The Butoh Dance: From Rebellion to Tradition in Japan

The Butoh Dance: From Rebellion to Tradition in Japan

November 4, 2021 0 By Anton

“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” – Gustav Mahler

There are two, interconnected ways in which the culture of a people can change. The first way, and perhaps the one which most people think about when they hear the words “culture” and “change” together, is through external influences. This involves importing, willingly or forcefully, values, customs, views about the world and human nature, as well as institutions, from a different group of people, like another nation.

Such dynamic was unravelling with full force in the post-World War Japan: despite the economic success of the country, its people felt an eery sense of cultural alteration due to a complex current of external forces that were transforming the nation and shifting its place in the world. As Andrew Rankin wrote for Quillette:

“Japan’s postwar constitution, written by American military lawyers, had renounced forever Japan’s rights to maintain armed forces and wage war. In the land of the samurai it was now unconstitutional to be a warrior. Japan’s military had accordingly been restyled as a “self-defense force” and the status of Japan’s security treaty with the United States had become a fiercely contentious issue.

Meanwhile, Japanese intellectuals were debating the extent to which “Westernization” was undermining Japan’s cultural integrity and traditional ways. On Japan’s university campuses there were prolonged and sometimes violent protests by students complaining of a lack of meaning in the new mass society. On top of all this, communism had gained believers in Japan, and the most radical spoke of leading a revolution and dismantling the emperor system.”

The great Japanese writer, Yukio Mishima, was one of the few artists of his time who captured these profound cultural dynamics with incredible insight and with profound attention to what these forces meant for Japan’s soul.

As a patriot, Mishima opposed the disfiguration of the Japanese way of life, both in terms of importing Western consumerism and globalisation which diluted the national identity (or kokutai) and in terms of the far left, communist utopia that threatened the important role of the emperor which, despite Hirohito’s failure during the war to prevent fascism from spreading across the country, was a central cultural element of Japan.

As Beryl Belsky wrote in a 2016 article:

“Mishima spoke increasingly of the empty, materialistic values of post-war Japanese society and of the need to promote the discipline and principles of medieval Japan. He believed that one way to bring back traditional ideals was to restore the divinity of the emperor; another way was to follow bushido (‘the samurai way’).”

As a result of his unquestionable patriotism that demanded a severe criticism of both radical sides of the political spectrum which threatened the core of the Japanese culture, Mishima was hunted by both the far-left and the far-right.

The distortion of what it meant to be Japanese was perhaps captured by one of Mishima’s phrases which he shouted from the balcony of the Ministry of Defense that he took by assault in 1970: “Where has the spirit of the samurai gone?”

However, his lament that his country’s national identity was being destroyed by the forces described above was not met with the understanding that he was hoping for. As Rankin explained:

“Receiving only boos and jeers in response, Mishima returned inside the building and committed suicide in the old samurai manner by cutting open his stomach and allowing himself to be decapitated by an assistant.”

Nowadays however, Japan’s imperial system is intact, and Emperor Naruhito is beloved by the Japanese, while the country is ruled by conservatives whose popular slogan is “a national character of beautiful traditions for tomorrow’s Japan.”

Therefore, maybe Mishima’s ultimate sacrifice and work of reminding the Japanese people and the world of his country’s cultural uniqueness were not in vein.

However, there is a less dramatic way of affecting a people’s culture, which is more organic and, perhaps, more acceptable. This way of changing a culture is when things shift from within the nation. In other words, this is a form of rebellion that does not seek to destroy tradition but to respond to it by establishing something that can become a new tradition, which ultimately enriches the cultural inheritance of a people.

In 1959, inspired by Mishima’s novel entitled “Forbidden Colors” (“Kinjiki”), a short minimal performance featuring choreographers Tatsumi Hijikata and Yoshito Ohno depicted something which Japan’s society has never seen before: the butoh dance.

Also known as ankoku butoh (“the dance of utter darkness”), a butoh performance, at first, may seem the opposite of the elegant and thoughtful forms of dance, such as mai and odori. With contortioned movements, the performers who are often covered in white paint that makes them look like spirits moving sickly on a dark stage, put on a spectacle that echoes the chaos and confusion that awash Japan following the loss of the World War.

As the Meany Centre for Performing Arts at the University of Washington explains, “butoh was born out the turmoil and chaos resulting in a loss of identity following [the World War] that propelled them to reexamine their own culture and to create an indigenous modern genre of dance.”

Initially, butoh was met with suspicion and disgust by some Japanese who viewed the performance as an offense to other traditional dance performances. Apparently, to challenge and provoke was an important intention behind this new art form. As butoh dancer, Gadu Doushin, detailed in a recent interview:

“When butoh first started, it was more of an anti-traditional and anti-establishment movement. They [the dancers] where trying to create a different way of approaching the body and approaching movement. […] Western dance resonates with strength of the human body, and butoh actually resonates with the weakness of the body.”

The word “butoh”, before it was used to refer to a niche dance performance, was used in Japan to describe Western styles of dance. However, despite the fact that throughout the 1960s, influences from the Western art world were trickling in the Japanese society, it would be a mistake to assume that butoh is the result of foreign cultural forces.

