Butoh: The Intercultural Embodiment of Opposition

Butoh dancer Minako Seki wears the costume of white body paint often seen in Butoh performances. (Credit: Redefine Mag)

Lorena Macias

The turmoil and loss of Japanese identity following World War II led Tatsumi Hijikata and collaborator Kazuo Ohno to reexamine their culture and create a Japanese modern dance. Hijikata and his collaborators adopted Ankoku Butoh, or ‘dance of darkness’ that reflected the depression and devastation that he and other artists experienced. Butoh’s origins were framed by an ideological crisis; however, despite the trauma that enveloped Japanese citizens and artists, Butoh emerged as an embodied resistance to not only western materialism, but to the general conflicted social order that capitalizes on abled bodies.

I will explore the origins of Butoh; its history frames its motives as an embodied art form of resistance and resilience. I will then emphasize certain characteristics of Butoh to offer an in-depth comprehension of its intentional and non-conventional expressions. Particular performances will then be discussed as case studies for examining Butoh in its oppositional practice. This investigation of Butoh will conclude with an addressing of its recent commodification. I will highlight the importance of performing art as a tool for social change and societal examination.

World War II’s Effects on Japanese Art

U.S. expansion began across the North American continent, fueled by economic considerations and belief in Manifest Destiny. It also inspired U.S. merchants and missionaries to journey across the Pacific Ocean. Interests shifted to Japan when, through the military pressure of U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry, the country opened its ports to western navies on March 31, 1854 after a long period of isolation. Following several trade agreements with other nations, including Russia, Great Britain, the U.S., and France, Japan then opened its borders to foreigners in 1868. Inevitably, “as art exited Japan, Western influences also entered” (Chong 2012, p. 30). Thus, effects of the West were felt in Japan long before the end of World War II in 1945.

The devastation of World War II included a purge of Japanese history, “a beginning of absolute nothingness” (Munroe, 22). Not since World War II has Japan faced such an identity crisis in response to the weakening of traditional communal values. Following the war, there was great anxiety surrounding the seeming disappearance of Japanese tradition. The concern of the status of humanity also ran parallel to this anxiety, as “images of disfigured bodies and corpses” began to appear in multitudes in Japanese art, “mirroring the vulnerable state of human beings in and after the war” (Chong, 26).

However, with the rise of Japanese avant-garde after 1945, the art of Butoh was on its way to address social ills directly through the “plaguing of commercial tendencies” (Fraleigh 2010, 5). Only the spirit of opposition survived the trauma of the loss of lives, the loss of land, and the loss of identity. In response, the Japanese avant-garde found itself on strike against society; only the spirit of opposition sustained the recreation of a future. The Japanese artists “who came of age during the tumultuous postwar period… sought to establish an autonomous artistic identity that would be inspired by postmodern and modern Japanese and foreign sources.” This desire came with the struggle of how to preserve and transform their identity while resisting “the blind assimilation of western culture” (Munroe, 22).

As evidenced by Manifest Destiny and the continued expansion of U.S. capitalism, the assurance of policed systems and policies through democracy and a heightened global economy are unfulfilled. Tatsumi Hijikata was one of the first to problematize incorporating values of the West into the practice of his culture without questioning and examining their intentions. Butoh is seen as the result of the merging cultures between East and West in Japan, “but its alchemy began in Hijikata’s frustration, his love-hate encounter with the West, and his deep identification with his native Japan” (Fraleigh 2010, 4).

Butoh’s Beginning

Butoh founders Kazuo Ohno (left) and Tatsumi Hijikata (right). (Credit: Danser Canal Historique)

Hijikata Tatsumi (1928-1986), often in collaboration with Kazuo Ohno, created a revolutionary intercultural art form known at the time as Ankoku Butoh, by drawing on influences from the West and native Japanese traditions. Hijikata and Ohno had differing approaches to Butoh represented by opposite life experiences. Ohno’s life, later evidenced by his interpretation of Butoh, were strongly affected by World War II as he had experienced the war as a soldier and as a prisoner of war for three years. Hijikata, being twenty years younger than Ohno, experienced World War II from another perspective. He was too young to be a soldier, but his life spanned the complications of the war ranging from the rise of militarism in Japan to the coming U.S. occupation.

Hijikata sought to “rescue the Japanese body from colonization after the war.” He wished to preserve his Japanese identity in the wake of Western effacement. Using much of his training in German Expressionist dance, Hijikata utilized Butoh as a way to seek cultivation of bodily truth to contrast the “numbness” of American-style homogenization during the U.S. occupation of Japan (Fraleigh 2010, 4). Thus, Hijikata criticized modernism as it origins lay in the “mainstream Western ideas of material progress” (Fraleigh 2010, 29). Butoh was poised in his mind to undermine capitalist democracy with its emphasis on mass production and notions of modern progress. These criticisms showed themselves in Hijikata’s dance through the images of physical deformity, which will be articulated later within this investigation as a tool of rebellion against conventional dance bodies and as a direct response to the capitalization of bodies.

