Noh, is a major form of classical Japanese dance-drama that has been performed since the 14th century. Developed by Kan'ami and his son Zeami, it is the oldest major theatre art that is still regularly performed today. Although the terms Noh and nōgaku are sometimes used interchangeably, nōgaku encompasses both Noh and kyōgen. Traditionally, a full nōgaku program includes five Noh plays with comedic kyōgen plays in between; an abbreviated program of two Noh plays with one kyōgen piece has become common today. Optionally, an okina play may be presented in the very beginning of nōgaku presentation.
Noh is often based on tales from traditional literature with a supernatural being transformed into human form as a hero narrating a story. Noh integrates masks, costumes and various props in a dance-based performance, requiring highly trained actors and musicians. Emotions are primarily conveyed by stylized conventional gestures while the iconic masks represent the roles such as ghosts, women, children, and the elderly. Written in late middle Japanese, the text "vividly describes the ordinary people of the twelfth to sixteenth centuries". Having a strong emphasis on tradition rather than innovation, Noh is extremely codified and regulated by the iemoto system.



The word Noh is a borrowing from Middle Chinese nong, and means "skill", "craft", or "talent", particularly in the field of performing arts in this context. The word Noh may be used alone or with gaku to form the word nōgaku. Noh is a classical tradition that is highly valued by many today. When used alone, Noh refers to the historical genre of theatre originated from sarugaku in the mid 14th century and continues to be performed today.
Noh and kyōgen "originated in the 8th century when the was transmitted from China to Japan. At the time, the term sangaku referred to various types of performance featuring acrobats, song and dance as well as comic sketches. Its subsequent adaptation to Japanese society led to its assimilation of other traditional art forms."
Various performing art elements in sangaku as well as elements of dengaku, sarugaku, shirabyōshi , gagaku, and kagura evolved into Noh and kyōgen.
Studies on genealogy of the Noh actors in 14th century indicate they were members of families specialized in performing arts; they had performed various traditional performance arts for many generations. Sociological research by Yukio Hattori reveals that the, arguably the oldest school of Noh, is a descendant of, the performer who introduced gigaku, now-extinct masked drama-dance performance, into Japan from Kudara Kingdom in 612.
Another theory by Shinhachirō Matsumoto suggests Noh originated from outcastes struggling to claim higher social status by catering to those in power, namely the new ruling samurai class of the time. The transferral of the shogunate from Kamakura to Kyoto at the beginning of Muromachi period marked the increasing power of the samurai class and strengthened the relationship between the shogunate and the court. As Noh became the shōguns favorite art form, Noh was able to become a courtly art form through this newly formed relationship. In 14th century, with strong support and patronage from shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, Zeami was able to establish Noh as the most prominent theatre art form of the time.

Kan'ami and Zeami

and his son Zeami Motokiyo brought Noh to what is essentially its present-day form during the Muromachi period. Kan'ami was a renowned actor with great versatility fulfilling roles from graceful women and 12-year-old boys to strong adult males. When Kan'ami first presented his work to 17-year-old Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, Zeami was a child actor in his play, around age 12. Yoshimitsu fell in love with Zeami and his position of favor at court caused Noh to be performed frequently for Yoshimitsu thereafter.

Tokugawa era

During the Edo period Noh continued to be aristocratic art form supported by the shōgun, the feudal lords, as well as wealthy and sophisticated commoners. While kabuki and joruri popular to the middle class focused on new and experimental entertainment, Noh strived to preserve its established high standards and historic authenticity and remained mostly unchanged throughout the era. To capture the essence of performances given by great masters, every detail in movements and positions was reproduced by others, generally resulting in an increasingly slow, ceremonial tempo over time.

