Plays of Old Japan: The ‘No’

Plays of Old Japan: The ‘No’


Author: Sakurai, Joji, 1858-1939
Japanese drama — Translations into English
Plays of Old Japan: The ‘No’
The Table of Contents was produced by the transcriber.
The cover image was produced by the transcriber using an illustration from the book, and is placed in the public domain.

Table of Contents



EPOCHS OF CHINESE AND JAPANESE ART. By Ernest F. Fenollosa. In two Vols. Crown 4to. Illustrated. 36s. net.
A HISTORY OF JAPANESE COLOUR-PRINTS. By W. von Seidlitz. Illustrated in Colour and Black and White. One Vol. Crown 4to. 25s. net.
JAPANESE PLAYS AND PLAYFELLOWS. By Osman Edwards. With twelve Coloured Plates by Japanese Artists. One Vol. Demy 8vo. 10s. net.
KAKEMONA: Japanese Sketches. By A. Herbage Edwards. One Vol. Crown 8vo. 7s. 6d. net.
A HISTORY OF JAPANESE LITERATURE. By W. G. Aston. One Vol. Large Crown 8vo. 6s.
IN JAPAN: Pilgrimages to the Shrines of Art. By Gaston Migeon, translated by Florence Simmonds. One Vol. Crown 8vo. Illustrated. 6s. net.
THE JAPANESE DANCE. By M. A. Hincks. One Vol. Crown 8vo. Illustrated. 2s. 6d. net.

This plate, taken from a Japanese coloured woodcut, illustrates well the voluminous nature of the mediæval ceremonial garments. The figure is that of an ancient warrior of the Taira clan, to which Kagekiyo belonged (see p. 53), who was noted also for the high quality of his poetry. He composed a special verse, which he fastened in an arrow that he always carried in his quiver, and that proved to be the means of identification when he was found by his enemies, dead in the field of battle. In the illustration one may particularly note the mask, with the eyebrows painted so high on the forehead that they are above the fillet band. The feet are not bare, but are covered with the white tabi, or cotton boots with soft soles and a separate division for the big toe, in which the dancers always perform their parts.


D.Sc., Ph.D., F.L.S.
D.Sc., LL.D.


Copyright and all translation and dramatic right reserved by Marie C. Stopes


By His Excellency the Japanese Ambassador
The utai does not appeal to the uneducated, and for that reason its devotees have practically been confined to the gentle and aristocratic classes. In the days before the educational system of Japan was established on Western lines, boys of the Samurai class in many parts of the country were taught to chant the utai in their schools as a part of their curriculum, the object being to ennoble their character by imbuing them with the spirit of the olden times, and also to provide for them a healthy means of recreation in their manhood. Along with many other institutions, it declined in favour in consequence of the great social and political upheaval which ushered in the era of Meiji; and for some time afterwards the people were too much occupied with various material aspects of life to find any leisure for the cultivation of the art, so much so that its professional exponents, meeting with no public support, had to give up the forlorn attempt to continue their task and to look elsewhere for a means of earning their livelihood.
With the consolidation of the new régime many old things took a new lease of life, the utai being one of them. Not only has the utai revived, but those who ought to know say that never in the long history of its existence has it been so extensively patronised as it is to-day. Patrons of the art are by no means confined to the aristocratic classes, albeit it is not so popular as the ordinary theatrical play, and never could be from the nature of the thing.
This book will, therefore, well repay study on the part of any one desirous of knowing and appreciating the working of the Japanese mind, and the author and her colleague are rendering a good service to the public of the West by initiating them into the subject. As the author frankly admits, to translate the utai into a European language is a most difficult task, and, in my opinion, it is a well-nigh impossible one. The meaning of the original may be conveyed—its spirit to a certain extent—but never the peculiarities of the original language, on which the beauty of the utai mainly rests. It was very brave of Dr. Marie Stopes and Prof. Sakurai to undertake what I should deem an impossible task, and I am glad to be able to extend to them my sincere congratulations on their remarkable achievement. They have succeeded in their work to the best extent any one can hope to succeed, and in my opinion have placed Western students of Japanese art and literature under a debt of gratitude to them.
Takaaki Kato.
Japanese Embassy, London.
November 1912.


