The Diffusion of Jōrurilibrettos of Bun’yabushi in Rural Japan

Rosa Isabella Furnari, Department of Japanese Studies, Faculty II, University of Trier [About | Email]

Volume 24, Issue 1 (Article 2 in 2024). First published in ejcjs on 16 April 2024.


This article looks at a form of puppet ballad in rural Japan, the so-called bun'yabushi, as an example of cultural preservation at the periphery, question the practice among art historians of having considered by definition the centre as a place of aesthetic creation, and the peripheries as mere reproducers of what is created in the centre, simply considering the periphery and its sociocultural environment as a symbol of belated artistic progress (Castelnuovo and Ginzburg, 1979). 

Keywords: Japanese theatre, jōruri, ballads, cultural preservation, rural and folk arts


What connects three zones of Japan, i.e., the Ishikawa prefecture, the island of Sado, and the south of Kyūshū? First, these are peripheral regions representing the Japanese countryside. Second, these three areas host an old form of narrative music or ko-jōruri used in the puppet theatre that has now disappeared from the central regions. It is phenomenal that the three areas, so geographically distant from one another, still share an older form of jōruri or ko-jōruri called bun’yabushi. Could these suburbs be recognised as places of what some may call a belated cultural backwardness?
Art historians have long considered by definition the centre as a place of aesthetic creation, and the peripheries as mere reproducers of what is created in the centre, simply considering the periphery and its sociocultural environment as a symbol of belated artistic progress (Castelnuovo and Ginzburg, 1979). However, since what arises in the centre arrives at the peripheries and thereby progresses in various ways, it could be inappropriate to define such arts at the peripheries as backward varieties of the central models. It is vital to follow the evolution of art forms wherever a determinate geographical separation has a mediating role beyond spatial factors, for historical and socio-political reasons. Let us, therefore, seek to discover the terms ‘centre’ and ‘periphery,’ along with their mutual relations, in all their intricacy, be it political, geographic, religious, economical, or artistic.

The bun’yabushi was once the only means of entertainment for small, isolated rural communities in Japan. It was staged by traveling artists who had been forced to leave the city when their art became out of fashion. The inheritance passed to local theatrical troupes who trained in this art and personalised it. Today, bun’yabushi no longer has the important artistic and entertainment role it once had, but it still survives thanks to amateur groups who keep this legacy alive by respecting what has been handed down to them. These amateur groups are becoming increasingly important in postmodern societies. Michel Maffesoli in The Time of the Tribes argues that postmodernity is characterised by a redefinition of individual and group identities, which are increasingly linked to tribal-based groups interests, lifestyles, or cultural practices. Maffesoli maintains that in postmodernism, rather than talking about identity, it would be more correct to use the expression “subsequent identifications:” each subject is at the same time divided internally and also belongs to a vast range of tribes (i.e., groups), so he is destined continually to change his identity affiliations. These tribal groups provide a sense of belonging and identity to their members and are often characterised by informal relationships rather than by rigid organisational structures. The greater fluidity and flexibility in the construction of identity, and the reduction of traditional social hierarchies that characterises postmodernity, makes it possible for people to construct multiple identities and belong to more than one tribal group at the same time. Furthermore, we argue that everyday life and informal relationships play a central role in the construction of identity and in the formation of tribal groups. Cultural practices, such as cultural consumption and holidays, are seen as fundamental elements in identity-building and in creating a sense of belonging (Maffesoli 1988).

Society therefore returns to the community as a model to organise relationships between people. This term can indicate various aggregations of individuals who recognise themselves in a specific interest, share a certain value, and are linked by a strong social cohesion. Communities change according to the type of social bond that produces them and according to the personal characteristics of their members. In various parts of the text Maffesoli presents as an example the youth subcultures that anticipate postmodern sociality in their relational dynamics, and are therefore conceived as avant-gardes.
The social bond that binds postmodern tribes together is no longer based on profit or profession, but on ‘vocation,’ and is therefore random but shows a notable capacity for resistance when it is consolidated. Becoming part of a certain group rather than another is certainly a choice of the individual since they feel close to a specific set of values and tacit rules that determine that particular subculture; but their permanence in the community concerns the structure of the bond that connects them to others. This passage highlights the enormous gap existing between modern and postmodern human aggregates. In the first case, in fact, the union with others was functional to achieving a common goal. This type of union was typical of both religious groups, convinced of a life after death, therefore otherworldly, and of political aggregates such as the working class, which should have united to improve their living conditions in view of a hypothetical egalitarian society. What characterises postmodern tribes is being together for pure pleasure, to enjoy the dimension of the here and now. There is no longer a progressive vision of existence: the actions of individuals or groups are no longer oriented towards the future, but rooted in the eternal present in which they live. If in modernity, therefore, action and its finalisation were privileged, postmodern ethics instead prefers being together (Barile 2017).

The ethical dimension of the community also modifies the aesthetics of the period. The contrast between the Apollonian and the Dionysian aesthetics, which Friedrich Nietzsche had developed in the second half of the Nineteenth Century as a key to understand the spirit of Greek tragedy, also returns as a movement of detachment of Christian modernity from pagan antiquity. If the Apollonian corresponds to the idea of symmetry, classical beauty, balance, and calm magnificence in the artistic field, the Dionysian investigates the most disturbing, visceral, and tragic aspects of artistic expression. If modernity is typically Apollonian, due to the cooling of passions that are channelled into an overall repressive social organisation, postmodernity restores the tragic value of the Dionysian experience, freeing the passionate and creative dimension that returns to dominate the greyness and alienation of a society rationally managed. The Dionysian, postmodern society contrasts with the modern one because it is permeated by a new ethic: the liberation of the passions that are shared in the tribes. This variation inevitably reflects on the aesthetics of the era that rediscovers the value of cultural authenticity. Consistently, the philosopher insists on this irruption of the archaic into our present (Barile 2017). The society is Dionysian in its pursuit of Animism and ancient cults of the dead. The puppets are animistic elements and perhaps the sekkyō narrators are bound to the cult of the deceased as they remind us, in a bold comparison, of the paid ritual of crying from Southern Italy and Greece.

Communities are networks of organisations without a centre or periphery, based mostly on a system of horizontal relationships. These are networks of people in which the single individual can move from one tribe to another or even belong to several tribes at the same time. When referring to grand narratives, one must always keep in mind that within such organisations (such as classes, corporations, or parties) the turnover and mobility are very modest, the choice is not always conscious and the predilection for the group membership is usually unique and exclusive. On the contrary, the individuals who relate to postmodern neo-communities can modulate their belonging to them, giving new freedom to interpersonal relationships. Freedom is therefore expressed in two different ways in modernism and postmodernism (Barile 2017).

The various preservation clubhouses that deal with preserving the bun’ya bushi in the five locations examined in this article should have disappeared a long time ago but survived because of a suburb that preserved it in the past, and that today we can call postmodern. These clubhouses could be defined, using Maffesoli’s words, as tribes of successive identifications: spontaneous groups of amateurs looking for a reaffirmation of identity through multiple belongings to different tribes. The peripheries often rework what comes from the centre: we will talk about clubhouses committed to safeguarding a type of theatre that had already disappeared 200 years ago from the centre of Japan. The interest in the recreational dimension, rather than in work and productivity, the idea of living in the present and recognising oneself in a strong bond with the peer group, are just some aspects of the community existence of these postmodern groups.

