Kyomai – Dance of Ages

Geisha: Custodian of the Classical Japanese Art of Dance


A geisha, or a geiko as they are known in Kyoto, is in her own right an outstanding artist and custodian of Japan’s courtly culture. In order to acquire all the necessary skills to become a great practitioner of the classical repertoire, the aspiring geisha needs to undergo a lengthy apprenticeship at a school at which Inoue Yachiyo V is teacher. A consummate performer, Yachyo V has steered her school of Kyomai through all the perils of modernity.

Japanese translator and cultural researcher

Now that the barn
Has gone up in flames,
I can see the moon

Haiku by the 17th century samurai Mizuta Matsuhide

Established during the Edo Period (1603-1867) by Inoue Sato (1767-1854), Kyomai Inoue-Ryu has ever since been carried on by a succession of master women dancers. Combining the kanjis for 京(Kyo), which alludes to its place of origin – Kyoto’s Imperial Court – and 舞(mai), a restrained form of artistically choreographed dance, Kyomai refers to a dance genre performed exclusively by women. Each successive head of Kyomai Inoue-Ryu has been bestowed with the title Inoue Yachiyo. Though they all bear the clan name Inoue, they have not all been related by blood. Inoue Yachiyo V (1956-), the current incarnation and grand-daughter of Inoue Yachiyo IV (1905-2004), is the fourth successor in this multi-century-spanning dynasty of dance masters. She assumed stewardship of the Inoue School upon Yachiyo IV’s retirement in 2000, thus becoming the living repository of the school’s traditions and entrusted with ensuring its survival.

Despite the recent pandemic casting serious doubt on the survival of the Inoue School of Dance, Inoue Yachiyo V’s leadership was nothing short of exemplary, and thanks to her determination and fighting spirit it has pulled through unscathed. Perhaps a secret of the school’s endurance in these challenging times is Inoue Yachiyo V’s sense of mission, one she has pursued single-mindedly since taking up the reins, availing of her talents and unflagging energy to serve the art that has nourished her family tradition for centuries.

Fittingly, the Inoue School of Dance has selected the camellia flower as its insignia, for this plant is reputedly imbued with enough vitality to survive eight thousand years. Hence, upon graduation, those dancers who attain a professional level and become a natori (accredited teacher) in the Inoue style are presented with a fan decorated with a white camellia flower set against a red background. Hailed for their vigour, each of the four preceding Yachiyos could lay claim to being a nonagenarian, and for performing masterfully into the winters of their lives.

The Centenarian: Inoue Yachiyo III (1838-1938)


Inoue Yachiyo III (1838-1938) famously graced the stage well into her late nineties. (Photo link Yachiyo III). She was fond of spaghetti – quite a rarity in those days– and referred to beer as “medication”, even sipping it before giving instruction. An unfailing source of strength, her vital force and dynamic quasi sumo-like stage presence hugely contributed to ensuring Kyomai’s survival throughout the turbulent Pacific war years and beyond. Age, as far as these venerable practitioners are concerned, has never been treated as an impediment, but rather yet another facet of human existence equally suffused with beauty, joys, heartbreaks, not to speak of ample opportunities for creative expression. Anyone entertaining doubts about the verve of Japan’s legion of octogenarian and nonagenarian performers need only view Daniel Schmid’s poetic meditation in his 1995 docufiction The Written Face, featuring the legendary Jiutamai dancer Han Takehara and the exuberant Buto-ka, Ohno Kazuo, to appreciate just how these ageing figures remained so vibrant and continued to bloom.

Skipping Generations

Immersed in the world of dance from the age of three, the current holder of the title Inoue Yachiyo was mentored for more than forty years under the scrutinising gaze of her grandmother Yachiyo IV, a stern task master who demanded her protégé’s outright dedication. The tiniest mistake would earn a swift and stinging rebuke. Not only was she required to master the dance’s exterior forms (kata) but also over time to wholeheartedly embrace the spirit of Kyomai. Before eventually passing on the baton to her grand-daughter in 1960, Yachiyo IV had her learn as a rite of passage the choreography for Mushi no Ne [the Sound of Insects] .

Inoue Yachiyo IV performing Mushi No Ne


Inoue Yachiyo III

Inoue Yachiyo IV

Inoue Yachiyo V

Inoue Yasuko (on the right)

Looking ahead, Inoue Yachiyo V’s daughter Inoue Yasuko has already been selected to eventually replace her mother in the future on account of her exceptional promise. As with the school’s previous masters, she was groomed from the age of three to become a dancer.

鐘ヶ岬 高画質

Even though the ageing master felt that her prodigiously talented pupil lacked the necessary maturity at that stage of her life to tackle that demanding repertoire piece depicting a solitary man appearing all alone in the autumn fields listening to singing insects, she realised that time was not on her side and felt compelled to teach it to her successor. On being asked in a filmed interview from that period as to how much was left to transmit to the future head of the school, Yachiyo IV replied laconically. “Seven tenths.” The interviewer, assuming that only 30% was left to transmit, was instantly corrected. Leaving the sentence unfinished, she retorted deadpan: “It’s the other way round…”

Aoi No Ue. Maejima Yoshihiro

Yoshihiro Maejima


Thomas Hahn


Down through the generations, the Inoue School of Kyomai has been intrinsically linked with other indigenous artforms, notably Noh and Kyogen, a traditional genre of comedy depicting the travails of everyday life. Both Yachiyo III and Yachiyo IV were married to masters of the Kanze school of Noh, while Yachiyo V’s husband is the Noh player Tetsunojou Kanze IX.

