A Trip to Japan Has Changed My Life


Meeting with living national treaure Mr. Senzo Nishikawa.

Meeting with living national treasure Mr. Senzo Nishikawa.

Japan is a country steep in tradition with a culture that permeates its way of life. Its culture, both tangible and intangible is reflected  in the whole gamut of life. Examples of the physical or tangible elements are the architecture, food, clothing, landscaping and crafts. The crafts are both functional and artistic.  For example, the samurai swords, the fans, pottery, textiles are all uniquely Japanese.  The intangible elements include the arts and the behavioural attitude of the Japanese people.

The Japanese attitude towards life is one of harmonious relationships.  They regard the environment as an organic and integral part of their life.  They respect the environment and treat them as almost being sacred.  Their bonsai trees, gardens, and pruned trees are testimony of their effort in appreciating the environment. Above all they have a penchant for cleanliness and orderliness.  The respect for fellow human is of supreme importance.  Just look at the way they greet each other, bowing several times.  It is such a magnificent gesture.

Another significant trait of The Japanese people is courage as reflected in the samurai tradition.  The Kamikaze or Divine Wind is another example of courage and selflessness.  Above all, The Japanese are industrious, determined and are unafraid to accept challenges.

Its arts reflect in a microcosm the attributes of the Japanese perception of life, in an abstract and metaphysical manner.

Traditional arts education, training and performances were initially done by clans and families, especially in Kabuki and through associations (clans) as in Noh and Bunraku.  Before the advent of westernisation, these arts flourished and formed the main diet of entertainment for both kings (shoguns) and commoners.

Before the Meiji Restoration, traditional arts such as Noh, Kabuki, Bunraku and Nihon Buyo were popular forms of entertainments and supported by the courts. Gagaku performances and the playing of its musical instruments like koto and pipa were part of the court dance and music entertainments.

However, after The Meiji Restoration when Japan opened up and exposed itself to foreign influences, western forms of arts crept in and quickly took hold to the extent that the court actively promoted western arts and culture.  And this has to a certain extent adversely affected the traditional performing arts.

After World War 2 Japan was occupied and administered by the conquering Americans resulting in the acceleration  of the  westernisation of Japan.  Western art forms took a foothold and spread through the educational system.

The Japanese Government policy of emerging from seclusion brought in foreign influences, especially western cultural influences, among other things.  As part of this policy, the government encouraged western performing arts programmes in schools.  As a result, western music, especially the playing of piano, violin, cello and dances such as ballet and contemporary became popular at the expense of traditional music and dance which resulted in the declining numbers of traditional practitioners.

According to Professor Yoshihiko Tokumaru of the Faculty of Music, Seitoku University, the music department in the universities would invariably refer to western music.  Also teaching colleges only trained teachers in western music.

The universities were aware of the importance of traditional arts since 1980s, but they could not establish a dedicated programme of traditional music.  They could only offer a few courses such as the playing of the shamisen.

The Government, after realising the erosion of traditional arts, introduced traditional music as part of the school curriculum ten years ago in its effort of educating the young about their heritage and hoped that it would engage and nurture interests in them to ensure the continuity of traditional arts. In 2002 the programme was fully implemented requiring every student to take up a traditional musical instrument, like the koto, shakuhachi, daiko, otusuzumi or kotsuzumi drums.

But according to Professor Tokumaru, this effort was too late as western music has been immersed into the Japanese culture.  In fact every school in Japan has western music bands.  It is a fact that western music performances and performing arts are more popular than traditional ones.  The younger generation prefers fusion of traditional and western music as in playing shakuhachi in jazz style.

