Japan Culture: The Masked Dance Drama, Noh

Noh is one of the oldest forms of dance theatre not just in Japan but in the world. Its most notable characteristic, the Noh mask, can look creepy to some but learning more about the art of Noh, its history, and where to enjoy this long surviving dance drama can lead to greater appreciation.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Knowing and Witnessing Noh
  3. Noh Theaters in Japan
  4. Summary


History of Noh

Noh (能) is derived from the word 能力, meaning ability or talent. It can be said then that Noh theatre is about enjoying talent. Noh descended from the ancient form of theatre arts, Sangaku, which came from China.

Noh’s origins can be traced back to the Nara Period when Sangaku first came to Japan. It gradually developed until the 8th century when Sangaku had two forms: Gagaku which was presented to royalty and nobles, and Sarugaku (monkey music - zodiac monkey god) which was performed in Shinto shrines due to its ties to God. More time passed until the Muromachi period, when the word Noh started to be used along with its 2 categories, Dengaku Noh and Sarugaku Noh. Dengaku or field music had Korean influence and was associated with farming and harvest season whereas Sarugaku Noh was a cleaned up version of Sangaku which had explicit themes. 

Dengaku Noh and Sarugaku Noh were split into 2 factions. Noh troupes started to appear with 4 big players; Yusaki-za, Sakado-za, Tobi-za, and Enmai-za which founded the 4 oldest schools of Noh that exist till today but known by different names. Kan'ami Kiyotsugu was the founder of Yusaki-za and a pioneer of Noh himself, bringing together the 2 forms of Noh - combination of Sarugaku Noh's kusemai dance and Dengaku's music and dance. He also incorporated classical stories like the Tale of Genji into Noh. He received strong support from Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu who was his patron. 

※ Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., "Noh theatre"
※ Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., “Kan’ami”
※ The NOH, "Introducing the world of Noh"

Present Day Noh by Zeami

Zeami was the son of Kan’ami. As stated on Britannica, 

He and his father, Kan’ami (1333–84), were the creators of the Noh drama in its present form”.  

Though Kan’ami created the new form of Noh, his son perfected it and this has been the Noh we enjoy till today. It is said that Zeami has written around 100 Noh plays. That’s an impressive amount considering there are only 200 or so Noh plays. He also wrote the Fushi Kaden, a manual or theory of Noh for his students which has become the guideline for Noh. Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu was also a huge fan and patron of his. In fact, during Zeami’s younger days, the Shogun and him had a physical relationship which was considered normal in those days. 

※ Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., “Kan’ami”
※ The NOH, “The Words of Zeami, His Dramatic Life

Crisis of Noh

Oda Nobunaga and Hideyoshi Toyotomi were also huge fans of Noh. Hideyoshi Toyotomi himself was a Noh performer, and Oda Nobunaga was fond of quoting Noh lines. It was such a huge deal that Tokugawa Hidetada made it law that Noh and Kyogen were official art forms of the Shogunate. 

Despite its stability in society back then, Noh faced a crisis when Japan entered the Meiji period. Other forms of entertainment became available and Noh lost its spark. In the end, Noh and Kyogen were merged into Nohgaku. 

International Recognition

In an effort to raise awareness and protect the dying culture, UNESCO proclaimed Noh as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001.

※ UNESCO Intangible Heritage, “Nogaku Theatre

Influence of Buddhism 

Due to its Chinese origins, Sangaku which Noh descended from brought with it Buddhist influence which flowed over to Noh. The advent of Buddhism in Japan which would later influence Shintoism also influenced Noh with its sacred dances and rituals. 

Knowing and Witnessing Noh

Noh has pretty strict rules, with a fixed theme, plot, and performer set-up. Let’s learn about what makes a Nohgaku a Nohgaku.

Characteristics of Nohgaku

The characteristics of Nohgaku are as follows:

  • Simplicity: A simple stage is used with minimal props.

  • Noh Mask: The most identifying characteristic of Noh.

  • Duration: A single play can last from 30 minutes to 2 hours. 

  • Contents: A play consists of 2 scenes. The dialogue is either sung verses or chanted in prose. The play typically ends with a dance performance.


In olden days when Noh was court entertainment, a set of Noh plays consisting of all 5 types of Noh theatre could take up to 8 hours.

Five Types of Noh

There are five types of Noh Plays: 

  • Kami about Shinto shrines and their gods.

  • Shura about warriors.

  • Katsura about women or beautiful deities. 

  • Kyojo about a mad or insane woman who holds grudges and wants to take revenge.

  • Kirino about demons or some supernatural creature.

Plot and Theme of Noh

Since Noh is rooted with religion, it incorporates Shintoism and Buddhism ideas into its stories, particularly nature from Shinto, and life and desire from Buddhism. Noh plays mainly feature supernatural elements, like gods, demons, and ghosts.

Unlike most plays, Noh does not focus on dialogue to portray emotions. Rather, it focuses on the mood, atmosphere and dance allowing the audience to interpret the performer’s actions and emotions. This is also where the mask comes into play.

Noh Mask

The most identifying characteristic of Noh, a Noh mask is a necessity for any Noh play. Carved from wood, a Noh mask may seem expressionless, or perhaps to those unfamiliar, frightening. Performers use a variety of methods to bring the mask to life, with their body, face angle & orientation, and the stage lighting.

