Should Women Be Allowed in Japan's Noh Theater?

When Yoko Layer began her apprenticeship in Japan's venerable world of Noh theater five years ago, she knew she was up against 650 years of male domination. But the tall and tenacious 38-year-old, who trained for years as a Method actor in Tokyo and Seattle, says she has found her way back to her Japanese roots with Noh—despite being a woman. "A few male Noh actors have told me outright that if women are in Noh, it's not Noh theater," she says. "I wanted to ask them, 'Then why do you have so many female students?' But I just kept quiet."

Today there are more women than ever practicing Japan's ancient form of theater. Originally designed for the ruling elite in the Middle Ages, Noh is built on sacred Shinto practices and uses richly brocaded costumes and masks to tell the stories of fallen warriors, heroines, demons, madwomen, and magical deities. The 14th-century lyrical passages are recited in rhythm with highly stylized movements, paced by a penetrating flute, drums, and a resonating chorus of eight. Among the 250 ancient plays still performed, the most famous include Lady Aoi, based on the 11th-century novel The Tale of Genji, and The Feather Mantle, about a celestial dancer.

About 200 women are registered professionals, members of the 30 to 50 patrilineal family troupes that compose the five Noh schools. But unlike most of their 1,200 male Noh colleagues, who debuted on the stage at about 4, many of these women have trained only since their 30s. Their wider acceptance has corresponded largely to the country's faltering economy, beginning in the early 1990s. Noh theater has been plagued by a decline in students and a lack of patronage, and as young men in Noh families have begun to opt for secure office jobs over family tradition, women have stepped in to fill their roles. The move mirrors Japanese women's entry into other traditionally male fields, including politics and train conducting.

Opportunities for women have followed economic crises and social change throughout Noh's history. During the Edo period (1600–1868), when Noh flourished with the support of the Tokugawa shogunate, women were banned from publicly performing Noh as part of a government crackdown on individual freedom and morality. But during the Meiji Restoration in the late 1800s, when Noh actors were stripped of their patronage, women returned to the stage. Finally, in 1948—newly defeated in World War II and reeling from Western pressures—Japan allowed its first officially recognized professional woman Noh actor, Kimiko Tsumura.

But there is nothing gender--specific about it. Unlike the all-male casts of Kabuki, with actors clearly playing feminine roles, there are very few distinctly feminine and masculine gestures in Noh. Masks and costumes identify the gender. "In Noh, it doesn't matter if men play women's roles or women play men's roles," says Richard Emmert, a prominent American Noh actor and teacher who founded the U.S.-based Theatre Nohgaku. "This is what many people misunderstand about Noh. For women, the chorus is the problem." Singing in the chorus requires a rich, harmonious baritone, which few women can muster.

Some women Noh pros are trying to teach them. Professional Noh actor and teacher Youko Yamamura, 61, is well known for her disciplined and successful voice-method training that focuses on controlled breathing. She teaches her students, mostly females ranging in age from 10 to 82, how to create that deep, resonant sound favored in Noh. "You can't turn a violin into a cello," she says. "And in Noh women should not copy men. But they can learn to express themselves in a profound way as a human being."

Mika Koyasu, 30, who discovered Yamamura on the Internet in 2007, says her teacher has changed her life. An office worker during the week, Koyasu transforms into an artist during her weekend lessons. "I don't know if I have enough talent to become a professional Noh actor, but I really want to continue training," she says.

Lack of opportunity is a powerful obstacle to women Noh practitioners. "It's difficult to improve one's technique if you don't have the chance to perform onstage," says Masako Tomita, 67, a professional Noh actor and a teacher for 35 years. Tomita appears onstage only once or twice during her troupe's yearly performances, while some male actors can appear up to 10 times. Like the men, she has endured years of strenuous dancing, singing, instrumental practice, and egoless devotion within a strict hierarchy. "I've learned to store my strength in my pockets, but I need to keep creating more pockets," she says with a smile.

The question remains how far women can succeed in Noh. Some people think the tradition should change to accommodate women. "Women need to make their own Noh style and design their own plays," says Noh actor and teacher Yasunori Umewaka, 53. "So far, women have been imitating the men's movements, and this has been accepted, but it's still different." Umewaka admits that a women's Noh revolution will take years. Many men and women alike prefer the traditional form, and resistance remains strong. "It's up to women to change this," he says. "It's the only way for them to be truly successful in Noh."

Yoko Layer is certainly doing her part. She hopes to use her art to bring comfort to her struggling compatriots. "Japanese are going through a tough time," she says. "There are so many suicides now. If I could combine the egoless Noh style with Western-style Method acting, it could be a powerful healing experience for audiences." Umewaka says Layer may be just the kind of role model that Noh needs. "For women in Noh, a gifted leader needs to emerge," he says. "Perhaps someone like Yoko Layer, who young people can look to and say, 'She's cool.'"