Noh TriviaQuestion and Answer

Question157 What is the play in which real instruments appear?

Among musical instruments in Noh plays, those used by musicians such as percussion and cross flutes (no-kan) are well known. Nevertheless, these are responsible for a kind of sound effect but do not directly participate in the content of the play. Meanwhile, there are some programs in which instruments do play a role, including “Tsunemasa,” “Semimaru” and “Kenjō (Genjō),” featuring a biwa (Japanese lute), and “Kiyotsune” and “Atsumori,” featuring a bamboo flute (ryūteki). Among them, “Kenjō (Genjō)” is unique.


In the Heian period, master biwa player Fujiwara Moronaga tried to visit China to hone his skills. In the story, however, he decides to stay in Japan after being struck by the tone of the biwa played by an old man he meets on the way at Suma Bay. The old man is actually Emperor Murakami, and Kenjō (Genjō) is the name of the biwa owned by the Emperor.

Unlike “Tsunemasa” and “Kiyotsune,” in which fans are used to represent musical instruments, “Kenjō (Genjō)” uses prop biwa to simulate real ones. In some cases, a real instrument is used to play the sound. Even so, this is only in the case of a unique direction (kogaki, literally, a note written in small characters) called “gakuiri” (literally, with music), which has been passed down in the Kongō school. We rarely see the direction performed on stage.

In this case, the biwa is known as “gaku-biwa,” a large type used for gagaku. Instead of being held in an upright position like Satsuma-biwa or Chikuzen-biwa are, the instrument is laid down for playing, like Heike-biwa. Procuring a rare gaku-biwa for the play “Kenjō (gakuiri)” is also a concern for the performer.

Additionally, there is also a play featuring shōko (a bell and a drum): “Sumidagawa.” We may count ourselves fortunate if we can see such unusual performances.

(Sep. 4 2019)

illustration : Hiroko Sakaki

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