The librettos of Kakutayū

Japanese puppet theatre is commonly called bunraku, but the exact denomination would be gidayūbushi ningyō jōruri. This complex noun phrase contains the four elements that make up the puppet theatre. Gidayū or Takemoto Gidayū 竹本義太夫 (1651-1714) was a puppet theatrical declaimer. Bushi 節 was his narration or declamation style. Ningyō are the puppets. In the early 1600s the declaimers joined the puppeteers: jōruri is the name of a ballad that seems to have been the first staged by the declaimers and puppeteers combined.

The declaimers were called tayū 太夫. Among the declaimers some stood out for their skills, meeting the appreciation of the public. Names such as Uji Kaganojō 宇治加賀掾, Yamamoto Kakutayū山本角太夫, Inoue Harimanojō井上播磨掾, Itō Dewanojō伊藤出羽掾, and Okamoto Bunya岡本文弥 in Kamigata; and Sugiyama Tangonojō 杉山丹後掾and Satsuma Jō’un薩摩浄雲 from Edo were considered the great masters of jōruri. Each mastered a different style of storytelling and established leading schools (Vv., Aa., Buritanika Kokusai Daijyakka Jiten 1984, p.990).

In Kyōto, Okamoto Bun’ya was one of the disciples of the declaimer Kakutayū, and created his own school of narration known as the bun’yabushi, which became popular in Ōsaka in the Tenna and Jyōkyō eras (1681-1688). Luckily, the exact year of Okamoto Bun’ya’s death is known. According to the 1894 book Meijin Kishinroku 名人忌辰録, which lists the major personalities from the Seventeenth Century and from previous eras, he died in Ōsaka in 1694 at the age of 62. The bun’yabushi was already a famous school in Ōsaka when Takemoto Gidayū’s storytelling school and narrative style, the gidayūbushi, was still in its infancy and completely unknown (Takano, 1915, p.229). However, the bun’yabushi only flourished for a short time, and was soon overwhelmed by Gidayū’s school (Takano, 1915, p.229). The gidayūbushi was a watershed in puppet theatre. From then on, everything that had been done before was defined as ko-jōruri, or ancient jōruri. The bun’yabushi as well was a form of declamation which belonged to the ko-jōruri.

All this apparatus needed written texts to be recited or declaimed: the texts or librettos were called shōhon 正本, and were considered to be the fifth element of the Japanese puppet theatre.

According to the Nihon Koten Seki Shoshi-gaku Jiten—a Japanese bibliographic dictionary of classical books from 1999—the shōhon were declamatory practice texts, and at the same time they were books containing the plot and music of a jōruri drama. Early versions were picture books with 17 or 18 lines per page, in fine print. Most of them were woodblock-printed books. The woodblock-printed books are called ‘authentic scripts’ or shōhon. Rarely the original first prints have come down to us; therefore, the term shōhon does not indicate an original ancient copy, but rather an accurate replica of the text used by a specific tayū during the representation.

The early texts were printed in small letters and with the inclusion of some illustrations; the books that have pictorial inserts are called ‘books with inserted pictures,’ (eiri saiji hon 絵入細字本). These early texts, at the beginning of the 1600s, had 16 to 17 lines per page, and rarely contained melodic notes. They rather had the characteristics of reading books, but as time went by—during the Kanbun era, 1661-73—notes (called fushitsuke 節付) were added. Later, the shōhon became practice-books with large, boldfaced letters distributed over seven or eight lines per page. The shōhon turned from a reading text of a theatrical plot to a declamatory practice text. It has been speculated that this change was due to the growing public interest in jōruri. Furthermore, the number of tayū who wanted to take up this profession increased, and consequently they needed texts to practice (Vv., Aa., Encyclopedia of Japan – Nipponica, 1994, p.300).

The change occurred for the first time in 1679 (i.e., the 6th year of Enpō era), when the declaimer Uji Kaganojō published a large-print eight-line book for practice, titled: Ushiwaka Sen-Nin-Kiri 「牛若千人切」.  The Ushiwaka Sennin Kiri is thought to be the first jōruri script printed in this new format. When Takemoto Chikugonojō (Takemoto Gidayū) started his own school of jōruri, he also used the eight-line script format that had begun with Uji Kaganojō. Until now, the first piece to utilise the seven-line format is thought to be the script of the premiere of Yoshino Miyako Onna Kusunoki 「吉野都女楠」 in 7th year of Hōei era (1710). This assumption is based on a statement in the preface of Gedainenkan Hōrekiban 外題年間宝暦版 from 1757 (the almanac of play titles for the Hōreki era), which states that:

scripts began to be written in large, bold letters and with seven lines per page from the publication of Yoshino Miyako Onna Kusunoki, narrated by Takemoto Chikugonojō in Hōei 7, year of the metal tiger (Kōzu, 2007, p.63).

Figure 1. Xylography:  Gidayūbushi shōhon 義太夫節正本 an authentic copy of the gidayūbushi. Kanadehon Chūshingura「仮名手本忠臣蔵」 The Treasury of Loyal Retainers, written by Takeda Izumo (1691–1756), Miyoshi Shōraku (c. 1696 – 1772) and Namiki Senryū (1695 – c. 1751) for jōruri. From the collection of the Tsubochi Memorial Theatre Museum, in Waseda University. Enpaku 早稲田大学演劇博物館 (

Another important debate engaging Japanese scholars concerns publishers. In fact, it seems that in the publishing environment of the time there were problems with pirated copies. (Kōzu, 2007, p.64-65).

The shōhon were not signed by an author but by their tayū; therefore, there are many versions of jōruri books. For example, Chikamatsu’s works were also published in the name of the declaimer Yamamoto Kakudayū, and the jōruri drama titled Eboshi-ori was published by three different chanters from at least 20 different publishers:

Compared to other jōruri songs, Eboshi-ori has more surviving shōhon than any other jōruri. The number of publishers is as many as 20, including Yamamoto Kuhee 山本九兵衛, Shōhonya Jinbee正本屋仁兵衛, and Zōgeya Saburobee象牙屋三郎兵衛, and the editions are diverse, including such styles as eight-line, seven-line, ten-line, eleven-line, fourteen-line book, and book with illustration. There are three types of tayū’s book: Gidayū, Chikugonojō筑後掾, and Tosanojō 土佐掾 (Tosanojō’s former name was Kakutayū), and the content differs depending on the tayū (Torii 1989, p.21).

Eboshi-ori has traditionally been attributed to Chikamatsu and is included in many of Chikamatsu’s jōruri collections. However, there is no proof that Chikamatsu created this piece. None of the various shōhon of the piece bears the signature of the author—Chikamatsu Monzaemon—below the inner title, although there are editions in which the name Chikamatsu Monzaemon appears in the postscript (Torii 1989, p.47).

