ESSAY // Psychological Examination of the Presence of Butoh Dancers’ Body

Psychological Examination of the Presence of Butoh Dancers’ Body

Tadashi Kato, Ph.D., Fairmont State University



My first encounter with Butoh was Kunishi Kamiryo’s performance in Tokyo in Spring 1984.  I was a college freshman and was recommended to see his performance from a fellow student in Akira Kasai’s Eurythmy class.  At that time, I did not know anything about the relationship between Akira and Kunishi and also knew nothing about Butoh (I later learned that Kunishi was in fact one of the top disciples of Akira and also one of the most highly regarded Butoh dancers among Akira’s students by Tatsumi Hijikata).  However, this performance became an unforgettable experience.  I recall being struck by Mr. Kamiryo’s peculiar crawling position on the floor, and yet finding myself experiencing an internal impulse of wanting to move from within.  It almost felt as though Mr. Kamiryo on the stage was generating an invisible energetic connection with audience members and stimulating us at the subliminal level of consciousness.  The presence of his body on stage also felt extremely vivid and his body looked larger than his actual size.  Needless to say, Mr. Kamiryo became my first Butoh teacher which had then inspired the direction of my later career at various levels. 

As inspired by my subjective impression of the significant presence of the body on stage in Mr. Kamiryo’s performance and that which was later experienced in other Butoh performances as well, this short essay attempts to investigate the historical background of the notion of the presence of performers’ body on stage in Japanese culture and further attempts to find the psychological account for this phenomenon.

Noh Theater

Noh theater is a traditional Japanese performing arts that integrated dance, music, and theater.  It was first established by Kan-Ami (1333-1384) by combining Dengaku (farmer’s festivity dance) and Sarugaku (street performance).  His son, Ze-Ami (1363-1443) was an extremely skilled performer of this new art, Noh, and the third Shogun of Muromachi Bakufu (Government), Yoshimitsu Ashikaga, offered a sponsorship for him.  As a joint effort between Ze-Ami and Yoshimitsu, Noh Theater grew into a form of a ‘high art’ that matched the taste of newly emerged Samurai class.  However, after the shift of political climate, Ze-Ami withdrew into non-political life-style and attempted to perfect the art of Noh into a mystical dimension. It was during this last phase of Ze-Ami’s life when he introduced the concepts that appear to relate to the notion of the ‘presence of body’ on stage. 

In his earlier writing, “Fushi-Kaden (‘Figurative Flower Tale’),” Ze-Ami described the beautiful state of performer’s body by using the metaphor of “flower (‘hana’).”  In his later writing, “Kakyoh (‘Mirror of Flowers’),” he made a clear statement about the association between flower and the state of consciousness and suggested:

(Japanese) “Hana wa kokoro. (Kakyoh)

(English Translation by T. Kato) “Flower is (or depends on) (the state of) consciousness.”

Further, Ze-Ami added the following clarification.

(Japanese) “Roh-Shin-Ka-Fu to wa, uruwashiki sugata nari.  Shin wa ‘Ri-Ken No Ken,’ hana wa, hyoh-fu nari.  (Kakyoh, Chapter 6). 

(English Translation by T. Kato) “Hidden and deepened state of flower has a beautiful appearance.  Deepening means ‘View of Distanced View,” and (when this view is achieved) flower contains the spontaneity from within.”

In other word, Ze-Ami suggested that the ideal state of the performer’s body (flower) is achieved through the “View of Distanced View (Riken No Ken).”  It leads to the question about the implication of this very concept, ‘View of Distanced View.”

In Chapter 6 of Kakyoh, Ze-Ami further explains this concept.

(Japanese) “Riken no ken nite, kensho-do-ken to narite, fukyu-moku no shinsho made kenchi shite, gotai soh-oh no yu-shi wo nasu beshi. (Kakyoh, Chapter 6).”