It is vital to recognize that Hijikata did not romanticize the purity of the Japanese spirit in his revival of native Japanese aspects in his dance. Instead, his focus was local, with global implications. Butoh is not about national purity, but about darkness, the weak body, and the dispossessed.

Butoh in Practice and Opposition

As mentioned previously, Japan’s postwar society bred Butoh as a form of cultural subversion and social criticism. It reflected the avant garde’s discontent with,

western cultural and political dominance… including its [imposition] of the modes of industry and technology that had disrupted the ‘sacred bond’ between the Japanese people and nature, contributing to a widespread sense of alienation, dehumanization, and loss of self identity (Munroe, 192).

The Body in Butoh

Kazuo Ohno performing in Chisato Katata of Shinonome Butoh. (Credit: The New York Times)
Kazuo Ohno performing in Chisato Katata of Shinonome Butoh. (Credit: The New York Times)

Butoh challenged existing definitions of theater dance in Japan, whether it be Western-influenced ballet and modern dance, in an attempt to restore the “original Japanese body that had been robbed in the process of socialization, modernization, Westernization, and Americanization.” The bodies that resonated with Hijikata were those of the adults he watched work “long hours in the rice fields.” As a result of their work, their bodies were often bent and twisted from the ravages of the physical labor, unlike “the ‘perfect’ upright, abled bodies of western dance” (Laage 2015). Thus, Hijikata emphasized the weakness of bodies within Butoh to challenge the American occupation of Japan after the war and its capitalist production’s ideals of the working, abled body that it required to exploit for gain.

Butoh is often said to be “an expression of the danger that is inherent in the body” (Chong, 200-201). This expression of peril within the body forces the dancer to embody the pain experienced by the sustained capitalization and objectification of our bodies. This is the body consciousness that forms the core of Butoh.

A Dance Opposing Dance

According to Hijikata, “A stylistic realized classical ballet is much more pleasing than something like modern dance that reeks of the conceptual” (Fraleigh 2010, 68). Although poised expressions of classical ballet are often seen in Butoh, it differs funamentally from ballet. Unlike ballet, Butoh is not a unified form of dance, aside from its uniform of white body paint. It possesses no order, no organization. Ballet romanticizes the body, while Butoh subjects the dancer to portray the taken-for-grant uprightness of able-bodied communities.

Expression in Butoh

Butoh dancer Stacey Smith exhibits a non-calculated expression. (Credit: Vangeline Theater)

A characteristic of Butoh is the distorted face. The distorted face is an important aspect of Butoh as it eliminates the desire to make the right expressions, or a calculated appearance. Another characteristic of the dance is the white paint often covering much of the dancer’s body. This “body mask turns the dancer into ‘everyone’ and ‘no one’ in particular” (Fraleigh 2010, 86). This neutrality imparts a universal setting on the dance.

Butoh Performances

When witnessing a Butoh performance, one does not simply watch: one reacts. An article from The New York Times claims “Butoh is not for the frail” and asserts that the dance “sets out to assault the senses” (Loke 1987). These critiques are examples of the reactions many audience members cannot suppress. Butoh performances are considered conversations amongst performers and audience members; when a performer begins to twitch their fingers, roll their eyes in the back of their head, gasp for air, and distort their face into a silent scream, the audience member often feels a pit within their stomach. This is where the conversation begins. Butoh invites the audience to sit with that pit, and to question its origin. 

The following are Butoh performances that address a widespread of injustices covering destruction to the body to the U.S. military-industrial complex. I will examine these performances as case studies of Butoh to decipher how this art form is used to raise awareness of corruption.

Summer Storm, by Tatsumi Hijikata (1973)

Summer Storm is a six-part performance: scene one is titled “A Girl,” scene two is titled “Girls Picking Herbs,” scene three is titled “The Spirits of the Bon Festival I,” scene four is titled “Dreams of the Dead; The Sleep; The War,” scene five is titled “The Spirits of the Bon Festival II,” and scene six concludes with “Statues of the Rakans.” The video opens with scenes of Tokyo at night. Images of Hijikata’s performance show on a skyscraper in the center of Tokyo, juxtaposing the bustling and glittering Tokyo nightlife. The video then displays all six scenes. However, once the performance comes to a close, the video then pulls away from the dance. The camera pans over the Sun glistening over Tokyo, then transitions to a view of Tohoku’s farms and rice puddles in a patchwork of green and brown.

Nostalgia is the evident theme of Summer Storm. The first half of the performance portray Hijikata’s memories of vulnerability in response to World War II. The second half of the performance are dances dedicated to the many losses the Japanese endured following the war. Summer Storm begins with showcasing the industrialization of Japan by contrasting the appearance of Tokyo nightlife with the slow movements of the performance. It ends with the opposite, displaying the land of Tohoku in a remembrance to Japan’s agrarian traditions. Summer Storm was a performance meant to emphasize Japan’s roots, as well as highlighting the importance of recognizing its identity before World War II.