In March 1685, Chikamatsu Monzaemon and Takemoto Gidayū, from Takemotoza troupe, presented the Shusse Kagekiyo 「出世景清」performance in the district of Dōtonbori in Ōsaka. During that performance, the Ujiza 宇治座troupe from Kyōto staged the Gaijin Yashima「凱陣八島」, which was written by Ihara Saikaku and directed by Ugi Kaganojō. The whole area of Dōtonbori was buzzing to see the clash between the two companies. However, they were disappointed as the Ujiza theatre was destroyed in a fire. This disaster, which forced Ugi Kaganojō to close his theatre and return to Kyōto, marked the start of the Takemoto Gidayū era (Satō 1998, p.261). Of course, this fire was not the only factor to determine the prevalence of Gidayū’s declamation. Bun’yabushi sounds simpler and more monotonous than gidayūbushi. (Sasaki H. et. al., 1979)

The old schools of storytelling—including the bun’yabushi—having been overwhelmed by the success of Gidayū, moved to the rural areas in search of new stages on which to perform without having to suffer being compared to Gidayū’s school, which remained at the centre. This replacement of the old with the new was merciless, but not immediate, and took place from the end of the 17th to the 18th century (Satō 1998, p.266).

When it came to the jōruri schools of narration, a specific historiographic tradition set by the Seikyoku Ruisan 声曲類纂—the encyclopaedia of musical theatre performances written by Saitō Gesshin in 1839—attempted to set the notion that every school had one declaimer who had created his unique narrative that differed from the rest. On the contrary, the many schools were mingled together, and modifications were shared rather than passed down linearly (Satō 1998, p.264-266).

Shusse Kagekiyo soon vanished from the theatres of three major cities of Edo, Ōsaka, and Kyōto after the Gidayū performance. However, his publications were still enjoyed in remote regions. There were two types of Shusse Kagekiyo librettos: Gidayū and Kakutayū’s versions, which differ from one another with respect to their musical notations and timbre (fushizuke), to the number of sheets, and the number of lines on every sheet. In 1961, the scholar Shinoda Jun’ichi noticed in the island of Sado the presence of an edition of Shusse Kagekiyo dated Bunkyū era (1861-64) and called Konhachirōemonban 近八郎 右衛門 版 edition of the city of Kanazawa. The Konhachi edition includes 32 sheets with 10 lines on every sheet (Furnari 2022, p.189). Shinoda stated that these narrative texts are very close to Yamamoto Kakutayū’s original texts. He also suggested that the opera Oguri Hangan Utanenbutsu 「小栗判官歌念仏」, which was passed down at the Koeiza theatre (in Sado), may be equivalent to Kakutayū’s original text, Oguri Hangan, which is known today only by name (Takusagawa 2003, p.62). Many researchers agree that these were the variants or different branches of the kakutayūbushi, because the puppet theatre reached these locations through the kakutayūbon books or librettos of the master declaimer, Kakutayū.

Figure 2. Xylography. An example of a vintage libretto of Shusse Kagekiyo, where the name of Kakutayū is at the end, lower left: 角太夫正本ナルベシ. Digital Collection: Yamaguchi University Library Wakatsuki Shiran Bunko Waka 912, p.4-66

However, one must avoid falling into the error of believing that the Kakutayū texts have come down to the present day directly from 1680. They are copies that can be dated back to the Edo period, the Meiji period, and even the Showa period (the editions of the Showa period are generally the honkoku 翻刻 texts, i.e., those transcribed from the current maestro or tayū).

During 1992 a group of academics from Waseda University conducted a research study on Fumoto (a little village in Yamanoguchi city, Miyazaki Prefecture) that constitutes a milestone on bun’ya bushi studies in Japan. In the Waseda University research team, Professor Wada Osamu believed that the text of Shusse Kagekiyo, dating back to 1826, could be said to be handwritten copies of original librettos of the Kakutayū genre:

As the main text of the bun’ya bushi jōruri, at the foot of Yamanokuchi Mountain, we were able to investigate ten manuscripts for the two dramas Shusse Kagekiyo and Kadode Yashima—six types and four types—respectively. In this area, they are called scripts or daihon 台本 (as in the kabuki), so the following will use that term. They have all been handed down in families with deep connections to jōruri, but they are now all preserved in the local museum. No printed books (hanpon 板本) are known to be in existence (Wada 1994, p.46)

There are six handwritten copies of Shusse Kagekiyo’s screenplay in Fumoto: one undated edition (prior to 1826); one dated 9th year of the Bunsei era (1826); one 45th year of the Meiji era (1912); and three copies dated 27th year of Shōwa era (1972). The copy dated 1826 belonged to the Bunsei era, hence before the Konhachi edition. As about the undated copy, based on its typeface and style it could be even older than 1826, possibly written during the Edo period; it is judged that the post-Meiji editions belong to the same lineage (Satō 1998, p.270). Both the Bunsei edition and the undated edition are transcriptions from woodblock-printed editions, and the woodblock-printed edition that became their source is believed to have been the collated in 10-line, 26-page by Kakutayū (Wada 1994, p.48).

Figure  3. Manuscript: The copy of Shusse Kagekiyo from 1826, Photo: Nakamoto Shōshi 中元照視
In this study, I interviewed Ms. Yurika Michigami of Fukaze Dekumawashi 深瀬木偶廻しPreservation Clubhouse (Fukaze Dekumawashi Hozonkai) regarding the use of Kakutayū librettos by current bun’ya ningyō troupes, and her reply was as follows:

Fukaze has old books printed in the Edo era. 40 years ago, chanters still used those books. But now, no one in our troupe can read the old-style text of cursive writing, with the unstable writing system of the Edo era. Books in the Edo era were made with woodblock prints, which contain more writing inconsistency. For this reason, we participate (online) in projects that help us in the transcription of Edo period books. We use the ‘transcribed’ (honkoku 翻刻) version of jōruri books, but I think the words are not that different from the old ones. Our chanter is using his own books, of which the papers, the font, font size, etc... are his choice. Our chanter, who was born and grew up in Fukaze, knows how to chant very well. However, he says the recordings of the predecessors’ chanting help him very much.

Figure 4. Modern print. A page from a transcribed libretto by the Fukaze Dekumawashi Hozonkai troupe. Collection Yurika Michigami.

The projects mentioned by Ms. Yurika Michigami are online platforms made up of groups of volunteers who pool their knowledge to help transcribe texts from the Edo era. The results are usually excellent. It seems that forty years ago, in the early 80s, the last tayū of the Fukaze troupe, who was able to read the original texts of Kakutayū in their possession, passed away. Currently Kakutayū’s librettos are in private hands.

A controversial topic: is it really bun’yabushi?

In 1909-1910, Professor Takano Tatsuyuki, a learned scholar, discovered that 4-5 visually impaired narrators had continued to perform a style of theatre known, amongst the islanders, as bun’yabushi, on Sado Island.

Professor Takano, contacted the district headman of Sado island and received the fortunate reply that there were still several storytellers there. The answer to his question regarding the titles and examples of the things they were narrating was as follows:

“There are some gidayūbushi which narrate Chikamatsu’s plays such as: Genji Eboshiori 「源氏烏帽子折 」, Soga Kaikeizan「曽我会稽山」, and Shusse Kagekiyo.