(English translation – by T. Kato) “By developing the same view as the audience’s perspective by practicing the ‘view of distanced view,’ learn to see the area of your body that your eyes would not reach, and thus develop the graceful presence of body that corresponds to your heightened attention to the entire body parts.”

In other word, ‘view of distanced view’ refers to the imagery practice where the Noh performers place their eyes in audience’s perspectives and see their bodies from outside.  By practicing this image training, Ze-Ami suggested that the performers would be able to develop graceful stage presence of their bodies, which he called “hana (flower).”

Ze-Ami further articulated the association between the state of consciousness generated via the practice of ‘view of distanced view’ and the mystical presence of performers’ bodies as follows.

(Japanese) Mu-shin no kan, Mu-shin no ifu no riken koso, myoh-ka niya arubeki (Kakyoh, Chapter 9).

(English Translation by T. Kato) View of distanced view, based on the (inner) sense of no mind, and on the (outer) appearance of no mind, the performer’s body will appear as a mystical flower.

Suzuki (1979) suggested that, through ‘Mu-shin no i (state of no mind),’ the dichotomy of subject and object disappears and further suggested that, through the practice of ‘view of distanced view,’ Noh performers are able to tap into the field of collective unconsciousness, through which, they are capable of even opening connection to the audience members at the unconscious level and thus affecting their state of consciousness. 

In sum, Noh theater’s training system known as ‘view of distanced view (Riken no ken)’ is suggested to have the following effects.

1)      Allowing the graceful and mystical presence of the performer’s body on stage

2)      Generating the unconscious connection between performers and audience members

These suggested effects of “view of distanced view’ appears to correspond to the reported training systems and images used in Butoh training.  In the following chapters, I will attempt to articulate these connections.

Ohno’s Butoh

My experience of Kazuo Ohno’s Butoh is limited since I studied with his son, Yoshito, and not directly with Kazuo.  However, I recall that Yoshito’s classes that took place from May through July 2013 repeatedly emphasized the notion of ‘eyes at the back’ and ‘energetic extension of the body that expands to the entire space.’  

The concept of ‘eyes at the back’ refers to the notion that, by holding the awareness of backspace by imagining that we have eyes on our back, we can generate the same degree of stage presence on the back part of our body as the frontal part.  The concept of ‘energetic extension of the body’ refers to the notion that, if we are able to imagine that our body parts would expand beyond the edge of our skins and energetically stretches out to the space, we would indeed generate a graceful and powerful stage presence, which audience members would be able to sense.

In the panel discussion titled, “Kazuo Ohno – Butoh and Life,” and was moderated by Inuhiko Yomoda, Satoru Kimura mentioned Ohno’s key concept, ‘Tamashii no Senkoh (English – Precedence of the Soul).’ According to Kimura, this concept corresponds to Ohno’s statement that his walk on stage always began from his intrinsic urge to move, which comes from his soul, and the rest of the body and the legs would follow.  Kimura also shared his observation that Ohno seemed to have always started his movement on stage by gazing at far distance, as if, he wanted to meet the spirits in the space (as corresponding to the reflection by Ohno himself).  As a result, Ohno was reported to generate a specific stage presence through which his energy appeared to have spread throughout the space.

In the same panel discussion, Tamotsu Watanabe also indicated that, whenever Kazuo Ohno danced on stage, he had allowed himself to be influenced by the air of the surrounding environment, and in return, the air on stage also moved along with his movements. 

Further, Tami Yanagisawa introduced Ohno’s key concept of becoming ‘karappo (empty).’  This is a notion that, by becoming empty within and surrendering to the space, Ohno gained the flexibility to respond to the surrounding environment.  In other words, by giving up the ego-mind by surrendering to the emotional environment of the space, Ohno had established a direct energetic connection with the space.  She further referred to the Christian concept of ‘kenosis’ which implied the notion that Jesus embodied the divine (holy spirit) by making himself empty within. In this statement, it appears clear that she was well aware of the fact that Kazuo Ohno was a devoted Christian.  This concept of “karappo” also appears to correspond to the notion that Ohno became one with the collective unconsciousness of the space.