Ceremony for the maiko who, as debutantes, are presented with a special fan by the Master of Kyomai, Inoue Yachiyo (second from left).

Kyodo News Images photo

Such is the high regard with which they have been held in cultural circles that the Japanese government designated both Yachiyo V and her grandmother, Yachiyo IV as National Living Treasures in acknowledgement of their outstanding contributions to the nation’s cultural repository, thereby joining an eminent coterie of traditional performing artists officially recognized as guardians of important intangible cultural properties. As of 2023, some 1400 individuals have been awarded with this life-long title. Honorees receive a one-time stipend from the Japanese government in an attempt to help them focus on their art. By accolading these individual practitioners, the government aspires to preserve and transmit indigenous artforms to future generations; not only are they honoured as talented personalities per se but equally as repositories of cultural knowledge and a savoir-faire that might otherwise die out.


Kyomai has constantly been embedded in Kyoto’s communal fabric and notably linked with the Gion quarter, the epicentre of the city’s bustling nightlife. Ever since the Edo period, Gion has been a colourful entertainment quarter where Kyotoites gather to partake of local delicacies and alcoholic beverages and enjoy being entertained by geiko, the term for geisha in the Kyoto dialect. Like the denizens of Japan’s erstwhile capital, Kyomai practitioners don’t gravitate toward explicit expression. Rather, they tend to quietly convey their feelings, at once embodying womanly tenacity and feminine tenderness. With simple, unpretentious movements, their dance is subtly suggestive. Fundamentally, it involves the dancer properly applying strength to her abdomen, thereby anchoring the body’s centre of gravity and enabling the upper part of her body to eloquently trace lines and sculpt the air. While a Kyomai dancer must harmoniously synchronise the movements of her arms, hands, feet and neck, the dance’s essence lies in her portraying her most profound thoughts and emotions with a minimum of means and without resorting to clichéd facial expressions or stereotypical gestures or poses.

Urban Myth

The enduring urban myth that Geisha are linked with the sex industry has been fuelled by the widespread use of the term “geesha girl” which came into vogue during the immediate post-war years as Allied sailors and military personnel first came into contact with Japanese life. Bandied about ever since, it morphed into a sweeping generalisation about female workers in Japan’s nightlife sector, ultimately becoming a byword for a prostitute or a cabaret hostess.

Written with the kanjis for art 芸 (gei) and person者,(sha) the compound term Geisha literally means a person endowed with artistic skills. As the term is currently understood and used in Japan, it denotes a highly skilled professional female entertainer trained in a broad spectrum of Japanese traditional arts, as well as the art of convivial repartee. Interestingly, some of the earliest known records of Geishas – from the early 17th century – refer to taiko-mochi (literally, drum bearers) who were actually men. Essentially, they were court jesters, musicians, and raconteurs who entertained the nobility. Some twenty-years later, the first female geisha appeared on the scene, and before the end of the century they were to dominate the profession. Whilst it is well beyond the scope of this article to navigate the intricate history of geishas and courtesans over the ensuing centuries, suffice to say that the notion that geisha are synonymous with bar hostesses is a misconception; her primary task is to delight her clients, or audience as the case may be, through her art and her wit.

Onerous Apprenticeship

By all accounts, the number of young Japanese women currently interested in becoming a geisha has been dwindling for some time. Notwithstanding their tremendous cultural significance, the future of this highly respected profession remains an open question. Little wonder, for becoming a full-fledged geisha today involves long years of arduous training, following a strict disciplinary regime. Any young woman aspiring to become a geisha must initially undertake an apprenticeship which takes about five years to complete, during which time she will acquire all the necessary skills for the role, inter alia, song, dance, musical accompaniment, the art of conversation as well as the requisite hosting finesse expected in a social setting. The aspiring maiko [literally, a dancing child] must first apply to an okiya [lodging house/drinking establishment] run by a matriarchal figure referred to as an oka-san [mother] – often themselves retired geishas – who will take the fledgling under her wings, and tutor her in the wide range of skills required to entertain her future guests as well as in all the intricacies of proper etiquette. The maiko has to live in the okiya with which she is affiliated, and it is the oka-san who will handle all her apprentice’s engagements and cover any expenses pertaining to her accommodation and daily needs, as well as supplying her with kimonos and the various sartorial accoutrements. With the exception of a small monthly allowance, any earnings the maiko might make will go directly to the owner of the okiya. The maiko is unable to earn an income until such time as all her debts to the okiya have been cleared. The oka-san, for her part, will fund the maiko’s training in the traditional arts during her apprenticeship.

In the past, a geisha’s fee was calculated according to the time it took an incense stick to burn. They have kept up with the times, however, and now it is simply calculated by the hour. A geisha’s earnings are contingent upon her popularity and how frequently she works entertaining guests at the ochaya [tea-house] with which she is affiliated. On occasion, they also perform on stage for the general public or at Kyoto’s seasonal festivals. Once a geisha has established herself, she may decide to move out of the okiya and live on her own. Geisha can and actually do perform well into their eighties or nineties, though there is an expectation that they continue to train regularly.

Geiko and her apprentices, called maiko, at a ceremonial kimono rehearsal in Kyoto on the occasion of the annual “Miyako Odori” performances.