However, there are also some titles that have been passed on as narrations by Yamamoto Kakutayū, such as: Shinoda Tsuma「信田妻」, Sanshō Dayū「山椒大夫」, Shinjū-hachi ganki「四 十八 願 記」, and Oguri Hangan「小栗の判官」.

(…) Other than that, there are titles such as: Oota Kassen「太田合戦」, Kumano Kassen「熊野合戦」, Yashima「八島」, Shitenno Tsukushi Seme「四天王筑紫責」, and Fujiwara no Sumitomo「藤原純友」, which can be classified (the latter) as ko-jōruri of kimpirabushi. Titles such as Shitenno Tsukushi Seme were katarimono narrations of the declaimer Inoue Harimanojō” (Takano, 1915, p.230).

From what he could see from the examples he received from Sado, he was pleased to discover that Chikamatsu’s works were seemingly mostly narrated according to their original text. Professor Takano expertly continued his analysis by noting that:

it is said that the melody that they chanted was a tragic one. Also, according to some people who have heard it, the prologue was similar to the epic poem of Heike Monogatari. There were some titles which seemed like the katarimono stories of kinpirabushi, but if their melody is tragic, can we then still call them kinpirabushi? Well, it seems that we can. Currently there remains something called kinpirabushi in Echigo, around the district of Kitakambara. Among its katarimono stories, there are Kadode Yashima 「門 出 八 島」, Taishokan「大 職 冠」 and Ushiwaka Anba Kudari 「牛 若 鞍馬 下 り」. These are in the style of kojōruri, and they do not narrate stories typical of kinpira, but rather kinpira, so it would be better to call them bun’ya (Takano 1915, p.231).

Professor Takano notes that kinpirabushi, invented by Edoizumidayū, is supposed to have an aggressive and war-like style; and its katarimono revolve around battles and heroic deeds. However, in Sado the librettos are recited in bun’yabushi. In this regard, it should be noted that kinpira shows are still being performed in Sado, albeit by only one company, the Koeiza. Subsequently, on Takano’s initiative, on June 17, 1911, a group of musicians from Sado island performed the bun’yabushi at the Musical Academy of Tōkyō (Geidai) in front of an audience made up of art connoisseurs. Musicologists, writers, art historians, along with the famous novelist Nagai Kafū, were among the members of the audience who attended the special show. Many scholars and connoisseurs thought it was new and interesting. The public’s reaction was similar to that displayed when archaeologists make a new discovery by debunking some long-held beliefs and stirring disputes for the next two decades (Furnari, 2022, p.185).

Why was the audience so surprised during the performance held at the Tokyo Academy of Arts? On Sado Island, two forms of puppet theatre were more popular: bun’yabushi and sekkyōbushi. Furthermore, three musicians, who at that time were the most renowned on the island, came: Miyama Seiga, who was a 47-year-old visually impaired musician, and his able-bodied disciples, Sei Jirō (32) and Matsumura Muraji (33 years). Professor Takano commented after hearing their performance that: “the performance was like the unfinished version of gidayūbushi.” However, as Takano himself admitted, there was no evidence that could attest that it was true and authentic bun’yabushi (Takano, 1915, p.233). Notwithstanding, Takano realised that the bun’yabushi was not only a melody that was completely lost in the ancient pages of the old almanacs, but that the bun’ya melodies were mixed with other genres of Japanese music:

If we look at any book that has a genealogy of popular music, the first Miyako Icchu 都一中 was a descendant of this bun’ya. The so-called bungobushi 豊 後 節 also belonged to the lineage of Icchu, and if we consider it tokiwazu 常磐津 (bushi), tomimoto 富本 (bushi), kiyomoto 清 元 (bushi) all branched off from the same line that bun’ya started with his school. Of course, in bungobushi, there are same fushi melodies called bun’ya. […]. Also, in tokiwazu, tomimoto, kiyomoto and shinnai, there is a fushi melody called bun’ya (Takano. 1915, p.228-231).

The bushi or storytelling style included a succession of specific melodic fragments, some vocal sets along with spoken passages. The bushi were called ‘stereotyped melodies’ by Alison Tokita McQueen. The bushi were usually used in music compositions and were accompanied by some form of narration or katarimono, a type of narration that is similar to that used by storytellers (McQueen Tokita 2000, p.99-101).

In 1911, Takano Tatsuyuki identified 13 forms of bushi in Sado (Takano, 1915, p.232), which are considered by experts to be completely different from the style of Gidayū. We had the privilege of listening to these bushi that are still masterfully performed by tayū Kubo Sōka 久保 宗 香 of the Tokiwaza 常盤座 theatre company. Thanks to the mediation of the Cultural Foundation of Sado, and in particular of Mr. Uji Yoshinori, unpublished recordings were obtained at our specific request.

Figure 5. Photo: Private collection, September 3, 2021.   The bushi identified by Takano Tatsuyuki were: ōoroshi 大オロシ, ureibushi ウレイブシ, daisanjū 大三重, irotsunagi イロツナギ, kyome sanjū キョメ三重, okurisanjū オクリ三重, chūsanjū 中三重, hazumi ハヅミ, hariotoshi ハリオトシ, kan’otoshiカンオトシ, kandome カンドメ, okuri オクリ, otoshi オトシ.   (Takano, 1915, 232). Today performed  by the tayū Kubo Sōka .

It took a long time for the bun’yabushi discovered by Takano on the island of Sado in 1911 to be accepted as the same bun’yabushi mentioned in the chronicles of 1600/1700. In the first half of the last century, newspapers and specialised magazines provide a good example of the debate that was taking place on this issue. These documents state that the term bun’ya could only be traced back to 1897. However, when Nitta Isaku 新田伊作 published the Jikanshoshū 耳眼書集 about the genealogy of the bun’ya declamators (either blind or sighted), which went back to the mid-1700s, he used the term bun’ya to define the art of the narrators in Sado. Since the Jikanshoshū is universally accepted as the manifesto of the declamatory style of Sado, the term bun’ya is to be considered as a new term given by Nitta Isaku to a local art of uncertain origin (Sasaki Y. 1997, p.91-92). We had to wait until the 1960s, when a series of historical philological studies began documenting the presence of the ‘real’ bun’yabushi on the island of Sado thanks to the Kakutayū style shōhon.

Apollonian aesthetics needs dates of a structure that moves along pre-established paths, but often the province that preserves ancient texts from the past does it in its own way; for example by hand-copying Kakutayū’s texts that were printed in the publisher’s woodcut workshop Yamamoto Kuhee. The centre often comes with its meta-narrative, pre-packaged questions to which there is no answer. When the centre manages to learn the language of the periphery—for example with the discovery of old prints in local printing houses such as the Konachiroemon edition, or of works such as Shusse Kagekiyo—the mysteries of the periphery are understood.