Modern Noh after Meiji era

The fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868 and the formation of a new modernized government resulted in the end of financial support by the government, and the entire field of Noh experienced major financial crisis. Shortly after the Meiji Restoration both the number of Noh performers and Noh stages greatly diminished. The support from the imperial government was eventually regained partly due to Noh's appeal to foreign diplomats. The companies that remained active throughout the Meiji era also significantly broadened Noh's reach by catering to the general public, performing at theatres in major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka.
In 1957 the Japanese Government designated nōgaku as an Important Intangible Cultural Property, which affords a degree of legal protection to the tradition as well as its most accomplished practitioners. The National Noh Theatre founded by the government in 1983 stages regular performances and organizes courses to train actors in the leading roles of nōgaku. Noh was inscribed in 2008 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO as Nōgaku theatre.
Although the terms nōgaku and Noh are sometimes used interchangeably, the Japanese Government's definition of "nōgaku" theatre encompasses both Noh plays and kyōgen plays. Kyōgen is performed in between Noh plays in the same space. Compared to Noh, "kyōgen relies less on the use of masks and is derived from the humorous plays of the sangaku, as reflected in its comic dialogue."


The concept of jo-ha-kyū dictates virtually every element of Noh including compiling of a program of plays, structuring of each play, songs and dances within plays, and the basic rhythms within each Noh performance. Jo means beginning, ha means breaking, and kyū means rapid or urgent. The term originated in gagaku, ancient courtly music, to indicate gradually increasing tempo and was adopted in various Japanese traditions including Noh, tea ceremony, poetry, and flower arrangement.
Jo-ha-kyū is incorporated in traditional five-play program of Noh. The first play is jo, the second, third, and fourth plays are ha, and the fifth play is kyū. In fact, the five categories discussed below were created so that the program would represent jo-ha-kyū when one play from each category is selected and performed in order. Each play can be broken into three parts, the introduction, the development, and the conclusion. A play starts out in a slow tempo at jo, gets slightly faster at ha, then culminates in kyū.

Performers and roles

Actors begin their training as young children, traditionally at the age of three. Historically, Noh performers had been exclusively male, but daughters of established Noh actors have begun to perform professionally since the 1940s. In 2009, there were about 1200 male and 200 female professional Noh performers.


Zeami isolated nine levels or types of Noh acting from lower degrees which put emphasis on movement and violence to higher degrees which represent the opening of a flower and spiritual prowess.
In 2012, there are five extant schools of Noh acting called Kanze, Hōshō, Komparu, Kongō, and Kita schools that train shite actors. Each school has its own iemoto family that carries the name of the school and is considered the most important. The iemoto holds the power to create new plays or modify lyrics and performance modes. Waki actors are trained in the schools Takayasu, Fukuou, and Hōshō. There are two schools that train kyōgen, Ōkura and Izumi. 11 schools train instrumentalists, each school specializing in one to three instruments.
The Nohgaku Performers' Association, to which all professionals are registered, strictly protects the traditions passed down from their ancestors. However, several secret documents of the Kanze school written by Zeami, as well as materials by Konparu Zenchiku, have been diffused throughout the community of scholars of Japanese theatre.


There are four major categories of Noh performers: shite, waki, kyōgen, and hayashi.
  1. Shite. Shite is the main protagonist, or the leading role in plays. In plays where the shite appears first as a human and then as a ghost, the first role is known as the mae-shite and the later as the nochi-shite.
  2. * Shitetsure. The shite's companion. Sometimes shitetsure is abbreviated to tsure, although this term refers to both the shitetsure and the wakitsure.
  3. * Kōken are stage hands, usually one to three people.
  4. * Jiutai is the chorus, usually comprising six to eight people.
  5. Waki performs the role that is the counterpart or foil of the shite.
  6. * Wakitsure or Waki-tsure is the companion of the waki.
  7. Kyōgen perform the aikyōgen, which are interludes during plays. Kyōgen actors also perform in separate plays between individual Noh plays.
  8. Hayashi or hayashi-kata are the instrumentalists who play the four instruments used in Noh theatre: the transverse flute, hip drum or, the shoulder-drum, and the stick-drum. The flute used for noh is specifically called.
A typical Noh play always involves the chorus, the orchestra, and at least one shite and one waki actor.