To face page
TADANORI Frontispiece


Their poetry is the expressed essence of the Japanese. It represents them as the Victory of Samothrace represents the people of Greece, as the scent represents the rose. Chamberlain says, “The one original product of the Japanese mind is the native poetry”—their painting, their porcelain, their ceremonials, are modifications of Chinese classics, but their poetry is their very own. Among the greatest and most characteristic treasures of the native literature, the Japanese rank their ancient “lyric dramas,” the . As Synge and the Irish poets speak for the Irish people the things that matter most to them and that yet go all unexpressed in their outward life, in the same sense, only to a greater extent, do the dramas represent the old spirit of Japan.
In Japanese the texts of the dramas, all of which were written before the sixteenth century, are collected in a great work, the Yokyoku Tsukai, in which various editions give as many as two hundred and thirty-five to two hundred and sixty-two utai, as the librettos of the are called. Yet these treasures are practically unknown to the reading public of the West, notwithstanding the interest that has been taken in “things Japanese.” Scholars certainly have paid them some attention, and a few utai have been rendered into English, but in most cases these translations are such as appeal primarily to scholars, and do not reach the wider public. Chamberlain’s Classical Poetry of the Japanese, in which some of the utai find a place, is perhaps the only exception to the general statement that no rendering of any of these plays has yet been made which is calculated to win those readers who do not delve in the Transactions of learned societies nor read transliterated texts in weighty volumes, but who, nevertheless, delight in the great literatures of the world.
One of the reasons for this is certainly the extreme remoteness of the subject from everything to which we are accustomed, and the difficulty of translating into our own the obscure language of these mediæval texts.
All students of Japanese are agreed about the excessive difficulty of making any rendering from the utai which combines fidelity to the original with lucidity in a European language.
Yet these old plays are unique, exquisite, individual, and so full of charm that it is a great loss to the Western world that they should be entirely removed from our ken by being hedged in and shut away from us by the difficulties of language. It is clearly some one’s duty to translate, not merely the words of these plays, but their meaning and spirit, so that the Western public may have partial access at least to the source that delights, and has delighted for centuries, the best minds of our Allies in the East. No translation can ever convey more than a fraction of the power, beauty, and individual characteristics of the original, but it is my hope that there may be found between these covers something of the delicacy and charm of the , some hint of their peculiar flavour and effect. If this consummation is in any single case achieved by this book, it will be, I fancy, only after the whole of it has been read and laid down; when a faint spirit of the may take shape in the reader’s mind.

Mountains blue in the distance before which we stand enthralled are composed of grey rough stone and broken screes when viewed at nearer quarters—yet we enjoy not less the illusory blue. The words of a stirring poem that wafts us into a fairy land of dreams are each one commonplace enough, and each can be reduced to its elements, a, b, c, d, e,—twenty-six of them, which can be ranged in a straight line.
And so it is with the . They must not be too much analysed and inquired into. Their language is simple, almost to baldness in places, it is true, but their simple elements create a wonderland of illusion. In Japanese they have the power to make the spirit soar into the borders of the enchanted regions of romance; and when acted the plays make one ache with Weltschmerz in a way that shows that their place is among the great things of our world, elemental in their simplicity. Then it must not be forgotten that the text of the drama as presented is accompanied by music, and is chanted by highly trained actors in a beautiful setting. Who would think of judging Wagner from the texts of his librettos alone, and of ignoring his power as a scene creator and a musician? The texts of the are largely prosy, if you will. Mr. Sansom recently censured me, and with me the leading Japanese authorities on the subject, for our appreciation of the poetry of the . He would have us believe that the steady popularity of these plays for six hundred years among the leading men of the country, from priests and poets to princes and warriors, is due to over-estimation, and that they are, after all, mostly prose of no high quality. In a language so widely diverging from our own in its construction and mode of thought as Japanese, the details of the literary style and composition are beyond reach of my judgment. As the Japanese for so long have been consistent in their admiration of the literary construction of the , I am content in that matter to accept their verdict. But of the atmosphere and general effect of the plays I can judge for myself, and I find them among the supremely great things in world-literature. That Mr. Sansom does not, depends on his own taste in the matter. I have, in these modern days of unshackled opinion, heard people openly announce that they saw nothing in Shakespeare! I fancy that if we could translate literally into the English language the song of the nightingale to its mate, it would be found to be largely composed of mundane affairs and prosy gossip about its neighbours, the weather and the marauding school-boy. But is it to us any the less romantic and glorious in association? There is a focal distance for every work of art, and if we choose to overstep it and go and rub our noses against the canvas of supreme genius, we will only find smeary paint and an unpleasant odour. So, acknowledging the prosy elements in the texts of the I have attempted to render, I present them in the hope that there will be some readers who will see through the shrouding veils of a foreign language something of the features of the eternal loveliness of the original. My great regret is the imperfections of my handling of these delicate fantasies. But with the exceptional knowledge and gifts of my collaborator in the translations, Prof. Sakurai, the standard of detailed accuracy has been kept up to a point which will, I trust, make these translations not entirely unworthy of a scholar’s perusal (but see p. 32); nevertheless, the reader whom my heart desires is not one to take too close an inspection of each detail, but one who will catch the spirit of the whole. None of the four plays that follow have been translated by any one else,[1] so far as I can discover; so that, as they break new ground for it, the public will perhaps be lenient and sympathetic towards these efforts.