The bun’ya ningyō

After talking about the librettos and bun’yabushi melodies, we move on to the puppet theatre that uses this particular declamatory genre to give voice to the puppets and narrate the scene. Sekkyō ningyō and bun’ya ningyō are puppet theatres performed along with sekkyōbushi and bun’yabushi (Satō, 1998, p.263). The bun’ya ningyō theatre is based on the narration of crude and rudimentary puppets in comparison to the refined puppets used in bunraku. The structure of these puppets includes a head that is placed on a wooden cross and draped with a dress. The stage is very simple and is made of a curtain or koshimaku that covers these puppets to their waist. The curtain is 90 to 150 cm high and can be from 9 to 11 metres long. It is either made of one solid colour or has some illustrations in the background. Ozakiya Matsunosuke made some changes to the simple stage of the kojōruri ningyō, which in Sado is called takamaku ningyō. After a trip to Kansai, where he attended a bunraku show, he transformed the rudimentary stage, which consisted of a curtain in front and one behind, by building a room between the two curtains, to give a more complex scenario, (Satō, 1998, p.265),  but polluting, for us, the purity of the ancient puppet show. A few images of the puppets belonging to the Higashifutakuchi bun’ya ningyō jōruri theatre, a town in the Ishikawa prefecture, are presented in Figure 6.

Figure 6. Structure of the puppet’s body and clothes. Source: Higashifutakuchi bun’ya ningyō jōruri troupe. Photo: Prof. Matsushita Omihito’s, collection.

The bun’ya ningyō is present in five locations that are far from each other. Although it is not the same in each location, there are some common characteristics that have made scholars group the different versions under a single definition of bun’ya ningyō. On the island of Sado there are various bun’ya ningyō companies; in the past, there were more than fifty in total. In the other four locations—namely, Higashifutakuchi, Fukaze, Fumoto, and Onobuchi—there is only one bun’ya ningyō jōruri theatre company that has maintained the same characteristics over time. This dramatic difference in numbers occurred because in Sado the bun’ya ningyō was introduced in various waves, even distant in time, due to the presence of gold mines that attracted all kinds of people against the will of the authorities. On the other hand, in other places such as in the south of Kyūshū, there was an initiative by the local feudal authorities to hire troupes of professionals to bring some entertainment to their fiefdom. In the prefecture of Ishikawa, some fortuitous events brought a traveling company into contact with the inhabitants of Fukase; while in Higashifutakuchi, an old scroll from the Edo era talked about four masters who brought the art of jōruri during the mid-1600s.

In 1870, a blind bun’ya ningyō storyteller from Sado island, Ito Tokiwa no ichi伊藤常盤一, from Sawane, asked a puppeteer of sekkyō ningyō, Ozakiya Matsunosuke 大崎屋松之助, from Ogi , to join him to form a new puppet theatre company. Thus, the bun’ya ningyō arose in Sado.

It could be hypothesised that from that moment, all the puppet companies on the island got into the habit of representing their shows in the bun’ya bushi style. After the 1870s in Sado, even the sekkyō-mono probably began to be told in kakudayū-bushi (Satō 1998, p.264). The scholar Satō Akira refers to the fact that in Sado the bun’yabushi was narrated rather than represented with puppets. Theatrical performances were probably delivered in sekkyōbushi style and, perhaps, in authentic kimpirabushi style. However, after the birth of the successful Ozakiya Matsunosuke company, which brought into the troupe a blind bun’ya style narrator, among other theatre companies on the island there was a habit of reciting everything in bun’ya style.

Sado had a tradition of zagatari 座 語 り of bun’ya bushi (bun’ya declaimers who accompanied themselves with the shamisen), which was often recited by blind singers. This can be seen by examining the Jiganshoshū, the genealogy of the Sado bun’ya masters dating back to the mid-1700s (Yamamoto 1976, p.129). The strong influence of the zagatari tradition in the puppet theatre of Sado can also be understood from the fact that the shamisen player (which from some testimonies seemed to have been originally a biwa) was also the narrator. On the other hand, in the other localities one person played and another declaimed, as in the tradition of jōruri and bunraku.

The investigative report on the bun’ya puppets of the city of Tōgō (Tōgōmachi bun’yabushiningyōjōruri chōsa hōkoku-sho) pointed out that the Onobuchi-Tōgō troupe practises the ashibyōshi 足拍子 technique, that is, moving the feet rhythmically as if dancing. Consistently, in Tōgō the puppet theatre is called ningyō odori, meaning puppet dance. In fact, not the puppets, but the puppeteers do some dance steps while holding the puppets, accompanied by the drum and by the hyōshigi or wooden clappers. The same report mentioned the extreme similarity between the Tōgō theatre and Higashifutakuchi theatre—where the same technique of dance steps is practised—in the prefecture of Ishikawa, about 1200 kilometres away; and the absolute diversity with the adjacent Fumoto theatre in the nearby Miyazaki prefecture, just 80 km away (Vv., Aa., Tōgō Town Board of Education, 2002, p.49).

Despite the similarities, the Higashifutakuchi company (called Deku no Mai 木偶 の 舞), explained that ashibyōshi, or beat the feet to the rhythm, is called ashifumi by them. Mrs. Yurika Michigami, a member of the Fukase’s troupe also in Ishikawa prefecture, explained:

Making a rhythmical sound by stomping is a very important element in the Dekumawashi theatre because our simple puppets can make very simple movements. We call it ashibechi, and I think it is a corrupted form of ashibyōshi.

Both the Higashifutakuchi and Fukaze theatres were defined by Satō Akira as ko-jōruri ningyō (Satō, 1998, p.267).

The bun’yabushi in Sado

The island of Sado boasted a gold mine that was under the direct rule of the shogunate. Considered a place of exile, it was where Emperor Juntoku, Nichiren, Shinran, and Zeami were banished. When gold mines were exploited during the early Keichō era (1596-1615), many diverse groups of people flocked to the island in droves. This marked the beginning of a gold rush. Sado was also a complex melting pot of many cultures: “Sado was a place where culture was syncretized in a complex way” (Satō, 1998, p.263). On Sado, the island of gold mines, they strove to keep workers away from entertainment so that they could devote their efforts to making money. In the Sado Jiryaku 佐渡事略 written in 1782 by the magistrate Ishino Hiromichi 石野広通, is said:

There was nothing akin to kabuki plays. Occasionally there were performances akin to travel plays by people coming, saying they were selling medicine. However, when this would go on for about three to four days, the magistrate’s office made restrictions, and would not allow people like that to stay in the province of Sado. As to why that was so, it was to suppress the occurrences of traveling performers coming to Sado to earn gold and silver, and then, leave for other provinces. In addition, the people who worked in the gold and silver mines would not work for the day so that they could watch the traveling performers. The magistrate’s office believed that a day of no work caused economic loss.

「歌舞妓芝居の類いなし、たま〜 旅芝居の如きもの薬商云ひて立てゝ、来る事あり。三〜四日に及ぶ時は奉行所より制して此国に止めず。是は小国の金銀費えて、他国に出るを制し、又金銀山の者ども見物に一日業を怠る時、公儀一日御不益ゆへなり」。(Sasaki Y., 1997, p.18). 

Throughout its history, travelling performers introduced the performing arts to Sado island on many occasions. In 1612, the Sado Nendaiki佐渡年代記, who documented all matters relating to the Office of the Sado Magistrate, recorded the presence of Kabuki actresses of Kyōto–Ōsaka.

