(Friday Night History) “Noh and Noh Accessories”

Kanze Sakon performs the Noh play Okina in 1939. (image PD)

Noh, a traditional form of Japanese theater that derives from an older form called sarugaku, is pretty well known in the world– it’s one of the most recognizable elements of traditional Japanese performing arts. Some people conflate it with kabuki, so let me begin by offering a simple way of remembering which form of traditional Japanese theater or dance is which.

  • Kabuki has facepaint and lots of acrobatics and slapstick. Its orchestra includes shamisen.
  • Bunraku has similar musical accompaniment to kabuki but features puppets and a chanter.
  • Kagura is the ritual dance associated with Shinto shrines.
  • Kyōgen is comedic, has some slapstick and no masks, and is performed on Noh stages in between the longer, more serious Noh plays.
  • Noh has masks, a lot of slow movements and chanting, and its musical accompaniment is flute and drum.

We cool? Good.

The thing is, Noh wasn’t just a performing art for the sake of a performing art. It was also possessed of spiritual significance, as it was one way of performing rites that would pacify restless spirits. It had any number of occasions where it might be performed, as it does today. In that regard it sometimes overlaps with what we’d consider to be kagura today. At any rate, keep that in mind– it’s important to what we’re going to be talking about in this episode.

Alright. So. Noh in the Edo period was overwhelmingly the domain of the warrior caste and its hangers-on. It was expensive even at the time, so this isn’t too surprising– your average Taro the farmer is going to be more likely involved in kagura at the local shrine, rather than putting on a Noh play. While not everyone was trained enough to be able to perform the dances, as Nishiyama Matsunosuke points out, “a large warrior-class population learned the chants and instrumental accompaniments.” And for our case study, we’re going to look at Noh in the house of Date, and not only because that’s our usual purview.

House Date, which was the fourth wealthiest power in Japan after the Shogunate, house Maeda of Kaga domain, and house Shimazu of Satsuma domain, was one of Edo Japan’s most preeminent patrons of Noh. Just how preeminent do I mean? Think back for a moment to our episode about daimyo. In that episode, we learned that the general definition of a daimyo, despite how conditional it often was in practice, included in theory anyone with yearly income rated at over 10,000 koku. The Date income was about 625,400 koku, and of that, they spent about 10,000 a year on Noh alone. That should offer some sense of scale here, in terms of how extravagant was their patronage. They spent a lot on Noh, from the beginning of the Edo period through the end, but house Date was interested in Noh for quite a long time even prior to that.

Date interest in Noh is believed to date roughly to the mid Muromachi era. By the late 16th century, Date Masamune himself was so skilled with the drum that he himself appeared in Noh performances, attended by other daimyo and sometimes even the shogun. While Masamune and his descendants pursued instruction by the heirs of the major lineages of Noh– most notably Okura, Kanze, Konparu, Hōshō, and Kita– what they also did was send their own retainers to go study and pursue licensure from those schools of acting, music, propmaking, and set design. In doing so, house Date ensured that it had a cadre of professionals who were already on the rolls of their vassal-band, who could be easily and reliably called upon for the staging of different performances wherever there was need of a play or a series of plays.

In fact, Noh was there at the founding of the Sendai castle town. The groundbreaking ceremony for the new and expanded Sendai Castle on Mount Aoba included the now famous poetry writing where Date Masamune gave the city its current name. But there was more that was part of the festivities. In the orthodox history of the clan, Date Chike Kiroku Volume 2, 18th century historian Tanabe Marekata writes:

12/24 (Keichō 5 [1/28/1601]), Hour of the Dragon. His Lordship went to the groundbreaking at Sendai Castle. He changed the castle’s name spelling to 仙臺 (wizard’s platform). Once there had been a Thousand-form Buddha beside this castle, thus it was [originally] spelled 千體 (thousand forms). Later the spelling was changed to 千代 (thousand generations). This castle was said to be the ancestral residence of the former Kokubun lord, Sir Noto-no-kami Moriuji. That evening, there was a party for the groundbreaking. Five Noh were performed: Takasago, Tamura, Nonomiya, Yōrō, and Jōjō.

Clearly, it had an official role to play in the domain’s life.

A particularly noted example of a Date retainer who became a Noh expert and founded a lineage is that of Sakurai Hachiemon (alias Sakurai Yasuaki), one of Masamune’s pages who was sent to study with Okura Ujinori (1590-1665), the third son of Azuchi-Momoyama era Noh master Konparu Yasuteru (1549-1621) who was famous for having taught Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Hachiemon was trained and licensed by Okura Ujinori, and Hachiemon’s descendants became a lineage of Noh masters. Interestingly, the Sakurai line became one where every successive generation was an adoptee selected for mastery of the family Noh tradition– inasmuch as adoption to continue a lineage was common in the Edo period, a line composed entirely of adoptees was uncommon. Hakugoku Zenbe’e (alias Hakugoku Kototsugu) and Kō Gorōjirō, contemporaries of Hachiemon, specialized in the taiko drum. Meanwhile, Hiraiwa Kanshichi became certified in fue, the bamboo flute that is a central part of the musical accompaniment to any Noh performance. Hakugoku, Kō, and Hiraiwa, like Sakurai, started out as pages in service to Masamune.

This cadre of performers and other specialists was divided between three geographic centers– Edo, Nara (actually some in Nara, some in Kyoto), and Sendai– putting it in easy reach of the Shogun’s capital, the imperial capital, and the capital of the Date domains. Owing to the Date domain’s decentralized organization, the family’s cadet branches, which formed the highest tier of Date vassals, also sponsored Noh actors and performances of their own. This multicentric arrangement of house Date’s Noh personnel and assets had an impact on other fiefdoms’ Noh as well as on modern Noh.

These people were, of course, paid stipends by the domain. But as with all retainer stipends in the Edo period, these tended not to rise for anything, even for cost of living. So to fill that gap, some of these Noh specialized Sendai vassals took students from other domains. This not only helped make ends meet but also spread Date Noh influence, and it positioned these families for adapting to the changes wrought by the coming of the Meiji era and the abolition of the feudal domains.

Just before that abolition, Sendai domain under the Date was defeated during the Boshin civil war of 1868-1869. As part of the punishment which the Empire imposed, two thirds of Sendai domain’s landholding was confiscated, which thus affected the domain’s income, and so the clan had to radically slash and reorganize its expenses. People like Noh actors were not justifiable expenses in this new regime. Those of the Noh professionals who were based in Sendai, whose work mostly involved other Date retainers, were shit out of luck. But those based in Edo or Nara, who already derived most of their income from private students, stayed in the Noh business. And as it turns out, some of them still exist today or existed well into the modern era. The Hiraiwa school of fue flute, for instance, was one such tradition that had once been in service of house Date; it existed until the mid-Meiji period and the death of its last inheritor. Other traditions once associated with house Date survive to this day.

In modern Sendai, Noh and Noh performances continue thanks to an organized group of devoted performers and their supporters. When I lived there in 2005, I remember seeing advertisements for free public performances of Noh, though I unfortunately wasn’t able to attend them. If you’re in Sendai, or can manage to go there one day once it’s allowed to enter Japan again, you can find more information from the homepage of what’s now called the Sendai City Association for the Promotion of Noh (Sendai-shi Nōgaku Shinkō Kyōkai) at https://sendai-nogaku.org


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