Origins of Japan’s Anti-Establishment Butoh Dance

Read on for the birth of an avant-garde Butoh dance, influenced by the emergence of postmodernism, the nuclear bombing of Japan, and a radical disassociation with classical forms.

Apr 7, 2021By Tejus Menon, BA (Hons) Political Science
kazuo ohno butoh
Kazuo Ohno during a butoh workshop, 1986; with Revolt of the Body by Tatsumi Hijikata, photographed by Roku Hasegawa, 1968


Butoh or Buto, in literal Japanese translation, means dance (bu), step (toh). Butoh dance was founded in Japan in the late 1950s. From its radical beginnings in the Tokyo underground, with outrageous performances and bow-legged dancers, to its global explosion in visual and performative media, this Japanese dance form spans multiple interpretations.


What Is Butoh Dance?


Butoh is a Japanese dance theatre form that originated in the late 50s and early 60s in Japan. It was founded by Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, two dancers influenced deeply by the post-war era and postmodernist ideas that had permeated into the arts through literature, visual art, and dance. The dance is typically associated with white painted bodies or dancers embodying a grotesque, stunted, or atypical form of dance movement. Butoh was born from a deep disassociation from the athleticism portrayed by classical dance forms. It sought to revolutionize the socially conditioned response of the dancer to exhibit strength, athleticism, and balance. Rather, Butoh dancers would often explore the diseased, the age-worn, or the weakened body.


Founders Of Butoh: A New Form Of Japanese Dance

tatsumi hijikata
Tatsumi Hijikata in his native Tohoku region by Eikoh Hosoe, 1968, Tohoku, via Kamaitachi: Photographs by Eikoh Hosoe


Tatsumi Hijikata was born Yoneyama Kunio in Akita Prefecture in the northeast of Japan in 1928. He was the tenth child of eleven siblings. He grew up in a Japan ravaged by war, with the devastating nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki taking place just after his 17th birthday. Japan was in a phase of reconstruction that was not only physical but also social. With the strong Japanese public mask crumbling, Hijikata would soon look to re-interpret his own dance training and Japanese identity.


Hijikata had trained in modern dance in his younger years and realized that much of his appearance and form could not replicate the strong plasticity demanded by structured choreographers. He was already bow-legged and stiff, very much similar to the people from his native Tohoku region, who would remain bent over rice fields the entire day. This form of nativist relation would soon form a core part of his inspiration.

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revolt of the body
Revolt of the Body by Tatsumi Hijikata, photographed by Roku Hasegawa, 1968, via The Keio University Art Center, Tokyo


The dance Hijikata would look to create was one that would shake the roots of society as much as the war had done. His rejection of the forced American commodification of Japan was acute, once writing that ‘I will no longer be cheated by a bad check-called democracy.’ While being critical of post-war American values seeping in, he embodied a deep nativist outlook. His native Tohoku and its wailing babies, rice farmers, and stark winters would play crucially into his imagination. His structured choreographies often imbibed with surreal and despondent imagery were highly original and striking. He would soon label this Ankoku-Butoh (The Dance of Darkness).


Along with Hijikata, who came to represent the strong, anti-establishment, choreography-driven side of Butoh dance, his co-founder Kazuo Ohno came as the other face of the coin. A young Hijikata first came across Ohno’s who had already trained in German Expressionist dance. He wrote of this first viewing – 


‘In the fall of 1948 in Tokyo, I saw a wonderful dance performance, overflowing with lyricism, by a man wearing a chemise. Cutting the air again and again with his chin, he made a lasting impression on me. For years this drug dance stayed in my memory. That dance has now been transformed into a deadly poison, and one spoonful of it contains all that is needed to paralyze me.’

kazuo ohno butoh workshop
Kazuo Ohno during a butoh workshop, 1986, via EnAcademic Archive; with The Dead Sea by Kazuo Ohno, Naoya Ikegami, 1985, via HuisMarseille


Ohno was born in the Hokkaido Prefecture in 1906. He is often referred to as the soul of Butoh, in contrast to Hijikata, who is often considered the architect. He was already a modern Japanese dancer by the time the young Hijikata saw him. On their first meeting, filled with admiration for each other, they began to refer to each other as sensei.


Ohno’s dance in contrast to Hijikata’s was mostly improvised, delicate, and extremely subtle at times. He embodied a form of poiesis that was as potent as his counterpart but was garbed in spiritual spider silk, that would emerge or re-connect almost at will. 


Neue Tanz or German Expressionism at that time was the only prevalent form of modern Japanese dance practiced in Japan. It was often referred to as the ‘poison dance.’ Having danced this for a while, Ohno remained dissatisfied and was looking to create his own original dance. Hijikata and Ohno would meet again in Tokyo where they would collaborate on various dances and performances. They would come to represent the yin and yang of Butoh.


First Performance

kinjiki performance
Kinjiki Studio Performance by Kiyoji Ōtsuji, 1959, via Art Viewer


Even though Hijikata had various dances and performances under his belt already, Kinjiki (Forbidden Colours) was Hijikata’s first performance that came to be recognized as the origins of Butoh dance. The dance was based on Yukio Mishima’s novel of the same name. Mishima at the time was a well-known author inspired by Jean Genet’s dark style of writing. Kinjiki in particular was written around concepts of homosexuality and the differing plays of sexual power that occur between a post-war author, and a beautiful young man in a relationship with a rich woman. 


Hijikata’s interpretation of this novel was first unknown to Mishima. Upon hearing that some dancer was going to perform an interpretation of his novel without permission, he ran to the studio to confront Hijikata, who in turn immediately arranged for an exclusive showing. Mishima was sold from the start. 


