May 13, 2018

By Sayaka Terasaki, Mai Takezawa, and Kanako Wakamatsu


There are a lot of arts in the world, of course, Japan has many art forms too.  One of them is performing arts, for example, Kabuki, Kyogen, and Noh. All of them are traditional arts and Japanese people cherish and are proud of these arts. Today, we would like to introduce you to Noh, especially Noh-men, which is a type of mask used in Noh. We are going to introduce the topic, Noh-men divided in these 4 topics.

1. What is Noh-men?

2. What is Noh?

3. History of Noh (Noh-men)

4. Kinds of Noh-men


What is Noh-men?

Noh-men is a mask that is used in a kind of play that is called Noh. It is said that the mask, Noh-men, was born in the middle of Muromachi Era (1338~1573). The mask, Noh-men, has many variations, and it is said that there are over 200 kinds of Noh-men today. People wear Noh-men and perform a play, Noh. Most Noh-men are created to be a smaller size than people’s face, so the audience can see Noh players’ chins under the Noh-men. However, this is the intended size. In addition, the eye holes of the Noh-men are very small. Because of this, it is very difficult for Noh-player with the mask to see clearly, so that they sometimes even they lose their bearings on the stage. In general, Noh-men has a fixed expression. It is very difficult to perform and act a play with the expressionless mask. However, Noh players can make expressions with the Noh-men. The way of making expressions with Noh-men is moving their face. If people want to express happy feeling, they raise their face up. The Noh-player shows that they are likely smiling to the audience. It is called teruin Japanese, and it means bright or shining. On the contrary, if people want to express a sad feeling, they hang their face down. They show that they are likely crying to the audience. It is called kumoru in Japanese, and it means cloud or depression.


What is Noh?

​ There are many surviving Japanese traditional performing arts such as kabukinoh-gaku and so on. Noh plays are often performed with comedic kyogen plays.  Together these performances are called Noh-gaku. Noh is a drama with stylized singing and dancing. The main theme of Noh is mostly about occult, but it is said that it is very elegant. One of the characteristic points of Noh is the scale of stage. Compared with Kabuki or a modern play, Noh does not have large sets and properties. Also, there are no curtains between stage and auditorium. The stage of Noh is wide open and simple. There are more than 240 programs which are still performed in Noh stage. Recently, some performers of Noh tried to make new program of Noh.

Noh Theater

History of Noh

​It is said the Noh came from China. Before the Edo Period, (1603 – 1868) it was called Saru-gaku. In the Heian Period (754 – 1185), Saru-gaku was mixture of mimicry and skit. It was often danced by farmers to celebrate a rich harvest. In the Muromachi Period (1333 – 1568), some nobles liked the dance of Noh, then it became sublime culture. In the Meiji Period, one famous theater, the Noh-gakudsha was built in the Shiba park where in Tokyo. At around the same time this was built, people started to call this performing art, “Noh”. That theater was called the symbol of Noh and many famous people, such as the empress, visited this stage to watch Noh. In the end of the 14th century, two prodigy performers Kan-ami and Ze-ami emerged. Kan-ami and Ze-ami were father and son. The father, Kan-ami made the new style of Noh, which was a mixture of traditional Noh and a rhythm like rap music. It was pretty novel at that period. The son, Ze-ami changed the refined the impression of Noh to a more formal style. Before Ze-ami changed the impression of Noh, it was very casual, because the interest of story was main point of Noh. But he changed the main point to music and dance. Noh was one of the means to entertain nobles, but on the other hand, it has an important role for charming and oblationa for gods. Noh-gaku was registrated as a World Intangible Heritage in 2008.

Kinds of Noh-men

Next, I’ll explain kinds of Noh-men. It is said that there are approximately 250 kinds of Noh-men in total and its basic shape is approximately 60 kinds. Hon-men were masks made from the Muromachi Era to the Azuchi-momoyamaEra (1573 – 1600).  People began making Noh-men by imitating the form of Hon-men which was the original menor mask.


