Representations of Commoner Performance in Early Medieval Japan


A review of Performing Culture: Representations of Commoner Performance in Early Medieval Japan, by Ashton Lazarus.

The clatter of binzasara rattles and shrills of flutes; the beating of drums and stamping of feet; the shouts of jugglers and songs of cross-dressing prostitutes; the happy laughter of crowds and occasional heated fistfights—these are some of the things Ashton Lazarus teaches to hear, see, smell, and feel in the streets of early medieval Japan (ninth through thirteenth centuries). With a special focus on dengaku (field music and dance), sarugaku (juggling, acrobatics, and illusion), imayō (popular songs), and kugutsu (puppeteers), the author shows that performance had a more important role than most studies of medieval Japanese culture would have us believe. While Lazarus acknowledges that the research of historic performance traditions comes with a number of challenges (due mostly to the fragmentary nature of sources), he convincingly demonstrates that there is still a great deal to learn from textual and visual representations of performance.

“Performing Culture” is structured in a straightforward and reader-friendly format. In addition to the Introduction and the Epilogue, there are five chapters. Each chapter discusses commoner performance with reference to one topic. Chapter 1 focuses on crowds, Chapter 2 on the strange, Chapter 3 on sound, Chapter 4 on bodies, and Chapter 5 on space. The dissertation has twenty-one figures, two tables, and two appendices. Appendix 1 consists of five texts translated by the author; Appendix 2 is a timeline of selected performances and events, from 625 to 1199.

Chapter 1, “Commoner Crowds and Mass Performances,” analyzes the dynamics of mass performances that converged in the ninth through eleventh centuries, drawing on more recent studies of crowds by writers such as Elias Canetti. This chapter discusses rice-planting rites sponsored by Emperor Seiwa in the 860s, the Shidarajin Incident of 945, and the Great Dengaku of 1096. The author concludes that ritsuryō state orchestrated performances by commoner crowds helped reaffirm the emperor’s symbolic knowledge of the realm, that the musicality of crowds gestured toward later developments in commoner performance, and that commoner discontent resulted in a dengaku craze that spread all the way to the imperial family. Lazarus engages and translates sections from a number of original sources and thus puts early medieval crowds into their proper contexts. Most importantly, he illustrates that commoners and elites were not necessarily separate, and that crowds embody the complex relationship between interpersonal networks and social, political, and religious currents.

“Mediating the Strange: Demons, Performance, and Ritual” is the title of Chapter 2. The chapter examines the associations between commoner culture and the strange across a range of visual and textual works. In particular, there is an exploration of representations of a phenomenon known as hyakki yagyō, or nocturnal processions of demons (cue vesper bell), and the way in which commoner performers were situated within discourse on the strange. The author concludes that commoner performers, by being figured as inhabiting the same world as demons and other supernatural beings, were associated with the strange more and more over time, and this contributed to their fundamentally ambiguous status. Lazarus’ adept use and explanation of original texts and a picture scroll help bring the early medieval ‘strange’ back to life.

Chapter 3, “Signals of Excess: Commoner Noise in the Early Medieval Soundscape,” traces the overlap of the low and strange by exploring the representation of sounds and music associated with commoners. Lazarus explores “earwitness” accounts from a generous selection of early medieval texts. The general argument is that elites viewed commoner sounds—whether they be awe-inspiring or shocking—as noise. Yet, the presence of commoners within the wider soundscape shows that they were situated as symbolically central despite their socially peripheral position. This is one of my favorite chapters of the dissertation because the author, through masterful textual analysis and translations, figuratively turns up the volume so we can hear commoner performers. The following translation on pp. 201-2 is a fine example:

On the Golden Peak
The miko strikes her hip-drum
Striking high, striking low
How wonderful!
Why don’t we go there?
The echo of her drum—
TEI-TON-TŌ, it cries and cries
How does she strike it like that?
Surely this sound will never end

As the author points out, performers of sarugaku, dengaku, and imayō were lauded for their ability to bring about extraordinary and sometimes miraculous occurrences, but they were also harshly punished when their acts did not meet the expectations of elite audiences. Chapter 4, “Bodies at the Limit: Performance, Corporeality, and Authority” discusses commoner performer bodies. The focus is particularly on sarugaku, “diverse music” (sangaku), and “miscellaneous arts” (zōgei) as represented in texts and a picture scroll. The author shows that commoner performers, with their diverse range of feats and entertainments, elicited various responses from elites. Responses ranged from approbation to condemnation, the latter of which Lazarus reads as the possibility that commoner bodies could pose a threat to elites’ political authority, thereby urging the reader to give more critical consideration to the position of the ‘low’ vis-à-vis the ‘high’.

Chapter 5, “Performance Space: Streets, Festivals, and Viewing Stands,” takes readers to the ‘ground level’ as the author surveys representations of Heian (Kyoto) performance spaces. This chapter shows that elites on many occasions mixed with commoners as the city underwent rapid urbanization, and this may have provided both groups with a sort of freedom (which in turn may have led to new borders and limitations). Through readings of textual sources and a historical survey of aristocratic viewing stands (sajiki), the author shows that the shifting and provisional nature of commoner and elite space reinforces the idea that these groups were more connected than they were opposed. Another reason this is a great chapter is that it allows readers to see, feel, and hear various performance events held in the capital’s thoroughfares, offering compelling evidence that early medieval society was far more than just high and low, elegant and vulgar.   

One of the great challenges of studying the performing arts of bygone eras is that we can no longer see them performed, at least in their original form (if there ever was such a thing). One might try attending Noh plays today to gain insight on sarugaku, or watching dengaku performances at the Gion Festival to get closer to the art’s early medieval ancestor(s), but doing this never provides one with enough context. Ashton Lazarus’ dissertation is a superb study on the whole, but it is especially valuable because it accomplishes three things. First, it shows readers that they can put early medieval Japanese commoner performances into proper context by conducting close readings of original sources. Next, performances (and the crowds they created) of the past are not dead; they still make ‘noise’ and have the potential to make us feel the things they made contemporary audiences feel—we just have to know where to look and be willing to read with open, imaginative minds. Finally, Lazarus attacks notions that early medieval Japan can be summed up with worn-out dualisms such as high-low, culture-politics, and writing-orality. Just as the lines between dengaku, sarugaku, and other arts were not always clearly defined, the boundaries between commoners and elites were also fluid. As the author shows, this has much to do with performance’s ability to break down barriers and move people.

Matthew Shores
Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
University of Cambridge

Primary Sources

Chūyūki 中右記
Rakuyō dengaku ki洛陽田楽記
Shin sarugaku ki 新猿楽記
Nenjū gyōji emaki 年中行事絵巻
Makura no sōshi枕草子

Dissertation Information

Yale University. 2014. 317 pp + iv. Primary Advisor: Edward Kamens.

Image: Two performers strike their golden binzasara during the annual Nachi Dengaku. Kumano Nachi Shrine in Wakayama, Japan. Photo by Author.

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