Nihon-buyō: The Traditional Japanese Dance – The most majestic graciou dance in the world

Nihon-buyō (日本舞踊) literally means ‘Japanese dance’ in Japanese. When I say “I do Nihon-buyō.”, some people ask me: “What kind of Japanese dance do you do?” Proudly I reply: “I am not doing a Japanese dance, but I am doing the Japanese dance.”

This conversation represents how traditional Japanese dance is unknown in the world. The dance with solemn, majesty and magnificence.

It is very sad and unfortunate, so I would like to introduce you to the world of Nihon-buyō: the traditional dance of Japan with 300 years of history.

For your information, if I say “I do Nihon-buyō” in Japanese to Japanese people, they won’t be confused. They know it is the Japanese dance. It is the same that no one asks that “What kind of flamenco are you doing?” or “What type of Samba do you do?” (Well, maybe there are multiple types of Flamenco and Samba, but it is the same in Nihon-buyō, and if a person asks the question, the person must already know the dance well enough.)

4 features that make a dance Nihon-buyō

The first question: What is Nihon-buyō? There are multiple traditional or indigenous dances in Japan. Many of them are pretty hard to distinguish from each other, but we can clearly tell Nihon-buyō from others.

Traditional dressing

Nihon-buyō is characterised by 4 features. One of the obvious features of Nihon-buyō is that dancers must wear traditional Japanese clothes. Kimono are one of the traditional Japanese clothes, but there are more. When you dance as a peasant, you probably dress like a farmer rather than a princess in gorgeous kimono. And that relates to the second feature; acting.

Acting

Nihon-buyō dancers often act as characters. There are roles such as a farmer, samurai, monk, animal, mythical creature, ghost, and pretty lady. Depending on the role, the costumes are different, but all should be something traditional. This is similar to ballet or other theatre dance performances.

But there are differences. For example, a dancer’s role can change in a song. Dancers might transform roles by changing costumes or props, and it is when you see it clearly. But sometimes even in the same dress, the dancers play multiple roles. For instance, in the song called Kinoenemachi (甲子待), a solo dance, one dancer performs as all 7 Lucky Gods.

Some songs do not particularly have settings or roles, and in these dances, the dancers themselves are the ‘main character’. Still, even in these roleless songs, choreography tends to have a narrative.

Tachi-yaku and Onna-gata

If Nihon-buyō’s dance needs to be divided into two categories, they should fall into either Tachi-yaku (立ち役) or Onna-gata (女形).

Tachi-yaku is a masculine style of choreography, and accordingly, it is for when a dancer is dancing as a male. Whereas, Onna-gata is the feminine style, and dancers act as females.

Even just by seeing a dancer standing, it is easy to tell which style is to be danced. For instance, in Tachi-yaku, dancers’ feet need to be bow-legged like ballet dancers while onna-gata needs to be pigeon-towed.

The interesting thing is that a dancer’s gender does not necessarily match the style; male dancers can dance Onna-gata and female dancers can dance Tachi-yaku. Most good dancers are capable of dancing both styles. If a dancer is only good at either Tachi-yaku or Onna-gata, they don’t tend to be considered a good dancer. Indeed, individuals have preferences and strengths/weaknesses, but they must learn both styles if they want to be considered solid dancers.

Dance for others

Formally, Nihon-buyō is performed on the stage like ballet. Probably, you do not see ballerinas are danced on the street, and the same thing goes for Nihon-buyō. Other traditional dances are shown on the street or park, and dancers can enjoy dancing purely with or without the presence of the audience. But Nihon-buyō is shown to others.

The difference of ballet is that Nihon-buyō is not necessarily a stage dance. It can be shown in a private room if the setting is appropriate. For example, Geisha, the traditional female entertainers, dance to entertain their customers, and their dance is also categorised as one of the styles of Nihon-buyō. 

3 elements of choreography – Odori, Mai and Shosa

The calligraphy of Nihon-Buyō consists of three elements; Odori (踊り), Mai (舞) and Shosa (所作). Those three words do not really have a direct English translation, and even a native Japanese person would struggle to properly explain each definition. 

If you look it up in a Japanese dictionary, Odori and Mai are both translated as ‘dance’. However, in Japanese there are differences.

Odori is a choreography based on jumping movements, mainly hand and foot movements in rhythm. Whereas, Mai is a roundabout movement with singing and music. For instance, dancers walk with the soles of their feet on the ground, and this is one of the bases of Mai movements.

Shosa is more tricky to define. I looked up the dictionary and it says the translations like ‘behaviour’ and ‘movement’, but it has a deeper meaning in Japanese. Although all native speakers know the word, it is not the one commonly used in everyday life; Japanese language has other words for general use.

When the Japanese say Shosa, it is the refined movements of a person with integrity and dignity. I don’t think it is something you can explain using language, as it is almost impossible to explain the difference in the taste between strawberries and blackberries to a person who has never eaten these. If you see the movement of professional Nihon-buyō dancers, it is the movement that has been considered as refined historically.

Props

Nihon-buyō uses props very frequently. One of the main props is the traditional fans called ōgi (扇). The ōgis and other props are not just a decoration or accessory, but it changes a lot of other things like a magic wand.

Music bands and singers, and stage settings

When Nihon-buyō is performed formally, dance always comes with music bands and singers. The main instruments are a three-stringed instrument called Shamisen and flute called Shakuhachi, and drums called Taiko.

They are like broadway shows; live music in front of the audience. Nihon-buyō is traditional, and when the tradition started 300 years ago, there was no recorder. As I mention later, Nihon-buyō is all about keeping the tradition alive, and this is one aspect.