Each family danced a Noh dance as a mark that gave a heart of the submission in  Yamato Imperial Court.  At that time, the leader of a family recited poetry. This custom is considered to be the source of the Okina dance. The Okina mask was made for it. It is said that Okina is oldest mask in Noh-men.


Onna-men was based on masks from the mask in Nara(dates) and Heian Era. It can express all the feelings of humans in Nogaku theatre with just one mask. There are 3 types of men.  One is shown as a young, beautiful woman who rose in dignity.  Another is a young girl with the common touch. The third is expressed the middle-aged woman who rose in dignity.


It expresses the elegant aspect of a young, aristocratic-looking man and children of the Heike.


It expresses an old man’s face.


It was made in early times and it expresses the supernatural, including an ogre and the long-nosed goblin.


It expresses a departed soul. These souls have regretful feelings in the world. Ayakashi, which represents a military commander and looks like a scraggy man and a frog represents the soul of man. Mountain witch and Deigan with the eyes lined with gold paint represents the soul of woman.


Noh has continued to be performed, until modern times, since the middle of the Muromachi Era (1338-1573) Although it has a long history, it has been changed little by little. Japanese people value this tradition and will pass down it to posterity. That’s why still exists in our culture.

We can watch Noh for a reasonable price, about 2000 yen to 4000 yen in Japan. A Noh play lasts about two and a half hours.  Although it is a traditional art, there is no dress code for people attending the play, and even casual wear is not any problem at all. Even a T-shirt and jeans is all right. We hope that you have a chance to watch a Noh play and to see Noh-men once.

The Noh Stage

For people who want to see Noh
by Megumi Matsumura

What is Noh?

Noh is a traditional form of Japanese theater. In some ways Noh is similar to a Western musical or opera, but in other ways it is completely different. Noh actors do not display large and dramatic actions. They wear masks and act through their body, using very minimal and subtle gestures and movements. For people who experience Noh for the first time, the Noh stage may appear to be a very silent world.

Noh plays use two types of sounds. One is called utai: these are Noh songs sung by a male chorus in low and slow voices. The other type of sound is called hayashi: this is the background music for each scene in a play. Both of these sounds are very important to express the mood of a scene or a character’s emotion. Noh music is played with taiko, (traditional hand drums and shoulder drums) and fue (flutes) by musicians (hayash-kata) who sit to one side of the stage. Plays are performed on a simple square stage made of Japanese cypress. There is always a painting of a pine tree on the back wall of the stage.

When was Noh established?

Noh was established in the Muromachi period (1336-1573) by Kan’ami and his son, Zeami. When Zeami (also known as Kanze Motokiyo) was only twelve years old he seemed to be a child prodigy. He was good-looking and had a sense for the Noh stage. One day, he acted in a sarugaku (a kind of folk play that included skits and impersonations) in the garden of Imakumano Shrine in Kyoto. The Shogun at the time, Yoshimitsu Ashikaga (1358-1408), who was famous for building Kinkaku-ji Temple, saw Zeami perform in this skit. Yoshimitsu enjoyed his acting so much that he helped Zeami to establish Noh drama, which mixed sarugaku and dengaku (a kind of harvest dancing). Together they added new things to Noh. One of them was the concept of yugen — a deep and profound flavor or beauty that cannot be expressed in words. Much culture was developed during Yoshimitsu’s rule and this culture became known as Kitayama Culture.

How many Noh stories are there?

There are many kinds of Noh plays: romances, fantasies, ghosts stories, tales of jealousy, adventures, and so on. I will introduce three stories that take place in Kyoto.


One day, a monk from an eastern country in Japan arrived at the Kyoto landmark of Rokujo Kawara-in. He met an old man there who shouldered a tub that was full of seawater. The monk had heard that in olden times the Minister of the Left, Mimamotono Tooru, had made a pond of seawater. Mimamotono had enjoyed drinking on the pond. The old man left the monk to go skim seawater from the old pond again. When the monk waited for the old man to return, the ghost of Mimamotono Tooru appeared before him. Tooru danced an elegant dance, (known as mai ), under the moonlight. At the end of the dance, the ghost disappeared into the moonlight. You can enjoy a mysterious and elegant world in this play.


