Japanese Contemporary Dance, from Past to Present

Issue #11: The Japan Issue

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At a time when Melbourne is inundated with Asian productions as part of its Asian Arts Triennale ASIATOPA, we can ask ourselves, where is Japanese contemporary dance now?

In this article, I will focus in particular on the relatively unknown aspects of Japanese contemporary dance. I’ll start by taking us through its historical context, then examine its particularities, before considering its future.


A brief history 

In 1912, the Japanese encountered Western dance: Italian professor Giovanni Vittorio Rosi, invited by the newly inaugurated Imperial Theatre, introduced ballet to Japan. But, because his education had been deemed too eurocentric by Japanese dancers, and the opera section that he was part of had dissolved in 1916, classical dance failed to establish itself in Japan. However, Rosi’s students founded the basis of Japanese modern dance, taking up their professor’s creative spirit. These Japanese pioneers, who had gone to study in Europe, actively presented their own work by reporting the latest European trends they had learned (especially those from Germany). At the time, the taste for an ancestral image of Japan predominated among Europeans, and these dancers were seen to sometimes borrow elements of Japanese dance, rediscovering their “japanese-ness” through the confrontation with a different culture.


Classical dance finally flourished after the Second World War. In addition, in the 1950s, American modern dance was quickly imported in the context of the Cold War, pushing Americans to promote their culture. As for Japanese modern dance (gendai buyô), it continued to develop after the war in an eclectic way, assimilating not only traditional Japanese dance, but also new trends imported from the West. However, contemporary Japanese dance is not a direct extension of this kind of modern dance. Indeed, it emerged without almost any connection. The first turning point is the birth of Butoh. The unique form that vigorously presents Japanese corporeality, brought down the inferiority complex developed in relation to the West, and from here, dancers began to experiment with their own bodies, freeing themselves from learning fixed forms. The second turning point is the international success of Saburo Teshigawara, who did not insist on the oriental or orientalist essence of his work. This innovator invented his choreographic vocabulary without relying on conventional formal techniques and won second prize at the Bagnolet Competition in 1986 with the piece La Pointe du vent, which focused on falling and straightening movements. 1986 is a significant year, also marked by the death of Butoh founder Tatsumi Hijikata, and the first appearance of Pina Bausch in Japan.

In these years, Japanese contemporary dance developed, benefiting from the speculative bubble surrounding it, which made it possible to invite several renowned Western companies to Japan. But it was only after the bubble burst that contemporary Japanese dance really flourished. One reason is that corporate sponsorship started to invest in supporting young artists, rather than inviting big, expensive productions. Around the 2000s, competitions and prizes for choreographic art were founded, one after another, encouraging the emergence of new talent. Now, although public subsidies are quite modest compared to other countries, the Japanese choreographic field is quite active. According to a survey conducted by dance researcher Shigeto Nuki, who statistically compared the situation in Japan with that of France – a country reputed for its high number of dance companies and artists – the number of choreographic companies is one third greater in France, yet Japan’s subsidy is only an eighth of the French one.1In addition, several dance festivals are organised throughout the country, such as Yokohama Dance Collection, Dance New Air and Fukuoka Fringe Dance Festival, and many general festivals program contemporary choreographic performances. In recent years, each establishment has given priority to strengthening its links with other Asian countries, the most emblematic example being the start of an Asian professional network Asia Network for Dance (AND +) in February 2018.


I dance, we dance:   the peculiarities of contemporary Japanese dance

In this archipelago, where contemporary dance has arisen without visible links to existing forms, various original expressions coexist, without one dominating over the others. I have extracted four relatively common trends.

  1. Many small groups throng

The Japanese choreographic milieu is divided into several mini-milieus, weaker than large companies which form the centre. This is no doubt explained by the absence of resident companies in large theatres. Some public theatres created their own dance companies when they opened, but all of them have disappeared except for Noism, directed by Jo Kanamori, created in 2004 in Niigata as a permanent resident company in the municipal theatre, Ryutopia. However, even this exceptional troupe is in a precarious situation. Their contract needs to be renewed every three years with the city of Niigata, and each time, they have to convince certain elected officials to support them. Such a panel favours a direct contribution to local life2 in the form of amateur workshops, rather than international success.