Moreover, Akira Okamoto introduced Ohno’s statement, “I believe that the field of Butoh is the womb of mother and womb of the cosmos.”  He suggested that Ohno had a belief that energy of the beginning of life is the same energy as the one that generated the universe and also that he had burning desire to become one with this source energy.  Further, he discussed that, Ohno had attempted to achieve this oneness through the intention of dedication. 

This notion of ‘dedication’ corresponds to Yoshito Ohno’s reflection on Kazuo’s earlier motivation of Butoh where he desired to dedicate his heart to his fellow soldiers who lost their lives and also his heart to his mother to whom he could never express his appreciation before she passed away.  However, for Kazuo, his desire to dedicate his heart to the stage appears to have brought him up to another dimension of the unity with the cosmic energy.

In closing, Akira Okamoto added that the method of transformation in Japanese classic theaters (such as Noh theater) appeared to be alive in Ohno’s butoh.

In sum, all the participants of this panel discussion seem to agree on the following concepts.

1)      Kazuo Ohno had his own method of generating a graceful, mystical, and powerful stage presence.

2)      Kazuo Ohno was clear about his desire and intention to become one with the space.

3)      Japanese classic theater’s transformation method was alive in Ohno’s butoh.

Hijikata’s Butoh

-          Inside and Outside –

My experience of Hijikata butoh is also indirect, though I was fortunate enough to learn from many of the second generation dancers of Hijikata lineage, many of which are direct disciplines of Tatsumi Hijikata (Yukio Waguri, Moe Yamamoto, Seisaku, Kayo Mikami, Ko Muroboshi, and Toru Iwashita).  Among these mentors, I remember seeing the closest connection to the concept of ‘Riken no Ken (View of Distanced View) in Moe Yamamoto’s teaching in his workshop that took place in Tokyo in December 2003. 

In this workshop, a particular set of images were introduced as a part of training for walking.  The instruction began from imagining one rope that is attached to the torso pulling the dancers to walk on the floor.  Subsequently, the number of ropes in the imagination was increased to two ropes, four ropes, and higher numbers.  As the number of ropes increased, students were instructed to imagine the ropes in all directions, including front and back spaces, vertical, sagittal, horizontal spaces, and diagonal space.  This training allowed the participants to sense their bodies from outsider’s perspectives and experience the heightened sense of awareness of all parts of the body.  The observers of this training also reported the heightened sense of presence of the bodies of the movers during this image training. Although I cannot claim that this is the same method as the Noh theater’s training, it appears that this training system aims at similar outcome as “Riken no Ken’ in Noh theater, in the sense that, it also attempts to generate a graceful and heightened sense of stage presence of performers’ bodies on stage by practicing the ‘view from outside of their bodies.’

In regards to the notion of ‘view of distanced view,’ Gunji (1957) addressed the similarity between Butoh and traditional Japanese festival, “hana-matsuri” or “yuki-matsuri” that took place at the basin of Tenryu River, in which there was no distinction between audiences and performers.  He further mentioned the Japanese classic theater where ‘inside’ was ‘outside’ and ‘outside’ was also ‘inside,’ and indicated that the same relationship between ‘inside (subject)’ and ‘outside (object)’ was in existence in Hijikata’s butoh. 


-          Transformation of Bodies –

Inada, in her ‘Tatsumi Hijikata’s Butoh and Text,” suggested that Hijikata aimed at the production of ‘body that appears as the state of being of the body” as opposed to “body that symbolizes meanings.”  This statement also seems to correspond to his intention of establishing a new tradition of movement art that would serve as an antithesis of ballet. She further addressed Hijikata’s goal of aiming at the phenomenon of ‘letting the materials (dancers’ bodies) sweat and materials shrink.’ 

