Education About Asia: Online Archives

In the Noh: Using Samurai Theater in the History Classroom

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I teach Japanese and East Asian history at a 240-year-old, all-male liberal arts college known as an institution where the Old South lives on and students revere Virginia’s military heritage. Unsurprisingly, one of the most popular seminar topics I have offered over my nine-year career at Hampden-Sydney College has been Warrior Culture in Japanese History. As I developed my approach to the topic, I profited from reading Ethan Segal’s Winter 2010 article in this journal, “Can Samurai Teach Critical Thinking?” (15, no. 3), which argues for samurai courses that engage in myth busting but also offer lessons in critical thinking and evaluating sources.1 Accordingly, I adopted several of the texts mentioned in his article, including The Tale of the Heike, Mark Ravina’s The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigō Takamori, and Nitobe Inazō’s Bushido: The Soul of the Samurai, to teach how to question sources and understand how samurai myths have been established inside and outside Japan. This warrior culture seminar has now entered my regular course rotation, and in it, I have divided class time between examining sources in the manner Segal recommends and exploring the political and cultural practices of the samurai as they evolved under Japan’s three shogunates. Although I am an outsider to Japanese theater studies, I have also added “warrior” Noh plays to this mix as evocative points of entry into the sociocultural and religious frameworks of the samurai.2 As products of the most important theatrical form to emerge from Japan’s warrior elite, these elegant plays offer glimpses into medieval dramatic and aesthetic tastes, including the disciplined practice of vocal and kata forms by actors, minimalism in stage adornment, and most famously, a pervasive atmosphere of yūgen (dark, mysterious beauty). Crucial to my pedagogical goals, warrior Noh plays also offer some of the most eloquent reflections on violence, sense of place, and the karmic consequences of war among all available source materials from premodern Japan

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