Performance elements

Noh performance combines a variety of elements into a stylistic whole, with each particular element the product of generations of refinement according to the central Buddhist, Shinto, and minimalist aspects of Noh's aesthetic principles.


Noh masks are carved from blocks of Japanese cypress, and painted with natural pigments on a neutral base of glue and crunched seashell. There are approximately 450 different masks mostly based on sixty types, all of which have distinctive names. Some masks are representative and frequently used in many different plays, while some are very specific and may only be used in one or two plays. Noh masks signify the characters' gender, age, and social ranking, and by wearing masks the actors may portray youngsters, old men, female, or nonhuman characters. Only the shite, the main actor, wears a mask in most plays, even though the tsure may also wear a mask in some plays to represent female characters.
Even though the mask covers an actor's facial expressions, the use of the mask in Noh is not an abandonment of facial expressions altogether. Rather, its intent is to stylize and codify the facial expressions through the use of the mask and to stimulate the imagination of the audience. By using masks, actors are able to convey emotions in a more controlled manner through movements and body language. Some masks utilize lighting effect to convey different emotions through slight tilting of the head. Facing slightly upward, or "brightening" the mask, will let the mask to capture more light, revealing more features that appear laughing or smiling. Facing downward, or "clouding" it, will cause the mask to appear sad or mad.
Noh masks are treasured by Noh families and institution, and the powerful Noh schools hold the oldest and most valuable Noh masks in their private collections, rarely seen by the public. The most ancient mask is supposedly kept as a hidden treasure by the oldest school, the Konparu. According to the current head of the Konparu school, the mask was carved by the legendary regent Prince Shōtoku over a thousand years ago. While the historical accuracy of the legend of Prince Shōtoku's mask may be contested, the legend itself is ancient as it is first recorded in Zeami's Style and the Flower written in the 14th century. Some of the masks of the Konparu school belong to the Tokyo National Museum, and are exhibited there frequently.


The traditional Noh stage has complete openness that provides a shared experience between the performers and the audience throughout the performance. Without any proscenium or curtains to obstruct the view, the audience sees each actor even during the moments before they enter the central "stage". The theatre itself is considered symbolic and treated with reverence both by the performers and the audience.
One of the most recognizable characteristic of Noh stage is its independent roof that hangs over the stage even in indoor theatres. Supported by four columns, the roof symbolizes the sanctity of the stage, with its architectural design derived from the worship pavilion or sacred dance pavilion of Shinto shrines. The roof also unifies the theatre space and defines the stage as an architectural entity.
The pillars supporting the roof are named shitebashira, metsukebashira, wakibashira, and fuebashira, clockwise from upstage right respectively. Each pillar is associated with the performers and their actions.
The stage is made entirely of unfinished hinoki, Japanese cypress, with almost no decorative elements. The poet and novelist Tōson Shimazaki writes that "on the stage of the Noh theatre there are no sets that change with each piece. Neither is there a curtain. There is only a simple panel with a painting of a green pine tree. This creates the impression that anything that could provide any shading has been banished. To break such monotony and make something happen is no easy thing."
Another unique feature of the stage is the hashigakari, a narrow bridge at upstage right used by actors to enter the stage. Hashigakari means "suspension bridge", signifying something aerial that connects two separate worlds on a same level. The bridge symbolizes the mythic nature of Noh plays in which otherworldly ghosts and spirits frequently appear. In contrast, hanamichi in Kabuki theatres is literally a path that connects two spaces in a single world, thus has a completely different significance.