Kyodo News Images photo

Kindling the Flame

The Yasaka Nyokoba Gakuen (Gion’s Girls Art School), the institute where Inoue Yachiyo V and her daughter Inoue Yasuko give instruction in Kyomai to the maiko, was founded in Kyoto’s Gion quarter during the Meiji era (1868-1912) for the purpose of educating girls. Over the intervening years, it has undergone several transformations, continuing uninterrupted until the present day. Not only does it school aspiring maiko but also enables geiko to further enhance their studies of the traditional arts. After refining their skills and navigating the demanding process of acquiring an array of performative skills, which draw from the deep pool of the Japanese scenic arts such as the Noh theatre and Japanese classical theatre, the maiko graduates and becomes a geiko. At present there are approximately eighty maiko in the Gion quarter. It is estimated that some 180 geiko are currently working as professional entertainers in Kyoto.

Maiko on the streets of Kyoto

Shutterstock photo legend

In addition to receiving mandatory instruction in Kyomai Inoue-Ryu at the Yasaka Nyokoba Gakuen, maiko are also introduced to various genres of traditional Japanese music including nagauta and jiuta. As well as various dance techniques used in Noh theatre, they also learn chado (tea ceremony) and ikebana (flower arrangement). Those with a flair for the visual arts can study traditional Japanese painting and shodo (calligraphy).

Shamisen Player

Osaze Cuomo

Foundation for the Preservation of Katayama Noh and Kyomai

John Barrett


The following features excerpts from a lengthy interview with Inoue Yachiyo V and her daughter Inoue Yasuko which took place one late afternoon in mid-February 2023 at the rehearsal space of the Katayama Noh and Kyomai Preservation Foundation in Kyoto’s Gion Kobu district. Arriving early, I took shelter until the appointed hour in the inner courtyard behind the wooden doorway tucked away on a quiet residential street in the city’s traditional geisha quarter, where I could relish the rumble of distant traffic and watch the impending nightfall creep over a patch of sky framed by low-set undulating rooftops.

Kyomai posters in front of the dance studio

John Barrett

It had been a long day, punctuated by multiple transfers and flashes of blurred landscapes viewed from inside an encapsulated bullet train carriage coming from Hiroshima.

Behind sliding doors, the flurried commotion that erupts in the aftermath of a rehearsal was to be heard, animated voices, footsteps dashing up and down wooden corridors, furniture being shuffled about.

At the agreed time, Inoue Yasuko emerged to welcome me and beckon me indoors. After removing my shoes at the genkan, the raised entryway to the wooden building, and placing them in the geta-bako (literally, the clog-box), she ushered me into a spacious tatami room adjoining a secluded rehearsal space whose cypress floorboards had been worn smooth thanks to decades of dancing footwork polishing their surface, leaving in their wake the timeworn patina of the grit, sweat and tears that accompanies rigorous training. As I gathered my bearings and started setting up the recording equipment on a short-legged table under the somewhat steely gaze of a gallery of black and white photographic portraits whose identities I was to learn over the course of the next ninety minutes, a fusama sliding door suddenly opened and in glided a kimono-clad sure-footed presence.

The correct sitting position

Dach Chan

Smiling, Inoue Yachiyo V greeted me with a deep bow. Following a friendly exchange of pleasantries, both mother and daughter insisted that I sit myself in the rattan armchair they had expressly installed for my comfort. Doing so, however, would have placed me in the rather thorny position of sitting above my hosts’ eye-level. What ensued was a micro-cultural jousting match in matters of decorum. I ultimately persuaded them – under the face-saving pretext of needing to sit close to the microphone – that I should join them sitting around the low table on the tatami mat. They were seated in the seiza position – sitting with a correct posture: legs neatly folded, spine erect, both feet tidily tucked underneath the body. Either option risked a degree of torment, but, given the circumstances, pain was somehow more palatable than shame. Once an elderly lady had finished discreetly serving us tea, Inoue Yachiyo V launched forth with a disarming combination of charm and forthrightness, thus enabling the conversation to follow its own trajectory and for me to jettison the questions I had prepared in advance.

In Conversation with Inoue Yachiyo V and Inoue Yasuko.

How many years instruction does a maiko need in order to complete her apprenticeship and become a geiko?

Yachiyo V: In principle, we reckon with five or six years. But, essentially, it’s not so much a case of a maiko undergoing instruction for a specific length of time, but rather of her maturing into a woman and becoming a fully-fledged adult.

Are lessons given an individual basis or do students learn in a group setting?

Yachiyo V: If the student is to perform a particular piece as a solo, then she will receive one-on-one instruction. As a matter of course, students are divided into groups according to their level of skill. We follow the precept of learning with one’s own eyes and student primarily memorizes dance through imitation. During instruction, I face the students directly whenever teaching a specific gesture or movement sequence. When I move this hand, for example, the students will then copy my movement as though they were looking at themselves in a mirror. (Yachiyo V slowly raises her left hand. As it reaches the base of her neck, it begins to unfold like a flower reacts to morning sunlight, her fingers straightening, her head slightly tilting as the movement tapers off.) While the one-to-one system is obviously more effective, it’s not always a viable option. Sometimes, it’s preferable to work in a group setting so that the students can help each other out. Such an approach enjoys the added advantage of introducing an element of rivalry. Injecting such a competitive aspect can be beneficial for the students’ advancement.

After a maiko qualifies as a geiko, what career options are open to them?