When Kinjiki was performed for the public, there was a considerable uproar. The dancers were Hijikata, Kazuo Ohno’s son Yoshito Ohno, and a chicken. Ohno danced the young man from the novel, appearing to have sexual relationships with the chicken, while Hijikata would frequently try to make a move on him. The chicken was finally smothered between Ohno’s legs after which Hijikata proceeded to chase him off the stage. 


This short dance piece managed to alienate him from the All Japan Art Dance Association and the contemporary Japanese dance circle, yet it cemented Hijikata’s position as a new force of creativity. 


Expressionist Roots And Characteristics

isadora duncan eadweard muybridge
Isadora Duncan by Eadweard Muybridge, 1900


Butoh dance owes much to Expressionist dance and modernism in its origin but is still a step further from their aesthetic structures. Hijikata and Ohno were themselves trained in Neue Tanz, then an already established modernist dance from Germany. This form itself originated in response to the stiff and mechanical body of classical ballet.

In the dance of Expressionists like Mary Wigman and Isadora Duncan, a negation of the forced social conditioning of classical dancers was crucial. To Butoh, it was important in an even more radical sense. Butoh sought to revoke all sensibility from poetry, dance, and the visual quality of performance. Butoh’s definition is in that it is extremely hard to pin-point. It has anti-classical rhetoric, but a strong relation to animistic beliefs. It departs from the aesthetic ambitions of modern dance and destroys ‘meaning’ as much as it builds it. 


One defining characteristic of Butoh is its acceptance of various socially outcast conditions. Classical dance seemed to exhibit a particular strength and grace that didn’t come under the ambit of what Butoh regarded as exploration. In fact, in Butoh, this is deemed as yet another socially constructed manifestation that only seeks to empower desirable characteristics through dance. 


Butoh on the other hand concerned itself with the weakened body, a body that remained close to the ground, rather than reaching for the sky. It embraced beings of death, diseases as well as those that belonged to the subconscious. Dancers frequently appear weakened, emulating dead bodies, with spines constricted or the feet trembling. This is what Butoh carries on in its various iterations today, a manifold existence that doesn’t rely only on conscious movement, but also on the frequently cloaked backroom that is the subconsciousness. 


Hijikata’s Butoh-Fu: Butoh Dance Scores

asbestos hall happening tadao nakatani
Asbestos Hall Happening by Tadao Nakatani, 1968, via Tatsumi Hijikata Archive


One of the most important archives of the original Butoh dance as practiced by Hijikata and his troupe remains the Butoh-fu or the Butoh dance scores written by him in the 1970s. These functioned as suggestive phrases that would often help dancers embody certain physical conditions.


There is no fixed Butoh-fu globally like there is in other classical forms. Most of the written Butoh-fu is from Hijikata’s students who would frequently take notes at different places during workshops. Hijikata was a voracious reader and according to a disciple Nakajima Natsu, whenever they weren’t dancing, they were discussing books. Hijikata would frequently borrow interesting phrases and ideas from literature. 


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Hijikata Tatsumi’s Notational Butoh, via Art Connect

This method helped the dancer embody imagery rather than depict it. For example, Hijikata’s Butoh-fu would proceed like this.


‘You live because insects eat you’

‘A fine spider’s thread that runs on the forehead’

‘A fragile sound collapsed in a shed’

‘He becomes an insect that dances on a thin sheet of paper’

‘It makes rustling noises, trying to hold falling particles’

‘The insect then becomes a person, so fragile that he could crumble with the slightest touch, who is wandering around’




She sinks into the darkness of her own body. She is laughing, her mouth is like an opened pomegranate. Around the face, small neon signs are flashing. From where the body sank, four small fallen angels appear but they sink deeper into the swamp.

(Source: Yukio Waguri)


Contemporary Butoh Dance

Eleusina by Pagratis Pagratidis, 2010, via JinenButoh


Today there are various iterations of Butoh, true to the spirit envisioned by its founders.


It is difficult to create any formalized practice for Butoh and thus it constantly fluctuates as performance art, as a state of meditative presence as well as a constant force deconstructing social and physical norms in dance. 


Amongst the various practitioners and groups that spread their teachings today, many have vastly different methodologies but a similar embodiment.


Atsushi Takenouchi, a third-generation Butoh dancer, practices Jinen Butoh, a form deeply intertwined with the course, presence, and causality of nature. This has been a crucial driving force ever since he left at 24 to pursue his own form of Butoh. Takenouchi says “The very wide meaning of Jinen is that everything exists inside a living God.”


before the dawn
Before the Dawn by Yumiko Yoshioka, photographed by Giuseppe Frusteri, 2013 Berlin


Yumiko Yoshioka was a founder and member of the first female Butoh company Ariadone and today has developed her own method of teaching. She also helps in organizing ‘eX…it!, a Butoh-Related eXchange Festival’ in Germany.


seisaku gorreau
Seisaku by JM Gourreau. 2013, via Critiphotodanse


Seisaku is a dancer and one of the last living students of Hijikata who still teaches every week out of his studio in Tokyo. After Hijikata died, he participated in the Butoh group “Hakutohboh” to work with Yohko Ashikawa and took part in almost all of their pieces performing in Japan and overseas as a dancer.

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By Tejus MenonBA (Hons) Political ScienceTejus is a contributing writer and performance artist based in India and has a BA Hons in Political Science from the University of Delhi. He is a Butoh dancer and theatre maker with a focus on making interdisciplinary work. He enjoys the outdoors, from sailing in the Arabian Sea to hiking in the high Himalayas.