Butoh and My Right to Heal


contributed by Judith Kajiwara

Because of its eerie visual impact, the artistry of Japanese butoh has a very powerful effect upon both performer and audience. Performed with extremely slow,improvised movement, it elevates consciousness, gently opening up untapped dimensions of clarity, creativity and insight. As time, space, and reality are altered, boundaries dissipate and a connectedness with self and others is experienced. By seeing from a higher perspective the potential for healing is created. This potential is the primary focus of my work as a butoh solo artist and teacher.

Butoh first appeared in Tokyo in 1959, and was labeled “Ankoku Butoh,” the “dance of darkness.” Tatsumi Hijikata (1928-1986), considered the “father of butoh,” chose this name because of the form’s bizarre, ugly gestures, mixed with its labored, slow-motion pacing, reflective of the shocking aftermath of post-war Japan following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hijikata, along with other disgruntled, young Japanese artists, had begun to explore new modalities of expression. Butoh rebelled against what they saw as both the refined, elitist demeanor of Japanese dance, and the empty, superficial beauty of Western ballet and modern dance. Believing that the Japanese body and spirit differed from Western sensibilities, Hijikata sought to reverse this aesthetic. Before performing butoh, the entire body was splotched in white powder.

Grotesque, disfigured, nude and inhuman, his intent was to rebirth the physical body into a spirit yearning to release its pain. Expression was raw and disturbing—with an uncensored honesty that acknowledged hidden wounds that needed to be healed.

Decades later, butoh has spread throughout the world and is still performed as a non-mainstream, counterculture dance form. I was born three years after the end of World War II, and am a Sansei (third-generation Japanese, born in America) who grew up on a farm in Central California. During the war, because my grandparents and parents were Japanese, they were incarcerated for three years in an internment camp in Amache, Colorado.

As a child, I absorbed an intangible awareness of humiliation, pain and anger. These feelings shadowed my parents long after the war, and also shadowed me. My parents’ generation, the Nisei (second-generation Japanese, born in America), compensated for and sedated their post-war feelings by becoming “good” Americans, committed to following the “American Dream.” I was a child of that “American Dream.”

Many Nisei, still needing to prove their loyalty as Americans, denied their children the beauty of Japanese culture and language, fearing they would be “less” American. Their ultimate hope was that their children would never experience the pain of racism as they did. I always felt isolated from white America. To me, white Americans exuded a physical, intellectual and verbal superiority. Growing up, I was sensitive and bashful, awkward and unable to understand where I fit. I cherished the times I spent at my all-Japanese church where I could escape into the joyful spirit of our community—the only place I felt truly alive and fulfilled! Other Sansei in my community seemed to eagerly merge into white society, many eventually living a life of class and privilege. Their belief that racism did not exist was unspoken. This denial contradicted and further confused my own reality; decades later, childhood remembrances still pulse heavily.

Though dance was always a part of my life, finding a style that truly personified my cultural and spiritual identity was a prolonged, meandering chase. Butoh, with its rebellious Japanese roots, seemed to flawlessly mirror my Japanese-American experience. Its intense, controlled movement style could be misunderstood as a reticence, often interpreted as weakness, of Japanese Americans to express themselves.

Yet, because it de-emphasizes the aesthetics of the body, its physical confinement and inward concentration encourage the release of self-imposed limitations, freeing us from the haunting syndrome of enryo (to hesitate out of politeness). In this way, butoh is a bridge between my life as an American and my displaced spirit as a Japanese woman.

Like a kindred spirit, it kept calling me, inviting me to seek refuge within its wisdom. Reprising my childhood joy as a member of my church community, early in my career, I dedicated myself entirely to teaching dance in San Francisco’s Nihonmachi (Japantown). To dance with each other was the key to freedom of expression and a way of finally finding our voice. Not surprisingly, other Japanese Americans had also experienced suppressed feelings and a lack of confidence in expressing themselves. I realized that my students encompassed the same pain, fear, and anger that I had; given a safe, supportive, non-competitive atmosphere, their dances magically flourished.

Concurrently, the Japanese-American internment became the centerpiece for my performances and workshops. Because of its meditative pace with movement that is improvisational and minimalist, butoh is an ideal dance for anyone, regardless of age or ability. For example, walking in slow motion across a room with a group of people, eyes focused straight ahead, is a simple movement exercise. Yet it evokes a powerful inner vision of what it was like, or may have been like, to be a Japanese-American internee forced to move en masse. Butoh breaks down barriers between people,opening up uncomfortable feelings that have been repressed for many, many years.

Similarly, in performance, by crafting stories told through butoh, a spiritual and emotional web is woven between performer and audience. Butoh, with its disturbing intimacy, can provide an experiential pathway for audience members to find their stories or re-live a memory. Many have quietly weeped while watching butoh.

Two examples of my full-length solo butoh pieces on the Japanese-American experience are “The Ballad of Machiko” and “Samishii”. “The Ballad of Machiko” is based on a true story, told to me by my mother, of an Issei (first generation) picture bride who travels from Japan to live on a farm. Because her husband resents her lack of outer beauty, she is physically abused and mercilessly forced to work. Machiko pays homage to the countless young pioneer women who, over a century ago, endured challenging and difficult lives to start a new community of Japanese in America.

“Samishii” (to be lonely), based on a story by Sansei writer Ronald Phillip Tanaka, explores the cultural dilemmas of a Sansei man living within the ambiguity of American society. He is torn between his Japanese values and those of America, struggling with issues of loneliness, drug use, relationships, masculinity and personal worthiness.

Woven into each of these pieces is the remembrance of the incarceration of Japanese Americans. The indelible struggle between pride and shame—experienced directly by the Issei and Nisei, and passed down to the Sansei—continues to dissipate with each subsequent generation. Yet we are forever reminded of this chapter in our history by the Japanese word gaman—to persevere, to endure pain and suffering with dignity. In creating Machiko and Samishii, it was important that the characters in these stories convey the feeling of gaman to the audience.

In spite of a history of racism, struggle and injustice, Japanese Americans share with other Americans a common dream for a better world. Along the way, we have experienced blockages and have fallen into many dark nights. Our inner power, and those of our ancestors, could have diminished many times. It is only now, in beginning to heal, that we are able to speak out and support our collective struggles with communities throughout the world. This in itself is empowering, bringing closure to open wounds, and breaking through the fragile walls that have falsely protected us.

Today, when despair can easily consume our spirit, I am grateful to share the artistry of butoh with others. Though many artists consider butoh a privileged, esoteric art form—often presenting it as too ugly and intense for a general audience–I believe butoh must be rebirthed to a new level beyond what some consider a strange art form. Its potential is as an accessible dance expression for those who are ready to become visible.

Butoh is a daily part of my life and through it, my personal and cultural legacy continues to heal. Valuing my own story encourages stories from others still reticent. By learning from each other, our interconnectedness is strengthened and our spirits are renewed. Butoh is my promise that our healing grants us the opportunity to move forward toward our dreams.

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