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The Role of Noh in Creating a Common Language in Japan

Updated: May 21


The Role of Noh in Creating a Common Language in Japan

Introduction


Recently, I had the pleasure of hearing an intriguing story from Mr. Keigo Suzuki, a Noh performer at the Yarai Noh Theatre in Kagurazaka. I am excited to share this story with all of you.


The History of Noh


Noh theatre originated from the Sarugaku, which was introduced to Japan from China during the Nara period (710-794) and was fully developed by Kan'ami and Zeami, a father-son duo, during the Muromachi period (1336-1573). Initially, Noh was a form of entertainment performed at temple and shrine festivals for the general populace. However, it gradually gained the favor of the warrior and noble classes, especially after receiving the patronage of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.


The Role of Noh in Creating a Common Language in Japan


The Samurai’s Fondness for Noh


During the era of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, Noh became widely accepted in samurai society. Influential figures such as Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu also protected and personally performed Noh. This made Noh an integral part of samurai society, used not only for entertainment but also for social and information exchanges. Additionally, a cultural background requiring knowledge of classical Japanese poetry and literature deepened the understanding and appreciation of Noh.


The Protection by Daimyo Spread Noh Nationwide: Popularization of Chanting among the Townspeople


In the Edo period, Noh was officially established as shikigaku (court music) under the Tokugawa shogunate. Many daimyo maintained Noh performers and protected the art, which helped spread Noh across the country. As a result, Noh became popular among the general populace, and the publication of chanting books led to the spread of chanting gatherings among the townspeople, embedding it as part of popular culture.


The Role of Noh in Creating a Common Language in Japan


The Role of Noh in Creating a Common Language in Japan


During the Edo period, the differences in dialects were pronounced. For example, the Tsugaru dialect from Aomori still uses 'ke' to mean 'eat,' and the Kagoshima dialect uses 'gurashika' to mean 'pitiful,' which are completely incomprehensible in other regions. Despite this, the sankin-kotai system, which required daimyo and their retainers to travel to and reside in Edo periodically, necessitated a common language.


Against this backdrop, Noh, especially its chanting scripts, performed uniformly nationwide, played a crucial role as a common language in Japan. The words of the chants were understood everywhere, thus functioning as a communication tool among speakers of different dialects. Today, when watching a Noh performance, the dialogue may sound like the samurai speech used in period dramas because Noh dialogue has become a nationwide samurai language.


The Role of Noh in Creating a Common Language in Japan

Conclusion


Noh, particularly its chanting parts, emphasizes pronunciation without regional variation, thereby serving as a common language throughout Japan. This has laid a foundation for cultural interactions and effective communication among people from various regions with diverse dialects. Noh is not merely an art form; it plays a significant role in shaping the linguistic culture of Japan.


You can learn more about such aspects of Noh at the Yarai Noh Theatre in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Please contact us and visit the theatre to deepen your understanding.


The Role of Noh in Creating a Common Language in Japan

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