Puppetry in Japan dates back more than 1,000 years. The earliest word for puppet was kugutsu.
Some theories hold that puppetry came from Korea and China, or even from as far as Greece and Turkey. Japanese folklorists usually reject these theories, though, pointing to evidence that is held in the sound of the word kugutsu, which can be tied to similar words used in the names of deities, and in Japanese shrines.
It seems probable that puppetry may have long ago been used for the purposes of Shinto worship. Shinto is Japan's earliest religion, which revolves around worship of the kami, or gods which may be present in all things.
This does not dismiss the idea that it may have come to Shinto from abroad, but it suggests that Shinto was the factor that allowed puppetry to enter Japan.
Historically, the puppets were simpler--stick puppets that were manipulated by a medium. Puppet plays were likely created to please the god, but, over time, fashioned to please the spectators. It began to serve as a source of entertainment, and the medium-controlled puppet theatre, therefore, became the first kind of puppet theater in Japan.
Even from the beginning, "the medium makes no attempt to conceal the fact that she is manipulating the puppets," according to Japanese expert Donald Keene. This differs from other countries' versions of the art, in which the puppet masters are hidden away, or try to disguise themselves as much as possible. Their goal is to make it appear that the puppets move and speak on their own accord. The opposite is the case in the Japanese tradition.
The tendency to use the puppets by mediums may have evolved into the use of puppets to retell legends and histories that pertained to specific shrines. In fact, Keene says that "puppets were preferred to actors as performers of the divine legends because they lacked the 'smell' of human beings and could, therefore, impart mystery and authority to their gestures."
The earliest troupes were known as Kugutsu, named after the puppets they used in their performances. They were described in a brief account by Oe Masafusa, which is where a large amount of the available information about them comes.
The Kugutsu lived in tents, traveling around Japan like nomads. They had no permanent home and used puppetry as a source of income second to hunting. They were apparently rambunctious and rude. They worshipped their gods loudly at night.
Since the Kugutsu had no permanent home, they paid no taxes and did not respect local officials. Oe also recalls that their women painted their faces and performed songs and dances for spectators, and "enticed travelers to spend the night with them".
There is evidence to suggest that the Kugutsu might have actually migrated to Japan from the continent. There is definite evidence of their existence in Korea, and it is suggested that they may have originated in Central Asia.
Thepuppets of the Kugutsuwere simple and operated by the hand of a single puppeteer. The shows originally probably included swordplay and wrestling, then likely involved into very short dramas.
A more advanced form was later imported to Japan from China. It may have come from Egypt or Greece. The Chinese created human-like puppets that were capable of accomplishing amazing feats.
One was reportedly built that was able to serve wine at a banquet; mice were created that could run on a treadmill; housewives that would answer the door, bow, and then return to their puppet quarters were fashioned. Although these types of puppets were brought to Japan, they were not built in Japan until probably around the 14th or 15th Century.
In the 11th Century, the Kugutsu ceased to exist. The term came to mean only "prostitute." It took a long time for puppetry to make a full-fledged comeback; until the 14th Century, to be exact.
It is at this time that the string-operated marionettes were imported from China. These new, seemingly more advanced puppets, though, did not gain or hold onto much popularity within Japan, and actually sparked interest in the native forms of Japanese puppetry.
Returning to the building of kugutsu (the puppets, not the people), the Japanese actually began to make more advanced forms of their own puppets.
From the Chinese marionettes, the only feature that may have been adopted into the improved Japanese puppets where the internal strings that were eventually installed to control such things as the eyes, mouths, and fingers of the puppets. The Japanese versions, though, had no external strings.
By the middle of the 15th Century, these improved puppets were being employed to perform other types of dramas. By this point, there had been no plays written specifically for the puppet theatre, so when a material was needed to serve as the basis for a performance, plays of other forms were borrowed and reproduced in the style of the puppet play.
It took years for plays specifically written for the puppets to develop. The original material would, not surprisingly, come from two of the main religions in Japan: Shinto and Buddhism. Puppetry was thus divided into two forms: Ebisu-kaki and Hotoko-mawashi.
At Ebisu Shrine, a group of Japanese learned the art of puppetry in order to tell the legends about the god that gave Ebisu its name. After they put on surprisingly impressive shows, they were frequently invited to the palace to perform. Their talents grew to become in wide demand in about 1600, and they soon broke their ties with the Ebisu Shrine, although they held onto the title of Ebisu-kaki.
Transition to the Modern-Day
In the late 16th Century, another group of Japanese developed their own style of puppet theatre. They used hand-puppets to act out Buddhist texts and sermons. The text was narrated, and the puppets were manipulated to visually accompany the chanter.
Eventually, the chanter would play all parts - the narrator and all the characters - changing his voice to fit each role. This is not unlike the duty of the chanter in modern puppet plays, a form of entertainment known as bunraku, or puppet theater.Japanese puppetry is a curious cultural phenomenon that inspires many toresearch and studyits origins and heritage. No wonder really, since it is, with no doubt, fascinating and unique part of the culture of Japan.