Nomai Dance Drama: A Surviving Spirit of Medieval Japan

Nomai Dance Drama: A Surviving Spirit of Medieval Japan

Nomai Dance Drama: A Surviving Spirit of Medieval Japan

Nomai Dance Drama: A Surviving Spirit of Medieval Japan


Nomai dance drama, an artistic expression combining sacred, communal, economic, and cultural spheres of community life in the district of Higashidorimura, is a performing tradition that provides an identity to agriculturally based villages. It has retained features characteristic of the music, drama, and sacred practices of medieval Japan. Nomai singing exhibits traits linked to Buddhist chanting. The instrumental music originates from folk Shinto. This study highlights the social and cultural value nomai has for the residents in villages that perform it by providing the historical context in which it is examined, as well as its current performance practices.


In the northeastern portion of Shimokita Peninsula a piece of land juts out from the northernmost tip of the main island of Honshō. Thirteen villages in this geographically and culturally isolated district of Japan keep alive a rich artistic tradition: nōmai dance drama.

nōmai opens a window onto the richness and complexity of Japan's folk performing arts. It is a medieval dance drama that blends music, dance, drama, literature, and ritual symbolism into a single tradition. Itinerant priests, known as yamabushi (ascetic mountain priests), introduced nōmai to villages on the peninsula about 370 years ago. Yamabushi performed nōmai as a vehicle in proselytizing to provincial audiences and eventually taught it to villagers to ensure its survival. Medieval religions--Buddhism, Shintoism, and Taoism--influenced yamabushi in creating a performing art that unified elements from a number of traditions. Yamabushi traveled extensively to sacred mountains throughout Japan to perform their austerities. Their trips brought them into direct contact with a variety of performances given at temples and shrines, which served as communal and commercial centers. As practitioners of Shugendō, an ascetic religious order, yamabushi synthesized Buddhist music elements and Shugendō beliefs with already existing folk Shinto performing traditions associated with agricultural rites and the appeasement of deities; this synthesis gives nōmai its unique character.

General features of nōmai include: (1) dance as storytelling, (2) an instrumental ensemble that plays a number of standard musical pieces, (3) singers who supply the narration for each piece, and (4) the use of masks and costumes borrowed from the performing genres kagura (Shinto music and dance), bugaku (court dance), and sarugaku (ancient theatrical). The sequence in which nōmai dance dramas are presented evokes a calculated dramatic effect and a structurally unified program.

The most important nōmai performances of the year take place over a onemonth period, starting in mid-December and ending mid-January. Performances . . .

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