Supporting Japan's Traditional Arts

Noh and Kyogen for Persons with Hearing Impairment

First performance at Kamakura Nohbutai

A performance titled “Learning about Noh,” to enable people with hearing impairment to enjoy classical Noh and Kyogen theater, was held on May 3 at the Kamakura Nohbutai (Kamakura Noh Theater) in the city of Kamakura. Being the “Golden Week” holiday period, the main streets in Kamakura were packed with people visiting tourist attractions like the Daibutsu (Great Buddha) statue and Hasedera Temple, but the side streets around the Noh theater were quiet. There were two performances of one Kyogen and one Noh play each – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Explanations were provided by Kanta Nakamori, a Noh actor of the Kanze school and director of the Kamakura Nohbutai.



More than 50 people had lined up before the doors opened for the morning performance, and by the time the performance started most of the 150 seats had been filled. Mr. Nakamori asked who in the audience was seeing Noh for the first time, and many in the audience raised their hands.

Little known despite UNESCO designation

Nogaku (a collective term for Noh and Kyogen) was included in UNESCO’s first Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, established in 2008, but it is not widely known or understood. That is because it developed as a ceremonial music of the samurai class using formal poetry and prose, called shisho. The story therefore proceeds using this ancient Japanese for the dialog, and while people versed in the art can follow the story, many people are unable to understand what is being said. This makes it especially difficult for persons with hearing impairment to follow what is happening on the stage.

Mr. Nakamori’s father, Noh actor Shozo Nakamori (1928 – 2008), also wished that Noh could be made easier to understand, so that more people would be able to enjoy it. He started the Kamakura Nohbutai and strove to popularize Noh. Building on this, his son Kanta began offering lessons in Noh song and dance, and also established a Kanagawa Prefecture Noh appreciation society. Through these activities, he has been teaching the history of Noh along with explaining Noh masks, Noh costumes, the Noh stage, and the background of plays being performed, and continues to work to make Noh easier to understand and more accessible.

For this set of performances, using funds provided by The Nippon Foundation, LCD monitors were installed on the walls around the audience’s seats, for the first time providing an easy-to-understand captioned explanation of what was occurring on stage. The monitors were installed on three walls so that everyone in the audience could see at least one monitor.

Trial and error process

PhotoMr. Nakamori commented, “Two years ago I went to see the opera La Traviata and there were subtitles, which I found extremely helpful. That got me thinking about whether we could do the same thing for Noh, and last year I contacted The Nippon Foundation to discuss funding.”

Mr. Nakamori had previously used subtitles in modern Japanese when demonstrating Noh at elementary schools, and this led to the idea that something similar at formal performances would make them easier to understand. In January 2017 he began experimenting with different methods, and also conducted a survey of approximately 1,000 people. Of the survey respondents, 90% favored the idea while 10% thought subtitles would be a distraction, so he decided to go ahead with the project.

Mr. Nakamori prepared the explanations himself, as if he were preparing PowerPoint slides for a classroom-type presentation and incorporating illustrations and charts to make them easier to understand.

PhotoHe explained that for Kyogen, the audience needs to understand the punch lines, and the shisho and production differ depending on the performer’s school, so he just used outlines. He also had to summarize the shisho for Noh, because if the dialog was displayed in full, the timing would not be in sync with the delivery on stage. For “Kaki Yamabushi,” the Kyogen performed in the afternoon, he had materials using modern Japanese that he had previously prepared for an elementary school performance, so he used that. In addition to these explanations, Noh expert Takako Harrison prepared English translations that were displayed simultaneously.

Favorable initial reception

Kamakura Mayor Takashi Matsuo, who attended the morning performance, commented, “This will make Noh and Kyogen more accessible for Japanese people watching for the first time, and for Kamakura’s many tourists from overseas. I attend Noh two or three times a year, and I did not find the subtitles distracting. I consider this a good attempt to promote culture, and I’d like to add the government’s support as well.”

Several members of Theatre Accessibility Network (TA-net), an NGO that seeks to make performing arts accessible to everyone, attended the afternoon performance and talked with Mr. Nakamori afterward. Some of the main points they raised were:

  • Summaries don’t let you know exactly what is being said. The actual shisho together with a modern translation is desirable.
  • Audience members in the rear of the theater had to look up to see the monitors. The monitors would be easier to see if they were placed next to the stage.
  • In the Kyogen performance, characters’ dialog overlapped, which was difficult to follow, and the subtitles did not keep pace.
  • At times the modern translation sounded unnatural. Would there be a way to stream the shisho to smartphones?
  • Using icons to indicate emphasis in the Noh chorus and accompaniment would make it easier to understand.
  • Summaries are for people without hearing impairment. For someone like me who cannot hear at all, they are not enjoyable.

After this dialog, Asako Hirokawa, president of TA-net, commented, “There are still many ways in which this can be improved, but having text monitors does make Noh more enjoyable. I hope we can continue to work together to create a better environment.”

To which Mr. Nakamori replied, “This was our first trial. We will also try other things in addition to monitors, like printing the shisho and distributing them to people who request them before the performance.”