The difference from Broadway is that in Broadway shows we don’t really see the faces of orchestra members as they are playing instruments in hidden spaces under the stage, but in Nihon-buyō you see them play the traditional instruments on the side or back of dancers on stage.

There are 100 or more Nihon-buyō songs, but the major ones are about 30 songs. Depending on the song, the scene is different, and most notable theatres have the settings for particular songs.

The music band and setting must change depending on the song, so in Nihon-buyō shows, there are at least 10 minutes intervals between each song to alter the music band and setting.

Ryū: The stream from the founder to the current generation

One of the uniqueness of traditional Japanese arts, including Nihon-buyō, is they have a system called Ryū (流) to pass down the skills and styles from generation to generation.

If you look up the names of famous Japanese Karate fighters or traditional painters, the same surnames can be listed repeatedly. They are not biologically or legally family members or relatives. These surnames are the name of Ryū-ha, which is the style or method that is shared in the group.

If you have a traditional Japanese dance lesson, your teacher will teach you the choreography and style of the Ryū-ha they belong to. And if you learn the same song from another teacher who belongs to another Ryū-ha, the choreography is different more or less as well as the atmosphere of the dance.

As the Nihon-buyō’s Ryū-ha, there are major 5 Ryū-ha out of 100 or more: Bando, Hanayagi, Nishikawa, Fujima and Wakayagi. All the artistic names of teachers belonging to Bando, for example, are Bando-something: they all have Bando as their surnames. Therefore, only by knowing the name of your teacher, you will know which style of dance you are learning.

When a dancer could reach the level that does not shame the name of the Ryū-ha, they are given the artistic name from the head of the Ryū-ha. Most time, you need to pass the trials like dancing in front of the head and members who already have artistic names. And once you have given the name, you are a member of the ‘clan’, and the relationship lasts forever.

The style and choreography are supposed to be passed down exactly the same from the founder of the Ryū-ha, without any differences. Many Ryū-ha has decades of history, some have more than 100 years, and the current Nihon-buyō dancers are trying to preserve the choreography and skills of their founder.

Ryū-ha is like evolution; DNA replicate the way by making their exact copies, and the genes are passed down from generation to generation. But because of some unintentional mutation, or some groups die out without passing their genes, the species gradually changes their forms and behaviour from their ancestors.

Ryū-ha is like an evolutionary tree, each Ryū-ha is the species, and choreography is a gene. Only the ones that have never stopped fascinating people could survive the ‘natural selection’. The Ryū-ha that had made the audience bored, or the ones no one wanted to pass down the spirit of the ‘species’, have died out, and Ryū-ha that remain today are the ones that have survived the selection.

Tradition and the new stream

Nihon-buyō is all about passing down the tradition, majesties and magnificence of the dancer who founded the Ryū-ha. As I mentioned above, Nihon-buyō has approximately 100 songs to dance to, but that’s it: no new songs and no new choreography.

Some innovative dancers want to try new things, and to do so, they leave the Ryū-ha they belong to, and start their own new Ryū-ha, becoming the founder themselves. In other cases, some dancers did something unforgiven and are expelled from the Ryū-ha, and had no choice but started their own Ryū-ha. This is how a new Ryū-ha comes into being, and how the dance evolves.

Some Ryū-ha allows making new choreography of the traditional songs, or introducing new songs. This kind of Ryū-ha is called Shin-buyō (新舞踊), meaning ‘New Buyō’ (Buyō means dance). Being allowed something new, Shin-buyō dancers dance the modern songs or popular songs in the style of Nihon-buyō.

If you want to be a founder, you can, even if you have no experience. However, it would be very difficult. To start a Ryū-ha, you already need to be a famous dancer with a lot of apprentices. If you are not good enough, to the extent that your apprentices want to succeed to the name of the Ryū-ha as their artistic surname, which is the identity of Nihon-buyō dancers, the Ryū-ha does not last more than one generation.

Nowadays Nihon-buyō is anything but popular among the young generation. Ballet and hip-hop are popular as their outside-of-school activities, but young people rarely choose Nihon-buyō. One aspect of the causes is that Nihon-buyō, or any traditional arts, could be very strict and disciplined. Also, Nihon-buyō could be difficult and boring since they have solid rules, and almost all the Nihon-buyō songs are not known even among older Japanese people.

For beginners Sin-buyō is easier to start with and easier to feel familiar with. For the audience as well, Sin-buyō dances are fun to watch because dancers dance to the songs they know. It is hard to appreciate Picasso’s later works like Guernica and to do so, you need to study and develop an eye, but all people can more or less see the value of the paintings by Velázquez, another Spanish painter who is famous for his realistic works.

Still, tradition is the mainstream

Since Shin-buyō appeared, Ryū-ha that focus on their tradition have been started categorised as Koten (古典), meaning ‘classic’. All major 5 Ryū-ha are Koten.

Indeed, Shin-buyō is easier to feel familiar with, at least in the beginning. Interestingly, the majority of distinguished Nihon-buyō dancers belong to one of the main 5 Ryū-ha. There are a lot of new Ryū-ha have started, but none of them could have the influence of the traditional stream, at least for now.

Tradition is strong; it is like when you want to make your partner happy, you might buy them flowers or take them to a fancy restaurant. It is stereotypical and cliche, but stereotype became a stereotype because it is effective.

The same can be said about Nihon-buyō. If a person tries something new and special, in the beginning, people might be surprised and love it. However, freshness becomes ordinary sonner or later, and if it does not have something more than newness, it cannot continue winning only by playing the ‘new’ card.

Tradition is conservative and boring. Yes, it might be. Nevertheless, they are majestic and magnificent enough to become a tradition. And like the evolution of species, nothing can be exactly the same as the original. Current species are evolving, and so is the traditional Japanese dance.

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