Yachiyo V: Becoming a geiko doesn’t only entail dancing or performing on stage for an audience. Another facet of their profession is that they perform at banquets or social gatherings. Here, they assume a social function as consummate raconteurs. Let’s say that the atmosphere at such a gathering were to become somewhat subdued, the geiko could then start to liven things up by serving saké, conversing and regaling guests with her wit and repartee. I personally, however, am not in in any way involved with the business side of things.

What qualities do you expect in a maiko?

First and foremost, she must conscientiously commit herself and adapt a wholesome approach to learning. If she lacks the self-discipline and desire to improve, or to invest in honing her technique and skills, she won’t make any progress. After all, if the student doesn’t cherish and appreciate what she is learning, there isn’t much we can do to help her.

Do you have an instinctive feeling that a particular maiko will make a good dancer?

Yes, to some extent. Her physical attributes will invariably come into play. In observing how a student handles a musical instrument for accompaniment, for instance, one can immediately tell whether they are gifted or otherwise in this respect. And when it comes to dancing, a certain level of aptitude is definitely called for. Whether the maiko is truly suited for dance or not is ultimately determined by her physical shape and level of discipline. That said, I would like for those who aspire to become a maiko and come to Gion for that very purpose to acquire a certain level of skill even if they can’t complete their apprenticeship. Still, I must admit that sometimes I’ve come across maiko whom I initially thought had the makings of a good dancer and who yet were surprisingly unsuccessful. Perhaps she couldn’t come to terms with life here in the Gion quarter, or other matters not directly related to dance impeded her development. Despite the maiko doing her utmost, there’s nevertheless a hierarchic system which she has to learn to endure. An apprentice who becomes a maiko even one day before the others attains the superior rank of an onee-san, (literally, an older sister). Some people might judge this as a vertically structured system based upon rank, but I nonetheless think it preferable that several maiko, rather than one, live together in the okiya with which they are affiliated. Some apprentice geiko encounter difficulties adjusting to the constraints of this communal form of living. There are those who, even if unsure of their dancing skills, progressively improve day after day. And then there are others, who despite thinking that they’ve been making steady progress, hit rock bottom once they start preparing for their next performance. I can’t predict what the future holds for each maiko individually. One thing is for certain, though. Their level of physical preparedness will play a significant part in how they will evolve. Curiously, when it actually comes to performing, those who need to invest a lot of time and put much effort into honing their skills sometimes turn out to be better performers than those who learn quickly and without any apparent difficulties.

Do you still have the opportunity to teach?

Given that the Yasaka Nyokoba Gakuen only offers instruction seven days each month, I’m not teaching there on a daily basis. But, generally speaking, giving instruction can be quite challenging, especially when dealing with a debutante or a child who has never before even experienced wearing tabi (traditional tonged socks). Moreover, unlike teaching a student on a one-to-one basis, it’s physically quite strenuous to instruct several people at once. With children this presents additional challenges. As with instructing newcomers, I feel the need to raise the tension level somewhat when teaching children, otherwise they won’t pay attention.

Inoue Yasuko : I, too, find it quite difficult to teach children. Nowadays, whenever I have to teach them a traditional dance that involves simulating bygone children’s games and pastimes, I’ve then got to explain how to play games such as hanetsuki, where they need to learn how to strike a shuttlecock. Now given that some of them have never even seen a hagoita (a wooden paddle used to strike the shuttlecock), I then have to coach them from scratch and we end up losing the thread of the dance. Sooner or later, they start losing interest and getting bored. It’s really quite a challenge to keep them interested.

From what ago do children start to take dance lessons?

Inoue Yasuko, daughter of Inoue Yachiyo V, together with her stage partner Shigeyama Chuzaboro

Kyodo News Images photo

Inoue Yasuko: In Kyoto, the custom has been to have the aspiring learner commence on the sixth day of the sixth month of their sixth year of the lunar calendar. Word has it that by commencing on a date with matching numbers, the novice will then pursue their chosen artform or field of study. Adults and non-professional dancers can take up instruction at any age.

Yachiyo V: In my case, I didn’t exactly follow that tradition, for I started at an even earlier age. However, I do think it preferable to wait until at least the child’s bone structure has solidified and she has started to develop physically round the age of five or so. If you really want to motivate children to dance and help them develop from the ground up, they need to start at a young age and be constantly nurtured and encouraged. For those longing to become a maiko and practice their art in Gion, they can only enroll at the Yasaka Nyokoba Gakuen once they have completed their compulsory education. They must be at least be fifteen or sixteen before they can start taking lessons at the Gakuen. For children starting ballet lessons, I’ve heard that they even enquire about their mother’s physique. While there’s no such requirement in Japanese traditional dance, some people do remark about “the note not fitting the scale,” so to speak. When it comes to teaching the basics, I’ve lately come to the conclusion that it’s paramount to begin with the normal standing posture and then have students learn how to lower their bodies and assume a seating position. I used to focus on teaching students how to have their knees face forwards along with other fundamental dance movements, but nowadays I want to first instruct them how to hold themselves erect properly. Once I succeed in rectifying their posture, I will then take it from there and instruct them on how to lower their hips and sit. Given that I am teaching dance for women, I want them to cherish their innate femininity and to cultivate their distinctively feminine touch.

Given the lifestyle changes over recent decades on account of the post-war introduction of American eating habits and furniture into Japanese homes, what challenges does this pose when trying to teach today’s cohort of beginner students given how their physiques differ from Japanese girls from previous generations?