On one hand, this contrasting situation prevents the excessive concentration of power with the absence of dominant establishments. But on the other hand, it results in a lack of companies that can hire dancers for long term periods, and therefore makes their social position very precarious. In fact, most artists work in another profession alongside working as dancers to earn a living.

Reducing the number of interpreters, or even choosing solo form works, can be considered a way of minimising financial risk. Indeed, many Japanese artists combine the two roles of choreographer and dancer in their lives; it is rare to find choreographers who are not also dancers. This form of creation certainly comes from the absence of training programs for choreographers,3 but it is also a consequence of production conditions: as there are only a few productions that can pay performers sufficiently, artists have to present their own pieces as authors in order to obtain subsidies and survive in choreographic circles.

  1. A small personal universe

Smallness can be seen not only in the shape or size of the work, but also in its design. As dance critic Takao Norikoshi points out, Japanese artists tend to delve deeper into the reality of their own bodies, rather than create a grand narrative.4 Not only artists, but also audiences, have a preference for artistic expression which studies interiority. Not autobiographical or self-reflexive work—which opens a personal history to a more global context—but rather that which plunges into personal corporeality and inner worlds. This intimate character establishes a “happy” and closed relationship with the public. It is not so simple to translate such artistic expressions that develop in highly specific ways, in a homogeneous community, whose members share a socio-cultural context, and which would hinder its export abroad.

In this regard, we should also mention puerility in contemporary Japanese dance. The American critic Anna Kisselgoff described Strange Kinoko Dance Company as “waddling” and “child-women”.5 Strange Kinoko is one of Japan’s representative companies, which disbanded in 2019 after working for about thirty years. What this troupe represents is the idea of ‘​kawaii’, or even childishness, unlike the Western idea of ​​beauty, which is a search for a well-controlled corporeality, often accompanying virtuosity. Although these dancers have good dance basics, they perform intentionally clumsily, with a ‘light-hearted’ tone. A kind of nostalgia for youth or adolescence is observed in several pieces today, not only in terms of movement, but also theme: they reproduce a deliberately naive and often self-centered universe that one could call ‘my / our little story’.

  1. Collective homogeneity

On one hand, Japanese artists deepen specific movements of individuality, but on the other hand, they also often execute the same movements in a group: through unison. Young choreographers especially use a lot of sequences that are well-organised in uniform unison, even if the piece comprises a small group.

To explain the current situation, it is essential to mention extracurricular activities. Quite a few people get acquainted with dance through school clubs (from primary school to university), which have been widespread throughout Japan since the 1960s. Inter-school competitions are also very active. Formal unison can be seen as a relatively easy way to present a coherent appearance. In addition, egalitarian principles often apply to modalities of choreographic composition, because the dancers already do such activities in school settings. Besides, for a long time in public education, dance was part of physical education, not artistic education.6 This classification has been much discussed and is not in place to depreciate the artistic aspect of dance, but it can still affect its general perception.

Well-controlled unison dance shows a kind of uniformity similar to gymnastics. Let us mention two symbolic examples: the first is Shudan-Kodo, formed by students from Nippon Sport Science University, who present a kind of mass choreography. It evokes a military image; performers conduct themselves in geometric formations according to vocal instructions.7 The second is Bubbly Dance from Tomioka High School Dance Club, one of the most powerful clubs in the world of high school dance competitions. Dozens of girls dressed in 80s style dance in the spirit of this era: their energetic dance, in well synchronised groups gives a sporty impression, like Shudan-Kodo. In competitions for young people in particular, such uniformity is highly appreciated, deemed a result of training. In the case of Tomioka High School, the club is led by a professional choreographer, Akane, but the students or pupils often take care of the choreography themselves. As a result, some young artists get used to leading a group. Given the current trend towards groups made up of school or university comrades, often of the same generation and gender, it is not surprising that homogeneity is emphasised in the logic of creation.