Three types of puppet theatre were performed on Sado island: sekkyō or kinpira, bun’ya, and noroma. Noroma ningyō was an ai-kyōgen that was performed as an interlude between sekkyō ningyō acts. Four puppets, such as Kinosuke, were used to perform comedic lines. Noroma ningyō was also called yonema ningyō; noroma and yonema refer to the same thing (Satō, 1998, p.263).

There is a list of 46 narrative books (or katarihon) and librettos from the Tsuruma Yukio霞間幸雄 collection at the Koei-za sekkyō ningyō theatre.  Most of the manuscripts are dated from the Bunka and Bunsei eras (1804-1831) (Satō, 1998, p.263). Many are manuscripts called sanshirō-gaki (written by Sanshirō). Sanshirō is believed to be a family of calligraphers. Few are the booklets printed with woodblock matrices. There are many texts from between the Tenpō era (1830-1843) and the early Meiji (Sasaki Y., 1997, p.59). Meiji-era printed booklets known as Konhachiroemon from a Kanazawa bookstore also circulate on the island, in response to local demand (Shinoda, 1961, p.104).

Figure 7. Manuscript of Sado sekkyō ningyō shōhon, an authentic copy of sekkyō ningyō from Sado Island: Komochi Yamamba 「嫗山姥」. Manuscripts of ‘Sanshirō-kaki’, 「三四郎書き」  by Oda Shigeru小田這茂. The date of January 1851 (Kaei 4) is written in the  postscript. From the collection of the Tsubochi  Memorial Theatre Museum, at Waseda University. Enpaku 早稲田大学演劇博物館 (


A relatively large number of performances were held, with some theatres holding performances as often as thirty times a year, others about ten per year. The Koei-za Theatre was the only puppet theatre to perform sekkyō ningyō on Sado Island. The bun’ya ningyō, which for a long time was only recited by blind bun’ya narrators, was also established as a puppet theatre after 1870. The genealogy of these blind narrators has been preserved, and is included in the Jigan Shoshū by Nitta Isaku, a bun’ya puppeteer born in 1867 (Satō, 1998, p.264). Most of the academic research on the surviving narrative texts on Sado Island focused on traces of Kakutayū and sekkyō (Takusagawa, 2003, p.62).

Noroma ningyō in Sado

Noroma is the third type of puppet theatre performed on Sado island. Often written as ‘野呂松’ and ‘野呂間,’ it was often called soroma, sorona, and soma (Seikyoku Ruisan, 1839). Noroma was a derogatory term for a slow and dull person, similar to a fool (Yamamoto, 1976, p.112). The master puppeteers Kensai Sahei Sahei 謙斎佐兵衛 and Noromatsu Kanbei 野呂松勘兵衛performed the noroma ningyō at the theatre of the founder of the kinpira ningyō puppet theatre, Edo Izumidayū. According to the historiographic text Kindai Sejidan 近代世事談, written by Kikuoka Senryō 菊岡浩涼 in 1734, Noromatsu Kanbei used grotesquely shaped puppets. This clownish theatre is called noroma as an abbreviation of Noromatsu, the name of one of the theatre’s founders. Keisai Sahei and Noromatsu Kanbei used the puppets smartly, as both wise and foolish men in the kyōgen.

The noroma ningyō plays were among audience’s favourites and were performed as far away as in Edo, Kyōto, and Ōsaka. However, the noroma ningyō was gradually side-lined after performing of the Kokusen’ya Kassen 「国姓爺合戦」 in 1714 in Ōsaka. This is believed to be due to the appearance of gidayūbushi storytellers and works such as those of Takeda Izumo, which already included elements of kyogen or the comic interludes of Noh theatre. Although it was no longer performed in major cities, the noroma ningyō continued to be popular in provinces such as Satsuma, Kaga, and Sado island. However, it was simply called kyōgen in these areas (Yamamoto, 1976, p.111).

The exact period of the arrival of the noroma in Sado is not known, but according to the testimony of Nakagawa Kanraku, an old bun’ya master of the island, it was prohibited by the authorities from 1907 because it was considered too licentious. Until then, the noroma ningyō was commonly referred to as yonema and kyōgen on the island. In the past, normal puppet plays included five acts during the day, five acts at night, and one noroma act during the interval between the day and night acts (Yamamoto 1976, p.112). At present, only the Koei-za 廣栄座and Shinsei-za 新青座companies perform the noroma ningyō on Sado (Sasaki H., et al., 1979, p.36).

Kinosuke, a fool, is the main character of the noroma ningyō on Sado island. He is the only puppet with arms and legs, and by the end of the performance he is naked. In Sado, during the Feast of Tsuburosashi in Hamochimachi city, the actor-dancer who plays the main character during the parade exposes his huge penis, and places the two manifestations among the rites of fertility. The correlation is even more explicit during the Otaue お田植えShinto ritual of Kumata jinja 杭全神社shrine in Ōsaka, during which a doll is made to urinate on the audience. The other puppets in the theatre of Sado are: the naive Shimonochō, his licentious wife Ohana, and a trickster statue sculptor, or Busshi. The major plays are: Kinosuke Iki Jizō 「木之介生地蔵」, Kinosuke Zazen 「木之介座禅」, Tsurigitsune 「釣狐」, and Uma Dachin「馬駄賃」(Sasaki H., et al., 1979, p.115-117).

Figure 8. The original noroma puppets currently in the care of the Koei-za theatre company were sculpted in the early 1900s by Ittaku Teruzō. Photo: Sado Min’yō Jikkō Iinkai (Sado Folk Song Executive Committee).

Aristotle suggests that comedy originates from the phallus-based Kòmos festival, a procession of sowing and tending to fields, and that, initially, it had apotropaic purposes. In the ancient Greece, processions of big wooden phalli were held with the purpose of celebrating Priapus and Dionysus. These processions were called Phallophories and were also commonly used to ensure good harvests. Phalli were also used in Roman territories, Italy, and Greece to conclude processions by spraying a concoction of honey, water, and grape juice on fields to symbolise ejaculation of the seeds of life, and to ensure a plentiful harvest (Albini et al., 1975, p.179-180).

The Atellane Farces, which were created by the Oscans of Campania around 500 BC and named after the ancient city of Atella, used stereotyped masks and highlighted the sarcastic and humorous spirit typical of the Greeks and Latins. In an Atellan Farce the farcical aspects prevailed. They reflected real-life mindsets but always using the same characters they reproduced typologies of individuals, such as the envious servant, the stingy master, the unwise peasant, the wise passer-by, the old lover, and the young competitor. The masks, used for worship in Greece, were also used in the Greek and Roman theatre, and primarily in Atellan comedies. This has also profoundly affected the Commedia dell’Arte (Monda, 2010, p.69-82). The Greek and Roman theatre seems to be the first to have created stereotyped characters; Kinosuke’s comedies incorporate both the fertility rituals and the comedy aspects with casts of conventional characters.