Noh actors wear silk costumes called shozoku along with wigs, hats, and props such as the fan. With striking colors, elaborate texture, and intricate weave and embroidery, Noh robes are truly works of art in their own right. Costumes for the shite in particular are extravagant, shimmering silk brocades, but are progressively less sumptuous for the tsure, the wakizure, and the aikyōgen.
For centuries, in accordance with the vision of Zeami, Noh costumes emulated the clothing that the characters would genuinely wear, such as the formal robes for a courtier and the street clothing for a peasant or commoner. But in the late sixteenth century, the costumes became stylized with certain symbolic and stylistic conventions. During the Edo period, the elaborate robes given to actors by noblemen and samurai in the Muromachi period were developed as costumes.
The musicians and chorus typically wear formal montsuki kimono accompanied by either hakama or kami-shimo, a combination of hakama and a waist-coat with exaggerated shoulders. Finally, the stage attendants are garbed in virtually unadorned black garments, much in the same way as stagehands in contemporary Western theatre.


The use of props in Noh is minimalistic and stylized. The most commonly used prop in Noh is the fan, as it is carried by all performers regardless of role. Chorus singers and musicians may carry their fan in hand when entering the stage, or carry it tucked into the obi . The fan is usually placed at the performer's side when he or she takes position, and is often not taken up again until leaving the stage. During dance sequences, the fan is typically used to represent any and all hand-held props, such as a sword, wine jug, flute, or writing brush. The fan may represent various objects over the course of a single play.
When hand props other than fans are used, they are usually introduced or retrieved by kuroko who fulfill a similar role to stage crew in contemporary theatre. Like their Western counterparts, stage attendants for Noh traditionally dress in black, but unlike in Western theatre they may appear on stage during a scene, or may remain on stage during an entire performance, in both cases in plain view of the audience. The all-black costume of kuroko implies they are not part of the action on stage and are effectively invisible.
Set pieces in Noh such as the boats, wells, altars, and bells, are typically carried onto the stage before the beginning of the act in which they are needed. These props normally are only outlines to suggest actual objects, although the great bell, a perennial exception to most Noh rules for props, is designed to conceal the actor and to allow a costume change during the kyōgen interlude.

Chant and music

Noh theatre is accompanied by a chorus and a hayashi ensemble. Noh is a chanted drama, and a few commentators have dubbed it "Japanese opera". However, the singing in Noh involves a limited tonal range, with lengthy, repetitive passages in a narrow dynamic range. Texts are poetic, relying heavily on the Japanese seven-five rhythm common to nearly all forms of Japanese poetry, with an economy of expression, and an abundance of allusion. The singing parts of Noh are called "Utai" and the speaking parts "Kataru". The music has many blank spaces in between the actual sounds, and these negative blank spaces are in fact considered the heart of the music. In addition to utai, Noh hayashi ensemble consists of four musicians, also known as the "hayashi-kata", including three drummers, which play the shime-daiko, ōtsuzumi, and kotsuzumi respectively, and a nohkan flutist.
The chant is not always performed "in character"; that is, sometimes the actor will speak lines or describe events from the perspective of another character or even a disinterested narrator. Far from breaking the rhythm of the performance, this is actually in keeping with the other-worldly feel of many Noh plays, especially in those characterized as mugen.


Of the roughly 2000 plays created for Noh that are known today, about 240 make up the current repertoire performed by the five existing Noh schools. The current repertoire is heavily influenced by the taste of aristocratic class in Tokugawa period and does not necessarily reflect popularity among the commoners. There are several ways to classify Noh plays.


All Noh plays can be classified into three broad categories.
While Genzai Noh utilizes internal and external conflicts to drive storylines and bring out emotions, Mugen Noh focuses on utilizing flashbacks of the past and the deceased to invoke emotions.