  1. The tradition of amateur practices

It should also be remembered that collective amateur practices have traditionally been very active. Traditional folk dances continue to remain alive by adapting to their time.8 More recently, some large companies have started to create original dance videos: they use a small dance piece for their promotional video, created under the direction of a professional choreographer and performed by the employees themselves, with the intention to establish a group spirit beyond the sections within the company. 9

“Crazy people dancing and crazy people watching. We’re crazy anyway, so let’s dance! Let’s dance!”: the words of Awa-Odori, a form of folk dance from Tokushima, known and appreciated throughout Japan. Many people just want to dance rather than see it themselves. Lots of Japanese people dance for fun. According to a study by Kumi Koyama and Bin Umino, around 3.6 million Japanese people practised classical dance in 2016.10 Thus, the tradition of amateur dance strongly supports Japanese choreographic culture beyond the refined artistic work of some professional dancers.11

We could summarise these particularities with the expression “I dance, we dance”. In other words, it is both the small form, “my solo”, drawn from personal reality, and the large form, “our round”, based on the homogeneous community. These two seemingly opposite poles have one thing in common: both assume and address a specific community. Such intimacy can be linked to the traditional proximity between the practitioner and the spectator.


Dance with you? – some current trends

Now let’s look at three interesting new trends from recent years. These trends show us paths that contemporary Japanese dance can follow.

  1. Create a gathering space: towards an alternative to the stage

Small spaces of 100 to 200 seats seem very popular and lively in today’s choreographic field. Some famous artists established their own studios to consistently present experimental creations. For instance, Saburo Teshigawara opened his studio, KARAS APPARATUS, in 2013 in the Ogikubo district, west of Tokyo, where he presents dance performances as part of the Update Dance series (67 so far) some of which, such as The Idiot (2016) and Tristan and Isolde (2016) tour extensively internationally. Two great Butoh masters, Akira Kasai and Akaji Maro, also frequently perform in the studios: Tenshikan and Kochuten. As for the latter, it is used by young dancers from company Dairakudakan, in order to create their own pieces.

In 2017, Nobuyoshi Asai, a former Sankai Juku dancer, founded Dance House Kogane 4422, a 4-floor venue entirely dedicated to contemporary dance which he rented himself. Situated in Nagoya, at the heart of Japan’s main island, this space offers a flurry of activities such as performances, workshops, artist residencies, exhibitions, audience outreach activities, etc. This personal initiative is remarkable, given that Japanese contemporary dance remained nomadic for a long time. There are very few theatres and festivals that can provide space for making new work.

As for the younger generation, we can find many artists who carry out unique activities outside the conventional theatre context. They often prefer smaller alternative spaces that allow them to be both spatially and mentally close to the audience, looking for new forms of presentation12 Some of them, like Yuya Tsukahara (contact Gonzo), Aokid and Saori Hala, have strong affinities with the world of visual arts or performance art.13 Others, like Mikiko Kawamura, Reina Kimura and Ippei Yonezawa come from a dance background, but develop their work beyond the form by leveraging their multiple talents.14

This trend may concern, to some degree, changes in the educational system in dance. I mentioned that dance is usually considered to be part of physical education, but this situation is gradually changing, particularly  in tertiary education: we notice that artists who have left university are becoming more and more visible. Their work, based on transdisciplinary relationships, is no longer limited by pre-existing boundaries.

From my point of view, young people seem to give more importance to “with whom to do”, than to “what to do”. In other words, they seem to have the primary goal of coming together, of sharing space-time and exchange by also including the audience in this process.

In this regard, the increase in the number of festivals organised by artists themselves should be noted.15 Not only do companies with established reputations offer new opportunities for young artists to perform, such as Dansalon (organized by Co. Yamada Un) and Dance Festival for Young Beasts (Condors and Owlspot Theatre), but also the young generation itself launches festivals such as DANCE × Scrum !!! (Baobab). In addition, Hiroaki Umeda, the renowned multimedia artist, undertook a choreographic training program in 2017. This is not in opposition to the mainstream, because the contemporary Japanese choreographic field has basically no centre. Rather, it would speak more to a mutual aid system for artists, in order to break the deadlock due to insufficient public support. We can say the same thing about modes of production. Akiko Kitamura (who has accomplished two great international collaborations with Asian artists, To Belong for 2011-2014 and Cross Transit for 2014-2019), and Shintaro Hirahara (who has worked with the Spanish choreographer Carmen Werner since 2002), as well as Maki Morishita, (who continually devises very original projects with young dancers from his company Morishita.STAND), try to find solutions to create work in sustainable ways . Two other socially-minded artists who achieve beautiful artistic results: Yuki Aoki directs the company Sokerissa!, made up of homeless elders, and Midori Kurata creates shows with elderly or drug addicted patients.