In the second book of his travel diary entitled Histories, the Greek historian and traveller Herodotus (c. 484– c. 425 BC) describes the religious customs of the Egyptians. In particular, he talks about a strange procession carried out by Egyptian women in honour of Dionysius, most likely the Egyptian divinity of Osiris. The women, parading through the city, were preceded by a flute player who announced their arrival, and each of them carried at her side a 52 cm high puppet, held by strings, equipped with an enormous phallus, as tall as the puppet, that the women manipulated with unequivocal attitudes (Magnin, 1862, p.10).

Multiple studies have, in the past three decades, examined Japanese ritual puppets that are believed to have been used, much like African fetish and voodoo dolls, to appease the gods. The ebisu kaki, or puppeteers who performed magical rites with the use of puppets (Law, 1992), share great similarities with the Caribbean and African cultures. Images of humans and deities were destroyed, burned, or buried for sympathetic magic rituals in the Assyrian and Ptolemaic cultures (Faraone, 1991).

Finally, we must not forget the ancient art of Theurgy, a late Hellenistic and late Neoplatonist religious practice aimed at producing miraculous benefits and at developing powers. Theurgy is known through the studies on the Chaldean Oracles that were transcribed and commented on by the monk Michael Psellos, who lived in the year 1000. An important ritual of the Theurgists was constituted by the tekestiké: this was the animation of an ‘inanimate receptacle,’ which could be a statue or doll, through invocations by the Theurgists and through the insertion of magical herbs, stones, or fragments of animals remains.

The Chaldean Oracles also talk about Julian the Theurgist, who lived under Marcus Aurelius. Among the numerous services rendered to the emperor, Julian repelled the Dacians from the Roman borders with the use of a mask. Having made a man’s face with mud, he placed it so that it looked towards the barbarians; as soon as they approached him, they were repelled by bright thunderbolts coming from the mask. At this point it is easy to make the comparison with the battle that in the year 720 engaged the Japanese imperial government against the Hayato tribe for the conquest of a stronghold in the province of Ōsumi and of Hyūga in southern Kyūshū. In the annals of the Usa Hachiman shrine, it is reported that the priests of the temple were hired by the imperial authority to use their ritual puppets to set up a show that would distract the Hayato’s soldiers barricaded in their stronghold, which had until then been impregnable. The Hayato soldiers were enchanted by the spectacle and the imperial troops were able to conquer the fortress (Furnari , 2023).

The two theatres in Ishikawa Prefecture: Higashifutakuchi 東二口 and Fukaze 深瀬

In Ishikawa prefecture, there are two communities famous for puppet theatre: Higashifutakuchi and Fukaze. Oguchi mura is a village at the bottom of the Haku mountain range. Mount Haku (2702 m) is a place of worship. The Tedori River that originates from Mount Haku flows through this region. In 1978, when a dam on Tedori River was completed, four villages were submerged, including Fukaze. A part of the inhabitants of Fukaze received substitute land on the left bank of the Tedori River and remained there, but many of them moved to the city of Tsurugi-machi. About 15 families that moved as a group to the same town, Shichihara-machi, created the new town of Fukaze Shinmachi. There, they built the Dekumawashi Preservation Clubhouse, where they perform ‘Dekumawashi’ once a year, thus reviving Fukaze ningyō. Higashifutakuchi ningyō performances are held at the Museum of History and Folklore of Higashifutakuchi in the same area. The puppets in Higashifutakuchi and Fukaze are bun’ya ningyō puppets. The significant intangible folk cultural asset [1] of the country of ‘Oguchi Dekumawashi’ refers to both as kojōruri ningyō.

Higashifutakuchi and Fukaze were only 6 km apart, but their performance theatre tradition was not the same. In Higashifutakuchi, a yuishogaki 由緒書 (old scroll document) from the old collection of Daishōya Omoteke family 大庄屋 表 家, dated from around the late Edo period, describes the origins of Higashifutakuchi’s bun’ya ningyō. The scroll also mentions bun’ya jōruri deku-no-mai and talks about four masters who learned the art of jōruri while traveling in Kyōto and Ōsaka. There is no material to substantiate the fact that the origins of the scroll go back to 1655, since the Omoteke family held real power only after 1661.

Though there were no written records for Fukaze, tradition stated that the Dekumawashi company arrived in Fukaze 300 years ago, during the late 17th century, while touring the province. This troupe was stranded due to snowfall and could not find food; therefore, they asked the locals for help. When they could leave in April, they left their puppets behind as a payment of their debt.

The Fukaze ningyō dekumawashi narration is not accompanied by a shamisen or flute. This narration has a melody that sounds like the chanting of sutras. Only seven fushi are available: ukibushi, mai, dashi, kotobabushi, michibiki, seme, and deku taijō (Satō 1998, p.268-9). Fukase ningyō was performed in the three days of the New Year (January 14, 15, and 16 in the old lunar calendar). It was a folk event organised by young people, where all people of the village took part without touring to other villages. They performed the following eight plays: Taishokan「大職冠」. (The Stolen Crystal Jewel), Kumai Tarō Takayuki no Maku「熊井太郎孝行之巻」, Shuten Dōji 「酒呑童子」, Genji Eboshi-ori (The Eboshi maker), Kadode Yashima「門出八島」, and Kanadehon Chūshingura「仮名手本忠臣蔵」. (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers). And Shusse Kagekiyo, Komochi Yamauba. Except for Kanadehon Chushingura, both Ogura Manabu (a local expert scholar) and Nagata Kōkichi (an important academic expert in theatre) have hypothesised that they are copies of librettos of the Kakutayū genre (Satō 1998, p.268-9).

There is a flowing manner in the movement of the puppets in Fukase Dekumawashi, reminiscent of the waves coming in and receding. When the performance ends, there is a dance with the puppet called Yoichibee. The audience joins the performers. They pick up the puppets and props as they like and play around with them:

‘Yoichibe-san demonaika.’ (Isn’t it Mr. Yoichibe?) ‘Shima no saifu ga ki ni kakaru.’ (Your striped wallet is interesting.) ‘Choichoichoi. Mo hitotsu kayashite.’ (Do it again). They repeat. After Yoichibe dance, they remove the curtains of the stage, and all the participants sing along and dance to the folk song senbondzuki 千本づき (Satō 1998, p.269).

The puppet heads currently used for Fukase ningyō are new ones. The old puppets and costumes are kept in the city of Tsurugi-machi Museum.

Figure 9. During a performance of the Fukaze Dekumawashi , we can see that for each puppeteer there is only one puppet. The declamation of the Tayū to Fukaze is accompanied only by the drum, and the melody is very similar to the recitation of the sutras. Photo: Sakai Michio Collection. With the mediation of Fukase Deku-Mawashi Hozon-kai (Fukase Dekumawashi Preservation Clubhouse).

The two puppet theatres of southern Kyushu: Fumoto 麓 and Onobuchi 斧淵

On the Kyūshū island, the bun’ya puppet theatre is still performed in two locations: Fumoto, Miyazaki prefecture, in the city of Yamanokuchi-chō; and Onobuchi, which is in the city of Tōgō-chō in the Kagoshima prefecture.