A recent article from the University of Michigan asks “What is Butoh?” – “In a word, dance-theatre…”, the article replies. Indeed, in some respects, butoh resembles kabuki, a classical Japanese dance-drama in which some of the characters wear make-up.

However, butoh was not simply a form of rebellion. It was the start of a new tradition. Built on deep philosophical ideas, butoh has now been accepted as an artistic form that is quintessentially Japanese: it started as an attempt to answer deep questions that referred to Japan’s national and cultural identity; naturally, these ponderings were not separated from the history of the country nor of the world, nor were these questions posed in isolation from of what was going on in other parts of the planet following the World War. 

Amagatsu Ushio, who founded the butoh troupe called Sankai Juku in 1975, when he was asked what is butoh he replied:

“This may actually be closer to a definition of what creation is rather than what Butoh is, but after leaving Japan and looking at things anew, I became extremely conscious of the importance of what I call ‘difference and universality’ in culture.

As we toured the world performing, every city we went to was different in terms of language, food, daily life customs and all. We were drenched in a shower of differences almost every day. And in the process, I realized that culture exists exactly because of these differences. At the same time, on the other extreme there grew in me a heightened consciousness that there is a human “universality” that exists in all people, regardless of nationality or culture…Looking back now, I feel that those personal experiences of universality are the backbone that has enabled me to create and present my works to the world, or perhaps you could say they gave me the courage to work as I have.”

This dichotomy between individual experience and universal experience, while may seem Hegelian to Western readers, it is not confined to the realm of European philosophy. Indeed, the contrast is present in the work of one of Japan’s most well-known twentieth centuries thinkers, the influential Nishida Kitarō who founded the Kyoto School of Philosophy.

There are also more humane aspects of the butoh dance that are built on its philosophy of contrasts. Gadu Doushin explains once again:

“Just experience. Enjoy whatever you experience. Enjoy the uncomfortableness, but you can’t enjoy uncomfortableness. Our society has so much dogma about feelings. You are supposed to be just happy and joyful or just not feel anything. But without feeling, without noticing what you are feeling and actually comforting and dealing with it is almost like not really living.”

As such, the butoh dance is ultimately about honest self-expression, a form which gives life to the side of humanity that we fear or are ashamed of. Butoh is dressing death elegantly and parading it before our eyes. These aesthetics of decay carry the mark of Mishima’s work, who wrote: “true beauty is something that attacks, overpowers, robs, and finally destroys.”

For Mishima, the world was at its most beautiful point just before its annihilation and we can see aspects of this in the butoh dance, the performance of the human heart which reveals the beauty of our mortality, the strength of our fragility.

There is a hint of irony in the link between the butoh dance and Mishima’s work. The Japanese author cared so much to preserve his country’s unique essence that he inspired a rebellious movement in the underground art scene of Japan, challenging norms and traditions – but still in order to preserve them.

Indeed, this preservation of cultural identity through rebellion is reflected in the words of its founder, Hijikata. As Japan Times writes: “emerging during a time of social change, urbanization and political disenchantment — the Anpo (Japan-U.S. security treaty) protests of 1959-1960 were just beginning — butoh attempted to recover the base body; one that, in Hijikata’s words, “has not been robbed” of its primal character.”

Therefore, butoh can be viewed as an organic adaptation of tradition to the modern world. It is perhaps a good example of what American thinker Terence McKenna spoke about when he encouraged people to “create culture”: “We have to create culture, don’t watch TV, don’t read magazines, don’t even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow. The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe […].”

By creating culture, the butoh dance therefore defended and enriched Japan’s kokutai.

Hijikata intention was to make: “gestures of the dead, to die again, to make the dead re-enact once more their deaths in their entirety.” Precisely because of this link with the dead, the people who passed away after they left their mark on the world and enrich the national culture, the butoh dance has become part of Japan’s traditional repertoire. As G.K. Chesterton wrote in “Orthodoxy”: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”

The first theatre dedicated to butoh opened in 2016 in Kyoto, being a definitive proof that what once began as a cultural rebellion is now an established tradition of Japan. Moreover, what started as a niche cultural movement is now performed internationally. The fact that more people, from different cultures, resonate with the butoh dance is not coincidence.

In Hijikata’s words, we see something that is not confined only to Japan’s cultural heritage, something which the great English philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton, spoke about in the year prior to his passing away: the universality of civilisation.

In his acceptance speech for the Defender of Western Civilisation awarded in 2019, Scruton stressed “the interconnected journey that human beings all over the world have made so far, making Western civilisation, like Eastern civilisation, simply the human civilisation, our common inheritance of diverse values, believes, histories and traditions which ought to be understood with an open mind and heart in order to get a little bit closer to that sacred flame that only truth can light up.”

This interconnectedness between different worlds through culture is possible because “culture is communion with the dead”, to paraphrase the Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart. As such, let us not forget that butoh is first and foremost about the human soul and that Hijikata’s ideas behind the butoh dance find their home in our common past, the inheritance of human civilisation whose universality is built upon each of our own individual and unique lives.