Yachiyo V: Many newcomers suffer from poor posture. For us, it is absolutely essential that they learn how to sit and bow correctly. Some students cannot even keep their backs totally straight during the bowing gesture. (Here, Yasuko performs a zarei, the act of bowing while kneeling. Without arching her back, she effortlessly pivots the upper part of her body at the waist, lowers her head toward the floor while simultaneously sliding both hands forward smoothly on the tatami mat, forming a triangle with both thumbs and index fingers as her hands meet, her face almost touching the floor.) Many young people now pass their time constantly swiping the screen on their smartphones. We find ourselves repeatedly having to remind them to be careful about not straining their necks. (Yachiyo juts her neck forward, exerting a visible level of strain). They have acquired this poor posture from many years of playing computer games on screen while commuting on the train. Repetitive smartphone usage, the so-called tech neck, has had a terribly detrimental impact on how they hold their bodies. Some teenagers find it quite challenging to sit correctly on account of their height. Indeed, some of them are so tall and with such long legs that one has to raise one’s gaze to look at them.

Inoue Yasuko: Some students are initially unable assume this sitting position correctly. (Yasuko points to her ankles.) Instead they move their legs apart at the knees and end up placing their buttocks on the floor. Their ankle ligaments are so underdeveloped that they are unable to stretch them and sit properly on their calves. For some children, it can take up to a year of training before they can properly sit and bow, or that they learn how to reduce the level of muscular tension in the neck area that would allow them to move their necks more flexibly. Another thing we teach students from the very beginning is how to use a mai-ogi (a fan for dancing). For us, the fan is similar to ballet shoes for those learning ballet in that it is the indispensable prop for every student. On the very first day a maiko is admitted to the Gakuen, we will hand them a fan and tell them it is theirs for life. They learn how to skilfilly manipulate it, how to open it with their thumb and flip it upside down, and how to fold it effortlessly. Like the basic stretching routines that ballet novices execute before they begin a lesson, our apprentices learn from the very beginning how to bow and handle a fan. Even though it strikes them as quite difficult, we will have them start handling it once they begin lessons.

Yachiyo V: Just by looking at the dancer’s body language, the audience should be able with single glance to identify who she is meant to be or what role she is portraying. If she’s depicting a geisha, then it’s vital that she be able to convey the geisha’s mannerisms. As a prop, the fan has multiple uses and performs various roles. It is the quintessential prop that audiences can best appreciate: it can symbolise swaying waves or a leaf blowing in the wind. A fan can morph, for example, into a kiseru, the traditional Japanese tobacco pipe (Yachiyo V elegantly extends her arm as though holding an imaginary shank of a pipe). It might even depict the wish-granting mallet held by the Daikokuten, the deity of wealth and good fortune.

Yachiyo V on stage

虫の音 高画質

Personally, I like holding a fan in my hand and manipulating it. It can communicate my emotions to the audience or depict a certain mood. It can signal that something is about to unfold or help generate a shift of atmosphere. More so than any other prop, I tend to prefer expressing myself with a fan.

Grandmothers and Mothers

How was your experience of being taught by your grandmother Yachiyo IV?

Yachiyo V: Initially, I started to practice dance just for fun. When my grandmother started giving me lessons between the ages of three and ten, she did so all while coddling me with a mixture of carrot and stick. But once I entered the upper grades at elementary school at around twelve, there was a marked shift in tone and she became really strict. And, I became terrified of her. She was some task-master when it came to concentration and discipline. She would get terribly angry whenever my mind started to wander during lessons. It was at that point that it struck home how the world of dance was going to be a tough one. Still, she was just as demanding with the other students as she was with me. And not only was she tough on everyone else, she was also strict with herself. Whenever I recall just how demanding she was on herself, I feel as though I’m wanting in this respect. Given I’m a woman, I need to be vigilant of my emotions. Even yesterday, my younger brother pointed out that I needed to be on my guard and not get so obsessed and allow my emotions get the better of me when practicing. In one sense, one can’t teach unless one acquires a certain degree of composure. While being passionate, I also need to carefully bear in mind that others are involved. I’m reflecting on how to mend my ways. (Yachiyo V laughs). Still, a measure of strictness is called for. Unlike the current trend in Japanese education to praise children in class, back then the educational system was so draconian. Nowadays, such an approach would almost be deemed as power harassment.

Dance performance in a traditional teahouse

Shutterstock photo legend

Your daughter Yasuko also happens to be a performer. How does your relationship with her differ to your relationship with Yachiyo IV?

Yachiyo V: There’s no comparison. Even though my grandmother was somebody for whom our family life was vitally important, there was a huge generational divide. On a professional level, our relationship was such that she had to be venerated on account of her skill and knowledge. In my personal life, she was a sweet old lady. With my daughter, however, we are only a generation apart and our lives are much more closely interlinked, even a little too closely, I’m afraid. But she herself will have to decide what future path she takes.

Yasuko: My relationship with my mother completely differs from that of other parents whose children are dancers. Whether it has to do with my private life or my dance, she’s constantly on my case. (Yasuko laughs) And, whenever it comes to my performances, she really turns into a proper stage mamma.

Do you think that some repertoire pieces require a certain maturity to perform?