In fact the influence of western music became so pervasive that The Tokyo University of The Arts (Tokyo Gedai) almost abolished the traditional music department.  But it was retained after the administrators saw it as being part of the Japanese heritage.  However, only music was offered but not traditional dance (Nihon Buyo) or dramas

%e3%83%9e%e3%83%ac%e3%83%bc%e3%83%80%e3%83%b3%e3%82%b9Formal education, in both the traditional and western arts, is confined to selected universities where the emphasis is still western arts.  There is no dedicated university for the teaching of traditional or western arts.  These programmes are incorporated into the normal universities which offer the arts programme as one of its many fields of study.  Not all universities offer the arts programmes, especially the traditional arts.  Some may incorporate a few courses on arts appreciation while others may offer a concentration on western music both in theory and practise.   The traditional arts courses in the arts faculties in the universities concentrate on theory, history and philosophy.  There are no programmes in the universities that focus on the training of practitioners.

The exception is three universities which have fully fledged degrees programmes as in Tokyo Geidai, that is, The Tokyo University of the Arts, The University of Fine Arts and Music in Okinawa, Nihon University College of the Arts and Waseda University.

The Tokyo Gedai has the following faculties, Fine Arts, Music, Research Centre and Traditional Performance, mainly Noh.  In The traditional music programme, it teaches instruments such as the shakuhachi, koto, shamisen, taiko, daiko, otusuzumi and kotsuzumi. But the overall programmes are heavily weighted in favour of western music.  It also offers post graduate degrees in these areas as well as in film and new media.

Waseda University only offers research facilities in the Theatre Museum for graduate work.  These research programmes combine lectures, seminars, conferences and symposiums on various related topics to help students in conducting their research.  Currently there are 135 students majoring in theatre, mainly theory, in the research institute.  The Museum housed costumes, props, scripts and 3 D models of Noh and Kabuki theatres as well as old posters and programmes on both Noh and Kabuki.

Nihon University College of Arts has a department of theatre and music. The department of theatre offers western based courses such as playwriting, play directing, acting, stage design, stage lighting, contemporary dance, producing as well as Nihon Buyo, the traditional Japanese dance.   The music department offers both western and traditional music like shakuhachi taught by Professor Akira Katou.

As for traditional theatre, The College of Arts only offer courses in the theory of Noh, Bunraku and Kabuki, but it does not offer practical courses for these forms of traditional theatre except for a course in Kyogen which is a comic sketch that functions as a prelude to a Noh performance.

Besides the formal institutions which teach the traditional arts, there are other organisations that are involved in the teaching and promotion of these arts. In the forefront is The Japan Arts Council which was reorganised to become an independent Administrative Institution under The Japanese Government.  It carries out the objectives as laid out by The Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

The main objective of the Japan Arts Council is to preserve and promote traditional performing arts, and to promote and popularise modern performing arts in Japan. These objectives are realised through performances and training in its following facilities which include The National Theatre (Main Building and Engei Hall), National Noh Theatre, New National Theatre all of which are in Tokyo; National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka and The National Theatre of Okinawa.  The National Theatre trains students from the lower secondary schools in traditional arts, besides conducting research on the production of authentic traditional performances to restore the classical works in all of its purity.  These research and performances are documented and published in book form and housed in the National Theatre library.  There are over 250,000 titles on traditional arts and their related topics.

With regard to training, The National Theatre conducts classes for Kabuki actors, musicians and dancers.  However, The National Theatre does not have regular training programmes but undertake such training on a case by case basis based on the needs of specific companies which apply for such programmes.   Out of the current 505 Kabuki actors, 86 of them graduated from The National Theatre training programme.   It also provides classes for those interested in the Daikagura acrobatic dance

Another facility that conducts training for both traditional and modern arts practitioners is the Kyoto Arts Centre in Kyoto.  The Centre essentially provides space for practice and performance to performing arts groups.  However, it is also involved in the conservation and preservation of traditional arts by conducting classes, workshops, and talks.  It also conducts performing arts and contemporary dance classes and provides funding for various projects.