  1. Butoh, here and beyond

In order to create a new multi-genre scene themselves, it can be seen that it will more or less share the experimental spirit of the first generation of Butoh. What then remains of Butoh in Japan today? 16 Is it no longer inherited? Admittedly, Butoh is now taking an important turn, as the dancers who experienced its first days gradually disappear: Kazuo Ohno in 2010, Ko Murobushi in 2015, Mitsutaka Ishii and Yukio Waguri in 2017, and Yoshito Ohno in 2020. But the Butoh flame is still burning. There are many choreographers, even of the younger generation, who were nourished by the ‘dance of darkness’ even if they were not called Butoh artists. On one hand, there are artists such as Kim Itoh, Kakuya Ohashi, Yukio Suzuki and Teita Iwabuchi, who are now working in the contemporary choreographic field while claiming their roots in Butoh. In contrast, Akira Kasai and Ko Murobushi themselves transgress the genre by actively working with dancers for their projects who have no connection whatsoever to Butoh.

The interest in Butoh has clearly changed in recent times. In their 2017/2018 program, the New National Theatre Tokyo, founded in 1997, programmed two major Butoh companies, Sankai Juku and Dairakudakan, for the first time. In 2019, the Agency for Cultural Affairs included Butoh in the grant award regulations among dance genres similar to ballet, contemporary dance and folk dance. In addition, a festival that focuses on Butoh, TOKYO REAL UNDERGROUND, has been selected for one of the main cultural programs organised by the City of Tokyo on the occasion of the 2020 Olympic Games. The rebel body, subversive and even dangerous, long removed from public power, has gradually transformed itself into acceptable art during these sixty years. The disappearance of a strong underground image is also reflected in the fact that street performances by Min Tanaka (although no longer called a ‘Butoh dancer’) or Dairakudakan (with golden dancers) are gaining great popularity, even with families with children.

Almost 60 years after the iconic work Kinjiki [Forbidden Colors] was created, Butoh has entered a phase of revisiting its own history. The work of archiving is relatively well developed compared to other contemporary genres.17 The archives of Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno were established in the 1990s and, more recently, the archives of Ko Murobushi were made accessible immediately after his death. An excellent example of the use of these archives is the solo About Kazuo Ohno by Takao Kawaguchi (2013). What was surprising was the fact that the performer (a former member of the Dumb Type collective) literally tries to ‘copy’ Kazuo Ohno’s movement through rigorous reading of his video recordings. Thus, the current generation approaches this dance from a more neutral demystified point of view. There are other examples18. such as UnBearable Darkness (2019) by Choy Ka Fai and ENIAC (2017) by Nei Hasegawa. In UnBearable Darkness, created by former Dairakudakan dancer Pijin Neji, the Singaporean choreographer tries to reproduce the movement of Tatsumi Hijikata, to breathe in an avatar of the Butoh founder; while ENIAC appears as a kind of documentary theatre of a disciple of Yukio Waguri—Kae Ishimoto—in which the director Hasegawa plays the role of Hijikata. More recently, Toshiko Oka will premiere a creation inspired by Water Lillies by Kazuo and Yoshito Ohno in February 2020. In addition, Akira Kasai (one of the first generation of Butoh) will present a recreation of three duets with Kazuo Ohno at the end of March 2020 in Yokohama, transmitting them to Takao Kawaguchi and his son Mitsutake Kasai, to whom he also transmitted his legendary solo, Pollen Revolution.

If the philosophy of Butoh is to completely interrogate all conventional gestures, and to stoically search for a reality buried deeply under the body, it always infiltrates the work of current artists in a more abstract way. Ruri Mito, Kaori Seki or Ikumi Kurosu, each rigorously explore their particular corporeality to a point of morphing into foreign objects. What is remarkable is that they often work in a group to create a landscape that evokes an image of a community, sharing specific qualities of movement that stem from a very personal kinesthetic origin. The human body emerges from its shell, becomes a simple body, even an organism, and acquires a poetry of pure gesture. We could say that the artists realise a new form of collective dance, which can alter the perception of the spectator.