There are around 200 different kinds of Noh masks that can be divided into 6 categories:

  • Okina - Old man

  • Jou - Elder

  • Otoko - Man

  • Onna - Woman

  • Kishin - Demon

  • Onryou - Ghost/Spirit

※ The Noh, “Noh Masks Database”
※ CNN, “Capturing the hidden emotions of Japanese Noh masks

Founder of International Noh Institute, the late Michishige Udaka who is also a Noh actor and mask carver presents his love of Noh in the below video. Have a look at this inspiring artist and be awed at how he brings the character to life.

※ Youtube, Fallout Media, “The Spirit of Noh 能' - Oldest surviving form of theater in the world

Noh Performers

There are 2 major roles in a Noh performance. Indeed, there are Noh plays that have only these 2 characters.

  • Shite
    The protagonist, usually the only one to wear a Noh mask. The Shite may portray 2 characters in a play, and may appear with and without a mask in the same play. Commonly portrays the supernatural.

  • Waki 
    The secondary character. An important role to help the Shite shine. The waki never wears a mask and is always part of the living.

Other roles in Noh include:

  • Tsure: A side character that usually accompanies the Shite or Waki. 

  • Kokata: A role designed for children. 

  • Hayashi: The musicians dressed in samurai outfits sit at the back of the stage and play the instruments - flute and assortment of drums. 

  • Utai: The vocals that sing or chorus in tandem with Hayashi. They sit on the right side of the stage.

Noh Theaters in Japan

Interested in watching a Noh performance, here are some Noh Theatres you can visit:

National Noh Theatre 

The National Noh Theatre opened its doors in 1983. With 627 subtitle system enabled seats, it is located in Tokyo at Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku. Aside from regular Noh performances, the theatre also holds open lectures about Nohgaku, has an exhibition hall where you can learn about Noh, an audio-visual corner, and a Noh library.

You can also enjoy outdoor Noh performances. Sometimes, these are made free to the public.

※ Japan Arts Council, "National Noh Theatre"

Yokohama Noh Theatre

Located in Yokohama City, Kanagawa, the Yokohama Noh Theatre is Kanto’s oldest Noh stage. It is a designated Cultural Property of Yokohama City. On days when there are no performances, visitors can view the stage from the 2nd floor. The stage is unique for the plum blossoms depicted on its kagamiita (back wall) in place of the conventional pine tree. To know more about the history of this theatre, visit this website.

NOTE: Tickets range from 2,200 yen to 4,500yen. You can book tickets online or by phone.

Yokohama Noh Theater

Nagoya Noh Theatre

The biggest Noh theatre in the world, Nagoya Noh Theatre is located in Nagoya City, Aichi-ken. Its stage is built from Hinoki (Japanese cypress) wood and is highly praised for its beautiful architecture. Like Yokohama’s Noh Theatre, the stage is open for viewing when no performances are being held. Noh performances at Nagoya Noh Theatre are usually held monthly. The area is also used for conferences, other performing arts, and even weddings.

※ Nagoya City Cultural Promotion Agency, "Nagoya Nogakudo"
※ Nagoya Convention & Visitors Bureau, “Nagoya Noh Theatre

Yarai Noh Theatre

This is the second oldest Noh theatre in Shinjuku located in Yarai-cho. This theatre was rebuilt in September 1952 and is currently considered as a Tangible Cultural Property of Japan. You can watch the Kansei Kyukokai (観世九皐会) troupe perform Nohgaku here every second Sunday of the month.

Yarai Noh Theatre

Kanze Noh Theatre

Located on Floor B3 of Ginza Six shopping mall in Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo. Kanze Noh Theatre is opened by the Kanze School of Noh. You can watch the Kanzekai (観世会) troupe perform Nohgaku here every first Sunday of the month except in April and October.

Kanze Noh theater

Suginami Noh Theatre

Suginami Noh Theatre is the second oldest Noh theater in Tokyo. It is located at Wada, Suginami-ku. The theatre has been a National Cultural Property of Japan since 2012. In 1878, the stage was inherited by Yamamoto Tojiro I who subsequently passed it down to Yamamoto Tojiro IV, a great Kyogen actor. In 2012, Yamamoto Tojiro IV was designated a living national treasure of Japan. The Yamamotokai (山本会) troupe here upholds the Okura style Kyogen passed down by generations of Yamamoto.

Suginami Noh Theatre

Toyota City Concert Hall Noh Theatre

Located in Toyota City, Aichi-ken is the Toyota City Concert Hall’s Noh Theatre. The concert hall is mainly for classical music performances, whilst the Noh Theatre is dedicated to Noh performances. Located on the 8th floor, the Noh theatre has 458 seats. Its stage is made from Hinoki. Aside from Noh, other performance arts like Kyogen, Japanese dance, and Japanese traditional instrument music performances are held here.

Toyota City Concert Hall Noh Theatre

For other Noh Theatres around Japan, visit The Noh’s Theatre Map.


Noh is an important cultural asset not just to Japan but the whole world. Help the world, not just as a tourist but as a lover of culture to revive this beautiful form of art. Watch Nohgaku, enjoy it, learn about it and tell your friends, maybe drop a donation or two. Simply doing so is a huge contribution in itself. For all you know, you may even come to love it.

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