Performance style

Additionally, all Noh plays may be categorized by their style.
All Noh plays are divided by their themes into the following five categories. This classification is considered the most practical, and is still used in formal programming choices today. Traditionally, a formal 5-play program is composed of a selection from each of the groups.
  1. Kami mono or waki Noh typically feature the shite in the role of a deity to tell the mythic story of a shrine or praise a particular god. Many of them structured in two acts, the deity takes a human form in disguise in the first act and reveals the real self in the second act.
  2. Shura mono or ashura Noh takes its name from the Buddhist underworld. The protagonist appearing as a ghost of a famous samurai pleads to a monk for salvation and the drama culminates in a glorious re-enactment of the scene of his death in a full war costume.
  3. Katsura mono or onna mono depict the shite in a female role and feature some of the most refined songs and dances in all of Noh, reflecting the smooth and flowing movements representing female characters.
  4. There are about 94 "miscellaneous" plays traditionally performed in the fourth place in a five-play program. These plays include subcategories kyōran mono, onryō mono, genzai mono, as well as others.
  5. Kiri Noh or oni mono usually feature the shite in the role of monsters, goblins, or demons, and are often selected for their bright colors and fast-paced, tense finale movements. Kiri Noh is performed the last in a five-play program. There are roughly 30 plays in this category, most of which are shorter than the plays in the other categories.
In addition to the above five, Okina is frequently performed at the very beginning of the program, especially at New Year, holidays, and other special occasions. Combining dance with Shinto ritual, it is considered the oldest type of Noh play.

Famous plays

The following categorization is that of the Kanze school.
Aoi no Ue葵上Lady Aoi4
Aya no Tsuzumi綾鼓The Damask Drum4
Dōjōji道成寺Dōjō Temple4
Hagoromo羽衣The Feather Mantle3
Izutsu井筒The Well Cradle3
Matsukaze松風The Wind in the Pines3
Sekidera Komachi関寺小町Komachi at Seki Temple3
Shōjō猩々The Tippling Elf5
Sotoba Komachi卒都婆小町Komachi at the Gravepost3
Takasago高砂At Takasago1

Influence in the West

Many Western artists have been influenced by Noh.

Theatre practitioners

Zeami and Zenchiku describe a number of distinct qualities that are thought to be essential to the proper understanding of Noh as an art form.
Noh is still regularly performed today in public theatres as well as private theatres mostly located in major cities. There are more than 70 Noh theatres throughout Japan, presenting both professional and amateur productions.
Public theatres include National Noh Theatre, Nagoya Noh Theater, and Osaka Noh Theater. Each Noh school has its own permanent theatre, such as Kanze Noh Theater, Hosho Noh Theater, Kongo Noh Theater, and Nara Komparu Noh Theater. Additionally, there are various prefectural and municipal theatres located throughout Japan that present touring professional companies and local amateur companies. In some regions, unique regional Noh such as Ogisai Kurokawa Noh have developed to form schools independent from five traditional schools.

Audience etiquette

Audience etiquette is generally similar to formal western theatre—the audience quietly watches. Surtitles are not used, but some audience members follow along in the libretto. Because there are no curtains on the stage, the performance begins with the actors entering the stage and ends with their leaving the stage. The house lights are usually kept on during the performances, creating an intimate feel that provides a shared experience between the performers and the audience.
At the end of the play, the actors file out slowly, and while they are on the bridge, the audience claps restrainedly. Between actors, clapping ceases, then begins again as the next actor leaves. Unlike in western theatre, there is no bowing, nor do the actors return to the stage after having left. A play may end with the shite character leaving the stage as part of the story —rather than ending with all characters on stage—in which case one claps as the character exits.
During the interval, tea, coffee, and wagashi may be served in the lobby. In the Edo period, when Noh was a day-long affair, more substantial makunouchi' bentō were served. On special occasions, when the performance is over, お神酒 may be served in the lobby on the way out, as it happens in Shinto rituals.
The audience is seated in front of the stage, to the left side of the stage, and in the corner front-left of stage; these are in order of decreasing desirability. While the metsuke-bashira pillar obstructs the view of the stage, the actors are primarily at the corners, not the center, and thus the two aisles are located where the views of the two main actors would be obscured, ensuring a generally clear view regardless of seating.