Concerning the Place the takes in Japan to-day

In Japan to-day there still lingers much of the old aristocratic scorn of the common theatre, but the theatres which are dedicated to the performance of the have no such stigma attached to them. Indeed, these performances are almost entirely supported by the gentle and aristocratic classes. The interest of intellectual men in these plays is not even satisfied with on-looking, and many of the leading men of the day in Tokio—lawyers, university professors, statesmen and aristocrats—study the chants and songs and give private recitals of them. A few even undertake the arduous training necessary to act a complete part, including the “dancing,” and then the gentlemen are proud to appear with distinguished professionals. The only comparable enthusiasm in our country is that of the Shakespeare societies; but even to act, and act well, a part in a Shakespeare play requires an amount of application trivial in comparison with that necessary completely to master a rôle in one of the . For in “singing” the utai not only is every minute inflection of the voice prescribed and regulated according to the severest rules, but every movement of the body, every step and movement even of the toes or little fingers in the “dance” that accompanies it, is most strictly governed by an iron tradition, and the secret of some of the parts is only in the hands of a few masters.
Mr. Sansom quotes, in an unsympathetic spirit, the opinion of Mr. Tanaka Shohei, but as this opinion represents in substance that of a number of the leading Japanese who interest themselves in the subject, I think it may very well be given as an expression of current opinion of the : “From every point of view it is one of the pre-eminent arts of the world. It is the flower of the Yamato stock. Every art reflects the spirit of a given people at a given time, and, remembering this, we must hold it remarkable that the affections of our people should be retained by an art which arose six hundred years ago. In the West there is no art with such a pedigree. This shows that the represents the national spirit, and is complete in every respect.”
A Japanese professor, writing to me, says, “A drama is always very simple in its plot, and it is chiefly its peculiar poetical construction and ring which appeal so much to our emotion and give the charm it possesses.” Another opinion is quoted by Mr. Osman Edwards: “The words (of the ) are gorgeous, splendid and even magnificent as are the costumes.”
The charm of the is a cumulative one, and its power of conveying much meaning in simple action is largely augmented by the suggestiveness of the interwoven allusions to the classical poems partly quoted or suggested in the words of the texts. Almost every word carries more than its face value, and has been enriched by centuries of usage in innumerable poetical and traditional connections.

Concerning the past History of the

The , as they are now preserved, date principally from the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, and all of them are prior to the sixteenth century. Their development took place under the Ashikaga Shogunate, particularly in the reign of the Shogun Yoshimitsu (1368-1394), when they soon became exceedingly successful among the nobles. They are to a large extent compounded from much older elements which existed in a more incoherent form prior to the fourteenth century; but they may be described as crystallising and taking their distinctive form under the hands of Kiyotsugu, who lived from 1355 to 1406. It is of great interest to note how closely the dates of our own Chaucer (1340-1400) correspond with those of the great Japanese master. What world-phase brought two such men to the front at the same time in the two island empires, all unknown to each other? Kiyotsugu was the founder of the proper, and one of his pieces is given on p. 39. It is certain that he did not suddenly evolve this type of drama, but took the elements that were to hand and fused them together with the flux of his personal genius. Chief among the material available were the Kagura or pantomime dances which were performed at Shinto festivals on temporary wooden platforms. Direct descendants of these, nearly in their original form, have lingered on till the present day. I have seen performances on the rough temporary platforms, where the actors were gaudily but cheaply decked and where the crowded audience was almost entirely composed of the common people who stood semi-scornful for a few moments, or were detained for a long time while passing on their daily business. The antiquity of such performances can be imagined from the fact that in the Kojiki, which was written in 712 A.D., they were described as being ancient and their origin was associated with the sun goddess. The mythical story of their origin is one of the well-known tales of Japan. The sun goddess, Amaterasu, was offended and retired to a cave, withdrawing her luminous beauty from the world. As may be imagined, this was very inconvenient for every one, including the rest of the gods, who in their distress assembled on the dry bed of the River of Heaven. (This is the Milky Way, and to one who knows the mountain rivers of Japan it gives a very telling little touch, for the dry bed of a Japanese river is a broad curve of round white stones.) They endeavoured in many ways to lure the sun goddess out of her cave, and at last they invented a dance and performed it on the top of an inverted empty tub, which echoed when the dancer stamped. This excited her curiosity, and the goddess was successfully drawn out of her hiding-place, the light of her radiance once more blessed the earth, and all was right again with gods and men. The stamping on the hollow tub is still suggested in the “dancing” of the , where the actor raises his foot and stamps once or twice with force enough to make the specially prepared wooden floor of the stage echo with a characteristic sound.
It is quite probable that the act

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