Is the Kanze Noh Theatre for sale?

Selling Noh by the pound

According to the business magazine Gendai Bijinesu (Kodansha) the Kanze Nōgakudō in Shōtō, Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s most exclusive residential areas, may be soon put up for sale. In the article reporting the news, the land on which the theatre is now built, measuring 840 tsubo (approx. 2,777 square meters) is stated to be worth over 30 billion yen (approx. 30 million US dollars). Fujisawa Shōwa, owner of  Yodobashi Camera, who lives in the neighbourhood, has been identified as a potential buyer. According to an unspecified major real estate company, the Kanze-kai (that is, the company that owns and manages most of the Kanze school property) is considering selling the theatre. Of course – I would add – selling does not mean shutting down the business, but simply relocate elsewhere while cashing what is an extremely valuable piece of land in the heart of Tokyo.

The Kanze Noh Theatre, Shibuya, Tokyo (Google street view)

What crisis?

How to interpret the potential sale of the Kanze Nōgakudō? Could it be justified with a need to renovate the venue? Or is it yet another sign of the crisis that is tightening its grip on the Noh establishment? The post-Lehman financial shock is only an additional factor to a more specific, economic but also cultural (can we separate the two?) crisis that Noh is undergoing since the early 1990s. The Noh audience is ageing, therefore naturally reducing, a trend that might lead to its biological extinction within some 20 years, unless critical measures are taken. According to the Gendai Bijinesu article, the Kanze-kai has shown a loss amounting to 10 million yen between the 2009-2011 fiscal years. However, the manager of the Kanze Nōgakudō has explained that, after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, the construction of a safer building has been discussed, and that money is not really the issue. What we should be more concerned with is the ageing of the Noh audience, and the consequent need to make efforts to attract a new generation of young spectators.

This is certainly true, and it would impact on the economic condition of Noh the large majority of Noh actors, who are in need of financial support in order to continue to perform their art. Of the three great performance traditions of Japan, Noh is the only one which, after having lost its aristocratic patrons with the advent of the Meiji restoration, is struggling to survive while maintaining its economic independence, counting primarily on amateur practitioners who learn directly from professional performers (and pay directly to them). Kabuki is managed (owned?) by Shōchiku, a huge movie and theatre production company, and is supported by corporate sponsorship. Bunraku has lost the battle, and is now surviving thanks to public subsidy. Noh still lingers in a limbo between feudalism and capitalism. Meanwhile actors who can’t make ends meet sell their costumes, masks and books, while Wanya-shoten and Hinoki-shoten, publishers of Noh books, close shops in Tokyo and Kyoto. Does Noh need a new economic model in order to get out of this darkness?

Diego Pellecchia

8 thoughts on “Is the Kanze Noh Theatre for sale?

  1. Indeed, the situation of Noh parallels the situation of the classical arts world-wide, affecting many forms from Kathakali to western classical music. Of course, as Marx said, capitalism is inimical to all pre-existing traditions. Another way of looking at this is that cultural forms that rely on and foster inwardness are under siege by industrial culture with its sensory assaults which foster a more passive form of response.
    Thus, the universally espoused panacea, “attract the young”, is not likely to work well, particularly as whatever funding that keeps classical art in school curricula is everywhere being cut. This is so even in Germany, where the reasoning is not economic but cultural and involves eliminating “elitist” art forms.
    A partial solution to the problem of audience is the opposite of the above nostrum. I have seen some success in building up the audience for classical music by appealing to the elderly who are living in retirement homes or who go to senior centers, etc. There are new old people being created every day, and many can find turning to a slower, quieter and more reflective art form a profoundly engaging experience. Also, if you consider the daily life of those who still have their wits about them but are confined in institutions, going out to performances has a great deal of appeal. The cooperation or interest of those running the institutions is obviously crucial.
    At the same time, it is important to get children to come to performances and learn a bit about what’s involved. This does not build an immediate audience, but increases the number of people to whom visiting a theater or concert hall is not utterly alien.
    There is no doubt that the world is being profoundly changed, but the loss of inner resources is as devastating to humanity’s future as is the destruction of outer ones.

    1. Dear Douglas, thank you for your comment.
      I am sure this issue is not limited to Noh theatre, but it applies to all those practices that have fallen into the category of ‘elite art’. In Japan Noh already is a form of art that is marketed mostly for those who are already a part of its social system. Most of the times these are over 60yo individuals. Noh is introduce in ‘culture centres’ which are normally populated by either retired people or housewives. So in a way, we already got that covered. Attract the young does not work when what you offer them is the same thing you offer to the 70yo retiree who is also an amateur. It is the very content of what is offered that needs to be considered, not only the means of advertising it. “Noh” has always changed in order to adapt to its audience, except it is not changing now. The Noh society is growing weak and scared of changing.

      1. Ah I see.
        But what kind of changes do you think of?
        New plays, new extensions to the performing tradition?
        The core seems to be the meetings of emissaries from the realms of life and death and the circumstances that have made men and women into such emissaries, the undying emotions that bring them across that bridge.
        Perhaps Noh needs a Diaghelev or a Balanchine.

      2. Yes, Noh needs a new ‘revolutionary’ genius who can change performance methods and create new beautiful plays. Such people rarely appear in a world that represses individuality, sanctioning those who try new things. Many (covertly) criticise the Noh political system, but only a few of them dare speak up. I am more and more convinced that Noh as a ‘national’ art form is destined to die out. Maybe foreigners will save it.

      3. Could you consider undertaking this?
        I think I once sent you a little text I wrote for 3 Gagku dancers, two musicians and an Ikebana practitioner. The words were mostly stolen from 2 Noh plays (Damask Drum and Okina). I wanted to prolong a feeling of charm (the moment when one is enticed, attracted and slightly engulfed in that, but before this assumes the more solid articulations of desire) , but my intention beneath that was to try and provide all these artists who had learned “foreign” forms to use them in a way that would be the beginning of something new. The artists were very excited before they found other things commanded their time.

        Another effort to deploy a traditional form (epic recitation of a small part of the Gesar epic ) has met with more active response.

        Your dedication combined with you depth of understanding and experience give you a unique opportunity here. Please do give it a try.

        All best wishes,


      4. Dear Douglas,
        Thank you for your message. Would you please let me know more about your project in private? You can use the ‘contact me’ form on my blog.


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