It is often said that one needs to reach a certain age before one should attempt to perform certain Noh plays, or only after long years of practice. For example, a certain life experience is called for to perform the repertory piece Ono no Komachi which depicts the Heian poet Komachi as a destitute old woman, otherwise it would come across as merely superficial gesturing. It’s not a matter of whether you yourself realise it or not, but there’s a certain age, sometime after one hit’s fifty, at which a slightly different form naturally emerges. If, for instance, a piece demands that a woman express her deep sense of longing, it’s probably better to be perform it in a straightforward manner when you’re younger in order to convey that feeling of “how I long for you.” But as one grows older, I think one will come to express this sense of longing somewhat differently and with more nuance. In Japanese society, elderly practitioners were once cherished and used to command respect, though I’m unsure whether the same could be said nowadays.

Yasuko: Fortunately, over the course of our careers we have the opportunity to perform the repertory pieces over and again. When we initially dance a particular piece, we are so taken up with how to master its execution. But as we gradually grow older, we can then bring our own life experiences and feelings more into play. Though it also happens that I think too much about the piece and end up becoming completely baffled. (Yasuko laughs).

In the archival footage I’ve seen of Yachiyo III dancing Mushi no Ne at 96 and Yachiyo IV dancing it at 87, I was deeply struck by their vitality. What is the secret to their remarkable longevity? Is there a genetic factor to their stamina?

Yachiyo V: Yachiyo III and Yachiyo IV were not related by blood, so there’s no genetic component to explain their life-long devotion to Kyomai. By all accounts and from the archival images I’ve seen, Yachiyo III was a robust figure whose stage appearances were often compared to a yokozuna (highest ranking sumo wrestler) entering the ring. By contrast, the Yachiyo IV, whom I knew intimately as my mentor, was somewhat more delicate and pretty as a woman. And yet, watching her progress in years, it gradually begin to dawn on me how when a woman, or a man for that matter, enters their nineties, they no longer exhibit the qualities associated with being a man or a woman as such, but rather tend to become genderless. In her final years, I felt as though my grandmother had been finally emancipated, as though she was no longer bound by any constraints.

Maiko in the historic Gion district in Kyoto

Shutterstock photo legend

The Outlook

What measures can you take to ensure that the Kyomai tradition will survive in this rapidly changing world?

Yachiyo V: In concrete terms, I would like to have children first experience Japanese traditional dance at school, whether at a primary or a secondary level. As matters currently stand, they really know nothing about it, let alone what we are doing in Kyomai. Our immediate priority has got be to attract children to traditional dance and have them become acquainted with it first-hand. We need them get a taste for it, and experience it for themselves. Once they actually do so, the dance will embed itself unconsciously in their memories. They will then always have a frame of reference and subsequently be able to recall it. On the positive side, nowadays performances of Japanese traditional dance are being given in schools. A two-pronged approach is called for: to continue to tour nationwide and give such presentation performances and to have the children experience dance for themselves. There’s something we refer to as the spirit of the Japanese people, a comforting spirit whereby we cherish the lives of all other beings here in the midst of nature and we are somehow able to express this feeling through our dance. Kyomai is not something that changes willy-nilly but rather is imbued with a universal quality. And given this universal quality, I feel it can be conveyed to audiences in other countries as well. Please let us know your impressions after you’ve seen the upcoming performance of Zangetsu. Even as I grow older, I want to continue to create and to perform but I’m unsure whether the younger generation can easily grasp what we’re doing. Repertory pieces often depict personages for whom they lack a frame of reference. Nowadays, for example, there’s no such profession as a street vendor and so they may not be able to relate to such a dance.

Finally, what does the future holds in store for Japanese traditional dance?

Yasuko: I feel a terrible sense of impending peril, but I’m unsure as how to we can best transmit our tradition. As far as Kyomai goes, the number of practitioners is definitely decreasing. I’m constantly asking myself whether and how we could create more opportunities to introduce our work to the general public. Should we organize more workshops for children in a bid to get them interested in dance, even if only to get them started? And as for adults, from my own regular experience of teaching at universities, I’ve observed how students are often just content to study traditional dance for a year just for the experience and then let it drop. The question I’m tackling is how we can sustain their interest and have them pursue their studies of Japanese traditional dance.

Yachiyo V: We are stuck in a bottleneck. I ask myself whether the general public can truly appreciate the sobriety of our work, for what we’re doing doesn’t possess the beauty that some other dance schools exemplify. I really would like audiences to experience Kyomai directly for themselves. People might have seen Kabuki and think that Japanese traditional dance is somehow linked with it. The fact they’ve never had the opportunity to see Kyomai performed makes a huge difference. Even though the Inoue-Ryu of Kyomai is quite a minor dance form in the greater scheme of things, I still feel the obligation to transmit our tradition to future generations. I’ve got to be prepared to double down and do so with resolve.

The National Theatre in Tokyo

Shutterstock photo legend

Somehow, Sundays are Sundays Everywhere

Longing to stretch my legs, I decided to step off the Yamanoto circular line at Tokyo’s bustling Shimbashi station and walk to the Kokuritsu Gekijo, the National Theatre of Japan some three kilometres distant as the crow flies. This Sunday afternoon stroll as far as that bastion of the traditional performing arts would take me through the sleepy govermental quarter, skirting the Imperial Palace safely set at a distance from the humdrum of the nation’s capital by a series of moats and guarded, curiously, at regular intervals by a wooden-pole-wielding policeman.