Buscando La Huella Amorosa / Following the Trace of Love, by Diego Pinon (2013)

Diego Pinon wears traditional Mariachi clothing to represent his resilient Mexican culture. (Credit: Defibrillator)

Buscando La Huella Amorosa is performed by Diego Pinon, a Mexican Butoh dancer and instructor. The video hyperlinked above displays Pinon dressed in white, traditional Mariachi clothing to represent his Mexican culture “and the memory of the land” in his body (Pinon 2013). He uses a white sombrero as a prop, including a bright red Japanese-influenced fan. This fan is in great juxtaposition with his all-white makeup, almost all-white clothing, and all-white stage.

Pinon considers this performance as a “contemporary ritual” to express his rebellion in response to the “contradiction of the human structures to survive in the context of masculinity” (Pinon 2013). This performance differs greatly from Summer Storm in that it attempts to showcase the resistance and resilience within a Mexican body, rather than a Japanese body.

Flash by Rennie Harris and Michael Sakamoto (2012)

Flash is an intercultural conversation between the dancers’ art (butoh and hip-hop) to combine their approaches to manifesting “a body in crisis,” what Hijikata envisioned the Butoh body to express. As an interdisciplinary performance, Flash combines both dances of Butoh and hip-hop to “address the intersection of urban and environmental crisis, social resistance, and corporeal identity” (Sakamoto 2012).

Flash incorporates two forms of art that were born from marginalized, postwar urban subcultures, and each embodies a philosophical approach to the creation of cultural identity through dance. It seeks to question “what is the twenty-first century, urban body in crisis,” straying away from the embodiment of the Japanese body as Diego Pinon showcases, as well (Sakamoto 2012).

Skin of Scarlet: Sex, Politics, and the Body, by Ivan Espinoza (2016)

Performers embrace the tenderness of masculinity that is often discredited in today’s military-industrial complex. (Credit: Facebook)

Skin of Scarlet: Sex, Politics. and the Body was a performance that examined how the U.S. military-industrial complex steeps into and invades numerous aspects of our society—from our economy and politics to our media and culture. The performance served as an invitation to question what kind of consciousness is required to sustain the military-industrial complex, how our bodies have been used and abused by this consciousness, and how we may awaken from this maltreatment.  

As a dancer of Skin of Scarlet, I was not required to separate my lived experiences within my body to showcase the performance’s greater meaning. Instead, I portrayed my experiences of being a person of color who is consistently subjected to structural violence fueled by the military-industrial complex. Although I experienced heartache fathoming my body as occupied U.S. territory, Butoh assisted me in offering a way to express this abuse.


Since its first appearance in 1959, the practice of Butoh has expanded from Japan and into several other countries. Festivals, institutions, and weekly classes dedicated to celebrating and sharing Butoh have been established in a multitude of places, including New York, Washington, Mexico, Italy, and India. However, the commodification of this embodiment form is directly what it opposes. In emergence of this commodification of Butoh, London-based Butoh dancer Marie-Gabrielle Rotie shares a piece of vital information when referring to the contemporary practice of Butoh:

I think it’s extremely important to always refer back to Hijikata [and] Ohno… If we lose the original drives and aspirations completely, then we will also dilute and destroy the original promise of Butoh. It has to be radical, alive, relevant, and this is the power for a younger generation (Khaikin, 2013).

Yoshito Ohno, son of Butoh co-founder Kazuo Ohno, offers Butoh classes at the BankART Studio in Yokohama, Japan. (Credit: Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio)

Despite the commodification of Butoh as noted in the appearance of Butoh schools and festivals, one must return to the original and authentic themes that assisted Butoh’s inception. If practitioners fail to do so, Butoh will be another art form that has become appropriated and capitalized upon.

It is that original message that sustains the art of Butoh. The founders of Butoh and its practitioners aim to address the capitalization of our bodies. Butoh serves as a form to reconnect to our bodies and recognize our lived experiences through them after being forcefully separated through capitalist development.

It [Butoh] is unavoidably a language of deeply ingrained personal politics. By enabling the reclamation of body and, in the process, repossession of identity, Butoh creates immense opportunity to engage dance as an active form of liberation from social ritual and body governance (Khaikin 2013).

Through bodily expression, the practice of Butoh is an effort to salvage spirit and identity in the wake of destruction. Tatsumi Hijikata envisioned Butoh as purposeless non-product in order to preserve it as a form of embodiment to address all injustices. Like other art forms, Butoh serves as a direct response to annihilation, offering a strategy for artists not only to raise awareness of destructive capitalist approaches, but a way to gain somatic solutions from the objectification of our bodies.


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