Once upon a time, Munechika Sanjo lived in Kyoto. He was a very famous and excellent blacksmith. The Emperor ordered a great sword to be made by him. Unfortunately at that time, Munechika did not have a good assistant to help him make the sword. When a blacksmith makes a sword, he needs a skillful partner to assist him.* So Munechika prayed to the god Inarimyoujin. Suddenly, a messenger from the god —a fox—appeared with a sledgehammer. The fox helped Munechika forge a great sword.

*In the art of sword-making, both the blacksmith and his assistant are referred to as “aiuchiwoutsu” . This word means to “nod” in modern Japanese.


Once, there was couple who had just divorced. The cause of thier separation was an affair committed by the husband, so his ex-wife held a deep grudge against him. She prayed to the god Kifune to take revenge on him. Kifune sent her a message that said she could become a demon and wreak vengeance on her husband if she wore a red kimono, made up her face with red, wore a kanawa (an iron ring) upside down on her head with lit candles on its three legs, and had a strong rage against him.

Meanwhile, her husband was having bad dreams every night, so he asked Seimei Abeno, who was the one of the greatest healers in Japanese history, for a divination about himself. When Seimei purified the evil within him, the wife appeared as a wraith and tried to kill her ex-husband. But she could not overcome Seimei’s magical powers and went away.

Why do actors wear masks?

The masks that are used by Noh actors are passed down from generation to generation. To act with a mask is perhaps a means to elevate an actor’s mind. If you put a mask on your face, your vision narrows. Actors cannot see where they step. Noh actors have especially strict training, but they try to make their audience unaware of their hardships. Actors feel the mind of the character they play when they don a Noh mask. The masks are simple and made of wood. Different masks represent the different characters in Noh plays.

Places to see Noh

There are many Noh theaters in Kyoto. Here are a few with directions on how to find them.

Kongo Noh Gaku-dou
〒602-0912 Kyoto City, Kamigyoku, Karasuma Street, Ichijo-kudaru
TEL: 075(441)-7222
Nearest station: Imadegawa Station on the Karasuma line (subway)
Earphone guides are available!

Kawamura Noh Butai
〒602-0021 Yanagi-no-zushicho 320-14
Kyoto City, Kamigyoku, Karasuma Street, Tachiuriagaru
TEL: 075-(451)-4513
Nearest station: Imadegawa Station on the Karasuma line (subway)
There is a total of 320 seats on the first and second floors.

Ooe Noh Gaku-dou
〒604-0944 Kyoto City, Nakagyoku, Baba Higashi-iru, Oshi-Kouji Kayoyanagi
TEL: 075-(231)-7625
Nearest Station: Shiyakusho-mae Station, go west 4 minutes on foot; from Karasuma-Oike Station, go east 5 minutes on foot.
The Ooe Noh Gaku-dou was built in 1908. In 2001 its foundation was rennovated.

Kyoto Kanze Kaikan
〒606-8344 Kyoto City, Sakyoku, Okazaki, Enshouji-cho 44
TEL: 075-(771)-6114
Nearest Station: Higashiyama Station (subway), go north 10 minutes on foot.
Closed Monday
Many performances are held on Saturday, Sunday, and holidays.

Preparing to watch Noh

Noh is very difficult for beginners. Even Japanese have a difficult time following Noh. Please prepare the following things before you go to a Noh play:

• First, it is better to learn about the story you are about to watch before you go to the play.
• Second, get a good night sleep before you see a Noh play, because Noh music produces alpha waves that can invite sleepiness.
• Third, please see if there is an earphone guide service. This can be a great help toward understanding a Noh play.
• Lastly, please enjoy the Noh world.


Noh no Shiki  Author:  Akiko Baba   /Publisher:  Saho Sugita, Tachibana Publish Corporation  Mr. Shinjirou Hukano hatsushite・kokaji’s pictures!     Noh Kokaji     Noh Kanawa  Shakaihoujinn Nohgaku Kyoukai