For the past several centuries Yamanokuchi-chō has always been a place where people stop before proceeding to Saikaidō, on the western sea route. In 1615, the administrators opened a government office for the gōshi or landowners in Fumoto. The gōshi promoted and subsidised the development of puppet theatre as entertainment for the local population. The puppet theatre of Fumoto was known as Fumoto no Ningyō Mawashi 麓の人形まわし. The most represented pieces in Fumoto are: Shusse Kagekiyo and Kadode Yashima. After Kadode Yashima and Shusse Kagekiyo have ended, when people leave their seats, the dance called musume teodori 娘手踊りis performed. The three young female puppets that appeared in Kadode Yashima and Shusse Kagekiyo dance with hands and arms from a seated position wearing the costumes. The old people of the village remember that, in the past, usually also followed sanbasō 三番叟 (Satō 1998, p.272). Sanbasō is the celebratory dance that traditionally opens a season or marks the opening of a new theatre. It is a prayer for prosperity and abundance adapted to the traditional Japanese stage. In Fumoto, the plays Taro no Gozemuki「太郎の御前迎」—where the giant Taro takes an old lady as his wife—and Higashidake ga Inoshishigari「東嶽が猪狩り」—where the protagonists are swallowed by a serpent while hunting for wild boar—are performed as ai-kyōgen, or kyōgen interlude. Both are funny pieces, and locally called zakuyashi 座くやし.

During the Edo era, in Onobuchi, the puppet theatre was promoted by local authorities such as the gōshi. Based on the oral tradition, the theatre was established in the late 17th century, and became locally popular as the Onobuchi no ningyō odori 斧淵の人形踊り. At the end of the 17th century (1698-99), the gōshi traveled during the sankin kōtai, i.e., the obligation to stay in Edo at the shōgun’s court. It seems that during the stop, before reaching Edo, they attended a bun’ya ningyō performances in Ōsaka and Kyōto and they took home with them a troupe. A gōshi called Kamata鎌田 also spread the puppet theatre to Nōze (present day Tōgō-cho) and Taki (present day Sendai City). The theatres in Nōze and Taki were involved in fires and then abolished by the middle or the end of the Meiji era. Onobuchi was revived in 1947, thanks to the efforts of Nagakura Takao (Satō 1998, p.273). Sasaki Yoshihisa (the author of Sado ga Shima Ningyō Banashi), in his search to find connections between Sado and other types of bun’yabushi, seems to have found similarities with Onobuchi’s bun’yabushi. Interviewed by Satō Akira, he stated that:

There are about 20 yakubushi, the bun’yabushi practice starts from the snowy scene of Eboshiori, in this respect, it is similar to Sado. At times I can hear fushi melody similar to the ones from Sado, but in important scenes there is taiko accompaniment (Satō 1998, p.274).

Onobuchi possesses 18 authentic vintage puppets. Genji Eboshiori was their primary representative. The Onobuchi theatre contains around 20 puppets that date to 1865. Up until the Meiji period, 23 types of scripts (daihon台本) were handed down, but currently there are only 18 types. These writings are mainly about Genji Eboshi-ori, Kadode Yashima, Shusse Kagekiyo, Komochi Yamauba, and Harami Tokiwa. Their main play is Genji Eboshi-ori. They have 18 puppets still preserved today, all from after 1865-66. It must be noted that the male puppets are hitori-zukai (one puppeteer for one puppet), while the female puppets are futari-zukai (two puppeteers for a puppet) (Satō 1998, p.274-275).

The bunyabushi ningyō jōruri of the city of Tōgō is played by 10 puppeteers, including a storyteller, a shamisen player, a taiko drummer, and a hyōshiki or clapper player. The dance has a preponderant part; so much that for a long time the show has been called ‘ningyō odori.’ During the performance there is a part called kakari or dangi, where the drums and the shamisen are used to give momentum and the puppeteers dance with the puppets by stamping their feet or they make the ashibyōshi; it seems that this is a characteristic of the ancient jōruri (Vv.Aa , Satsumasendai City Board of Education, 2018, p.3).

Onobuchi has an important aikyōgen 間狂言tradition. Here, in the past, comic fragments were performed during the breaks of the bun’ya ningyō dramas, similarly to what happened in Sado. The dōke ningyō 道化人形 puppets, or funny puppets, had names like Noroma and Soroma and for this reason the local kyōgen is also called noroma kyōgen (Vv.Aa., Tōgō Town Board of Education , 2002, p.51). The titles of the plays are: Gozemuki 「御前迎」, Iotsuri 「魚釣」, Hanaya Jizo「花屋地蔵」, Yome sagashi 「嫁さがし」; and teodori (dances with the hands) like Han’ya-bushi 「ハンヤ節」and Ohara-bushi 「オハラ節」.

When the kyōgen comedy comes to an end, the funny puppets or dōke ningyō—Sairoku, Zukuro, Soroma, and Noroma—are made to dance to the movements of a local folk dance called Hanyabushi はんや節. It seems that the audience gets involved in this dance and claps their hands in time (Vv.Av., Tōgō Town Board of Education, 2002, p.51). This typical end of the show is reminiscent of the Yoichibe dance in Fukaze (Ishikawa prefecture), where the audience is also involved in the play.


This article demonstrates that the centre and periphery share a mobile relationship, which is affected by the tensions and variations associated with the social, political, and artistic changes, rather than solely with the relationship between delay and innovation.

The geographical and political human consortium has always been split into centres and suburbs, which reflected a varied degree of power distribution. The centres and the peripheries existed at all the economic, historic, and cultural levels. Their relationship, however, is dynamic: in the same way historic centres go out of favour or evolve and redefine their ideals, so do suburbs, which are occasionally mixed in with centres. Hence, when the cultural concepts and art forms have spread across different provinces and are replaced by other art forms in the centres, they are generally preserved in the far-flung suburban regions. Even when the suburbs seem to adapt to the indications of the centre, they do so in a creative way, developing art forms that are no longer simple copies but reworkings (Castelnuovo and Ginzburg 1979). In postmodern communities defined as organisations without centre or periphery, for tribes of successive identifications, based mainly on a system of horizontal relationships, the valorisation of the local demo-ethno-anthropological heritage is of great importance; not so much for its conservation but for its use.

It is important to put the heritage of tradition back into circulation as much as possible, since it can be considered a production of resources for the territory; in addition, the enjoyment of one’s own tradition and memory becomes an important field of interaction. The demo-ethno-anthropological assets spread across the territory cannot be protected by simply recording, filing, or mummifying them in a huge archive; their protection consists in making them available for the use of community, and more widely for the use of every visitor interested: their valorisation lies in making them an object of communication. Alberto Cirese is responsible for having highlighted the existence of the immaterial assets, which he called ‘volatile,’ specific to the demo-ethno-anthropological heritage: fairy tales, stories, songs, parties, shows, etc. “Volatile goods are both identical and changeable and are lost forever if they are not fixed on lasting memories” (Bravo G., Tucci R., 12015, p.27).


1. Jūyō Mukei Minzoku Bunkazai重要無形民俗文化財


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About the Author

Rosa Isabella Furnari was educated at the University of Venice, department of oriental languages and literatures; obtained the Monbukagakushō scholarship. She has taught in various Italian universities as a temporary contract professor of Japanese literature, is attending her PhD at the University of Trier.  Her research specialty is Japanese Puppets Theatre and Local History.

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