An additional programme which the Centre sponsors is the biennale Directors in Residence Programme opened to artists domiciled in Japan.  In addition it has an Artist in Residence Programme for a three month period which is opened to candidates from other countries.  So far there has been 43 applicants from 11 countries.  The Kyoto Arts Foundation pays for accommodation, but food and transportation are borne by the applicants.  It also provides 200,000 yen subsidy for selected artists to stage their production.

The Kyoto Arts Centre and The Kyoto City organise traditional theatre programmes in Noh acting and singing for school children.  But there is a lack of audience support for traditional performing arts because the youths prefer modern forms of entertainments.  Only the older generation favours traditional performing arts.

Besides the government and prefecture sponsored organisations like The National Theatre and The Kyoto Arts Centre, there are other private organisations that undertake the training and education of traditional arts.  For the Kabuki theatre, the training is provided by family systems which have a long lineage of Kabuki actors , such as the Danjoro line of actors.  In fact these family systems provide the main Kabuki actors.  Supporting actors come from other government sponsored training institutions like The National Theatre.

Noh and Bunraku do not have the facility of family systems, they, however, have their own associations to train practitioners and performers.

Another source of arts training and education is provided by individual dace companies.  Kikonukai Japanese Dance Company which specialises in Nihon Buyo is among the well known traditional dance companies.  It was formed by Michiyo Hata, an accomplished Nihon Buyo dancer.  This company has been in the forefront of training traditional dancers and staging performances in Japan as well as overseas.  Besides performing the traditional Nihon Buyo, this company also experiments in fusing modern and traditional elements within the context of the Nihon Buyo aesthetic.

Like it or not, present day Japan has to contend with the prevalence of western arts and forms of entertainments.  Western performing arts have become an integral part of The Japanese culture and industry.  In fact Japan has world class performers of western musical instruments such as the violin, cello, flute and piano among others.  Japan too has been innovative in the techniques of playing western instruments.  For example, it has the Suzuki method of playing the violin.

Meeting with Ms. Hata.

Meeting with Ms. Hata.

In addition the promotion and popularity of western music is linked to the industry.  Brand names such as Yamaha, Kawai, Suzuki are known for their world class western musical instruments.  Yamaha pianos are world renown.  Before World War 2, Japan exported piano and violin to Europe and after the war she became the largest exporter of piano in the world.  Japanese pianos were so popular that the Warsaw Conservatory of Music asked The Japanese Government to donate ten Yamaha Concert grand pianos.

Thus, it is logical that these companies conduct classes and competitions to promote western music because by doing so they can sell their products. All these have an adverse effect on traditional performing arts, but the government realises the importance of this heritage and has undertaken measures to preserve and conserve the traditional performing arts.



Demonstration of a Malay instrument at Nihon University.

Efforts to preserve and conserve traditional arts are usually undertaken by the  authorities when they are endangered and facing extinction as a result of competing modern forms of entertainments which have become popular among the masses.  As such the relevant  authorities  develop strategies to  ensure the continuity of such traditional forms through education, subsidised performances, research and the rehabilitating of ailing forms.  At the same time efforts are made to re-educate the public and make them aware of the need to get reacquainted and have pride in their traditional heritage.

These efforts have been given prominence by the involvement of UNESCO in the preservation and conservation of tangible and intangible cultural heritage. This organisation has adopted the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage at The UNESCO General Conference in 2003. UNESCO has recognised various architectural and artistic forms has conferred them the status of UNESCO Heritage sites or visual or performing arts forms.  One such site is the Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island in Hiroshima and another is the Malaysian traditional performing arts, The Makyong. The authorities believe that it is important that the transmission of these cultural symbols would keep alive and even revitalise the time hallowed tradition of the forefathers.

