A Challenging Exhibit:
"Expressing Biblical Characters
with Noh Masks"

Megumi Yoshida is a former staff of Asian Christian Art Association (ACAA),
ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) master, tea ceremony master,
and researcher in contextual theology in Asia.

Goliath Noh mask by Taichi Takaya
Goliath Noh mask by Taichi Takaya

L: Buaku mask as Goliath R: Goliath [2 Sam. 21]
*Click on images to enlarge

Last March 21-30, 2014, the Marutamachi Church, UCCJ (Kyodan) in Kyoto, Japan hosted an exhibit that featured Noh masks. Noh is a form of traditional Japanese musical theater. The main performers (Shite) wear extravagant costumes and masks to portray the character. In 2008, the UNESCO designated Noh Theatre as an "Intangible Cultural Heritage".

The artist- Taichi Takaya is the former general secretary of Kyoto YMCA and a longtime member of Kyoto Marutamachi Church. He displayed ten Noh masks alongside calligraphies of Biblical passages.

He discussed how most Japanese churches still follow Western tradition and how hard it is for them relate their Christian beliefs with traditional Japanese cultural contexts. He is aware that other Christians or Noh enthusiasts might scold him for his provocative exhibit of Noh masks and Biblical passages.

Taichi Takaya

The artist, Mr. Taichi Takaya
However, Noh started in the 14th century and Christianity came to Japan in the 16th century. If Christianity was not banned for about 250 years in the Edo period, many biblical stories would have been played in Noh.

He argues that Japanese Christianity has denied something "Japanese", yet in church gatherings we eat typical Japanese dishes such udon (Japanese noodle) and oden (vegetables, fish dumplings, tofu, and other ingredients stewed in a thin soy soup, and served hot). We live our daily lives in the Japanese manner, while our Christianity, especially American Protestantism, has Puritanical influences. It has shaped our Christian identity. In other countries, Christian churches have connected with their own cultural practices to their own way of worship. For example, Christmas tree did not come from the Middle East where Jesus did his ministry.

Jesus Noh mask by Taichi Takaya
 Luka 2 by Taichi Takaya
L: Doji mask as Jesus R: The Boy Jesus [Luke 2]

Doji: Portrays a handsome boy with a mysterious gracefulness. It denotes purity and is the embodiment of a deity. Doji symbolizes eternal youth. This mask is used in "Tenko", "Atsumori" and other plays. Mr. Takaya sees the character of Jesus as a boy in the Doji mask.
*Click on images to enlarge

Mr. Takaya was inspired by another attempt of Japanese contextualization of Christianity- the good amount of sales of the Gospel translation in the Kensen dialect. Kensen has been used in the north-east area of Japan, including the Miyagi Prefecture where the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami hit in 2011.

He pointed out to the strong influences of Puritanism in mainstream churches in Japan and an aspect of colonization by Christianity. Takaya aims to restore positive attitude towards traditional Japanese cultural contexts in Christianity by carving Noh masks hand in hand with his Christian faith.

People have sought solace and redemption in Buddhism through Noh plays. It has been interesting for Mr. Takaya, as a Christian, to seek the same experiences through carving Noh masks. He has been carving masks for the last ten years. This is not the first time that a Japanese Christian have turned to Noh theatre as a means to contextualize his/her Christianity. Dr. Yuko Yuasa attempted to compose a Noh play based on a Biblical story. However, these two are very different challenges. In traditional Japanese culture, a person masters his/her craft through through practicing over and over again. The cerebral process of composing a play is different from the physical act of doing a particular craft. The repetition of physical practice guides a person to profundity.

RIGHT: Chujo mask (2005), David [I Sam. 8 and II Sam. 3]

Chujo: Portraying Ariwara-no-Narihira (825-880), a famous poet in the early Heian period, and a young nobleman. The Chujo mask is used in "Tsunekiyo" and "Toru" Noh plays. Mr. Takaya sees at David's character in this Chujo mask.
*Click on images to enlarge

LEFT:"Ko-omote mask" (2003), Mary [Luka 30]

Ko-omote: Portraying a beautiful girl about fifteen or sixteen years old. The "Ko" in the "Ko-omote" means pretty and lovely. The Noh performer with the Ko-omote mask expresses the youngest woman with purity, virginity, and beauty.
*Click on images to enlarge