The Imperial Palace

Shutterstock photo legend

Notwithstanding the persistent drizzle, hordes of weekend joggers of all ages and strengths and three-membered families in quest of family-time thronged the footpaths flanking this historic moat. By the time the Supreme Court of Japan had come into sight, the streets were donning their vacant Sunday look, deserted save for the occasional taxi flashing past and silence-shredding crow caws. Abruptly, the fading bleak-grey afternoon cheered up immensely thanks to long rows of glowing red lanterns afloat in the dusky sky and the welcoming allure of colourful kimonos gathering at the entrance to the theatre complex.

After a three-year pandemic related hiatus, the 64th annual gala performance of the Nihon Buyo Kyokai (the Japanese Classical Dance Association) was finally back on the city’s cultural programme. Founded in 1955, the Nihon Buyo Kyokai currently includes approximately 3,700 dancers affiliated with 107 schools and 26 branches active throughout the length and breadth of Japan. Aptly titled in translation “Moments to Move the Heart”, the two-day omnibus performance series was to unleash a palpable sense of relief as old friends and acquaintances alike revelled in their long-anticipated reunion and the general festive atmosphere.

An Onnagata, a male actor playing a female role in Kabuki

Home to the traditional performing arts since its inception in 1966, the sprawling theatre complex houses two halls, the larger one primarily hosting Kabuki and Nihon Buyo, performances, while the smaller one is devoted to staging Bunraku (puppet theatre), Gagaku (imperial court music) and an array of folk theatre performances. The afternoon’s marathon programme was showcasing seven presentations, ranging from repertoire classics to contemporary masterpieces, featuring a stellar cast of performers illustrating Nihon Buyo’s diverse appeal: from young vaudevillians to the masters from its various schools. With a pretty near full house, the viewing public was predominantly female, of a certain age and social stature, the majority attired in traditional kimono, some holding colourful furoshiki, a wrapping cloth containing presents or the customary bento lunch box for the half-hour intermission.

Inoue Yachiyo V dancing Zangetsu at the Tokyo National Theatre, 12 February 2023

The NIHONBUYO Association

On being asked about her upcoming presentation for this annual gala performance, Inoue Yachiyo V described it as a simple jiuta-mai piece which she had premiered about ten years ago and hadn’t staged since. Typically, jiuta-mai refers to a form of refined dance presented in a confined space, sometimes even as small as on a single tatami mat, usually with sparse musical accompaniment and few if any props, aside from the indispensable mai-ogi (fan used for dance). Often performed at memorial ceremonies, Zangetsu – the particular piece of music Yachiyo V had chosen to use for her choreography– is in essence a lament composed by the reputedly blind musician Minezaki Koto who was active in the Osaka region at the end of the eighteenth century. It was conceived for a ceremony to be performed on the first anniversary of the death of one of his favourite pupils, a young woman from an aristocratic bloodline. Considered one of the most profoundly eloquent pieces in the entire Japanese classical repertoire, it was originally composed for a trio ensemble of musicians; with singular feeling it combines the strikingly contrasting timbres of the shakuhachi (end-blown bamboo flute), the koto, (thirteen-stringed zither) and the sangen – a shamisen used in accompanying a form of ballad known as nagauta. Set against the shukuhachi’s eerily beautiful tone, the lament’s plaintive lyrics, sung in turn by the string players, evoke the wistful atmosphere of the moon at dawn on the seashore, with fond memories of the deceased young girl surging wavelike as time runs its ineluctable course, triggering a feeling of unrestrainable longing and loneliness for the departed. Two tonally distinct string instruments, the koto with its crystal-clear harplike resonance and the sangen’s metallic clang, play off each other majestically, as though one’s piercing heartbreak was echoing the other’s bitter sorrow.

Despite initially feeling that Minezaki’s Zangetsu was perhaps better suited as a listening experience than for dancing, Yachiyo Inoue V set about choreographing this instrumental piece, shortening it somewhat so as to match her dance. In her youth, she had read the renowned author Tanizaki Junichro’s account of this lament and was herself immediately struck by its haunting beauty on first hearing it. Zangetsu had never before been performed using this configuration of dance accompanied by a trio of musicians. Injecting a profoundly reflective moment into an otherwise spectacular gala evening overflowing with lively and humorous dances, Inoue Yachiyo V gave a performance which underpinned her standing as a contemporary treasure trove.

Mushi no Ne 2019, National Theatre

Japan Arts Council

If light is scarce, then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty.

Tanizaki Junichiro, In Praise of Shadows

A reverential silence spellbinds the audience as soon as the tapestried curtain depicting the quintessential Japanese seasonal symbols is pulled aside to reveal a vast emptiness, occupied by a trio of musicians seated on a dais stage left, while upstage right a solitary kimono-clad dancer draped in muted late-autumnal hues stands stock-still, barely discernible in the shadows. Against a backdrop of sliding partition doors, the stage is lit by a lone pair of candles flickering like two far-flung stars in the depths of the night sky, the unfolding space seems to stretch into infinity, containing only the detritus of our imaginations.