Gunji (1957) also suggested that:

(Japanese) “Kamen no hakushoku ga futohme na, jinkoh-shoku de aru no wa, hyoh-shoh to shite no, hage ochiru koto ga zentei de aru.  Shitai ni nura-reta hakushoku no kona wa, hage-ochiru toki-ni, dohji ni ninkutai no nanimono kamo datsuraku sasete yuku no dato omou.”

(English Translation by T. Kato)‘The reason why the mask is unclear and artificial white paints is that it assumes the prerequisite that these paints is going to be peeled off.  I believe that, when the white paints on the body get peeled off, it also drops off something within the body itself.”

This observation seems to correspond to Hijikata’s key concept of “Suijaku-Tai (weakening body).”  By weakening the dancer’s body, it was assumed that some of the energetic essence of the dancer’s body would be leaked into the surrounding space and hence his or her essence would expand to the entire space that surrounds them.   

Mikami (1992, 1997, & 2000) further discussed Hijikata’s use of rich images to create the state of consciousness of ‘loss of control.’  For example, in his Butofu, “Bug’s Crawl,” Hijikata introduced an image where dancers’ bodies will be eaten from inside-out and entire universe is eventually eaten up by billions of bugs.  In this image, dancers were instructed to produce movements by maintaining the consciousness of “Kakawari No Kanri (management of interaction).”  In other word, dancers were told to maintain the conscious effort to keep interacting with the image.  However, at a certain point of this interaction, dancers were in fact expected to lose control.  In this state of the loss of control, “body” would appear “as a state of being.”  In this state of ‘appearance’ as opposed to ‘acting,’ dancers’ bodies were expected to be dissolved into the space and the “Disappearance of the Existential Body (Mikami, 1992)” would take place.  However, when this disappearance of the body happens, the world of ‘inexhaustibility’ would emerge (Mikami, 1992).  According to Mikami (1992), the very objective of Butoh is:

(Japanese) “muka no hate no, mujinzoh na sekai no taigen”

(English translation by T. Kato) “the embodiment of the world of inexhaustibility as a result of the extinction of the existential body.”

Curtin (2010) also echoed this concept by calling it “expanding the boundaries of self” in Japanese Butoh.

In summary, researchers seem to be in consensus that Hijikata’s butoh involved the following themes:

1)      It attempted the unity between dancers’ bodies and the universe through various methods, including the weakening of the body as well as the use of rich images.

2)      When the embodiment of the world of inexhaustibility was achieved, the separation of the consciousness of audience members and dancers disappeared.

Comparison of Noh Theater and Butoh by Ohno and Hijikata Lineages

As described in the previous chapters, there are common factors among the training system of traditional Noh theater and Butoh by Kazuo Ohno as well as by Tatsumi Hijikata.  Despite the difference in methods being adopted, following common factors are identifiable among these art forms.

1)      The movement methods that attempts the expansion of dancers’ bodies into the space.

2)      Disappearance of the energetic separation between dancers and audience members and hence the emergence of the interconnectedness between two parties at the unconscious level.

Based on these observations, it appears safe to argue that, despite the attempt to establish a new artform, Butoh is still on the tradition of Japanese classic theater that attempted the graceful, mystical, and powerful presence of the body on stage, as they expanded the boundaries of the performers’ bodies and enabled the unconscious connection with the audience’s psyche. 

Psychological Analysis

The next question is whether it would be possible to explain the aforementioned common phenomena in Noh theater and Butoh through psychological framework.  In this respect, Orlando (2001) suggested the connection between Hijikata’s butofu and Jungian concept archetypes.  Through Butofu, Hijikata taught a method to ‘transform’ into various archetypes by embodying  their internal experience.  According to Orlando (2001), this method itself suggests that Hijikata’s method was tapping into the domain of Collective Unconsciousness that was conceptualized by Carl Jung (1916; 1929, & 1936). 

