Traditional Japanese Performing Arts “Kyogen”

By Staff Writer
October 27, 2023
Kyogen is a traditional Japanese performing art and comedy theatre with its origins dating back to the Murromachi period (1336-1573). It was Japan’s first classical art based on comedy.

Scripts for Kyogen only exist from the Edo period (1603-1868) as those from the Muromachi era only contain a rough outline. This suggests that Kyogen was a highly improvised performance.

Kyogen uses a colloquial spoken language used by the people at the time. Although some archaic expressions are found in the dialogues, it is not too different from modern Japanese.
Kyogen performers wearing masks
Kyogen, like Noh, was part of sarugaku, an art form consisting of juggling, acrobatics, singing and dancing, puppetry, comic miming, and so on. Whilst Noh incorporated singing and dancing, Kyogen used wordplay and storytelling. Furthermore, Kyogen, in contrast to Noh, is light-hearted and humorous, telling stories of trivial failures and featuring ordinary people of the time.

However, Kyogen had a subordinate position to Noh, which was patronised by the shogunate, as it was considered vulgar and unrefined. In the 16th century, samurai and daimyo (feudal lord) Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had played a prominent role during the Sengoku (Warring States) period, endowed four Yamato sarugaku troupes with a salary and status. His successor Tokugawa Ieyasu followed his policy and decided that sarugaku should be performed at shogunate ceremonies.

Actors found themselves in dire straits when the Tokugawa Shogunate ceased to exist after transferring powers to the Meiji emperor. Some abandoned sarugaku altogether, whilst others became less involved. However, it was revived when the diplomatic Meiji government decided to show sarugaku to welcome foreign dignitaries. It was during this time that sarugaku was renamed to nohgaku, combining Noh and Kyogen.

With the defeat of the Pacific War, Kyogen returned to the hands of the common people. And after the lifting of the ban on laughter, it was also revived.

In 2001, Kyogen was designated as the first World Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.
A Kyogen perfomance on stage
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