As with any beginning, this evening’s performance holds promise beyond the immediate, hinting as it were a complex living reality lurking beyond it. The less to be seen onstage, the greater its potential. And, indeed, Yachiyo V’s dance imperceptibly comes to life; before we know it, it is all around us, vibrantly bathed in moonlight. With each step forward, Yachiyo’s initial forlorn presence dissipates, steering us gradually away from a remote choreography of moody cloudscapes drawing itself across the vast empty stage toward a full-blooded presence surging right before our very eyes. Throughout this exquisite marriage of dance and song, so finely interpreted by Reibo Aoki on shakuhachi, Tomiyama Kiyohito on koto and Tomiyama Seikin on sangen, we listen as the night-river hums its inherited song, weaving mournful silences into its own melodic bridges, merging truth and innovation, past and present, timeless gestures and ancient song.

Yachiyo V’s movements make time disappear; it stands still as her dance reverberates through a succession of female bodies over years, over decades, over centuries, living that human yearning to articulate a want and a love. The haunting shakuhachi, the crystalline koto and the clanging sangen miraculously add layer upon layer of contrasting tempi, the singers’ resonant voices rippling across the stage and beyond.

Zangetsu 2009, National Theatre

Japan Arts Council

As a performer, Yachiyo V’s body can hold so much beyond the visible. Some alchemy transforms this intimate moment public, turning stillness into expression. Yachiyo V’s utter concentration unites her with her deepest self – a metaphysical reality identical for all things. Rather than aggressively seeking to communicate meaning, she exudes a spirit of sovereignty inducing those watching to participate imaginatively in their quest for sense, solace and pleasure. With an absolute minimum of facial expression, her movements’ slow pace enable us to acquire that necessary aesthetic distance from those personal and social aspects of our lives, thus allowing us to partake in her depiction of life, love, and loss.

Here, a title is never merely a title; it refers to Zangetsu Shinnyo, the departed girl’s posthumous Buddhist name. From its opening phrase, “As the moon dips into the depths of the wide-open sea”, we are seduced, co-witnesses to that shiver-bright sky, subliminally etching grief, waxing and waning, moonlike. In what at times is an unforgettably transcendental experience, such grace and tenderness flows from Yachiyo V’s body as she gradually transforms from a forlorn shadow fed on embers to a powerful, breathing being, aglow.
As with songs, dances are embedded in their time and place; they can’t renounce their spiritus loci, their creative origins. Still, with luck, they may well transcend them. And, so it is with Yachiyo V’s rendition of this lament, whose performance spirits us away from the plush comfort of our theatre seats to the very depths of our hearts and further afield into the heartlands of memory. Embodying a degree of integrity which allows her to profoundly portray the quest for psychic wholeness, her performance style represents that ultimate stage of freedom and mastery, whereby technique has become second nature, and a lived experience of life we can all tap into seems to brims over. Underpinned by an uncanny level of assuredness, Yachiyo V is possessed of an ability to give seemingly spontaneous yet utterly authentic expression to old matters in a distinctly fresh way.


Now that the barn
Has gone up in flames,
I can see the moon

Haiku by 17th-century samurai Mizuta Matsuhide

Stepping back out into that mizzled Sunday night, the ricochet of feeling that swoops from the performer’s body into the audience is still palpable. Overcome with gratitude for that warm pulsing heart and those throats so filled with song, I make my way to the nearest train station, thankful for the phoenix-like atmosphere they can generate, where timelessness reigns, interlinking those who have passed through before us, those breathing at our side, and those yet unborn.

Such a performance by Inoue Yachiyo V affords us the opportunity to viscerally understand life’s immutable truths. Some magic has taken place that leaves us all transformed, making us feel all the more alive. And while utterly futile to lament the detrimental changes our world endures, there’s no harm, however, in grasping the true scale of our impending loss or in keenly feeling it. No, no harm whatsoever.


We at tanz would like to extend our bottomless gratitude to Inoue Yachiyo V and her daughter Inoue Yasuko for their generosity in allowing us to use some of their family heirloom photos, and for having given so generously of their time. We would also like to thank the Katayama Noh and Kyomai Preservation Foundation in Kyoto for their co-operation.

Special thanks to Jogo Ichiro of the Nihon Buyo Kyokai who kindly allowed us the use of a photograph of Inoue Yachiyo V performing Zangetsu.
More photos from the Nihon Buyo Kyokai photo gallery can be viewed by clicking on the following link.

Thanks are also due to Tsuchiya Shizuko for her help in transcribing the interview with Inoue Yachiyo V and Inoue Yasuko, to Itoh Masaki and Murai Keitetsu for their assistance with research, and to Nakajima Nanako for having introduced us to the world of Kyomai. And a special thanks to Hanasaki Tokijyo for her enlightening insights into Jiutamai during an interview with her at her student’s Hanasaki Jiutamai rehearsal space in Hiroshima.

And a word of thanks to the staff at the Japan Foundation Library in Tokyo, who despite the Covid restrictions, were immensely helpful in my research, and also the staff at the audio-visual archives of the Kokuritsu Gekijyo who allowed me access to the archives to view footage of Yachiyo III and Yachiyo IV.

About the author:

John Barrett lived in Japan in the 1980s, served as an interpreter at the bi-weekly workshops of Butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno, and translated some of the earliest available texts on Butoh into English, such as Shades of Darkness (Shufunomoto, 1988). In 2004, Wesleyan University Press published his groundbreaking English translation of Kazuo Ohno’s World: From Within and Without, which introduced Ohno’s philosophical reflections to a worldwide audience. He later collaborated with Mina and Toshio Mizohata at the Ohno Dance Studio on English translations of Ohno’s archival materials. Based in Ireland, he continues to work as a freelance translator and interpreter, notably in the museal and audio-visual spheres.