According to Jung, all humans on planet earth are connected at the level of Collective Unconsciousness. In fact, Suzuki (1979) pointed out that Noh theater performers are tapping into the layer of subconscious through ‘Riken no ken (view of distanced view).’ 

Further, researchers on authentic movement also addressed their conceptual framework in which they suggested that dancers’ authentic movements that stem from their intrinsic drive are the manifestation of Collective Unconsciousness as conceptualized by Carl Jung (Gjernes, 2003; Keller, 2009; Pesonen, 2008; & Stromsted, 2009).


In summary, this essay articulated the connection between Butoh and Noh Theater through the phenomena of “heightened presence of dancer’s body” as well as “emergence of interconnectedness between performers and audience members at unconscious level.” Further, it also attempted to show the possible theoretical framework through Jungian psychoanalysis. 

Future research is expected to discuss these reported phenomena of ‘the presence of body’ and ‘interconnected consciousness’ through multidisciplinary and neurophenomenological investigations.



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2) Gjernes, T. S. (2003). Embodied practices of active imagination: Moving towards wholeness. Dissertation Abstract International Section B: The Sciences and Engineering 63(10-B).

3) Gunji, Masakatsu (1957). Aesthetics of Dance (Japanese Language). Tokyo, Japan: Engeki Publishers.

4) Ichimura, Hiroshi (2011). Fushi-Kaden (written by Ze-Ami in original medieval Japanese, along with contemporary Japanese translation by Ichimura) – with Appendix: Kakyoh (written by Ze-Ami in original medieval Japanese).  Tokyo, Japan: Kohdan-Sha

5) Inada, Naomi. Tatsumi Hijikata’s Butoh and Text – Experimentation of interpreting butoh via his forms and writing styles (Japanese language).

6) Jung, C.G. (1916). The Structure of the Unconscious. In G. Adler & R.F.C. Hull (Eds.),

Collected Works vol. 7. (pp. 263–292). 

7) Jung. C.G. (1929). The Significance of Constitution and Heredity in Psychology In G. Adler & R.F.C. Hull (Eds.), Collected Works vol. 8. (p. 112). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

8) Jung, C.G. (1936). The Concept of the Collective Unconscious. (1936). In G. Adler & R.F.C. Hull (Eds.), Collected Works vol. 9.I. (pp. 46-49, 64–66). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

 9) Keller, S.D. (2009). Moving body, being moved: Critical perspectives on the practice of authentic movement. Senior Thesis submitted to Wesleyan University.

10) Mikami, Kayo (1992). The Human Body as a Vessel – an approach to Tatsumi Hijikata’s Ankoku Butoh. ANZ Publishers.

11) Mikami, Kayo (1997). A Study of Tatsumi Hijikata and his Ankoku Butoh.  Doctoral

Dissertation to Ochanomizu Women’s University.

12) Mikami, Kayo (2000). An Eyesight to the Human Body.  In K. Kubo (Ed.) The Human Body – Five Pieces of Advice for the Development of Body, Perception and Movement. Sobun Publishers.

13) Mikami, Kayo.  A study of Tatsumi Hijikata’s Ankoku-Butoh – Disappearing Structure – Searchihg for the Acquisition of Naru Body (metamorphosis).

14) Orlando, P. M. (2001). Cutting the Surface of the Water: Butoh as traumatic awakening. Social Semiotics, 11 (3), 307-324.

15) Pesonen, I. (2008). Inviting the unconscious to manifest: Process as a product? Authentic movement and automatic drawing performed/exhibited. Research in Dance Education, 9(1), 87-101

16) Stromsted, T. (2009). Authentic Movement: A dance with the divine. Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy, iFirst, 1-13.

17) Suzuki, Fumitaka (1979). “Riken no Ken” by Zeami (Japanese language).  Aichi Educational University Research Report, 28 (Humanities Edition), 133-146.

18) Yomoda, Inuhiko. Kazuo Ohno – Butoh and Life (Panel Discussion Record).



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