In the past in Japan as in other countries, the courts and aristocracy, the samurai families as well as religious organisations such as shrines and temples were the custodian of tradition and cultural properties.  The Meiji Restoration which opened up Japan to westernisation and modernisation caused these traditions to be challenged and endangered.   To protect the traditional heritage, the Meiji Government legislated into law The Ancient Temples and Shrines Preservation Law (1897) and the National Treasures Preservation Law (1929).   As a result of a fire that destroyed valuable murals in the Kondo (Golden Hall) of the Horyuji temple in Nara Prefecture in 1949, the Government enacted the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties in 1950.  With this law, intangible cultural properties were given a legal definition and recognition.  This Law was amended three times in 1954, 1975 and 2004 to expand the definition and scope of cultural properties and to tighten control and protection of the endangered properties.

Visit to the Agency of Cultural Affairs.

Visit to the Agency of Cultural Affairs.

The Japanese government has undertaken this task to ensure the preservation of their tradition.     It has put in place appropriate measures to protect this heritage by assigning the responsibility of overseeing and implementing the cultural heritage policy to The Cultural Properties Department in The Agency for Cultural Affairs within The Ministry of Education, Culture, Science, Sports and Technology.  The Agency has also set up the Department of Intangible Cultural Heritage within The Independent Administrative Institution National Research Institute for Cultural Properties in Tokyo.  In addition the government set up The Japan Arts Council as an Independent Administrative Institution to operate the National Theatre, The Engkei hall, the National Noh Theatre, the National Bunraku Theatre and the National Theatre Okinawa.  The Agency has designated as intangible Cultural Properties the following performing arts forms:  Gagaku, Nohgaku (Noh and Kyogen), Ningyo-Johruri Bunraku, Kabuki, Kumi Odori, Traditional Music, Buyo Dance  (Nihon Buyo), and Engkei.  Besides the performing arts, the techniques of making various traditional crafts are also given protection.

It is one thing to protect and preserve and another to ensure its continuity.  Physical cultural properties such as architectural buildings, shrines and temples and others are easy to protect and preserve because they are inanimate things.  Their continuity and continued existence is only hampered by the vagaries of the weather and the unpredictable natural disasters.  They can be replicated but the opportunity cost may not be tenable because the demands of modern day style of living may not favour such replication.

Likewise, the intangible cultural properties are subject to the vagaries of human behaviour and needs. We can protect and preserve the traditional performing arts by staging authentic performances and educating the young on their heritage through schools and institutions of higher learning.  But development of scientific knowledge and technology affect our live styles and modes of behaviour and institute different kinds of entertainment needs that are consonant with the modern style of living.  With the development of new forms of artistic expressions, albeit western ones, the intangible cultural properties may be at the losing end, unless they revisit tradition to accommodate the needs of the modern generation.

Besides the disenchantment of the modern generation to the traditional arts which may have caused the decline in the numbers of practitioners and the frequencies of performances, the method of transmission of these arts is a factor that has caused the loss of refinement of the art forms.  The traditional method of teaching is by rote and the students have to observe the masters perform and execute the movements or play the music.  This method cannot possibly transfer all of the original techniques as the students have to translate and fine tune the movements.  The absence of a systematic method of teaching has resulted in the loss of some movements and the finery of others.           

With the members of Kikunokai.

With the members of Kikunokai.

In fact, the modern generation, specifically the youths are very much influenced by modern western forms of entertainments at the detriment of the traditional ones.  According to The Tokyo Gedai officials, western music performances and performing arts are more popular than traditional ones.  The younger generation prefers the fusion of traditional and western music, for example playing the shakuhachi in jazz style.  There is a need to redirect this attitude to reengage and nurture the interests of the younger generations in the traditional arts by incorporating traditional music, especially the appreciation classes for Noh and the music of Shamisen and Koto, as part of the school curriculum.

Another evident of the lack of interest of the youths in the traditional arts is expressed by Madam Michiyo Hatta’s,  the founder and Artistic Director of The Kikunokai Dance Company.  To attract the youths to traditional dances, the company performs in schools.  Thus far the response has been encouraging with some students expressing interests in enrolling in the company.  However, on a larger scale, the company faces difficulty in attracting young people because they are very much influenced by modern western forms of entertainments.