  1. The dancers speak, the actors dance

Let us turn our eyes to another trend. In 2005, the nomination of a theatre director for the Toyota Choreography Award19 for young choreographers certainly stirred some attention. Toshiki Okada was thus recompensated for his unique approach to ‘choreographing’ theatre.

Circulations between theatre and contemporary dance are not so rare, but it is notable that they have been multiplied considerably in recent years. There are collaborations between directors and choreographer-performers such as, The Unknown Dancer in the Neighbourhood, in collaboration with Suguru Yamamoto and Wataru Kitao; Toyade, with Yutaro Murakoso and Mari Fukutome; and Search, with Masashi Nukata and Teita Iwabuchi. Also, there are remounts of theatre plays with dancers such as RE / PLAY Dance Edit., by Junnosuke Tada, and presentations of the two versions—choreographic and theatrical—based on the same text, like NIPPON CHA! CHA! CHA!, by Un Yamada. Gekidan Dancers is a theatre troupe composed only of dancers, and we can see companies such as Office Mountain and Spacenotblank, working at the intersection between dance and theatre. In short, some directors are showing interest in the danced corporeality, while choreographers are interested in theatrical texts.

The works mentioned above highlight two choreographic potentialities. The first is the capacity to distort text by meticulously choreographing all the gestures performed on stage, including speech. Thus, choreography can place the focus on an unusual dimension of the text. The second is the process of collectively sharing authorship: I have the impression that some theatre artists consider the idea of choreographic ​​score as a more democratic form, in the sense that it is open to the dancer’s interpretation, and that it allows space for improvisation. Such a confrontation with the body-text binarity leads us to reflect on what is truly specific to the choreographic mode.

Today, the entire performing arts community is awry due to various political and cultural movements, such as the approaching 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Under these circumstances, dance is frequently used to create a festive atmosphere. It is certainly undeniable that dance has played this role for a long time in the ceremony, but we must ask ourselves how we are going to deploy serious artistic activities aiming beyond 2020, without being carried away by this transient enthusiasm in order to survive this particular moment in our cultural policy?

As mentioned above, some artists are starting to open up a new field by joining their efforts: new sources of creation, new methods of production and distribution, new networks, etc. What is most interesting is the shift in the role of public/private spaces. That is to say, it is the private spaces that can ensure freedom of expression and a genuine diversity while these are under threat in the so-called public spaces, such as parks or publicly funded theatres by strict control and widespread intolerance throughout Japan, as demonstrated recently by the censorship incidents at the Aichi Triennale festival in 2019.

Opening space and making room for direct dialogue with the audience, learning the work of the masters, intersecting with the contemporary of another disciplines. We should now ask ourselves, “how can we dance with the other?” as an invitation to reflect with acuity on the specific interstice between us and the other, whilst entertaining the possibility that these may not necessarily be two distinct others. I conclude this article in the hope that the Japanese artists presented as part of Asia TOPA will offer such terrain.


Translated by Alice Heyward
Article exclusively commissioned for the Dancehouse Diary

This text contains excerpts of an article initially published in French  in Alternatives théâtrales. This revised version includes updates of the last two years, 2018 and 2019. Yurika Kuremiya “A panorama of contemporary dance in Japan”, in Shintaro Fujii, Christophe Triau (eds), Alternatives théâtrales, special issue, “Japanese contemporary scene”, Liège, 2018,  pp. 72-78 (in French).

