenes to change or actors to quickly appear or disappear. The performance is accompanied by live music with traditional instruments. You should expect to see a footbridge that leads through the audience to increase the drama.

Fuji Musume (Wisteria Maiden) is a famous classical Kabuki dance. Photo Credit: cheran at Flickr.

Kabuki theatre usually tells stories based on history, kind-hearted dramas, moral tales, love stories, or tragedies. Usually, a single performance only tells a part of the story, often the best parts, so visitors may want to familiarize themselves with the overall story to better understand the performance. Some theaters will rent English translations on headsets to help facilitate understanding.

Kabuki is steeped in tradition. Due to restrictions placed in the late Edo period, kabuki usually has an all-male cast. You’ll see stagehands, or kurogo, dressed all in black assisting the actors. They are not a part of the story and are treated as non-existent. If the audience starts shouting names at actors, understand that this is actually a sign of support, as these are the hereditary stage names of the actors (yago).

Kabukiza theatre in Ginza, Tokyo. Photo Credit: Yoshikazu TAKADA at Flickr.

While kabuki shows are not formal events, it is a good idea to arrive dressed nicely and in appropriate footwear. On the first day of a run or occasionally at other times, women may arrive in a traditional kimono.

An excellent place to see a kabuki performance is Kabukiza Theatre. It has been an icon of Ginza in Tokyo since 1889. It has been destroyed several times and rebuilt often. Performances are held here on most days. The theatre sells single act tickets for those unsure if they want to attend a full performance. You can also visit the Kabukiza Gallery, where you can see kabuki costumes and other exhibits.

Built in 1835, the oldest Kabuki theatre in Japan is The Konpira Grand Theatre also known as Kanamaru-za, located in Kotohira town of Kagawa Prefecture on the island of Shikoku.

2. Noh

Noh stage of Nishi Honganji Temple, Kyoto. Photo Credit: Hideyuki KAMON at Flickr.

Noh originated in the 14th Over time and due to governmental influence, it became high standardized, with an emphasis on tradition. Five main troupes perform noh, all of them dating back centuries.

Noh is structured around song and dance. Movements are slow. Everything about noh theatre is rich, heavy, and poetic. Many of the stories are tied to history and literature and often dream, ghosts, and spirits feature prominently. All performers are male. The play is accompanied by traditional instruments played live.

Noh Masks! Photo Credit: sigusr0 at Flickr.

One of the key elements of noh is the masks that tell viewers what kind of character is being played by those who wear them. These masks are carved from a block of Japanese cypress. Fans are often used as props, standing in for a variety of other tools.

Noh is performed on an open square stage with a roof supported by four corner pillars. The only closed side is the back where there is a painted image of a pine tree. A bridge at an angle gives performers away on and off stage. Often, noh is staged outdoors, but indoor performances are increasingly common.

An excellent place to see a performance is the National Noh theater. It has a 400-year-old cypress stage. Performances occur all year long. Visitors can view English subtitles with the push of a button at their seats.

3. Bunraku

A Bunraku performance in Kyoto. Photo Credit: John Carkeet at Flickr.

Bunraku is the traditional puppet theatre of Japan. It began as entertainment for commoners in Osaka in the Edo period and grew more artistic until it took its current form in the late 17h century. The wonderfully crafted puppets are half life-size and are operated by three performers: a primary and two assistants. The result is surprisingly lifelike motions and even expressions. At a bunraku performance, you will see the puppeteers, but they are dressed all in black to show they are invisible.

The story of a bunraku performance is narrated all by one person who must be very gifted in manipulating their voice to perform the parts of a diverse cast.  The accompanying music determines the pace. The stories are based on classic love stories, heroic legends, and historical events. It’s amazing to see the puppets come to life in time with the narration and the music.

You can enjoy a bunraku performance at the National Theatre. All forms of traditional Japanese theatre can be found here. Bunraku performances are not held daily, but they are frequent. There are regular English-language performances. There is also a free museum attached that allows you to view the elaborate costumes, props, and puppets up close.

You can also see a bunraku performance at the National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka. Osaka is the home of bunraku and is dedicated to the art. English programs and headphones are available. Performances are often held in three week runs in January, April, June, July, August, and November.