Notwithstanding all this, Japan has developed a secure preservation and conservation programme, implementing the preservation and conservation of its traditional heritage through the education system from schools to universities, dedicated individual organisations such as the Kabuki family systems and the Noh and Bunraku Associations, and individual companies such as Madam Michiyo Hatta’s Kukinokai Nihon Buyo Dance Company.  Above all the government’s agency like The Agency for Culture, The Japan Foundation and The Japan Arts Council play a major role in the efforts of preservation and conservation of traditional arts.


The Agency of Cultural Affairs in The Ministry of Education, Culture, Science, Sports and Technology is the apex body in the administration and management of the arts.   It implements its policies through the following agencies:

  1. The Cultural Properties Department
  2. The Department of Intangible Cultural Heritage
  3. National Research Institute for Cultural Properties
  4. The Japan Arts Council which operates the National Theatre Complex

The Government allocates 0.78% of its national budget for the Agency of Culture within the Ministry of Education to finance projects by all of its subsidiaries. At the international level, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through the Public Diplomacy Department and The Japan Foundation promote Japanese traditional and modern arts.  They are supported by the corporate sector which discharged their corporate social responsibility by funding and promoting traditional and modern performances and art exhibitions abroad. For example, The Toyota Corporation sponsors a symphony orchestra to tour Asia and America.  Another example is The Sumitomo Corporation which supports exhibition of Japanese Arts at The British Museum in London.

Lecture at Nihon University.

Lecture at Nihon University.

The Japan Foundation which  has missions all over the world such as in London, Paris, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, play a significant role in the promotion and education of Japanese Culture in general and Japanese arts in particular.  It brings performances to various countries as well as performers such as dancers or musicians who collaborate with local artists to create new works.  It also organises and conducts classes on Japanese language and culture as well as workshops in Japanese arts.  In addition it brings cultural leaders and practitioners from other countries to Japan to experience first-hand Japanese arts.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs use traditional and modern arts as a tool of cultural diplomacy.  Just recently, The Ministry invited a group of cartoonists from Iraq to Japan to see how Manga, the World famous Japanese Cartoon, was used as a unifying factor in ethnic relations.

The Japan Arts Council, an Independent Administrative Institution under The Japan Government implements the plans set out by The Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.  Its main objectives are to preserve and promote traditional performing arts, and also to promote and popularise modern performing arts in Japan.  These objectives are realised through the following projects.

  1. Promotion of artistic activities
  2. Public performances of traditional and modern performing arts
  3. Training artists of traditional and modern performing arts
  4. Research, data collection and exhibition of traditional and modern performing arts
  5. Providing performance space, such as theatres and other performance venues to performing groups.

The Board of Councillors of The Japan Arts Council consists of 20 eminent academic personalities.  They advise the President of The Council on important issues and management of the Council.

When The Japan Arts Council was inaugurated in 1990, it received a onetime allocation of 60 billion yen, made up of 50 billion from the government and 10 billion from the private sector.  The Council invests the money and only uses the interests accrued from the government.  It gets an annual budget of 17 billion yen which is disbursed as follows:

  1. Expenses of The National Theatre is 9.3 billion yen
  2. Expenses for The New National Theatre is 5.4 billion yen
  3. Subsidies for the private sector is 2.0 billion yen

A separate additional allocation of 5 billion yen is allocated to The Agency for Cultural Affairs to fund projects on films.

Production costs for traditional theatre productions are recouped from ticket sales and other sources such as rentals of the auditorium to the private sector.  It would be safe to assume that in the event the returns are insufficient to break even, the National Theatre would cover it with its own funds.

The New National Theatre is run by a private foundation and receives donations from the private sector to stage performances.  There are three types of sponsorships by the private sector.

  1. Monies from members

Event Archives

Organizing an event?

More information at our grants section