  1. Reference as Shigeto Nuki, “Hari no saki de tenshi ha nannin made odoreruka: chosa no mokuteki to seika” (How many angels can dance on a pinhead?: Objective and results of this survey), in Report of Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (B): The Aesthetics and the social basis of contemporary dance, 2008, p. 10.
  2. Reference as Regarding the contribution to local life, Japanese public theatres must not only present excellent professional performances to the public, but also host cultural activities open to amateurs. For this reason, their programming slots are very limited compared to European venues. However, the main venues that employ dance specialists offer varied and original programs, such as the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, Sainokuni Saitama Arts Theatre, Aichi Arts Center or Kitakyushu Performing Arts Center. The Aichi Prefectural Arts Theatre has recently appointed Saburo Teshigawara as Aertistic Director as of April 2020.
  3. Reference as An exceptional example: the professional training program “Kokunai Dance Ryugaku at Kobe” (a kind of intensive eight-month seminar in Kobe), organized by Dance Box since 2012, offered ‘dancer’ and ‘choreographer’ courses separately. However, in 2018, this project was not selected by the Agency for Cultural Affairs as a training program (Program for Nurturing Upcoming Artists who lead the next generation), and it’s been suspended since then.
  4. Reference as Takao Norikoshi, Douse dance nanka minaindaro!?: Gekiroku contemporary dance (You don’t see dance anyway, do you !?: fierce documentary of contemporary dance), NTT Shuppan, Tokyo, 2009, p. 79.
  5. Reference as Anna Kisselgoff, “Female Choreographers Letting Off Steam”, New York Times, January 13, 2003.
  6. Reference as Since 2012, dance, as well as martial arts, have been compulsory in college sports departments. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Sciences and Technology identifies three types of dance: free dance, folk dance and contemporary rhythm dance (often interpreted as hip-hop).
  7. Reference as In Japanese school education, there are always parades and actions in groups and in order.
  8. Reference as Dances that are originally regional and religious often develop by relocating: 30,000 dancers gather at the Yosakoi-Soran festival (Hokkaido) and 10,000 at the Awa-Odori festival in Koenji (Tokyo), presenting their work based on folk dance.
  9. Reference as For example: JVCKENWOODancing, choreographed by Chie Ito in 2017, produced in collaboration between JVCKENWOOD and Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse Number 1.
  10. Reference as Report of Analysis of Nation-wide Survey on Ballet Education 2016, Ballet research institute in Showa University of Music, Tokyo, URL: http://www.tosei-showa-music.ac.jp/balletresearch/work/work_h27_h31/report.html. Not only classical dance, but there are also many amateur practitioners of other kinds of dance like ballroom dancing, oriental dance or fla.
  11. Reference as Despite this Japanese dance tradition, the 1948 Japanese law known as “Fueiho” prohibited dancing in clubs after midnight for a long time. Even after its revision in 2016, dance in clubs is severely monitored by the police. In this antinomy, we see the authorities’ apprehension of the Dionysian aspect of dance.
  12. Reference as Small private spaces, such as SCOOL, BUoY, RAFT, Kissa Sakaiki or UrBANGUILD, are nimble supporters of the individual artists’ experimental activities.
  13. Reference as The following artists who are rather close to performance art are sometimes invited to festivals or dance events: Yuki Kobayashi, Takuya Takemoto, Takumichan and Kohei Sekigawa, for example.
  14. Reference as We can easily remember some predecessors who work on gender boundaries, like Dumb Type, ANTIBODIIES Collective led by Yuko Higashino, and Nibroll led by Mikuni Yanaihara.
  15. Reference as We must commend the great work of Kosei Sakamoto who has been organising Kyoto International Dance Workshop Festival since 1996 (known as Hot Summer in Kyoto).
  16. Reference as Regarding this subject, the following report describes its various aspects today in Japan: Aïnhoa Jean-Calmettes, “In Japan, what’s left of Butō? », In Mouvement, n ° 92, Mouvement, Paris, 2017, p. 55-59.
  17. Reference as It must be taken into account that all these archives are managed by the private sector. That is to say, they are based on the good will or voluntary work of those involved. In order to preserve this heritage for a long time, it seems necessary to consolidate through public subsidies.
  18. Reference as In 2018, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the legendary show by Tatsumi Hijikata, Tasumi Hijikata and Japanese: Rebellion of the Body, numerous events were organised. For example, the small theatre located north of Tokyo, d-soko, invited seven choreographers to create a piece based on Hijikata’s text, Yameru Maihime (The Ailing Dance Mistress)
  19. Reference as Toyota Choreography Award, the largest competition for young choreographers in Japan, was organised by the automobile company Toyota from 2002 to 2017.